New Irish Writing: March 2020’s winning story
Iona Road by Carol Byrne
Credit: Andrzej Wasilewski
St Columba’s church, on Iona Road, is sombre this evening and smells that particular way all churches do – musty with a hint of incense and desperation. I close the heavy, wooden door to the bad weather behind me and walk into the vestibule, blessing myself with the holy water contained in a marble receptacle. I open the inner door and continue into the otherworldliness of the church. The small patch of water tingles on my forehead as I move.
Two girls, more like sisters than friends, my mother always said. I think of her as I walk. Erin, my best friend. My only childhood friend and of whom I was fiercely possessive. We did everything together and for a long time we were enough for each other. Our friendship was intense but functional. I see us as children, communicating in glances and smiles, playing on the roads where we grew up, close to this church.
After a couple of steps I pause and look up, amazed by what I see. I haven’t been here for years. This place, which was so familiar to me in my childhood, looks different to my adult eyes. Everything is smaller now. In my memory it was vast – more like a cathedral than a church. I drink in the forgotten scene. The recollection of a thousand Sundays with Erin and her family flood back to me at once, but that is not the source of my amazement – it is the appearance of the place.
The darkness of the interior is solely lit by an exquisite profusion of candlelight. There are candles everywhere – large and small. I have never seen this or any other church shimmer in this way. The effect is both breathtaking and luxurious. As I look around I have an uncanny sensation that I have just stepped out of the real world and walked straight into the past, into my past. I look down at my hands and smart business suit and feel old and uncomfortable. I never deliberately chose my career over a family; it just worked out that way.
The devout are scattered around the pews and in front of statues – kneeling in prayer or deep in thought. I imagine the faithful feel close to God here, in the intimacy of the twinkling half-light – that their voices are magnified via the sublime medium of prayer, and easily heard by their deity.
I want this too; I want God to hear my prayer. The child in me, awakened by this place, suddenly believes this is possible.
Two girls, more like sisters than friends, they said. They were right. We did everything together. There was a time when we would eat dinner in each other’s houses and sleep in one other’s beds. Long summer nights without end, talking endlessly and thinking about the future in the weightless kind of way that young people do. Without limits or worry or illness. That’s how I think of her still; fresh faced and full of promise, not how she looks now.
I must be seduced by the attractiveness of the candlelight and the nostalgia of the forgotten girl I was, because tonight I need a miracle and in this incredible space where God seems present, I think perhaps it could be granted. After all, the young girl in me reasons, that is the natural order – where good things happen to good people and not the contrary. For some reason the church seems like tangible evidence of this fact.
I stop at the altar, genuflect awkwardly, and move off to the right, to the statue of Our Lady. She is still wearing the blue robes that I recall from my youth and her perpetual stance on the serpent with its tongue extended outwards make my lips curl into a weak smile.
I don’t know why but I bless myself again and childishly insert more coins than is required into the collection box for my candle, as if this were an indemnity against my request. Yet in the intoxicating light of the church I am hopeful against hope – anything is possible.
Two girls more like sisters than friends, even her own sister said so. Erin was outgoing and optimistic, while I was introverted and more backward looking. Perhaps that was why we got on so well, being total opposites we thoroughly complemented one another. Her genial disposition was probably the reason why she easily met someone to settle down with, whereas I did not. I remember how jealous I was when she got a boyfriend as a teenager. For the first time our closeness was ruptured and I wasn’t the only person in her life. I recall sulking for weeks on end about the time Erin spent with him.
I hated him, but she was so happy; she didn’t even notice. I tried to hide my glee when it ended and expected our old friendship to resume but she invariably replaced him with someone else. She dated a few boys, and so did I – but nothing stuck; there was always something wrong with the person I was with. She met her husband early on and then he became her best friend. He became the one who was privy to her innermost thoughts and together they developed their own private world. They communicated with smiles, glances and touch. They finished each other’s sentences and seemed to have a language all of their own. We stayed friends of course, but it was never the same. I haven’t forged that kind of friendship with anyone since. I’m not bitter though; tonight I’m an optimist.
