Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Fidelma had other visitors in the following week. The first was Alice Armitage, who arrived on Monday with a shopping bag full of vegetables and fruit. She was brisk and sensible and did not linger. Fidelma sensed a reserve in her although she was not unfriendly. On Tuesday it was Mary-Margaret’s doctor. He had telephoned the day before to arrange a time. Although Fidelma didn’t fully understand who he was and why he was coming, she agreed to see him.
She was surprised when she opened the door to him, having expected someone who looked different. Afterward she wondered at her own surprise. Why should he not be a gentle, weary-looking, middle-aged man in an ordinary jacket, with thin brown fingers and a beard? Fidelma looked at him with interest. His fine bones and the depth of his dark eyes were pleasing. She found she wanted his attention.
But it was Mary-Margaret who interested him, not her. He had a long list of questions. Family history, education, qualifications, childhood illnesses, childhood games, problems dealing with the world. Fidelma, doing her best to answer him, was surprised again, this time by the difficulty of describing Mary-Margaret in words or, indeed, of summoning her early years to mind. Mary-Margaret had been a presence in Fidelma’s life since Fidelma herself was not much older than a child. Millstone, thorn in the flesh,
peaceable companion, the creature she had kept alive from the beginning—had actually chosen to keep alive and in consequence had no choice later but to carry on so doing. Who now, in a manner of speaking—well, as a matter of fact—kept Fidelma alive in turn. Or used to. Mutually connected, separate and indivisible, of one flesh, of one bone, what else was a child? And, that being so, how could that child be framed in words?
Mary-Margaret had been undemanding, sure, and quiet, and easy to buy off with lollipops and chocolate biscuits. Many a night Fidelma had left her on her own with Cadbury fingers in her reach and orange squash. Until she was maybe five years old Mary-Margaret had slept in a baby’s cot, for the bars to hold her safe. Later, when she got so big her feet poked through them, Fidelma had bought a bed for her and a padlock for the door. Locked in, she couldn’t come to any harm.
Undemanding yes, and never beautiful. Mary-Margaret had grown from a baby to a plump child, moonfaced, pale-eyed, with straggling hair the greenish yellow color of dry grass and a mouth always a quarter open. No, not beautiful and most unlike her mother. Fidelma stopped to think. So, was she like her father then, this child? Gray-eyed certainly he was, but more than that Fidelma struggled to remember.
Not beautiful, but there was a sweetness to her. And, besides, she
a child. While the quiet doctor watched her with his pen poised, Fidelma was stabbed out of the blue by grief. That child, her daughter—had she ever had the things that children need, apart from a roof over her head and chocolate? Providing both of those had been a daily or a nightly battle; by the end of it Fidelma had had
no time for the niceties of peace. She had left her daughter to her own devices as a child, and it seemed they got on well enough, the two of them, keeping their own counsel, watching telly after school, side by side and mainly silent. Food there was, no lack of it, most of the time, although not all the time, it must be said.
A memory of Mary-Margaret at the age of about thirteen came suddenly to Fidelma. Fat knees on the old blue sofa, and gray socks, school socks, sagging in sad folds, her head bowed over a plate, full-heaped with spuds and her fork going to and fro, to and fro, from mouth to plate like a thing mechanical. And earlier pictures too: Mary-Meg at three years old standing in her cot and crying. Mary-Meg at a not much older age crouching by her mother’s bed and trying to dry her mother’s tears with her podgy little fingers. Don’t cry, Mammy. It’s all right. I’ll look after you. Mary-Margaret looking up over and over again with the light of hope shining in her eyes.
When did it go for good, that light? Fidelma wrenched her thoughts back to the doctor. He was asking something about statemented needs and learning difficulties, special provisions made at school. Fidelma couldn’t follow. She was afraid she might begin to cry. Something was clenching the muscles of her throat and thistles had grown behind her eyes.
I may have to call again, the doctor said. If that’s all right with you. You do understand that it will help your daughter if we collect as much background information as we can?
Fidelma nodded. There’s one very important thing, the doctor went on, having looked at Fidelma closely. We may have to go back to it but, if at all possible, I’d like to make
a start today. That is the question of Mary-Margaret’s religious faith. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with her in the last few days and what has struck me is the way she talks about religion. So, I wondered if I could ask you: is yours what might be called a religious family? Forgive me for asking. But it may be really crucial to get some facts on that.
A religious family? Fidelma repeated his words to gain some time. For a start, she thought, the answer might depend on what you called a family. Was there such a thing as a family of two? A succession of holy pictures proceeded through her mind—the sort that used to be printed on small rectangles of flimsy card, highly colored and given out as favors by the kinder class of nuns. The Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, usually arranged around a lathe or a workbench of a picturesque if not perhaps historical appearance. Well so. There were only three of them. But it must be supposed that Jesus as a little boy was made to say his prayers at night and taken to the temple, whereas Fidelma had not once accompanied Mary-Margaret to church or taught her a single word of any prayer or even said the name of God, except in vain.
No, she told the doctor, firmly. Although I did send her to the nuns. But that was because they ran the only school where Mary-Margaret could go. A smaller size of school, it was. The other school—the closer one—had nigh on a thousand children in it, and Mary-Margaret was frightened. She wet her bed and all, when she first went there—although she had not been in the habit of so doing. The sisters were better for her. For my own part I do not have a lot of time for them and I daresay they did fill her head up with their stories. It could be true to say that Mary-Margaret
is pious. And has been, since a girl. Never misses a Sunday or a feast day if she can, always dipping in and out of church.
Do you usually go with her?
No, Fidelma said again. I have no use for such things now. And, besides, I never leave this flat.
