It is the month of Our Lady and his shoes barely make a sound on the limestone steps of Holy Cross College. The brass knob of the door gives way easily and he steps into the cool shadow of the tiled hall. A picture of Pope Pius IX hangs in a gilded frame beside one of the Blessed Virgin. Beneath, a Cherrywood table is decorated with Peony roses packed in a porcelain vase of Marian blue. The hall is a fume of polish. The floors and the woodwork are done every second morning and today must be a second morning, because Father Vernon Cassels’ eyes water with the warm fug that hangs thick in the air of the hallway. Florie is a divil for the polish; she has the place shining like a new pin but, bless us and save us, she uses a terrible amount of the stuff. He holds his breath as he passes through the hall towards the door of the library.
It is quiet inside, as libraries are supposed to be. Lamps in green glass shades throw a sodium glow across the desks where men sit pouring over old books. Vernon retrieves the copy he wants and makes his way to a desk that has a dark knot on its surface; its rough swirl not yet smoothed with years of scholarship and scribening. It reminds him of the table at home in Emmyvale: an old oak table top his grandfather made when he was a boy. In the centre of it is a great disc of a knot the colour of burgundy wine. He opens the book on Vatican architecture and once again takes in the photos of the elevations around the Holy See. The conical space of Castel Gandolfo fascinates him; he longs for the day he will get to visit Rome and these buildings he is already so familiar with.
Florie Robinson can still feel the powdery traces of Milk of Magnesia on her shin. Father McLaverty knocked it off the table as she was passing and it seeped through her skirts. He hadn’t meant it, the cratur, it was just that his eyes were failing him and he couldn’t see a tap in front of him. He thought it was holy water he’d knocked over and he told her she was blessed with the spillage. She lifted an extra scoop of mash onto his plate and thanked him for the blessing. Now every few steps she takes brings a dust of flakes down around her ankles. Her shoes are in a sorry state of sour splashes and a thickening coat of white powder, but her steps are light and her smile is stretching the width of her face. She had some time with him today. Just a few minutes mind, but still, any time she has to spend with him is a delicate, precious thing. Florie loves the month of May when the path up to the college is lined with roses that smell only gorgeous. The lemon-coloured ones are her favourite although they never last long, their light petals free themselves from the blooms and toss in a trail of fallen colour all along the gravel pathway. It drives the gardener mad. The reds are the colour of the Sacred Heart’s robes and are velvet to the touch. Sometimes she gathers some to freshen-up the archbishop’s house.
It was there that she saw him today, Vernon, and he had told her he read a poem last night that reminded him of her. When he told her it was written by a woman, Katherine Tynan, she’d nodded. Florie had never read much poetry and she didn’t want to admit to him that she had never heard of this woman Tynan although she felt by the way he said it that she ought to have. It had a lovely softness to it, Katherine Tynan… She imagined the poet would have honey coloured hair and the perfect teeth that people with money have. She wondered what the poem was about but again, was too afraid to ask in case he suggested she try find it in the library. Florie wasn’t much of a reader at all: she had left school as soon as her aunt had found a job for her and so she hadn’t had much chance to practice at her reading and writing. Vernon was carrying a leather satchel and nodded to it saying that ‘himself’ had wanted to approve the readings for a feast mass that was coming up. He left a citrus scent in his wake, he always smelled well soaped. Unlike some of the older ones who had an awful tang about them. There was one, Fr. Pascal, who’d remind you of corned beef left out in the sun for a week. He had poor skin that would flare up at the slightest thing and he maintained that there was something in the water that was triggering his outbreaks lately so he’d given to ‘dry-washing’. Florie couldn’t fathom how it could be possible to wash without using as much as a splash of water. The ripe bloom of him could be got from as soon as he’d set foot on the stairs. She felt sorry for those who had to share a pew with him. Compassion, she supposed, that was all there was to it. Men of God must be awful compassionate to put up with that.
