Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
It doesn’t take that long, Stella had answered vaguely. How could she explain? She, who seldom attended any service, who abided by the faith of her upbringing more
by default than through conscious option, who might say in prayer: help Thou my unbelief. Well, the flowers were a small service that gave pleasure in the doing. Stella loved the essential balancing, the silky feel of petals, the scent of lilies, sweet peas, roses.
Father Diamond, also walking in the park that afternoon, also looking for escape, saw the flurries of white blossom and thought of Santa Maria Maggiore, built on the summit of the Esquiline Hill to a plan forecast by the Virgin, in an August fall of snow. That was a true miracle, in the summer heat of Rome. Imagine the cold crystals on the sunbaked ground, frost tips on the yellowed blades of grass. Every year on the anniversary of the snowfall, the fifth of August, a trapdoor in the ceiling of the great basilica is opened and a shower of white rose petals floats down onto the nave. Santa Maria della Neve, Our Lady of the Snows.
Mary-Margaret was disappointed. It had been fun talking to the man from the newspaper and the radio girl with a gold stud in her tongue. Actually, it was hard to concentrate on the questions the girl asked, so mesmerizing was the shiny nugget flashing in and out as she opened and closed her mouth. Mary-Margaret shuddered to think how much it must have hurt, that piercing. But for some reason, the little nurse had stolen all the limelight since. Which was just not fair. It was not to her that the Lord had made Himself known in the beginning. But there she was, chattering on and on about the way He had opened His eyes and looked straight at her; she could see His eyes glowing
in the dark. Still, Mary-Margaret consoled herself, the truth would soon be out. She was the chosen one, the handmaid of the Lord. She just needed a quiet moment on her own with Him so He could tell her what to do next. Meanwhile she supposed she had to keep going with the everyday stuff of life, but that was hard after you’d been chosen. Shopping, cooking, tidying up—these things seemed quite trivial, really, in comparison with the task Our Lord might have in mind. There was no doubt that she was marked out for something special; but having to wait around for it was getting Mary-Margaret down.
So it was luck that put her in the way of Mrs. Abdi, on Wednesday afternoon. Mrs. Abdi was waiting for the lift and as usual was burdened by plastic bags and children; there was a baby in a buggy who was even littler than Shamso. She looked anxious, her face was strained beneath her veil. Mrs. Abdi’s English wasn’t up to much, but they rubbed along. Baby sick, she said. Doctor. Small children no got school. Oh I see, said Mary-Margaret. So you’ve got to cart the whole lot with you to the doctor’s? Well don’t go doing that. I’ll look after them, at your place, if you like. Mrs. Abdi seemed grateful and relieved.
And pure joy for Mary-Margaret. Sagal, Samatar, Bahdoon, Shamso; the older two still at school. Shamso cried when his mother left him, but his sister cheered him up and Mary-Margaret made him happier still with a game of hide-and-seek behind the living room curtain. She wrapped it round her so she seemed to disappear, then popped out saying boo, and each time Shamso screamed in wild delight. He must think I’ve truly vanished, Mary-Margaret realized.
After a while Shamso showed signs of getting tired. Mary-Margaret poured Coke into a bottle for him and into beakers for the others. She rummaged about and found some packets of crisps. Mrs. Abdi’s cupboards smelled different and delicious, smells that Mary-Margaret could not identify, foreign herbs and spices. Hyssop and aloes, she said to herself. Hyssop and bitter aloes.
She lined up the children on the sofa in front of the television and sat herself down too. They watched quietly, once they’d eaten their crisps. Shamso suddenly fell asleep, the bottle plopping wetly from his mouth. He was on Mary-Margaret’s bad side, the side of the injured wrist, so she reached over and hoisted him onto her lap, where he could rest more easily. He did not wake. She cradled him gently in the curve of her arm, his head was heavy on her breast. She buried her face in his corkscrew curls; he smelled of cereal and Twiglets and something sugary—she thought of brightly colored boiled sweets. Mary-Margaret kissed him lightly. This child sleeping trustfully on her, the warm and solid weight of him, his sticky mouth, his minute sneakers, made her so happy that it felt like heartache.
