The Speaking of Lorna
by Mark Dennis
Lorna Sullivan hadn’t spoken for ten years. Her younger sister, Una, thought she had been born that way. But that wasn’t true. There had been an older sister. Dead now. Died when Lorna was seven, on the night Lorna stopped speaking.
Lorna’s dad, Declan, bellowed from the foot of the stairs.
‘Una...Una.’ A small statue of Christ wobbled on the hallway table.
‘Lorna, is your sister up there or not? Come down now, Father McClatchey is here for a visit.’
Una had been playing in Lorna’s room all morning, laying out her Chinese dolls, dressing them up and trying on a variety of Lorna’s clothes herself too.
Lorna threw her dressing gown at Una, and motioned Una to dress. She helped Una with the belt, and tied a double knot. Secure. Good.
Lorna went down the stairs behind Una, with both hands on Una’s shoulders, and directed her past Father McClatchey, to the far side of kitchen table.
Their mother, Aileen, set down a plate of thick bacon rashers, mushrooms and black pudding, next to a large pot of Assam tea.
‘Lorna, where’s your manners?’ said Aileen. ‘Will you take the Father’s coat.’
Lorna, avoiding the priest’s gaze, took his frock coat and left the kitchen to hang it on the bannister. As she folded the black fabric over her arm, her stomach tightened. She noted thick flakes of dandruff on its blackened collar, and a pervasive smell of must hit her nostrils, making her recoil.
Returning to the kitchen, she saw Father McClatchey had moved to sit next to Una, his arm around her shoulder.
‘She’s a good girl, Declan, so she is,’ said the Father as he lifted Una onto his lap. ‘She knows all her prayers for her confirmation.’
Una smiled and recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary on request. The Father kissed her on the top of her head for every correct recitation.
Aileen and Declan joined in the praise. Lorna moved to the mantelpiece and picked up a photograph of her dead sister and gently placed a kiss onto its surface.
‘Be careful with that now, Lorna,’ said Declan, taking the frame and replacing onto the mantelpiece. ‘There we go,’ patting Lorna on the head before continuing. ‘Your sister is living in grace without end and in our hearts, so she is.’
‘Beautiful, Declan,’ said Father McClatchey, placing a kiss onto Una’s cheek, ‘dry your tears, Aileen.’
Lorna felt a warmth rise into her chest and felt lightheaded. Her hands had a fine tremble, and she braced herself against the kitchen table, letting the conversations wash over her for a while. Settled, she picked up her mug, and took a sip of tea.
‘D’ya see, Aileen?’ said the Father, biting into a slice of malted toast. ‘She’s a clever girl is our Una.’ He took a large slurp of tea and swilled it like mouthwash before swallowing. ‘Una will be grand on her confirmation day, so she will.’
Lorna topped up Father McClatchey’s mug.
‘Be careful, Lorna,’ said Declan, moving to take over the pot. ‘You’ve spilt it on the Father’s hand, so you have.’
‘Una, she has a little trouble with the “Glory be,” Father,’ said Aileen changing the subject, whilst dropping more bacon onto his plate. ‘The order of the words, like.’
Father McClatchey tried to pick out some bacon fat caught between his top teeth, creating in the process a snarling appearance. Lorna retreated back into Aileen’s arms, cupping her tea tightly for warmth.
‘Tis easy enough with some practice now, Aileen.’ Father McClatchey moved to the center of the kitchen and beckoned Una over to join him. ‘You’ve reminded me, Aileen’ — he turned Una round to face Lorna and her parents and placed his hands on her shoulders — ‘why I’ve come to pay a visit.’
Lorna snuggled into Aileen’s arms to encourage a tighter embrace. These were the only arms that should be touching Una.
‘I’ve chosen Una to give the bible reading this Sunday. From Matthew’s gospel, chapter 19; “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me”.’
Lorna dropped her mug of tea, which broke into fragments on the cold stone floor.
‘Well there’s no putting that together when it’s that broke,’ said Aileen.
Una wriggled forward, released herself from the Father’s embrace, and moved over to Lorna to see the damage.
Declan took the Father out to the hallway and helped him on with his coat, whilst the girls cleared up the mess.
‘Well, thank you, Father. That will give her some confidence for sure.’
The two men returned to the kitchen.
‘I’ll see you for a private lesson for your reading on Sunday, Una, and just remember the order of the words for the “Glory be” is very logical, so it is,’ said the Father as he doffed his cap to Aileen and Declan. ‘“Beginning now and ever shall be”.’
Lorna returned to her bedroom and helped Una take off the heavy dressing gown. Lorna looked at her naked sister reciting the ‘Glory be’ into the mirror.
‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.’
Lorna smiled at Una and clapped her hands high in the air.
‘I did it, Lorna,’ said Una, as she spun round and jumped into Lorna’s lap.