Why is that? the doctor asked.
I am registered disabled, Fidelma said, with dignity and in clear conclusion.
Azin Qureshi stood up. He had observed the suppression of tears and the signs of tension. This poor woman, this monstrously fat woman, was evidently miserable. And with reason. He said good-bye and hoped she would allow another visit. It took a long time for the lift to haul itself up to the nineteenth floor—so long that Azin had begun to think he had better use the stairs.
After the doctor had gone, Fidelma sat down again in her chair by the window. She was very tired. Should she have tried to tell the doctor just how hard it was to rear a child alone, without friends or family to help? To feel yourself an outcast, from your own country, your people, and your church? Well, maybe to rue the last of those was stretching it a bit. When she was a little girl Fidelma went to church on Sundays, right enough. She had liked it, then. She could still remember the excitement of her First Communion, the happiest day of your life it is, the nice old parish priest had said. And he had a point, in general, as far as Fidelma’s later life turned out. Yes, she had been happy at the age of seven. Cool sand beneath her feet and meadow-sweet, a mammy and a daddy, a fire in the hearth and the voices of the sea. She had worn a veil on her First Communion
day. Borrowed it was, from Mrs. McAleevey, who had four grown daughters and was generous to Fidelma’s mother. Look at the child, Mrs. McAleevey said when Fidelma showed herself off in the foam of bright white lace, and won’t she one day make a lovely bride!
Well, but, that was all before. And later? Would the doctor care to know about the cold rooms of the big house, the bare boards on the floors, the long line of narrow beds, the sound of children quietly weeping through the night like little birds in darkness giving voice to sorrow? Rules and hunger, discipline and punishment; give thanks for what you have, for without the sisters you’d have nothing at all and you’d be on the street to perish.
Was cruelty their pleasure? Fidelma wondered now. And conceded to herself that it was not. Or if it was, only for one or two; the rest were decent enough, it must be said, and a few were positively kind. Looking back, Fidelma saw that they too had suffered hardship, deprivation. Women faced with nothing much—no money and no prospect of a husband, as women are from time to time and always have been—how could they be blamed for taking refuge in a convent? All right, you could accept that some of them had heard the call of God. But not all of them, not the dozens who stood in church in serried ranks, no, that would be beyond belief. For every bride of Christ who sacrificed her life to worship and the care of orphaned children, there must have been another who had nowhere else to go.
In that way, looked at from that angle, the nuns were to be pitied quite as much as the children in their care. More so, maybe, for theirs was a life sentence. And the worst part of it all for them, the want of touch. No nun ever picked a
child up, kissed it, held it, felt it soft against her skin. If a child were seen to touch another child, that child would be severely reprimanded. Fidelma was not allowed to kiss her own wee sisters. It was what she minded then and minded still, and missed so much, that longing felt like a great stone weighing down her heart.
Would she have let the doctor see that yearning? Would she tell him how the little girls in the big house in the city cried for their mammies in the night? And what had happened to her when she was caught in the basement kitchen of the house, stealing sugar lumps to comfort one such weeping child? No, she would not, however deep his eyes were and however soft his voice.
She would not tell him because she would not let herself remember. The blackness. The blackness and the choking.
Black ranks of the sisters, black-veiled and white-wimpled, kneeling, heads bowed, in the choir stalls of the church. And the old priest droning: suffer little children. It were better for him if a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Take care you do not find yourself alone with him, some of the wee girls whispered of that priest. For he’ll put his hand into your knickers while he bids you pray for him. If that were true, Fidelma had no way of knowing. He had not laid a finger on any part of her. But he had remarked to Mother Superior that Fidelma was a bold child who would go to the bad if not taught a lasting lesson. And Mother Superior took those words to heart. Every child in the house over the age of ten had a special duty—polishing the floor, peeling potatoes, folding laundry, and the like.
Only, Fidelma’s was the harshest. Scrubbing lavatory bowls by hand each morning, with a can of Vim and a well-worn cloth. Moving from cubicle to cubicle under observation, kneeling on the tiled floor with her face stuck right inside the pan, rubbing at the stains of blood and piss.
They must have shone like finest china, Fidelma thought, like soup tureens from the table of a prince. But however white they gleamed—as ogres’ teeth—that nun would not be satisfied. Forever finding fault she was, and Fidelma the butt of all her accusations. Her means of punishment were many. The denial of food at teatime; an hour of being made to stand outside in the courtyard while the rain poured or the snow fell; a beating. And the other one, the worst one, the one that even now Fidelma would not let herself reflect on.
Blackness. The black cloth of priests and nuns was of a curious shade, green-tinged and somehow shiny, like a fly’s head, faintly grubby. Fidelma laughed. Black-clad I am myself now, she said to herself, and none too clean at that, I don’t suppose. A grimness fell upon her. Even though she was doing her best to fend them off, those memories of the black place crowded in and swarmed and buzzed around her. Here she was, in a room that was as full of light as a glass lantern, but yet she might as well be in the place where they had locked her all those years ago. She was a prisoner now, as she was then, but without any promise of release. There’s one way out and one way only, Fidelma thought, with sour amusement at the challenges her coffin would be like to cause in terms of size and weight.
Flowers for a funeral? What sort? What would Felix like? Forget-me-nots? Daisies? Probably the kind of flower that grows by waysides and in neglected corners, unregarded, Stella thought. She gave up trying to come to a decision. At least there was a date. And a place, at last. Rufus had wanted the funeral to be held at Felix’s school, so that his friends could come to it. Stella knew that Felix would have hated that, but she did not have the strength to argue. Fortunately Barney and Camilla did, and they had overruled their father.