Mullan got sick one day.
It came out of nowhere, a skewing of the way he saw the world, a distortion of vision, accompanied by a strange feeling like his wife and two daughters were human beings, yes, but not anyone he really knew.
After an afternoon of Mullan speaking weird, confused sentences, his wife, Jessica, insisted on taking him to hospital.
‘You see that part there, like a little oil slick?’ The doctor pointed to the screen, ‘that’s the part of brain we’re talking about.’
In an hour Mullan had lost the stuff which helped him see the world on his right side and vividly form pictures in his head.
The doctor said it was a stroke, but shouldn’t happen again. ‘The chance of recurrence is small. Less than one percent in someone young like you.’
Young? At forty five no one had called Mullan ‘young’ in years and he’d stopped feeling youthful a long time ago.
Mullan’s recovery took months, with Jessica’s help.
His parents wanted to visit.
‘We’ll keep you company,’ his mother said. ‘It will be like a holiday for you without having to leave your house.’
‘Come with me to church,’ Mullan’s father said to him one day. Mullan had nothing else going on so he found himself sitting next to his Dad, like when he was a child, as the priest appeared at the altar.
While the priest spoke from the lectern, Mullan’s gaze roamed across the basilica walls towards the engravings which made up the Stations of the Cross, the ornate ceiling high above him. He wondered how long it had taken men to build the basilica, to stand up there on scaffolding and crane their necks to paint that ceiling. He watched the priest remove the chalice from the tabernacle and realised he was able to tell the warm blue, red and yellow lights apart as they strained through the church windows.
Mullan’s eyes closed and he cherished that faint vanishing bright yellow light splashed on his retina. He didn’t see what had been there every day since his brain stopped working properly – a lifetime ahead of being disabled, not being able to form a clear, precise thought. There was much he was still able to achieve. Sure, the stroke meant he had to turn his head when he came into a restaurant, or walk the crowded platform at the train station so he didn’t bump into everyone on his right side, but couldn’t he speak, and walk, and still see these things around him?
Mullan had heard about other, older people who’d come out of similar experiences unable to do any of these things. Who should he thank? He opened his eyes and, sitting next to his father (who he only saw once a year) he decided it would be, for want of a better person, God.
When his parents travelled back to their overseas home, Mullan volunteered at the church cafe. He prepared toasted sandwiches and collected customers’ money for a partner parish in East Timor.
He worked alongside a retired school principal whose daughter sometimes also helped out. Although Lucy was a young woman- in her early thirties- she’d lost her husband to a road accident years before. She had three children who sat at a table in the cafe, colouring in quietly while she helped out at the counter.
Each week Lucy would ask Mullan if his wife and two daughters were going to join him. Each week Mullan said they were visiting the beach, or had soccer training, or gymnastics. He couldn’t bring himself to tell the truth, that Jessica thought God was as real as Santa Claus, and as their mother didn’t believe in God or want to come to church, the kids wanted to stay with their mum. And what message was Mullan sending his kids by insisting they join him for something their mother didn’t believe in?
Each Sunday he’d watch Lucy’s children sit with their mother in the pew and colour in their books, join in the prayers. Sure, they had no father, but hadn’t they a beautiful mother to look after them? Mullan would sit one or two pews back and watch Lucy’s hand reach out to smooth the hair of one of her children; how gracefully and patiently she’d bend to pick up one of their colouring in books after it had fallen to the floor.
Mullan returned to work. At the end of his first week he left at lunchtime, collapsed into bed and woke after the kids had been fed.
‘It will take a few weeks,’ Mullan said, ‘before I can go back full time.’
‘You’ve had plenty of time off,’ Jessica said. ‘Your energy levels should be back to normal. And we’ve bills to pay.’
One Sunday before mass started, Lucy gestured to Mullan to join her in the pew. He didn’t want to intrude, but he collected his book and sat beside her, feeling the heat from her body as they stood together for the gospel and relishing how their thighs almost touched as they knelt down together.
‘How was mass?’ Jessica asked.
‘It was ok,’ Mullan replied, while he helped her prepare the Sunday roast.
‘I want to bring the children,’ Mullan said one day. ‘I know you don’t believe, and that’s fine,’ he said. ‘But I want them to grow up experiencing the same faith I have.’
Jessica rested the iron on the board, folded the shirt in two.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘You get them ready each week, get them dressed and washed and you can bring them.’
