Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
You will see the glory of God, Mary-Margaret repeated under her breath, and her eyes burned with tears. But surely Martha was right, Mrs. Armitage thought, as she had often thought before. He would have stunk to high heaven, that brother of hers. She pictured Lazarus, staggering from the cave, his hands and feet bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. The hot sun beating fiercely on the awestruck crowd.
Normally, when mass ended, it was Larry’s task to gather up the hymnbooks and service sheets and to make things tidy while his wife dashed off to get tea and coffee ready in the parish room next to the church. The regulars would gather there, encouraging any visitors to join them. Father Diamond, and Father O’Connor of course when he was there, would join them too. It was nice, as Mrs. Armitage was always saying, to have a little get-together after mass. A good thing for the oldies, who might otherwise go for months without anyone to talk to other than the checkout girls in supermarkets.
Mrs. Armitage knew some of these old people well. She had been a regular at the Sacred Heart since she and Larry came to Battersea in 1972, just after they were married. Their two sons were christened there, had made their First Communions and been confirmed. It was Mrs. Armitage’s hope that one or both would also be married in this church. Over the decades Mrs. Armitage had seen children born and growing up; young wives aging into widows; men who when young had stood at the back of the church during the services, if they had come at all, slowly creeping from
there toward the altar as they grew older, and now hobbling painfully into the topmost pews. One of these was Mr. Kalinowski, who had been part of General Anders’s army, a brave and lively man, who now, having lost his wife, his daughter, his hair, his teeth, lived on his own in a little flat and walked with difficulty, leaning on two sticks. Mrs. Armitage dropped in on him at least once a week to see if he needed anything. As she said to Larry, the easiest things get hard when you are old. She had once found Mr. Kalinowski stumbling about in an unlit kitchen because he couldn’t change the lightbulb. Imagine that, he had said to Mrs. Armitage, half-laughing and half-crying. I used to fly a Spitfire, now I can’t even climb up on a chair to change a bulb!
Mr. Kalinowski, Mrs. Pereira, Joan who couldn’t get to church since she did her hip, Mrs. McFarlane, Phelim, Sheila, Antoinette; all friends of Mrs. Armitage, and on her visiting list. She’d keep a lookout for them on a Sunday and if they weren’t there she’d make sure to pop in on them during the week, check they were okay. It was easier to do that now that she had only a part-time job at the bus depot. And it didn’t take long to stick your head round a door or have a quick cup of tea.
Today, though, there was a feeling of uncertainty in the air. The mass had not been interrupted; the organist had reached the last bar of the final hymn. But, as soon as he had done so, the visitors had all converged on the chapel. Mr. and Mrs. Armitage stayed on their seats. Sorry, the chapel’s closed, Mrs. Armitage said to anyone who tried to slide in past her. You can’t go in there now. There were muted protests but nothing more until one young girl thrust her
face close to Mrs. Armitage. Those who hide the truth will burn in hell, she hissed. Just then Father Diamond arrived. His collar and soutane, the badge of authority; even the angry girl moved back and stood aside. It’s a health and safety issue, Father Diamond announced. I’m afraid that if we cannot keep people from clambering on the altar and the furniture, we will simply have to close the church. I wonder, Larry, would you kindly stay on here, until the last worshipers have left?
Meanwhile Mary-Margaret O’Reilly was still in her place at the end of a pew, kneeling, her head bowed over her crossed arms. Mrs. Armitage glanced at her. As a rule she was rather scornful of the conspicuously devout, the supplicants who knelt in front of statues with their hands clasped and their lips moving; they made her think of the Pharisees, strutting through the temple. Even so, she could hardly go and tap Mary-Margaret on her shoulder, tell her to get a move on. Somewhat reluctantly, Mrs. Armitage went off to make the coffee.
Larry Armitage stacked hymnbooks back onto their shelves and collected the discarded service sheets. There were a couple of women still peering into the chapel, another kneeling before the statue of the Sacred Heart, and Mary-Margaret, in her pew. He pushed a pew back into place as noisily as he could to show that it was time to leave. The organist clattered down from the organ loft. Just as Larry was beginning to wonder what else he could do to clear the place, Father Diamond came out of the sacristy again, locking the door behind him. Thank you, Larry, he said. I think it might be wise to close the church, for once. I’m going to turn off the lights.
