In Which the Lord is Baffled
Grania crossed herself under the statue of Our Lady, set into a stonework medallion above the arched entrance to the parish hall where Marion held her mother and toddler group. The statue, more of a moulding really – there was a French term for it that Grania could never recall – showed the Virgin from the elbows up, our Lord tucked under her right arm, face out. Her head leant forward out of the medallion setting and her veil flowed back, lifting over her shoulders, and it looked for all the world as if she was riding urgently into the wind on a motorbike, our Lord a precious parcel to be delivered by an un-missable deadline. Hardly a dignified image of Our Lady’s shining example of motherhood – Granai suppressed a smile as she pushed open the heavy oak porch door.
Greeted by the glorious din of young at play, she picked her way across groups of toddlers bent over their toys - mothers seated nearby chatting watchfully - towards the kitchenette where Marion was usually to be found. It felt a bit peculiar turning up without Niamh, to be honest; but Grania had a reason of her own for coming along today, as well as Catherine’s invitation to help her integrate her latest waif and stray. For Grania had formed a plan she wanted to consult Catherine about. Quite excited, she was. And Catherine would be keen, she could almost bank on it.
‘Ah, Marion, there you are!’ Grania held out her arms as Marion emerged, beaming, from the kitchen, hands laden with trays of warm bread rolls. In all the years Grania’d been coming to this mother and toddler group, Marion never aged, her hair the same grey-blonde, woven into a thick plait that rested between her shoulder blades, her fringe nearly reaching her eyes that were set about with laugh lines.
‘Grania, how perfectly lovely to see you!’ Marion put down the trays on a table by the kitchenette door and turned to hug Grania, ‘And looking so refreshed after the summer break. Were you in Ireland?’ Marion had a way of peering at people, tipping her face forwards a little and narrowing her eyes as if she was squinting through a dirty window. Grania found it endearing and also not a little unnerving; it was as if she was going to spot something about you that no one else would notice.
‘Most of the summer, yes,’ Grania explained, ‘my mother’d never forgive me if I didn’t go and visit then, though Frank misses us, for sure.’
‘Still that’s families for you, you just can’t please everybody! One is rather tempted just to please oneself, by the time you reach my age.’ Marion’s eyes twinkled with mischief; she always dished out her little dollops of wisdom with a dose of humour. ‘Anyway,’ she added brightly, ‘I wasn’t expecting you this morning. What a lovely surprise.’
‘I’m here to see Catherine. She’s bringing a new mother to the group, one she picked up last week on Harvey Road. Rescued her from some road rage incident, apparently.’
‘Oh yes, she told me all about it.’ Marion’s brow knit slightly. Then her eyes squeezed closed with a smile: ‘Quite amazing the number of people she collects, isn’t it? Well, I’d better be getting on with passing round the coffees. Who mothers the mothers, eh? Look, Catherine’s over there, with the newcomer, Anne, I think she’s called.’
Catherine and Anne were sitting next to each other along the row of plastic moulded chairs that Marion always set out around the edges of the hall. Anne had her hands on her lap and her doe eyes were staring straight ahead of her; she gave a small nod every so often in response to what Catherine was saying, accompanied sometimes by a brief smile which would push up and wrinkle her small narrow nose rather fetchingly. Grania felt the desire to draw her - her art crate as yet unopened, still awaiting her in the dining room – to capture that fleeting look of doubt before it was bleached out by her smile. It was odd given the warmth but Anne’s clothes covered her body completely; a lightweight pale blue skirt and shapeless, long-sleeved white T-shirt were draped over her small frame. As for Catherine – nattily dressed as usual, this morning in jeans and T-shirt, ideal for toddler group – her face was animated with talk and she had Anne’s infant hooked over her shoulder, pressing his back in soothing motions with one hand, gesturing with the other, occasionally touching Anne’s forearm, as was her wont when making new friends.
‘Grania!’ Catherine gave a light laugh, ‘Here you are at last! I was just saying to Anne how late you tended to be to everything.’
