Authors: Deirdre Madden
For my sister, Angela Madden
The circumstances of Jane’s early life were so tragic and romantic that at one time she drew solace from thinking that it might all be an elaborate fiction and that a happier truth would one day be revealed. She was an only child who had lived with her parents in a small house at the edge of the city, and at the age of two she fell ill: very seriously ill. It was even thought that she might die. And one night, when Jane was in hospital, her mother and father were both burnt to death in a fire which completely destroyed their family home. Shortly after that the little girl made an unexpected recovery from her illness, and on leaving hospital she went to live with her aunt, a tailoress who was much less upset by the death of her sister-in-law and her brother than she was by the necessity of taking her tiny orphaned niece under her comfortless wing.
The little girl’s health remained poor, and for the next three years her life in her aunt’s home was frequently interrupted by periods spent in hospital, a time she could later hardly remember. Of her aunt’s house she retained a few vague, comforting images such as how she would sit in an upstairs alcove where the window was set with panes of coloured glass, and from there she could watch the common city sparrows become magical birds, stained red or green or blue as they hopped along the sill. She also remembered the white attic where she slept, and where she also spent most of her waking hours.
Much of the house frightened her. Most frightening of all was her aunt’s workroom, with its vicious treadle sewing machine, the long, cruel-looking shears and, worst of all, the Judy: a huge headless, armless, legless thing of female shape, with long pins stuck into its stout baize breast. She thought of it as an independent creature and imagined that every night it moved malevolently up and down the workroom. Yet because
of its daytime stillness and solidity she also saw it as a dead thing. She once tried to befriend it by thinking of it simply as ‘Judy’, but her aunt insisted upon the sinister prefix, and so the fear remained.
But what she remembered most significantly of her aunt’s house were the long, long empty hours of silence. Her aunt was plainly not interested in her. She spoke to Jane only when it was absolutely necessary, otherwise she ignored her.
Hospital was not much worse than home. She remembered a clown who had come to the ward one day. He had made her laugh, but she was frightened of him too. She remembered excessive warmth, sweet drinks and fat black grapes, but above all she remembered being sick: remembered pain, vomiting, hallucinatory dreams and the horrifying sight of her own blood. Her treatment was almost as bad as the illness itself. Habitually they forced her to swallow medications which were bitter and dry in her mouth; they injected the base of her spine; they took blood samples from the crook of her arm; and when she was undressed and the doctors examined her, touching her body with brisk indifference, she would weep with loneliness and humiliation.
Sometimes when her pain was not too severe she would call out for her mother. She heard the other children do this. But when she suffered really intense physical pain, she forgot such niceties. Then she would simply scream and scream.
When Jane reached the age of five, her aunt used her ill health as an excuse to send the child away to a convent boarding school. She tried to engage Jane’s sense of gratitude by telling her constantly of the great expense which this entailed. For a while Jane was indeed awed by the amount of money required for her fees, books and uniform; but this was sharply undercut when she saw the uniform itself. The gymslip was an ugly thing of heavy bottle-green worsted, and when she thought of the fine stuffs with which her aunt usually worked Jane thought that she had either been lying about the expense, or that she had been duped.
She would never forget the day on which she was first taken to the convent. Her aunt rang the bell, there was a shuffle of
approaching feet; and then the heavy wooden door was swung open by a very small nun. She ushered them into the dim hallway, and they waited there for the Reverend Mother who, on her arrival, patted Jane on the head and then retired to a little parlour on the left of the hallway to speak with Jane’s aunt.
The little nun (who told her that her name was Sister Imelda) then took Jane by the hand and led her down a long, bright corridor which ran at right angles to the hallway. As the child stepped into the corridor she gasped: she felt that she was in a tunnel filled with dazzling light, which destroyed time and space. There was height, coolness, paleness and the smell of flowers. When they came to the end of the corridor she wanted to say to the nun, ‘That was like being nowhere.’