The next weekend, Mullan genuflected and ushered his kids into the pew. They sat awkwardly beside Lucy’s kids until one of them shared a pen, then a book changed hands and they began to behave like friends. Another parishioner approached them at the end of mass, mistaking them for one family.
‘They’re very well behaved. Are they all yours?’
‘Oh no,’ Lucy laughed, and as she said it Mullan felt a little pang of something in his heart. While he took everyone over to the café afterwards he wondered how it would be if it were true.
While both sets of children helped each other to do jigsaws, Mullan collected customers’ plates, gave them to Lucy to wash. When there were no more plates, he took over at the till.
‘They’re lovely children,’ one of the customers said.
‘Oh, they have their moments,’ Mullan said.
‘Are they all yours?’
Mullan gazed towards the table. His daughter was showing a picture to Lucy’s son.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘indeed they are.’ And he accepted the woman’s change.
‘They’re all really close,’ the woman said. ‘There must be twins in there somewhere.’
‘You would think that,’ Mullan said. ‘But no.’
‘I can see the resemblance, now,’ the woman said.
At night, as Mullan lay beside his wife and prayed, first for the souls of all his dead relatives ( he used it as a brain exercise to try and remember all his great aunts and uncles and their spouses’ names), then giving thanks for his faculties, a prayer came into his heart that he would never before have believed possible. If it was God’s will that Mullan and Lucy should be together, then Mullan would not stand in the way of it. If a young woman needed a husband, her children a father figure, then who was he to interfere with the Divine Plan? Of course, Mullan would never break his marriage vows, but if his wife were to develop, say, a terminal illness- then after a period of nursing her and her death, would it not be too much to imagine Mullan together with Lucy, if it was God’s will?
Where, in the past, Mullan had sleepless nights praying for Jessica’s soul (he feared what would happen to her, a non- believer, once her life ended and she’d moved on to the next stage), now he turned the thought over that it was unlikely she would be reunited with him in Heaven anyway.
At work, Mullan found it difficult to concentrate on the accounts he prepared for clients. He saw only Lucy’s face in the women who came to consult with him. It was her voice Mullan heard on the other end of the phone. He imagined them going together on trips to the beach, having picnics in golden sunshine, coming home with two back seats filled with their children.
His boss called him into the office one morning.
‘What’s wrong, Mullan? Your work’s become shoddy. You’re making mistakes. Did you come back to work too soon? Maybe you should take some more leave? Sort it out.’
His mind’s eye had fully recovered and was now as vivid as ever, perhaps better than before the stroke. On Saturday nights, instead of watching TV with his wife, he’d excuse himself and retire to bed. When he closed his eyes, he imagined Lucy reaching for him, pulling him towards her beneath the covers.
Not once did it cross Mullan’s mind that this, within the realm of his own religious faith, might represent adultery, already committed many times in his heart. To be with this devout woman, a woman who volunteered her time for the parish, who prayed regularly and loved her children, seemed a natural progression.
One day, in the café as they were clearing up, the kids playing outside, the other staff having left, Mullan asked Lucy if she’d like to bring the kids on a trip with him some time.
‘They get on so well together,’ he said, gazing out at them playing around a tree in the front lawn of the church.
‘That would be lovely,’ Lucy said, and stopped wiping the counter. The two of them stood for a moment, in silence. Her eyes were deep blue below fine brows. Her lips were luscious, Mullan thought, ripe and ready to be kissed.
‘Daddy, daddy!’ His daughter came inside, pulled his arm and, with it, Mullan from his trance. ‘Can we go now?’
Mullan and Lucy shared a nervous laugh, a laugh which told each of them, in a way, what the other was thinking; A moment passed between them and grew so strong surely something would now have to happen.
One Saturday night as he was getting ready for bed, Jessica, instead of sitting up on her own, said:
‘I think I’ll come to bed now, too.’
‘Are you sure?’ Mullan said.
‘Of course, everything’s done here.’
She lay beside him, asked him to hold her. It felt strange, holding the woman who, over the last few months had drifted apart from him in some deep way he’d wondered if they’d ever go back to how it was before.
‘I was thinking,’ she said. ‘I might go with you to church tomorrow.’
Mullan felt his chest growing cold. An icy stab through his centre.
‘What?’ he said. ‘You never want to go to church.’
‘I know, but I’ve been watching you and the kids go every week. It’s become something you do with them. I’m not a part of it.’
‘But it gives you time to yourself,’ Mullan said. ‘Precious time. You always say you’ve no time to anything on your own.’
