Anna Allen, born in County Wicklow, has lived in Connemara for over thirty years. Though the idea of writing nagged and haunted her, having married and started a family that grew and grew, there were too many other calls on her time. However, the day came when she realised the only cure for the torture of wanting to write – was to write. Her first contribution was published in 1972 to be followed by many more reflecting her views on relevant subjects of the day, in the Evening and the Morning editions of the Irish Press. Short Stories came later. When the chance to become a mature (University) student presented itself, Anna grasped the opportunity. In 2007 she emerged from NUIG with an honours BA (English, Archaeology, Sociology/Politics and Philosophy, followed by an M Litt. in Feminist Philosophy.
THE BISHOP AND THE NIGHTDRESS
By Anna Allen
The front door slammed! The windows rattled! The mother stomped into the living-room and sent the twisted up newspapers skidding across the table: The father’s morning-after-the-night-before blear followed them till they came to an ignominious halt against the wall.
‘What’s up love?’ His voice was cautiously blunted of its usual impatience for the sports’ pages, his eyes scanning his wife’s face for clues to her mood.
‘What’s up? My hackles, that’s what’s up. Have you done anything about the breakfast as yet?’
The as was the danger signal, funny how a little word like as in the right place could set a tone, chill the air. If it wasn’t already chilly enough! Robbie pulled the year-old twin girls, a prop on either knee, closer to his chest and kissed their dark curls, in turn.
‘I’m babysitting, Rhoda darling,’ he said. ‘You go mass, I mind kids!’
‘I cook, wash, clean, sew, and mind kids all at same time.’
‘Ah! Not that auld libbers stuff again. I didn’t hear much about that before you got out of bed.’ He threw her a tantalizing glance. ‘Remember!’
She blushed and squirmed at the same time. ‘Was I wearing a nightdress, your Grace?’
‘If you were, I didn’t notice,’ he chuckled, ‘anyway what’s that supposed to mean?’
She burst into tears.
‘What’s happened to put you in this bloody mood?’
‘I don’t know,’ she whimpered. ‘I just don’t understand!’
‘That’s a change usually it’s me that doesn’t understand.’
‘All I know is I’m insulted and hurt,’ she said.
‘Has that Priest been going on again?’
‘It’s like I’m an onion with so many skins and layers…I, the person, seems to have got lost, smothered along the way.’ Rhoda made a gesture of helpless innocence, ‘why did God give us a nature so at odds with what He expects? I feel I want to rid myself of everything I’ve been told and taught. Find out what-its-all-about for myself because I can’t live like this any longer. I need to get right down to bedrock.’
‘Bedrock! For God’s sake woman will you tell me what you’re on about?’
‘I hate myself. I hate my body. I hate being a woman. I can no longer cope with being put in these positions of shame.’
‘Look, just tell me who or what’s put you in this state and leave out the rest.’
‘I’m speechless with disgust is all I know,’ she said.
‘Oh! I hadn’t noticed. The speechless bit I mean.’
Rhoda threw herself down on the couch and released her hair from its controlling scarf-hat. The light-brown mass tumbled to her shoulders glinting in tandem with the hot-cold blue of her eyes. ‘If you’re unfortunate enough to be a woman in this world, then you’d better be a… a mermaid,’ she said.
‘A mermaid? That could put you at a bit of a disadvantage, if I know anything about mermaids, that is,’ Robbie grinned at his own wit.
‘There you are, you’re no different, all double-meaning and… and subterranean.’
‘Subterranean! I understand that alright, buried alive, that’s what.’
‘Buried alive? That’s me,’ Rhoda said, ‘married with a houseful of children, you’re still free.’
‘Free! Do you call this free?’ Robbie dislodged a twin girl from either knee. ‘Mammy’s home, my lovelies,’ he said strapping them into their twin-pram and wheeling it into the hall. Rhoda sped up the stairs to alert the remaining three small daughters their mother was back from first Mass and on the warpath. They’d better be getting up, having their breakfasts and readying themselves for second Mass due to begin in less than two hours time. Although, considering the way she felt right this moment about priests, bishops and even the Pope himself, she was on two minds whether she ought to let them go. Listening to warnings about the evils of the “pill” inside the church and then coming out to the screaming headlines on the Sunday newspapers had all but put her over the edge.
‘Ah, I see. It’s this that’s turning you on,’ he said when Rhoda came back into the room.
‘Why the big cover up about sex, childbirth and that whole area of existence?’ she said continuing her own train of thought. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t enter the convent after all. It seems the only way women can get respect in this country.’
‘Ah don’t say that, love,’ Robbie’s voice was matter-of-fact, his eyes burning up the newsprint.
It was a cold morning. The ash in the grate stared back at the chilly room without as much as a taunting wink to say it had once been a fire.
‘It’s hard to get it right,’ she said out loud.
‘Don’t worry, love,’ said Robbie on automatic pilot, his head stuck in the newspaper.
