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Authors: Julia O'Faolain

Under the Rose

BOOK: Under the Rose
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Julia O’Faolain

UNDER THE ROSE

Selected Stories

There was a story about her in the
Mail
. A phrase jumped off the page: ‘… the twisted logic of the terrorist mind …’ Journalists! She’d have spat if she’d had the spittle; but her mouth was dry. ‘Violence’, someone had said, ‘is the only way to gain a hearing for moderation.’ That was reckoning without the press.

The argument broke open, porous as cheese.
Cheese
… She could smell the reek of it, pinching her nostrils.

Thoughts escaped her. This was the twelfth day of her hunger strike and energy was running low. Half a century ago, in Brixton Gaol, the Lord Mayor of Cork had died after a seventy-four-day fast. A record? Maybe. But how
much
of him could have survived those seventy-four days to die? A sane mind? The ability to choose? Surely not? Surely all that was left in the end would have been something like the twitch in a chicken-carcass, a set of reflexes primed like an abandoned robot’s? Her own mind was bent on sabotaging her will. ‘Eat,’ her organism signalled slyly to itself in divers ways. It slurped and burped the message, registered it by itch, wind-pain, cold, hunger, sophistries. Sum ergo think. But thinking used up energy. Better just to dream: let images flicker the way they used to do years and years ago on the school cinema-screen. Then too it had been a case of energy running low. The generator went on the blink every time films were shown in the barn and that was often, for the hall was constantly being remodelled. The nuns were great builders.

‘Come,’ they coerced visitors, ‘come see our improvements.’

Change thrilled them. The stone might have been part of themselves: a collective shell. Meanwhile, on film nights, rain drummed out the sound track and a draughty screen distorted the smile of Jennifer Jones playing Bernadette. The barn was cold but discomfort was welcomed in the convent. Waiting for the centrally-heated hall put in time while waiting for heaven.

She missed the community feeling.

Her vision shifted. Bricks and mortar from the nuns’ hall had turned to butcher’s meat. She was choking. Her throat had dried, its sides seeming to clap together. She pictured it like an old boot, drying until the tongue inside it shrivelled. It itched. Food could drive any other consideration from her mind. Images decomposed and went edible, like those trick paintings in which whole landscapes turn out to be made up of fruit or sausages. She could smell sausages. Fat beaded on them. Charred skins burst and the stuffing pushed through slit bangers in a London pub. Three sausages and three half lagers, please. Harp or Heineken. Yes, draught. Could we have the sausages nice and crispy. Make that six. A dab of mustard. Jesus! Eat this in remembrance. Oh, and three rolls of French bread. Thanks. Christ-the-pelican slits his breast to feed the faithful. Dry stuff the communion wafer but question not the gift host in my mouth. Mustn’t laugh. Hurts. Where’s the water mug? Tea in this one. They’d left it on purpose. The screws were surely hoping she’d eat in a moment of inattention. It hadn’t happened though. Relax. Water. What a relief. Made one pee and the effort of getting up was painful but if she didn’t drink her throat grew sandpapery. You wanted to vomit and there was nothing to vomit. A body could bring up its guts – could it?

Sitting up made her dizzy. She felt a pain around her heart. Lie back. Her mind though was clear as well water. At least she was too weak to get across the cell to that tray without catching herself. They’d left it there with the food she’d
refused this morning or maybe yesterday. Not that she felt fussy. Easier now though that her body was subdued beyond tricking her.

Conviction hardened. It had come with habit. Maggy was here through chance.

‘I’m sure I don’t know,’ the head screw had said, ‘where you think this is going to get you. It’s up to you, of course, to make your own decision.’

Cool, bored. Managing to convey her sense of all this as childish theatrics and a waste of everyone’s time. She knew the system and the system didn’t change just because some little Irish terrorist wouldn’t eat her dinner. She was fair though, abiding by the Home Secretary’s guidelines. Nobody had kicked Maggy or put a bag over her head. This screw looked as though such things were outside her experience which perhaps they were. One lot of prison employees might be unaware of what the other lot were doing. A clever division of labour: those needing clear consciences for television interviews and the like could
have
clear consciences. The best myths had a dose of truth to them.

It might have been easier if they
had
knocked her about: given her more reason to resist.

Dizzy had said, ‘The trouble with you, Maggy, is that you’re an adapter. I suppose orphans are. They’re survivors and survivors adapt.’

