Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Even now, after so many years, the final minutes before the start of every mass were touched by fear. Father Diamond knew the fear of a diver on the edge of a springboard, of a dancer in the wings waiting for his call. Each time, every single day, as he watched the minute hand, he would be gripped by dread: would he be able to walk through the sacristy door into the sanctuary; could he be confident of grace? It could be lonely, at the altar.
He vested, saying silent prayers. Lord, gird me about with the cincture of purity and extinguish my fleshly desires that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide within me. The chasuble was heavy on his shoulders. Stiff purple silk. 7:56. Major Wetherby came in through the side door, puffing. In the nick, he said. Top of the morning, Father. He put on his cassock and surplice hastily. Then both he and Father Diamond bowed their heads to the image of the Sacred Heart before Major Wetherby opened the door on the dot of 8:00 and clanged the bell. He led the way and Father Diamond followed, bearing the chalice covered with a purifier, a pall, a purple veil and a corporal folded in a matching burse.
Father Diamond kept his head bent over the precious chalice and his eyes lowered until he reached his place behind the altar. Then he looked up, anticipating the joyful sight of a sizable congregation, a change from the familiar few faces he was used to seeing. They were there, in their accustomed pews. But the others, the visitors, were not in the pews at all but, from the sound of it, gathered in the Chapel of the Holy Souls. Father Diamond waited for a minute to give them time to settle down. Perhaps they had
not heard the bell. He cleared his throat. There was scant response. Two or three did detach themselves from the rest and slid into a pew. The others stayed where they were, mostly hidden from him. He got on with saying mass.
In the course of it he became irritably aware that the visitors were not only staying segregated in the chapel but also making quite a lot of noise. A prayerful noise certainly, some sort of litany perhaps, but other noises too: furniture scraping on the tiled floor, a great deal of excited chatter, the ring tones of mobile phones. More people kept arriving. Just before he began to say the Eucharistic Prayer he saw Miss Daly, a regular, bustle from her seat into the chapel. Voices were raised. Miss Daly returned to her pew, looking flustered and indignant. Father Diamond plowed on. He had no choice. It was a relief to see that a lot of the visitors did come up for Holy Communion. Some of them had covered their heads with lace.
When the mass was ended, Father Diamond followed Major Wetherby into the sacristy and started to disrobe. What the devil was all that about? Major Wetherby was asking, when there was a sharp knock at the door and Miss Daly came bristling in. Do come out at once and put a stop to all this nonsense, she demanded. Those stupid women are paying no heed to me at all. Father Diamond, struggling out of his alb, heard the note of outrage in her voice. He handed the garment to the major and followed Miss Daly to the chapel. There he found several women lying prostrate on the floor, others kneeling, and at least one apparently in tears. The altar was in disarray and the Lenten veil had been pulled off the crucifix. Every candle on the pricket stand was lit. O most holy blood of Jesus, a
voice was chanting, over and over again. What is all this? Father Diamond asked. Who took off the veil? A woman detached herself from the group. You are blessed, she said. This place is going to be well famous.
Mary-Margaret, on Sunday morning, looked regretfully at the breakfast she would not allow herself to eat. Scrambled egg and button mushrooms. Triangles of toast. An hour ago she had tried to whiten her complexion with a little Ajax from a tin she had found on a windowsill in the bathroom but the grains were too coarse to stick. If anything, they made her redder. When an assistant came to take away her uneaten food, Mary-Margaret would not let her. It was important for the nurse in charge to see she could not take a bite.
But Sister, when she came, was angry with the assistant and not at all sympathetic to her patient. She looked at Mary-Margaret’s wrist, listened to her account of the terrible pains that pierced her head, dispensed two acetaminophen and told her to get dressed. You’re absolutely fine, dear, she said firmly. Take two acetaminophen, at no more than four-hourly intervals, if you need them, but do not exceed eight tablets a day. See your GP if you experience further problems. Don’t forget to get those stitches taken out.
Mary-Margaret, forlorn, put on her pullover and her denim skirt. It was only then she noticed the bloodstains on the skirt. It looked bad, she knew, as if she’d had a shameful accident, but she had nothing else to wear. She could hardly make her way back home in a hospital nightie. It was lucky
the ambulance men had had the wit to keep her united with her shopping bag and fleece. She got dressed slowly. Her wrist hurt and she couldn’t do up her bra single-handed. Life wasn’t fair, she thought.
