Lachrimae Christi by Moya Roddy

Moya Roddy attended the National College of Art and Trinity Arts Lab. She continued painting during a two-year stay in Italy, before moving to London where she trained as a television director at the Soho Poly.   Que Sera Sera,   which she wrote and directed, won a Sony Award in 1983 and the British Film Institute commissioned a full-length feature,   I Prefer Freesias   in 1985. Several of her screenplays were optioned in America. She worked in television adapting a novel for Scottish TV and in Current Affairs/Documentaries for Channel 4 on programmes such as   Promised the Earth , analysing the UN Decade for Women and was sole writer on the innovative four-part art series   Opening Up the Family Album. Returning to live in Ireland, her debut novel   The Long Way Home, ( Attic Press 1992), was described as ‘Simply Brilliant’ in the Irish Times. They had published her first short story,   Biddy’s Research,   in 1991 and since then she’s had numerous stories published including   The Day I Gave Neil Jordan A Lift   Anthology of Irish Comic Writing,   Penguin/Michael Joseph,) which was broadcast by RTE and CBS Canada. Her work has been anthologised in   Dublines   and the   Anthology of Irish Women’s Writing , (Bloodaxe). She wrote several episodes for RTE’s sit-com   Upwardly Mobile . A radio play   Dance Ballerina Dance was short-listed for the PJ O’Connor Award and broadcast by RTE. She collaborated with Pete Mullineaux on   Butterfly Wings, broadcast on RTE radio in 2010, and two stage plays,   Trust Games , (Galway Youth Theatre 2002) and   Red Lorry Yellow Lorry – specially commissioned for the 2003 Cuirt International Festival of Literature. She completed an MA in Writing at NUIG in 2008.

Lachrimae Christi

By Moya Roddy   

            It looked dead. After a quick glance to make sure no one was looking, Vera Joyce leaned into the skip, fished out the spindly plant. The shrub, leafless and with only two out-stretched branches, resembled a crucifix. After she’d examined it, Vera tested each tip in turn: one snapped clean away, the other bent. Where there’s life, she muttered, slipping it into a large shopping bag.

            Arriving home, Vera filled a bucket from a tap in the yard, left the plant to soak while she went inside to fix herself a sandwich. She dispensed with cooking whenever Jim was away on Council business. Today, he was in Dublin and she wasn’t expecting him back until late. At the thought of her husband, something hard settled in Vera’s chest. To escape it, she went outdoors, tramping the half-acre in search of somewhere suitable for her ‘find’; settling eventually on a shady spot behind the clothesline. Taking the dripping plant she lowered it into the ground, firming the earth around the exposed roots. She talked to the plant while she worked, reassuring it, then sat back on her heels as her own recent discovery that Christ had been crucified on a dump surfaced.  She’d heard it on a radio programme just before Easter and the revelation had horrified her, disturbing a childhood image of Calvary as a steep hill, towering above the city of Jerusalem, the location conferring a kind of celestial grandeur befitting who He was. To treat someone like rubbish seemed to Vera the worst thing you could do to them.

            Vera persevered, feeding the new arrival special plant food the way you give treats to a sick child to coax it back to health. Paying back a debt, she told herself, saving the plant the way gardening had saved her. It had saved her. Whether digging, weeding or sowing Vera had found peace in the backbreaking work, a respite from the daily struggle. She was aware her neighbours talked, regarding the endless hours she spent in the garden as a sort of pride that shouldn’t be cultivated, worse still, a neglect of more important things like socialising, gossip. Vera let their opinions wash over her. Without the garden she’d have withered. Next to her children, it was all she lived for. Not that they were children any longer. One by one, Michael first, then Marion and last of all Paul, the middle child, had spread their wings until now, like swallows, they returned only in summer.

            Vera crossed the lawn with a tray of bedding. Kneeling on a fertiliser bag, she began transferring the seedlings one by one, using an old knitting needle to make holes, a trick she’d come up with herself. If she’d known Jim was an alcoholic would she have married him? Probably. When you’re young, all you think it takes to change someone is will power. Then as time wore on she’d begun to regard his behaviour as a sort of punishment for marrying him in the first place. It wasn’t that she and Jim hadn’t hit if off, they’d been very fond of one another, but their relationship had lacked passion. Sometimes, as Vera lay in bed waiting for him to return, praying he’d be sober, she’d ruminate on how much her father’s sudden death and the prospect of being left to care for her mother had influenced her. The irony was, her fears had been groundless. A second flowering was the best way to describe her mother’s transformation on finding herself a widow. Of course, that had only been apparent in hindsight. Removing the heavy gardening gloves, Vera felt the sift of soil through her fingers. Death, birth, renewal. Would her own chance ever come, she wondered, or was it all to be sublimated here?

            It was only after she’d left Kerry and moved to Galway to live among rock, that Vera realised she’d grown up with flowers. Not the cultivated sort, but wild untamed ones: monbretia or fuchsia, the one she loved most, red and rampant along winding boreens, an excess of colour, sinful almost. Fuchsia, profusion – the words had become linked in her mind. During those early years in exile, the scarlet fuchsia had blazed, throwing light on her childhood: the memory of the flowerlets transformed into ballerinas, long stamens pirouetting like slender, graceful legs. As necklaces or bangles they’d been imbued with the power to render her drab life magical and stuck to her ears with cellotape, they had become the exotic earrings gypsies wore. Her mother, on the other hand, had feared the flowers, wouldn’t allow them in the house: ‘You’ll have enough tears in your life,’ she’d warn, shooing Vera out. “Lachrimae Christi,” she called them: “Tears of Christ”. Not beautiful at all, unlucky. Puzzled by her mother’s words, a younger Vera had searched out an image of Christ crucified and seen how the red and purple matched the blooded tears streaming down His bruised face.

