Excuse me, Father Diamond said. Behind him the sacristy door opened and Stella Morrison came out, her arms full of dying flowers. She stepped into a band of sunshine that streamed through the high windows of the south wall and for a moment she was wrapped in gold. Father Diamond turned and looked at her, the sunlight woven through her hair and spilling on the sheaf of fading roses and gloriosa lilies that she carried. She genuflected briefly in the direction of the altar and said: look, the last flowers we were allowed and now they’re dead. She went on down the aisle to the main door. Excuse me, he said again to Mrs. Armitage, I can hear the minutes of the council meeting calling, I’d better love you and leave you, I’m afraid. Oh but, she said, but Father, I did want to have a word with you about the candle grease on that new surplice, and she put her hand firmly on the sleeve of his soutane.
Mary-Margaret O’Reilly watched Father Diamond’s disappearing back less wistfully than usual as he followed Mrs. Armitage into the sacristy. She had been waiting for this moment, for this quiet, empty church. Now was the perfect chance. Mrs. Armitage had finished with her sweeping and her polishing; the great mop she used, stiff and black with floor wax, was back in the cupboard in the porch. If Mary-Margaret could get the job done now, and quickly, she’d have things shipshape before Father D put up the purple shrouds. She’d hate to think he’d see the dirt that she had noticed when she was gouging candle wax out of the pricket stands.
The problem was she could not find the ladder. She had thought there was one in the cupboard. But a chair would have to do instead. She took one from the back of the church and carried it through to the Chapel of the Holy Souls. There, with a silent prayer of apology for offense unwittingly caused, she stepped out of her shoes, climbed on the chair and from it onto the altar. She would change the white cloth later. Now she was face-to-face with Him, their eyes were level.
It had been difficult to choose the right materials for the task. Flash was far too harsh and so was Mr. Muscle. Fairy liquid, maybe? No, she felt this called for something special and, having rejected Boots as ordinary, she decided on the Body Shop at the top of the King’s Road. The mingled scents she found there befuddled her a little, and she wasn’t sure what to say to the powdery lady who bore down on her with an offer of help and a sample of glow enhancer. But she stood her ground and found the shelves of brightly colored bottles arrayed under the heading BODY CARE.
There was such a range to choose from. Papaya, clementine and starflower; fig, mango, passion fruit and melon. He had cursed a fig tree, hadn’t He? Passion fruit perhaps? That might be suitable. The wounds, the crown of thorns. But when she sniffed it she felt the scent was far too womanly; He would want something cleaner and more masculine. Essence of pine? Would that make Him think of home, of wood, the shavings from His father’s workbench, fat blond curls of clean-cut timber, or the wood of His own cross? Hang on though, was that not made of olive? Of course. Now she saw it was entirely obvious. Body wash with extract of virgin olive. Olives must have been his bread and meat.
The containers came in two sizes; she chose the smaller. It was still expensive. She also bought a pot of olive body cream.
The air was still and heavy in the church; sunlight, which had glistened briefly, gone. Mary-Margaret had already soaked the sponge she’d been carrying all week in Holy Water. It was a real sponge, the organic kind, not the nasty blue or pink thing you would use to clean the bath. It too had been expensive but she knew that it was necessary and, like the olive oil, would make Him feel at home. That is, if the sponge came from the Red Sea as she thought all sponges did. Or was it from the Dead? Well, in any case. The sponge absorbed all the water in the stoup, leaving nothing for the visiting faithful, but that could not be helped. Father Diamond would refill it later, she was sure. Now, standing on the altar, she took the wet sponge from the sandwich bag in which she had temporarily stowed it, and transferred it to the little plastic bowl she had also been carrying in her shopping bag. She unscrewed the cap of the body wash and poured half of it onto the sponge. It was not easy to do this while balancing on the altar, trying to hold the bowl at the same time. She could have done with an extra hand.
She began with His poor, wounded head, so cruelly pierced with thorns. With infinite tenderness she stroked the frothing sponge across His matted hair, around the rim of the torturers’ crown. His eyelids drooping with tiredness and pain, His nose, His cheekbones taut beneath the skin, His beautiful, suffering mouth. The length of each arm straining from the crossbeam; His hands most horribly pinioned to the wood. She had packed a J-cloth, already moistened, this time with mineral water, and a dry one too for the rinse and final polish. As she wiped away the grime that had settled on His palms, going carefully around the rusty nails, she imagined that she soaked away His pain and sorrow as a mother would. His mother, or her own. She saw a child perching on the white rim of a bathtub, small grazed hands held out to gentle adult ones, trusting them to wash away the hurt with cooling water, make it better with a kiss. This picture was not a memory of her own. She pressed her lips briefly to His hands.
She could hardly bring herself to touch the deep gash in His side. His ribs protruded so painfully through His flesh, it was as if He had starved to death upon the cross. Years ago the nuns had told her how a person died from crucifixion. In effect He suffocated, exhausted from heaving Himself up against the agony of the nails for every breath. No one should be able to contemplate His passion and stay dry-eyed, the nuns had said, and Mary-Margaret could not; not then, nor ever. Now, dabbing at the dirt that overlaid His emaciated chest, her eyes were overflowing.
