“Don’t you dare,” she said to the gap in the skirting boards where she sometimes saw a grey mouse poke its head out.
It was the priest’s first meal in her home, the modest weatherboard Mike and Annie had bought two years ago, after they got married. Annie had just turned 21. It wasn’t that she didn’t know Monsignor Ryan, but she’d only recently joined the church guild and started to do what married women do. Like providing breakfast when the priest visited their town for a special morning service. She knew it was an initiation; she’d married a non-Catholic, and while Mike had converted it didn’t mean he’d been accepted or that Annie had been forgiven.
The breakfast was just the beginning.
It was too soon to boil the kettle; the priest usually stopped off at the old folks’ home before he had breakfast. Annie had read the manual and gone over the instructions in her head many times.
The room should be clean and neat, with a table and two chairs. One chair is for his coat. Prepare a small bowl of warm water for his hands and a towel. Knock before entering and address him as Monsignor. “Excuse me, Monsignor, would you like another cup of tea?” She spoke the words grandly, holding her skirt out, sashaying around the table. “A mouse, sir? You saw a mouse? No….”
All the women knew exactly what this particular priest liked, how much, when and with what. Not Annie. She was nervous. She wished Mike could be there. Helping out in the kitchen, watching the toast, warming the teapot. He could even chat to Monsignor if something wasn’t ready and the priest had to wait. But her husband would be long gone; a farmer’s day began well before 9 a.m.
“For goodness’ sake, he’s just a man,” Mike had said, watching her set the table the night before. “Anyone would think Liz and Phil were coming over.” Then he’d laughed. “Sorry love, wrong church.”
“Mike, please, it’s not a joke. I’ve got to get this right.”
“You will. With porridge like yours…” Her lip quivered. She didn’t know if he was teasing her again.
“Annie darlin,’ it’s not a joke.” He sighed and put out his arms. “Come over here. You really shouldn’t worry.”
This time she smiled and went to him. She knew he loved her—marrying against his parents’ wishes, taking on her church. She couldn’t expect him to be someone he wasn’t, see things the way she did. Never questioning what she was taught. At night, when he slept beside her, his hand holding hers or resting on her thigh, she worried about him. Worried about what she would need from him. His patience, his understanding.
When she’d told her mother how serious she and Mike were, Peg O’Brien had been dismayed. “Why would you marry a non-Catholic, Annie?” she’d demanded. “What if he won’t convert? He’ll have to.”
Annie had begun to cry.
“Sshhh. Don’t cry, dear. Please. If he loves you, I’m sure he’ll marry you in the church.” Her mother had ended the row she was knitting, spread the garment out on the table and waited for her daughter to calm herself.
Sometimes, as much as she’d loved her mother, Annie was glad she’d died when she did. It meant Annie never had to tell her about the troubling thoughts going through her mind. The misgivings, the doubts. Not with Mike; with the Church.
“Good morning, Anne. How are you?” Monsignor Ryan took off his black hat when Annie opened the door and walked past her down the passage. “And how is Michael? I pray that God will give him the faith.” He paused before entering the small room and said to her: “I noticed he wasn’t at Mass last Sunday.”
He would know Mike had gone out to his parents’ farm for a barbeque to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. The Catholics were obliged to go to Mass first, but Mike hadn’t. “Dad and Mum need a hand, Annie.”
“Well, my breakfast will be getting cold,” the visitor said, removing his overcoat. The room was ready: a table and two chairs. She had folded down her sewing machine and covered the smaller table with a white cloth. Here she had set out a bowl of warm water and a hand towel.
Back in the kitchen, she picked up the eggs, carefully, cracking them one by one into the frying pan. Not hard but not soft. The bacon was cooked and warming in the oven. Monsignor’s plate was in there, too. “Never put hot food on a cold plate, Annie.” She could hear her mother’s caution. She wanted her mother there now, checking to make sure the leftover bacon fat in the frying pan wasn’t overheating, salting the oatmeal porridge a “tiny pinch” — things Annie knew perfectly in her head but not in her hands.
Peg O’Brien had died a short time after the wedding. What people whispered was probably true: her mother had hung on so she could see the young couple married in front of the altar, not behind it.
“It’s not the best, Annie love,” Peg had whispered to her daughter on one of those awful days when she’d struggled with every word, “but he’s a good man and God will bless you both.”
Annie moved the eggs about in the pan, lifting one arm to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. The yolks began to set quickly and the lid on the kettle began to rattle. She needed to slide the eggs out, then quickly rinse the teapot with hot water. Where had she put the caddy? What was happening to the toast?
She heard him clearing his throat and sneezing. Monsignor Ryan didn’t smoke, but all these Irish priests had chest problems. People said they brought them with them from the bogs back home. Annie knew he worked hard, traveling all over the countryside, doing all he could for his parishioners, even though he was getting on. She was glad she’d put the small electric heater in the room for him.
