“Okay. Before we start – a few ground rules. I don’t want you judging me. You got that? If I think for one minute you’re sitting up there with a big sheepish grin on your face acting magnanimous while you’re secretly condemning me – this conversation’s over. Well, as much as a conversation as this can be, is over. That’s the first thing. The second; don’t go running to your mother. She and I have had a good relationship over the years – I don’t want you spoiling it by telling tales out of school. I’ll talk to her myself when the time is right. She understands women and she’ll give me a fair hearing. The third thing is this. I’m angry, so don’t be surprised if I throw in an odd swear word from time to time; I find it cathartic.
Right, now that we’ve got that straightened out. I didn’t come to say I’m sorry, but my conscience is pricking me, all the same. What’s done is done, and not even you can change the past, but I figure you’re deserving of some kind of explanation.
It’s this burning inside, you see. Sometimes it comes in the morning, before the light – as my eyes open. Before I remember how I came to be with you. For a moment, I’m somewhere else – reincarnated. Mostly, it comes at night, in the darkness, when I do remember. All I can do is bury my head in the pillow to hide the tears, thinking you won’t notice – but I know you do. I’m overwhelmed by how it feels. In a word . . .beautiful. I never want to lose that feeling. I haven’t, and that’s what makes it so difficult.
We’ve been married twenty years, and what have you given me? – This wedding band and little else. Real marriages can’t last without affection. How many brides do you need anyhow? It’s not like I’m the only one, so I don’t think you should be getting all hot and bothered just because I strayed.
Truth be told, I don’t think you take care of the women in your life very well. How often did you say thanks? Did I ever sense your smile, your touch, your footprints in the sand? Never, I’m afraid.
Have you any idea what’s it’s like to fill us with all these womanly desires then ask us to deny them? Do you know the pain of loneliness? Of lying in a single bed, in a small room, in a cold convent, with nothing on the walls but a crucifix? Do you know how my body aches to be held? Have you ever thought about how I might like to wake up beside someone – just once? How I might want to feel his breath on my neck, his arm around me, his body moulded to the curl of my hips? No, you don’t get it, do you? And yet somehow I feel like you need an explanation.
Wait. Wait a second . . . someone just came in. Oh, it’s old Sister Martha. Jesus! Look at the cut of her. She’s here for confessions, half an hour before they’re due to start. The rest of them will be crowding in before long. Same nuns, same confessions, same ritual – for twenty years. Frail souls seeking solace in your sanctuary. How do you do it?
Don’t be coming over to me now, Martha with your pious platitudes about the Holy Spirit and the power of reconciliation. I know all about his powers. I’m involved in some serious conscience stuff here. Hold on. I need to bury my head in my hands so she won’t disturb me . . . . Okay, good, she took the hint. Anyway, where was I? Yes, I remember . . . the explanation.
Teaching the senior girls. What a great bunch. I’d forgotten the exuberance of youth could be so much fun. That weekend in New York. You remember . . . the cultural and spiritual development exercise. Needless to say, their idea of spiritual development and mine were two entirely different concepts. The night they made me dress in the skirt and top they’d bought specially for me. I can’t deny it – it felt good. They did my make-up. I took a look at myself in the mirror. I wanted to lift my top. I wanted to show off my bulging breasts. I wanted to say ‘touch these, I’m ready.’ Of course, a few white wine spritzers helped.
It started me thinking. I’m 42 years old and what’s wrong with a bit of excitement. All of a sudden I start noticing men. Kinda like you’re looking for a new car. Before you know it you’re checking every model. One day you’re looking at the shape. The next the colour. Maybe the age. How a particular type stands the test of time. What makes a certain style stand out?
Then you realise you’re not just looking at the younger models. Older men, who you know damn well are married and settled start to interest you. Men who probably don’t even think they’re attractive to women anymore. Well, I started noticing them all. The guys who cut the grass at the school, with their tanned bodies gleaming in the summer sun. The ones who clean the convent windows – so nonchalant in their sexy white T-shirts with rags hanging from their hip pockets. The men who pump the gas, with the swell of muscle rippling from their wrists to their shoulders. Ones with ponytails. Even grey hair in a ponytail. It says something. It says ‘I dare to be different.’ And I’m thinking here’s a guy who thinks young. The ones with the rugged faces. Experienced – something interesting to say. Look like they’re still getting some. They’ve a story to tell.
Hey, I’m human after all. I bet you had your fair share of women admirers in your day. You had the cracking good looks too. And don’t try telling me you hadn’t the hots for Mary Magdalene. Wouldn’t surprise me one bit if your poor mother had to do a bit of covering up for you on that score. I’m sure it wasn’t all about getting your feet washed.
Hold on a minute, another penitent arriving . . . wait, till I get a gander. Sister Maria. Young, Sister Maria. She’s a stunner. The girls tell me she’s hot and they should know. You’ll have your work cut out for you there, I’d say. If she gets a whiff of the forbidden fruit, she’ll go. She won’t bother me. I suspect she has plenty on her plate trying to keep her act together.
