Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
More riddles, Mary-Margaret said to herself, and suddenly she felt too weary to explain. She’d show Father Diamond when she was back on her feet, she thought; it would be better if he saw it for himself. Meanwhile she accepted his blessing and the light touch of his hand on hers before he walked away.
Kiti Mendoza, on the Friday evening shift, pulled up a chair beside the fat woman’s bed and asked how she was doing. Well enough, the woman said, except her wrist was hurting. But you were fortunate, said Kiti, from what I heard. You could of broken your back. It must have been an angel stopped you fall. Oh no, said Mary-Margaret. I know it was Our Lord. He didn’t manage quite to stop me falling altogether—it happened very quickly—but He caught me before I did myself any real harm. I could’ve died, you know, it was a long way down. What was you doing there? Kiti asked, and Mary-Margaret told her. The open eyes, the bleeding wounds, the certainty of love.
Early on Saturday morning, Stella and Rufus Morrison drove down from Battersea to their house in his constituency. Stella packed food for the weekend in a cool box; there would be no time for shopping. Rufus had his surgery to take, meetings with his agent, with the Master of the local hunt who was campaigning for the repeal of unpopular legislation, and with the chairman of the parish council; there was also a fund-raising dinner to attend that night. Some kind of competition—she had forgotten what—to adjudicate on Sunday morning, and then they would have to drive back to London so that the whole week’s round could begin again—Shadow Cabinet meetings, off-the-record briefings, debates and argument, Select Committees, jostlings for airtime—Rufus’s round, all underpinned by Stella.
There was one small break in Saturday’s program that Stella was anticipating with the pleasure she had known
when she first met Rufus. He had been married to someone else then, his secret hours with Stella stolen out of a shared and busy life. They used to meet in the back room of a pub in Dean Street, and Stella remembered the ardor she felt as she hurried toward it, the ecstasy of being sure that in a moment she would be with the man who filled her waking thoughts and her better dreams. That ecstasy must have been visible in some way, she later thought; strangers stopped what they were doing and turned to look at her rushing past them on Shaftesbury Avenue; men, with hungry eyes.
So many years ago, and now Stella was longing for a meeting not with a lover but with her youngest child. It would be too brief—these meetings always were—and she’d pay for it with an hour of cold on a soggy sports pitch, but he’d be there, his aliform shoulder blades, his muddy knees, the ravishment of his smile. How was it possible, she thought, to miss anyone as painfully as she missed him? Even in the most fervid time of her affair with Rufus, when every parting felt as if a layer were being cruelly torn from her vulnerable heart, she had known that she could bear the hours that followed. But this? This was sorrow of a different kind. A dull but unremitting throb that was the pulse of every day in term time.
Rufus drove. He always drove, except after dinner parties. He did not want to talk; he was listening to a disc his secretary had recorded of an important speech made at the Confederation of British Industries. Stella contemplated his hands, resting on the steering wheel; long fingers with protuberant knucklebones, a feathering of light
brown hair over the outer metacarpals. An edge of tattered check cuff showing beneath his navy sweater; his tweed jacket on the backseat; a weekend shirt, working weekend clothes. Hands were so strangely intimate, she thought, and yet they were the one part of the human body that was always on display. Even where women have their faces covered, they are allowed to bare their hands. Hands that have known the inner places of the body; their own, their children’s and their lovers’. She had looked at the hands of men holding knives and forks at a dinner table—fat hands and slim ones, stubby-fingered, hairy—and envisaged their profound acquaintance with the bodies of their wives, who sat a conventional distance away round the same table. Rufus’s hand recognized the contours of her breasts so easily, he’d probably ceased to register them as things apart. Stella’s body had become his property through the rights of ownership accumulated over years of marriage.
