Carmel’s first experience as a raw novice was humbling. Sister Magda Reilly was the choir organist, an exceptional musician who sometimes entertained them during free evening periods with recitals from Chopin, Schubert, Mozart, and if Mother Bernard Barrett the Abbess was away, some popular songs from American musicals. The younger ones sometimes sang along. Magda’s illness began with blinding headaches. Migraine, the community said, but when she started to talk incoherently and obscenely, the doctor was phoned.
Carmel’s task was to ring a cast iron hand bell from the hall door warning other sisters that a male body was in the house. She led Doctor Fitzgerald to Magda’s cell door. Mother Bernard stood in attendance during the examination. Before going in they could hear Magda singing:
‘I’m looking over a four-leafed clover that I overlooked before,’ then shouting, ‘Wrong! wrong! wrong! Naughty girl! Naughty, naughty, naughty, it’s a three-leafed clover; God the daddy, God the laddy and God the randy bandy, virgin oil he used on the Virgin so he did! The blackguard , the bloody blackguard! I believe in my heart and soul in the holy host, the holy toast, the holy roast and a big gravy boat to sail us up to heaven or down to hell!‘
As they opened the cell door she was muttering at the window about the red hot pokers in Martha’s garden and that her bottom had ‘scorch marks from the Devil’s prick. God’s truth! God’s truth! God’s truth!’
Deeply embarrassed Mother Bernard introduced her to Fitzgerald who asked gently:
‘Would you like to tell us about what’s troubling you sister?’
Turning from the window, her eyes red from crying, Magda whispered: ‘I am the shite of the world, that’s my only trouble.’
‘And why do you think that?’
She turned away with a head shake. To further questions from Fitzgerald she again shook her head.
Out in the high, bare big windowed corridor Bernard said apologetically:
‘It’s utterly out of character, Doctor, utterly; she’s the gentlest creature imagi-nable. God alone knows were that foul language comes from.’
Fitzgerald said, ‘Her childhood most likely,’ then added quietly, ’the mind has mountains.’
‘How would you diagnose?’
‘I’m not sure, dementia? A growth possibly? Whatever it is it’s not good.’
‘And what would you suggest now?’
‘A psychiatrist first, perhaps?’
When he was gone Bernard asked:
‘What was that about mountains, Carmel?’
‘I think it’s Manley Hopkins, Mother, the Jesuit poet.’
The following day Carmel opened the door to a psychiatrist from Limerick mental, a fattish man in a brown tweed suit with round lenses on the end of his bulbous nose. With his tangle of reddish hair and unkempt beard Carmel thought he looked like a kindly teddy bear till he spoke. The voice was glacial, the accent Scottish:
‘What’s the bell for?’
‘To let the sisters know, Doctor.’
‘That you’re here.’
‘Why should they know that?’
‘It’s a rule of the house.’
‘Ridiculous bloody rule. Stop that racket.’
Accustomed to authority and immediate obedience Carmel had caught the bell clapper. As they approached a stone staircase in silence she heard the psychiatrist mutter:
‘I’m no leper.’
Mother Bernard was on the first landing. A higher civil servant with a late vocation she generated more fear than affection. A tall woman, she was standing beside Magda’s cell door in a white fury, her hooded eyes unreadable. Over and above Magda’s crazy singing and rambling she’d clearly noticed the bell’s silence and had overheard the last remark. As they approached she said, biting down sharply on each word:
‘Sister Carmel, ring that man back down to the front door and show him out.’
The psychiatrist blinked then responded by jerking his thumb towards Magda’s cell:
‘You’ve a very sick woman in there. I’d get an ambulance now.’ As he turned to leave, he said:
‘You’ll get a bill tomorrow from Doctor Hamish Campbell for travel and a stupid waste of time.’
‘It won’t be paid, Sir.’
‘Then I’ll sue.’
‘And we’ll sue back. How dare you mock the rules of this house! Walk ahead, Sister Carmel. Ring that person out, all the way, show him the street immediately.’