It was still early and she had to wait a long time for a bus. While she waited, she tried to bring to mind what food there had been at home when she left on Thursday. She wondered what her mother had done about her meals. Now she wished she had eaten up that breakfast—she was feeling wobbly and, besides, her ploy had made no difference.
There was no direct bus route between her home and St. Elizabeth’s. As Mary-Margaret would have to change buses in any case, she thought she might as well go via the Co-op. In the well-lit and warm shop she began to feel more cheerful. There were Cadbury’s chocolate fingers on special offer, buy one, get one free. Thinking back to her uneaten breakfast she put eggs into her basket, a tin of mushrooms, a loaf and a packet of ham. A pint of milk to be on the safe side. A jar of sandwich spread. That would do for now, she felt. It was as much as she could carry. She could always go out again later, and get something else for tea.
The second bus came quickly. For such small mercies let us give thanks. But for some reason she could not quite identify, Mary-Margaret was in no hurry to get home. She could scarcely remember when she had last spent a night away from her mother. Her final summer at school, perhaps, when the nuns had arranged a trip to Normandy, to venerate the bones of St. Thérèse? Nearly all the fifth form went—they had stayed in the order’s sister house. Oh, that had been a happy time. She remembered the journey there
by train and ferry. The sea spray flying up toward her at the railing, the cold salt taste of it in her mouth. The feel of it came back to her now, and she wanted even less to shut herself up in the stinky, creaky lift of her tower block. Fidelma’s great unmoving bulk spread like a black stain on her vision.
She decided instead to get a cup of tea from the takeout at the bottom of the block and drink it on the bench beside the children’s play area. At that time on a Sunday morning, the area might well have children in it, rather than youths with drugs and dogs. There was even a glimmer of sunshine. After that, she’d see about dropping in on Him. Excitement fluttered through her at the thought.
She bought the tea with difficulty, it being hard to manage with her shopping on one arm. She had had to put everything down to rummage for her purse, and its clasp had proved well-nigh impossible. It does make you feel for the properly disabled, she observed to the man behind the counter, but he didn’t seem to understand her, and only waited patiently while she fumbled for the coins. She would have liked him to inquire about her wrist and head.
In the broken-down play area there were children clambering on the roundabout and the swings. Mary-Margaret knew most of them. Among them were some of the many children of Mrs. Abdi, who lived on the same floor as the O’Reillys. So many, it was a struggle to tell them apart, but Mary-Margaret had made the effort. This morning she saw Hodan, Faduma, Sagal, Samatar, Bahdoon, and her favorite, the small one, Shamso, of the tight black curls. He was so sweet, that Shamso, with his great big eyes and
his round cheeks, just like a gorgeous, cuddly doll. Today he was dressed in an odd array of hand-me-downs—jogging bottoms that were too big for him, a dirty T-shirt, and on top of that what looked like a ballerina costume. Pink nylon and pink netting, the shoestring straps slipping off his shoulders. Mary-Margaret took one of the packets of chocolate fingers from her bag. Shamso, she called, waving the packet at him. They all came, of course, and clustered round her but Shamso clambered up onto the bench beside her and snuggled against her side. She could feel his elbow, his little, pointy chin. Chocolate from his fingers added to the stains already on her skirt. But it didn’t matter. It would all come out in the wash. Mary-Margaret put her good arm round him, drank her sweet, strong tea, shared her biscuit breakfast with the Abdis and raised her face to the pale sun that shone a tentative path between the tower blocks.
Mrs. Armitage and her husband arrived in good time for the solemn mass, the second mass of Sunday. They found the church door locked and a restive group of people gathered outside. They were perplexed. Maybe Father D has been called out to a deathbed, Mrs. Armitage speculated. It can’t be easy for him on a Sunday, what with Father O’Connor away. Two masses, and that’s not counting Saturday’s, but still, it’s not like him to shut the church. Especially not during Lent. Perhaps he’s ill, her husband said. Oh no, said Mrs. Armitage. Not if I know him. He’d have to be on his own deathbed before he’d think of doing that. They eyed the waiting people curiously. They seemed
a bit agitated. Girls on some sort of sightseeing thing, Mrs. Armitage told Larry. You know, one of those tours with all the stops prearranged. That must be why they’re taking pictures. Although we’re not usually on the tourist map. Their tour guide must’ve got it wrong, said Larry. Battersea and Westminster, well, they are both by the river. Maybe they sound the same in Japanese. Honestly, Larry! Mrs. Armitage clicked her tongue against her teeth.