            The first time Jim hit her was after a Council meeting. At the time they’d been married nine years, Michael was seven, Marion just a few months old. The night it happened he’d come home the worse for wear – a decision about the siting of some apartments had gone against him – and Vera had made the mistake of saying something in defence of the objectors. The blow loosened a tooth. Later, Jim had cried, blaming it on the frustrations of the meeting, his bottled-up anger needing release. The next time it happened, several days were allowed to elapse before he apologised. Gradually a pattern emerged, meetings, drinking, beatings. Mostly, he knocked her about but if she happened to fall, he’d use his feet, tell her she was asking for it. For years, Vera covered up the assaults, inventing accidents, convincing herself she was keeping it from the children, until the evening Michael, just turned thirteen, had burst in.

‘Run Mam,’ he’d screamed, wrestling his father against a wall.

The beatings stopped for a while, but the atmosphere in the house turned sour. When her eldest opted to go to boarding school, the sadness Vera felt had been tinged with relief.

            Vera filled a watering can from a barrel of rainwater. The weather had turned unseasonably hot and she was careful to water her ‘baby’ each evening. A smile broke on her face as she noticed several dimpled green shoots unfurling, feeling their way into life. Inspecting the plant closely, she noticed the shoots had sprouted, not from the old branches, but from the base, as if the shrub had had to reach inside itself, discover anew how to grow. Seeing this, her heart quickened and she stood up, wanting to tell someone, to share her joy. Lachrimae Christi, she reminded herself, retreating indoors.

            Hearing Jim’s key, Vera glanced at the clock. The meeting must have finished early or maybe he hadn’t gone to the pub? The glimmer of hope died as the kitchen door opened and her husband fell in, cursing softly, his eyes unfocussed. He didn’t notice her and Vera watched him the way she might a stranger. The expression on his face surprised her, cringing, fearful, as if all his enemies were in the room ready to pounce. Her heart softened and she wondered about all the things she didn’t know about him; all the things he didn’t know about himself. As she opened her mouth to speak, he jumped, startled, his eyes rolling in his head. When they came to the fore, they were full of something dark, hateful. ‘Witch,’ he spat, throwing a punch. It caught Vera on the hop – over time the beatings had petered out, although not the threat of them  – but she  managed to dodge it, get past him. He caught up with her in the hall, his hands clutching at her skirt, like a child clinging to its mother. She kept going, dragging him outside where they danced round each other until with a sudden twist she freed herself. She made for the gable end, night air chaffing her bare legs. Slurred threats, the scuff of his feet as he stumbled in her wake broke the silence. She halted by the clothesline, shrinking as he drew near. She saw him cock his head, listen as you would for an animal. She stepped backwards and a cracking sound beneath her feet alerted him. He grabbed at the pole used to prop the line, lurched. Vera fled, losing herself in darkness. A bat whirred by her head. A cow moaned drunkenly in an adjoining field. Small animals rooted in the undergrowth. He called her name. Called again. ‘Who cares,’ he shouted finally, ‘who fekin’ cares.’ Moments later, the front door slammed. Ashamed, Vera  pictured herself: a middle-aged woman hiding in her own garden. Crying.

            A finger of light woke Vera. For a moment, she was mystified to find herself in the shed. As memories of the previous night surfaced, she sat up, stretching to relieve the ache in her bones. Picking up the old gardening coat she’d used as a blanket she wrapped it round her, went outside. Above her the emerging sky flushed pink. Grass wet her ankles. Birds sang. She retraced her steps, weighed down by the thought of the limbo days she’d have to live through until their mutual resentment wore itself out, hers in the garden, his wheeler-dealing. Passing the clothesline, she bent to retrieve the pole. ‘Oh no!’ she cried. ‘No!’ The cry dying in her throat, Vera sank to the ground, buried her face in the trampled shoots. She waited for tears but none came. She felt dry. Dry and hollow as if she’d been sucked clean.

            The look on her face silenced Jim as she walked into the house. Mechanically, she made tea, took a cup to the bedroom. When she put it to her lips it tasted bitter. Lying down, she covered her head with the duvet. When he came to the door, asking if she wanted anything, she didn’t respond. She wanted her plant back, she wanted her life back. He could give her neither.

            Vera stopped cleaning, stopped making meals, stopped speaking to her husband. Not consciously, she wasn’t trying to teach him a lesson. She’d simply come to the end of something. Sitting still, she experienced a heaviness as if she’d suddenly put on weight. When Marion turned up, all bustle and plans, she sent her packing, told her she needed to be alone. She told Michael the same thing and Paul, who pretended to ring out of the blue. Then she waited. She’d no idea what she was waiting for but she waited anyway. In the garden, flowers wilted, died eventually. One morning, towards the end of summer, she announced she was going home for a visit. Her husband nodded, threw a wad of notes on the table. Without a word, she pushed them aside.

            Vera asked the bus-driver to let her off a mile from her old home. Taking her

time, she walked the road she’d walked as a child, the hedgerows ablaze, the ground bleeding beneath her feet. Overhead, the sky appeared red and as she cut a path through the burning bush, she understood why she’d come. Reaching up, she broke off a branch, then another and another until her arms were laden with fuchsia. She could hear her mother’s voice telling her to take them out of the house, about the bad luck they’d bring. This time she had an answer. Mother, she’d tell her, we make our own luck.

 

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