A Handful of Darkness
Tommy Malone was sitting quietly in the train, on the platform of King's Cross Station, when the two nuns came into the carriage. The only two seats together were opposite his. The nuns seemed a little reluctant to sit near someone who looked like Tommy: although quite handsome, he had quite long, black hair, he wore earrings and many silver rings on the fingers of both hands, and there were glimpses of tattoos on his arms. "Excuse me, Sisters," he said, "can I help you with your luggage?" They were still reluctant, but their cases were quite heavy.
"Thank you, that's very kind!" the older of the two women said. "You're welcome!" Tommy replied. After hoisting the two cases up onto the rack overhead, he sat quietly looking out of the window. After a moment or two he smiled. "Forgive my manners," he said to the older nun, now sitting in the seat next to the aisle, " ... would you prefer a window seat, too?" The older woman returned his smile. " ... If you wouldn't mind." Tommy stood in the aisle until the Sister was seated again.
He actually didn't mind the aisle seat: he had quite long legs and could stretch out. Before he'd sat down, he'd retrieved his copy of the Guardian, which was already folded open on the crossword page. A few of the cryptic puzzle's clues had been answered, but there were enough left to do to keep him occupied for some time. He lived in North London now, but he was going to Hull for a few days, to stay with his parents. This train from King's Cross was the only one that morning that left at a reasonable time, and he wouldn't have to change at Doncaster.
After forty minutes or so, the older woman stood up. "I need to stretch my legs, Mary Teresa," she said to her young companion, "I shouldn't be long." Tommy stood to let her pass, and as he sat down again, he looked towards the young woman wearing the white veil. He smiled but he didn't talk. After another few minutes, a young man dressed all in black stood in the aisle near them.
"Excuse me ... you're Tommy Malone, aren't you! I saw your last gig in Birmingham ... fucking awesome, Man ... truly fucking awesome!" Tommy smiled.
"Thanks, Man! But watch the language, eh!" The young man looked across briefly at the young woman seated next to the window.
"Oh, yeah ... right! ... Er ... sorry ... Miss!" The young woman smiled and nodded to acknowledge the apology.
" ... Er, Tommy ... do you think I could maybe take a photo ... my mates are fans, too, and they'll never believe me..." the young man said.
"Sure, a quick one!" The young man took a phone out of his jacket pocket.
"That's great!" he exclaimed after the image was captured. " ... Er ... we couldn't just have one together..." Tommy smiled. He looked across to the young woman. "Would you mind?" he asked. "Not at all!" she said, "Which button works the shutter?" The picture taken, the young man went away happy.
"Does that happen often, Mr Malone?"
" ... Not so much! It's usually only fans that recognise me. I don't mind if people are polite ... and he obviously goes to the gigs and buys the music. Sorry about the swearing, though: I think it's just habit with a lot of people."
"It doesn't bother me," the young nun replied, "As you say, it's just the culture we live in. And I didn't recognise you, but I do know the name Tommy Malone ... and Handful of Darkness... I haven't always been a nun."
"Not quite a nun, if I'm not mistaken."
"No, quite right ... still a novice. Are you a catholic, Mr Malone?"
" ... Hmm! Sore point! I 'opted out', quite some time ago. 'To thine own self be true, ' Shakespeare said ... good advice! We may disagree on this point, but I believe 'faith' is a personal decision which everyone should come to in their own time and their own way. Who knows what I may believe in time, but for the moment, I believe you can still lead a good life without the formal dogmas. I'd much rather be an honest atheist than a hypocritical Christian! No offence intended!"
" ... And none taken, Mr Malone!"
Sister Catherine returned to her seat; she never spoke to Mary Teresa until the refreshment trolley was brought round. "Would you like some tea, Mary?"
"Yes, please! May I say you're looking a little pale, Sister ... are you feeling unwell?"
"Yes, I felt a little ill earlier, but I feel better for my walk. But thank you for asking."
The rest of the journey progressed as it should, and the train pulled into Hull station a few minutes after its scheduled arrival of 14:19. Even before the train had completely stopped, Tommy was out of his seat and getting the nuns cases down for them.
