“Jamie,” I whispered, “Oh, Jamie.” My tears sparkled in the morning light, adorning Brianna’s soft red fuzz like scattered pearls and diamonds.
It wasn’t a good day. Brianna had a bad diaper rash, which made her cross and irritable, needing to be picked up every few minutes. She nursed and fussed alternately, pausing to spit up at intervals, making clammy wet patches on whatever I wore. I changed my blouse three times before eleven o’clock.
The heavy nursing bra I wore chafed under the arms, and my ni**les felt cold and chapped. Midway through my laborious tidying-up of the house, there was a whooshing clank from under the floorboards, and the hot-air registers died with a feeble sigh.
“No, next week won’t do,” I said over the telephone to the furnace-repair shop. I looked at the window, where the cold February fog was threatening to seep under the sill and engulf us. “It’s forty-two degrees in here, and I have a three-month-old baby!” The baby in question was sitting in her baby seat, swaddled in all her blankets, squalling like a scalded cat. Ignoring the quacking of the person on the other end, I held the receiver next to Brianna’s wide open mouth for several seconds.
“See?” I demanded, lifting the phone to my ear again.
“Awright, lady,” said a resigned voice on the other end of the line. “I’ll come out this afternoon, sometime between noon and six.”
“Noon and six? Can’t you narrow it down a little more than that? I have to get out to the market,” I protested.
“You ain’t the only dead furnace in town, lady,” the voice said with finality, and hung up. I glanced at the clock; eleven-thirty. I’d never be able to get the marketing done and get back in half an hour. Marketing with a small baby was more like a ninety-minute expedition into Darkest Borneo, requiring massive amounts of equipment and tremendous expenditures of energy.
Gritting my teeth, I called the expensive market that delivered, ordered the necessities for dinner, and picked up the baby, who was by now the shade of an eggplant, and markedly smelly.
“That looks ouchy, darling. You’ll feel much better if we get it off, won’t you?” I said, trying to talk soothingly as I wiped the brownish slime off Brianna’s bright-red bottom. She arched her back, trying to escape the clammy washcloth, and shrieked some more. A layer of Vaseline and the tenth clean diaper of the day; the diaper service truck wasn’t due ’til tomorrow, and the house reeked of ammonia.
“All right, sweetheart, there, there.” I hoisted her up on my shoulder, patting her, but the screeching went on and on. Not that I could blame her; her poor bottom was nearly raw. Ideally, she should be let to lie about on a towel with nothing on, but with no heat in the house, that wasn’t feasible. She and I were both wearing sweaters and heavy winter coats, which made the frequent feedings even more of a nuisance than usual; excavating a breast could take several minutes, while the baby screamed.
Brianna couldn’t sleep for more than ten minutes at a time. Consequently, neither could I. When we did drift off together at four o’clock, we were roused within a quarter of an hour by the crashing arrival of the furnace man, who pounded on the door, not bothering to set down the large wrench he was holding.
Jiggling the baby against my shoulder with one hand, I began cooking the dinner with the other, to the accompaniment of screeches in my ear and the sounds of violence from the cellar below.
“I ain’t promising nothin’, lady, but you got heat for now.” The furnace man appeared abruptly, wiping a smear of grease from his creased forehead. He leaned forward to inspect Brianna, who was lying more or less peacefully across my shoulder, loudly sucking her thumb.
“How’s that thumb taste, sweetie?” he inquired. “They say you shouldn’t oughta let ’em suck their thumbs, you know,” he informed me, straightening up. “Gives ’em crooked teeth and they’ll need braces.”
“Is that so?” I said through my own teeth. “How much do I owe you?”
Half an hour later, the chicken lay in its pan, stuffed and basted, surrounded by crushed garlic, sprigs of rosemary, and curls of lemon peel. A quick squeeze of lemon juice over the buttery skin, and I could stick it in the oven and go get myself and Brianna dressed. The kitchen looked like the result of an incompetent burglary, with cupboards hanging open and cooking paraphernalia strewn on every horizontal surface. I banged shut a couple of cupboard doors, and then the kitchen door itself, trusting that that would keep Mrs. Hinchcliffe out, even if good manners wouldn’t.
Frank had brought a new pink dress for Brianna to wear. It was a beautiful thing, but I eyed the layers of lace around the neck dubiously. They looked not only scratchy, but delicate.
“Well, we’ll give it a try,” I told her. “Daddy will like you to look pretty. Let’s try not to spit up in it, hm?”
Brianna responded by shutting her eyes, stiffening, and grunting as she extruded more slime.
“Oh, well done!” I said, sincerely. It meant changing the crib sheet, but at least it wouldn’t make the diaper rash worse. The mess attended to and a fresh diaper in place, I shook out the pink dress, and paused to carefully wipe the snot and drool from her face before popping the garment over her head. She blinked at me and gurgled enticingly, windmilling her fists.
I obligingly lowered my head and went “Pfffft!” into her navel, which made her squirm and gurgle with joy. We did it a few more times, then began the painstaking job of getting into the pink dress.