Anyway, a parent teacher meeting. Rachel Brady brings her dad. They sit at my desk and immediately I feel like I’m sixteen again. I’m blushing and blabbering, pretending to be an expert on Irish poets. Sean Brady’s staring at me as if to say who gives a fuck. He’s got this thing with the hair going on. That greying around the temples and the careless wisp caressing his forehead. He leans over, feigning interest. The big thick strong hands – hands that can take care of a woman – covering half my desk. The muscles in his forearms flex. He tells me he’s in construction and doesn’t have much time for poetry these days. I’m staring at his broad shoulders clad in soft chequered flannel, his small gold crucifix gracing his thick neck . . . as if to taunt me. Sarah nudges him. He tells me his father comes from Ireland. Talks exactly like me. Asks me if I know him. Of course, by this time I’m losing my bearings and succumbing to silly questions. ‘What’s his name?’ I’ve been out of the country for fifteen years but still behaving like there are probably only half a dozen people living there and I’m bound to know him. ‘Sean Brady . . . senior’, he adds, like it makes a difference.
Now I have to go the distance after tantalising the man. ‘What county?’ He looks at his daughter. She screws up her face. ‘Mayo or Donegal, I’m not sure?’ He smiles, happy he’s narrowed the search from thirty-two counties.
I beam my broadest smile hoping to maximise my dimples – the girls tell me I have a beautiful smile. I let him down gently. ‘I’m from the North and haven’t been back in a while.’ He nods and fidgets. Sarah nudges him again. He leans over to talk in a low tone that means I must lean forward to hear him. I smell cologne. Polo or Paco Rabanne, pour homme. Who gives a shit? I know the smell. The girls let me have a whiff of their boyfriends’ gifts. I’m thinking, I hope I don’t have garlic breath. I should always carry a vial of mouth spray – that strong minty stuff that makes your eyes water and forces you to gasp. He says it might be good if Sarah could have a chat with me at home about her English and enquires whether I could provide her with a little extra tuition. He asks me round for dinner.
Of course, by this time I’m totally bowled over. I’m wondering what I should wear and pretending I have Sarah’s best interests at heart. While I’m rabbiting on about the importance of keeping her grades up, he jumps to his feet, says ‘great, Saturday night at eight, hands me a card and he’s gone.’
Next thing I know I’m on the internet searching for lingerie. Chic, but not bawdy. Matching bra and bikini-style panties. I marvelled at the thong. Pushing it a bit, though, even from a comfort perspective. Like sitting on a clothesline. Definitely black, sort of nun-like in that regard. Next day delivery. Anonymous packaging. No Victoria’s Secrets, or Cynthia’s Closet wrapping. Then, it occurs to me, there may be a Mrs Brady. I have to pussyfoot around Sarah during class to get the score on that one. Everything’s kosher. I’m sorry, kosher from my perspective. Apparently Mrs Brady ran off with someone.
I hope I’m not boring you with the detail, but it’s important you get the full story. I see another nun coming. Sister Philip. She’s a weirdo. What kind of a nun’s comfortable with a man’s name? She won’t even notice me.
Come Saturday night I’m telling other nuns I’m meeting with a ‘concerned’ parent. Technically, I am, but I’m hoping he’s concerned about me.
Turns out he is. Compliments me. Notices my black A-line just above the knee. Tells me I suit heels. Explains how he likes heels high enough to allow a woman to appear sophisticated but low enough not to make her look like a hooker. Tells me I’m beautiful. That’s a big thing with me. Not the beauty, but the fact that he sees me. You never see me. I think you probably look at me, but just so you can see that I’m going about my business serving you. More like keeping an eye on me. You don’t see me, the person – my doubts, desires and unfulfilled longings. That’s the problem – you take me for granted.
After dinner, a glass of wine. Sarah says she must go. A friend calls for her. Another glass of wine. Soft music, dim lights, he takes a book from the bookshelf and reads me Yeats. Now this guy’s in construction and he’s reading me Yeats. What’s that saying . . . ? I should think so. It most definitely is. It’s saying I’m trying really hard here. Truth is, he didn’t even need to try that hard. The juices were already flowing. After the reading, they gushed.
I snuggle up. He puts the big strong arms around me. I surrender right away. I haven’t kissed a man on the lips in over twenty years. The couple of times before I married you, in the back of a Ford transit van, down a country lane, don’t count. I shake like I’m riding a bike for the first time. He steadies me. He guides me. He’s a good teacher. I’m a good student. It’s slow, sensual, fulfilling. I’m alive. I’m a woman. Life flows through my veins. I’m ecstatic. A volcano erupts within me. I’m relaxed. I’m tired. I’m satisfied.
A few hours later, he takes me home. Asks to see me again . . . and well, you know the rest.
I see more nuns queuing for confessions. Soon Father Flanagan will come out. He’ll kiss his stole, dart into that dark box and listen to nuns thinking they have sins to tell. The same make-believe sins they’ve told for the last twenty years. I’m not going. I’ve examined my conscience and confessed to you. You’re the man.
I’ve cheated. There’ll be no forgiveness. I know how it works. This one’s in the unforgivable category. My soul’s eternally tarnished. I betrayed the master. That’s the stuff of Judas.
In the dark endless tunnel of life I’ve found someone else who makes me happy. You had your chance. In the race to find light, the strobe of temptation, forever flashing, blinded me. I’m so sorry it worked out this way.
You’ll be wanting your ring back. It’s okay. You can have it. No hard feelings. Just one last thing. I’m keeping the baby. Well, through it all, your mother kept you, didn’t she? I’ll chat with you later.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Good night. I’ll be in touch.”