Excerpt from: Dancing In the Wind: Chapter 3
The story so far: Having rejected, and been rejected by, the poet WB Yeats, Maud Gonne has decided to marry another. In this extract, she breaks the news to her daughter Iseult, whom she has placed in a convent so she can work on her Irish political activist projects. The story is narrated by Rosie Cross, an Irish working woman with various links to the Gonnes.
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Soeur Therese is a simple Auvergnat, seven years older than Iseult, and not much taller. The poor girl has a trio of afflictions: a squint, a short leg and a full-time scowl. I saw her father once, and he had the very same grimace, built into the muscles of their faces, it was.
All this might make her a poor choice to play rounders with a child, you’d think, but in the convent, the mothers and sisters superior to do what they’re least fitted for. Mortification is deemed good for the soul. The souls of the servant nuns, anyhow.
So poor little Sr Therese has to limp through the motions and take it right slowly. Not that slowly bothers Iseult. She’s got used to convent life now, where nobody ever rushes around wondering where on earth the time has gone, like her mother. In the convent, each morning, afternoon and evening has its allotted allocation of hours.
Sr Therese bats the ball. Iseult starts to dance. At breakfast, Sr Suzanne told her that Moura was coming today.
Moura’s arrivals are always sudden as spring showers. Up she appears, wherever Iseult happens to be, at lunch or lessons, with Iseult’s name overflowing from her lips as if she has to repeat it over and over for all the times she’s not been around to say it. ‘Iseult! Iseult darling girl! Beautiful Iseult, ma belle animale! Oh my Iseult, how I have missed you!’
‘Run!’ shouts Sr Therese, from the other side of the pitch. ‘What are you doing? You’re supposed to run.’
Iseult carries on, dancing Moura’s coming into the grass. How Moura will bend from her great height and swoop her up into her arms and swaddle her in kisses, then give her a gift: a scarf or pen or book. Once, from America, she brought a pet alligator called Ali. He now lives in the convent pond, where he swims and smiles his tough-toothed, alligator smile with a ribbon around his neck. Sister Therese helped her put it on him.
Sr Therese now is coming across, pressing bat and ball into her hands. ‘All right then, you do the hitting.’
The little nun blows on her nails. Her fingers are red, blue at the tips. The cold is another reason why Iseult keeps dancing.
In the garden, the roses and lilies are brown and dry, a tangle of stalks. They left so slowly Iseult hardly noticed and now she’s forgotten they were ever there. She has no thought, either, for their return. She’s too young to think about seeds and blooms and pods. Time, for her, is still each open moment, not yet a line through years.
‘You don’t want to play, do you?’
Iseult shakes her head and the nun crossly takes back the bat and ball.
‘Blessed mother, you’re hopeless. All right then, do your physical jerks instead.’
Sr Therese whacks the ball as far as she can towards the far end of the pitch and sets off limping after it.
Doing an arabesque, Iseult notices the shell of a ladybird on a blade of grass near her right foot. She lowers her head, one leg still extended behind. ‘Moura is coming,’ she whispers to the ladybird. ‘Crack your shell-body open, flutter out your wings…’
It doesn’t move.
A sound jangles from the building. The bell: two rings, short and sharp. Sr Conciliata is waving from the steps. Iseult jumps up, ladybird forgotten. Sr Therese, rounders game, dancing: forgotten. Only running, oh yes, happy to run now alright.
Past the Virgin Mary smiling her blank smile down from her pedestal, past the big trees, past the fountain, all the way to the door, where she knows she must stop and walk… but she doesn’t.
In the parlour, Mother Suzanne has embraced her dear, dear friend, Madame Gonne, and Canon Dissard has arrived too, just as Sr Jeanne was wheeling in the tea trolley
How serene and peaceful it is here, thinks Maud, settling back into the cushions plumped by Sr. Maria-Angeles. How ordered and comfortable. It is women who have the truest sense of life. Look at the shining silver pots, the precious china cups, the immaculate cleanliness. If you want your drawing-room beautified, your birthday remembered, your clothes appreciated, your emotions soothed, it’s to a woman you must turn.
Maud only came lately to the value of women but she’s had right reason to know it by now.
The door bursts open. Two huge eyes cast themselves around the room. A fierce little body is flinging itself in her direction.
‘Iseult!” says Sr Suzanne. “Is this how a young lady enters a room?’
The other nuns are tut-tutting too, fearing the Canon or Maud might think Iseult’s behaviour reflects badly on them. Iseult doesn’t care, she has Moura’s dress in her hands, Moura’s smell in her nostrils. But she doesn’t like the laugh Moura is laughing.
It’s that tinkling noise that’s for the grown-ups.
“Iseult, darling Iseult!” She is taken by the shoulders, held at arm’s length. ‘Let me see you, my beloved angel. How tall you’ve grown.’
‘Moura,’ she whispers. “You must wish to see Ali?’
Maud laughs. ‘Not just now, Chèrie. We are about to take tea.’
‘We tied a ribbon around his neck. I think you would like to see him.’
‘Yes, yes. After tea. First, Iseult..’ Moura pauses, looks around the room for support. ‘First, Moura has something to tell you.’’
‘Sr Therese thought he might eat the fish. But all he does is smile.’
‘Iseult!’ Sr Suzanne’s says her name soft and hard, both together, like the body of a snake Iseult thinks. ‘Please pay attention to your dear mother. Today is a day for great rejoicing. May I tell her, Maud?’
‘Madame Gonne is to join our Catholic faith. We are all, the Canon and all of us at the convent, intensely gratified.’
Iseult smiles, politely.
‘I shall now be the same religion as you, Iseult. And something else too, darling.’ Moura puts a bon-bon into her hand. ‘Do you remember my new friend the major? ’
Moura is bending down now, bringing her face level with hers. She is asking for something with her eyes. They glint like brown pebbles after rain. Iseult stops the bon-bon on its way to her mouth.
‘Major MacBride. Remember? All I told you all about what a brave soldier he was in Africa, a real Irish hero? Well, I have the most wonderful news for you. The Major and I are to marry.’
Moura is waiting for her to say something. ‘Why?’ she asks, eyes still closed.
‘Why? My dear, what a strange question.’
Iseult speaks slowly. ‘I do not like him.’
Moura laughs that terrible tinkly laugh again. She is looking around again, Iseult knows, over her shoulder. She can feel the circle of nuns and the priest pressing in closer, without seeming to move. She can feel their eyes on them, like gulls staring at the sea.
‘Dearest, you barely know him.’
‘I believe we shall have a banquet, Iseult,’ says Sr Suzanne. ‘On the wedding day. Here in the convent. And you shall be the princess of the feast.’
‘Oh darling, you shall make such a lovely princess. And we are going to Spain for our honeymoon. Which means I shall be bringing you back something very beautiful. The Spanish know what is beautiful.’
Iseult opens her hand, slowly dropping the bon-bon so it rolls to the floor. Sr Jeanne bends to pick it up.
‘But I hate him,’ Iseult says slowly.
Then, realizing it won’t make any difference what she says, the child grabs her mother’s skirts, and burys her face in it. The blue fabric is scratchy but in she burrows, holding fury in her fingers. If she doesn’t hold hard, she’ll start flinging the teacakes and sandwiches at them all, she knows, and be in right trouble again for her temper.
‘He has the eyes of an assassin,’ she sobs into the skirt.
‘Iseult, stop this now.’ Maud pulls her in close, to whisper in her ear. ‘It is for you, darling,’ she says. ‘I am doing this for you.’
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