Lorna hugged her innocence and stroked her unsullied flesh. World without end, thought Lorna, as she pulled the soft duvet around Una’s shoulders. Warm, safe, protected. She knew she had to stop Una having the lesson. She knew this had to end on Sunday. Pressing herself closer to Una, she placed her lips softly onto Una’s ear and whispered, ‘Can you keep a secret? I’m going to do your bible reading. Is that OK?’
* * *
Una could never keep secrets, and Lorna knew it. Declan and Aileen hadn’t believed Una of course, but when they saw Lorna silently reading the passage, over and over, their hopes grew.
Father McClatchey was told that Lorna might take the reading and that Una wouldn’t need the private lesson. Una told Lorna she had heard raised voices and that Daddy had slammed the phone down and was arguing about a miracle.
When Sunday morning arrived, Father McClatchey had asked to see Lorna alone.
‘So, what’s the truth here, Lorna?’
The silence of the dead greeted him. Silence, pure and simple.
‘Now that’s a good girl, Lorna.’ Father McClatchey extended his hand. ‘You let Una have her moment in the sun. Your parents are awful worried about you. Best you stay home today.’
Lorna’s arms remained folded in a quiet resolve.
Father McClatchey withdrew his hand and moved to the door. As he gripped the door handle, he took a last look back at Lorna. ‘Remember, Lorna’ said the Father — a small sneer appeared at the angle of his mouth — ‘you’re not welcome today in church.’
Lorna unfolded her arms and stood. She turned to face the Father and raising her arm, wagged her index finger.
‘Suffer the little children, forbid them not to come unto me.’ Her voice was quiet, hoarse with cracked consonants and breathy vowels, but there was an unmistakable resolve. ‘Jesus, Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for this sinner now and at the coming hour of his death.’
Father McClatchey fled the house, pushing past Declan and ignoring Aileen’s offer of tea. Declan ran into the room and hugged Lorna with a tight grip.
‘Is there to be a miracle, Lorna? What happened here?’
Lorna rocked in Declan’s warm embrace and let the silence of the dead fill the room once more.
* * *
Lorna stood and released her mother’s clammy hand. Gentle applause and soft murmurs of support from the congregation, tense with anticipation, stirred the air as she took her first tentative steps towards the lectern. The clapping grew and echoed around the vaults of the 12th-century church of Ballytabrae, County Cork.
Lorna wondered how quiet it would be after she had finished, how shocked and disgusted the smiling faces might be then. Perhaps. Lorna passed an old man sitting on the edge of the last pew. He reached out and stroked her arm. She stopped, looked down at him and flinched her arm away, regretting it immediately. She let a small smile develop in compensation.
‘You are a beautiful girl, Lorna Sullivan, like your mother, so you are, and don’t you forget it now. God bless you, me darling,’ said the old man.
An occasional baby’s cry added to the tension, and frosty stares from the childless beamed to guilty-looking parents as they tried to keep order over their broods. Lorna’s parents sat in the back row and tightened their grip of each other’s hands as they peered through a sea of heads in front of them to watch their daughter ascend to the pulpit.
Lorna reached the pulpit and stumbled on its first stone step, dropping her notes over the cold granite floor. Silence. Her trembling hands scooped the scrawled notes into an uneven bundle. She rearranged them at the lectern in full view of the congregation.
Lorna’s reddened face attempted a smile as she glanced around. She pushed her tongue over her top teeth and around her dry mouth searching for moisture. Lorna thought the bulges in her cheeks, as her tongue continued its exploration, must have looked comical to the giggling front-row children.
‘Be quiet now,’ said Father McClatchey, glaring at them.
‘Father McClatchey, on the Day of Judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak. I presume you know the quote?’ said Lorna.
‘Jaysus, Mary Mother of God,’ said the priest, who dropped to his knees in front of the stone altar, raising his arms towards the effigy of Christ hanging above Lorna’s head.
The arched black door to the east transept blew open, sending in a cold blast of winter air. The door led into the priest’s changing area and Lorna could see directly into it. There were cassocks hanging from dark oak beams, and chains draped like a hangman’s noose, ready for the censer, cooking its sweet smoking incense. A storm brewing outside sounded a distant thunder crack. The children stopped their laughter. One small girl started crying and snuggled close to her mother. Aileen collapsed across Declan’s lap.
‘Jaysus, Jaysus, she’s speaking, Christ, she’s speaking,’ said Declan.
Lorna looked at her father across the sea of faces mouthing Hail Marys and wished she could wipe his tears away. She longed to hold and kiss her mother. Too late. She wasn’t a child anymore. She knew her first words would hurt. She knew there were more tears to come.
Father McClatchey rose and turned to the congregation. ‘Praise the lord, our prayers have been answered,’ he said. Ashen-faced, bowed head, he moved over to Lorna. Behind her, close in tight behind her. He placed his arm on her right shoulder and slipped his other hand down her low back, unseen, and caressed her left buttock. He leaned in closer and whispered, ‘God be with you, child. Be a good girl now, and think of your Mammy and Pappy.’
