Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
There were the pictures. And the sounds. So she didn’t only have to keep her eyes wide open but her ears as well, in case He might send another message. The little boy telling her to stop. That was God’s voice in the boy, that was. She didn’t know his name. Mrs. Morrison’s son. She’d never seen him in her life. She’d seen the daughter once, but not the little son. She could ask his name; the doctor would know, perhaps. Perhaps he’d say it anyway, in passing, when he was asking questions.
He did ask questions, quite a lot: how are you, how are you feeling, are you feeling better? Are you managing to
sleep? Mary-Margaret liked him. He had a kind face. And, to be honest, he was not bad-looking. Actually, he was quite good-looking, considering. And he had lovely hands. Thin brown fingers which he brought together in a steeple, sometimes, and held beneath his chin, as if he were about to pray.
Did people of his sort pray? To elephants, maybe. She’d seen the pictures. Blue-faced gods. With lots of limbs. Nice eyes. The doctor, not the gods. Thick eyelashes, and long. Wasted on a man.
One question he asked every time: is there anything you’d like to tell me?
Yes there is, she’d say today. Yes. There is. I was never going to hurt him. God was going to stop me. And He did.
This is the church and this is the steeple. Where had she learned that rhyme? It had finger movements with it.
Here is the church, and here is the steeple;
Open the door and here are the people.
Here is the parson going upstairs,
And here he is a-saying his prayers.
Were his prayers no more than empty words flung into the wind? In the days that followed Felix’s death, Father Diamond felt the gates of heaven had slammed shut or, worse, had closed on emptiness, had never led to anything at all. He tried to pray. It was his duty to say mass on Easter Sunday, but he could not do it. Instead he went to the church across the river, to which he had diverted his parishioners. A solemn mass at eleven; white vestments, candles, lilies; reminders of the ones he had abandoned in
his sealed church. The risen Christ? By rising He has conquered death, the celebrant intoned, and Father Diamond, kneeling at the back with his head buried in his hands, was torn between tears and laughter.
Later, when he had completed yet another interview with the police, he got into his car and headed east. He had no destination in mind; he knew only that he wanted to be by himself and moving. After some hours he pulled off the main road at a sign which he thought said something about marshes. He must have misread it; he found he was in a run-down industrial estate. It was deserted, on a Sunday. At the edge of the estate he stopped the car, suddenly aware that he was desperately tired and thirsty and needed to relieve himself. It was late in the afternoon. Out of the confines of the car he smelled marsh water on the air, mud and something rotting cleanly, like fresh compost. A skein of geese flew overhead, clacking loudly to each other. He lifted an already loosened strand of barbed wire from the perimeter fence to make a gap that he could climb through. As he did the wire snagged on his jacket. He pulled himself free and felt it tear. A man of rags and tatters; how appropriate, he thought.
The wasteland he walked through was miry but there were marsh marigolds and water violets among the scrubby grass and windblown litter. In this abandoned place he cried out loud. Why? he asked. When Jairus’s daughter died, you took her by the hand and told her to get up. Little girl, you said. Give her something to eat, you said. You called Lazarus from his tomb. You promised that not one sparrow worth two farthings would be forgotten under God. All your domestic miracles. But you let this child go. You let
him bleed to death while I stood by and could do nothing. Or did nothing. As helpless as a scarecrow, as pathetic. You let him die. Why didn’t you breathe your breath into his lungs before it was too late, stop him bleeding with your blood, bring him back to life?
The mothers of murdered children often say: he was an angel who did not deserve to die. No one deserves to die, least of all a child with his whole life before him. Why? His blood is on me, and if it tests my faltering faith, what will it do then to his mother? To his sister, where she mourns alone? To his father and his brother? How dare you talk of triumph over death when this sinless child is gone?
Father Diamond tramped across the marshy waste ground and heard nothing. No voice came in answer to his questions. But at least he’d voiced them; and the wind blew sea-whispers to him and at the end of this long day he would be tired enough to sleep.