Brianna didn’t like it; she started to complain as I put it over her head, and as I crammed her chubby little arms into the puffed sleeves, put back her head and let out a piercing cry.
“What is it?” I demanded, startled. I knew all her cries by now and mostly, what she meant by them, but this was a new one, full of fright and pain. “What’s the matter, darling?”
She was screaming furiously now, tears rolling down her face. I turned her frantically over and patted her back, thinking she might have had a sudden attack of colic, but she wasn’t doubled up. She was struggling violently, though, and as I turned her back over to pick her up, I saw the long red line running up the tender inside of her waving arm. A pin had been left in the dress, and had scored her flesh as I forced the sleeve up her arm.
“Oh, baby! Oh, I’m so sorry! Mummy’s so sorry!” Tears were running down my own face as I eased the stabbing pin free and removed it. I clutched her to my shoulder, patting and soothing, trying to calm my own feelings of panicked guilt. Of course I hadn’t meant to hurt her, but she wouldn’t know that.
“Oh, darling,” I murmured. “It’s all right now. Yes, Mummy loves you, it’s all right.” Why hadn’t I thought to check for pins? For that matter, what sort of maniac would package a baby’s clothes using straight pins? Torn between fury and distress, I eased Brianna into the dress, wiped her chin, and carried her into the bedroom, where I laid her on my twin bed while I hastily changed to a decent skirt and a fresh blouse.
The doorbell rang as I was pulling on my stockings. There was a hole in one heel, but no time to do anything about it now. I stuck my feet into the pinching alligator pumps, snatched up Brianna, and went to answer the door.
It was Frank, too laden with packages to use his key. One-handed, I took most of them from him and parked them on the hall table.
“Dinner all ready, dear? I’ve brought a new tablecloth and napkins—thought ours were a bit shabby. And the wine, of course.” He lifted the bottle in his hand, smiling, then leaned forward to peer at me, and stopped smiling. He looked disapprovingly from my disheveled hair to my blouse, freshly stained with spit-up milk.
“Christ, Claire,” he said. “Couldn’t you fix yourself up a bit? I mean, it’s not as though you have anything else to do, at home all day—couldn’t you take a few minutes for a—”
“No,” I said, quite loudly. I pushed Brianna, who was wailing again with fretful exhaustion, into his arms.
“No,” I said again, and took the wine bottle from his unresisting hand.
“NO!” I shrieked, stamping my foot. I swung the bottle widely, and he dodged, but it was the doorjamb I struck, and purplish splatters of Beaujolais flew across the stoop, leaving glass shards glittering in the light from the entryway.
I flung the shattered bottle into the azaleas and ran coatless down the walk and into the freezing fog. At the foot of the walk, I passed the startled Hinchcliffes, who were arriving half an hour early, presumably in hopes of catching me in some domestic deficiency. I hoped they’d enjoy their dinner.
I drove aimlessly through the fog, the car’s heater blasting on my feet, until I began to get low on gas. I wasn’t going home; not yet. An all-night cafe? Then I realized that it was Friday night, and getting on for twelve o’clock. I had a place to go, after all. I turned back toward the suburb where we lived, and the Church of St. Finbar.
At this hour, the chapel was locked to prevent vandalism and burglary. For the late adorers, there was a push-button lock set just below the door handle. Five buttons, numbered one to five. By pushing three of them, in the proper combination, the latch could be sprung to allow lawful entry.
I moved quietly along the back of the chapel, to the logbook that sat at the feet of St. Finbar, to record my arrival.
“St. Finbar?” Frank had said incredulously. “There isn’t such a saint. There can’t possibly be.”
“There is,” I said, with a trace of smugness. “An Irish bishop, from the twelfth century.”
“Oh, Irish,” said Frank dismissively. “That explains it. But what I can’t understand,” he said, careful to be tactful, “is, er, well…why?”
“Why go in for this Perpetual Adoration business? You’ve never been the least devout, no more than I have. And you don’t go to Mass or anything; Father Beggs asks me every week where you are.”
I shook my head. “I can’t really say, Frank. It’s just something…I need to do.” I looked at him, helpless to explain adequately. “It’s…peaceful there,” I said, finally.
He opened his mouth as though to speak further, then turned away, shaking his head.
It was peaceful. The car park at the church was deserted, save for the single car of the adorer on duty at this hour, gleaming an anonymous black under the arc lights. Inside, I signed my name to the log and walked forward, coughing tactfully to alert the eleven o’clock adorer to my presence without the rudeness of direct speech. I knelt behind him, a heavyset man in a yellow windcheater. After a moment, he rose, genuflected before the altar, turned and walked to the door, nodding briefly as he passed me.
The door hissed shut and I was alone, save for the Sacrament displayed on the altar, in the great golden sunburst of the monstrance. There were two candles on the altar, big ones. Smooth and white, they burned steadily in the still air, without a flicker. I closed my eyes for a moment, just listening to the silence.