"I hope you don't mind me asking," he said to Sister Catherine, "but you still look quite pale. I'm getting a cab, let me help you with your cases and I'll drop you off somewhere."
"That's very kind of you," she replied, "I do still feel a little odd!"
"All right, then. Do you think you can take my bag," he said to Mary Teresa, "it's lighter than yours; then I can carry both of your cases."
The two nuns got out first and waited on the platform, while Tommy lifted their cases out. Their tickets had already been clipped by the on-board inspector, so they didn't need to show them again. Mary Teresa put Tommy's bag over her shoulder and steadied Sister Catherine, as Tommy walked a few paces in front of them. They exited the platform and walked towards the line of waiting taxis.
"Mr Malone!" he heard Mary Teresa's urgent voice call out. He turned and saw the older woman lying on the ground, with a crowd of people gathering around her.
"Do you know me?" he asked the cab driver.
"Of course, Tommy!"
" ... Well, here's twenty quid, take these cases to 146 Woodvine Avenue. When you get there, tell whoever opens the front door that I've had to take a friend to the hospital, and that I'll ring them later."
He hurried back to where the two nuns were. Someone had covered Sister Catherine with a blanket; Mary Teresa was looking as pale as her friend had been. He wasn't sure what the exact protocol was, but he put a strong arm around her.
"I'll come with you to the hospital. I've sent your cases off to my mam and dad's; we can always fetch them later. Where were you staying; can we let them know what's happened?"
" ... What ... I ... I'm sorry ... I can't..." she uttered; she was obviously in shock! A few people looked at Tommy, clearly recognising him; but if he caught their eye, he gave them a look that seemed to say: 'Not now, please!'
The ambulance drove straight onto the station concourse. Tommy spoke to the medics:
"We were sitting together on the train. This lady went for walk, and she said she felt unwell. She was still not right when we got here, so I was going to take her wherever she was going in a taxi, but she just collapsed."
"Okay! Let's get her into the ambulance, we'll take her straight to the Infirmary. Are you coming with us?" one of the medics asked him.
"Yes, if there's room for us all. I think the other lady's still very shaken." As they drove to Hull Royal Infirmary, the medic continually monitored Sister Catherine's vital signs.
"Still quite weak, but I've seen worse! How long are you home for this time, Tommy?"
"Just a few days with my folks, then back to London. I need a rest after this last tour; a few months off, then back into the studio.
" ... Are you all right, Love!" Mary Teresa nodded.
They pulled up outside the A&E Department and the ambulance crew took Sister Catherine straight in to be examined. A nurse came and sat by Mary Teresa. "If I can take some basic details..." While the nurse was talking to her, Tommy slipped outside again to phone home.
"—Hello, Ma! Did the cases arrive safely? Yes, two nuns I was on the train with ... one of them collapsed ... she's being seen now. Ma, is Bernie home ... we might need her room for a night or two ... the other nun ... she's quite young, and she seems a bit lost and confused at the moment. Okay, Ma ... I'll see you when I see you!"
"Mr Malone? I understand that you were with the lady when she collapsed. I'm afraid it's that old cliché: we need to run some tests," the doctor said, "She's still unconscious, but she appears to be stable. I don't think that there's anything the other Sister can do, so she might as well go home for the night. As she couldn't give us a contact number, perhaps you can give us yours."
"Aye! I'll give you my Ma's number: I'll take the other one there tonight; shall we come back tomorrow, or ring first?"
"Oh, ring about noon: just ask for admissions and they'll redirect you."
They took another cab to Tommy's parents; Mary Teresa seemed a lot better in herself.
"I'll have a look through Sister Catherine's things," she said, "there must be an address for where we were going. You've been very kind, but I can't impose on you any longer."
"Don't be daft, Lass! You're no bother, and my Ma will be made up! My little sister must be about your age; she spends more time at her boyfriend's than she does at home. We won't bother you if you want to be alone, but you're more than welcome to mix with the rest of the family."