It was Mrs. Armitage who recalled Fidelma. She had gone round to the church as usual on the Thursday morning after Easter because she knew it was important to keep to her routine and she wanted to give Father Diamond an invitation. I know you won’t feel like a party, she told him. I don’t either, to be honest. But Fraser’s coming home. We want to welcome him.
Have you spoken to him?
Yes. He called, when he got to Malta. Said it was good to get the dust washed off. He’ll be flying back as planned. Brize Norton. We’re going to have a little get-together next Friday. Family and close friends.
Thank you, Father Diamond said. I’m honored to be asked. I’m glad he’s on his way back home. And of course you have to kill the fatted calf . . . He stopped, and they did not meet each other’s eyes as the unwanted implication of his words sank in.
Mrs. Armitage changed the subject. Any word of the wretched woman’s mother? She’s an invalid, I think.
Father Diamond had not given Mary-Margaret’s mother any thought. In the distribution of their duties she was Father O’Connor’s—he had never met her himself. But he did know from Father O’Connor that she was housebound.
I expect Social Services will be looking after her, he said.
I wouldn’t be so sure, warned Alice Armitage. An elephant could slip through the holes in some of their nets, from what I’ve heard.
All right, said Father Diamond. I’ll visit. Tomorrow afternoon.
Good on you, Alice said. Let me know if she’s all right. If not, I can always pop up there as well—although, from the look of things and the terrible job she must have done as that loony’s mother, she should be left to stew a bit, perhaps.
We’ll see, said Father Diamond.
We will, said Alice Armitage. Now come and see how beautifully the floor’s scrubbed up. She led him by the arm to the place by the altar where Felix had bled. It was a little lighter than its surround from her fierce scrubbing.
Well done, said Father Diamond.
But that reminds me. I nearly forgot. I haven’t managed so nicely with the altar cloth. The one out of the chapel.
Father Diamond did not remember what had happened to the cloth. She reminded him: the one that the O’Reilly woman messed up when she fell. All stained with blood. No amount of bleach had worked.
Forget it, Father Diamond said. It’s only a piece of cloth.
Well, we’re almost back to normal, aren’t we? Mrs. Armitage asked the priest. Now the police have gone?
Yes, he said, noticing for the first time how tired and strained she looked. Afterward he found she’d tucked a bunch of tulips and a teddy by the altar.
Fidelma heard the knock at the door and ignored it. It came again. A third time, harder. She blocked her ears with her hands. If she stopped listening, whoever it was would go away. On the other side of the door, Father Diamond hesitated. When there was no answer after his third try, he felt a strong sense of relief. Mrs. O’Reilly must be out. But then he remembered she was housebound. A vision came to him of people left to die alone and rot. Decomposing bodies found only when their neighbors could no longer bear the smell. Kept herself to herself, these neighbors said, explaining why they had not noticed sooner. A very private person. Mrs. O’Reilly might be dying, he thought. He had to keep on trying.
Fidelma took her hands from her ears and breathed again. The knocking had stopped. She was feeling wobbly, truth to tell, having emptied the kitchen cupboards of everything except Mary-Margaret’s bottle of Irish Cream. Mary-Margaret had been gone almost a week. Or more perhaps? Fidelma was losing track of time. No one had
telephoned her since Miss Jobsworth. They had no information to inform her, she supposed. Nights had followed days and she had stayed in silence, but for the thudding of her heart and the beat of panic in her veins. Over the last day or so she had begun to feel a little calmer. That might be because she wasn’t hungry any longer. She was doing fine on little sips of whiskey with sweet cream.
Then she jumped out of her skin. The person at her door was now clattering the metal flap of the letter box and making a fiendish din. Mrs. O’Reilly, he was shouting. Are you there? Please let me in.
How much longer would he stay there? It made her shiver to think of a stranger lurking by her door. She waited. The voice said: if you’re not well enough to speak, don’t worry. I’m going to find a caretaker and a key.
Fidelma hauled herself up and waddled unsteadily to the door. She slotted the end of the security chain into its housing. She felt like the victim of a siege. Women had flung themselves from the high walls of their castles onto the rocks below—clasping their children to them—rather than confront the dishonoring intruder. There were invaders on the ramparts of her tower; she ought to see about some boiling oil. Perhaps a kitchen knife would do instead.
