‘The Virgin in the Walls’
Of the three girls Sister Pauline considered Deirdre Kerrigan to be the most dangerous. Of course Time would tell but in her twenty six years teaching at The Sacred Heart the good sister had always put her trust in the Lord where her pupils were concerned and she had never been wrong.
Bridget Murphy, with her flaming red hair and flawless complexion was cursed with the sin of Lust. Theresa O’Connell, mousey and mercifully shapeless in her elder sister’s faded green gingham dress already bore the mark of the sin of Sloth. She slouched at her desk, could never scribble so much as a single sentence without leaving a trail of ink blots on the page and, as Sister Pauline had noticed herself on more than one occasion, often appeared to doze whilst listening to the Scriptures. Then again perhaps it was the early stages of rapture, for wasn’t Theresa, unlike the Kerrigan girl, destined to be a Bride of Christ herself?
Yet for all their wicked ways the Murphy’s never missed a Mass. The O’Connell’s were the same; simple folk but good Catholics nonetheless. But the Kerrigan girl, as Sister Pauline could now only ever think of her, was different. With the Almighty’s help Bridget’s Lust would burn itself out on the embers of an early marriage and, God willing, a fruitful union. As for Sloth, well that too would soon be crushed under the strict routine of prayer and the manual labour once Theresa joined the novitiate. But Pride was another matter. Pride was, as the Sister had noted time and time again, the work of Satan himself.
This was why Sister Pauline argued so strongly against awarding Deirdre Kerrigan the school essay prize.
‘It would be for the second year running Reverend Mother,’ she said, ‘and surely we would be failing in our duty to be encouraging the child.’
The Reverend Mother replied that Deirdre’s essay on the miracle of St Bernadette had been an outstanding piece of work. Surely recognizing the girl’s efforts was doing no more than acknowledging that the Lord had given her a talent that she had obviously put to good use?
‘And of her ambition to be the country’s greatest ever writer? Whoever heard of such nonsense?’ argued Sister Pauline, adding that they should all be mindful of the canker of Pride in their midst.
The other nuns nodded. They too knew the signs, knew to be ever watchful. They also knew that girls like Deirdre Kerrigan had passed through Sacred Heart before and there was no reason to suppose that they would not continue to do so in the future. Most came to nothing. Ballymurry had no room for big ideas any more than it had room for dancehalls and cinemas. Life was simple and for the God fearing its’ choices were few. The Sisters saw no harm in reminding their charges that like the road that ran through the village, the paths of righteousness were equally narrow and with more than their fair share of potholes.
It was the story of the grisly discovery in the walls of the ruined convent in Kilgannon that now filled Deirdre’s note book with paragraph after paragraph of research and supposition. The story of St Bernadette and her miracles had been replaced with the on-going saga of the hapless nun and her tragic fate that kept her classmates on tenterhooks with each new breathless instalment. Although in her unformed hand the story changed daily the metaphor of the woman trapped behind the wall remained the same. Now, six weeks after the storm that had done all the damage had subsided, her best friends, Theresa and Bridget, were beginning to get fed up with her tales of novices falling in love with young priests and being punished for their sins.
‘You know I’m beginning to wonder if her name really was Catherine ?’ Deirdre said chewing the end of her pencil.
‘Why does it matter so much what her name was?’ Bridget Murphy tugged at an elastic band and shook her long red hair free from its ponytail. ‘It’s too hot to go walking all that way up to the ruin just to hear another one of your silly stories about a pile of old bones, and besides it happened in Kilgannon not here.’
‘They’re not silly stories,’ said Deirdre.
“They are so”. Bridget loosened her tie and undid the top button of her blouse. ‘Even Theresa thinks they’re silly don’t you Theresa?’
The smallest of the three girls blushed but said nothing.
‘See! What did I tell you? They must be daft if even an eejit like her thinks so.’
Deirdre said that it wasn’t just a story anymore. She had been giving the matter some serious thought, as writers were supposed to do.
'It’s more like a parable,' she said.
Theresa gasped and crossed herself. 'That's blasphemy,' she said. Bridget just shook out her hair and laughed.
'You spend too much time in that room of yours if you ask me', she said.
Deirdre started to speak then changed her mind. What was point? As far as Bridget and Theresa were concerned nobody walled-up nuns anymore so that was that and everything was fine. What they couldn’t see was that the truth was right there in front of their very eyes. Just because the walls were no longer physical didn’t mean that they didn’t exist. More and more these days she felt as if there was a great big one running all the way round their small village trapping her and all the women inside with no chance to escape.
