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By David Gardiner
This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
By David Gardiner
This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
And she conceived of the Holy Ghost.
Immaculata's sensible flat shoes clicked along the pavement as she hurried past the open iron gates of the school hall car park. Her slight and youthful figure was respectably covered by her ample grey overcoat and a plain blue scarf held her long dark hair tight against her head. Her monthly confraternity meeting at the church had run unusually late because of a talk given by a visiting missionary father with a high pitched voice and a slow delivery: it was quite dark now, and she could hear the repetitive mechanical bass line of an undistinguished dance record playing inside the hall. The end of term disco was clearly getting under way.
The signs of the impending event barely registered in Immaculata's brain, it was not the kind of thing that interested her: for some reason she had never felt drawn to the activities of other girls of her age.
She stopped dead in her tracks. It was Billy Sullivan, the son of the local filling station proprietor, almost two years ahead of her at school. She hadn't noticed his dark form behind the iron railings.
"You frightened me! What do you want, Billy?"
"Aren't ye comin' to the disco, Mackie?"
"I don't like discos."
He lowered his voice. "Do ye want to see somethin'?"
She eyed him suspiciously. "What?"
"Me new motorbike. Ye can have a spin on the back of 'er if ye like."
Immaculata was even less interested in motorbikes than she was in discos, but felt vaguely flattered that Billy was talking to her. He was a boy that the older girls giggled about when they thought no one could hear. He had a real leather jacket and his father had been in jail once for smashing up a bookmaker's shop in Clonmel. Immaculata's mother was on late shift at the hospital and probably wouldn't be back much before midnight. There was no pressing reason to go straight home. She hesitated for a moment, then back-tracked to the gate.
It was the first time she had ever ridden on the pillion of a motorbike, and although it had amounted to no more than an unsteady and jerky circuit of the block, by the time they arrived back in the car park her heart was racing and her head buzzing with the intoxication of danger and forbidden adventure. The unaccustomed intimacy of clinging to Billy Sullivan's waist, the growl of the engine, pitching of the seat, rush of wind against her face and the smell of Billy's deodorant spray filtered through his leather jacket all conspired to penetrate the barrier of inhibition so carefully constructed by her mother and the Roman Catholic Church. She brushed his lips lightly with hers as he helped her off the back.
"That was great, Billy."
Without saying anything Billy took her in his arms and covered her mouth with his, bending her head back and attempting to force his tongue between her lips. Completely unprepared for such an event, Immaculata took several seconds to react, by which time she could feel his hand inside the back of her coat, pulling her shirt up, touching her bare back with ice cold fingers, fumbling around for the catch of her minute teenage bra, a garment which in fact fastened at the front. An impulse of excitement surged through her body, but this time she knew things had gone too far, kissing with tongues, hands inside clothes, it all spelled SIN - the gates of Hell were opening up before her. She found a purchase on Billy's chest and pushed him away with all the strength of her two arms.
"Get off me, Billy Sullivan," she warned him, twisting her face away from his.
"What is it with you, Mackie? Nuala Molloy lets me do a lot more than that. I only wanted a bit of a feel."
"Well maybe you should go and feel Nuala Molloy then," she snapped, pushing him further away as he lowered his hands from her waist.
"Shure there's no fun at all in you, girl. Ye may as well be an aul maid of thirty."
"I've got respect for myself, Billy Sullivan. And I don't want any babies till I'm married."
"Shure a wee bit of a feel never got anybody preg-en-ant," he tripped over the pronunciation of the word, "ye've been listening to too much tripe from them aul nuns at the Convent School. Ye'll never get a boyfriend if ye'r frigid. Ye've got te relax enough to get somebody interested."
"Off you go, Billy. Nuala Molloy will be getting lonely. Maybe she's interested. I'm not."
He started to turn, then seemed to change his mind and grasped her wrists. "If there's one thing pisses me off it's a fuckin' little tease like you," he snapped.