She meant that Maggy listened to the other side: a woeful error since it weakened resolve. Look at her now ready to believe in the decency of that screw. ‘Sneering Brit,’ Dizzy would decide right off. She never called the English anything but ‘Brits’.

‘Ah come on, Maggy.
Be
Irish for Pete’s sake. What did the Brits ever do for you or yours? Listen, it’s a class war. Don’t you see?’

Dizzy was of Anglo-Irish Protestant stock and had gone native in a programmed way. Her vocabulary was revolutionary.
Her upper-class voice had learned modulation at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. This made her enterprises sound feasible, as though they had already been realized, then turned back into fiction for celebrating in, say, the Hampstead Theatre Club or one of those fringe places on the Euston Road.

Rosheen’s style was more demotic. She sang in pubs and in the shower of the flat which Maggy had shared with her and Dizzy.

Another marthyr for auld Oireland

Another murther for the Crown …

More exasperating than sheer noise was the spasm in Rosheen’s voice. Maggy suspected she got more pleasure from these laments than she did from sex. The two had got connected in Rosheen’s life. She had married an unemployed Derryman who took out his frustrations by beating her until Dizzy coerced her into walking out on him. Missing him, Rosheen flowed warm water down her soapy body every morning and belted out verses about tombs, gallowses and losses which would never be forgotten. Defeats, in her ballads, were greater than victory; girls walked endlessly on the sunny side of mountains with sad but pretty names and reflected on the uselessness of the return of spring. Maggy despised herself for the rage Rosheen aroused in her.

‘Well, it’s all due to history, isn’t it?’

The three had watched the Northern Ireland Secretary on the box some weeks before Maggy’s arrest. Talking of how a political solution would make the IRA irrelevant –
great
acumen, God bless him! – he had the mild smile of one obliged to shoulder responsibility and take the brickbats.

He got Rosheen’s goat. ‘He gets my goat,’ she said. Maggy winced.

‘He gets on my tits,’ said Dizzy to show solidarity. But the effect was different since Dizzy could talk any way she felt
inclined whereas poor Rosheen was stuck in one register.

Maggy, who had known Rosheen since they were six, had for her the irritable affection one has for relatives. Also envy. They had made their First Communion side by side dressed in veils and identical bridal gowns and Rosheen had made the better communion. Maggy, watching through falsely closed lids, had been stunned to see ecstasy on Rosheen’s rather puddingy face. She had been hoping for ecstasy herself and it was only when she saw it come to Rosheen that she gave up and admitted to herself that Jesus had rejected her. It was a close equivalent to being jilted at the altar and in some ways she had never got over it.

‘Your First Holy Communion’, Mother Theresa had promised, ‘will be the most thrilling event in your whole lives.’

‘Really?’

‘Oh,’ the nun conceded, ‘there will, I suppose, be other excitements.’ It was clear that she could not conceive of them. She had been teaching communion classes for forty years. Photographs of groups dressed in white veils lined her classroom walls. ‘Strength will flow into you,’ she promised. ‘I don’t mean’, she smiled at Rosheen who had made this mistake earlier, ‘the sort of strength Batman has.’

The others gave Rosheen a charitable look. They were practising charity and she was its best recipient. Charity was for those to whom you could not bring yourself to accord esteem or friendship and in those days it had been hard to produce these for Rosheen, whose eyes were pink and from whose nostrils snot worms were always apt to crawl. You had to look away so as to give her a chance to sniff them back up. Even then you could sometimes see her, with the corner of your eye, using the back of her hand.

And then Rosheen had made the best communion.

It was not utterly unaccountable. The nuns had mentioned that the last shall be first. Their behaviour, however, made this seem unlikely. They preferred girls who knew
how to use handkerchiefs, scored for the team and generally did them credit.

