Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
They had told him where to go at A & E reception but, as in a nightmare, he kept losing his way in this building he knew so well, blundering through the wrong sets of plastic swinging doors. When, at last, he came to Stella, the reality of the situation hit him with such force he had to hold on to the lintel of the door. Felix’s blood was still drying on her jeans and her blue shirt. He gave her the stem of blossom, which she took without a word.
Would you like me to pray with you? Father Diamond asked her, without much hope.
Not really, Stella answered. At least, not with me, out loud. But I would like you to pray, please, if you can.
She had been standing when he arrived and now sat
down on one of the plastic chairs lined up against the wall. He took the chair beside it and held out his hand. She took and held it. Her hand was very cold. He saw that she was shivering; she had nothing with her. He took off his black jacket and put it round her shoulders. In silence he prayed, and in silence they waited for a time that was beyond time, too fast and too slow, a lifetime and one beat of a heart. Then the door was opened cautiously and a young man in light blue scrubs came in. Felix’s mum? he asked. I’m so very sorry.
Silence fell on them again for an eternal moment before the doctor began to talk about blood loss and blood pressure, a spate of words that bounced off the depths of Stella’s incomprehending grief like hailstones off a frozen lake. She was as pale as death herself. She rose slowly and let go her grip on Father Diamond’s hand, giving hers instead to the doctor. Thank you for trying so hard, she said. May I see him now?
Through a cloud so thick it was near blindness Father Diamond watched Stella and the doctor go, leaving him behind. Two slight figures dressed in blue, both sprayed with blood, his own jacket still round Stella’s shoulders, slipping; blue, and black, and red now drying to the rust of dying petals. White blossom where Stella had left it, on the floor. Terrible words came to him in the shattered silence. Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bear, and the breasts that never gave suck. For if the end of loving is sorrow beyond bearing, is it not better from the first to forswear love?
The facts were not in question. Witnesses saw to that. Interpretation was the point. Dr. Azin Qureshi peered at the words of his report, backlit on a screen, as if by searching he could make them shift apart to reveal a secret subtext or a second meaning. But, however hard he looked, they stayed stubbornly unmoving, merciless and stark. One dead child, another child abducted; that child the victim of attempted murder.
Dr. Qureshi had been on call that Saturday. Requests for duty doctors to attend the recently arrested were routine, but this time the sergeant who summoned him talked about serious charges and a prisoner in urgent need. Dr. Qureshi set aside his supper and made haste.
It was clear at once that the woman being held was in no state to be questioned. Nor could she be left in a police cell overnight. She was mute, shaking, wearing a bloodstained wedding dress and in deep shock. Dr. Qureshi arranged for her admittance to the secure unit at St. Elizabeth’s; risk of self-harm, he warned. Keep watch.
He had nothing more to do with her until after the bank holiday. Then, because of the gravity of the case and because he was the senior consultant, he formally accepted her as a patient. At the time of her admittance, he knew only she had been taken into custody after the injury of a child. Neither he nor the police knew then that the child was dead.
As a matter of course, a child’s death would not necessarily make front-page news. But this child was the son of a member of the Shadow Cabinet, and mortally wounded in a church. The holiday weekend held back reporting for a day, but there was no stopping it after that. Kiti Mendoza
played an early part, before the full details were established. She had been met on Easter Sunday morning by a locked door, a police guard and no explanation; her immediate assumption was that the authorities were conspiring against her. All that she found, with others turning up for mass that morning, was a notice with directions to the nearest Catholic church and its service times. Father Diamond had pinned it to the main door when he got back in the early hours of the morning. Even then, he did not forget his parish duty.
He had waited at the hospital for Stella. When she returned, still with the doctor in the blue clothes, she was unnaturally calm. The young doctor had said something about GPs and sedation but neither Father Diamond nor Stella took it in. Father Diamond did understand that they were going to move the body to a nearby hospice, where it would be laid out in a cold room. A better place for the family to come to terms and say good-bye.
To come to terms? Father Diamond wondered at the doctor’s wording. But then, what else could this kindly but detached professional have said of this enormity, this outrage that cried out in anger against heaven?
He drove Stella home. She opened the front door, deactivated the burglar alarm, switched on lights and led him downstairs to the kitchen, all the while apparently composed. But there were Felix’s painted eggs where he had left them, on the table. Father Diamond prayed he would never hear again the sound that Stella made when she saw them.
He stayed with her until Rufus came. He told Rufus what had happened. Stella had not wanted him to telephone anybody else until Rufus had been told. But she was
in agony for Camilla. How can she hear this when she is on her own? she howled. We’ll find someone to break it to her gently, Father Diamond promised; if there is no one else, I will go myself. He would have promised anything if it would comfort Stella. But he knew that nothing could. He held her to him, rocked her, made consoling sounds to her, made Ovaltine, as if she were his child, knowing all the time that consolation was beyond her now. Afterward he would not speak of the hours he spent with Stella. The raw mourning of a mother should not be lightly told.
Children get stabbed all the time, Azin Qureshi’s wife said, when she saw the headline. That little boy in Hackney? Near the library, remember? Another random act of violence, another religious nutcase. What’s the big deal here?
Was it a random act of violence? Azin Qureshi wondered. Rumors had seeped out about the child on the altar; lurid hintings at black magic and human sacrifice. One newspaper conjured up a link between this and the recent discovery of a child’s torso in the Thames. Baby body parts in voodoo ritual? it asked. This tale of two children—one the son of privilege, the other of poor immigrants—unknown to one another, linked by tragedy, was irresistibly dramatic.