She had confided this fact to Bridget who had given her the sort of look she usually reserved for Theresa’s endless comments on her plans to enter the convent.
‘And where would this wall of yours be then?’ she’d asked. ‘I’ve lived in Ballymurry for sixteen years and two months and know full well that on a clear day you can see all the way to Ballyporeen and beyond. You couldn’t be doing that if there was a wall around the place could you now?’
Back in her room that night Deirdre put the finishing touches to her story. The newspaper had clearly stated that the competition rules demanded it had to be no more than 2500 words long. Hers was exactly that. Not one word had been wasted in the telling of the tale of Sister Catherine and her love for the young priest.
‘This is my way out,’ she thought to herself folding the neatly typed manuscript and slipping it into the envelope. ‘This is my way through the wall.’
In her story they had shut Sister Catherine away because she had dared to make a choice between the life she was expected to live as a nun and the life she had every right to live as a woman. There would have been some sort of trial Deirdre supposed but nobody would have listened to her side of the story. Why only the other day Sister Pauline had said that just because science had disproved many of the miracles the fact that it could not actually prove they had happened was a sure sign of the Will of God at work.
Deirdre reasoned that Sister Catherine would have been powerless against such divine reasoning. All she would have had in her own defense would have been the evidence of her own heart. Not that this cut any ice with her friends when the following day, on their way back from school Deirdre suggested that they go up to the old ruin again.
‘We should say a prayer for Sister Catherine,’ she said.
‘It’s too late’ said Theresa who unlike Bridget had come to believe Deirdre’s story. Sister Catherine had been damned to eternity for her sins and she knew this to be a fact because Bishop Branagh had talked about Damnation in her bible class.
'Then we should pray for the baby,' Deirdre said
Both Bridget and Theresa stared at her open mouthed.
‘They found the bones of a baby in the walled up room,” she continued staring passed their astonished faces. “Just imagine how awful that must have been for her? To be walled up alive with her own child, the symbol of her love for the handsome young priest and hearing its feeble cries growing fainter and fainter as she slowly starved to death.’
‘She?’ Bridget wanted to know how Deirdre knew the baby was a girl?
‘She doesn’t,’ snapped Theresa. ‘There never was a baby.’
‘There was so!” Deirdre replied. ‘And it’s in my story.’
She reached into her satchel and pulled out “The Story of Sister Catherine.
‘It’s all in here.’ She held the sheets of paper towards Theresa.
‘Nobody said anything about a baby on the news programs.’ Theresa held her hands behind her back as if to touch the papers would be to risk Hell itself.
‘Well they wouldn’t would they. It’s not what Catholics want to hear.’
Theresa looked as if somebody had slapped her in the face.
‘Oh for God’s sake you two!’ said Bridget. She snatched the story out of Deirdre’s hand, sat herself down on the dusty bank at the side of the road and began to read aloud in the voice that she used to mimic Sister Pauline.
‘Are you sure this about Sister Catherine?’ she asked when she reached the end.
Deirdre said that it was, on the surface, but underneath it was about all women.
‘And Father Flannary,’ said Theresa. ‘It’s about you and Father Flannary and I think its disgusting so it is. A priest would never do a thing like that. It’s a sin and you’ll burn in Hell for this Deirdre Kerrigan’.
Bridget grabbed a fistful of Theresa’s hair and yanked her back down on to the bank.
‘Theresa O’Connell there isn’t one woman in Ballymurry who doesn’t fancy young Father Flannery’, she said. ‘And don’t you go rolling your eyes at me like that. Why even your own granny’s taken to wearing her false teeth to communion, so she has, and she never did that for Father Kenny, now did she?’
‘T’is so,’ said Theresa, tears welling in her eyes. ‘Anyway priests aren’t like other men. They’re above temptation. That’s why God chooses them.’
‘In that case God wouldn’t be choosing your brother Danny then’, Bridget laughed. ‘Twice he tried to put his hand down my blouse last Friday, Deirdre, twice! Imagine and him with the acne! And don’t you find that shocking with his baby sister here planning on becoming a nun and all that?’
Theresa Murphy struggled to her feet and stood with her arms folded over the crucifix that she wore outside her blouse. She was used to the other girls making fun of her ambition to become a Bride of Christ. But what else was there for any of them to do in Ballymurry except marry drunken hypocrites like her mother had done and have baby after baby after baby until your body just wore out and you looked like a sack of potatoes in an overall?
It was all very well Deirdre talking about books and Bridget talking about boys all the time but even in her own simple way Theresa knew that the reality for girls like them was either a kitchen full of snotty nosed children or the egg factory. Well, it wasn’t her fault if they were that stupid that they couldn’t see what was coming to them? Or was it? Was this her test she wondered? A test sent by the Almighty to prove her worthiness and save Bridget and Deirdre at the same time?