Opening the heavy curtains she squinted through the melted part of the frosted window where her eyes met the high wall at the back of the house. A boundary wall too high to climb over but not too dense to pass through! That clump of moss, courageously clinging to its nether regions spoke of a beyond. Her imagination escaped through it a thousand times a day to occupy some other world time or space that offered less well-defined possibilities.
‘Now I know what’s bugging you. It’s this isn’t it?’ Robbie piped up prodding the newspaper with his long index finger. Rhoda pulled her eyes from the wall and its vague promises as he began to read out loud in an important voice:
‘Some Bishop,’ he looked over the rim of the paper, ‘took such exception to something on that “Late Late Show” he phoned in, or rather got his secretary to phone in to object. Something about the colour of a nightdress, it says here. I suppose you were watching it?’
‘What else?’ she snapped.
‘Why is all this upsetting you so much? It’s not about you, you know. It’s about some silly woman admitting she was starkers on her honeymoon or something like that.’
‘Is that what you think?’ Rhoda’s voice was strained to a screech.
‘That’s what it says here, so what has you in the flap?’
‘Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it’s about every woman in the country, in the world for that matter, and that includes me. Otherwise why would I feel degraded, disgusted and confused?’
‘Look love, if some auld wan wants to go on TV and tell the country about being starkers on her honeymoon, bleedin’ years ago, what’s that got to do with you, us?’
‘It’s as if there was something obnoxious about her and her naked body and by extension about every woman. She was on her legitimate bloody honeymoon and even if she bloody wasn’t…’
‘She should’ve kept her mouth shut, but no, like you, she’d have to shoot her gob off.’
‘Just like you. Trying to be smart and look where it got her, a bishop having to ring in to complain about her. I’m glad I’m not her husband this Sunday morning, the laughing stock of the country. No doubt about that.’ Robbie flicked his fingers against the newspaper.
‘Looking at the stupid papers you’d think she’d admitted to playing her part in a…in a ménage-a-trios.’
It’s French for three people living together, intimately. I think’, she added with less conviction when she saw the outrage on his face.
‘There’s no such thing as that. Anyway how do you know about it whatever it is?’
‘I read, whenever I get the chance, and not the sports pages of the newspapers.’
‘Oh, I know.’ His voice whirred past her ears like a stone on its way to the flesh of an adulterous woman. Somewhere out East. ‘It’s those books you’re getting over from England, I suppose.’
‘Do you see anything wrong with what she said?’
‘If you came out with the likes of that on television, and you probably would, I’d be mortified,’ said Robbie, his cigarette dancing between his lips. ‘Morto’ I’d be and nothing short of it.’
‘You’d be morto, and how would I ever get to be on television?’
‘No way, I hope. You on television, may God preserve me. You’d probably bring your soapbox with you, to tell them about your own sex life.’
‘Sex, sex, sex! It’s the only sin in the book. You can do anything else you like from robbing a bank to cheating your employer to back-biting your neighbour to ill-treating a child but mention the dreaded sex and you’ll even wake up the priest in the Confession Box. He’ll switch to red alert in case he might miss something – really wicked. If sex is so terrible why is it part of life at all? We didn’t ask for it. At least I didn’t.’
‘God invented it, I suppose, but,’ Robbie hung his head.
‘I don’t know,’ he threw the paper aside. ‘Maybe I’m as mixed up as you are.’
‘And it’s not even the sex itself,’ Rhoda went on, ‘because nobody admits to doing it in the first place, it’s the whiff of it that get’s them going. I’ll bet you a fiver there won’t be a paper left for the second Mass crowd on this Sunday.’
‘It’s as well we’ve got ours, so.’
‘If the “Late Late Show” dealt with botched deliveries and damaged children I’ll guarantee you there wouldn’t be a mention of it in sight; probably a small paragraph tucked away somewhere. No, it takes someone admitting to having sex and doing it in their skin, for God’s sakes, to really get them going.’
‘This paper is certainly whipping things up,’ Robbie agreed.
‘Exactly, it’s the 1960s after all. Every woman in Ireland should be hopping mad at the attitude of that Bishop. How does he think he got into the world in the first place?’
‘Ah, but talking about it on television …’ Robbie lit up another cigarette and added the dead match to the dead ashes, ‘is asking for trouble. That Gay Byrne should have more sense.’
Rhoda trained her blazing blue eyes on him.
‘No, it’s that Bishop that needs sense. It’s his head that’s damaged as well as yours. Every woman in the country ought to stand up and say, “no more sex until it becomes respectable; something that women don’t have to apologise for as if we invented it in the first place.”’
‘And didn’t women invent it? Wasn’t it Eve that tempted Adam?’
‘And isn’t it men who most often come home pissed demanding their conjugal rights?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake woman, I’m beginning to wonder about you.’
‘You’re a man. You’re not made feel guilty or dirty about it all, the way women are. You’ve just said it yourself. Women are the cause of it all.’
‘Don’t start all that man versus woman drivel, I just can’t bear it.’ His voice changed gear, ‘are you not making the brekkie love?’ he said while circling his stomach with the palm of his hand.
‘Oh, the sheer audacity of it all; ought to be laughable if it wasn’t so damn serious,’
‘It’s you that makes it serious, love, forget about it.’