Felix Morrison drew a cross through Wednesday on his chart. Seven more days to go. The week would creep on as slowly as an injured tortoise, Felix knew, but at least it
creep on, and then his mother would be there to take him home. From where he was at present, in the form room, it was hard to picture home. He could visualize his bedroom, the garden, or the kitchen, but he couldn’t
them, or feel what it would be like to be inside them, with their particular
textures and scents. And yet, oddly, when he was at home, he could summon up the experience of school quite easily. He had only to open his school trunk, to breathe in its blue and gray interior the mingled smells of fish and cold and ink and people, fear and polish, disinfectant, gym mats, wet socks and muddy boots that were the essence of his school. A thing he noticed was that nowhere in the school was there a trace of softness. It was a place of angles, corners, unforgiving surfaces; concrete stairs, unheated corridors, Astroturf, the sharp edges of metal beds.
Softness must be girlie, Felix thought. Home was soft. His sister’s pink bedroom, his pile of cuddly toys, carpets, the flowers his mother put in every room. His mother was soft. He pushed her from his mind, hunched himself up on his chair like a vigilant bird and licked his knee to have the tang of it, his bruised knee bone. Any minute now the bell would go, and his prep was still undone.
Columbas deis sacrificant,
he wrote. They sacrifice doves to the gods.
Have you heard from Fraser? Father Diamond asked Mrs. Armitage, after mass on Thursday morning, when she was beginning the weekly clean. Indirectly, as it were, she said. Steph read us out the letter that came for her yesterday. He didn’t say a lot, mind, except that he’s looking forward to getting home. The lads put on such brave faces, don’t they, but it takes its toll, the time out there.
I’m sure it does, said Father Diamond; he is always in my thoughts.
And it was true, almost. If not Fraser himself, whom Father Diamond hardly knew since he was not a churchgoer
like his parents, then all the others, the fresh-faced young men in desert camouflage, for whom Fraser was a symbol. Every single day brought news of them. But not news that could be welcomed. One after the other they appeared, relegated by now to news in brief; ordinary-looking, smiling boys under their regimental berets. Or in coffins, covered with the Union Jack. Sometimes the reports included testimonials by commanding officers or the words of wives or girlfriends left behind. How were these sad words made known? Father Diamond often wondered. Did reporters go round to the homes of the deceased and solemnly set down their threadbare, heartbreaking epitaphs: born a legend, died a hero, the best son in the world?
At a railway station a few months before, Father Diamond had come across a group of these young men, transacting with a ticket seller. In uniform, with kit bags, their names sewn on and on their shoulder flashes the letters ISAF. Among the other would-be travelers in their unremarkable clothes these dappled boys stood out like young stags in a concrete wasteland, eagles in a nest of doves. Father Diamond felt a peculiar need to touch one, to tug a thread from a uniform and keep it safely, to write their names down in his notebook, to hold on to something of them before they began their journey to the other world. It was morbid, he knew, to fear that they would never use the return halves of their railway warrants and yet he did fear that as, he supposed, onlookers had feared that Theseus would not make his way back from the monster at the center of the maze.
Boys dream of being heroes and when he was a boy, Father Diamond dreamed too. In his teens, more realistically,
he resolved to be a professor of mathematics. As such he would possess a permanent license to explore the marvelous world of symmetry, proportion, symbol, ratio, equilibrium; a world that appeared to him as a series of interlocking rooms carved out of pristine whiteness. But at university, in the Faculty of Mathematics, he began to see that he was not in fact the author of his life. He fought that realization, at the start. He got his first and then his master’s; he gained his doctorate. Cambridge offered him a lectureship. And then, helpless, he gave in to the pressure that had been growing inside him like a teratoma and embarked on the gradual process of becoming a priest.
It is usual to talk of a vocation to the priesthood. Father Diamond experienced something that was more like a violent shove than a gentle call. He was like a man walking along a cliff-top path who thinks he knows where he is going but is constantly blown off course by an enormously strong wind. After a while, it was too exhausting to resist. And dangerous as well. If he did not let the wind take him where it willed, it might blow him off the edge onto sharp rocks. He had to accept that his chosen destination was a mirage; the oasis was somewhere else.
This was not a thing of which Father Diamond could speak. He did not understand it yet himself. One day, he hoped, that irresistible force would make its purpose clear to him but so far it had not, and the oasis was still a long way out of sight. In the meantime Father Diamond stumbled on, head down, collar turned against the rain.