At the cloth that covered His loins she paused. The sculpted folds fell gracefully; after she had washed them they glowed white again, as they must have done when new. She wiped the froth away and dried them. To clean His legs and feet she knelt down on the altar. Those crossed feet pierced through by a single cruel nail. She remembered Mary of Magdala drying them with her hair; long it must have been, and flowing; long enough for her to wrap it round His feet as she bent over them, for she would not have dared to raise them to her head. Mary-Margaret’s hair was too short to be used as anything other than a mop.
What was nard, she wondered, the pure nard that Mary of Magdala had got into such trouble for, when she poured it over His dear head? Probably it was very like the cream in the green pot she now took from her shoulder bag—buttery and thick and costly. Rich with the scent of herbs. Not simply olive, she imagined, but the others in the Gospels: hyssop, aloe, myrrh.
On the narrow altar she struggled back onto her feet, feeling a little giddy. The tiled floor beneath her suddenly seemed a long way down. By accident she knocked the plastic bowl, spilling the remaining foam. She tore the seal off the green pot, opened it and scooped up some of the ointment with her fingers. With endless love and reverence she stroked His sacred head. There were scabs where the thorns were rammed right through the scalp. She felt warmth against her hand. When she lifted it from His wounds she saw that it was red.
That evening Stella Morrison did not tell her husband Rufus that she had found poor Mary-Margaret unconscious on the floor of a side chapel. It would have been so easy to miss her, lying there in the dim light; it must have been some extra sense that prompted Stella to look right on her way back to the sacristy. That and the faint trace of an unfamiliar smell, something sickly and synthetic overriding the eternal ghost of incense that breathed out of the church walls. She had only gone back for her forgotten car keys, but she had looked, and she had seen a body sprawled there on its side, one arm flung out, a halo of blood around its head. She had thought that it was dead.
Poor Mary-Margaret, with her elasticated denim skirt scrumpled up about her thighs, her flesh-colored knee-high socks. Stella had checked that she was breathing, and called an ambulance. She had remembered that she must not move the body, in case of spinal damage. She had run to fetch Mrs. Armitage, who, thank goodness, was still in the sacristy with Father Diamond. Together they watched over Mary-Margaret, the three of them kneeling round her, until some kindly paramedics came and carried her away. Stella had to leave then because she was already late for her meeting with the volunteers of the Citizens Advice Bureau. Mrs. Armitage had cleaned up the mess all on her own. Well, Mary-Margaret was already two sandwiches short of a full picnic, Mrs. Armitage had said. Lord knows what she’ll be like now.
Stella did not tell Rufus anything of this because she knew he would not be interested. And he would not have time in any case to listen. He didn’t get back from the House that night until eleven o’clock, and he was hungry. Stella was hungry too, but Rufus expected her to wait for him; he disliked eating on his own. She cooked fillets of trout with tarragon and crushed potatoes, and she listened while Rufus talked about the crisis over MPs’ expense claims. It would be an outrage if they took away the second-home allowance. What were people like him supposed to do, when they had constituencies miles away, in Dorset? If you pay peanuts you get monkeys, Rufus said.
Mrs. Armitage told her husband Larry every detail. How Stella had come rushing to the sacristy, her face ghostly white. Mary-Margaret’s pink-sprigged knickers. She still could not work out what Mary-Margaret was doing. There was a chair toppled over by the altar, the altar cloth all twisted, a Tupperware bowl lying on the floor, a soapy sponge, a J-cloth. The oddest thing was the big smudge on the altar cloth, which looked like the print of a hand that had been dipped in paint. Or blood. There had been a quantity of blood seeping from Mary-Margaret’s head but, as she had said reassuringly to Stella and Father Diamond, you would expect that; head wounds always bled a lot. How, though, had Mary-Margaret managed to get blood on the cloth as well? Had she staggered up after she had fallen and grabbed the cloth before crashing down again? If she had, there would surely be spots of blood all over the shop. Well, it was a mystery, but not an especially entertaining one; not one to mull over in her mind for long. Mrs. Armitage had fetched a fresh altar cloth from the sacristy and taken the stained one home to wash.
In the small brick presbytery behind the church, Father Diamond ate the supper his housekeeper had left for him—peppered mackerel and coleslaw. Tonight was a rare night, without parish commitments; he supposed he would go to bed early, make up for much-needed sleep. But once he was in bed, sleep mocked him, playing catch-me-if-you-can and slipping from his grasp just when he thought he’d caught it. He was constantly surprised by how alert the mind could stay when the body was expecting sleep. And the senses too; each magnifying the elements in its particular orbit. The wind, which in truth could not be much more than a breeze, became a gale, the sound of the traffic on Battersea Bridge a roar. The light from the streetlamp outside that edged his window blind was too bright for his eyes. In the morning, when his alarm clock woke him, his bed would be comfortable but now it felt as if the sheets were made of fiberglass and the pillow stuffed with stones. He tried every trick he knew to entrap sleep. Keeping one’s eyes wide open in the dark was said to be infallible, but it never worked for him. Tensing every muscle in the body slowly, starting with the toes of the right foot and working upward to the face before relaxing all of them in one swift rush was another recommended fail-safe. But Father Diamond found it only made him conscious of his body. So he tossed and wriggled, and meanwhile his mind whirred on and on like a machine with a faulty off switch.