She had led him down the stairs and along the high corridors, bell ringing as she walked ahead. She felt foolish. Putting the bell on a table to unbolt and unlock the massive door she heard the psychiatrist say:
‘That big bossy one’s in dire need of treatment!’
Mother Bernard phoned Limerick mental again and asked for a female psy-chiatrist. Magda was confined for a month in St Josephs of Mulgrave Street where she was heavily sedated. She came back estranged, weeping a lot and tell-ing everyone she was a great sinner. She’d lost her appetite and appeared shrunken. From osteoporosis she’d developed a disfiguring dowager’s hump. Referring to it sometimes she whispered:
‘A judgement of God for my sins, child, despair and doubt. Those two breed the devil’s hump.’
‘That’s nonsense, Magda. You’re the kindest and the holiest person in this whole house.’
Lacking motivation and energy Magda kept to her cell staring at the ceiling or out her window at the sky. Once she asked Carmel:
‘Do you think there are stories above the sky and the stars?‘
‘Infinite,’ Carmel said, ‘a whole universe of stories. We’ll hear them all in God’s good time.’
Her duties involved attending to the old nun’s food and functions. She tried not to look while giving her a bed bath.
On the evening of her seventieth Magda was markedly low, her eyes closed. When she uttered in less than a whisper, ‘I wonder in God’s name why ever I was born into this world?’
Carmel had answered brightly, ‘That’s a dark thought, Magda, this is your birthday, a day for rejoicing!’
‘It’s my death day. I’m sure of it.’
The old nun’s eyes were closed. She’d been anointed last Tuesday for the sec-ond time. No point in sending for the priest again. She pointed a bony forefinger at her ear. Carmel knelt to listen as the words came brokenly, struggling between uncertain breathing as though determined to convey what was in her head before departure, indistinct and hard to make sense of. Carmel caught the open-ing gist and certainly her final words. There was no way of stopping her to clari-fy or qualify what was being said. It was as though Magda had been rehearsing these words all her life:
‘God help me I bent over so I did and me a daughter of this order year in year year out and never a word… Some olive trees older than Christ they say… he married in Kentucky so I heard… not their names even to me, my kin… not a word locked up here unforgiving… my head in a twist of doubt and despair, my heart ice cold to God almighty… Dry rot of the soul the Jesuit told me in the box, ‘Pray, daughter, pray, ’ but I couldn’t. It stayed cold… only Jesus Christ knows why, as if He cared… olive oil but sore so it was… Still and all I’ll not be lone-some forever with my sisters down the garden… blind to stars and swallows and the sun. Thanks be to God in the ground at last in the dark… in God’s acre, rotten.‘
The effect of these confessional words ceased suddenly at the word ‘rotten’. As the rattle started, Carmel, partly in shock, her flesh creeping at what she’d heard or thought she’d heard, began whispering an act of contrition begging God to receive Magda’s troubled soul into paradise with love, forgiveness and mercy. She then heard the kitchen nuns approaching down the corridor with a cake and seven lit candles, one for each decade. They were followed by the com-munity singing as one:
‘Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday, dear Magda, Happy birthday to you.’
The singing stopped abruptly when they saw Magda’s staring eyes, wide open mouth and Carmel crying. They blew out the candles and circled the bed on their knees saying the Rosary, many in tears. Sister Martha closed Magda’s eyes placing two brass sink plugs on them, then fixed her gaping mouth by plac-ing a small statue of Saint Christopher under her chin.
Then they all wanted to know her parting words.
‘A jumble mostly,’ Carmel prevaricated. ‘Something about swallows and stars.’
‘That’s beautiful,’ they murmured, ‘so Magda, like her music.’
‘She had a happy death.’
‘Pure innocence, may God be good to her.’ ‘Well she’s with Jesus now at the end of all.’
‘Poor soul, how could she suffer like she did and not be with Jesus at the end of all?’
Apart from preparing her dead sisters for burial Sister Martha Quigley was also head gardener. She was a blunt Cavan woman who used her earthy dialect with no concessions to convent elocution or grammar. At the moment she need-ed another pair of hands and asked:
‘Carmel you can give me a hand with the corpse?’ Mother Bernard Barrett intervened quietly:
‘I think maybe Carmel’s been through enough this last week and these last few hours.’
