Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
But who are the arbiters of what is true and what is not? Azin remembered that desultory conversation late at night in Stella’s house. Yes, who decides that the millions who hold the Koran to be the transcribed word of God are sane whereas those who revere the book of Brigham Young are batty and the one who claims to hear voices from above is clinically insane? If it is the case that Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven and Bach seriously believed in God, how can we be sure that they were wrong?
And yet mostly we are, thought Azin, returning to his desk. He had to see another patient shortly and to check his notes beforehand; there was no time for theological speculation. We know we are alone here on this earth, without recourse to outside help, and that our short span of life is all there is, he told himself. Or, at least, I know that, speaking for myself. But even so, it is peculiar that we sit round dinner tables, amid the debris of candle stubs and pudding plates, the last drops of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise still sticky in our glasses, and we talk of haunted places, eerie feelings, unfamiliar rooms in which we’ve been startled in the dark. How often have I heard friends mention the cold finger down their spines in the obscure passages of some historic house, or the sense they had of something tragic lingering over places where terrible things were done? In describing these experiences they can only be inferring some survival of the dead. If the spirits of the murdered can still be felt in Auschwitz, are they not, in some way, still with us? And if this form of supernatural presence, why not God?
Why not? Azin asked himself. And spelled out his own answer. It was not within his nature to credit the existence of an omnipotent, eternal being. God was metaphor to him. He cast his mind back to the priest he had interviewed about the O’Reilly case: Alexander Diamond. O’Reilly’s parish priest. Evidently an intelligent man; in conversation it transpired he had a degree in maths. Which surely would imply some grasp of logic. The priest had struck Azin as unhappy, isolated possibly, highly strung, but in no way unbalanced. So, did he genuinely believe in a living
God? He had described O’Reilly and his relationship with her most scrupulously, carefully, measuring his words. She could be a bit of a nuisance, he had said. Hanging around like an abandoned puppy, searching for attention, wanting love. There are always women like that, and men too, of course. Priests must be on their guard against them. They can confuse affection meant impartially with something far more personal, they imagine that they have a special understanding with their priest. They seek objects of desire.
Azin had been struck by the words. Objects of desire. He had noted also the priest’s conviction that Mary-Margaret was essentially good. Yes, potentially a nuisance, and very slow on the uptake, but reverent at heart, and humble, you could almost call her holy. What she did—or at least what she did before that horrifying thing—she did with love. It was a source of anguish to him that he had not done more to help her. She had been a fixture in the church for years, since she was a child really, attending mass on Sundays and some weekdays, arriving every Thursday morning with a shopping bag full of dusters, waiting humbly for a word of thanks. Part of the furniture, barely noticed, taken for granted it must be said. He reproached himself bitterly. He should have known—but how could he?—what she was incubating. If only he had known. He thought he had persuaded her that what she took to be a vision was only the effect of a bad blow to the head. He remembered saying that when she was still in hospital. She had nodded. He remembered that as well. If only. If only he had taken better care of her, prayed for her, listened to her properly, if only, then Felix would not be dead.
Father Diamond would never know what had been in Mary-Margaret’s mind. To the end of his days he would not understand. And to the end of his days he would relive the moment when he saw Felix falling, his blood flowing, and Mary-Margaret O’Reilly screaming with the knife still in her hand.
Azin saw a man in pain. Possibly he’d need some treatment, for post-traumatic stress if nothing else, but it was not Azin’s job to say so, or to give it. Although, if he had the leisure, he would like to know Diamond better. An appealing man and an interesting case study. As would be O’Reilly’s mother, but again she was no longer his concern. How intriguing though, that enormous woman, with her cool gaze and her hinterland of the unsaid.