This unambiguous signal served its purpose. The last stragglers headed toward the door and Mary-Margaret got to her feet. But, instead of making for the door, she edged down the length of the pew, encumbered by her shopping bag, in the direction of the chapel. Larry got there before her. It’s closed, he said. But not to me, said Mary-Margaret. To everyone, said Larry. But He’ll be wondering where I am, said Mary-Margaret. He might need more ointment.
Larry, who hadn’t a clue what she was saying, stuck to his guns. It’s closed, he said again. Health and safety. Mary-Margaret’s face crumpled and she began to cry, her mouth squared like a child’s. Father Diamond, seeing this, came hurrying to Larry’s rescue. Now, dear, he said. What’s all this? Let’s go and have a cup of tea and talk about it. You and me. Together.
Mary-Margaret allowed herself to be led toward the door. Following the woman and the priest, in the unaccustomed dimness of the church, among the shrouded figures, Larry felt something stir or shift, a mere shiver, unseen and almost imperceptible. For no real reason he was reminded of the game that children play, Grandmother’s footsteps, the tagged child standing poised and tense, the stalkers creeping stealthily toward him. A game in which both pursuers and pursued shared the pleasurable dread of being caught. Not being prone to flights of fancy, Larry dismissed the thought.
Father Diamond ushered him and Mary-Margaret out of the door before turning back to lock it from the outside. That’s her, a voice called loudly. The woman!
A dozen or more people were standing on the small patch of ground outside the church. One was a man with
a camera. Another was Kiti Mendoza. Having shared their experience last night on Facebook, she and Melinda Catapang had arranged to come back first thing today but Melinda had forgotten that she had to work a Sunday shift and Kiti had overslept. Quite a number of their Facebook friends, however, had made their way to the Sacred Heart in time for the early mass and, as they telephoned and texted, the word spread. Across South London messages flashed up: Eyes. Blood. Statues. Coverings.
During the morning Kiti had received several of these. Although none of them were entirely coherent, the ones that struck her forcefully were the ones about concealment. Several of her contacts, including her Auntie Rita, had complained that they were not allowed to see the crucifix. Some people had already gone back onto Facebook to say this too. The ripples of the story expanded inexorably, catching in their concentric rings the boyfriend of a girl who nursed with Kiti, a boy with ambitions to become a photojournalist. Kiti bumped into him on her way down Riverside Crescent, and gave him the details. It was exactly what four years in England had led her to expect: secrecy, dishonesty and double-dealing. Trying to find the truth round here? Forget it. A miracle? In this city of unbelievers they wouldn’t know one if it hit them in the face.
The sight of Mary-Margaret at the front door of the church, flanked by a priest and a funny little man with a floppy gray mustache, was an unexpected godsend. The photographer focused his lens. Kiti rushed up with arms outspread and embraced Mary-Margaret. It’s her, she said again, ecstatically. The one who saw it first.
It began to dawn on Father Diamond that Mary-Margaret
must have been spinning tales when she was in hospital. He remembered what she had said when he was visiting, something about wounds. At the time he had thought that she was raving. He did not now change his mind. Come on, dear, he told her firmly, pulling gently at her arm to disentangle her from the embrace of the young girl. Let’s go and get that cup of tea. But Mary-Margaret would not be deflected. She recognized Kiti, of course, and was pleased to see her; even in her ordinary clothes the girl brought with her some of the atmosphere of the hospital—concerned, consoling, and efficient—that Mary-Margaret had so enjoyed. Is it true, they won’t let you in? the girl asked her. Yes it is, said Mary-Margaret. He’s locked the door.