‘Enough what? Sure we’ll all die, Mother. Are you game to help, girl?’ Carmel said promptly:
‘Yes, I’d like to.’
Bernard nodded with smiling dignity as though giving way to a whim of con-trariness. The community knew Martha was the only sister dared question Bernard’s authority. Amongst themselves they said, ‘Mother Bernard’s our Abbess but Martha’s the real boss.’
Everyone knew Martha had a whip-like tongue to match Bernard’s. No one had ever heard them clash. Often they were in the office, their heads together going over accounts and correspondence. They seemed to understand each other very well. If Bernard was away Martha was in charge. As head gardener with the help of kitchen staff, she’d kept the community in eggs, pork, chicken, potatoes, fresh and frozen vegetables, fruits and greens, honey, preserves, jams and chutneys all the year round. Being indispensable in the three-acre walled- in garden and orchard she was exempt from the strict convent schedule. She had to deal with and pay suppliers in the garden store that gave directly on to a back street of the town now stretching out to the garden walls. She organised shops, supermarkets and bakeries to deliver goods past their sell by date. If doubtful these perishables were fed to the few pigs and laying hens. Mostly they were safely eaten by the community. Every July she advertised a successful open day sale run by voluntary lay workers. Without Martha’s thriving garden and con-tacts they could be forced to the humiliation of ringing the hungry bell to let the outside world know they were close to starving. This had never happened dur-ing her watch of thirty years. She had the name of being difficult to work with and as no men were allowed within the precincts of house or garden she had to call on younger able-bodied nuns to help with emergency digging, potting, planting out, fruit harvesting and winter storage. It was an arduous undertaking for an aging, burly, muscular woman in her mid-fifties. She seemed well able for it and was not given to complaining. She gave directions now to Carmel:
‘Strip the poor cratur and don’t let them pillows get soiled with slobber. Put a towel under them. I’ll get the rubber sheet and paraphernalia. You fetch a basin, soap and water.’
Left alone to deal with Magda Carmel got what Martha had requested, then removed the pillows and regulation nightdress. Without experience she was uncertain about the ring of profession and the gold chain with its gold miracu-lous medal, a jubilee gift from a wealthy anonymous member of Opus Dei.
Hard now to imagine, she thought, anything more nothing than this scarcely human thing on the bed, naked, hunchbacked with stick-like arms and legs, the two pathetic, withered breasts like small, wrinkled sausages lying sideways beside the grey fuzz of each oxter, her knobbly arthritic hands folded modestly across her crotch. A virgin death? This, she thought, is what I’ll be some day, this thing, this nothing, this poor remnant of a life of prayer and meditation. She was relieved to hear Martha bustling down the corridor.
‘Off with the ring, girl, and medal and chain. We’ll have to measure her.’ ‘Measure! She’s tiny, Martha.’
‘That hump has her like a half hoop, we don’t want her head bangin’ off the lid. They might think she was knockin’ to get out.’
Carmel held the tape taut from head to toe as Martha measured the middle drop with an extension rule.
‘She’ll fit, just. We can stick a go of foam rubber at her head before we bolt her down and plant her.’
She then lifted Magda like a baby while Carmel covered the mattress with a rubber sheet.
‘Watch this now, girl, and you’ll be fit to get me ready next week if Jesus gives me the nod!’
Martha slipped on long-sleeved rubber gloves and in a few minutes the func-tional orifices were packed with cotton wool, the nose well sealed by pushing wool high into each nostril with a tweezers. They washed and dried her, fitted a blue shroud and fixed the cooling fingers to clasp a wooden rosary beads with a figureless cross.
‘That’s poor Magda now, washed for the box and ready for take off’
Carmel suddenly found herself sobbing. Martha’s muscular arm was round her shoulder as she asked:
‘Did you love her that much, girl?’
For a while Carmel couldn’t or didn’t want to tell Martha why she was crying till finally she said:
‘I was thinking of my own mother and father.’
