Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Stella Morrison also lay in bed, listening to her husband breathe. His snuffling joined the other noises of the night; an open sash window rattling in the wind, a motorcycle in the distance, the sighing branches of the silver birch outside. Often sleepless, Stella was in the habit of wandering around the house at night, moving in the darkness through
the empty rooms. It was a habit born in the days when her children were still small and she, a light sleeper like all mothers, would wake at the slightest sound. Then, she would have gone into their bedrooms to kneel beside them, to listen to the rhythm of their dreams. She would know if the dreams were calm or hectic by their bedclothes, tangled round them or composed. Felix in particular spent heated nights; his hair was often wet with sweat, and she’d stroke it off his forehead, breathing in the sweet small-boy scent of him, her sleeping child.
If the children had ever woken to find her there beside them, would they have felt she was intruding? She thought not: they would simply have accepted her presence in the night as they did during the day, unquestioned as the source of all they wanted, trivial or large. Besides, it is difficult to wake a sleeping child.
At that time she would have welcomed the quiet of the night. The voices of children had filled every minute of the day; there was never time to think her own thoughts or repair the raveled threads of life. After she had tucked the kicked-off duvets back and kissed her children lightly, she would often go from room to room, straightening rugs and cushions, putting toys away, making neat piles of the books and papers Rufus always scattered. That way she could greet the next day with lightness in her mind. Imposing order brought repose. She was familiar with the night sounds then; the creakings and the rustlings, the intermittent humming of the fridge, the sudden twang the piano sometimes made as if a ghost inside its case had plucked a string, occasionally a hunting owl. There would be all the same sounds now in the further
reaches of the house but tonight she did not care to meet them. These unpeopled spaces, which usually seemed quite kindly, tonight threatened to unsettle; there was too much emptiness in them. For no clear reason she found herself thinking of the palaces of extinct kings. Fortresses on the crowns of hills, as large as towns, like labyrinths or termite mounds, the inner depths a honeycomb of rooms, jewel-embedded marble, windowless. Lost courtyards in which lonely women hid. Stella had got completely lost in the hill palace of Udaipur on her honeymoon with Rufus. One minute Rufus had been there, taking photographs and batting away the touting guides, the next minute he was not. She was in a narrow roofless space with doors at each corner opening onto spiral staircases, where the only light came filtered through fretworked pale stone. She chose the stairs she hoped would lead her in the same direction she and Rufus had been following; he must have gone on without her; she would find him at the top. But at the top there was only a narrower room lit by one dim bulb and she no longer knew whether to go left or right. She felt the panic of a lost child, of a dreamer in a hostile and strange city. This unimaginably complicated place was a maze, a prison; designed as such by one beleaguered ruler after another, each one insisting on his own accretions until there could be no one living who had kept count of all the rooms. It was all too easy to envisage being trapped in one and beating as ineffectually as a moth against the solid wood and brass inlay of its heavy door.
“The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab,” Stella said under her breath. The women of the emperors
and the sultans: had they found consolation in the scarlet petals of the roses in their secret gardens, in the soft breath of a sleeping child?
Some nights, when she could not sleep, Stella got out of bed and crossed the landing to Barnaby’s room, untenanted in term-time. It faced onto the street and there was a street-lamp right outside, beyond the railings, which turned mist into gold on autumn nights, made raindrops bright as fireflies. Stella would lean her head against the glass, feeling its coldness, watching her breath cloud it, sensing the London smell of dust. If she closed her eyes and counted to ten before she opened them again, he would be standing on the pavement looking up, his collar turned against the damp, in a mandorla of light. Who he was she never knew, only that she needed him to be there.
The next day was a Friday. Fidelma O’Reilly was woken by the need to pee. She had been drifting in and out of dreams for what seemed like hours and in those dreams there had been toilets with locked doors, corridors that she was lost in, until finally she let go luxuriously of a great cascading stream. Fidelma’s dreams often contained a bursting bladder. Of late she had begun to fear that the release which was so carefree in her dreams might signify a real event; that there would come a morning when she would waken to a mattress stained and stinking, wet sheets already cooling as she slept.