"You let go of my wrists or I'll..." She suddenly stopped. She was looking at something or somebody over Billy's shoulder. Billy was certain it was intended as a trick, there was nobody else out at the back of the car park. He bent her forearms up to pull her face closer to his. Over his shoulder Immaculata caught a fleeting movement of something white among the parked cars. Something only she could see, something that had come to remind her of the standards she had set herself. Before there was time for another thought Immaculata's knee contacted the centre of Billy's trousers with considerable force. He squealed like a kicked animal and collapsed in a writhing heap at her feet.
"You bitch! You filthy fuckin' little bitch! I'll get you for that! I'll fuckin' get you for that...!"
Immaculata smiled contentedly and made her way back towards the gate.
An unseen shutter opened with a click behind the square mesh-covered aperture and Immaculata could see the dim silhouette of a man's face.
"Bless me Father for I have sinned," she intoned mechanically.
"How long is it since your last confession?"
"And what sins have you committed within that week, my child?"
"I have had impure thoughts four times, told two lies at school... and... I've seen an angel."
There was a pause. "Did you say you'd seen an angel?"
Physically, Immaculata and her mother were strikingly similar. On more than one occasion they had achieved the cliché of being mistaken for sisters. Slender, graceful and rather serious in demeanour, with pale faces, high cheek bones and large soulful brown eyes, they both wore their straight near-black hair just below shoulder length and tended to dress very conservatively. The only immediately evident differences between them were her mother's slight superiority in terms of breast development and her extra inch or so of height. Standing now outside the heavy carved door of the Bishop's house they unconsciously held hands for mutual support and waited.
After a few moments it swung soundlessly inwards to reveal a stout middle-aged woman in a practical dark business suit. She smiled down reassuringly.
"Good afternoon Mrs. Sweeny and Immaculata," she greeted them with affected friendliness, "won't you come in. His Grace is expecting you."
They dipped their fingers in the small holy water font just inside the doorway and performed the mechanical ritual of blessing themselves, flicking their hands from forehead to heart, then to left and to right shoulder, before following the elegantly clad housekeeper down the corridor. As they had expected, the interior of the striking building, known to some as the Bishop's "palace", was virtually a museum of church art and ritual, crammed with religious pictures and marble statues on plinths, ancient-looking leather bound books in carved wooden cabinets and ceremonial clerical robes lovingly displayed in large glass cases. It even smelled of incense and sanctity, invoking in Immaculata and her mother the familiar involuntary surge of awe and timidity.
The Bishop's study was large and book-lined and only fractionally less formal than the rest of the building, an effect mainly achieved by the inclusion of a tasteful and lifelike coal-effect gas fire in the centre of the large open grate. Opulent leather armchairs of different sizes were grouped around the fireplace and two of them were occupied by middle aged men in black suits and clerical collars who insisted on standing to greet the newcomers, their stiff courtesy merely adding to the latter's discomfiture.
"Good afternoon ladies," the older and more distinguished looking of the two began with a smile that held no warmth, "I'm glad you were able to come. This is Monsignor Cunningham from the Tullamore Seminary. I asked him to join us to give us the benefit of his expertise in the matters you have come to discuss. I hope you have no objection."
"No, Sir. Your Grace," Mrs. Sweeny replied meekly.
"'Father' shall be perfectly adequate. For both of us. Won't you please sit down?" He motioned towards an out-size sofa and they all sat down, the newcomers somewhat self-consciously. "A little tea?" he asked politely, and gestured to his housekeeper who was still watching from the door. There was a click as she closed it and went to comply with his request.
The Bishop fixed Mrs. Sweeny with a polite gaze, then turned uncertainly towards Immaculata. He paused for a few moments, uncertain as to how he should begin. "You are still a very young girl, aren't you Immaculata?" he said at last, "Fourteen, I believe?"
"Fifteen next month," her mother put in.