‘How can I forget it? I have to live with it. We’re Catholics aren’t we?’
‘Of course we’re Catholics.’
Rhoda moved up a pitch, ‘and if you’ve any doubt about it just look at all the kids we’ve got and we’re not even thirty yet, either of us.’ Her eyes softened as they swept the contours of Robbie’s boyish head, jet black hair with a streak of grey right at the front. He was too young to be in this position and he had the bread-winning on his shoulders as well. Her eyes moved to the twin pram while her ears took in the frolicking life on the upper floor. An acute frisson of mixed emotions welled up and boiled over. She’d come into the world alone, and now look how many she was!
‘I’m sorry,’ she heard herself say, kissing Robbie on top of his head. ‘I can’t explain why I’m so upset because I don’t really know the answer. I’ll have to put my gut under psychoanalysis.’
‘Later love, when mine is full, woman of the house, do your stuff, feed your man.’
While the rashers the sausages and the white pudding whistled and spat upon the pan Rhoda turned the whole sorry business over in her mind. What really tormented her was the tainted aura that surrounded the female of the species. She wasn’t wrong about that because she felt it now as keenly as when she was a young girl coming to the conclusion that she was suspect in some way or other she didn’t quite understand. The roadmap she’d needed at the time was missing. Judging by the way she felt now, as a young married mother, the road map had not yet been found.
To be a virgin obviously had the greatest value and yet to be a mother, under the proscribed circumstances, of course seemed fine as well. How to be a mother and a virgin at the same time was God territory. There weren’t many Holy Ghosts hanging around down here on well-populated earth. And yet here was she, the mother of five squirming with a brew of rage and embarrassment just because she was born a woman and had a body that could offend a Bishop if she ever allowed it to be naked. There was obviously a missing link somewhere.
‘You timed that well,’ said Rhoda picking up the ringing telephone.
‘Have you cooled down yet?’ asked her friend Pam on the other end of the line.
‘How well you know me. Thanks to his Lordship, or should that be his Grace, I’ve made one decision, that is, one to start with.’
‘Shoot,’ said Pam.
‘I’m going on the Pill,’ Rhoda announced as if she was declaring war on humanity itself.
. ‘Oh, you bad woman,’ said Pam, ‘what’s kept you so long?’
‘I wish I knew the answer to that one.’
‘It’s because you’re waiting for carte blanche from His Holiness in Rome.’ Pam informed her in that supercilious voice she used when she felt ahead of the posse. ‘In this country,’ she articulated following a long drag on her cigarette, ‘the Pill is permitted as a cycle-regulator only. You remember the rhythm method, my child? Don’t you? It’s the one that got you the five kids.’
‘No need to go up that road,’ said Rhoda.
‘Absolutely not; it’s up the garden path for you, every single time he as much as hangs his trousers on the end of the bed.’
‘Not any more,’ replied Rhoda. ‘Now that I’ve had another lesson in how I’m regarded as a woman, I’m out of season for the rest of my natural life and that’s flat.’
‘But remember’ came the reply, ‘you can’t tell Doctor Deering that when you ask him for the Pill. He thinks he’s Christ Almighty. You have to say it’s to regulate your cycle. On top of that you may have to get your husband’s consent.’
‘That could be the tricky bit.’
‘I can’t imagine why, does Robbie not think you have enough children, far too many some might say.’
‘Some like me, for instance,’ said Rhoda; but her heart told her otherwise.
‘You have to have a say in it all, Rhoda. I know Robbie works hard and he’s a good provider but he’s out there living his life just the same. He seems oblivious to your situation with the three girls scarcely able to tie their own shoelaces and throw in a set of twins to put the icing on the cake.’ Rhoda could imagine Pam holding her white telephone, flicking her “Carroll’s Number One” at the glass ashtray on the half-moon hall table. She was on her soap-box, watching herself in the mirror, wrapping her lips around her words like velvet around a diamond.
‘I suppose,’ said Rhoda running her tongue across the chap on her own lips.
‘Do you know what, I sometimes catch myself out thinking about women in that down-graded way. You know, feeling uneasy about women like Marilyn Monroe, the Sex Symbol. You know, wondering if there was some other-worldly influence attached to her death, it’s as if my thoughts are not my own..’
‘Same as that,’ said Pam. ‘We’re brainwashed, Derek says.
‘The Pill could give us control over our own fertility,’ pronounced Rhoda as if waking from a bad dream.
‘Exactly, that’s what the hoo-haa’s all about.’ Pam took another long drag, ‘I don’t give a toss for any of them. I’ve had my two. I won’t be pregnant again, not for priests, bishops, popes or petty-fogging doctors. I’d like some little time for myself before I die.’
‘Oh my God, there’s the car pulling up. I’ve spent the whole of Mass time on the phone. No cleaning done yet and there’s the dinner to put on, the twins to feed.’ Rhoda slammed down the phone.
She looked towards the boundary wall. The moss clung firm like a snot to a child’s nose on a frosty morning. But the portal refused to open.