She was a member of a strange church. It was a church of compulsion. During the day there were certain things which had to be touched and counted, the repeated washing of hands. It was a secret faith, secret from everyone she knew. She was eight years old.
Her mother was a catholic, and wanted her baptised. Her father was Jewish, so they gave her a name from the Old Testament. They called her Ruth beneath the holy water. She grew from a baby like a fat pink loaf into a pretty and Semitic looking girl, stoutly built with pale skin. Her eyes were almost black, her hair dark and reddish, her nose prominent.
Ruth never had many friends as a child. When the family moved to a larger house on the outskirts of town, she became almost entirely solitary. Solemn little girls like herself drew back from Ruth as she drew back from them, while in the centre of the playground more boisterous children played. She explored the new house, letting herself in and out of creaking rooms alone for hours. While downstairs adult voices might be raised, upstairs Ruth was master of her own kingdom.
She would bend down and stare, sometimes for minutes at a time, at the small things which collect on the floor of largely unoccupied houses. Some of the things were worth a look. She found the skeleton of a mouse once, dry, curled and pathetic in the corner of a doorway. Others were exciting only to a strange kid like her: old light bulbs, patches of carpet and pieces of fluff. She would chuckle into the air at nothing. Ruth sat by a window with the frame rotting off, a slice of freezing wind blasting into her arm and side. Through the smeared panes she saw golden domes, fluted palaces and whirling squadrons of owls.
‘Ruth! Ruth! It’s dinner time! Come down darling, sit with me and your father!’
‘Ruth! Ruuuuuth! Come down right now! Jesus Ruth, where the hell are you?’
Sometimes the call to dinner would come early, sometimes very late at night. Whenever it was, she would creep down to the dining room very reluctantly to face the grey dish, the grey faces.
Imaginative children are easily frightened. Something forced her on past apprehension. There are worse things than an empty room. But she did move through it slowly, making each room familiar before moving on to the next. What Ruth was scared of finding is hard to describe, it was several things, the real and the unreal. A moth-eaten rabbit with one eye. A pig on a spit. An old thing. The unnameable thing. Because of this, it took Ruth several weeks, which are years in the life of an eight year old, to make her way to the attic. Her parents had wanted to make it a studio, but soon after moving in became distracted by struggles between themselves.
In the attic were plaster saints, painted in bright colours. Where they were chipped the white showed through. They beseeched her. They held up two fingers, the other two pressed down by a thumb. They rolled painted eyes at her. Their robes were brown and blue, red and green. Ruth walked among the saints, and by reading the plinths which some were fastened onto learned their names. A man in a monk’s robe, with tonsured hair, was Saint Francis. There were two Marys which she recognised from the nativity, one in blue, one in red. Both were beautiful, but she preferred the blue robed Mary.
The saints stood in small groups, genuflecting and miming to each other. Ruth came to join their silent meetings. She would stand between two that faced each other and hear the whispers tear past the shells of her small ears. Ruth bought gifts for them. The first thing she gave was a string of shining plastic beads, the kind draped over Christmas trees. Ruth brought the beads for her two favourites, Mary and Saint Francis. She wrapped them round and round their plaster shoulders, let the pink beads drip between their fingers onto the floor.
She brought up jars of flowers, which dried till they were as stiff as the saints and passed into their world. She brought up food and candles. These things were partly offerings, partly props, filling the Saint’s world with change and colour. She cut her own hand, and dropped blood onto the feet of Saint Francis. She took off her underwear and put it on the head of the less favoured Mary, who stared long suffering through the leg holes. Gradually, over time, the other statues began to fall back into their own huddled conversations. Only Madonna and Francis remained, he slightly bowed beneath his tonsure, her lips sensuously pink like petals.
Mary had long yellow hair which fell from a blue hood. She really was beautiful, most especially to an awkward girl with curly hair that fell neither straight or shiny. Francis was less charismatic in appearance. He was not depicted with a bird or an animal as was often the case, Ruth only knew who he was from the gold letters beneath his bare feet (you couldn’t see Mary’s feet- her robe reached the ground and her base was a solid expanse of blue). He had his hoop of brown hair, limp and badly painted. He had a belt of plaited, plaster rope. But his expression was most alive of all the saints, wry and world weary, almost eye rolling, and he and Ruth shared jokes about the foolishness of the world. Mary was a beacon of optimism, but Francis was a bit of a comedian. They should not have been friends at all, Mary and Francis, except, Ruth supposed, that they shared a love of Jesus Christ. But somehow they were foils to each other.
Confining her attentions only to these two Ruth became happier, more passionate and inward. The rest of the world, while she was in the attic, reclined in the shadows with the unfavoured saints. Slowly she began to transfer most of her important possessions up there so that anything she could do everything in the magic circle of their company. Sometimes Mary and Francis were her companions, but just as often they talked to each other, and Ruth played at their feet.
