Viaticum

Fiorella de Maria

Maria almost fell out of the train when the automatic doors opened to let them all out. The WAGN train to London King’s Cross was always crammed full of commuters at that time of the morning, and she had stood for over an hour, unable to find enough space even to sit on the floor. When she boarded the already crowded train, a kindly-looking gentleman had stood up and chivalrously offered her…his suitcase to sit on. “Well, what do you ladies expect?” asked a young man in a pin-striped suit, who saw the look of disdain on her face and burst out laughing. “If a bloke refuses to give up his seat you girls get all offended. But if he offers it he might get knocked about the head with a handbag for being PA-TRI-AR-CHAL!”

Fair enough, thought Maria, and she embraced her empowerment by standing in her high heels as the train chugged through Hitchen, Royston, Stevenage, Ashwell & Morden… The train is now approaching London King’s Cross, its final destination. All change please. She let herself be propelled along the platform by the crowd around her, skidding past the “platform 9 ¾” sign they had nailed to a wall for Harry Potter tourists. King’s Cross was famous for two things, thought Maria, as she snatched up a copy of the Metro newspaper and came to a halt near the Cornish Pasty stall: a fictional railway platform, and a devastating fire started (apparently) by somebody dropping a cigarette. She was just old enough to remember the television images of the burnt out ticket hall and always felt a shudder down her spine when she walked past the memorial plaque, commemorating the sixty-seven people who had died there.

Maria had arranged to meet her father near the pasty stall, the plan being to travel together to her sister’s college and take her out for a coffee. After that, Maria would have to rush off to Westminster and leave her father to check that little Sophia was not dying of self-induced student starvation. “You do a lot of rushing,” Sophia was fond of telling her, though she was hardly in a position to talk, constantly dashing between one rehearsal to the next, so that she could sit for hours in an orchestra pit counting bars. “Funny how we’ve turned out, isn’t it?”

Hilarious. Her family had produced two unusual specimens for children: a cellist heading for the stars, and a human rights campaigner who spent her life in the gutter. But in the end neither Maria nor Sophia would ever have changed places with one another. So Maria stood at King’s Cross station in her crisp, black trouser suit, mulling over the presentation on sex-selective abortion in India she would give later that day, while all around her, the men and women of London raced to their offices and conference centres.

“Sorry I’m late,” puffed a voice behind her, and she felt a hand patting her on the shoulder. Maria spun round to see her father standing behind her, gasping for breath. “My train was delayed. Signal failure. Shall we go?”

“Are you all right?” she asked, as they headed towards the escalators, “you look ever so hot.”

“I’m boiling,” he whimpered, clutching the moving handrail, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand the Underground in summer. Everyone fighting for air. Have you seen those signs about leaving the train at the next stop if you feel unwell, so that you don’t hold everybody up?” Maria’s family had moved out of London twelve years ago and became thoroughly countrified in the intervening years, but they were realists and had accepted their children being sucked back into the life of the Capital with reluctant grace. “I’m used to it,” said Maria. “I’m in London at least three times a week these days. I really wouldn’t stick your wallet in your back pocket like that if I were you. It’s shouting, ‘come and nick me’ at every pickpocket in the Square Mile.”

“Sorry. Are we meeting Sophia at the college or at the station?”

“South Ken station, outside the exit that leads to the museums. She said it would be quicker that way. Good to see you, by the way.”

He grinned. It was several months since they had last met and they were both reluctant to admit how much they missed one another. “Your mother sends her love. She’ll be expecting a full report on how you’re getting on, you know.”

They entered yet another heaving platform and stopped in their tracks, but Maria was in a determined mood. . “Come with me,” she said, taking her father’s arm and ploughing through the throng until they reached the far end of the platform. “Everybody always crams into the middle couple of carriages. There’ll be more room down here.” As she spoke, they saw the tunnel ahead flooding with light as the train approached, then they instinctively stepped back while it roared past them in a white blur before grinding to a halt.

“Mind the gap,” came a very polite, disengaged voice. “Mind the gap.”

“Has anybody ever failed to mind the gap?” demanded Maria’s father as they stepped inside. The carriage had the slightly dank, greasy look the interiors of older trains always had; the overhead bars were covered in the marks of thousands of sweaty hands and the blue upholstery on the inward-facing seats was scuffed and faded with heavy use. But as Maria had promised, the carriage was much less crowded. If they had been slightly quicker, they might even have found two seats, but as it was there was only one. He gestured for her to sit down.

“Age before beauty,” she chuckled and stood near the closing doors, resting her back against a vertical bar. “Some people will get off at Piccadilly Circus.”

“Please stand clear of the closing doors.” And they went rattling off into the darkness.

The world broke apart in a shower of shattered glass. At least that was what he would remember long afterwards, but neither of them really registered the moment as it happened. What saturated Maria’s awareness was the sensation of being thrown bodily across the train, surrounded by a noise so deafening it felt as though her head was splitting open. She saw glass exploding out of the windows all around her and instinctively threw her hands across her face to protect her eyes The next thing she knew for certain was the eerily soft feeling of the carriage’s rubber floormats against her back, and her father peering down as he stood over her. He had curled into a brace position on the moment of impact and been thrown out of his seat along with the other passengers, but was saved from serious injury.

“Maria? Maria, speak to me!”

Good grief, people really do say things like that at the scene of an accident, she thought, looking up at him. His normally tawny face was ashen. She realised from her position that he must have dragged her out of a pile of bodies as soon as the train stopped and he was able to reach her safely. She had missed a minute or two somewhere. “A bomb or a crash?”

“A bomb. I recognized the sound. Keep still, you’re bleeding.”