Sister Imelda had brought her to the chapel. Jane genuflected clumsily and knelt down at a pew of honey-coloured wood. She said a little prayer, then looked around her. The chapel was smaller, brighter and much, much cleaner than any of the city churches which she had attended with her aunt. The walls were pale blue, and on the east side tall french windows gave on to an orderly garden.
‘Why is there a bird there?’ she whispered loudly, pointing to a dove of white stone which was fixed above the altar.
‘That’s the Holy Ghost. He’s the special patron of our congregation. We’re the Little Sisters of the Paraclete.’ Seeing the child open her mouth she anticipated the question and added quickly, ‘Paraclete is another name for the Holy Ghost.’
The nun took Jane by the hand and led her out of the airy chapel, back down the beautiful corridor. This time she was not so dazzled that she was unable to appreciate the details. One entire side of the passage was glass from floor to ceiling and was hung with long white muslin curtains, some of which were buoyed up by waves of soft air from the open windows behind them. The grey marble floor was brilliantly polished; the wooden ceiling was high, curved and dark. Along the wall which faced the windows were religious statues of painted plaster which stood upon wooden plinths, and before each one
there was a vase of flowers and a burning candle. The statues were interspersed with large paintings of religious subjects in ornate gilt frames; and the symmetry and the stillness of it all greatly pleased the child.
When they reached the parlour, they found that her aunt had already left.
Sister Imelda gave Jane some food to eat, and later took her upstairs to the dormitory. ‘The other little girls will be here tomorrow,’ she said, indicating five empty beds.
‘Where are they now?’ Jane asked as she sat down on the sixth bed.
‘Now? Why, they’re still at home with their mammys and daddys.’
‘I haven’t got a mammy or a daddy,’ she said, and was surprised when Sister Imelda refuted this.
‘Of course you have a mammy and a daddy. Everyone has parents.’ And the nun then told her that all the other little girls would soon be obliged to leave their mammys and daddys. Jane’s parents would still be with her, and were with her always, watching over her constantly, even while she slept. This was a new idea to Jane, and a very strange one. Sister Imelda added that anyone who believed in God need never be lonely. ‘God is our Father in Heaven, and Mary is our divine Mother. And think too of all the host of saints and angels: they’re our brothers and sisters. And aren’t I your sister too? Don’t you call me sister?’
Jane was not quite convinced by this line of reasoning, but she thought that it would be rude to say so. The following day, however, when the other little girls arrived with their parents, she was suddenly won round to Sister Imelda’s way of seeing things. Jane hung back and covertly watched these real mothers, some of whom were plain, bossy lipsticked creatures in dowdy clothes; and these real fathers, some of whom looked shifty, stupid or cruel. Suddenly she was glad that she did not have such parents. She thought of her own mother who she now believed was also there. The scent of flowers in the pale corridor, that was her mother, and she was also the breeze that
lifted the muslin curtains and the sunlight that streamed through the chapel’s high windows, gilding the white stone dove.
Jane adapted easily to school life, for she was a docile and obedient child. The nuns noticed that she was extraordinarily self-contained, and that she made friends but not close friends. If anyone mistreated her, she simply ignored them. She also became extremely religious, and was often to be found wandering up and down the pale corridor, looking at the pictures and statues. One of the paintings showed St Francis of Assisi, diminutive and dark. He stood in his brown habit and sandals upon a hillside, arms upraised, and a long row of swallows swooped above his head in a delicate arc. Sister Imelda taught her the poem which he had written about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and she used to think of it as she sat outside in the ordered garden. She told Sister Imelda that when she grew up she too wanted to be a nun.
