Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Before Rufus won his safe seat at a by-election in 2003, he had consulted Stella. Felix then was four years old, Barnaby and Camilla in their teens. This ought to be a partnership, Rufus explained. We ought to be a team. The hours are long, there’s the going to and fro from Dorset. Stella, I’ll need your help.
He had never asked for help before. A man armored from birth by money and privilege, he had always seemed self-sufficient, confident to a point some might consider arrogant. When Stella met him, Rufus was already a success. Stella was a young official in the Foreign Office at the time but she knew that her career stood little chance when she married Rufus. She would not be able to accept a posting overseas and, besides, she wanted children. She went on working at a London desk until Barnaby was born, relinquished it to be with him and, soon, Camilla. When both of them had started school, she returned to the department as a part-time translator. Stella’s mother was Italian, from Verona; she grew up bilingual, and at university had also studied Portuguese and French. The new job suited her; she enjoyed the discipline of exact translation, choosing the correct and perfect word from the alternatives available, as a mosaic artist chooses from a tray of tesserae or a jeweler the right stone for a setting.
But Rufus wanted her to give it up. It’s not as if we need the money, and I just don’t see how you’ll fit it in with all the new commitments and with Felix. Felix, her unexpected gift, her soul’s delight. When Stella found that she was pregnant, Rufus was displeased. Two healthy children was enough, he said; to ask for more was tempting fate. And with Barney and Camilla growing up, he was
looking forward to the amplitude precluded by small children. More time with her. Because she had not been planning to conceive, Stella had been taking drugs to treat an ear infection. Can you be sure the fetus won’t have been affected? Rufus asked. And you are older than you were. I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but . . .
Love incarnate, children were, thought Stella. She had not known what love could mean until she held her firstborn in her arms. The promise of more time with the children convinced her to agree with Rufus. Now, six years later, she asked herself if she had made the right decision. Despite the endless journeying to and from the constituency, there were altogether too many hours to fill. Rufus was increasingly swept up into a world where she did not belong, or want to. Unspoken between Stella and her husband was the possibility that she did not share his opinions or his beliefs—if beliefs were what pragmatic Rufus held. Unspoken, as Rufus never asked her. And, if he had, she would not have known how to give a truthful answer. But she did feel she had a duty to her husband. Duty was so much easier to quantify than love.
Fidelma O’Reilly heard the key turn in the lock. Mary-Margaret had not spoken to her since Thursday evening and she was beginning to wonder if her daughter was ever coming back. Fidelma was used to waiting but even she had begun to think that some kind of action might have to be taken if Mary-Margaret had gone permanently missing. Also she was hungry. She had eaten all the food they had; there was nothing left but a jar of pickle. That morning,
when she had finished the last slice of bread, she had briefly weighed her options. There was no one she could telephone. She never had a visitor except, on occasion, Father O’Connor, unsolicited, and the doctor. Your woman from the Social had been round a year or two ago but, assured by Mary-Margaret that everything was quite all right, she had not been back. How long would half a jar of pickle keep body and soul together? Fidelma dug a finger into the jar and scooped out a sticky cube of something brown that was both sweet and acid in her mouth.
Well, no real need to worry. Although she had never done it, Fidelma knew you could ring for a pizza. Or Chinese. Myriad leaflets saying so came floating through the letter box and fetched up in a drift on the kitchen counter until Mary-Margaret got round to throwing them away. All you had to do was call a number. But then, of course, you’d have to open the front door. You’d have to heave yourself up when you heard the doorbell; you’d have to squeeze yourself down the narrow hall. Stand there at the door and count out the money, on show for the world and his wife to see.
So the sound of Mary-Margaret’s key was a relief. Fidelma stayed where she was and Mary-Margaret came in. A proper mess and all she was: brown streaks on her skirt, her hair unwashed, a clump of it all matted and a lump of it apparently cut off. Her wrist in a tight bandage. I was on the radio, she said.
You’d better get yourself cleaned up, Fidelma answered.
Oh no, this skirt’s a holy relic. They nearly had it off me then and there, but I promised that I’d bring it back. It did feel funny, though, when I realized I was walking through
the streets in my Savior’s precious blood! But otherwise I’d only have my knickers.
