The black cars stood stationary outside Fay Dury’s residence. People trundled by in the grey sleet, water jumping at their ankles, clothes greasy with rain. Some of them looked across at the house and bowed their heads, others stopped for a moment and performed the obligatory sign of the cross. Large doors stood open beneath an old weathered portico and rain dusted the slate floor. Above it, Ivy had slithered and wound itself into a thick, bushy coil and on the crumbling stonework, lichen dappled the bricks.
If you stepped inside, you would find yourself in a long, cold, narrow hall with a scratched, uneven floor and rotten mullioned windows. The gelid air would feel like liquid glass penetrating a vein, a persuasive chill that fused with your bones. Walking down the hall, shoes click-lacking against old wood, taking a sharp right, you would arrive at an arched entrance from behind which, to certain perceptive ears, a faint low groan could be heard.
On the other side stood Marianne. Eight years old, blonde hair, wearing a black pinafore, cream blouse and lace-up patent shoes. She watched, from the corner as a succession of floating heads moved about the room, sharp whispers gathering momentum until the room stirred with a sort of taut, manic energy. Many familiar faces seemed hung with grief whilst others, those she didn’t know, distant relatives and distant neighbours, moved about stiffly, eyes skittish, bodies hemmed in with anxiety.
Marianne rubbed her hands together, imagined frost falling from them like dead skin. The temperature seemed set to a few degrees below 0, the air wound tight against your face and a faint acrid smell lingered this morning. It had been present for the last few days, filling your nostrils, making you gag. In the open fire, a pale amber flame wavered, a dying light unable to muster the energy to take hold. Marianne shivered, watched as the room seem to shift, the already muted colours draining away replaced with a washed out monochrome veneer.
All of the family and guests wore the same attire. The men in creased black suits, the women in either grey or black dresses. Some wore hats, and some, thin gloves to cover cold, brittle fingers. Mother didn’t fit in Marianne thought as she watched her mother walk across the room towards her. A pale silk blouse, the sleeve ripped, a white Broderie Anglaise skirt whose hem had come undone and scuffed navy shoes. Mothers auburn hair, usually fastened into a perfectly symmetrical bun, had worked itself loose and fell around her thin shoulders. A bruise in deep shades of purple and blue crept across her forehead, a jagged cut reddened her cheek, and her eyes, sunken and black made Marianne feel sad.
Looking up, Marianne felt her mother’s eyes roam her face, in that way mothers do, checking the pinch of your skin to see what’s a matter. Then, her mother softly folded a pendant into her daughters small, pink palm, clasped her fingers tight around it. Soft baby skin clasped around a promise. Marianne looked up, tried to read her mother’s face herself, but only saw the distant look in her eyes. Her mother drifted away, a remote figure unable to chance upon a nod or a caring word .
Words drifted up into her head, her mother’s softly spoken tones: ‘Hold on to this, keep it safe and I will always be near’. Marianne frowned and look across the room.
Father Partick sat on the crumpled red sofa with a paper plate piled high with untouched food, tapping his foot to a silent tune. His black wool cassock flanked the carpet and in his hand, he held a glass bottle with a silver top. Around his neck he wore a crucifix which he subconsciously stroked with his thumb and forefinger, staring ahead into the earthy fire.
A gust of wind shook Marianne’s bones as the door banged shut. The last few embers of the fire lost their ardour and a powder of soot blew up into the air. And there it stayed. Marianne watched, transfixed. The soot moved in the air like a string of beads, cut through with shimmering specks of crystal, fashioning itself into a tall thin figure then changing to resemble a spire. Taking a breath, she looked around, but people were leaving, collecting coats and bags, their pale faces pinned with sadness. Confused, she turned back, but the fire was now just ash.
Hold on to this, keep it safe and I will always be near she repeated to herself as her father walked towards her. He looked grey and tired, lost, ransacked from all sides by devastation. Father Patrick raised his hand as he placed objects one by one on the pale green armchair and opened his fat bible. Marianne watched his lips move and the fire, the dusty remnants of what remained begin to agitate in the grate.
She had expected the pendant to be special, an old treasured family heirloom, something beautiful and incredibly expensive. Instead, it looked cheap and tatty. A thin rust-coloured fake gold chain with eight tiny plastic leaves attached to it. Marianne sighed and wrapped the pendant in a piece of pink tissue paper, laid it in the drawer of her bedside cabinet. Then she climbed into her old, familiar bed.
Being away at boarding school meant home had a particular seductive pull. Sent away at seven, now nine, when her house loomed up ahead in father’s car, her heart chugged away happily with the vehicles engine. Now she sprinted up to her room, pulled off her clothes. Sank into black tights, leggings, a thick woollen jumper, wrapped her duvet around her shoulders. Just then her mother walked into the room and stared at her with a questioning eyebrow.
Marianne pulled the sleeves of the jumper down over hands. The room for the last twelve months when she returned, had been cold, interspersed with passing moments of barely warm. The old, cast-iron radiator gave out little heat and the Gothic wall sconce with its engraved cross and tall, dusty candle was sometimes the only warmth that dribbled into the icy room.
The candle flickered as her mother stepped over to the cabinet and fixed her gaze on the top drawer. Marianne pulled it open, took out the pendant and lay it gently on her flowery bedspread. Her mother touched it, stroked the tiny autumnal leaves one by one, her features softened in the candlelight. She knew her mother would settle now, knowing she kept her secret safe.
He came one night just past eight, when the pavements were stuffed with snow and studded with freezing ice. He wore a glum smile and his tired eyes heaved with an unspoken pity. She watched him pull himself out of his car like a old battered suitcase, God keeping him sluggish tonight. Her dad opened the door and the Priest stuttered in, chestnut-coloured brogues and a wind resting on his shoulder. She felt the room spin on its axis and her wooden crucifix thundered in the drawer.
They both appeared in her bedroom, not ten minutes later, like a joint saintly mirage. Even her timid father cupped a bottle of holy water in his hands whilst he fidgeted with the trim of his jacket. The old priest eyed her cautiously and began unpacking his leather bag. Her heavy drapes billowed, once, twice and the candle in the sconce flung itself to the floor in defiance, a stray flame licking the edge of her rug.
Father Patrick had become folded through age and his fingers were riddled with arthritis. He smelt of incense and worn skin. His crucifix caressed her duvet as it dangled from his neck and the ‘blood of Christ‘ had turned his small, hooded eyes bloodshot. A giggle escaped Marianne’s lips. She pulled her knees up to her chest. He placed a cross on her clammy forehead and in that instant, the room changed from a soft pink to a undulating crimson red and the temperature soared until tendrils of smoke curled up from her wooden bed. She laughed some more, face flushed, as he threw holy water at her which didn’t burn her fair skin like he anticipated. Instead, it ran down her face and soaked into her navy jumper like a holy puddle.
Mother stood behind the curtain, listening to the fanfare, twitching in the splinters of light thrown up from passing headlamps. The prayers hurt her heart. The spray from the holy water seared her skin and the crucifix was a reminder of the long drawn out fight. She smoothed down her skirt and stepped out from behind the long, billowing drapes. Fay Dury would see Father Patrick now.