‘Sometimes,’ said Deirdre, ‘that temptation is so great that even priests couldn’t help themselves.
Theresa snorted and said that she didn’t think so.
Bridget just threw back her head and roared with laughter. ‘Don’t tell me Father Flannery felt you up in confession Deirdre Kerrigan!’
‘I away home,’ said Theresa.
‘That’s it Reverend Mother,’ Bridget called out after her. ‘And when you get there you be sure to tell that spotty brother of yours to keep his hands off my tits!’
Together they watched Theresa run back down the road towards the village.
‘Silly bitch’, said Bridget sucking on a stem of grass.
But Deirdre said nothing. With her writer’s eye she saw Theresa as little more than a frightened animal, an animal that had suddenly found itself on the outside of it’s cage and was now desperately trying to find a way back into captivity. She saw the empty satchel bobbing up and down as the girl fled into in the distance, getting smaller and smaller as if crushed to a speck under the weight of her angels and the sins of the world. This would never happen to her. Deirdre Kerrigan would be somebody, someday, somewhere; anywhere but Ballymurry.
Bridget sat up and watched Deirdre watching Theresa making her way down the hill as if the devil himself was at her heels. Whilst she thought it was a crazy idea to go locking yourself away in a convent she could understand why it would appeal to somebody like Theresa whose whole life seemed to consist of one genuflection followed by another. But with Deirdre she could never understand what it was that made her so desperate to escape. Ballymurry wasn’t that bad a place. You could get to Waterford and back in a day if you had the mind to change buses three times each way.
There were also a couple of small factories and the egg place where most of the women who weren’t pregnant worked. And so what if it rained a lot? There were parts of the world where it never rained at all and look what miserable places they were! Always asking for money they were too.
But none of this seemed to matter to Deirdre. She had this dream about being a writer and whilst Bridget agreed that dreams were nice things to have she wondered what happened when they didn’t come true? Mrs Murphy had said that if Deirdre wasn’t careful then she’d end up being left on the shelf. No man liked a woman who thought she knew more than he did.
‘Look what happened to Eve,’ her mother had said.
It was now two weeks since she had sent her story into the competition and every morning Deirdre waited for the post to arrive. Perhaps they would have written back sooner had she put a stamped addressed envelope in with it. At least that way they could have put her out of her misery. As it was with every day that the postman cycled straight passed the Kerrigan’s gate, Deirdre felt herself becoming more and more invisible, as if she was fading away along with the hope inside her. She wondered if this was how Sister Catherine felt when she realised that nobody would rescue her from behind the wall.
Bridget did her best to cheer her up. She let Deirdre be the first person to hear of her engagement to Theresa’s cousin Billy O’Sullivan. She even let her try on the ring.
‘It’s a beauty isn’t it?’ Bridget tried turning the diamond this way and that in an attempt to get the small stone to catch the light. She said that she had to keep it on a string round her neck at the moment as they hadn’t told their parents yet.
‘Mind you how much longer I’ll be able to keep the rest secret is anybody’s guess.’ She patted her stomach and Deirdre’s jaw dropped.
‘Three months.’ she said. ‘Still I don’t suppose we’ll be the first bride and groom in Ballymurry with an extra guest at the wedding do you? Just think, four hundred years ago it could have me behind your silly old wall. Thank God the worlds changed a bit since then eh? You know in Dublin they let women actually drive cars so they do.’
At school Sister Pauline smiled secretly at Deirdre’s disappointment and delivered yet another stinging lecture on the sin of Pride. She told them all how Lucifer had been the brightest angel and still been cast down into the fiery pit of Hell. The Reverend Mother was more sympathetic. She suggested praying to the Virgin Mother for guidance.
But how could you pray to a God who decreed that young women should be walled up and starved to death thought Deirdre? And wasn’t that what was happening now, today, in Ballymurry and thousands of other places just like it? The walls may not have been of stone any more, but they were still there, cutting them off, hemming them in; suffocating them all slowly.
That night as she sat at her desk a movement outside caught Deirdre’s eye and she looked up in time to see the night clouds broken up by a sudden wind and the late evening sky emerged the colour of the Virgins mantle with its’ hem on fire.
'It’s a sign', she said and immediately cursed herself for being little better than Theresa who once claimed to have seen the face of St Agnes in a cloud.