She looked down at her right hand and saw that it was covered in blood that seemed to be seeping out from under her sleeve. He took hold of the sleeve of her jacket and began tearing it open at the seam. “You can’t do that!” she bleated, watching the flimsy fabric disintegrating before her. I can’t possibly go to Parliament with torn clothes. Whatever is he thinking? He ignored her and tore open her white, blood-soaked shirtsleeve to find the source of the bleeding. He had trained as a paramedic after Maria’s birth, when he had found himself without a profession, only to be forced to resign after sustaining a back injury shortly after qualifying. A waste of time and money, he had thought back then, but it was amazing how quickly the knowledge came back to him. He blocked out everything else—the noise of people groaning and struggling to move, the smell of blood and burnt rubber—the way he would have done at the scene of any other accident. He was barely aware that he was sitting inside the shattered carcass of a train and focused entirely on his patient, whose arm had been cut badly in several places and was bleeding heavily.

“Just don’t move,” he said. He removed his belt and looped it around her arm, tightening it until she grimaced. The bleeding slowed to a trickle. Ignoring her protests, he applied more pressure and secured the tourniquet so that he could check her for other injuries. “Are you in pain?” he asked, “what else can you feel?”

“It’s difficult to breathe,” she said, and he could hear it in her strained, slightly muffled tone of voice.

“There’s a bit of smoke about,” he said, but he knew that was not the reason. He was breathing perfectly well. “Does your chest hurt? You may have broken some ribs.”

“There’s a weight on my chest,” she gasped—now she was really struggling. “It feels like somebody’s pressing on me.”

Dear God, he thought, pressing his fingers against her neck, it can’t be anything as terrible as that. “Hang in there, sweetheart, try to relax as much as possible. Eyes open please.” Relax, he thought, wryly, fat chance the most highly-strung individual on the planet is going to chill out now. “Help’s coming soon. Stay awake, I mean it. Eyes open.”

Maria opened her eyes and looked at him. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine,” he choked, as though he were angry about it. He was angry about it. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“Then will you do something for me?”

“Of course, what is it?”

“Will you anoint me, father?”

He jumped out of his skin. It was over twenty-five years since anyone had called him that. “Don’t be ridiculous, Maria, you’re not dying.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Just hang on another minute, my love, the emergency services will be here soon. Everything’s going to be fine.” He looked around him and noticed that a few other people had begun moving around the carriage offering first aid—doctors or nurses perhaps, or people who had trained with St John’s Ambulance—but the emergency services would have terrible difficulty getting to them, trapped as they were in the last carriage of a train, in the middle of one of the deepest tunnels in the London Underground network. “You’re young and strong, Maria, you’re not going anywhere.”

“If you need oil, there’s something in my handbag.”

“Maria, no.”

“Find it. It’s over there somewhere. There’s coconut oil in my make-up bag. Will that do? I read somewhere…”

“Maria, I can’t do this for you. I left the priesthood many years ago. I’m laicised.”

“You are still a priest, the sacrament is indelible. In Canon Law it says…”

“Don’t quote Canon Law at me. I taught it to you!” He turned away from her and buried his head. “I can’t. Please try to understand.”

She was characteristically relentless. “You will not deprive your own daughter the consolation of Holy Church. You are a priest whether you like it or not.”

He found her handbag wedged between two broken seats and pulled out the fluffy pink drawstring bag she had obviously meant. The inside was coated in coloured powder where her rouge and eye shadow containers had broken open, but this was a female domain he could find his way around. He rummaged through the wreckage of the makeup bag—with all its tubes of lipstick and mascara—until he found a small, cracked bottle of oil intended for hair, or hands, or something. Whatever it had been for, there was just enough left for this purpose, and with it he returned to Maria’s side.

He sat near her head and, whispering a blessing, wearily poured the oil into the palm of his hand. “All right, my love. I’m here.” He caught his breath and dipped his thumb into the oil. “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” He brushed the damp hair away from her face to trace a cross on her forehead and felt a yawning pain erupting inside him. His vision began to blur. He heard her make the response and swallowed hard. He wondered what the bishop who had anointed his own hands long ago would have thought if he could have seen him then, preparing his own child for a death he was not yet ready for himself. “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up. Amen.” She had uncurled her fingers to receive the oil and he traced a cross over one palm and then the other. Oil mingled with blood. Oh God, don’t let it end like this. I am not Abraham, you cannot ask me to give up my own child. He pressed her hands together very carefully inside his own and whispered a long-neglected prayer. He was not sure that there had been a more wretched moment in his entire life.

She opened her mouth and he could hear her struggling to speak, but the words simply would not come out. “Don’t worry,” he said, “try to stay calm. Eyes open please.”

He noticed the thin silver cord she was wearing around her neck and pulled it up until a crucifix emerged from under her collar as he had known it would. He snapped the cord and caught the crucifix in his hand so that she could look at it more easily. Maria shook her head and started trying to sit up but it was impossible for her to lift herself by now. She reached out and pulled his hands towards her so that she could kiss the crucifix. She hesitated for a moment, and then, quite deliberately, she kissed his hands.

He held her in his arms until, in the distance, the clatter of urgent movement broke through to his ears and he knew that help had finally reached them. She was quiet, her head resting peacefully in the crook of his arm as it had done so many times before. He touched her cheek. “Open your eyes please, Maria. Open your eyes.”

Fiorella De Maria is a Maltese-born author, living in Guildford, England, with her husband and two little children. She studied English at Cambridge University, specialising in the English verse of St Robert Southwell, and now works part-time as a campaigner for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Fiorella is the author of two novels, The Cassandra Curse and Father William’s Daughter and contributed a chapter on Elizabeth Cellier the Popish Midwife to English Catholic Heroines, due to be published by Gracewing later this year. She has a website: www.fiorellademaria.com and writes a blog: monstrousregimentofwomen.blogspot.com