Thank the Lord for Mrs. Armitage, he thought. She was so reliable, turning up every Thursday morning with her mops and buckets, carting home stained albs and altar cloths, returning them the next week in piles as crisp and clean as newly fallen snow. And asking for nothing in return, except for conversation, which, it must be said, tended to be prolonged. But, even so, salt of the earth. Good of her to clean up all the mess in the Souls Chapel: what could that silly woman have been doing? If Mrs. Armitage was a right chatterbox, Stella Morrison was an icon of silence. The sunlight streaming down on her, and her arms full of flowers. Stella, he said out loud. He loved the sound of that word. Stella maris. Mater admirabilis, rosa mystica. Stella.
No one thought of telling Mary-Margaret’s mother that her daughter was in hospital until Mary-Margaret herself came round to her full senses at about six o’clock that evening. Fidelma O’Reilly answered the telephone beside the armchair in which she had sat all day. She might as well stay there, she thought. It was too late to be facing all that kerfuffle on her own. Hauling herself out of the armchair, reaching her bedroom, sloughing off the outer layer of clothes. No, there was no point; she might as well stay where she was till morning. She had everything that she might need. A flask of tea, a packet of chocolate-covered digestive biscuits, her Winstons. She sat wedged in her chair and looked out of the window over the streets of Battersea to Wandsworth, where darkness had long fallen. Across the way a tower block, the twin of hers; columns and rows of rectangular windows, lit up like bisected screens. People going about their lives behind them. Fidelma leaned forward to unlatch her own window and push it open. It did not open very far. She knew why: imagine if all the people in all these blocks were able to throw their windows wide and stand upon their sills, rocking slowly back and forward on their heels while the London traffic crawled beneath them and beneath them too the wheeling gulls. No, she could see why the windows were designed to let in no more than an inch or two of outside air. But it was air enough. Up here on the nineteenth floor, with the window open, the wind blew in like a housebreaker, searching underneath the chairs to find what might be hidden there, lifting the curtains in case someone stood behind them. It rustled through the pages of the Radio Times as if it needed to read them in a hurry. Fidelma saluted the wind. At home it had been her daily companion, although there it was at the level of the ground. Brothers and sisters the winds must be, a whole gang of them, scouring the world for lost things, like the children of Lir. With the strong wingbeats of swans. When they fly overhead, the swans, no sound then but their wings. And that a sound so surprising in its loudness. Thunder almost. Swans and wind. The winds were the same winds all through time, all through the world. Born when the world was made, trapped by it like wild birds in bell glass, their wings forlornly beating, forced to roam around it until the end of time.
© 2011 Francesca Kay
The Translation of the Bones
When word gets out that Mary-Margaret O’Reilly, a somewhat slow-witted but apparently harmless young woman, may have been witness to a miracle, religious mania descends on the Church of the Sacred Heart by the River Thames in Battersea, London. The consequences will be profound, not only for Mary-Margaret herself but for others too—Father Diamond, the parish priest, who is in the midst of his own lonely crisis of faith, and Stella Morrison, adrift in a loveless marriage and aching for her ten-year old son, away at boarding school. Meanwhile another mother, Alice Armitage, counts the days until her soldier son comes home from Afghanistan, and Mary-Margaret’s mother, Fidelma, imprisoned in her tower block, stares out over London through her window for hour after hour with nothing but her thoughts for company.
This is an exquisite novel about passion and isolation, about the nature of belief, about love and motherhood and a search for truth that goes tragically wrong. Mary-Margaret’s desperate attempt to prove that Jesus loves her will change lives in a shocking way. Can anything that is good come out of it; can faith survive sacrifice and pain?
Francesca Kay has crafted a novel that is by turns sly and profound. Her crystalline prose unlocks secrets about our capacity to believe and to love. She is a writer who surprises and delights with her language and her stories.
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Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel has an impressive cast of characters who see the world in very different ways and yet Kay treats each of them with real compassion. Which characters were most difficult for you to sympathize with and why?
2. What is the significance of the title? Technically speaking, to translate bones is to move holy relics from one resting place to another. What significance do you think the title has in relation to the book?
3. Kay writes beautifully about the ways in which people connect—be it within a family or through the church or a neighborhood—and writes with particular passion about the bond between mothers and their children. What might it be about that relationship, and the different forms it takes, that was so compelling to the author? How did that come across?
4. Late in the novel, Kay evokes Luke 23:29: “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bear, and the breasts that never gave suck. For if the end of loving is sorrow beyond bearing, is i see more