As a novice he had thought of missionary work. There were heroes in that field, to be sure. Priests who risked persecution, illness, even imprisonment, to be porters of the
word of God. Within his own order, men had been taken hostage by militants or killed on official command for championing the poor and the oppressed. His superiors, however, had other plans for him. As a solitary spirit with a tendency to arrogance he had to have his sharp edges buffed appropriately smooth. What better mill to grind him in than an inner-city parish?
Even so, after a decade and more, Father Diamond could still find himself yearning for a different plot, another route, an unanticipated ending to his story. Those warriors in their clumping boots and separateness stopped him in his tracks. I should be there too, he thought. Shoulder to shoulder with these men whose forced obedience to a higher power was not unlike his own.
The church was quiet today. Only Mrs. Armitage and the other regular parishioners had been at mass, and there was no sign of the crowds of earlier that week. All the crosses and the statues were correctly veiled; things were back in their rightful order and Mrs. Armitage’s mop swished soothingly across the floor, leaving the odor of red polish in its wake. It seems to have calmed down, Father Diamond remarked to her.
I told you it would be a three-day wonder, she replied.
Did you actually have a look at the crucifix last week? he asked. After Mary-Margaret’s fall?
No I didn’t. Not that I recall. It was a bit of a panic, wasn’t it, with her bleeding head and all. I do remember making sure that everything was tidy. But I didn’t specifically check the cross because I could see that there was nothing wrong with it. Should I have done? Why?
No, no, he said, hastily. I was just wondering. That’s all.
Mary-Margaret came in just then, through the main door, holding a feather duster. Mrs. Armitage stopped polishing and looked at her doubtfully. Should you be here? she asked.
Why not? said Mary-Margaret. My head is better. I had the stitches out, that’s why I’m a bit late this morning. And I only need one arm to dust.
That’s good, dear, said Father Diamond. Good of you to come. We do appreciate it, don’t we, Mrs. Armitage? But please don’t go climbing up on any chairs now, will you? We don’t want another drama!
Mary-Margaret laughed. Nee-naw, nee-naw, she said, and scuttled off to dust the pulpit. Like a demented hen, Father Diamond thought, watching her shake russet feathers back and forth. He apologized in silence for the thought.
As far as she could see, Mary-Margaret was doing nothing untoward, but Mrs. Armitage resolved to keep a firm eye on her. She finished the floor, and Mary-Margaret dusted down the pews. The usual routine was for her to polish the altar rails with Brasso while Mary-Margaret gouged candle wax from the stands. Then they would have a cup of coffee in the sacristy with Father Diamond, if he was still about. But this morning Mary-Margaret was in a rush. She had to get to the shops and make lunch for her mother before two, when she had promised Mrs. Abdi she would look after Shamso. The little pet had taken quite a shine to her. When Mrs. Abdi got back yesterday to a scene of calm and the tot sleeping, she had been so pleased that she scrabbled around in her purse and found a fiver, which she tried to give Mary-Margaret. Mary-Margaret waved it aside. My pleasure, she told Mrs. Abdi. I’ll come round again, if you like.
When Mrs. Armitage went round the back to empty the bins, Mary-Margaret nipped into the Chapel of the Holy Souls. Hello, she said. It’s me, O Lord. I’m back.
There was no audible response but she had not really expected one. How was He supposed to speak, all muffled up as He was, poor thing, in that nasty cloak of purple? Yet He would know that she was there. She pictured Him, beneath His shroud, His beautiful clean body. Closing her eyes, she saw Him inclining toward her from the cross, pulling one hand free to bend down and stroke her hair. She felt His hand, gentle against her scar, tender in spite of His own grievous pain. He pushed the hair softly from her face. She seized the hand and pressed it to her lips. Her mouth against His skin, against His tightened sinews.
Mary-Margaret fell to her knees. Dearest, she said softly. Please don’t think you are forsaken. I’ll be back, I promise. The rocks may melt and the seas may burn if I do not . . .
What do you think you’re doing? Mrs. Armitage demanded. You know this chapel is out-of-bounds. Mary-Margaret started, awkwardly turned round. Mrs. Armitage saw that there were tears streaming down her face. Come on, lass, she said, more kindly. Be a love and put the kettle on while I put away the mop.