Lovescharity is busy on a Monday afternoon. The air is thick from the toils of the quarry and the flour mill. A horse and trap go up Clonliffe Road, the hooves giving a tinny sound of a horse in need of a blacksmith. The driver coughs and spits onto the road. A mound of fat sacks is stacked in the trap, stuffed with fresh flour, on its way to somewhere better. A group of nippers throws stones and squeal when theirs goes the furthest distance. Florie is finished work in Holy Cross College and although she knows there is a dozen jobs for doing at home, she turns right at the gates of the college and makes her way towards Drumcondra. She has a mood on her to go and sit on the bank of the Tolka for a while. There she can dream by its stew-coloured waters. She will have time to herself to go over what he’d said to her today: the way he’d looked at her. Vernon was excited that there would be a delegation visiting from Rome next week. He told Florie he hoped to get the chance to ask them about life in Trastevere and what it was like to have the Vatican library at their disposal. He said he wanted to know what it felt like to work knowing the man himself was only a few floors away. She had looked at his neat chin and his lopsided mouth. His top lip was a perfect strip of pink but his bottom lip was swollen like a ripe plum. It sat fat on his face. Not unsightly, she thought, and very kissable, but it didn’t look like it belonged alongside the neat pink tier on top. She often wondered how soft it must feel, how gentle. She asked him to join her for another of their river walks.
“I would love to Florie. But it’ll have to be quick. I need to write a paper for the Archdiocese.”
“I see,” she said, “I understand,” looking down and noticing the crust of Milk of Magnesia on her foot.
She hides one foot behind the other.
“Will I need my coat do you think?”
“Go way outa that, the sun is splitting the stones.”
She waits for him around the corner and watches a carriage pull a heavy load of stone up Dorset Street. She always stands in the same spot when she waits on him. It wouldn’t do if someone were to see them leaving the college together. When his pale face appears along the pathway, she turns away to hide her smile. There is no sense in looking too happy around him and people passing by. That could wait until the quieter fields around the river. And he would smile too. Just like always.
A cool air rinses their faces as they turn down a mud path towards the Tolka. The river is lazy and looks to be moving only in one spot, beneath a bridge, where some elm leaves have made their way onto its surface. Vernon points to a red squirrel over on the far bank.
“Iorra rua,” he says.
“Latin?” she asks.
“Our native tongue,” he tells her.
She blushes. Florie left school just a girl of ten summers. There is not much Gaelic in her, or her family. She puts her hands in her smock pockets and makes fists of them. Her cabbage green smock ruches and gathers around her thighs.
“Have you got a chill Florie?”
“No,” she says, whipping the hands out.
She is doing her best not to be clumsy. The last time they’d been for a walk, hadn’t she gone and slipped along the bank and down into the water she went. Mind you she was a strong little ox and she had held on to the stump of a tree so that only her feet and shins were immersed in the river. But she had turned the colour of a lamb with the fright. He had sat with her on the bank and rubbed her hand. Looking into her eyes, he told her she needed new shoes and that he had some savings and would lend her some to put towards them. Of course, she had declined his kind offer, but was deeply flattered by it. And mortified too that he had noticed the soles of her shoes had withered away to a flimsy membrane. For the past while she had been straining to avoid pebbles and on the streets. They were cutting through it and oftentimes had made her feet bleed. But the shame of her shoes was eclipsed by the warm glow she got from knowing that he cared.
“You’re terrible good,” she had replied to him when he offered, “Terrible good ya are.”
They stroll along the Tolka towards the meadows that are high with tall, yellowing grasses. They walk deep into the grasses that are up to Florie’s breasts. Vernon stops to watch a flock of birds fly overhead. He knows the names of all of them. Florie listens as he tells her about migration. He points to a bird and suddenly she realises she can’t make out the words he is saying. She is watching his lips move but not a word is going in; all she can hear is the sound of her heart knocking in her chest. She leans towards him and reaches for his lips, landing hers heavily on his mouth. He moves his head back, startled, but she takes a hold of his arms and pushes her lips against his again. This time he freezes.
“What are you…,” he manages to say.
She continues to kiss. His arms remain by his side. Hers are around his shoulders.
Some fieldmice dart past her feet but she doesn’t notice. He remains rooted to the ground and stands stiffer than the taller grasses that envelop them. The breeze dies and for a moment there is no sound in the place. Dublin’s horses’ hooves too distant to be heard. The grass holds its swish and the butterflies continue to swirl in quiet meditation. There is the squeak of buttons. And some panting. The ruffle of stiff fabrics. A low moan. The scurry of footsteps.
