Authors: Francesca Kay
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Religious
Barnaby and Camilla had made their own graceful adjustments to the umbilical ties; stretching them to encompass nights away at first, and later weeks, then holidays with friends, and finally the long intervals of their gap years and university. Camilla at that very moment was in the north of Thailand, near the Burmese border, teaching English to the children of Karen refugees. Barney had spent a year traveling in South America and was now at Cambridge. It had been agony, of course, to let them go. When she waved Barney good-bye at Heathrow Airport, she had felt terribly afraid that it would be forever. At the back of her wardrobe was Camilla’s nightdress, discarded
on her bed when she went to Thailand. A faded gray thing, an old favorite, it had reached Camilla’s ankles when it was new and now it skimmed her thighs. Like a frugal addict, Stella allowed herself to bury her face in it, to breathe in its scent, only at the times when she most acutely missed her daughter. As the months went by, the scent was getting fainter. Stella worried a little, and knew she was quite mad for doing so, about its laundering. To wash it before Camilla came home safely would be to court disaster. But if she waited, Camilla would know, and think her mother sentimental.
Rufus was at the front door of the house when she got there, leaning against the jamb, listening to an elderly man in tweed whom Stella did not recognize. You know my wife, of course? said Rufus, and the man said that he did. Won’t you come in for a cup of tea? Stella asked him, and then caught Rufus’s warning look. Luckily the visitor said he must get home, he still had to wash the dogs.
Thank God for that, Rufus said, when the man had finally taken his leave. He’s got to be the biggest bore in Christendom. What were you doing, asking him in for tea? Anyway, I still have calls to make—what time are we on parade?
Seven for 7:30, Stella said, wondering if there was enough time for her to prune the ceanothus that grew along one wall of the garden. Toward the end of spring its fallen flowers would drift like flakes of dark blue paint, of lapis lazuli, across the paving stones. If she were not there at the right time, Stella would miss them—their intense blue against the gray stone, the white clouds of bridal wreath still flowering about them. Too often she missed
the ephemeral events of this garden which she saw only at weekends, and felt that she neglected. There was a climbing rose for instance, so briefly in bloom that it was like Bishop Berkeley’s tree: if it flowered unseen, could it be said to flower at all?
This was the house that Rufus had bought when he knew he had been selected to stand for the safe seat of Central Dorset. Nothing ostentatious, he had stipulated beforehand. Something comfortable, in a village, something that would put him at the heart of the community.
And so this rather beautiful old house with its walled garden and a mulberry tree. A passage led straight from the front door to the back; when both doors were open on a bright day it became a corridor of light. The roof beams were hundreds of years old. In one room, now converted to a kitchen, were the remains of an ancient anvil; when Rufus bought it the house was called Ye Olde Forge. He had officially renamed it 32 Middle Street, but the children still called it the Forgery. Their possession of it was a little fraudulent, Stella sometimes felt. For the generations who had lived there it had represented permanence, a place of work, a settled place in life. The house next door had been a bakery, the one beyond, built a little later, was still called the Old Bank. Now there was nowhere in the village where a person could earn a living except as a cleaner or an odd-job man. Or, of course, as an MP. Rufus’s office was in the house; during surgery hours on Saturdays his constituents straggled up the path with their anxieties and complaints, their health and housing problems. Or simply because they needed proof that he was there in person. Rufus was good at what he did.
Darkness was falling too fast to allow for any pruning, Stella realized. Tomorrow the clocks would go forward and there would be a precious extra hour of light that evening, the start of a gentle progress toward nights when it would not be necessary to draw the curtains and light the lamps against the dark. Today, though, Stella could still feel the touch of winter in the damp stone walls and in the silence of the birds that were also waiting for renewed light, and the morning.
An unsettling aspect of life in this old house was that there was seldom anything in it for Stella to do, except the gardening. That, she had chosen—it was not a difficult garden to look after, being small and stone-flagged and containing nothing delicate or rare. But Linda from the other end of the village came in twice a week to keep things clean, and any other routine jobs were dealt with by Rufus’s constituency secretary, who summoned plumbers and electricians as required, and sent their bills on to the House of Commons. Stella had never even needed to change a lightbulb. It was, she thought, like living in the sort of hotel whose barely visible management pretended it was an ordinary home.