I light my solitary candle from one of the many others, their flame dwindling to a shimmering gloom. My knees click and reveal their age as I kneel. I let out a long sigh and join my hands together in a gesture of supplication. I place my interlocked fingers to my forehead and begin to pray – muddling the words up at first. The disjointed phrases leave my lips, barely above a whisper and the shape of them is crooked and unfamiliar in my mouth. I recite them mechanically without any consideration for the words or their meaning.
I say a couple more decades of the rosary and rattle the sentences off like a tired soldier at war. I try to soothe myself with the repetition of prayer and it mostly works but I’m exhausted.
I’m too aware of how tired my body feels and can’t stay focused – despite my tranquil surroundings. I shift my legs and try to ignore the growing dull ache in my knees. I attempt to start another Hail Mary but my mind wanders off in various tangents. My friend, my work, my childhood – all the years that have passed from then to now. The empty house I return to night after night.
The empty life I have created for myself.
I discreetly look about and observe the other candles given in offering to the various statues dotted around the church. Each individual light a human plight – an entreaty, just like mine. Why does there have to be so much pain in the world? What is the point?
But there are no answers to this age-old question.
Better minds than mine have pondered this for centuries, but I meditate upon the injustice of it all the same and listen to the weather outside. The November wind and rain is wild tonight and throws itself against the stained glass window with vehemence.
I am about to witter off another decade of the Rosary but am struck with an odd thought. I wonder for the first time: what actually happens to my prayers?
Where do they go?
After I pour my request into the lit candle and then adorn it with hope like a precious jewel – what happens to it?
Does the flame take my prayer to the upper echelons of heaven, where it travels through eons to reach the ears of God?
Presuming that is, God is even listening to my small, singular voice – to my petition.
What if I am just talking to myself here in this glistening place? What if no one is listening? Or worse, hears me but doesn’t care?
But what is the alternative? I don’t want to think about that.
My mind wanders back to that afternoon a year ago, when Erin leaned in and quietly confided that her period had come back. That it had started again, a couple of years after she went through the menopause. Her own sister laughed and said she should get another husband and have a second family. I joined in and told her she was aging in reverse, like Benjamin Button, and thought no more of it. She laughed too, but softly. I close my eyes and her uneasy amusement rings in my ears.
My mobile gently vibrates against my leg, breaking my reverie. The disturbance sends a ripple of dread through me like a snake devouring my insides. I take it out and see that I have a missed call and a voice mail. I return it to my pocket and cast my eyes downwards.
It’s the call I didn’t want to get. I don’t want to listen to the voice message and confirm this. I want to elongate my ignorance for as long as possible in the warmth and peculiarity of this church.
But the phone feels like lead in my pocket.
I already know it will tell me that my prayers are futile now and my childlike hope for a miracle is mute.
The intervening years close up and the silence of the church thunders all around me. The magic of the place is broken by the rain outside, which has suddenly become an abrupt reminder of the world beyond the heavy, wooden doors.
Crestfallen, I remain where I am; bent in adjuration before the statue of Our Lady, knowing that I will be back here in a couple of days. Tears slowly fill my eyes, spill down my cheek and roll down my neck and into the collar of my silk blouse.
My candle continues to innocently flicker away. It casts both light and shadows around the statue of the Virgin but does not illuminate the dark corners behind it. I stare up at the statue but now it is just an effigy to me – made up of alabaster, plaster and paint and nothing more.
Two girls, more like sisters than friends, my mother always said.
The pain inside me is acute. There are no guarantees in life; I was foolish to think otherwise, least of all for those who deserve them most.
I reflect on this for a long while but then continue to pray, in another effort to soothe myself, but also because I feel small and insignificant and am utterly helpless to do anything else.
In the beauty of this space, I now imagine that my prayers go nowhere. That they float up, out of me, and reverberate around the vast, hollow church and when they are battered and broken, they simply fade into the realm of despair – where all other unanswered prayers go.
Carol Byrne has a passion for reading, writing and education. She works for the NCBI Library Access Service in Dublin and facilitates third level students to receive academic books in alternative formats. She is currently studying part-time for an MA in creative writing at DCU and lives in Dublin with her husband and two children.