Not long after, Florie Robinson also leaves the meadow. Her cheeks are flushed with a tinge of damson. A blade of grass clings to her shoulder, and some jinny-joes. She keeps her eyes to the ground her hands across her chest as she crosses towards the flour mills. Her complexion returns to normal as she walks home. Stopping to fix herself, the grass falls from her shoulders.
Deep in the month of the Holy Rosary, the trees are shedding amber leaves and there is a trill of echoes in East Chapel. Vernon’s steps make a sound that puck off the walls and come back in waves across the pews. Florie’s make not as much as a whisper as she walks up the aisle. He opens the door of the confessional and steps in. She genuflects and moves in his direction. When the door closes behind her it lifts the feint scent of aged varnish. The iron grille slides open, another silent affair. He looks at her from beneath a swell of eyelashes. His skin glistens in the lightest film of sweat.
“Hello,” he says, “you weren’t seen were you?”
She raises a hand to smooth her hair.
“Nobody saw me,” she says.
His hands are clasped together in a fist.
“What is it you wanted to see me about?”
“Florie, I think it’s time we talk like adults.”
“Sure, isn’t it adults we are Vernon. And that’s maybe what got us into this matter.”
“Well maybe we need to be adults to get ourselves out of it.”
“How do you mean out of it?”
“Well, I was thinking…,” he shifted in his seat and the old wood creaked beneath him, “I was thinking that it would be very important for me to make sure that this is resolved as quickly as possible. You know the way things are here.”
“I understand the need for discretion.”
She rubs at a spot on her frock that has gathered in a fold on her knee.
“And sure of course, you’ll be expecting things to be kept as quiet as possible for yourself too. It wouldn’t do if news was to get out. Especially with you working here and all.”
“Of course, Vernon. There’s that too. It’s private business.”
“So do you have anywhere in mind?” he asks.
She looks through the iron latticework and notices lines across his forehead as he looks towards the floor. He doesn’t raise his eyes.
“Anywhere for what?”
“To go to,” he says.
Finally, he raises his eyes.
“There’s only one thing for it, Florie, and you know right well.”
Her face flushes.
“Do you mean it Vernon?”
There is a hint of hope in her voice, just the faintest breath of a hopeful lilt.
“I can’t help it,” she says.
“It’s not grinning you should be at a time like this.”
Her smile erases.
He returns his glare to the floor of the confessional.
“You need to get away from here. This doesn’t look good.”
“And when will you come Vernon?”
His eyes narrow.
“Have you lost your mind?”
“I mean, I know it probably won’t be right away, I imagine you’ll need to sort things out here before you can make it.”
By this stage his face is the grey of wet mortar.
“Will you whist with that aul talk. There are places for people like you: madhouses.”
From inside his confessional-cell he can’t see the hairs standing on her arms.
“You can’t mean that Vernon love. This is the fruit of our making. You’re shocked is all. I’m shocked meself.”
“Mad is what you are! You have lost your mind. Get out of here. Out!”
“Vernon, calm down.”
“I’ve heard enough. No one will believe you…they’ll know that someone like you is trying to damage the good Lord’s name with your lies.”
“Florie, people will know your type. Do not bring my name into it. Be gone. Get well out of Lovescharity is my advice to you. And if you don’t, I will see to it that you are sent away, with or without your bastard child.”
She inhales so deeply that her shoulders raise until she is sitting bolt upright. Not for the first time that day she feels like throwing up.
“God’s curse on you,” she says, standing up and reaching for the varnished handle, “you, above all people, should understand, but you’re just like the rest of them.”
She steps out onto the brown tiles that feel cool through her soles.
“And how’s that?” he calls after her.
She leaves silently, her cheeks swollen with the tears she refuses to shed.
And in the confessional, his face is drenched from his soundless weep.
Gráinne Daly writes poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has been published widely and was longlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year Award 2021. In 2019 she won the UCD Maeve Binchy Travel Award and more recently, was awarded second place in the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Competition. Her website can be found at www.grainnedaly.com.