Now she wandered through the sitting room and the kitchen, wanting something, but not knowing what that was. She picked up the book that she had been reading—Elizabeth Taylor’s first novel—and put it down again. She wondered about telephoning a friend. By then it was after six; she could legitimately suppose that it was time to change for dinner.
Almost all of Stella knew exactly what that evening had in store. But a fraction of her could still feel faintly hopeful.
Interesting people turned up in the least likely of places, even at a dinner in a nearby country house held in support of an appeal to raise money for the local staghounds. She and Rufus had to be there; he was a great friend of the host’s and, besides, he was in favor of the Countryside Alliance.
Dressing for the evening has a ritual quality about it, Stella thought. As for a priestess in an Attic temple preparing for sacrifice, there were ceremonial adornments to put on in a special order. She looked at herself carefully in the bathroom mirror. Brushing shadow onto her eyelids, underlining them with charcoal gray, she saw a face that did not entirely fit her own. Something had been lost behind those dark-fringed eyes but she did not know what it was.
That night, a little later, Mary-Margaret O’Reilly accepted a cup of tea from a ward assistant and stretched out luxuriously in her bed. Beneath her the white cotton sheet slithered against the plastic-covered mattress. She had seen the doctor, who had said she could go home. Her head was mending well and the nurse at her local GP practice could take her stitches out next week. Her wrist needed only to be kept strapped up. The doctor had sounded jolly and encouraging, sure that he was the bringer of good news. Mary-Margaret had not the heart to tell him she’d much rather stay where she was for the next week or so. She liked the companionship of the mixed ward, the old fella who always stopped at the foot of her bed to pass the time of day on his way to and from the toilets; Myrna, who knew the secrets
of so many celebrated hearts—film stars and football players’ wives and that girl who was on
—and had, in addition, the blessing of a great many cheerful grandchildren who brightened up the place no end. She liked the high and narrow bed and its white-painted bars. She liked being given a jug of water with a special lid. It was a very pleasant change to have her meals served to her, food that she had neither had to buy nor to cook. She liked the gravy, thick and shiny as melted caramel, the pats of butter like little bars of treasure in their wrappings of gold. No, she was not yet ready to give these comforts up. Of course she burned to be with Him again. But at the same time she felt a curious need to let more time elapse. When Sister came round in the morning, Mary-Margaret decided, she would tell her how badly her head pained her and how she really should be left to rest.
In another narrow bed, this one the bottom half of a bunk, Felix Morrison was thinking about British Summer Time. Spring forward, fall back. In the middle of the night he would lose a whole hour of his life, but that didn’t really add up to much, if you did the maths. How many hours had he lived already? Twenty-four times three hundred and sixty-five times ten, and seven months—well, he could do that in his head; just about, it came to ninety-two thousand, six hundred, and forty, or something, but then there were uneven months and leap years, how many of those had there been in his lifetime? Years divisible by four: 2000, 2004, 2008—add twenty-four times these. Hold on, of course, you’d get the lost hours back when the
clocks changed again in winter. So maybe it was a pointless calculation after all. But it helped to pass the miserable hours of darkness and enforced confinement, when Felix so often lay awake while above and all around him other schoolboys slept. It was better to do sums than to remember the missed pass that afternoon and his captain’s scorn at tea, or to count the minutes until the end of term, and home.
Father Diamond adjusted his watch first and then the clock on the mantelpiece in time to the chimes of the ten o’clock news. It was irritating that, although these two would now both be in time for this one moment, all the other clocks that had to be adjusted—the central heating, the radio alarm beside his bed, in the sacristy and in the church itself—would perforce be inaccurate, if only by a second or so. He watched the news. Swine flu, the recession, two more British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. “O the mind, mind has mountains,” he quoted to himself. “Cliffs of fall.” When the news was finished, he took his coffee cup into the kitchen and washed it. His house backed onto a high wall and beyond it was the river. It was quiet there at night.