Anne looked up at her wide-eyed, there was something startled about her open face. Grania thought she saw apprehension there, and smiled warmly. Anne smiled back, eyes trusting now, a sensitive face on which every shade of feeling showed, typical of a young face, in fact. It was not beautiful exactly, but memorable, with large, deep set eyes, and brutally short dark hair.
Never comfortable with silences and new people, Grania found it a tad difficult not to gabble on a little. ‘Anne, now isn’t that a lovely name, one hardly ever comes across it these days.’
‘Oh, mummy was very traditional, she liked the way things used to be.’
‘Did she now? Well, there’s a thing! And my mother obsessed with all things Irish! So I’ve a name people can either spell or pronounce, but never the two together.’ Grania was pleased to see Anne laugh at her little joke. ‘So this is your first time here at this mother and toddler group? Well, you’ve come to the right one, I can assure you. You’ll not want for friends in Cambridge now.’
‘Oh, really?’ Anne’s dark eyes shone. ‘That is good news.’ She lowered her voice: ‘It’s so daunting coming to live in a new place, not knowing anyone.’
Catherine resettled the baby over the other shoulder and shot Grania a slightly harried look.
‘You’ll be fine now then,’ Grania went on rapidly. ‘Do you know, on my way to this playgroup for the first time, with Patrick a mere dot of a thing on the back seat, my Saint Christopher fell off my rear-view mirror. It’s a sign, I said to myself then, it’s a sign. And sure enough, the patron saint of travel was telling me I’d found a new home. For it was here that Catherine and I first met, would you believe, all those years ago!’
‘Really?’ Anne smiled wistfully. ‘How wonderful. I’ve never been to any mother and toddler groups before.’
‘Jesus! How on earth did you manage to survive three babies without friends to swap horror stories with?’ Grania blurted out, then, seeing Anne’s hurt look, wanted to kick herself for speaking without thinking.
Anne blinked rapidly: ‘I had a ready-made circle of friends through my family, you see,’ she explained, like she had to apologise. ‘I’ve got five sisters-in-law, and they’re all older than me, and so when the children came along, they gave me all the advice I needed.’
‘Well, there you go then!’ Grania cried warmly, anxious to dispel any suggestion of criticism. She cast about for a chair.
‘Grania,’ Catherine cut in with her back-to-business voice, prising the infant off her shoulder and passing him back to his mother. ‘I must go and talk to Christine. She’s… oh, you just wouldn’t believe, and I mustn’t be indiscreet,’ she shook her head, lowered her voice, and rolled her eyes at Anne, ‘but the things one hears at these toddler groups. The lives of others, I tell you… It makes one appreciate just how lucky one is.’ Catherine stood up and brushed down her front with the tips of her fingers as if removing cat hairs.
Now was Grania’s only chance, ‘O, Catherine, before you go, I did just want to mention…’
Catherine glanced down at her, and raised questioning eyebrows.
‘I’ve an idea to put to you. It was Frank, give him his due, who put the idea into my head in the first place, at the weekend.’
‘Go on.’ Catherine gave her most patient smile, her hands now still by her sides.
‘Well, now that we’ve all this extra time on our hands with our youngests at school and what have you, I thought perhaps we could set up a prayer group. You see, when I was a young girl, at school, my friends and I formed this little group, nine or ten of us there were. And over the weekend I came across all the paraphernalia for it, up in the attic. The chaos up there, you wouldn’t credit it!’
Catherine nodded, her patient expression twitching at the edges, and Grania drew a lungful of air, ‘It was called the Hail Mary club, we’d pray the rosary once a week, you see. And then, a tad like the Brownies, we’d come up with good deeds and intentions we could carry out the following week to help those in need. And each other too of course, prayers can be so telling, after all, of people’s troubles.’
‘Oh really?’ Catherine plumped down in her chair again, eyes now lit with interest. ‘And you thought we could set up our own Hail Mary club? What a great idea.’