The M3, the A303, past Andover, through Sherborne. A route so tediously familiar she barely noticed the landmarks. But she did notice the changes every week in the hedgerows and the waysides, those reminders of the fields and hills that had been there before the roads tore strips from them and left their green flanks scarred. That Saturday morning, in late March, winter skeletons were beginning to be touched by green, pale sunlight flickered throughout translucent leaves. Wild cherry flowering everywhere, cherry like drifting snow. On the blackthorn, tender and beautiful white blossom, as delicate as a bride’s veil, and as hopeful. The bravery of these ancient trees, opening the paths to new sap every year, putting forth their youthful
flowers. The white flowers of the thorn. The green of infant leaves so tentative they looked like mist on the bare branches, not solid form.
Saturday was Kiti’s day off. She slept late, then called her friend Melinda. She mentioned the woman on the ward who believed she had reopened Our Lord’s wounds. Kiti knew the church she had been talking about, on the corner of Riverside Crescent. Melinda said that was a little bit interesting; they should go and take a look. What else was there to do on a rainy Saturday in London, when you were trying to save money? Both girls were very homesick.
The Sacred Heart was open, as it was every day from eight till six. It was a point of pride and of principle to Father Diamond and his Superior, Father O’Connor, to allow unfettered access to the church. You could never tell when a soul in need might seek the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, Father O’Connor always said, even though it meant the devil to pay in insurance premiums. True, there were more often homeless people escaping from the rain in there than bona fide prayers, but they too were souls in need, of course, and who knows if they might find the Lord even though they were only seeking shelter?
There was no one in the church that Saturday afternoon. Kiti and Melinda crossed themselves with Holy Water from the stoup, genuflected and set off to find the cross that the fat woman had talked about. There were all the old familiar figures in the church: St. Joseph in his brown cloak, the Virgin in her blue dress, Jesus with his heart exposed. The cross hanging from the ceiling in front of the
altar had no body on it, so clearly it was not the one they wanted. Eventually they located it in one of the two side chapels. A crucifix nailed to the wall above a narrow altar; Jesus in colored plaster.
With no natural light, the little chapel was very dim. Kiti and Melinda felt around for a light switch but they couldn’t find one. Melinda suggested taking one of the candles from the wooden tray in front of the statue of Our Lady; Kiti put a 5p coin in the collection tin. A box of matches had been thoughtfully provided. Kiti struck one and held it to the candlewick while Melinda screened the new flame with her hand. Melinda carried the candle to the chapel and raised it to the crucifix. It flickered in the darkness, throwing the shadows of the two girls across the wall. They could just make out the silver reliquaries behind locked bars in niches in the wall, a painting to one side of a figure they could not identify. The pink legs and feet of God. But there was no blood. Kiti and Melinda were disappointed. Although what more could one expect from a silly Englishwoman who had given herself a big blow on the head? Then Kiti screamed. And Melinda too. Oh God, they screamed together. Did you see that? It was far too frightening. Melinda dropped the candle and they both fled from the church.
Felix Morrison spotted his mother hurrying across the pitch and felt a small constriction in his heart. She was late and the under-elevens were already being thrashed, as usual, having missed their first conversion and a penalty kick. But that wouldn’t worry his mother, she never seemed
to mind whether the team won or lost. In fact, she never even seemed to know which side was winning or losing until the match ended and the victors cheered. Felix had tried to explain the rules to her a hundred times but she still got them muddled up. The important thing is that you enjoy yourself and do your best, she had told him once, and he had not wanted to upset her with the truth, which was that winning really mattered. In the harsh world of his boarding school no amount of motherly solace could save a boy from being a loser.
In keeping with custom, Felix only nodded curtly to his mother when she reached the touchline, and ran past her after a disappearing ball. She gave him a little wave. That she was there, though, that she’d made it when he hadn’t been sure she’d be able to, gave Felix a rush of strength, as if the sluggish blood in his veins had all of a sudden been displaced by something warmer and more pure. Ichor, he said to himself under his breath. The clear fluid that flowed in the veins of gods. The horrible hard ball was now cannoning toward him and could not be evaded unless Felix were to turn tail and head in the opposite direction. With the strength of heroes flooding through him, Felix lunged for it, grabbed it and ran for the tryline.