Stella unlocked the front door while Rufus unpacked the car. Even when left empty only for a day or two a house is not the same as one inhabited and hers felt subdued to Stella, as if a faint melancholy had drifted through it while she was away, as gentle and as transitory as dust. There was once an occasion when, on coming home alone, she had opened the door and sensed a presence, although nothing was out of place and there was no unusual sound. It was late in June, the evening of a hot day, she had left the upstairs windows open at the rear of the house. She had looked quickly into her bedroom but there was nothing there, and in any case she had no sense of an intruder. Camilla’s room was undisturbed but, when Stella switched on the light, she felt something move, or tremble. At first she could see nothing but then there was another flutter,
very slight, and it came from a wooden clog, an ornament, on Camilla’s desk beneath the window. As she neared it, her heart thumping, Stella saw the clog contained a bird, a swift; it must have flown in through the open window. Did it think the clog a nest, she wondered, or had it seemed the only place of safety in a bewildering world? The bird’s wings were closed and it had settled halfway down the clog headfirst. It moved more violently as it heard her approach. What if it were to panic and flap wildly around, then what should Stella do? Beating its wings against the wood, it would be hurt, but loose it would be even more afraid. She realized that it must be a young bird, disorientated and unable, having landed, to take wing again by itself. It could not be abandoned on its barren nest. She went downstairs, opened the garden door, then ran back up to the little bird. It was frightening to touch it, but she scooped it up into her hands, and it was still between them. Mouse brown feathers, white beneath its chin. An infinitely tender thing. She carried it downstairs and into the twilit garden, where she opened her hands and launched it and it flew.
There was no message from her daughter in her in-box. Be sensible, Stella told herself. That doesn’t mean anything’s happened, it simply means she’s busy. Or that she hasn’t been able to get onto the Internet. Camilla’s last message had mentioned trekking. Stella envisaged her daughter deep in tropical jungle, sipping rainwater from the fluted flower of some exotic plant. Night fell with no warning there, and then the dark was absolute; would Camilla know this, would she stay on the beaten path?
Idiot, said Stella sternly. At eighteen Camilla was already more experienced in some ways than Stella was
herself. She had found her own way to the north of Thailand after all; she thought nothing of traveling alone. Stella, on the other hand, had never even eaten dinner in a restaurant by herself. Why was it that a woman eating on her own was somehow sad? Or, if not actually sad, she seemed so. Stella remembered a summer holiday, a beachside restaurant on the Ile de Ré. She and Rufus had been there with the children. There was a woman, English by the sound of her when she spoke in French, on her own and elegantly dressed in a pale pink linen skirt. She had ordered the fruits de mer. The plate came, hugely laden, all those shells and tentacles and claws. The woman ate methodically and with relish, cracking the crab claws, extracting the flesh of mollusks with a pin. Stella, sitting at the table next to hers, surrounded by her happy children—sand on the soles of their feet, their blond hair bleached, enjoying their Cokes and plates of frites—had tried not to stare. Poor thing, she whispered to Rufus. Nonsense, Rufus said, she’s obviously having a lovely time. Those oysters look delicious. But, when the woman had finished, a clumsy waiter clearing plates had overbalanced and tipped hers right into her lap. The woman stood up with a little cry, and other waiters rushed to her, dabbing at her ineffectually with napkins while bits of shell and the juices of fish dripped all down her skirt. The apologies were profuse and the woman gracious, but what would she do now, asked Stella, would she hold her head high and walk back to her hotel through the elegant resort, stinking, stained and wet? Camilla said of course she wouldn’t. She’d simply go to the nearest smart boutique and buy herself a very nice pair of trousers. But Stella couldn’t shake the image from her
mind. She saw the woman dressing that morning in her solitary room, choosing the pink skirt, girding herself for a restaurant lunch. She saw her slinking back, rinsing the ruined skirt, resolving to have room service for the remainder of the holiday, eating chicken sandwiches alone, off her bedside table.
Rufus came into the study, saying he needed the computer. He’d do a couple of hours’ work and what would she do, was there anything worth watching on the box? Would it be all right if they had supper fairly late? He must get cracking on with the first draft of his speech.
Stella had never been entirely sure why Rufus chose to go into politics. He used to be a banker. She had asked him, of course she’d asked him, in different ways on many occasions, but his answers were not precise. The fact that an old school friend, one to whom Rufus was still close, had vaulted with apparent ease over every hurdle to become Leader of the Opposition, had much to do with Rufus’s decision, Stella thought. Rufus would say he wanted a challenge, was bored with banking, had made enough money to retire on but was too young to give up working, felt he had something to contribute. Stella suspected that in fact what he relished was the sense of belonging to a powerful inner group. As an investment banker he had had power of sorts but now, with his party forecast to win the next election, he scented real influence, the power that changed lives, made history, made its possessors famous. Rufus was determined and ambitious. His friend had hoisted him onto the Shadow Cabinet as soon as he decently could. There were great things just around the corner, Rufus was sure, and Stella would support him, as she always did.