She heard the clock in the steeple of St Patrick’s define the hour and looked down into the street below just in time to see Father Flannery tuck his hands in his sleeves and head home into the shadows. For a moment Deirdre wondered if he had looked up and seen her, golden, there at her window, just as the young priest had seen Sister Catherine in her story and that night she slept comforted by the thought of their eyes meeting oh so briefly.
The following morning Deirdre was surprised to find her parents sitting in the Reverend Mothers office. At first she’s thought Sister Barbara had called her out of class because the great news had finally come and the Reverend Mother had wanted to tell her in person. But then she saw that her mother’s eyes were red with weeping and her father sat, straight backed with his fists clenched on his knees, his face a blank.
Bishop Branagh was standing black against the light of the window with his back towards them. On the desk she saw a few typed pages and knew at once it could only be one thing. For a minute she thought again that she had won but another look at her parents, one broken and one silently defiant, told her another story.
‘Sit down my child,’ The Reverend Mother signaled to an empty chair.
His Grace turned, looked directly at her and spoke immediately of his great distress and disappointment. He said that the Church had to take a certain responsibility for what had happened. There was always a risk in appointing a young and inexperienced man to such a position so early in his ecclesiastical career. He also thanked God that a right-minded person had seen fit to warn the Reverend Mother of such a disgusting document in the first instance.
‘Naturally’, he added, ‘I have spoken with the editor and there is no question of such a story ever being considered for publication.’ He added that he was also saddened Deirdre had seen fit not to follow the teachings of the Holy Sisters on the subject of chastity but he hoped that with guidance her repentance would be genuine and absolute.
‘It was a story,’ Deirdre said quietly.
The Bishop smiled and slowly tore the pages into tiny precise strips.
‘There is an aunt I believe,’ he said talking over her head.
Deirdre’s father nodded and said, ‘In Killarney’.
His wife clutched his hand.
‘And the necessary arrangements have been made with St Theresa’s?’
The Reverend Mother nodded and Bishop Branagh called it ‘Deidre’s second chance’.
‘I said, it was a story Your Grace’, Deirdre said, ‘That’s all it ever was. I swear to God it was about the bones they found after the storm blew the wall down in Kilgannon. I swear to God I haven’t….not with Father Flannery! Not with anybody!’
‘It goes without saying,’ he said ignoring her, ‘that the young man will be moved to another parish, somewhere larger where he will enjoy the support of older more experienced clergy and have time to reflect on the gravity of the situation. I believe we should all thank the Almighty for his infinite mercy.’
Everybody nodded except Deirdre.
Then her mother spoke. She said, in a voice a little above a whisper that she hoped Father Flannery would find it in his heart to forgive her daughter for the terrible thing that she had done.
On the way out they passed Theresa
O’Connell in the hallway. She crossed herself and looked the other way.
The school minibus is waiting at the foot of the hill. Sister Catherine raises her hand. She calls to the stragglers to be quick or they will be left behind. It feels strange for her to be back in Ballymurry after all this time. She hadn’t wanted to come but the Reverend Mother had said it was God’s Will that she should.
Young Deirdre O’Sullivan says she is out of breath with the running but wants to know if this is the place where they found the dead lady?
Sister Catherine ceases to smile. That was a long time ago she says and besides it is best not to think of such things.
‘My nanna said she’d cried when she read the newspaper,’ says the child. ‘Because they’d been to the same school and the dead lady used to be her friend and all. Now my nanna says she’s in hell twice over because she had brought disgrace on her family and she had killed herself and her baby.
Young Danny O’Sullivan pushes his sister out of the way. ‘She died because her heart broke,’ he says taking Sister Catherine by the hand and jumping on to the step of the bus. ‘How can your heart break? It’s not like it’s made of glass or anything is it Sister?’
The nun says no but sometimes it can feel as if it has. She ruffles his flaming hair, hair she remembers being the same colour as his nanna’s and the voices come back to her of three girls from a time when their stories were all unfinished.
The girl says they wanted to say a prayer but they couldn’t remember the lady’s name. She thinks it might have been Theresa something or other and Sister Catherine nods and says that it was indeed.
‘And I believe your nanna had another friend called Deirdre’ she adds, ‘The same name as you, who wanted nothing more in the world than to be a writer. Maybe your nanna has spoken of her too?’
The children look at each other then shake their heads. They say that perhaps she is dead as well. After all nanna is terribly old.
And as the bus pulls out of Ballymurry with its ruin on the hill, Sister Catherine looks neither to the left nor the right but looking straight ahead tries to see all the way to Ballyporeen and beyond. But her tears get in the way. All she can see is a sky the colour of the Virgin’s mantle with its hem on fire.
@copyright Ian Ashley 2014
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