Fidelma considered Mary-Margaret. She would not have had her down as an imaginative girl. Quite the opposite, indeed; she had always been distressingly attached to the plain truth. When Mary-Margaret was a little girl, Fidelma was forever having to translate for her the things that people said. “Once in a blue moon,” for instance, or “He’d talk the hind legs off a donkey.” When is the moon blue? her child would ask. Can a donkey stand up on three legs? It would try the patience of a saint, having to explain things to her all the time. But that was in the days when she and Mary-Margaret had still gone out a bit together; now Mary-Margaret went off on her own and made what sense she might of the outside world with no assistance from her mother.
That cut on the head must have been more serious than it looked, Fidelma thought. Odd that the hospital had let her daughter out in such a bad way, still deranged. The embers of a feeling that had not burned in Fidelma for a long time shifted a little to reveal the faintest glow. She had taken care of Mary-Margaret once, had fed her, clothed her, rocked her, sung for her the sad songs of her own childhood. She had kept her, which was much more to the point. Oh, it would have been the simplest thing to do what everybody urged her to, or ordered her to do, in fact. Back into the convent, have the wretched thing. Keep your eyes averted as they bear it off. A good Catholic couple standing by, pacing in the waiting room, desperate to be a mummy and a daddy, but needing outside help with that achievement. Never fear, the babe will
want for nothing, these decent folk will love it as if it were their own.
It happened all the time, Fidelma knew. The trick, she had been told, was not to see the wean at all. Close your eyes when it comes out, don’t ask if it’s a boy or girl, don’t give it a second thought. There’s something you can take to dry the milk up, when it comes, although it has to be admitted that your chest will fairly ache. But putting the baby to the breast, even for a few days, now that’s a terrible mistake. If you do that you’re lost forever, girl. When they take the child away, you’ll grieve for life.
Fidelma had kept her eyes wide open the whole time. She had learned to do that when she was not much older than a babe herself. Let your guard down even for a minute and you’d be very sorry; there’d be some old devil of a priest coming at you with his poking fingers and his pink tongue lolling out. Or a sister finding fault with you, when you’d done no wrong. Woe betide the child who closed her eyes to danger. She’d find herself locked up in the thick blackness of the cellar or locked out in the coldness of the night.
Come now, Mary-Meg, Fidelma said. Did you get to the shops? Good girl, why don’t I make you something while you go and have a nice hot bath?
It was not a major story but nonetheless it was still news. Tucked away in the middle of the tabloids and on local radio: eyes open, statue bleeds. Pretty Kiti Mendoza was there, in a photograph taken outside the church, looking sweet and pious. So was Father Diamond, clutching the great key of the church defensively in his hand. Cover-up.
Authorities have ordered the figure of Jesus to be wrapped up in a curtain and are banning visitors. Barring access to the church. Why? What are they frightened of?
Hints of a conspiracy by Roman Catholic priests—always an attractive target—gave the story resonance and it spread as fast as an enormous oil slick. Speculation about earlier attempts to cover up the truth—of the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, for instance, or the whereabouts of Jesus’ body—was a diverting way to fill the hollow miles of space. By Monday evening the crowd outside the church was large.
Father Diamond consulted the diocesan office. The Secretary to the Bishop reminded him of policy: outbreaks of hysteria are to be discouraged. They are not healthy and do not give glory to God. The face of Our Lady on a pizza, Our Lord on a slice of toast! Such a load of hocus-pocus, with no place at all in the contemporary world. The very last thing we need, given all the trials we face today—have you seen the news from Ireland?—is a bunch of hostile journalists accusing us of being stuck in a medieval time warp and fanning superstition. Ammunition to the Angry Anarchists Brigade! They’d have a field day.
This isn’t quite the same as a slice of toast, Father Diamond said, scrupulously. No, the secretary agreed. But as you and I know perfectly well, plaster figurines don’t bleed. Nor do they open their eyes. They don’t have eyes. They have molded eyelids and a dab of paint.
Some of them have glass eyes, Father Diamond pointed out. And eyelashes made of real hair. But both men knew that was beside the point. The question remained, though, of how to pacify the crowds. People keep arriving, Father
Diamond told the secretary. Bringing flowers and cards. Their intentions on scraps of paper. They want to get into the church.
