Friday, 1 November 2013

Molly Lovelace by Virginia Lowes

Crucifix, St Margaret's Church, Denton, Northants

‘An Indian,’ she spat. ‘What were you thinking?’
That, I suppose was the problem. Or the joy. Depending on your angle. I wasn’t thinking. It [falling in love] wasn’t about thinking.
I came home that day, stomach like a wrung out cloth, pink cadet uniform folded in my bag. Who else could I have told? Isn’t that what mothers are for?
            ‘Your dad’ll skin you alive,’ she said. ‘And what he’ll do to him,’ she covered her face with her hands, ‘doesn’t bear thinking about.’
I stopped retching in the scullery sink and slid down the wall. Head on my knees, tears puddled on the green linoleum. I looked at her fluffy pink house slippers, and up past the tan stockings squeezing in great tramlines of varicose veins, then disappearing into her yellow and orange flowery housecoat. I felt another surge of vomiting and knelt over the puddle. When the shuddering stopped she said, hands on hips:
            ‘Go and get yourself cleaned up, Molly.  I’ll disinfect this floor.’

‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness,’ Mother said any number of times a day. Our house was purged to within an inch of its life; daily scullery floor mop, weekly bed strip, monthly cupboard clear out, seasonal curtain clean. And woe betide family members trailing mud over the front room rug, or leaving finger prints on the television screen, which she would scowl at, while we watched Juke Box Jury or The Black and White Minstrel Show.

Occasionally, as a nursing cadet in St Wilfred’s Hospital in the grim outskirts of Ormesby, I had to deliver the clean laundry to the Treatment Room, and I liked to linger. I read labels on brown medicine bottles, and unopened packages. I inspected sterilised instruments on the trolleys, imagining procedures where, in my dark blue state registered nursing uniform, I would pass implements to the operating surgeon. Most of the time, however, was spent in the laundry room scrubbing stains from a perpetual pile of sheets and pillow cases.

It was the Treatment Room where we first met.
            ‘Oh I am so sorry,’ he said, his words singsong like a dawn chorus. He pulled the stethoscope from his neck. ‘I didn’t realise there was anyone in.’
I was shy; embarrassed at being addressed so directly.
            ‘I was just delivering laundry,’ I said and pushed a bottle back onto a shelf.
            ‘Would you happen to know where the suture needles are?’ He paused. ‘I am Jalal, pleased to meet you.’ He offered his hand but I turned away and pointed to the trolley.
            ‘I’m Molly,’ I muttered. I thought he was very small and very beautiful.
He smiled. ‘Oh exactly. Yes. Now, I also need to find the gauze.’
We looked together on both trolleys for the gauze, then reached out at the same time to pick up a packet. Our hands touched.  That was the moment I stopped thinking.
Matron initiated all new cadets into the world of the laundry room.
‘As the need for cleanliness of all kinds is very great, and a knowledge of correct methods essential, you will begin your service in the laundry room.’
 She instructed us in the methods and care of the wringer, the mangle, the boiler, irons, tongs, washing boards, basins, baskets and pegs. The washing boards to be scrubbed occasionally and dried well after use. The wringer was more complicated; after each use the tension screws needed to be loosened and the rollers dried thoroughly. It was to be oiled frequently, and if it needed cleaning, it was paraffin for the metal parts, turpentine for the rubber rollers, then wash and dry, and always keep covered when not in use.
The laundry was my home. I loved the smells of the soaps and sulphur, the carbolic, camphor and Condy’s Fluid.  I enjoyed turning the handle of the mangle slowly or dropping a bit of blue wrapped in flannel into the hot washing.

Such a contrast to the scents of sandalwood, saffron and the Champaka tree that Jalal spoke of. He described the colours and fabrics of exotic outfits like: ‘saris’, ‘shalwar kameez’, and ‘sherwani’. And the sweet sound of the sitar. He promised one day that I would taste fresh mango, coconut, and papaya on a white sand beach at sunset. He described the majesty of the Taj Mahal, the warm glow of Jaipur and the artwork of the Red Fort.
He didn’t speak of anything that would have disturbed our little world.
            I dreamt of bathing in the great sacred river of the Ganges or of chanting mantras by lamplight along its banks.
We left a frenzy of notes to each other behind a bit of skirting board in the Treatment Room: “Cup of tea, tomorrow?” “Shall we go to the cinema?” and eventually “Shall I cook you dinner?”