After Mass one day when Annie was 16, Father Fitzpatrick, their very popular parish priest and Monsignor Ryan’s predecessor, had asked Peg O’Brien if Annie and her sister, Christine, might come and clean the presbytery for him in a couple of weeks’ time. He also wanted them to cook his tea on the Saturday evening, then stay and make his breakfast on the Sunday morning before the 11o’clock Mass. Peg said they would be happy to oblige.
“Mum, why do we have to stay there at night? It’s a creepy old place.” Christine had begun to protest as soon as the priest was out of earshot. She was younger than Annie but much bolder.
“Don’t be so silly, Christine,” their mother had replied. “It’s our turn. You will go with Annie and help her. I hardly think there’ll be any ghosts out there. The presbytery’s holy ground.”
“Anne, if it’s no trouble, I’ll have the porridge now.” The monsignor’s voice called to her from the little room.
She jumped. “Of course, Father. I’ll be right there.” How could she forget the porridge? The porridge was first. He was waiting. Quickly she ladled it out, sprinkled sugar over the top, wiped the edge of the plate with a tea towel, and placed the bowl on the breakfast tray. The door had been opened slightly and the priest was watching for her. He rose and stood out of the way while she arranged the table, smiling at the steaming bowl of oats, the melted sugar crystals glazing the surface.
“Thank you,” he said, seated again and waiting for her to leave before he commenced eating. “It looks a treat.”
She heard him giving thanks, then taking in great mouthfuls of cool air and hot porridge, not worrying too much about the noise he made. She even heard him scraping the bowl with his spoon. When things quietened down, she knocked, entered, and put down his cup of tea. She took away the empty bowl. He might have wanted more, but she was afraid that the porridge at the bottom of the saucepan might be burnt.
“I’ll bring the eggs and bacon now, Monsignor, if you are ready.”
“That would be grand.”
Just before Annie and Christine went to the presbytery, Jenny, one of Annie’s friends, told her something Annie wished she’d never heard. It was about Father Fitzpatrick and going to stay at the presbytery.
“In the night, if you hear him coughing and coming down the passage,” she’d whispered to Annie as they sat together in the choir loft after Mass,” make sure the door is locked. If he knocks, pretend to be asleep. Don’t open the door.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Listen to me, will you, Annie, I know what I’m talkin’ about. When Lizzie and me were there, he knocked on the door. Late. We were in bed. He asked Lizzie to make him a cup of tea. When I got out of bed to go with her, he told me it were all right, Lizzie could do it on her own. She wouldn’t be long.”
“Are you trying to scare me, Jenny Lynch?”
The girl hung her head, worrying a knothole in the wood with the toe of her boot. “Lizzie didn’t come back for longer than it takes to make tea,” she said softly. “I were frightened to go out there and look for her. Then she come back. She turned out the light. It were all right, she said. I asked her if she couldn’t find the tea. She didn’t answer, just took off her nightie and put on all her clothes. In the dark. Then she got back into bed. I know she were cryin’” I could hear her sniffin’ and shakin’. Tryin’ to be quiet as a mouse. But I could hear her.”
“I’ve never heard such a story. I’m going to ask Lizzie, myself.”
Jenny grabbed her arm. “No Annie, please don’t. Lizzie’ll kill me. She told me she were cryin’ about our nan dyin’ so sudden and she didn’t want to hear no more about the damn presbytery.”
Back in the kitchen, Annie looked out the window in case she could see Mike’s truck. Perhaps he’d come into town to pick something up for the farm and he’d call in. She thought she’d hinted at it that morning, but all Mike had said was: “Annie love, I told you. You make great porridge. You haven’t got a worry in the world.” Then he’d smiled and stroked her neck, drawing back when she blushed and pushed his hand away.
“Mike, don’t. What if he comes early? What would he say?”
“He’d say I’m one lucky guy.” Mike had laughed and kissed her, then grabbed his hat and went onto the veranda to put his work boots on.
She had to relax and not get so nervous when he touched her.
The night Christine and Annie went to the presbytery, Annie lay awake listening to the old house creaking. Its posts and beams had drifted apart, moving with the wind or some other force known only to wood. Christine slept next to her in the ancient double bed, breathing regularly, clearly no longer worried about ghosts.
Then Annie saw it: a white shard of light streaking across the ceiling. Her heart beat fast. Was it a light from the veranda creeping under the edge of the blind? Had the moon come out from behind some clouds? She knew a car would rarely drive up this road at night. She waited. Perhaps Father Fitzpatrick had heard a noise outside and was out there with a torch, checking. But there was no sound out of the ordinary and the light vanished as quickly as it had come. Once more it was pitch black.
She chided herself: Annie O’Brien, too highly strung, too much imagination. Strange sounds, creaks. There were birds, lizards, possums, all manner of night creatures scuttling over the roof. They made noises. And the door was locked. She’d found the key in the night-table drawer. The window was also latched. What a ninny. She pulled the blanket up to her chin. She didn’t close her eyes. Christine slept on and Annie decided not to wake her unless the light came back.