Unseen by the crowd, Lorna reached behind and dug her nails into the back of his hand.
Father McClatchey cradled his hand, one in the other and, in feigned prayer, stepped back. He looked at the congregation and then to the notes Lorna had placed onto the lectern. There were pictures of crosses, faces, unhappy-looking faces drawn all over the front page of her diary, which she had started the night her sister died. The night she had been cared for by Father McClatchey as her parents grieved at the hospital.
Someone fastened the east door, but new air had cooled the room, and the atmosphere changed. Lorna clutched her notes and raised them high above her head.
‘I am Lorna Sullivan, I am seventeen, and I have something important to tell you all.’
Father McClatchey intervened: ‘Lord, we thank you for bringing our daughter back to us. Let us rise and sing hymn 346, “Into the hands of our redeemer”.’
Lorna saw her daddy’s hand in the air, as if trying to signal to Father McClatchey. She turned to the organist and wagged her finger. ‘Father McClatchey, are you ashamed to look my Daddy in the eyes now?’ she said, keeping her voice low.
‘Yes, Declan, what is it?’ said Father McClatchey.
‘Please, Father, she hasn’t spoken for ten years. It’s a miracle, let her speak. It must be God’s will.’
‘To be sure, Declan, but it’s an awful ordeal for her, I’ll wager. I’ll take her for a private talk and prayer. It’ll be for the best now.’ Father McClatchey beckoned Lorna toward the east transept.
Lorna noticed thick blue veins bulging in his neck. She smelt the sweat dripping from his brow.
He moved close to her once more. She could smell the red communion Cabernet on his breath as it wafted across her face. The smell transported her. She remembered now. The hand that had slipped between her legs and stolen her voice.
‘Let her speak now, Father, please,’ said Declan who had joined Lorna at the pulpit.
Aileen sat slumped in the pew, her shoulders rocking with the quiet effort of crying.
Father McClatchey walked away towards the east door and sat on the edge of the altar steps.
‘Father McClatchey... over there... he...’ Lorna’s lips stuck together. She gripped the lectern to maintain her balance.
Father McClatchey stood, and Lorna saw him tremble at the sound of his name on her lips.
‘Lorna, please be careful with your words now, please,’ said Father McClatchey.
‘I’m sorry, Father. They have a right to know.’
‘Jaysus, Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for me, a sinner, now and at the hour of my death.’ Father McClatchey continued to mutter the incantation under his breath repeatedly and withdrew through the east transept door.
‘What’s going on here, Lorna?’ said Declan. ‘What is it you have to tell us?’
‘Sorry, Daddy.’ Lorna gripped the sides of the lectern and her knuckles whitened as she summoned up the courage for the final hurdle. ‘I can’t live this lie. Daddy, I’m sorry.’
Lorna looked over to the East door. The latch, loosened by a gust from the storm outside caused the door to swing a little. Lorna heard a creaking noise from within and, from her position at the lectern, snatched a glimpse within as the door drifted open further.
Father McClatchey, standing on a bench, appeared to Lorna to be removing his cassock over his head. She imagined the thick censer’s smoke billowing around him as rising from Hell itself. The door swung shut, but Lorna felt sure he would hear her final words. A thunder crack broke over the steeple.
‘I... I...’ Lorna stuttered, and her tears fell onto her notes, onto a felt-tip scrawl of a childlike cross. She looked up at the effigy above her, and rubbed the fallen tears into an inky smudge. She screwed up the page and threw it at the Christ. ‘I don’t believe in him, any of it, any of it.’ She slumped into Declan’s chest and gulped the air to feed her sobbing. ‘I can’t, I just can’t.’
‘Jaysus, Lorna, you don’t believe in God? Is that what’s got your tongue? Do ya think your mammy and me care? Come here ya daft ha’porth.’
The old man at the end of the last pew approached, and Lorna remembered how she had twitched at his touch earlier.
‘Welcome back. God bless you,’ he said, placing a kiss onto her arm. Unflinching, Lorna wrapped herself around her daddy’s chest and decided she would stay there forever.
Lorna, Una, and her parents waited on the altar to receive many more well wishes from the congregation as folk filed out into the crisp morning air. The storm had long blown over.
‘I’ve ruined everything,’ said Lorna, looking up at Declan.
Declan cradled Lorna’s head and landed dozens of kisses on it.
‘Not at all, poppet. The Father will forgive you, for sure.’ Declan guided both his girls towards the north door. ‘Jaysus, I’m looking forward to a good old chat with you, Lorna, so I am.’
Forgive me? thought Lorna. She looked across to the east transept door, now fully open, to reveal Father McClatchey, swinging, face bloated, the censer’s smoke thick beneath his dangling feet. Lorna looked up at her Daddy. She would say nothing. She was good at that.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dennis