‘That’s hard, lassie, very hard. Family?’
‘One sister, Tricia, and her daughter. I love them so much.’
‘Of course you do, of course you do.’
Martha squeezed her arm and said:
‘You’ll be alright, girl, you’ve got heart and bravery. There’s harder things than death, far harder. You’ll find that out soon enough.’
My heart went ice cold towards God and stayed that way.
What a terrible thing to imagine, no hope, no happiness, no love, no heaven. The emptiness and loneliness of such a life haunted her memory and dreams, conjuring images she found hard to deal with. Could it have been the Devil through that most gifted and gentle of creatures confessing that her entire life was false and worthless? A subtle temptation to undermine her own unshakea-ble faith? Magda could not really have meant those bleak words after such a long life of disciplined enclosure. Or could she?
Carmel was six years a professed contemplative when Martha asked her one January evening if she’d ever used a spade. Her assistant Gemma was exhausted and down with flu. Carmel said she’d never had the opportunity to use a spade.
‘Would you lek to try girl?’
‘I’d love to.’
She was warned by other sisters that the idea of the garden was appealing but working with Martha in winter was the closest thing to voluntary torture. Thus began the two hardest and happiest years of her convent life. The old lean-to Victorian glasshouse had rotted long ago and been replaced by a long plastic polytunnel.
If raining they worked on potting what seemed like an endless variety of seeds and cuttings for the vegetable garden or selling. On fine days they forked over the large compost heaps or made willow wall supports which were in great demand for their open day in July. They didn’t talk during this work except to clarify what had to be done, the how and the why. For Carmel it was agreeable, meditative work. On the bright, dry days they dressed like Michelin men wear-ing mittens and fleece-lined rubber boots and polar headgear. Even so, the cold could be so intense and the work so hard that Carmel sometimes thought she’d have to give up and beg back to work in the house, especially when Martha was preparing potato ground, a half an acre of it, working steadily, digging and bending to lift weeds for burning. She was like a machine and merciless as a machine, pointing sternly to missed scutch tendrils or half-pulled docks. That meant digging down for the root. No half measures. Thirty years older than Carmel she seemed to have twice the strength and energy.
After a few weeks, Carmel’s blistered hands toughened and roughened. She found herself gradually growing stronger. They stopped twice a day to have tea in the polytunnel. Martha buttered a kitchen loaf thickly then sprinkled it with caster sugar saying:
‘No engine runs on empty!’
These morning and afternoon breaks were supposed to be contemplative or devoted to spiritual reading. Martha generally sat in a wicker chair under a rug and sometimes fell asleep. Carmel read. Occasionally they gave themselves a dispensation to talk.
One morning Carmel asked: ‘What made you join, Martha?’
‘I’d no choice, girl.’
She stared at Carmel from green, fearless eyes in her weathered face as though uncertain about where to begin or whether to begin. Then suddenly she was talking:
‘We lived in a cabin, Lord Farnham’s estate near Cavan. My auld fella had a job with him, forest work, poor pay but better than the dole, free timber, free milk and our own wee garden of spuds. Them were big things, and a slate roof but no runnin’ water. Then the mother got stomach pains. We’d no money for a doctor. A dirty appendix they tauld us afterwards. I was ten when she went to Jesus.’
‘And your family?’
‘Two brothers, Tim and Cormac, in Amerikay now. After the funeral the par-ish priest come out and said I’d have go into the Poor Clare orphanage, a big barracks of a place in the middle of the town.’
‘No woman body in the house, clergy wouldn’t allow that.’
‘That was the way of it in them days, had to be a woman body in the house, a proper wife. So in I went.’
‘And no one objected?’
‘To a parish priest! Have a titter of wit, girl!’
‘That’s a worse story than mine, Martha.’
‘Sure most of the country was that way them days. That’s why I took the veil.’
‘But you did have a vocation?’
‘For certain sure none for the life we had. Hand to mouth and the clatter of childer and what kind of a man would’ve taken a fancy to a lump lek me? From an orphanage? No dowry, no nothin’?’
