Margot sat in the front of her mother’s van, clutching the white sheets in her hands. Under her cotton dress she could feel the sticky skin of her thighs pasted to the seat. It was the beginnings of summer and through the glass, Margot could see the scattered wings of flies, broken on the windscreen, and the dirty tracks where the wipers had swept. The sun glared down on her and she worried that she’d leave oily fingerprints on the clean paper.
‘Mum, how long do you think I’ll be?’
Mum stretched her neck the opposite direction and gesticulated wildly out her window.
‘Go on, would you, go on! Crikey, we’ll be here all morning.’
Margot huffed and stared out her own window. She knew it was silly to be nervous. All she had to do was go in, hand in the papers and wait for them to be signed. She’d watched her mum do stuff like that all the time, leaned into her as she made easy conversation with the woman behind the desk in the bank or the man at the shop till. And now it was her turn. She wasn’t a child anymore. In fact, she was rather grown up for her age. All the adults told her so.
The car jerked forward, stop. Forward, stop. Mum moved her head back and forth, watching the traffic like a tennis match. After a minute, she sighed.
‘You’d better just hop out here, I won’t have a chance to pull in,’ she said,
chancing a quick glance at Margot as she pulled the handbrake up.
‘Here?’ Margot’s voice leapt high and caught in her throat, her eyes sucked into the traffic tennis match too. Mum turned to her, poorly hidden bemusement on her face.
‘Look, it’s a red light. You’ll be grand. I’ll go to SuperValu and meet you in the boys’ school carpark after, alright?’
Mum beeped as the light turned and the string of cars started to roll forward and Margot stood on the pavement feeling thoroughly abandoned.
The parochial house was a relatively ignored fixture in the community. Just like the bank or the post office, Margot knew that every town needed one, but she passed it most days with the same lack of interest she did to any establishment that wasn’t relevant to her. The closest connection she’d ever had with it was that it was opposite the Supermac’s that she and a gaggle of girls from her school had the habit of invading every Friday afternoon. They’d order fudge sundaes and get brain freezes and take over the upstairs booths by the windows, surveying the movements of the main street below. They’d revel in the space. Only 6th classers were allowed upstairs. For months the house had been covered in scaffolding and drapes and the only people she’d ever seen coming or going from it were builders or handymen.
Standing outside now, though, Margot’s stomach fluttered. The heady smell of fresh varnish on the wide front door made her hair feel tight on her head and she was altogether too aware of how her toes were squashed into this new pair of shoes. To the side of the house a man in dirty overalls with a sunhat watered freshly planted flowers. He threw her a wave and she sunk into herself. Behind, people on the street sauntered by on their Saturday morning errand run. Cars slogged by and pedestrian lights pinged. Margot wondered if anyone was watching her outside this particular house. She wondered if they wondered why she was here, what business someone like her would have at a house like this. Quickly, she reached up and rang the doorbell. It rang clearly, soundly, like her own doorbell.
A bird chirped and a baby’s cry wheeled by.
Just as Margot contemplated giving the doorbell another try, she heard scuffling from inside. The lock turned with a clean click and a small lady stood in front of her, brows furrowed.
‘Can I help you?’
‘Good morning, yes. I’m here to see Father O’Malley?’ Save for a brief cough, the rehearsed words rolled off Margot’s tongue.
‘And is he expecting you?’
The lady had a tight smile and Margot’s eyes were drawn to the wrought brown lines above her thin upper lip.
The door opened wider. Margot slipped past the lady, who was brushing her hands off her smudged apron while muttering sharp indistinguishables to herself. Margot instantly felt the weight sink deeper in her stomach; she felt guilty that she might be putting this woman out.
‘Just wait here one moment. He’ll be with you shortly,’ the lady said and shuffled off out of the brightness without another glance at the child in the room, who suddenly felt very small.
The hall was big and square, with thick cream carpet and heavy green wallpaper. The ceilings were high and filtered light spilled in patches through the lacy curtains. There wasn’t anywhere to sit, so Margot stepped carefully around the room, the rolls of carpet muffling her movements. Her eyes darted over the various oil paintings hung on the walls, the men with wide necks and bulky gold chains looped around their frames, hands folded neatly in their laps. Their hollow eyes pored into her and she felt the cold of the shade run down her back. In the corner by the window there was a low-legged table with various holy pamphlets and an untouched copy of the local newspaper. She stopped there a minute, letting the warmth of the sunlight settle her quaking nerves. She scanned over the form in her hand one more time, before the door in the farthest corner of the room started to rattle and struggle open. A tall, sturdy man in a collar burst through.
Of course, Margot recognized Father O’Malley, both from any religious ceremony she’d taken part in and from the school visits he frequently made. In Margot’s school, Fr. O’Malley was something of a celebrity.
‘That blasted feckin’ yolk,’ Fr. O’Malley wheezed, looking between his hand and the loose handle behind him. Straightening up, he instantly registered her in the corner of the room and seemed confused. His eyes squinted much the same as the housekeeper’s before him and Margot flushed.