"And will you be here?" she asked him.
"Aye, I will! I've come here for a few days rest to catch up with my family. Don't believe everything you read: the rock 'n' roll lifestyle is reserved for the media's sake; it's all a show we put on for the public! Ask my Ma ... she'll tell you what the real Tommy Malone's like!"
Mary Teresa wasn't part of a cloistered order, so although she was in the process of committing her life to serving God, in theory she still had lots of contact with the secular world. Having spent almost a year as a postulant, she was now in her first year as a novitiate. Her order, based in the convent in North West London, no longer wore the heavy habits and full wimples and veils: their dress was more practical and suited to the frequent interactions with the world outside the convent walls. Many of her order trained to be teachers, and that was Mary Teresa's probable destination, too.
It should be said, however, that although her clothes were simple and practical, without a nun's veil, or the application of cosmetic enhancements, she would still be considered a pretty girl in the secular world. She was twenty now, and had received her calling quite late in life compared to some, which might explain the length of her postulancy, but once her vocation was confirmed, her path was seemingly set.
By way of comparison, Thomas 'Tommy' Malone, picked up his first guitar when he was four ... or rather he sat on his father's lap with the six-string acoustic perched on his, as he peered over the top. His dad wasn't a bad guitarist, himself: he was born in the early-1960's, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were coming to prominence, so it's no great surprise what music Dermot Malone grew up listening to!
However, Dermot's old six-string was history by the time that Tommy was twelve, but by then he was already a more technically proficient and inventive musician than his father had been. A few more years and a good Japanese copy of a Gibson, solid-bodied electric sat proudly in Tommy's bedroom; and by sixteen he had his own band, which gigged around Hull, playing very creditable covers of rock classics. This band was the nucleus of Handful of Darkness, named after the Philip K Dick short story, together with the addition of a second guitarist, who Tommy had known from another Hull band at the time.
The combination of the twin lead guitars had been the real catalyst; and by twenty-one Tommy and his bandmates were an established name in the rock world, and they now toured extensively in Europe and North America, including Canada. Tommy, now nearly twenty-seven, had moved to London several years ago, as had the rest of the band, and they had reached the stage in their careers where they had outgrown most small venues and only needed to tour for six to eight months of the year, on average. The Heavy Rock music that they played had also now returned to being a sub-genre of popular music: quite distinct and not at all dependent upon what was flavour of the month in the sales charts.
Handful of Darkness' music and the band's attitudes continued to evolve; but for the time being at least, there was very little friction among the members, who were still friends, all financially comfortable young men, and still enjoying making music together.
Tricia Malone showed her guest up to her daughter's bedroom. Bernadette 'Bernie' Malone was twenty-one, and the youngest child. There was a middle child ... Tommy and Bernie's brother, Francis 'Frankie' Malone ... who had somehow ended up marrying a girl from the Czech Republic, where he now lived, in Prague. Frankie was quite famous himself as a musician in that country, and his band usually supported Tommy's when they toured in that part of Europe.
"I do hope you'll be comfortable in here, Sister," Tricia said, "My Bernie said just use anything that you want. Will you be eating with us later, Sister, or do you want me to bring you up a tray?"
"I'd like to share your meal, Mrs Malone ... and please call me Mary Teresa, or even just Mary. I'll come down in a while when I've been through Sister Catherine's things. And would you mind if I had a bath or a shower before we eat?"
"No, of course not, Mary! And will you please call me Tricia, and my husband's Dermot. I'll show you the bathroom and where the fresh towels are kept; treat my home just like your own, Dear!"
Mary Teresa looked around her: she suspected that Tricia Malone had recently tidied up the room much more thoroughly than her daughter ever did. But it was nice, much nicer than her bedroom in her parent's house, and very different to her room in the convent. And despite her vocation she was still a relatively young woman, so she couldn't help but peek into Bernie's closets and clothes drawers. But her primary task was looking through Sister Catherine's possessions, as she'd told Tommy that she would do.
She wasn't going to unpack her own case, only take out the things for her immediate needs, but she first put her mentor's case on the bed and opened it up.