‘A lucky man.’
‘Goin’ to dances in high heels is it, in a frock and frilly knickers, all painted up to the jaws! Ah now don’t be makin’ a cod of me girl. I was glad to quit Cavan town, very glad.’
‘Why did they send you down here?’
Carmel was startled to see a sudden mist in Martha’s eyes as she shook her head, suddenly emotional:
‘That’s one a story I’ll never tell.’
Months passed. Carmel had brought Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence down the garden to read during tea breaks. He was, she thought, a mix of Augustine and Thomas A. Kempis and she especially liked the closing lines of the Hopkins lyric, ‘Heaven -Haven’, and began to use them as a prayer mantra when tempt-ed to anger or assailed by doubt:
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb
And out of the swing of the sea
One evening in April she was aware of Martha watching: ‘You lek that book, girl? You’re readin’ it again.’
‘It’s wonderful, Martha, so truthful ,so honest.’
‘I mind it read out a brave while back.’
‘Did you like it?’
‘To be straight I don’t mind it much, a bit high falutin’ for me. There was a whole wheen of converts after the war and no end of books about how they found God or how God found them. They were all read out loud.’
‘Aye, surely enough, it was, it was. In the end God found that poor Merton man in Bangkok.’
‘He was out for a talk with the Dally Lammy.’ ‘Who?’
‘He’s a breed of Pope out there, the Dally Lammy.’
‘The Dalai Lama? Oh he’s like Mother Teresa, a living saint.’
‘That’s what they all said. Anyway they had their talk. The Merton man went back to his hotel in Bangkok, plugged in his razor and fell down dead.’
‘A heart attack?’
‘No. The razor. Electric. A short.’
Carmel was stunned by the banality of such a death and only half heard Martha go on to say:
‘Back in the fifties poor Sister Agnes went the same way.’
‘No! no! She put a steel knife in a toaster and that was the end of her.’
‘Aye. God’s good surely but you’d wonder to yourself what’s in his head. He must take odd notions betimes!’
And again Carmel wondered if Martha was pulling her leg or saying the opposite of what she was really thinking. She was a strange mix of goodness, honesty and contradiction.
The walled garden was rabbit proof but grey squirrels, rooks, magpies and rats she shot, trapped and poisoned without mercy and she was a deadly shot. Cats she terrorised with stones and shouts. Like magpies they robbed the nests of starlings and swallows. Through the winter the garden was hung with doz-ens of peanut feeders for resident tits and finches. A pet Robin called De Valera fed out of her hand.
There was pleasant work through April to May, erecting the long apex of ash rod rows for French beans, cutting back the dead wood of loganberries, and autumn raspberries and pruning the centre out of the high standard Bramleys already old when the convent was bought in 1876 from an unpopu-lar Anglo-Irish family, its stone and cast-iron grandiose motifs replaced by stat-ues, grottos and crosses.
Carmel did the climbing on a double sixteen foot ladder following Martha’s cutting instructions shouted from below. On wet days in the polytunnel they put manners on the sprawling vines, figs, peaches and apricots. The apricot blossom was so astonishingly beautiful it was difficult to work and not keep looking at it. Martha wouldn’t allow one sprig of it for the altar.
‘That’s two pounds of fruit, girl. God sees them blossom out here and we’ll have an extra pound of apricot jam next winter!’ then she added, ‘By right it should be goin’ out to Africa for the medical missionaries. Them lassies do powerful work out there. You could have been one of them. You have the brains.’
‘I’ve often thought about how their work is prayer.’
One afternoon Martha said:
‘Them buggers are back. They’ve my heart scalded.’
‘Them buggers’ Carmel knew were rats. Martha had a soft spot for Saint Francis but none whatever for his ‘brother rat’.
Carmel was familiar with the poisoning routine. She had to fill about a dozen clay landpipes with Warfarin and place them strategically. The rats that missed the landpipe poison ended up in cages baited with lard laced with strychnine:
‘I’d as leif feed them a dacent last supper as drown them in a barrel.’
