Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
No ambulance, she whispered. Must stay here. No lift.
Father O’Connor leaned in closer. What’s that you’re saying? he asked.
Can’t be going anywhere, no lift.
Father Diamond understood. Although he could not have known what had happened to Fidelma in the past, he saw now with complete clarity, as if through different eyes that were not his own. He saw her trapped in darkness, unable to escape. I’ll stay with you, he said. You’ll not be on your own in it, I promise. She said nothing then, but closed her eyes. Tears spilled through the fret of her eyelashes.
In the event it was not a simple matter to get Fidelma to the ambulance. Buzzing round like tugboats sent to rescue a wrecked liner, the paramedics finally managed to hoist her to her feet. Although she was unsteady, they decided in the end she had to walk out of her flat and to the lift. A stretcher was obviously impracticable and she did not fit into the wheelchair they had with them. Luckily, the only
thing she’d broken was her arm. In the bathroom, Father Diamond found her teeth. Fidelma endured the manhandling in silence. Her one protest was when they reached the lift and the paramedics told the priests they were no longer needed. Then she refused to move without them. Somehow they all squeezed into the tiny space and Father Diamond held her hand the whole way down.
After the ambulance had gone, the priests went back to the flat to straighten it out and lock it up. Father Diamond opened the window in the sitting room, and the wind blew in. He looked out at the city spread before him. The distant hills. She would have died, he said to Father O’Connor in the room behind him, without turning round. If not for you. I wouldn’t have thought of going to see her this weekend. I’d have put off visiting until next week, if I’d gone at all.
Father O’Connor smiled at the hunched shape of the younger man, his figure dark against the brightness of the glass. For one fleeting moment he was looking at a saint. Then Father Diamond turned, and Father O’Connor saw the expression in his eyes. What a failure I am, he said.
I’ll disagree with you, said Father O’Connor. That’s not true, as a matter of fact. I saw the way she held your hand. And you may not think it now—how could you?—but you’ll be better for all this, you know. But would you get a move on in the meantime? I’m on for mass in twenty minutes.
Lily of the valley, wood anemones and primroses, on a coffin so ridiculously small. How could anything so small contain the future that was the child who had lived? Father
Diamond aspersed Holy Water on it, tears or drops of dew. The funeral of a child is a funeral of hope, Father Diamond thought. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower, a woodland flower in a world of dew. He fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
Stella, in the front row, was as thin as glass. Women in the final stage of pregnancy hold themselves with care, as if they were chalices brimful of liquid. Stella held herself as carefully because otherwise she’d splinter into pieces, not because she carried something precious. She was scoured out and hollow.
Rufus held her hand. Barnaby and Camilla were beside her, and the church was full. Father Diamond processed slowly from the coffin to the altar, behind a boy from the parish bearing a lighted candle. He faced the congregation. Alice and Larry Armitage were there, with Mr. Kalinowski. Dr. Qureshi at the back. And, also at the back, Fidelma, one arm in plaster, white against her draperies of black. Father Diamond already knew that she was coming. She had asked him if she could. Discharged from hospital, temporarily housed in sheltered accommodation, with the promise of her own place at ground level, Fidelma had a chance. If she could, she would have exchanged it for the life of Stella’s son.
Will the mother mind that I am there? she’d asked.
I think she’d be pleased, Father Diamond said. Although I can’t be sure.
She’ll have no need to speak to me, Fidelma said. But, if you tell me that I may, I’ll be there to grieve. For her child and for mine. I want to do that in the rightful place; a place where prayers are heard.
Father Diamond nodded but said nothing. Fidelma was no believer, he’d been told, but he had no intention of interrogating her.
Lord of all kindliness, the congregation sang. Lord of all grace. Tears in their voices, some of them. Some already weeping, dabbing at their eyes and widening them, sucking in their cheeks to stem the flow. Many of the women wore bright colors—children’s colors—red and green and yellow. Not Stella. Stella was altogether in black, although bareheaded; golden hair like treasure carelessly discarded; she’d have torn it in fistfuls from her scalp if custom had allowed. She’d cover herself in ashes if she could.