Stella kept her eyes trained on her child as he was tackled, stopped breathing as he disappeared beneath the ruck, breathed again when he emerged, without the ball but with his nose unbloodied. This barbarous pursuit, she thought, why do we do such terrible things to our sons? Rufus had been a rugger Blue at Oxford.
Some of the under-elevens, who could, apparently, be almost twelve, were nearly as tall as men and growing bulky.
Felix was by far the smallest of the team, a child so thin you might think you saw the gleam of bone through his white skin. A child made of lines and angles, the nape of his neck heartbreaking, his new front teeth like trespassers in his mouth. When the game was over he ran across to Stella. She looked beautiful, he noted, as she always did, much nicer-looking than the other mothers. She knew not to kiss him. Match tea, he said, I’m sorry, Mum. We have to have it with the visiting team. That’s fine, she said. I hope it’s good. You must be starving after all that brilliant playing.
I am, said Felix. It’s a bit less than two weeks, I think, to the end of term?
That’s right. About ten days, she said. I’ll see you then. He nodded quickly and turned back to his team, now streaming off toward the changing rooms. She watched him go, yearning after him, the mud-stained hollows behind his fragile knees.
Father Diamond, readying the church for Saturday’s vigil mass, saw the candle lying on the floor outside the Chapel of the Holy Souls. People can be so careless, he said to himself. The candle was no longer burning but it had evidently been lit; it could have caused a fire. He picked it up and stuck it in the stand.
There were eleven worshipers that evening, not bad for a Saturday in London, and Seamus was there to serve. Afterward, Father Diamond asked him to help with the Lenten veils. They were difficult to manage on one’s own. Seamus, who also served on weekdays, was too shaky to be really helpful, but it was good to have an extra pair of hands.
Together the two men fetched the stepladder from the garage behind the house. Father Diamond had already taken the shrouds out of the cardboard boxes in which they were stored for the rest of the year and had heaped them in the sacristy. Heavy, thick material, a little faded at the folds, a little dusty; redolent of charity shops with their scent of mildew.
He and Seamus worked systematically, carrying the ladder between them. Our Lady and St. Joseph; the Sacred Heart, which was a statue Father Diamond disliked intensely but dared not upset his congregation by discarding; the crucifix in the Holy Souls. The cross that hung from the ceiling above the sanctuary was always the hardest to cover; too high for Father Diamond to reach with ease, and the material would keep slipping off. Eventually he managed to secure it with safety pins.
It was dark now, and the violet coverings made it seem darker still. Always such a bleak time for Father Diamond, the flowers gone, the statues shrouded like corpses in their cerements, like possessions under dust sheets in an abandoned house. His foot was on the top rung of depression; if he did not hold on fast he would slip down so far it would take enormous strength to clamber up. He was not sure that he could find the strength again. Before him stretched the final weeks of Lent: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, the terror of Good Friday, agony and passion, tallow candles and the altar bare.
I don’t know what I’d do without you, Seamus, he said truthfully. How about a drink, or are you rushing off this evening? Seamus made the sideways movement of his head that expressed regret more courteously than a straight
refusal. Thanks a million, Father, but there’s things I should be doing. Fine, said Father Diamond, bless you.
Stella did not stay for tea with the other parents after Felix’s match but sped off to get herself ready for the evening. It was desolating to drive away from the school and out through its iron gates, leaving her child behind. Stella had heard other women tell of times when they had forgotten their children in playgrounds and shopping centers; there had been a family recently in the news who were halfway across the Atlantic on a plane before they realized their four-year-old was missing. Stella had laughed in the approved manner at these comic instances of the softening effect of motherhood on the brain but was privately appalled. When her children were small she had felt as if the cords that once connected them to her were still in place; she was as aware of them as her own heartbeat, her own breath.