‘I know but I feel I’m missing out on something here. The kids are experiencing something I’m not.’
‘It never bothered you all those months I went on my own.’
‘Anyone would think you don’t want me to go! I thought you’d be happy.’
‘No,’ he said and kissed her forehead. ‘Of course, come if you want.’
When they walked into the chapel, their children ran straight to the front, found Lucy and her kids. Mullan and Jessica joined them. All through mass, Mullan shuffled in his seat. When he closed his eyes, instead of the soft yellows and dusky purples he’d normally see, there were flashes of dark, violent red and black. Was this how it was going to be now?
They went to the café afterwards and instead of sitting with the children, Jessica volunteered to wash plates and cups in the kitchen, passing them to Lucy who dried them. Mullan couldn’t concentrate and on two occasions gave someone the incorrect change.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m half asleep here.’
‘That young woman’s lovely,’ Jessica said on the drive home. ‘You never her mentioned her before. And the kids seem to know each other.’
‘Oh yeah,’ Mullan said. ‘They play together sometimes.’
At night, long after Jessica had fallen asleep, Mullan asked God if this was his destiny, to live out his days watching another woman from afar, the woman he now loved, knowing they’d never be together before God. Why had God allowed them to meet in the first place? Why create the circumstances to arise which would allow their encounter, their children to meet and play together, Jessica to spend decades in an irreligious wilderness, only now to decide to come with him to church?
Every week, Jessica now accompanied him. They went to the café afterwards. She took the food orders, brought toasted sandwiches to the tables. Mullan no longer felt comfortable in the same pew as Lucy and her children. He wanted to sit in another part of the church, insisted they move.
One day, in the café, Mullan noticed another man had appeared. A new teacher in the primary school. As he’d just moved to the area the priest introduced him to everyone.
‘I think he’s lovely,’ Jessica said on the drive home.
Mullan knew, with an inevitability, what would happen.
The young teacher volunteered in the café. He spoke to Lucy, helped the kids with the colouring in. Mullan caught her glancing at the new teacher while he was showing her daughter how to shade and cross hatch. I’ll cross hatch you, Mullan thought. The teacher began to do the readings from the lectern at mass.
Mullan prayed for help. Why was he being tortured in this way? At night he’d have visions in his mind of Lucy and the teacher together.
When Lucy married the teacher, everyone who worked in the cafe was invited. Jessica insisted they go to the whole celebration, including the reception in the cafe after the church ceremony. Mullan couldn’t finish his chicken dinner and when the band played Jessica’s favourite song he refused to dance.
‘I’ve a little indigestion,’ he said.
‘Congratulations,’ he said to Lucy as she made her way round the tables of guests. ‘I hope you’ll be very happy.’
‘Thank you,’ she said.
Mullan thought he saw a tear gathering in her eye.
Later that year he stopped going to church. He could no longer bear the sight of the new couple, their affection for each other obvious to everyone as they walked, holding hands, into the church. It was too much to watch the teacher behind her, his hands on her shoulders as she received communion.
Mullan no longer played games with his children. Jessica cried most days.
‘Where have you gone? I can’t reach you at all.’
‘I’m right here,’ Mullan said.
‘No you’re not,’ Jessica said.
One day, Mullan walked into the kitchen where Jessica had prepared a poached egg on toast for him, as he liked it. He pulled out his chair and began to sit down but his right leg didn’t move. In seconds, he dropped to the ground. Mullan’s brain wasn’t working efficiently enough to inform his consciousness that this was another stroke, but Lucy knew what was happening this time. She called the ambulance and told them her husband of forty seven years old was having his second brain attack and needed to be in hospital.
Within twenty minutes they had him in a procedure room, trying to repair his brain. But this time, instead of a clot, blood had leaked into the tissue and there was nothing they could do, only wait.
‘He’ll survive,’ the doctor said. ‘But there’ll be changes.’
Friends visited him in hospital. He was unable to say words to them, but he tried his best to make sounds with his mouth.
‘You’ve got some visitors,’ the nurse opened his door, let Lucy and the teacher come in with a bunch of flowers.
Mullan tried to turn away from them in the bed.
The teacher smiled at him.
‘You’re looking well, John,’ he said.
Mullan could do nothing, only blink at them.
‘I’m so sorry, John,’ Lucy said, a tear coming down her cheek.
When they’d left, Mullan turned slowly onto his side and closed his eyes to try and sleep, but saw only splashes of black and red, deep and dark.