Her talk was full of unconscious irreverence, or was it conscious? Linking rat poison with the first great miracle of the Eucharist made Carmel ask at that morning break:
‘What do you really believe, Martha?’
‘That’s the quare cheeky question to put to a professed nun. How am I supposed to answer?’
‘Simply, like me. I believe in the Creed, the Ave, and the Lord’s Prayer.’
‘Sure our heads are crammed night and day with creeds, prayers, rosaries and novenas.’
‘That’s no answer, Martha.’
‘What was the question again, girl?’
‘What do you really believe?’
She pointed over at a flutter of finches and bluetits feeding, then up to swal-lows and starlings soaring down to build in hollows of the red brick garden walls.
‘See them wee fellas from Africa. Come and go every year They’re miracles, every one of them. God’s craturs. I believe in them and I pray to God our work’ll do some good and that we’ll not go hungry and that that the lek of that Cromwell man won’t come back with his protestants to burn us out. I’ll live by the rule till I die and then hope for the best.’
‘Wait and see or not see. What else can a body do, and sure who knows? It’s no great matter is it?’
‘Oh it is a very great matter, Martha, a very great matter indeed! How can you say that? We’re promised resurrection and life everlasting. We’re promised paradise by Jesus himself.’
‘True enough, true enough, but this garden’s paradise enough for me mane-time but if there’s a better one upstairs I’ll dig away goodo when I get up there.’
She had a twinkle in her eye, a half smile on her lips. Carmel wanted to tell her she was more a kind of sceptical pantheist than a contemplative Christian nun but knew Martha would dance rings round her for using such fancy words. In any case how could someone so kindly, so hard working, so full of common sense and earthy irony be other than welcomed into paradise? Did Jesus have a sense of humour she wondered? It was a question no one seemed to ask.
During the post-Christmas season of her second year working with Martha Carmel dreamt one night about how Jesus loved all women. Mary Magdalen the sinner had anointed his feet with precious oils weeping as she dried them with her hair. Some day in heaven Carmel would splash her own tears on those divine feet. He would put a hand under her chin, lift her face, look into her eyes and no earthly love could equal that infinite gaze. Then she began to wonder did He gaze into the eyes of millions and millions of girls, women, arthritic grannies, spinsters and old withered hunchbacked nuns like Magda, diseased, repentant prostitutes? And what then? And what then? And what then after all the gazing? Bury her head in his lap to inhale that smell of male-ness and as she did so she woke suddenly with a leakage of blood and an ache so intense that she cried out. For a few moments she lay trembling till it eased then realised what it was. She washed away the blood, put on a pad, a dressing gown and went down to the chapel to pray that her dream was not lewd or offensive to God.
The red glow of the sanctuary lamp was like a blessing. She lit a night light on a reading kneeler and turned to chapter XXV of The Imitation of Christ. As she read it and some other portions, solace and peace began to pervade her, body and soul.
All that is not of God shall perish. Be mindful of the profession thou hast made and have always before the eyes of thy soul the remembrance of thy Saviour crucified. Without care and diligence thou shalt never see the face of God.
The face of God. As these words scoured the debris of impurity from her soul she heard the hinge of the chapel door then slippered steps coming up the aisle. Whoever it was did not go to a front kneeler but sat midway in silence. A troubled novice?
Whoever it was, it would be unseemly to leave immediately. She waited a few minutes, snuffed the night light, genuflected to the sacred presence in the tabernacle and turned, glancing instinctively as she neared the sleepless visitor. It was Maeve Marron, a novice. Carmel smiled and nodded. As she passed Maeve leaned out and caught her hand.
‘I have to talk to you Carmel,’ she said moving sideways in the pew to make room. Carmel was too surprised to resist.
‘I can’t sleep.’
‘That happens us all some nights.’
‘It’s more than that.’
As Maeve was holding her now with both hands Carmel could sense she was being forced to sit and listen to something she’d rather not hear. She was relieved when Maeve told her she’d been down to the pantry and eaten a wedge of cooking chocolate and a spoon of honey.
‘Lots of novices do that. It’s normal enough till you get used to the diet.’