Not surprisingly, the contents of Sister Catherine's case was very similar to her own: several changes of clothes, of a regulation type provided by the Order; a bag with her toiletries; her personal Bible; one or two items that Mary Teresa didn't enquire into too deeply; and finally her permitted indulgence ... a large bag of her favourite sweets! There was, however, nothing that looked like it contained an address or telephone number of their destination; all she knew was that they would be getting a bus from Hull to somewhere in the surrounding area.
Now, with Internet access, it would have been a fairly simple process to find possible addresses, but such things were practically unknown to the young nun, so her first thought was that she should contact her own convent, in London. With that thought in mind, she closed Sister Catherine's case up again, and prepared herself for her ablutions.
Mary Teresa had only intended to take a quick shower, to freshen herself up, but once in the bathroom she found herself among a large collection of crystals and bath oils, just waiting to be used. She had her own shampoo in her case, which was purely functional, but the Malone's ... and Mary Teresa suspected, Bernadette in particular ... obviously enjoyed having their senses subjected to those sweet-smelling intoxicants!
She ran the bath water, even allowing it fill the tub to a much greater depth than was usual in the convent, but at least in her order the sisters were now allowed to bathe completely unclothed. She had several changes of clothes ... all identical, however ... but she would ask Tommy's mother if she might launder the clothes she was wearing, before she moved on elsewhere.
After examining the contents of each bottle and jar with her nose, she filled a particular bottle's screw-top with the bottle's contents, which she them poured into the water; finally washing the residue of the liquid out of the cap in the bath itself. Then, after quickly disrobing, she swirled the hot water in the bath around with her hand. The water was hot, but not too hot, so she stepped into the bath and lowered herself down. The water level rose quite alarmingly high; but as she sank below its surface, its level stopped rising before it was in danger of spilling over the top.
It felt so good! She didn't actually need to physically clean her skin, so she just lay motionless in the silky softness of the fragrant liquid. She had by now become so indoctrinated by the order's teachings on the virtue of selflessness, that she had quite forgotten what it was like to indulge one's own senses in pleasurable experiences!
But before too long, the pangs of guilty conscience crept over her again. Then, leaning forward carefully, so as not to create waves that would wash over the bathtub's rim, she pulled out the rubber plug, allowing the water to gurgle down the plughole. She even sat there after the water was all gone, until she began to shiver as the heat left her body...
Mary Teresa towelled her pale skin dry, and then her short, light-brown-coloured hair. Lastly, she dressed in the clean clothes that she'd brought from the case in the bedroom. She rinsed and wiped the bath out, then she collected her discarded clothes and went back to her room.
After dressing, Mary sat on the bed; the door was still slightly open, but someone knocked. "Ma's just dishing up," Tommy said. Now without his jacket on, she could see the full extent of his tattoos. There were no grinning skulls or demonic images; from the quick glance she got, they were mostly birds and animals; quite artistic and beautiful, in fact! He saw her looking, so he held out his arms for her to view more fully.
"If I had the chance to do it again, I probably wouldn't! Maybe some, but not as many. They have almost become part of the act, now: the persona of an image I chose to create! I can only say in defence, that they are the work of people who are talented artists in their own right."
"But doesn't it hurt?" Mary Teresa asked him, unconsciously reaching out to touch his inked skin with her finger tips.
" ... Yes, always. And I don't know if you'll understand this, but that becomes part of the attraction for some people. But for me the pain is like the pain of childbirth is for some woman: it's the price that you're prepared to pay, to get something beautiful as a result!"
Having removed her small hand from his arm, Mary Teresa reached down to pick up the white novice's veil she'd left on the bed.
"Is that compulsory?"
"No, not really: just habit ... no pun intended!" she said, then smiled.
"Then why not leave it off: you have nice hair. I promise we won't tell on you!" He smiled, too.
They sat at the table: Tommy didn't want to embarrass his mother, so he didn't mention the fact that they only usually took this much trouble at Christmas!