‘Well, yes, sort of you see, we could take it in turns to host it….’
‘Oh,’ cried Catherine, ‘but I insist we hold it at my house, I’m a bit closer to the school than you, Grania, and for all those mums pushing toddlers around, it’d be ever so much more convenient…. I can see it now… We could hold it in the day living room,’ Catherine was full steam ahead in planning gear now. ‘I’ve got a table we could use to put a crucifix and a candle on. There’d be room for everybody. Grania, you’re a genius!’
Grania felt herself colouring up - wasn’t it just marvellous to have Catherine on board, who was always so generous with her encouragement? ‘And maybe we should have a statuette of our Lady, there’s one I could bring along,’ Grania suggested.
‘No, no,’ Catherine put in hastily, ‘don’t you worry, I’ve got one already, it’s absolutely beautiful, an alabaster thing, it’ll even match the curtains! Good idea, though, Grania. Don’t you think, Anne?’
Jesus, in all the excitement, Grania’d quite forgotten the newcomer.
‘It’s a lovely idea,’ Anne agreed with a small nod and a radiant smile. She then added thoughtfully, ‘It’s a wonderful way of living the Faith.’
‘Exactly! Oh, we should get in quite a crowd, don’t you think? The more, the merrier. And Anne of course you must come.’ Catherine touched her shoulder lightly.
‘Thank you, I’d love to.’ She paused, glancing quickly from Grania to Catherine. ‘When were you thinking of holding it?’
‘Hm. Why not Mondays, straight after school drop-off?’ Catherine gave a girlish giggle. ‘I can barely wait to get started. I shall mention it to the head teacher at St Margaret’s in just a moment. Perhaps she’ll put up an announcement on the playground notice-board so mums can see it at pick-up time. Oh, Grania, you are brilliant, truly brilliant.’ She sent Grania her most dazzling smile, and Grania found herself reddening again, stupidly, but then Catherine had that kind of effect on lots of people; Grania’d witnessed it herself.
‘Now,’ Catherine seized her bag from the trestle table near her chair. ‘I’d better get going! Lots to do before Monday. Look after Anne, now, Grania!’ she called over her shoulder with an affectionate wink. Then she lowered her voice conspiratorially: ‘Oh, and do have a word with Christine. Let me know how she’s getting on, there’s a love.’
‘I will, Catherine, don’t you worry.’
An hour or maybe more later, Grania drove the short distance home. She slowed at a junction where a car was waiting to pull out, and, gesturing at its puzzled-looking driver to come out in front of her, gave a happy sigh. Frank would be delighted with the way things had turned out this morning at Marion’s, he truly would.
The traffic queue ahead of her drew to a halt for a red light. ‘Dear God,’ she whispered, closing her eyes ever so briefly, ‘give me a sign of your blessing on our Hail Mary club.’ She opened her eyes again and blinked. Nothing about her or outside the car had changed since she last looked. After a moment she switched on the radio. The news was on: midday already.
Some part of the world where suffering never seemed to cease had been afflicted with natural disaster – God have mercy on the poor souls; the horror some had to endure. It was too much, it really was. Her mood clouded over and she sat pensive, gear in neutral, waiting for the traffic to move again. How could a good God let bad things happen in the world? It was mystifying, it truly was, but Grania knew that theologians had an answer to all those kind of doubts and anyway you could drive yourself nuts just thinking about those sorts of questions – like how big space was, for example. Moreover, it wasn’t as if the scientists had all the answers either, so there you had it, and that was that.
Eventually the car ahead of her drew away and she drove forward. A red bus made to pull away from a stop so she slowed again: those poor bus drivers, weren’t people for ever pushing in front of them? It would make anyone’s life a misery.
She read the ad across the back of the bus. ‘ The Alpha Course’ it announced in big lettering in hopeful sky blue: ‘explore the meaning of life’. Perfect. There was the sign she’d been looking for, God’s blessing on their new Hail Mary Club: you had only to wait a minute and the Lord’s voice would come through.