The sisters first began to have trouble with Jane when she was nine years old, and developed the habit of taking the other little girls aside to tell them of her unfortunate infancy. She did this with a daemonic combination of eloquence and detachment, persisting with her story until her small listeners were crying and afraid. Eventually, Sister Imelda overheard her steady and calculated discourse and, although familiar with the child’s background, the method of the telling chilled her. Jane was taken aside and sternly reprimanded; and when she persisted in behaving this way, more discreetly but also more often, she was severely punished. Yet still she would not stop. She loved manipulating the other little girls. Every time she told her story she felt as if she was leading the unsuspecting children to a vast black pit, and when she had taken them right to the edge, she would suddenly draw back and abandon them there. She craved their pity and their sense of horror; and at the same time she utterly despised the other little girls for allowing her to induce these feelings in them. It was her tragedy, and she was never so weak as to cry for the loss of her parents.
When she was twelve, she was confirmed. The nuns took
great pains to prepare the children for the sacrament, telling them of the first descent of the Holy Spirit, of the great wind which went through the house where the apostles waited; and of the tongues of fire which appeared above their heads. In the chapel, Jane looked at the stone dove and thought of how God’s spirit would descend upon her. She thought that the other children did not realize the significance of this, but she knew that nothing could be more important.
She would never forget the ceremony. She waited in line, watching the bishop who was dressed in cloth of gold move slowly along the altar rails, confirming all the children. The bright church was filled with the sound of singing, and with the rich spicy smell of incense. And when the bishop came to her, time stopped. In the moment when he smeared chrism upon her forehead and touched her face gently with his fingers everything was contained: her mother and father’s lives and deaths, her own past and all her unknown future, the love of her dead parents and the love of God: a feeling of simple peace and wholeness such as she had never known before. And in that moment her senses left her, so that she could no longer hear the choir or smell the incense or see the light. In that silent, scentless darkness she could only feel a hand upon her shoulder, and she did not believe that it was her sponsor. She believed that her dead mother stood behind her, and this consciousness of her mother’s presence was overwhelming. It made death irrelevant, and when she returned blindly to her place in the body of the church, her heart was flooded with joy.
That joy carried her along for the rest of the day. They drank tea and ate buns in the school hall, and Sister Imelda was pleased to see how happy – ecstatic, even – Jane was, for she had feared that the loneliness of her orphaned state would have deeply affected her on that day. Later, however, when the nun noticed that the child had vanished, she felt uneasy. She sought Jane out in all the empty rooms of the school until at last she found her in the deserted chapel. Her joy was all gone. She was standing by a statue before which a row of little candles burned, and she looked white and shocked. Her right hand was wedged
hard under her left arm, and she slowly rocked herself backwards and forwards. Through the french windows came voices and laughter as the other little girls and their parents took photographs in the garden.
‘What is it, Jane? Tell me, dear, what happened.’ But the child would not speak and when Sister Imelda tried to touch her, she jerked away.
She would not tell the nun that she had stolen happily away from the crowd to pray for her parents, but in lighting a candle for their dead souls she had accidentally burnt her fingers.
She changed after her confirmation. Now she found that when she was standing in front of the statue of Our Lady in the pale corridor she wanted more than the simple belief which she already had. She wanted Our Lady to step down warm with life from the wooden plinth; to feel herself being wrapped in her maternal embrace.
As she became older, she found it harder to maintain a steady belief in her parents and with adolescence came terrifying moments when her faith was shaken and she would suddenly think that there was no God. Our Lady and Christ himself had either never existed, or else they had all been something other than what people said they were. And there was no God because she had no parents. She, in herself, was a proof of the void, because of her motherless and fatherless state. It was so easy to believe in death and in emptiness, and so hard to believe in things for which she did not have physical proof, things which she had not seen.
It depressed her greatly that she had no memories of her parents. The fire in which they died had also destroyed all family photographs, and so she did not even know how her mother had looked. She would look at and touch her own body, telling herself that her mother had once existed in just such a form, but she could never really understand this. If only she could remember or imagine a swathe of scented hair, or a warm hand webbed with fine blue veins, then everything would have been so different.