Stella envisaged the darkness of the river and for a moment closed her eyes. All around her there was noise. Cutlery and glasses, shouted conversations and guffaws. The man on her left had turned to her during the main course with ill-disguised reluctance; she recognized his struggle to find
something he could talk to her about. His kind was bored by women. I was at school with your husband, he said. But in a different house, of course, and possibly a year or two above. In the bad old days, Stella said brightly. Rufus says it is much better now. Since they stopped the canings.
Bloody stupid of them, if you ask me. Did us a world of good. That’s the trouble now; no discipline. Lot of whingers and too many bleeding hearts. A good thrashing’s part of growing up.
But surely you can’t approve of children hitting other children? That’s what happened, wasn’t it? The prefects were allowed to do the canings—
What d’you mean, children? We weren’t children, we were men. And a sight more decent than what passes for men in some quarters nowadays. Bring it all back, I say.
The street sounds of a Saturday night rose up toward Fidelma where she sat by her open window; muffled, because they were so far below; voices, motorbikes and music, the pulsing beat of rhythmic bass notes like a heart’s thud heard within the womb. Drumbeats. Tribal drums, like jungle messages or the lambegs—was that the word?—those fellows that played them, with their bowler hats and gray-potato faces. It was queer, now that she thought about it, those stiff figures and their iron laws—Ulster Says No Surrender; Beware the Antichrist—and yet the same God-fearing fingers on the wild drumsticks, thudding out those urgent calls. Thump, thump, thump, they must be echoes, surely, of the pulse of heartbeats in the rhymes of love. Thump, thump, thump, and the bedsprings creaking, hush
now or you’ll wake the young ones up. But those men in their black hats, like versions of the wee fellows on the sacks of Homepride flour, those men and their marching, ah well, their thoughts were very far from love.
Fidelma ate the Fray Bentos steak pie that had been in the kitchen cupboard, and some beans. There was nothing much to drink but Bushmills. Stocks were getting low, but no doubt Mary-Margaret would be back before much longer. Fidelma supposed she would be glad to see her daughter. She was weary of sitting here in her own smells. The bass beats thudded out and she sat and heard them; she thought they echoed her own heart.
Stella and Rufus, coming home on Sunday evening, wondered what the crowd was doing, milling round the church at the end of the crescent. Must have been a wedding, Rufus said. Unlikely on a Sunday, Stella thought, but did not contradict him, her mind only on whether there would be an e-mail waiting from Camilla.
Father Diamond had also been surprised, much earlier in the day. Later he was cross. With Father O’Connor away, it was his duty to say both the Sunday masses. He had gone into the church via the sacristy, through the side door, at the end of the path which connected it to his house. He had not seen the knot of people gathered at the front.
So early in the morning it was dark. For a few moments Father Diamond stood stock-still in the darkness, encircled by the shrouded statues, breathing in grave scents of damp and stone and dust. A silent place, empty but for God. Then he switched on all the lights. Moving down the
nave, straightening a pew that had been knocked out of alignment, he checked that all was as it should be before he, by sacramental grace, made God incarnate in that earthly space.
Father Diamond’s early Sunday morning server, Major Wetherby, was late. The priest had to make the preparations by himself. In the sacristy he filled a cruet with wine and water and a ciborium with bread. He laid out his own vestments—alb, cincture, stole and chasuble—in the somber color of Lent. The linen was kept in the shallow drawers of an old oak press; he took what he needed from them—altar cloth and frontal, purifiers, another starched white cloth for the credence table. He readied a chalice. Then he went back into the church. He put the offerings in their place, and a missal on the credence table. There was a second table to the right for the bell and the vessel of water. The white cloths unfolded in his hands like a fall of sudden snow. Lastly he lit the candles on the altar.
It was 7:45. There was still no sign of Major Wetherby so Father Diamond took the great iron key from its hook beside the main door and opened the door himself. Before he had pushed it fully open, a throng of people jostled past him, shouldering him aside. Usually there were no more than a handful of worshipers at the early mass on Sunday; he had never seen a queue before. Looking at these people he saw that they were mainly women, mainly young, and also, possibly, foreign. Had he overlooked an important commemoration or a beloved patron saint’s feast day? He couldn’t think of one. He said good morning and went back to the sacristy.