Actually, the person he would most like to see again was Stella Morrison, but he had no excuse to do so and could not possibly intrude upon her now. There was nothing she could tell him about Mary-Margaret. But she was in his mind. He kept remembering the evening when he met her and the way her sleeves fell when she raised her arms to push her hair back off her face, her pale wrists. She had served all that food and wine so quietly—so meekly even—without her husband’s help. And yet Azin had sensed a strength in her and a rare quality of restraint. He saw how once or twice, when she was about to speak, she changed her mind and spooled her words back to their source, as if they needed more distilling. Or as if she needed to be sure of their reception. He remembered how she had caught his eyes and held them for a moment, and how he had felt, absurdly, that she was reaching out to him. He wanted
to believe she was. He wanted a connection. He wanted her to know he understood. But, quite probably, she had barely noticed him. Who was he but another in a chain of strangers, filing through her evenings? Even if he had made an impression on her then, that must surely have been expunged by what she had suffered since. The chambers of her heart must now be filled with tears, leaving no place for him. Azin screwed his eyes tight at the thought of Stella’s pain. He felt the stab of it himself, as if they really were connected, separated twins perhaps, or lovers, or entangled quantum particles in lonely miles of space.
Azin closed his file. There was nothing left to add. His conclusion would be that Mary-Margaret O’Reilly was acting while the balance of her mind was disturbed and that she was unlikely to offend again. He would say in evidence that she suffered from delusions. He expected that she would be found guilty of manslaughter but not of murder or intent to murder and would quietly serve her time, under psychiatric care, until she was judged safe to join the outside world again. And afterward? In all likelihood he’d never know what happened to her in the end.
A tentative knock on the door signaled the arrival of his next appointment. Why, at the end of this case, did Azin feel dissatisfied and sad? He didn’t have time to answer but he did make a note to telephone Father Diamond. The priest would surely know about the funeral arrangements. Azin suddenly felt an urgent need to be there, to be part of it, as Stella’s friend.
Father Diamond and Father O’Connor found Fidelma on Saturday afternoon. By then she had been lying helpless on the floor, with a broken arm, for forty hours. She was confused, dehydrated and she stank of urine; it took a long time before she came to her senses, recognized them and could tell them what had happened.
Father O’Connor had only come home from San Antonio, Texas, via New York and Dublin, the day before. Shocked by the news of Felix’s death, he was also very angry. You should have told me, he said to Father Diamond. This happened two weeks ago. You told me about the nonsense with the cross. So why not this?
I didn’t think, Father Diamond said. You were so far away. I’m sorry. But what could you have done?
I could have prayed, the older man told him.
He was home in time for Alice Armitage’s party. Alice fussed over her hero son like a stable lad attending to a thoroughbred fresh from a great win. She kept her eyes fixed on him as if in one moment’s inattention he might vanish, and she patted him each time she passed. There were plates of food on every flat surface in the room—food enough to feed a regiment, food to weigh Fraser down and tie him to home ground. Food to tell her son the things she could not say in words: that she loved him, that a beat of her own heart was missing all the time that he was gone, that she knew she might have had to cook for a funeral instead of a homecoming.
Flooded with relief, glad also that Father O’Connor had come back, Alice was nevertheless in great distress. Finding a quiet moment on her own with Father O’Connor, she
told him why. It’s like God would only keep one boy alive, she said. I was praying for Fraser at the very moment that the knife went into Stella’s son. I was praying: keep my son safe. I feel it was an exchange. And Stella lost. And it’s so unfair. I’ve got Fraser back, not a hair on his head harmed; God gave me that. But Stella’s son is dead. And he was only a little thing, his life had just begun.
Father O’Connor saw her reddened eyes. He drew her to him. It doesn’t work like that, he said. That much I know. Lives are not held in balance, we don’t make bargains with Our Lord. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t. He didn’t take her son instead of yours. The young boy died, and that’s a terrible thing, but not because you prayed for Fraser.
Then why? she asked.