Initially, Francis was her favourite, because he was more easy going, and because he liked animals. Francis was a less conventional character than Mary, who was essentially a good and pious girl. He had travelled, had adventures, and had stories to tell. He managed to bring the orderly routine of the monk, and the time before his vows, to vivid life. The rope which held the robe round his waist seemed always to be in danger of coming undone, and it was obvious from looking at him that when Francis tripped he swore, even if it was under his breath.
As the days shortened, and there was more dark in the attic than light, Ruth got hold of electric lights and brought them up the stairs. Mary, no longer bleached by a bland sun, came into her own. She was really a dark, catholic, opulent Madonna, and she was best seen in partial light. Ruth saw that there were shadows beneath her hood hiding parts of her expression. She began to realise that some of her silence was not peaceful, but mysterious. Mary was the charismatic mother of God, chosen above all others. Mary had had sex with Gabriel, white feathers and pale sharp fire and in her quiet way she did know a thing or two. Ruth knew that tranquil face concealed truths, that her serenity was wrapped around a heart pulsing with mighty knowledge. Mary had a past bathed in blood, giving birth in mud and straw, her son hammered to a wooden cross. How had she borne it? Ruth longed to know more, to hear Mary’s secrets, and for the first time she began to discriminate between the figures. Their wholeness had been her safe centre. Now she began to think of things she wanted from one or the other, and particularly questions she could ask of Mary if she could get to her alone.
She did not want, or dare actually, to push Francis away from Mary, or to take Mary into a more isolated spot. She tried sitting between them, with her back to Francis, looking up at Mary, but she could feel his gaze, shocked at her rudeness. Ruth fantasised about Mary when she was not with her. Her pale, unhappy face beneath the blue hood. What, thought Ruth, could she tempt Mary with, what could she give her? She began to imitate Mary in whatever way she could. Taken shopping for a winter coat, Ruth asked for a bright blue one, quite long, down to her knees. Ruth wore it into the attic, where it was becoming increasingly cold, as the windows were not properly fixed and the roof not properly insulated. She began to take inspiration from other Marys, pictures she found in books and on the computer. She wore a gold hair band in her hair as a halo. She was observed by adults holding her hands and head in strange stiff attitudes, theatrical gestures, like a little puppet or a mannequin. She really was a very eccentric kid.
Mary was not unmoved by Ruth’s advances. Sometimes if Ruth pretended to be playing a little further apart from them she thought she saw Mary glance over her friend’s shoulder at her. But Ruth was sometimes shy of Mary; she took pains not to seem too forward. Ruth brushed her red hair to try to make it lie as smooth and straight as Mary’s did. She was too young to understand the futility of this. Ruth was forbidden, as she was only eight, from lighting candles on her own, but her parents left her to her own devices after dinner. They had concerns of their own, their own secrets to keep.
As her need for Mary increased, so did Ruth begin to be less happy, her rituals more extreme. She felt that Mary was on the brink of initiating her into something, but she was not yet allowed to know what it was. She showed signs of stress, but no one could find its source. She was asked by a particularly earnest teacher about abuse. Ruth did not fully understand her insinuations, but was embarrassed by them, and pushed her pink hands over and over the chest of her favourite red dress in a way which the teacher thought was strangely adult and sensual.
Ruth, running across the front garden, past sparse green bushes, in her blue coat and red dress. Ruth, brushing her hair one hundred times at the feet of Mary, beginning again should she lose count. Ruth in the corner of the concrete playground, a vivid little figure poking her fingers though the wires in complex sequence. Her writing assignments are short and intense. Her mental maths is acceptable, her arithmetic is very good. The people who teach her at this time remember her, even after she has grown up. The colours of ageing light fade in the attic world to black as night comes on, and Ruth sees stars between the eaves, pin pricks through the filament of black sky to the gold of heaven.
One evening Ruth, overcome, ran into Mary’s arms, a fool for love, embraced her, or nearly. At the last minute she pulled herself back, feeling loath to touch, loath to discover Mary’s plaster nature. So she checked herself, but it was too late.
She had managed, with quickly withdrawn foot, to disturb the equilibrium of Mary. She tipped forward. Ruth shied back from the swiftly approaching face, the pink, hard, full lips. Just before she jumped out of the way she saw the face of Francis, and he seemed, as always, ruefully unsurprised, though his hands were reaching out to try and save his friend. Mary smashed down onto the floor of the attic, and Ruth saw gruesome specks fly from the point of impact. She ran away from the scene of the crime and never went back up to the attic again.
For some time after that Ruth was very frightened and unhappy. She refused to wear the blue coat, and cut her own hair with a pair of scissors. She would lie awake for hours every night, listening to her parents moving around downstairs and feeling fear rub itself into the inside of her veins.
But Ruth was only eight, and she was made of strong stuff. Over time she conquered her night terrors, and forgot their source. She would remember huge house with affection, after her parents separated and they moved away. She forgot the plaster saints, forgot how frightening and odd it is to be very young. She forgot Mary and Francis and lost her strange creeds. She grew older, and acquired faith in other things. Her gaze widened out into the world.