But this morning she woke in her chair. It took her a bit of time to hoist herself out of it and stand up. Her legs were cramped and stiff. Hold on, my darling, she said
aloud to herself. Get a good grip on yourself down there, my girl.
In the bathroom she pulled up her skirt and plopped down onto the specially adapted lavatory seat. Long ago she had dispensed with underwear; the elastic gouged red tracks on her skin and there was no call for that. When she had finished she shivered involuntarily and wondered, not for the first time, why that happened. Little girls shivered every time they went; she remembered that. It was a sort of pleasure, she supposed, that warm flow of liquid running from the secret places. One of the best, now she came to think of it: there was nothing like the relief of going when you really had to, like thirst it was; it’s worth working up a real thirst just for the pleasure of its quenching. Sometimes she’d let her throat grow dry as the last scrapings of a scuttle before she drank cool water down.
A picture came to mind of a thirsting man, beads of sweat like teardrops, well-toasted from the sun. Lifting a tall glass full of Guinness to his mouth. You could see how cold the glass was from the frost upon it, you could see the way the young man’s Adam’s apple went a-bobbing up and down, the way a young fellow drains a pint without stopping for a breath, or so it seems. Had she once been acquainted with this young man, or was he off the telly?—these days she found it hard to know. There was a young man in an ad, but that was for Coke not Guinness, he was a builder or some such, a nice flat belly and the lasses crowding at an office window, craning for a look. Ah well.
Fidelma rinsed out a flannel in the washbasin and mopped at her face, her neck and armpits. Then she maneuvered herself into the kitchen. There was just enough space
in it for her to stand between the counter and the cooker and, if she stepped to one side, she could open the fridge. What with Mary-Margaret not coming home last night, there might not be much in it. Mary-Margaret would have stopped off at the shops on her way back. But Fidelma had forgotten there was still most of a pork pie in there, some cooked potatoes, eggs and half a loaf. She put some lard into a pan and fried up the potatoes. When they were done, she pushed them to one side of the pan with a wooden spoon, added another lump of lard and fried two eggs as well. While they were doing, she spread margarine on a slice of bread.
That doctor of hers was forever going on about what Fidelma should be eating, or, more to the point, what she should not. Diet, diet, diet, she was sick of the stupid word. It was not by chance that if you took the
off it, you’d get its close relation. Anyway. Not even that interfering woman—and she was so scrawny that if she were a chicken she’d be fit for nothing but the stockpot—could complain about the meal Fidelma had made herself today. Meat, eggs and potatoes, that was all she’d ever eaten as a child, near enough, and then she was as slender as a reed, as the tall leaves of the yellow irises that grew in the boggy places, and had stayed so, until Mary-Margaret came along.
Fidelma took her plate of food back to her armchair, and ate it looking out of the window. It was late morning; children who went to school were long gone, and those of the parents who had work as well. There was not much happening below. If Mary-Margaret had been there, they would have watched the telly, but left to herself Fidelma could not be bothered to turn it on. She’d rather sit there
with her food, savoring the salt taste of the pie jelly and then its rich fat melting on her tongue, thinking her own thoughts and minding her own business. Later she would brew some tea and have a cigarette but she’d wait a while for that; the waiting made the first drag so much better. The raisin scent of the fag unlit, that small white tube of promise and then the almost painful rush of it into the lungs; well, all in all, with a brew of tea, that would be just about enough.
As it was a Friday, Father Diamond spent most of the morning on the wards of St. Elizabeth’s. As usual he collected his list of Roman Catholic patients from the cheerful lady in the Welfare Office and as usual she greeted him: how’s tricks then, Rev? At the bottom of the list he was annoyed to notice Mary-Margaret O’Reilly but he’d have to look in on her, he knew he could hardly miss her out. He would leave her until last, after he had visited the seriously sick where they lay on the surgical wards.