Some time later, minutes, hours, she had no idea, she awoke. Something was wrong. She could hear a different sound: metal scraping against metal. Rasping, again and again. Suddenly it came to her. Someone was turning the doorknob. Quietly. Trying not to wake the sleepers within. She couldn’t see the knob, but it was as if she could see it turning and then stopping. Then the jiggle, a hand applying pressure, willing it to open. Annie froze, terrified. She turned, very slowly, away from the door, moving towards Christine, burying her head in her sister’s pillow. She dared not cry out; she mustn’t let whoever it was outside their room know she’d heard them. They might force the door or do something to make them come out.
“Chrissie,” she whispered, “wake up. Someone’s trying to get in.”
Her sister groaned, pushing away from Annie, but not waking. The noise had stopped and she heard mumbling. A man’s voice. Then the squeaking of footsteps receding, and wood exhaling. Somewhere in the house, a door slammed.
Annie couldn’t stop shivering; it always happened to her when she was distressed. She needed the eiderdown but it lay at the foot of the bed and she dared not sit up. Then she had a frightening thought: what if there was another key in the house? For many minutes she lay there, knowing she must get up and check that she’d left the key in the lock so no other key would go in.
At first she couldn’t move. After a while, however, when there were no more sounds and she’d calmed herself, she slid silently out of the bed and felt her way slowly to the door, where she traced its panels with her fingers. She found the knob. Just below the knob she could feel the cold metal key in the lock, where she’d placed it.
She was elated; she wanted to breathe deeply, loudly, get up and walk back to the bed not caring if any old floorboards creaked. But she knew someone was still out there. What if he’d crept back and was listening at the door? She crawled towards the bed, trying to still her trembling body, afraid an ear pressed to the door would know she was awake.
Back in bed, she pulled the eiderdown up around her head, covering all but her eyes. She lay still, sight fixed on the door, waiting until dawn.
“Father Fitz wants you to know you cooked an excellent breakfast, Annie. And you, too, Christine,” their mother had said a week later. “So much for all your ghost talk. Next time, there’ll be no complaints.”
“Mum please. Why do we have to go again?”
“For goodness’ sake, Christine. He’s our parish priest. It’s the least we can do.”
“Anne, that was delicious. Could I have a little more milk for my tea?”
“Of course. I was afraid I wouldn’t get the eggs right.”
“No excuses needed. It was all very tasty.”
She hurried back to get the milk. It was nearly over. She smoothed her hair and her apron. Mike was right; she paid too much attention to what people might think of her, what the ladies might say about the breakfast.
Putting on his coat, Father Ryan left the sewing room and walked up the passage to the front door. “Thank you, Anne. You’ve been very kind. I’ll pray for Michael and your dear mother. May she rest in peace.”
With this, he pressed a small pouch into her hand. It was a rosary, the beads translucent and smooth in shades of pink. Pretty.
“Thank you, Father… Monsignor, I mean. It’s lovely.” She bowed her head as if to genuflect, smiling when she realized how silly that would be. He also smiled, took his hat from the rack, tipped it to her and departed.
When she went into the room to clean up, she found he’d left everything neat and tidy, smaller plates on larger ones, the cutlery arranged so it would be easy to pick up. There wasn’t so much as a crumb on the tablecloth and his napkin was neatly folded. She felt the rosary in her pocket. She had passed her test. Monsignor Ryan, too. But what did it mean?
Standing at the kitchen sink, she started to wash up. Looking out the window above the sink, she wondered when Mike would be home. Perhaps it was time to tell him what she’d told no one. The things that made her cry when he wasn’t there. The night in the presbytery, what girls said to each other in the choir loft but never told anyone else. (Who would believe them anyway?) She washed the beautiful teacup, gently turning it round and round. She could see her grandmother, her mother doing exactly the same, so afraid of breaking it but determined it should look its best. Observing the rituals. Protecting their church. The people they loved. The lives they had led. The women they were brought up to be. Suddenly, she felt dizzy. She put the cup down on the draining board. Holding onto the edge of the sink for a few minutes, she stood staring outside. Listening for a truck. Waiting for Mike.
Finally, she lifted up her apron and wiped her eyes. Washed her face. Then she found an old newspaper and spread several sheets on the kitchen table. Carefully, she wrapped up the rose cup and its saucer. When she had finished, she put the tiny bundle near the back door. Before her husband came home, she would find a shovel and bury it in the garden.
Author's CommentThe submitted story is an amalgam of childhood experiences, the relationship of mother and daughter and the part women have played, often unknowingly, in the protection of precious traditions and values best abandoned. I believe it has taken great courage for women and girls to oppose the entrenched beliefs and accepted mores of our communities, and I hope we never give up.