"I believe I confirmed you in the faith some eighteen months ago?" Immaculata nodded. "I've spoken to your teachers, and to your Parish Priest. They speak very highly of you. I am told that you are a well behaved and respectful student at school, and an exemplary member of the Young People's Sacred Heart Confraternity at St. Joseph's Church. These things show great moral strength and maturity. They are achievements of character for which you and your mother should be justly proud, and of course thankful to almighty God."
"Yes, Father. Thank you, Father."
"But... what we're here to talk about..." he looked embarrassed, "is the angel that you say you have seen."
He stood up and leaned his back against the mantelpiece before he went on, looking straight into the young girl's face. His demeanor took on the aspect of one about to preach a sermon. "Immaculata," he said thoughtfully, "all of us, when our spiritual life is just beginning, tend to focus on the more dramatic, external aspects of the holy Church. Statues, buildings, angels, signs and miracles... things that are really only symbols of something much deeper. Take this Sacred Heart painting, for instance," he turned around and motioned towards the shrine over the fireplace, a red oil lamp burning in front of a stylised Christ image. "everybody knows Jesus didn't have a heart made of gold on the outside of his body. That's just a symbol, a representation of the love that Christ had for all of us, a love so powerful he accepted death on the cross to save us from our sins. That lamp as well, it isn't a magic lantern like the one in Aladdin: it's just a representation of our devotion to the teaching and the way of life of Jesus. It's another symbol. Devils and angels and cherubs and burning bushes and fiery chariots... they aren't ordinary objects in the world like tables and chairs... they're ways of understanding the world, of explaining things when the reality is beyond the limitations of our human minds..."
"But there are angels," Immaculata protested, quietly but firmly, "I've seen one. I've talked to her."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence which was broken by Monsignor Cunningham. His tone seemed sharp, even harsh compared to that of the Bishop.
"Immaculata, young people frequently believe that they have been favoured with visions and mystical experiences. Especially devout and holy young people such as yourself. But on closer examination they invariably discover that they have been mistaken."
At this Immaculata's mother seemed to take offence. "How can you dismiss Immaculata's vision like that? She hasn't told you anything about it yet. Are you saying that there are no such things as angels? No such things as miracles?"
"I am saying... that such things, if they exist, are so uncommon that we might expect one or two examples in a century. Not even in a generation. In fact I can hardly recall the last time the Church gave credence to a claim of this kind. My dear Mrs. Sweeny, we don't live in an age of visions and miracles any more. We live in an age of hard fact, scientific objectivity, placing our fingers in the wounds, re-examining all our traditional beliefs. And the Catholic Church has been able to taken on the scientific age and to emerge strengthened. More focused on its core beliefs and values. Our belief in a loving and forgiving God and in the sanctity of human life, our devotion to such values as honesty, faithfulness, kindness, charity and tolerance towards our fellow man. Those are the things that make us Roman Catholics, not the kind of externals and trappings that His Grace spoke of."
"Now wait a minute," Mrs. Sweeny protested, sensing an unfairness in the line that the Monsignor was taking with her daughter, her angry impulse overcoming her intimidation at the presence of these high ranking priests, "you didn't talk about symbols when we were at school. Immaculata and I learned from the same catechism. I can still remember it now. 'Who made the world? God made the world.' 'Who is God? God is our father in heaven, creator and lord of all things.' 'Where is God? God is everywhere but in a special sense he is present in heaven where he is seen by the angels and saints.' Where he is seen by the angels and saints, Father. That was what we were taught. That was what you told us was true. Angels and saints. Not symbols. Angels. Are you telling me that that was a lie?"
The Bishop decided to parry this one. He beamed a paternal smile in her direction. "Mrs. Sweeny, the school catechism was written many decades ago, and it was written for children. It was a product of far less sophisticated times than we live in now. Even within your lifetime, which has been a lot shorter than mine, ideas and attitudes have changed within the Roman Catholic Church. We have become a lot less literal in our beliefs, as Monsignor Cunningham was trying to explain to you. We realize now that a lot of things... like angels, devils, purgatory, penances, indulgences... were merely metaphors used to explain complicated ideas to people whose lives were simple, who lacked education and scholarly attitudes. They were never important. They were never meant to represent a literal truth. They were... what shall I say, handles to allow us to grab hold of concepts that were at heart moral and philosophical."