It took the voice a long time to return. As she had supposed. This block wasn’t a luxury hotel, with receptionists ready and eager to hand out keys to anyone who asked. I’m back, the voice said, redundantly. I’m going to open the door.
The chain jerked hard. Now the door was open a few inches. Fidelma leaned against the wall beside it, with her
knife. Mrs. O’Reilly? the voice inquired again. She wondered if he could hear her heart. Hell, the voice said then, to itself. And she sensed that he was testing the strength and resistance of the door.
Plywood, she thought. And thin. It wouldn’t take a lot to splinter it, and then the invaders would be in.
Mrs. O’Reilly, the voice implored. Can you hear me at all? It’s Alexander Diamond. Father Diamond. From the Sacred Heart.
A priest. No good would come from him. Priests—and the other black creatures of her childhood—had been crawling through her dreams. Black folds flapping, wings enclosing, darkness driving all the air away until there was only dust to breathe.
Father Diamond pushed against the chain again. Through the crack in the door he saw a figure move. Well, she was alive at least, and upright; maybe he could leave. Mrs. O’Reilly, he said again. I’m a friend of Father O’Connor.
Fidelma thought of Father O’Connor. Red-faced and blue-eyed like many men whom she had known, on the fat side, rather. Prone to covering his collar with a scarf. In his voice the softer sounds of her own past. She had never made him welcome, not exactly, but she had permitted Mary-Margaret to let him in. An insistent sort, he’d not take no for an answer anyway. He’d show up once in a while, saying: we’ve got to stick together, you and I. And he’d tell tall stories, drink the tea that Mary-Margaret made him, eat their biscuits, assess them both with his sharp eyes but seldom ask them questions. And, somehow, when he’d
been, Fidelma would feel a slight lift of the spirits. She had not seen him in a while, though. Mary-Margaret had told her he was gone.
Father O’Connor? she said, croakily. Her own voice like a stranger’s. How long was it since she had spoken? No need for words in a sealed tomb.
Yes, he said. I’m the other one. The other priest.
What do you want? she asked.
Nothing. Just to say hello. See how you are. I’d love a cup of tea, if you’re making one.
There’s no tea, she said.
No coffee neither. So, you’ve said hello now. Hello and good-bye.
She had come closer to the gap. Through it Father Diamond could make her out, but only details; white skin, a straggle of hair, the glitter of an eye. And he could smell the acetone and sugar on her breath.
All right, he said. If you’re busy. As long as there’s nothing that you need. You can always call me. Here’s a card.
She took the proffered slip of cardboard through the crack.
Um, nice to meet you, although briefly, Father Diamond said. I’ll drop in again, shall I?
Fidelma said nothing. Pressing one eye to the gap she watched him turn away. His black back retreating. And her aloneness then pressed on her like wet earth on a grave. Wait a minute, she said.
Father Diamond could not conceal his shock at the figure leaning against the opened door. He had never seen
anyone as huge. The woman was a globe of flesh, a billowing mound so shapeless it hardly looked like a human body. She was holding on to the edge of the door with one hand, and in the other a knife. He saw that she could not support herself unaided, and he did not feel threatened.
Fidelma saw a tall man in a dog collar and black jacket, wearing gold-rimmed glasses; fair-haired and bony-faced; oddly beautiful, though with something tremulous about the mouth. The black crows of the city screeched about her head. She held on tighter to the door.
What do you want? she asked again.
A glass of water? It’s a close afternoon.
Well, that you could not deny, even to a dog. You’d best come in. And close the door behind you.
Mrs. O’Reilly moved slowly through a passage not much wider than herself, keeping one hand pressed to the wall and still clutching the knife. The door that led to the sitting room was open. Father Diamond followed her. His first impression was of light. On this April afternoon the sun was pouring through the plate-glass window and even from where he stood he could see miles across the city.
What an amazing view, he said. I’ve been in these flats before, but never as high as this.
Mrs. O’Reilly, knifeless now, came out of the adjoining kitchen with a glass of water. People like a view because it’s there, she said. They don’t stop to wonder what it’s of.