‘Did you do that, Carmel, as a novice, go down to the pantry?’
‘I thought of it often but…’
In the half light, half dark, Maeve’s eyes were round and luminous.
‘I’ve something I must tell you. On my way back I saw you come in here. I stood outside for ages and then I thought I’ll tell her. I have to tell her.’
Carmel waited. Maeve’s hands were hot and clammy.
‘I can’t sleep, Carmel, because I can’t get you out of my head and the more I pray the more you’re part of me, body and soul.’
Meave’s grip had tightened. Her face was so close Carmel could smell the chocolate from her breath.
‘I love you, Carmel, more than God, more than myself, more than anything I’ve ever seen or dreamed of and God help me I’ve sinned imagining you.’
‘That was a great pity, Maeve.’
‘I know, I know. I know but I’m in love… and now I can’t receive Christ at Mass and everyone will know I’ve sinned. What’ll I do?’
‘Say you’ve got a migraine, stay in bed. In two days you can confess and be forgiven and begin again.’
Suddenly Maeve began to tremble before sobbing out of control leaning against Carmel who instinctively put an arm around her saying ‘Hush child, hush, hush,’ as though to an infant. They were hushing and sobbing thus when they became aware of someone standing beside them in the aisle. It was Mother Bernard. They could sense rather than see the severity of her presence. They were in no doubt when she spoke:
‘Go to your cells. I’ll talk to you both after breakfast, separately.’
It was, Carmel thought, like being in infants again. As she walked back up to her cell she could feel anger growing to temper as her stomach tightened against the callous almost inhuman way Bernard had dealt with what was clearly a crisis of conscience. When ‘heartless old bitch’ occurred in Carmel’s head she immediately quenched it with a prayer of submission and a request to be forgiven for such ill-tempered thinking. She had no idea whatever that Maeve Marron had been obsessed with her. She found it very hard to go back to sleep.
Carmel was not called after breakfast to Mother Bernard’s office. It was as if the night scene in the chapel had never occurred. There was no sign of Maeve Marron. At the first opportunity Carmel went to her cell. It was bare, the bed-clothes and sheets folded, the mattress covered with polythene. No matter how foolish or intemperate Maeve’s declaration and behaviour had been it was hard to grasp that she was suddenly gone. Ousted? No farewells. Nothing. Gone.
Christ spoke continuously about the importance of love. Surely a wise Abbess could have listened and reiterated what they all knew, that the physical can be sublimated by the spiritual. It was as if Maeve Marron had never exist-ed. The sisters talked among themselves that morning about the suddenness of her leavetaking. Mother Bernard explained it away with five words:
‘The child was unhappy here.’
That afternoon Bernard beckoned Carmel into her office:
‘Maeve spoke to me about her problem. Apart from the thieving which we suspected she was hysterical, entirely unsuited to contemplative life. I didn’t ask her to leave. I want you to understand that, Carmel. It was entirely her own decision.’
Carmel wanted to say, ‘I do not believe one word you’re saying,‘ and for the first time kept looking straight back into those dark, hooded eyes with no sense of fear and something more akin to a dislike verging on hatred. She left the office abruptly. Instead of going out to help Martha she sat in her cell so angry that all attempts at prayer were useless. If anything her anger increased.
She got up and went to a corridor window which looked down to the front and main entrance. She then saw one of the novices get out to open and close the big cast -iron gates as Bernard drove through in the black beetle Volkswagen. Suddenly, without hesitation she went down the garden to Martha the only sister with keys to Bernard’s office.
‘I have to phone Tricia.’
Martha was taken aback. ‘Bad news?’
‘I need to talk to her now.’
‘I could get the face ate off me for this,’ Martha said as she handed Carmel a bunch of keys showing her the office key.
‘I’ll explain later, Martha.’
Tricia took quite a while to lift the receiver. ‘Trish? Are you free?’
‘It’s you, Carmel?’
‘I’m free enough.’
‘Can you collect me?’’
‘Now. I’m leaving for good, or bad.’
‘You’re not joking are you?’
‘Thanks be to God, it’s about time.’