"If you want to see a religion that has stood still for a thousand years take a look at the Islam practiced in the Middle East," Monsignor Cunningham almost snapped, touching on some personal academic preoccupation.
"Bishop, I can't argue theology with a man like you. But you taught my child and you taught me that there were angels: good angels watching over us, keeping us safe from harm. And now you're telling us that there aren't. Well, all I know is that my Immaculata says she's seen an angel, and spoken to it, and my Immaculata doesn't tell lies."
As she finished there was a polite knock on the outer door. The Bishop's housekeeper had arrived with the tea. Mrs. Sweeny could see that both priests were grateful for the interruption.
Immaculata timidly entered the doctor's surgery and closed the door carefully behind her. He beamed up at her from behind his desk, a kindly dark suited middle-aged man with a neat beard. "Take a seat, Miss Sweeny. How can I help you?"
She hesitated, tried to say something but failed: her chin trembled for a moment with the unspoken words.
"Please don't be embarrassed. I am a doctor, Immaculata, I have heard it all before. I'm here to help. I'm on your side, no matter what it is, and everything that you say to me is in total confidence."
"Doctor Ryan," she stumbled over the words, "can you tell me if I'm pregnant?"
He became more serious. "I certainly can, Immaculata." He glanced down at her notes. "But looking at your date of birth, even such a possibility involves a serious legal issue. Are you aware of that?"
"Yes, Doctor. It's all right. I haven't had sex."
"Then I can answer your question straight off. You aren't pregnant. I'm going to get the nurse to give you a brochure..."
"No, Doctor... I mean... I would still like to have the test."
He looked at her quizzically. "In all of human history, my dear, there has only been one immaculate conception."
"I know, Doctor. I think she was about my age too."
The Bishop sat down with calm dignity and started to pour out the tea. Monsignor Cunningham seemed to take this as the signal for him to begin his questioning.
"Immaculata," he said in a friendly but businesslike tone, "when you see the angel, is it always in the same place?"
"No, father. Usually it's in my bedroom, but not always."
"And can you tell us please what it looks like?"
"It's a lady - all dressed in white. The robes cover her head, like a nun's dress, and there's a veil over her face."
"I see. And about how many times have you seen her?"
"I don't know. Ten or twelve?"
"Can you see her now?"
"No... it's usually when it's dark, or nearly dark. And when I'm on my own. Or when I'm in danger. Or when... there's a temptation..."
"I see. Has your mother ever spoken to you about angels?"
"No, I don't think so"
Her mother glanced up sharply. "May I ask what you mean by that, Father?" She demanded.
"Mrs. Sweeny, there are matters which I think we need to speak about in private."
"I have no secrets from my daughter. Absolutely none. Whatever you have to say I want her to hear as well."
"As you wish." He composed himself and looked her straight in the eye. "I think we both know that..." he hesitated "that your daughter Immaculata was born outside of wedlock. In fact, there has never been a Mr. Sweeny, has there?"
"Immaculata knows that. I haven't hidden anything from her. She knows that she was the result of an attack... something that happened to me when I wasn't much older than she is now."
"Quite. And you did the right thing in going through with the pregnancy, and in being open with her about her origins, and in treating her as an innocent child, free from any taint of guilt regarding the actions of her biological father. And above all in bringing her up in the holy Catholic Church, in the full light of God's love. In all this you have done a very good job, Mrs. Sweeny."
"So why are you asking if I've talked to her about angels?"
"Mrs. Sweeny," he glanced towards Immaculata again, obviously wishing that the girl wasn't there, "I am aware of the... attention that you attracted yourself... as a schoolgirl at the Francis Xavier Convent School in Tullamore."
She looked slightly ruffled. "I believed that I had a vocation, a special calling..."