Maggy recalled quite clearly how, having finally got the wafer down her throat – to bite would have been sacrilegious, so this was slow – and still feeling no ecstasy, she had opened her eyes. All heads were bowed. The priest was wiping the chalice. Could he have made some mistake, she wondered, left out some vital bit of the ceremony so that the miracle had failed to happen? Maybe he would realize and make an announcement: ‘Dearly beloved, it is my duty to inform you that transubstantiation has failed to take place. Due to an error, you have all received mere bread and may regard the ceremony up to now as a trial run. Please return to the altar …’ These words became so real to Maggy that she nudged Rosheen who was kneeling beside her. ‘Get up,’ she whispered bossily. ‘We’re to go back …’ She was arrested by Rosheen’s face. It was alight. Colour from a stained-glass window had been carried to it by a sunbeam and blazed madly from her eyes, her nostrils and the lolling tip of her tongue. Rosheen smiled, rotated and then bowed her head. She looked like a drunk or a painted saint: ecstatic then? Could she be pretending? Maggy considered giving her a pinch but instead bowed her own head and concentrated on managing not to cry.

She was crying now. Hunger made you weepy. She’d been warned. It made you cold too, although she was wearing several jerseys and two pairs of leotards.

Rosheen had never been so right again. Probably she should never have left the convent. Someone had told Maggy that she had wanted to enter but the nuns wouldn’t have her. Then she’d married Sean. That marriage had certainly not been made in heaven: it was a case of the lame leading the halt.

‘A pair of babes in the wood,’ was the opinion of Sean’s mother, Mairéad.

Mairéad had come to London some months ago to see Sean and dropped round to Dizzy’s flat. Maggy had been the only one in.

‘Tell Rosheen I don’t hold it against her that she left him.’ Mairéad was a chain-smoking flagpole of a woman, stuck about with polyester garments so crackling new that they must surely have been bought for this trip. ‘Half the trouble in the world’, she drew on her cigarette then funnelled smoke from her nostrils with an energy which invited harnessing, ‘comes’, she said, ‘from people asking too much of themselves.’ She coughed. ‘And of each other. Not that it’s Sean’s fault either. I’m not saying that. It’s his nerves,’ she told Maggy. ‘They’re shot to bits. What would you expect? When that wee boy was growing up he seen things happen to his family that shouldn’t happen to an animal.’ She let Maggy make tea and, drinking it, talked in a practised way about misfortune. ‘She’s at work then, is she? Well give her my best. I’m half glad I missed her. I only wanted her to know there were no hard feelings. Will you tell her that from me? No hard feelings,’ she enunciated carefully as though used to dealing with drunks or children or maybe men with shot nerves. ‘I’d have no right to ask her to nurse a man in Sean’s condition. I know that. He’s not normal any more than the rest of us.’ She had a high laugh which escaped like a hiccup: ‘Heheh! He was never strong. A seven-month baby. I never had the right food. Then the year he was sixteen it was nothing but them bustin’ in and calling us fucking Fenian gets and threatening to blow our heads off. Every night nearly. That was the summer of 1971. They wrecked the house; stole things; ripped up the carpet. Four times they raided us before Sean left to come here. He’s highly strung and his nerves couldn’t stand it. He still has nightmares. Ulcers. Rosheen could tell you. Sure it has to come out some way. He gets violent. I know it.’ Mairéad stubbed out a cigarette and drained her tea. ‘Have you another drop? Thanks. I’ll drink this up. Then
I’d better be going. I’ve been going on too much. It could be worse. You don’t have to tell me. Wasn’t my sister’s boy shot? Killed outright. He was barely fourteen and the army said they thought he was a sniper. I ask you how could anyone take a fourteen-year-old for a sniper? You’re from the south? I suppose all this is strange to you? I’m supposed to be here to get away from it all. You look forward to doing that and then the funny thing is you can’t. It’s as well I missed Rosheen. No point upsetting her, is there? You’ll remember what I said to say, won’t you? Thanks for the tea.’

Maggy saw her out and watched her walk away, turning, as she put distance between them, into a typical Irish charwoman such as you saw walking in their domesticated multitudes around the streets of Camden.

Dizzy, who got home before Rosheen, said: ‘Don’t mention the visit to her.’

‘Mightn’t she be glad to get the message?’

‘Really, Maggy!’ Dizzy sounded like a head girl – had
been
head girl when they were at school together, in spite or perhaps because of being the only Protestant. ‘You have no sense of people,’ she scolded. ‘Rosheen has no sense at all.’

Maggy began to laugh at this arrogance and Dizzy – which was the nice thing about her – joined in. ‘Seriously though,’ she drove home her point. ‘Rosheen could easily go back to that ghastly Sean. Just
because
he’s so ghastly. She has to be protected from herself! From that Irish death wish. Surely you can see that she’s better off with me.’

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