"You haven't met my father yet," Tommy said, "Mr Dermot Declan Malone. He's lived here all his life, but his family come from County Clare. And this is Mary Teresa, Pa!"
"It's very nice to meet you, Mr Malone! And thank you for inviting me into your home! Your wife said I should call you 'Dermot'."
Apart from the hair and the tattoos, Tommy and his father were very similar in build and appearance.
"Excuse me for asking, Sister, but is that the name you were born with, or you were given it by the Church?" Dermot asked her. She actually felt very comfortable being with these people she'd only known a few hours.
"I am Mary Teresa Morrison on my birth certificate. I was born in Uxbridge, and my parents are both quite devout Catholics. I was always just Mary at home, but there were already several Sister Mary's in the convent, so they add the second name to tell us apart. But you can call me Mary, Dermot ... and you, too, Tommy."
Mary Teresa, who was used to the simple, mainly home-grown food of the convent, was treated to a meal rich in flavour and variety. The Malone's usually ate well, but even before she had known about her unexpected guest, Tricia had planned for the stay of her son. Tommy's working life was often planned many months in advance, so what with touring and recording sessions, he didn't get home to Hull nearly as much as he wanted to; and he spent almost as little time in his London house.
Tommy had always had girlfriends since his mid-teens, but music always seemed to come first for him; and the types of women that he came into contact with most nowadays, were usually not the domestic, settling-down types, anyway. In his business, sex was always available to him with very little effort, if required; although since he was now the only one in the band without a wife or in a relationship, even their gigs dressing rooms tended to be quite sober and sedate places to be, as wives and girlfriends always toured with the band; the road crew were probably bigger party animals than the people they looked after!
"Thank you, Tricia: that was a lovely meal!" Mary Teresa said afterwards.
"You're very welcome, Mary, Dear! I don't know what you want to do now, we usually just watch television, but if you prefer to be quiet, you're welcome to use the back parlour."
Even though the atmosphere was very informal, having a nun in the house isn't like having a next-door-neighbour drop in for tea and a chat. Mary Teresa had a very well-ordered life, which didn't really include hours of relaxation and socialising.
"I'm going into the parlour, Mary," Tommy said, "would you care to keep me company?" Ever since their first conversation on the train, Mary had felt at ease in his presence. Having gone to all-girl Catholic schools, she'd had very limited experience of boys, but Tommy Malone was so different to how she'd imagined he'd be, or his appearance suggested. Her own father wasn't a cold man: he was quite intelligent and mild-mannered, but she couldn't remember him ever being very affectionate towards her. She was never ill-treated, either, but having talked to her school friends, she was well-aware that her childhood had been lacking in some of the things that the other girls took for granted.
"Thank you! I'd like that!"
"Okay, well, you go on through ... I'll go and make us some tea." He saw his mother in the kitchen. "Is she all right, Love?"
"Aye, Ma! It's just not what she's used to!" Tommy could empathise, though: his own lifestyle tended to make most people that he didn't know treat him differently.
"I remembered how you took it on the train," he said when he took the tea in. "Thank you!" she replied, "I suppose you need a good memory to remember all that music?"
"Aye ... I do! Changing the subject, though: did you find anything interesting in Sister Catherine's things?"
"Yes, but I was thinking ... if she's ill, she may be indisposed for some time, so perhaps I should wait until we know more, then I can contact my convent. I think they may tell me to go back to London right away."
"That sounds like a good plan, Mary. You can't really do anything until you know how your friend is."
"She isn't exactly a friend in the sense that you mean, Tommy; a convent is a community, where we live and work for the benefit of each other and to learn how to serve God in the best way possible. I am a novice, so Sister Catherine is a mentor, a guide, to help me until I am ready to take my vows."
"Well, whatever you and the convent decide, you'll have my help and support." Mary Teresa smiled. "Yes, you're a good man, Tommy Malone!"
They sat chatting together until Mary Teresa went to bed at nine o'clock. Tommy sat reading for a while until he took himself off later. After brushing her teeth, Mary Teresa Morrison was soon fast asleep in Bernie Malone's comfortable bed.