"You believed that you saw visions, didn't you, Mrs. Sweeny?"
She dropped her voice so that it was little more than a whisper. "I was visited by the Blessed Virgin in a dream. I was told that she had a special task for me, a special job. Something that I would have to do when I was a bit older. That was all."
"I see. And was she a lady in white, with a veil over her face?"
Mrs. Sweeny glowed with embarrassment. Immaculata found her hand and held it. "I had a dream, Monsignor Cunningham. I was steeped in religious stories and I had a dream. That was all."
"It wasn't all, Mrs Sweeny." Monsignor Cunningham knew that he had the upper hand and pressed ahead with relish. "You very nearly founded a religious order of your own, didn't you? You had half a dozen little disciples saying special prayers and wearing special amulets and following you around. What was the basis of your private order of pre-adolescent nuns, Mrs. Sweeny? What did you tell them? Did you enjoy being the Mother Superior? The Sister Foundress?"
At these words the Bishop once more intervened, his tone pleasant and conciliatory. "I don't think that is entirely relevant to what we are here to discuss, Monsignor Cunningham. Children often go through an obsessive religious phase in their mid-teens. All children like to play games and have gangs. Let us try to keep a sense of proportion."
"I beg your pardon, Your Grace." He shifted in his seat so that he was looking straight into the young girl's face. "Tell me about the last time that you saw the angel, Immaculata."
"I saw it yesterday, when my mother told me we had to come here. I was going to tell her that I felt ill, that I wouldn't be able to come. And then I saw the angel and I knew that she didn't want me to tell a lie, that she needed me to come here."
"Where were you when this happened?"
"In my bedroom, sitting at my desk. I'd just unpacked my bag to start my homework."
"And where was the angel?"
"I just caught a tiny glimpse. Out of the corner of my eye. That's all I see a lot of the time. She just comes for a second... to remind me that she's there."
"Just a white shape, for an instant, in the corner of your field of vision?"
"Yes, Father. But other times she stays, and lets me see her clearly, and talks to me."
"And what does she say to you, Immaculata?"
"That I've been chosen for a special task. A very big task. And that I don't have to agree to it unless I want to."
"Are you having trouble getting to sleep Immaculata," her mother asked, poking her head around the door of her daughter's room.
"A bit, Mum."
"Is it... something to do with the angel?" Mrs. Sweeny opened the door fully and smiled down reassuringly at her daughter.
Immaculata took a few moments to reply. "She asked me something, Mother," she said hesitantly. "Something... very scary."
Her mother came into the room and stood over the bed. "What did she ask you, sweetheart?"
"I... can't tell you. I promised her I wouldn't. She said I mustn't tell anybody."
Mrs. Sweeny reached out and took her daughter's hand. "You must never break a promise," she said gently. For a moment neither of them spoke.
"Let me get you something," said Mrs. Sweeny at last, turning to go.
"Another sleeping pill?"
"You need it sweetheart. Your sleep is important. You're lucky you've got a nurse for a mother who can get you things like that."
"I know that we're here to talk about your daughter and not you, Mrs. Sweeny," the Monsignor probed, "But there is one more area that I feel I must go into. Would I be right to suppose that your own pregnancy in your late teens was what put an end to your plans to enter a religious order?"
"My pregnancy put an end to a lot of my plans," she said coldly. "I didn't see a great deal of that tolerance and forgiveness and kindness that the two of you were talking about a few minutes ago. The Carmelites made it pretty clear that I was no longer welcome as a postulant. The hospital where I was supposed to be going to do my training discovered they didn't have a place for me after all. I had to leave home and move to the North of Ireland and find another hospital to get away from the whispers. Nobody believed me that I'd been attacked. You know that. They saw a pregnant teenager and they could only think of one thing. But none of that matters, Father. Not any more. I finished my training, in spite of them all, and I brought Immaculata up on my own, and she didn't want for anything either. I'm not bitter about any of it, Father. I have a beautiful daughter. I have a good life."