Father Diamond had been an ordained priest for less than a year when his Superior added hospital chaplaincy to his list of duties. At first he had found it very hard. It was not the dying he minded, on the threshold of eternal life. No, for that he had had some training and besides it was precisely because he must learn to face the infinite that he had decided, after years of torment, to become a priest. To kneel beside the dying, to pray with them and at the end to bring them the precious consolation of the sacraments; well that was a blessing and a God-given privilege. But it was the naked way in which some of them were dying that
upset him. The reek of advanced illness, all those tubes and pumps full of vile liquid, the yellow and the red, the mottled flesh, the ulcers, the indignity, the crusts of spittle, the toothlessness; all of this he found repellent. And he knew that he was wrong to do so.
Humani nil a me alienum puto
was the line that kept coming back to him but, as he often reflected ruefully, those self-righteous souls who cited it so glibly less often prefaced it with its true opening words:
Father Diamond knew that nothing human was foreign to God. The sores of lepers, the stumps of amputees—God saw them, loved them and would not hesitate to stroke them with His hands. When Lazarus stumbled out into the daylight from the darkness of his tomb, putrid and stinking to high heaven, having lain for four days dead, Jesus clasped him to His breast. (Who, though, would have peeled off his winding cloths, sticky with the liquefaction of the body in the heat of Bethany? Not Our Lord, thought Father Diamond. Martha, most probably. And then she would have laundered them for further use.) But it was all very well for God. And for those saints on earth who tended suppurating wounds and wiped the black froth from the mouths of the plague-ridden without flinching. Such mortals had the protection of their certain faith. Human though they were, they were also touched by the divine. For ordinary men and women it was natural to shrink away from the impure. Father Diamond had read his behavioral science and he knew that disgust was a primordial reflex; the species maximizing its own chances of survival by avoiding sources of infection and disease.
and for that very reason I am nauseated by decaying flesh.
All Father Diamond could do was pray for strength. And so he did, until by now, eleven years after he had been appointed one of the several chaplains at St. Elizabeth’s, he was much less squeamish. Even so, there were sights that still made him gag and served starkly to remind how far he was from sainthood.
Today Father Diamond visited a middle-aged man on the genitourinary ward, two ladies in gynae and a young man who had a tumor in his jaw. To remove it, the surgeons had also to remove some of his face and now there was a hole where bone had been before. He also went to see a man who had been dying for some time and had already received Extreme Unction. Father Diamond made the sign of the cross over him in blessing. Then he set off to find Mary-Margaret O’Reilly.
She was on a general ward, in the middle of a row of beds. Father Diamond was glad to see that she was sitting up and draped decently in a hospital-provided nightdress. How are you, dear? he asked.
Her face lit up. I’m doing well, Father, she said. I’m sorry for the trouble.
No trouble at all, he answered. The thing is that you’re on the mend. Nothing broken, I trust?
My wrist, said Mary-Margaret. But only that. And a bit of bruising. But much worse things happen on a big ship, don’t they?
They do indeed. You are very lucky. We should give thanks and praise to our good Lord.
I do and all, she said. And I say sorry to Him too, although it was not my fault. I promise I was gentle. I did not mean to hurt Him. It was not my fault.
What do you mean, Mary-Margaret? Father Diamond asked.
Well you know what I mean, she said. The wounds on His poor head. The blood. When He opened his eyes I could see how badly He was hurting and I’d have given anything to take away the pain.
There were no wounds, said Father Diamond gently. The blood was from
head. And from the look of things that’s mending nicely. No need for vinegar and brown paper!
Mary-Margaret looked puzzled. She had no idea what he meant. Vinegar? She let it pass; Father Diamond was prone to saying strange things, she found. But now he must be made to see the truth. There was, she said. Blood. From the holes made by the thorns. It went all over my hands when I was anointing Him. With the olive cream.
My dear, said Father Diamond. You have had a big bump and a nasty shock into the bargain. Please don’t worry any more. The cross is fine, nothing was broken. Mrs. Armitage will wash the altar cloth. Just you concentrate on getting better. We need you back on Thursday afternoons! Mrs. Armitage is made of sterling stuff but even she can’t manage the cleaning by herself, we need both of our Stakhanovites!