Shamso Abdi’s mother, when interviewed through an interpreter, slightly spoiled foregone conclusions by insisting that O’Reilly would not have harmed the child. The kind white woman loved him, Mrs. Abdi said. She had not felt anxious about Shamso until late that Saturday night. As far as she was concerned, he was safe with
Mary-Margaret. Her other children had told her a confused story about ice creams but she had been too busy to pay heed. It was only after bedtime—which in her household was around eleven o’clock—that she began to worry. She had knocked on the O’Reillys’ door but there had been no answer. In the three years that she had lived across the way from them, Mrs. Abdi had never seen Mary-Margaret’s mother. A few nerve-racking hours had followed until, with the help of an English-speaking friend, she finally found Shamso in the care of the police. Even then she seemed to think that Mary-Margaret had been playing some strange game. Her older children, though, when questioned, claimed that Mary-Margaret had deliberately tricked them and indeed all the evidence suggested careful planning. A crumpled-up receipt for twine was in O’Reilly’s bag. The owner of the garden shop remembered her and the curly-headed kid and said she was behaving oddly. Stains on garments belonging to the church indicated preparation. And, most damningly, O’Reilly was in possession of a sharpened carving knife. No spur-of-the-moment act of madness then. The police report went promptly to the Prosecution Service. Attempted murder, murder, abduction of a child. Release on bail opposed.
By then Azin Qureshi had carefully examined Mary-Margaret. She was capable of speech, but not of rational communication. However, he judged that she would be able to stand trial when the time came, and be fit to plead. She would be kept in a closed unit until then.
Fear is a blind bat blundering against the tight bones of her head, a fanged thing jabbing for a way out through the jelly of her eyes, a black crow spread-winged on her mouth, a tide of blood rising in her throat and promising to choke her. She cannot think, she can scarcely see, she cannot move but she can’t stay still; she can only pray to die. Better far it would have been if she had not been born, nor Mary-Margaret conceived in a fishing boat beside the sea beneath the crying gulls.
Fidelma could not say who had telephoned her on Sunday morning. A social worker maybe, or a woman from the police. An efficient person with a list to tick and a hundred other things to do. Her words had whipped down the line like darts—accused, alleged, suspected—spiked words, hard words, all ending in conclusive
s like gunfire: wounded, tied up, dead. The darts pierced Fidelma’s hearing but not her comprehension. At first she could only think there had been a serious mistake; she said so to the cool-voiced woman. But no; the woman repeated Mary-Margaret’s name and checked the telephone number. That number was in Mary-Margaret’s diary, with Fidelma’s name, in the space where it was written: In case of emergency, please notify . . .
Fidelma closed her eyes. She could see that diary, pink, plastic-bound, embellished with the image of a kitten, its pages mainly blank. Mary-Margaret bought herself a diary every year, at the end of January, much reduced. And every year she filled in the part that called for personal details. Fidelma saw her writing, her careful, rounded hand. Every year it irked her that she did not know her blood group.
Dimly Fidelma understood that Mary-Margaret would
not be coming home that day. And nor the next it seemed, nor at any time that Miss Job-to-Do could name. You will be informed when there is information, she told Fidelma. She did not inquire if Fidelma was all right. Why should she? Fidelma was the mother of a killer and no business, in any case, of hers.
You will be informed when there is information. Meanwhile you will receive a fistful of sharp words that sting like gravel hurled. Hospital. Psychiatric. Knife wound. Child. Stabbed.
And in the meantime what will you do, you murderer’s mother, walled in your own flesh, sealed in your tower, unregarded by the careless world? Will you slowly starve to death, moldering in your folds of skin? Smash through the meagerly rational aperture of window with a rolling pin? Telephone for takeaways to be dropped outside your door until there is no money left to buy them? Condemned to death; well there are worse fates, surely. Except that, in the rightful way, a woman bound to die would do so in the dawn, accompanied by jailers, hangmen, a black-clad priest with a prayer book and a look of pity in his eye. Not all alone, and step by step, as she must. And Mary-Meg, your poor suffering and murderous daughter? Doomed to die as well?
Mary-Margaret rocked herself a little, on her chair. It occurred to her that she might suck her thumb. Then she decided not to; instead she would pay attention to the doctor. She had already seen him quite a few times but until today she hadn’t really been able to summon up the energy
to talk. Today she felt she’d better, because she wanted him to stop the pills that they kept giving her to make her sleep. She couldn’t sleep, you see, because she kept seeing pictures. To tell the truth, she saw pictures in the day as well. When she was awake, that is. Or sleeping. Waking or sleeping it was lovely seeing the pictures. The little boy. The little boy in his mother’s arms. Who would have known it of Mrs. Morrison? Mrs. Morrison who probably didn’t even know Mary-Margaret’s name until the day she broke her head falling off the altar. But who had anyway been kind. Smiled nicely, when they met. Which was not very often, as a matter of fact. But even so. Mary-Margaret had admired her. She was very pretty. And well-dressed. And very good at doing flowers. When she passed she left a lingering scent, like the scent you sometimes catch when walking past posh gardens. There is something that smells sweet in the winter. Not particularly showy—small white flowers. Anyway. Mrs. Morrison. Who would have thought it? However nice she was and sweet she smelled. Mrs. Stella Morrison. Mother of God.