"Mrs. Sweeny, this is frankly somewhat delicate." He hesitated. "We both know perfectly well that there are certain... parallels... between Immaculata's situation now and your own at that time. Putting it plainly, we both know that Immaculata is indeed pregnant. It serves no purpose to evade that fact."
"I had no intention of evading anything, Father," said Mrs. Sweeny very quietly, looking him straight in the eye.
He seemed mildly unnerved. As he watched she searched in her handbag and produced a small brown envelope which she handed to him, standing up to do so. He reached into his inside pocket for his reading glasses.
"It's the result of a pregnancy test," he announced, somewhat reluctantly, "signed by Dr. Ryan in Drumcray."
"Yes, Father," said Mrs. Sweeny, with a hint of something a little bit like triumph in her voice, "and now would you look at this one please." She handed him a somewhat larger white envelope. Again he opened the sheet within and read it.
"This is from the gynaecology consultant at the Mater Hospital in Dublin," he said quietly, "it says he's examined your daughter and that she is medically virgo intacto."
"Yes, Father. Now, would you look at the dates of the two tests."
Immaculata's eyes flickered between waking and sleep. It was there again, the tall white shape, but she was finding it so hard to stay awake - so very hard to keep her eyes open against the power of the drug that her mother had administered. It was speaking to her from far away, through a drifting grey fog that was trying to engulf her. She struggled to hear the words, battled with the sleep that was so hungry to claim her.
"Have you reached a decision, Immaculata?" the angel asked her gently.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Shall you bear this sacred child?"
Again she managed to whisper: "Yes."
"Then rest peacefully. It shall come to pass."
The Monsignor's eyes widened in disbelief. Without a word he passed the documents to the Bishop. The two men looked at one another, shocked into silence.
"What are you... going to do?" the Bishop managed to say at last, "you don't intend going public with this, do you?"
"Going public? Are you saying I should hide a miracle? Let people think my daughter is a slut? Let them treat her the way they treated me?"
The Bishop put his hand to his head and closed his eyes for a moment. "A virgin birth, Mrs. Sweeny," he whispered, "a virgin birth. Have you any idea what the press will do with this? What they'll do to your daughter? What it's going to be like for the two of you if this gets out?"
"I don't think it's me or Immaculata that you're worried about," she said very coldly, "is it, Bishop?"
There was a long silence. It was Monsignor Cunningham who finally spoke. "Mrs. Sweeny, as we've tried to explain to you, The Roman Catholic Church no longer bases its teaching on... miracles and conjuring tricks. If you go public with this it could have an absolutely devastating effect on the entire Church. It could set us back decades. We don't trade in this currency any more. It's going to cause splits, divisions, uprisings of ultra-traditionalist Catholics challenging the authority of the Pope himself. It could put us back almost to medieval times. Destroy our chance for the ecumenism that we all want, the unification of all the great orthodox faiths of the world. It's going to be a disaster for everything the present Holy Father is trying to achieve."
She looked him straight in the eye and there was a kind of triumph in her voice. "Then why has Almighty God sent his angel to speak to my daughter, and why has he done this thing? Do you think he might be telling you that his Church has swayed too much with fashion?"
Mrs. Sweeny remained perfectly still at the end of the bed and waited until her daughter's eyes had closed and her breathing had grown slow and regular. When she was certain that the girl was deeply asleep she removed her white headgear, pulled the veil away from her face, and took off her white ward coat. Switching on the bedside lamp, she produced a black leather medical case and gently drew down Immaculata's duvet. Smiling, she looked past her daughter's prone figure to something or someone at the far end of the room. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," she said quietly, "thy holy will shall be done."
She opened the case and carefully unpacked a large syringe which was attached to a length of thin transparent tubing. Beside it was a silver container resembling a small thermos flask which bore the label "donor semen" and a batch code.
"I'm sure your baby is going to be very beautiful," she whispered to Immaculata, "just like you."