Our mourning is so decorous, she thought. Floral tributes in the form of angels, cards of sympathy. My friends, the mothers of living children, shunning inappropriate black. And shunning me, as if I brought contagion. As if my son might take their children by the hand and lead them to their deaths. Finding it hard to speak to me, they say to one another: I can’t imagine what she’s going through.
And that’s true. They can’t imagine. But there’s enough charity left in me to hope they never will. Meanwhile I’ll wear my sackcloth, and my mourning will cry to heaven.
She stood very still, and upright. Pale as candle wax. Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray, your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.
The funeral rites are the same rites whether the dead be nonagenarian or child. Eternal rest give unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on him. Priest and people moved through the ceremony along the ordained path, kneeling, standing, following the words that were strange
to a few, familiar to most, consoling to them all, if only because they were well-used. Barnaby read from an essay Felix had written about silver eels on their mysterious journey back to the Sargasso Sea where they were spawned. Rufus paid tribute to his son with love and tears. Camilla read from the Gospel of St. John: “At that time, Martha said to Jesus: Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died, but now also I know that whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith to her, Thy brother shall rise again.”
This is a child who was wholly innocent and wholly loved, Father Diamond said. Weeping at his grave, we make our song.
When the funeral mass was ended, he made the sign of the cross and blessed the congregation.
To us who are alive
May He grant forgiveness
And to all who have died
A place of light and peace.
Two of the undertaker’s men lifted the coffin, which one of them could easily have carried on his own. Father O’Connor would go with the family to the graveside. Father Diamond would join them later at their house, where they were inviting friends to celebrate Felix’s life. He waited as they filed from the church. Stella had stayed dry-eyed. God grant her the gift of tears, he prayed. And give her the dew of heaven. She walked passed Fidelma, not knowing who she was. Fidelma kept her head bowed
and was one of the last to leave. Father Diamond watched her go, supporting herself on crutches, moving very slowly but moving nonetheless.
An empty church; the candles on the altar all extinguished, the vessels and the vestments put away, the sacristy doors locked and Alexander Diamond lying facedown on the tiled floor of the Chapel of the Holy Souls. He was so drained, so tired he felt he’d never have the strength to get back on his feet. He would have liked to close his eyes and stay there while the dust settled slowly on him and his bones crumbled until they mixed as one substance and he was nothing that a light wind could not easily blow away.
It was the final day of April, five weeks to the day since Mary-Margaret O’Reilly had tumbled to this same floor off the altar and in her addlement set out upon a way that led to a child’s death. A way on which other souls had been distracted and no one could say they stumbled on a truth. A way he should have barred, like the Archangel with his flaming sword, to protect those souls who were entrusted to his care. That he had not—that he had been too busy gazing at his own soul to see into the souls of others—weighed him down as heavily as the heaviest wooden cross. Lord, I am not worthy, Father Diamond prayed. Lamb of God, have mercy on my soul. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word.
The floor was cold beneath him, the clay hard against his face. His fear was great; of nothing but an infinity of empty space, of endless miles of blackness broken only by the light of dead stars reaching down to earth to drown in its implacable, indifferent seas. Is it madness then? he asked. Am I as mad as Mary-Margaret and the girls who
swore that your eyes moved and your wounds bled? All of us, deluded fools, butts of some great cosmic joke, whistling in the dark?
He raised his head to look up at the figure on the crucifix above him. It was silent and unmoving. He let his head fall back again, stopping his mouth against the floor, breathing ingrained coldness and years of hopeful footsteps.
He lay like that a long time—he did not know how long—with his eyes closed and his mind aching, and while he was there, he thought of something, words he’d known or, perhaps, not known at all but heard now for the first time in a voice that was as strange and as familiar as a father’s to the newly born. Listen, said the voice, for these words are faithful, and true. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver. I have chosen you in the furnace of affliction. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am the Lord, and I do all these things. I am the light, and I make all things new.
About the Author
An Equal Stillness,
won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2009. She lives in Oxford with her family.
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