Saturday mornings Mother cleaned at the church. She made polish at home, dissolving soap flakes in hot water then mixing with calcium carbonate and ammonia to make a paste. She carried it in a jam jar upright in her handbag. The candlesticks, cruets and tabernacle were all polished with the paste, the communion rail waxed, and the altar and sanctuary floor scrubbed on hands and knees with hard brushes and pails of hot soapy water. Father Jessop shone the chalice and the crucifix himself.
The water at the hospital was hard.
‘This hard soap,’ explained Matron, ‘is made from tallow, or solid vegetable fats, caustic soda and water. It will dissolve grease, remove dirt and soften water. However, used in excess it will make white linen yellow. ’
She showed us large quantities of soap cut into pieces and stored until they were firm and hard. Scraps of soap were kept for soap-jelly, which was stored in a rubber-stoppered Ammonia bottle, and for the boiler.
We were to use borax and starch for stiffening sheets, vinegar to remove excess blue, salt for soaking handkerchiefs, and turpentine to remove discolouration from the rubber rollers of the wringers.

Jalal didn’t say much when I arrived at his bedsit. He opened the door and smiled, shyly indicating for me to follow him upstairs. The room was cold and spartan and I perched uncomfortably on the end of his single bed. He didn’t cook me dinner. He put the kettle on the Baby Belling, switched it on, then bent down and pulled off my shoes.  He put his hand to the top of my stockings and stroked my thighs.
I wept afterwards, with shame not pain. But the frequency of our letters left behind the skirting board only intensified.
Mother made an appointment to speak to Matron two days after the vomiting started. I stared along the shiny corridor watching porters, nurses, and cleaners, moving across the floor; in and out of doors, pushing trolleys, carrying clipboards. Rough skin stretched over Mother’s knuckles as she gripped the handbag on her knees. Now and again she adjusted her hat and glanced sideways at me.
            Eventually, her voice shaking, she said, ‘I’ve spoken to Father Jessop, he’ll see what he can do.’ She took a perfectly ironed white handkerchief out of her bag and wiped her nose. ‘He wants us to meet him in the presbytery after six o’clock mass.’
Matron opened her door; I said nothing while Mother explained the situation.
‘I imagine he didn’t mention his family?’ Matron sighed. ‘You’re not the first. And I doubt you’ll be the last.’
Matron spoke far more quietly than usual, and touched my shoulder as we left.

When my note had remained unread behind the skirting board for a whole week, I’d begun to feel sick. I’d loitered in the Treatment Room, looking for clues that Jalal had passed through, sniffing the air deeply for the faintest trace of sandalwood, but all I’d smelt was antiseptic and soap. Without the warmth of his body and the taste of his lips, without his stories and promises; I was lost. The thought that he might leave had never entered my mind.  

‘I’ll buy you a cup of tea in Bainbridge’s,’ Mother said, as we stood waiting for the 34 outside the hospital.
She wanted to sit in the corner, where I had sat with Jalal on our first date.
            ‘You’re a queer one, you are,’ she said when I asked if we could sit by the window instead. But I wanted to watch other people’s lives.
‘What I’m going to tell your dad I don’t know,’ she said unpinning her hat, ‘but you can’t stop at home now….Confession’s at five tonight,’ she looked around for a clock. ‘It might be an idea.’

Mother came out of the confessional box and knelt at the altar, head bowed, rosary beads clicking. I waited to see if anyone would go next; there was no one. Father Jessop peeped out and looked up the church, then clanged the door shut again. Shadows reached across the nave; roses and candles sat at the feet of statues.