‘Bring a cardigan, skirt, underwear, shoes. That’s all I need.’
‘An extra case?’
‘No extra case. I came with nothing , I’ll leave with nothing.’
Back in the garden Martha was on the cushioned kneeler hand weeding onion sets. Carmel decided directness was the best way.
‘I’m leaving, Martha. Trish will be here in an hour or so.’
It was as though Martha hadn’t heard. She kept on weeding for about a minute then pushed herself to her feet with the kneeler handles. Rubbing one hand off the other she accepted the keys. Her face said it all and when she spoke her voice even more so. As she walked towards the polytunnel she sud-denly seemed to have the walk of an older woman. They drank tea and talked. Martha knew it was pointless trying to dissuade and had too much experience to ask about the whys and wherefores.
It was a long tea break, full of silences and sighs. ‘No smidgeens of doubt, girl?’
‘None, I’m leaving.’
‘You’ll be missed, badly. You’ll bid us farewell.’
‘That would be too hard. You do that for me, Martha.’ ‘You’ve no notion at all how much you’re loved here.’ ‘Mother Bernard Barrett?’
‘Bernard above all maybe!’
The door from the scullery opened. Tricia appeared with a case holding Isabel by the hand. The child broke free running down the flagged, sandstone path calling out Carmel’s name. They came out of the polytunnel.
As they watched Tricia approaching, Martha said: ‘Your sister’s the quare glamour puss this evening.’
‘She makes a lot of herself,’ Carmel said, and went to her cell.
She was changed and in the main hall as Martha and Tricia came in from the garden. There was awkward emotion at the massive front doors. Martha moved first by taking Carmel’s face in her two hands and saying as she kissed her forehead for the first and probably the last time:
‘God bless you, child, I’ll think of you and pray for you.’
‘And I for you, Martha, and I’ll visit.’
‘The ones that lave seldom do.’
On the way to Spanish Point, Isabel on Carmel’s knee was so full of childish questions, rambling stories and non sequiturs that she wore herself out quickly and fell asleep. Carmel bent down to smell the child’s hair. It brought back an immediate memory of their mother and childhood.
‘What a wonderful thing a child is.’
‘She’s all that and a tyrant along with it.’
‘You’re joking me, Trish, this beautiful wee thing.’
‘Ball and chain, still suckling at three and a half.’
‘Oh that’s too long.’
After a few minutes silence, Tricia asked; ‘Do you want to talk?’
‘That’s a very real person, the Martha one. I couldn’t place her accent?’
After a silence, Tricia said, ‘Probably why she’s down here.’
‘The fire.’ ‘What fire?’
‘You don’t know?’ ‘Nothing.’
‘Away back during the war, there was a fire in the Cavan convent. No bri-gade in the town, the place an inferno but the nuns wouldn’t open the doors.’
‘Can’t you guess. Men! Men not allowed! They could hear the nuns praying inside and the children screaming. A man called Kennedy had wit enough to get an axe and smash the door. Too late. Thirty-five children were burned.’
There was a long silence as Carmel remembered Martha’s emotion in the garden: ‘That’s one story I’ll never tell.’
‘She must have been a novice then,’ Carmel said. ‘God help her.’
‘God did help her and all the nuns. They got out, every one of them. They buried what was left of the thirty-five children, arms and legs mostly, in one grave. There was an enquiry. Faulty wiring they said. Back then no one dared say crazy nuns, everyone thought it though.’
Carmel was glad of the dark in the car.
‘That’s a cruel word to use about something so terrible.’
‘What one would you use?’
‘Tragic; misguided and tragic.’
During the silence that followed she put the back of her hand up to her chin to stop the tears from dripping down and waking Isabel and thought, I’m going to find work and apply to the Medical Missionaries. I will not live longer than I have to with this sister of mine.
After a while, Tricia said, ‘You’re going to get a bigger shock than Rip Van Winkle.’
‘Good or bad.’
‘We’ve grown up, the whole country’s different now. The church is out in the cold. It’s lost nearly all the young people and a lot of old ones too.’