‘Good morning, Father,’ Margot said, stepping closer into the centre of the room, thankful that her face was no longer so lit up. Her movement forced his gaze down to the papers in her hand and he wetted his pink lips.
‘Good morning. And who might you be?’
‘I’m… I…’ Margot searched. He’d gone off script. ‘I’m here to get these forms
signed, about going to a new school.’
The words felt too big for her mouth and rang strange in the air between them. She hoped that a wave of recognition would wash over his face in that instant, that he would laugh and say that it had totally slipped his mind and he’d do it right here, right now; but, he didn’t. Instead, he clocked his head to the side and surveyed her with an unreadable stare. Margot clicked her heels together and struggled to push her shoulders back.
The way he drew out the sound made her squirm. He clapped his enormous hands together and the crack made Margot jump.
‘Well, then. If you’ll follow me through here, we’ll sort this out.’
And just like that he returned from where he came.
Fr. O’Malley was stretched up on a step-ladder, tweaking an uncovered light bulb behind his desk when she came in. As she took a seat, the light glared a cool-aid red once more, and Fr. O’Malley looked pleased. Jesus, with a bleeding heart, looked straight through her.
‘Give us those papers there then, child.’ He reached out and Margot immediately obeyed. He fell into the stuffed armchair opposite her and picked up his glasses from the folds of pages in front of him.
‘Ah, Grantworth House. That’s where you’re applying to?’
He nodded and rolled his lips.
‘Yes, we’ve had a few of these papers in for them lately alright. And tell me, whose idea was this then? Mammy and Daddy’s or yours?’ Fr. O’Malley leaned in, his portly stomach rubbing against the cold wood, his black eyes charting every mercurial movement of Margot’s.
‘Well…’ Margot didn’t know what answer he was looking for. ‘Both.’
He dropped the papers in front of him, leaned back once more and determinedly removed his glasses.
‘And let me ask you this, then. What age are you?’
‘And you go to Our Lady’s?’
‘And do you play sports or help out in your community?’
‘Yes. Yeah, I play camogie and soccer and I try to help my mum at home. We live a little bit outside the town, but my mum helps run the fun run every year.’
Fr. O’Malley nodded slowly and it seemed, to Margot, a very long time since he last blinked.
‘And do you consider yourself a good Catholic?’
The hairs on Margot’s neck stood up at all once. She thought back to what they’d been learning in school. The Old Testament. Beatitudes. Venial. Tongues. Diana. His eyes were back down on the papers again and Margot thought maybe he’d fill his own silence, but he didn’t.
‘Yes, I – I think so.’
‘You were christened here? Confession? Holy Communication? Confirmation?’
‘Yes, Father. All of it.’
‘But you want to go to a Protestant secondary school. Why is that Ms…,’ he placed his glasses on the tip of his nose, dipping his head until he had 3 chins to skim her papers, ‘McGowan.’
Margot’s face flushed. She hadn’t prepared for this.
‘Well, I suppose because it’s a good school. There are lots of different activities to do and err… there are…’ Margot trailed off as Fr. O’Malley scrunched up his face and moved his head quicker, more like an agitated shake than a nod. He ran his fingers through some open ledger books on the table and didn’t appear to be listening anymore. A hedge strimmer revved up outside the window.
‘And you wouldn’t want to go with all your little friends to the big school up the road here, would you?’
‘I’ll see them on weekends, I hope.’
A jocular burst of laughter erupted outside and Margot sat on her hands. She felt suddenly embarrassed and the sting of it made her angry. All she needed was his signature. His permission. She’d heard Sr. Josephine on the phone with him the other day; she’d been in the office when the conversation had happened, and now she felt utterly dismissed by him. She watched Fr. O’Malley’s ruddy face as he bent over the books in front of him, her eyes zoning in on the little purple and blue ripples broken just under the surface of his skin. His eyes were shaded from her but the way he bowed his head made the rolls of skin under them bulge. Under his collar she could see a hint of twisted gold. Her eyes snapped down to the movement of his hand, tweaking a county council pen between rough fingers.
He looked briefly up at her from under heavy eyelids, and as quickly as his eyes had rested on her, they disappeared again, his hand moving with a flourish. She could hear the scrape of the point against the grainy page.
‘MARGARET. MARGARET BRING THE STAMP WOULD YOU?’, his voice boomed and Margot sat up straight.
He lay the pen heavily aside and pushed himself out of his chair. Margot stood too but she stayed rooted where she was, looking out at the gardener who’d waved at her, thwacking the fields of overgrown weeds that separated the church and the house. She wished she was out there with him.
The lady from before bustled into the room, carrying a small tub of rubber stampers and ink.
‘You’re to go to the Fitzmorrisey’s, Father. Herself is in the bed again.’
‘Right you are.’
‘And you’ll be having roast chicken for your supper tonight, Father.’
‘That’s grand, Mags, that’s just grand.’
Above the desk, the light bulb flickered and Margot watched as it went out once more. Fr. O’Malley had slipped out of the room and Margaret was leaning over the coffee table by the door, mindlessly stamping the pages.
Based on true events, by Mary-Kate Quane