She hadn’t planned on going over that familiar wooden bridge, where searching, sweeping willows still hung over the road at the other end, as if trying to whip people back, to scare them into retreat. She hadn’t even worked out how she was going to explain the unscheduled stop to her two children, collapsed in the back seat in bitter silence, their tempers sharp from having been denied extended time with their father. The detour just happened. A flash. There was no obvious reason for going there, but now there was also no reason why not; besides, she had already navigated across the noughts and crosses of dangerous suburbs.
‘I used to know someone who lived here,’ she said quietly, her chin almost on the dashboard, struggling to make out the layout of the place. The old buildings had been married up with newer structures, with neon signs and colour where there just used to be ancient austerity.
‘This is boring,’ said Cara. ‘You’re also a liar. There’s no pizza place around here.’
Her brother agreed with a grunt, crossing his arms high up on his chest. ‘She’s just being a dick.’
‘That’s not how I want you to talk to me.’ She wanted to cry again, remembering how the children used to be, before it became just the three of them, before their lives changed so dramatically. ‘Say sorry, Adam. I know you didn’t mean that.’
Another grunt was dragged out for more effect. ‘You are such a stupid dick.’
She let the car idle, squeezing her hands together, annoyed that their breathing was fogging up the windows. She searched again through a patch she’d recently wiped, stretching her neck right around, wondering why she couldn’t recognise anything.
‘You’re just doing this to piss us off,’ said Cara. ‘You don’t want us to have any kind of a life.’
Adam started tapping the back of his mother’s seat with increasing ferocity, saying ‘dick’ with every thump.
‘That’s not nice. It’s not how I want you to behave.’ She was going to try to get upset with them, firmly scold them for their rudeness, but she’d spotted something. High above, she could make out the tall, thin cross that had been shipped there from Italy in the 1920s. The building holding up the cross, however, was now obscured by a kitchen appliances store and what seemed like a shop that sold costumes and party material.
She left the children in the car, hidden behind the moist barrier being created by their agitated breaths. She walked around the back of the new shops to find the crumbling cement building. It was not as grand and striking as she remembered. The walls seemed to exude sadness, from having mourned the passing of so many years, from having been pushed into the background by ugly, cheap façades.
The door was unlocked, which she found surprising, and an orange light came on when she flicked a switch. There used to be a sign above the entrance – The Convent of the Sisters Of Compassion - the letters of which had been burnt into a piece of varnished wood. Standing in the middle of the foyer, where it now looked like musicians advertised for partners and heart groups met for pep sessions, she trembled as she thought of the lonely girl who convinced herself that she had been saved, pacing empty corridors and kneeling in cold rooms.
Sister Angela De Brett. It never sounded quite right, and so she always avoided saying it. Sister Angela was just fine. Sister would do. The youngest in the convent, the one that needed to be the focus of more prayers than anyone else. The rosary beads around her neck, as if she needed a constant reminder. This one would be better off staying away from the TV room.
It was a difficult vocation she had chosen. I have chosen a spiritual vocation, she'd said to her best friend. No, not a spiritual vacation, not a trip to Lourdes or Bethlehem, I am marrying Jesus! I am giving my life to the church. No one ever wrote to her after she left.
Her parents used to call every now and then, but ended up complaining that she wasn’t being open with them, telling them what things were really like. She did tell them (in a rare moment of sharing) that her habit had been badly made, but she didn’t think she had the right to complain about the thick stitching that cut into her head. She finished the conversation by telling them that it was nothing compared to the suffering that Jesus endured for all of his children. Her mother cried and asked what she had done to deserve such cruel punishment from her only daughter.
Sister Angela De Brett tried to keep it to herself when she started to have dreams of being hugged by someone, of having someone simply rub her arms and brush her hair.
‘Come with me,’ she said, waking up the children with gentle nudges, their cramped positions looking painful. ‘I want you to meet someone.’ She had to pull them from the car, but it was much easier than she expected because of their sleepiness. ‘This woman meant so much to me. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her.’
Adam and Cara didn’t protest. They frowned and looked annoyed at being woken up, but they did follow the heavy footsteps of their mother, grasping and rubbing their shoulders to fend off the cold.
‘What time is it?’ asked Adam, hesitant about entering the building.
Cara’s head was slumped to the side, her body limp. ‘It’s bloody well after midnight. She’s finally flipped. Fantastic!’
‘This won’t take long. I promise.’
Inside, they walked up the stairs to a small room on the first floor. It was being used now to store pamphlets and books.
She signalled for the children to go in. ‘This is where Sister Angela spent 10 months, praying on that floor every morning for two hours, really believing that she had found the perfect path for her life, where she would find love and purity.’
‘You’re a dick,’ said Adam. ‘And what the hell do we care about this stupid Sister Angela?’
Cara stopped her brother, putting her hand up in front of his face. ‘Oh my God. Mum?’
She started to cry, staring at the spot where a small wooden bed had once stood. ‘She couldn’t stay here. This wasn’t the kind of spiritual peace she was after. She thought it was, but she was young. She’d made a big mistake. She ended up realising that she couldn’t marry Jesus. She was too desperate for something else.’
‘What?’ asked Adam, searching his sister’s face for clues as to what was going on.
Cara reached out for her mother’s hand.
She dared not look at her children. She looked down at the ground. ‘She wanted the family she never had, and she thought she would find it here.’
Cara looked at her brother. ‘Did she end up finding another family?’
Adam then turned to his mother and stared.
‘She did. She married a lovely man, and together they had a little boy and a little girl. It was the family she wanted. It was her new path towards love and purity. In the end she lost the lovely man, but she still has two beautiful children.’
The three of them returned to the car in silence. They sat there for a long time without saying anything, covering themselves with some old blankets they used to take on family picnics when they were younger. Adam and Cara didn’t complain about the cold, nor about the uncomfortable positions they were in. At one point, not long before the sun came up, Cara asked her mother if she’d found it difficult changing her name. It was their first real conversation in months.
© Copyright, 2006. Seamus Kearney.