Let them in, the secretary said. At certain times. When you can be there too. Put a notice on the door announcing when the church is open. Put another in the chapel explaining why the cross is veiled and when the veil will be removed. You might be in for a nice surprise on Easter Sunday!
All right, said Father Diamond. There was nothing else to do. If only Father O’Connor were around, but there was almost another month of his sabbatical to go. Father Diamond asked for a grant toward the cost of security, as it seemed to him he might need some guards. Some members of the crowd could be positively hostile.
Mrs. Armitage, with her dog Tommy, ran into Stella, who was on her way to the park, on Wednesday afternoon. They stopped to talk. What a carry-on, Mrs. Armitage said. All that stuff and nonsense at the church. Yes, said Stella. I saw there were a lot of people. What’s been going on? Oh, said Mrs. Armitage, you’ve been away, of course. I forget that you are not around much on a Sunday. That poor fool of a woman, Mary-Margaret O’Reilly—remember the cut on the head and so forth—well, it seems that she’s been going round and saying that she saw the cross in the Chapel of the Holy Souls—you know the one, the crucifix—she saw it shedding blood. Or something. Something about it opening its eyes. Anyway, she told them in the hospital and word spread on the grapevine and next thing we
know there’s a mob of hysterical women trying to see the crucifix for themselves. But, of course, it’s covered. So cue a great outcry about unholy goings-on and hostile clergy hushing the whole thing up. Poor Father D. It’s all a bit over his head, I think. But things are quieter today. He’s had to close the church between services but there’s a big notice saying so, and people seem to have accepted that. Or maybe it’s just been a nine-day wonder. Or a three-day one, more like.
Do you think Mary-Margaret really did see something? Stella asked.
Of course not, Mrs. Armitage laughed. God doesn’t need a calling card, for goodness sake. Didn’t Jesus say the blessed are those who do not see and yet believe? I can’t be doing with bones and blood and magic shenanigans; a load of mumbo jumbo this stuff is, in my opinion. Miracles are one thing—who’s to say—I mean we all know the Lord moves in mysterious ways—but bleeding statues? Never!
I’m sure you’re right, said Stella. Anyway. Tell me—how’s Fraser? He should be back quite soon?
Three weeks. We’re counting the days, as you’d expect. He’s not bad at writing, I’ll give him that, but he doesn’t always get the time and he has to save his phone calls up for Steph. Well. No news is good news, I always say.
Yes, of course. I do feel for you.
Thank you, dear, said Mrs. Armitage, rather annoyed that her eyes had filled, unaccountably, with tears. You’ll keep him in your prayers, won’t you.
Stella hugged the older woman briefly and they went their separate ways. It was a cold day, blustery, and Stella pulled her coat more tightly round her as she walked. The
park was almost deserted at that hour of the day; a solitary runner, old men and women walking dogs. Cherry blossom blown off branches by the wind, skittering in the air like flakes of snow; crocuses, and daffodils. Daffydowndilly, Lenten lily, she said the names out loud. There was a time when the flowers of the field took their place in the church’s seasons too. Snowdrops, Mary’s tapers for the Feast of Candlemas, pasqueflowers for Passiontide. The holly and the ivy; berries, glistening drops of red. Stella remembered Mary-Margaret O’Reilly’s blood and shivered. It was a pity that these connections were now all but lost. The poetry there must have been, that rhymed customs and calendars, feast days and old beliefs, flowers, magic, miracles and spells. Oak and ash and thorn. Gone now except for feeble echoes: Christmas wreaths and mistletoe, harvest festival displays festooned with cans and packets. In Italy chrysanthemums are the flowers of the dead. Grave goods in gold and bronze, and asphodel their food. How can Mrs. Armitage bear it? Stella asked herself. To be always in the brace position, to stop her eyes and ears to the daily news?
In England there are flowers for the dead by waysides, tied to railings, wilting in cellophane. Sad bunches of carnations such as are on sale in the forecourts of petrol stations, where the bereaved must go to find them. Isn’t it a bit of a pain doing the flowers in church? Rufus had asked her. It’s the sort of thing that women do when they haven’t anything more important to occupy their time. Not women like you, that is.