Oh Alice, Father O’Connor said. If I knew that, I’d be a holy saint for sure, and not a bumbling old fellow all too aware of his shortcomings. That cry—your cry—goes up to heaven every single second of each day. And has done since the dawn of time, and will do until doomsday. Why? If Fraser had been killed out there—and the Lord be thanked that he was not—you would have cried the same. As Stella Morrison is doing now. And I don’t know the answer. If there is one, it’s an answer that God whispers very softly into hearts that grieve, and I do fear it often goes unheard and takes its time in coming.
So it’s not much of an answer, is it, when all’s said and done?
No, Father O’Connor agreed. But I believe that those who seek it, and who listen, may find that it’s consoling, given time. So, Alice, you were there, I hear, when the child died?
I came too late, she said. He died in hospital, but the knife went deep and by the time I reached him I think he was already going.
I cannot think that Mary-Margaret O’Reilly meant to murder, Father O’Connor said. I always felt she was a
duine le Dia,
a fool perhaps, but a fool of God.
Later on that evening the priest called to mind Fidelma. How’s the old dote doing? he asked Alice. She told him she’d delivered food to her on Monday but had not seen her since. I’ll go round tomorrow, he said.
Father Diamond drove him there. When there was no immediate answer to their knock on Fidelma’s door, he presumed she was going to be as slow to open it as she had been the time before. The two men went on knocking and calling through the letter box but still got no response. Perhaps she’s out? Father Diamond suggested.
No. She never goes out. Or, at least, she never has, in all the years I’ve known her.
I don’t know. She’s a recluse. I’d like to think she’s a holy anchorite, but the truth may be she’s just plain lazy. Or embarrassed.
It can’t be good for her. For her health.
Well, clearly it is not. You’ve seen the woman.
So, should we leave it and come back another time?
No, said Father O’Connor. I’ve an uneasy feeling.
So they trooped back down to the ground floor and Father Diamond again began the long process of locating the caretaker. This is a godforsaken place, Father O’Connor remarked while they were waiting for him to find a key. He looked at the stained concrete and the rubbish blowing
like tumbleweed round the feet of the tower block. But the views are great when you reach the top, he added.
The front door yielded to the key; Fidelma had neglected to put the chain on when she went to bed. At first they thought the flat was empty. The air was still and heavy, stale with smoke. A mug with dregs of tea stood on the table by the window. Mrs. O’Reilly, Father O’Connor called. The door to one of the rooms off the small corridor was open and the other closed. They looked round the open door and saw the bedroom of a child, soft toys piled on the single bed, posters of baby animals on the walls. The bed had not been made. Father O’Connor knocked on the other door and heard a moan in answer.
Fidelma had tried to drag herself across the floor away from the bed, making for the door perhaps, but had stopped before she reached it. She was still lying on her front. At the sound of the door opening, she painfully raised her head. Don’t come anywhere near me, she said.
Mrs. O’Reilly, my old friend, Father O’Connor said, entering the room. Fidelma. The curtains were drawn and it was difficult to make things out in the half dark. There now, Fidelma. You’ve taken a bit of a tumble by the look of things, he said. Ignoring her mumbled protests, he crouched down beside her and stroked her hair off her forehead. Her eyes were not quite focused.
Is it angels that you are? she said. Or answers? The last rites? Or am I already dead?
Father Diamond crouched down too. He didn’t think she recognized him. Hello, Fidelma, he said softly. It’s me. Alexander Diamond. And Father O’Connor back from America to visit you. Will we get you to your feet?
The two men pushed and pulled, but ineffectually. They couldn’t tell how badly she was hurt and dared not risk more damage. Father Diamond rang for an ambulance. He could hardly speak. This woman lying like a fallen tree, a stranded creature from the sea, magnificent, immobilized, her stained nightgown crumpled underneath her, monumental thighs red-streaked with a tracery so delicate, the thinnest rivulets of blood rising to the surface of her skin, expressed the whole world’s suffering to him just at that moment. An idol brought to earth, weeping, stinking, unloved, humiliated and alone, trying to pull her clothing down. When she opened her mouth, he saw that she was toothless.