He had talked of altars and gods, flowers and lanterns. At first I’d thought I understood, then he’d opened a small leather suitcase from under his bed, pulled a postcard from a bundle of letters tied with a length of gauze bandage. A temple he said. That was where he worshipped more than one god. It was the idea of cows and monkeys wandering round that I liked. We’d giggled at the idea of Mother running around with one of her dusters, chasing the animals.

I had to go into the box. Once inside, I saw the priest through the dark netting, reading a paper in his chair. I whispered the plea for forgiveness.
            ‘And are you truly sorry for your sins, my child?’
            ‘Yes Father,’ I lied.
            ‘For your penance say one Our Father, a decade of the Rosary, and one Glory Be.’
I joined Mother at the altar.
            ‘He’s a good man, Molly,’ she whispered. ‘You can trust him.’
After mass we were ushered into the Presbytery. The altar boy was still removing Father’s vestments.
‘Mother Superior will take her Monday. She may have work for you afterwards if you’re lucky, Molly.’ He looked at me, sadly. ‘And the father?’ he turned back to Mother.
‘He’s away back to India, to his wife, Father. Not a thought for my Molly.’
            Father blessed himself. ‘I see he’s gravely in need of the Lord’s help. I’ll remember him in my prayers.’
            ‘Thank you, Father. I don’t know what we would have done without your help,’ said Mother, her gaze honing in on dusty corners and ledges; she couldn’t help herself.

Jalal had told me about Meerabai, a Hindu princess. She wrote poems and songs, and when her husband died she refused to be burnt on the funeral pyre along with him. Instead she became a wanderer, and spent her life tracing a holy path. This state of affairs would never have happened to her.

Snow started to settle on the step as we arrived, Monday morning, at the great heavy door of St Katherine’s Convent and rang the bell. Buttons and threads strained at the fabric of my grey woollen coat, belly stifled below. Mother was at my side. My eyes, red and sore, stung with cold. I wiped them with scratchy woollen gloves, and remembered Jalal gently kissing my tears away in his bedsit.

The door opened.
            ‘Mother Superior, please. She’s expecting us. Molly Lovelace.’ Mother was nervous, her voice tight.
The young girl ushered us in and we stood on the other side of the enormous door. I looked at Mother, but she wouldn’t meet my eye. She stared at the floor.
‘It’s very clean here. You’ll be alright.’  She squeezed my hand and wiped a tear from her cheek. ‘It’s better this way, Molly. ‘Specially now he’s out of the picture. I’ll come and visit once a month, I promise. Your dad might come round in the end but you know what he’s like. We’ll just have to see.’
            Leading me towards Mother Superior, the girl glided silently, hands hidden in her sleeves, her face the only flesh exposed. Hearing the door open behind me, I looked over my shoulder to see Mother stepping back into the snow.
‘With your experience,’ Mother Superior spoke sternly, ‘you can keep the laundry in order. And although you are not here to become a noviciate you will at all times aim to remove faults and acquire virtues. To help you with this you will examine your conscience twice a day and enter your accusations in your ‘Book of Imperfections.’

My belly swelled and back ached beneath the heavy garments I wore in the heat and steam of the laundry room. White altar cloths were brought to the convent each week and I took special care with the lace edges. I liked to soak them in cold water, squeeze in hot soapy lather, then stretch and roll in a clean towel.  
            At night lying in my single bed, a crucifix keeping me company on the wall ahead, I filled my ‘Book’ with tips like, salt of sorrel and lemon to remove stains from linen.  Occasionally, I wrote the name of a fruit that I was never going to taste.   

About the Author: Virginia Lowes is studying on the Creative Writing MA at Sheffield Hallam University.

She has read her work at Off The Shelf literary festival in Sheffield and her play ‘Graveside’ was performed at The Lantern Theatre, Sheffield. 2011. Her short story ‘The Cave’ was published in Beat The Dust Magazine, September 2012, and the short story ‘Let Us Speak of Such Things’, will be published early next year in Matter 13; the Sheffield Hallam Anthology.

Virginia takes photographs, mooches around in woods, cemeteries and disused areas of the city. She likes beaches, bonfires, rain and sunlight; Nick Drake, Elbow and Kate Bush. And stories. 

Image: (c) Jenny Thorpe