‘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?’

‘That’s different.’

‘T’is not!’

‘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.

‘You mean…?’

‘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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