Members of the regular congregation started to arrive. As they did, each one tried the door and looked surprised. Has he forgotten that the clocks changed? several asked. Mrs. Armitage began to fret that there would not be enough time to get out the hymnbooks. She caught sight of Mary-Margaret walking slowly up the road. Save us, she said to Larry, and at once regretted her lapse of charity. Poor Mary-Margaret. She meant no harm.
At five to eleven the door opened slightly and Father Diamond peered out. The tourists rushed toward him. Father Diamond barred their way with his arm. Visitors who genuinely wish to attend mass are most welcome, he said, with dignity. But this is a place of worship. Cameras and mobile phones are not allowed. The people at the front repeated his words to the others further back and there was an outburst of excited chatter. Okay, okay, a woman said. No problem.
Father Diamond opened the door wide and stepped back. As the visitors streamed past him, he was clearly looking for someone he recognized. Mrs. Armitage, he said gratefully, when he found her. On hymnbook and welcoming duty as usual? That’s good. We seem to have a little problem in the second chapel so I have roped it off. I’d
be awfully grateful if you and Larry could make sure no one tries to move the ropes. What’s up then, Father? Larry asked, but Father Diamond pointed to his watch and hurried off.
Mr. and Mrs. Armitage observed that while a few of the visitors wandered around as if they were not sure what they were looking for and a few took places in the pews, most made straight for the Chapel of the Holy Souls. Father Diamond had lined up a row of chairs across the entrance, linking them together with string. Not an especially effective barricade, Mrs. Armitage said to herself. She busied herself with getting the hymnbooks off their shelf and into piles; it was annoying that all these new people had come in at once and hadn’t stopped as regulars did to collect their books and service sheets. But at least, she noted approvingly, someone, probably Father D, had put the offerings and the collection plates on the right spot. Then she noticed that the woman who had spoken up on behalf of the group, and was a good bit older than the rest, was shunting the line of roped-up chairs aside to clear the chapel entrance. Larry! ordered Mrs. Armitage. He followed her pointing finger and turned back to her, looking a little helpless. But then, bravely, he marched off to the chapel and shunted the chairs back. The woman said something to him. Mrs. Armitage kept her eye on him approvingly as he answered, making gestures that clearly indicated where she and her friends were supposed to be if they wanted to hear mass. Taking his guard duty seriously, he sat squarely in the middle of the row of chairs. He was not an intimidating man, being small and narrow-chested. Mrs. Armitage decided
that when the mass was under way, she had better station herself there too. First she must give out the hymnbooks.
Mary-Margaret shambled in, carrying a shopping bag. You’re up and about, Mrs. Armitage greeted her. That’s good. It was a very nasty cut you gave yourself, on your poor head. Mary-Margaret nodded. And I broke my wrist, she said. She wandered off, up the nave toward the front. Mrs. Armitage noted the stains all down her skirt. Par for the course, she thought.
The bell clanged, the organist struck an opening chord, Father Diamond came out, preceded by two boys with candles. The congregation rose. “Lord Jesus, think on me,” they sang creakily. “And purge away my sin.” Everyone seemed settled enough, thought Mrs. Armitage. Even the visitors. She allowed herself to relax into the well-known words and rhythms. Let us call to mind our sins, Father Diamond was saying. All her life Mrs. Armitage had been hearing words like these and responding to them with phrases so familiar she need give them no thought. I confess, she now said comfortably. These rituals fitted her as snugly as her wedding ring, as the navy blue cardigans that were her daily wear. The bells, the murmured prayers, the fragrant clouds of incense were the sounds and smells of home. Father Diamond announced the reading from the holy Gospel. Glory to you, Lord, answered Mrs. Armitage, making the sign of the cross with her right thumb on her forehead, lips and breast. “Jesus wept,” read Father Diamond. “Still sighing, he reached the tomb: it was a cave with a stone to close the opening. Jesus said: Take this stone away. Martha said to him, Lord, by now he will smell. This is the fourth day.
Jesus replied, Have I not told you that if you believe me you will see the glory of God?”