The Virgin Mary had made an untoward appearance in Dublin. Is she real? Is she a hoax? Mary Breasted's gift for poking fun where it hurts the most has produced an irreverent, irrepressible, unforgettable book. Ireland will never be the same.
"Breasted's perfectly aimed dialogue and brisk action skewer the jumbled politicssexual, religious and marital, in academia and the governing Dailthat shape life in modern Ireland." - Publishers Weekly
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|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Mary Breasted is also the author of I Shouldn't Be Telling You This.
Read an Excerpt
Why Should You Doubt Me Now?
Why Should You Doubt Me Now?
If there is a fate that can befall a man worse than having the Virgin Mary appear in his bedroom just as he is about to seduce the most beautiful apprentice horoscope writer in Dublin, Rupert Penrose did not know of one. When the apparition came he suddenly knew nothing at all except that he dared not move a muscle. His heart, which had been pounding wildly ever since Attracta Dorris had climbed naked under his duvet, now threatened to break out of his rib cage and catapult itself onto the floor. He was not a young man. The violent shock he got the moment he turned to look in the direction toward which Attracta was dementedly squinting might have killed him if he had not blessedly taken a bit of wine just before the Virgin descended. He might never have turned to look if he had thought he could smother Attracta's distraction with kisses. But Attracta was a nervous girl who had required three preliminary glasses of wine to stop clutching her elbows and hunching over her wonderful upspringing breasts. She had required a subsequent three full glasses to tell him the sorry tale of her first and only love affair, a shameful business carried on in the unclaimed parcels room of the Glenageary Postal Sorting Office. She then revealed that her lover had promised to marry her as soon as he acquired enough money to move out of the family bungalow. Instead, he went off to Canada to seek his fortune in the dishwashing trade. He sent Attracta one postcard, which said, "Wish you were here," without a return address. She never heard from him again.
"I hope you are not going to tell me you are still in love with that scoundrel," Penrose said to her, pouring one last dollop of wine intoher glass. "He doesn't deserve to touch the ground you walk on. Besides, you could have hundreds of others."
"But no one will want to marry me!" Attracta protested, bursting into heartfelt tears.
"Don't be silly!" Penrose said scoldingly and took her into his arms to stroke her head in decent fatherly fashion. She was undressed and under the duvet five minutes later.
He climbed into bed beside her and commenced to make amends for the six long years that Attracta had waited for her dastardly dishwasher to return. She had been responding with what seemed like six years' worth of unspent passion, so that when she suddenly broke off and whispered, "Rupert, stop! It's a visitation!" he thought she was having a hysterical attack brought on by the intensity of her attraction to him.
"Don't be silly," he said, more tenderly than before, while kissing her flushed cheek and attempting to steer her chin toward his. Ardently he added, "We're all alone here."
But Attracta was gripping the duvet and squinting her eyes in a most convincingly insane manner. Penrose turned around to be able to tell her authoritatively that there was nothing in that corner of the room except a small pile of laundry. What he saw terrified him so much that he forgot to cross himself.
In the circumstances, he was to reflect later, the gesture might have seemed a bit hypocritical. He was a married man, and Attracta had come to his flat in the sincere belief that he would offer her only his best professional advice. She badly needed tips for dealing with Madame Bukowski. Attracta had been working for her for nearly a year, and in all that time Madame Bukowski had not told her one thing about the art of horoscope writing. She had merely used Attracta to fetch cups of tea, sort her mail, answer the telephone, dust off her desk, and shop for secondhand paperbacks by Barbara Cartland. Penrose had an idea that Madame Bukowski never intended to teach her the horoscope-writing trade, but he did not say this to Attracta. His intuition told him that Attracta, though not aware of this herself, would be only too glad to move on to another topic. Much experience with troubled young women had given Penrose the coiled patience of a panther. After the poor girl had drunk her first three glasses of wine and confessed thatshe sometimes mislaid pieces of Madame Bukowski's mail, Penrose needed only to say, "I don't understand what a beautiful girl like you is doing in the horoscope-writing business at all. Surely you have a fiance," and she was holding out her glass for more.
Pitiable creature, she did not deserve to have the Virgin interrupt her first passionate embrace in the space of six years. Penrose listened to the wild thumps of his heart. What would Attracta do if he were to die of a heart attack here and now? Would she have the good grace to dress him? Would she be able to?
"Isn't she beautiful!" Attracta whispered. She seemed to be crossing herself under the duvet. "Do you think it's really her?"
"Her?" said Penrose, still too stunned to have asked himself as much. Nervously he ran his finger down Attracta's warm, silky arm.
"Rupert!" she whispered crossly. "Stop!"
"Attracta, I didn't meanI wasn'tperhaps it's best you got dressed, my dear," he said.
"Not when she's looking at me, when I can see her looking at me!"
Poor child. Did she think the Virgin Mother had appeared only to reproach her? She could scarcely have amassed enough sins, waiting in her bed-sit for endless postcards that never arrived.
"The Virgin Mary sees you getting dressed every morning, or if not the Virgin, certainly God," said Penrose rather pompously. Bishop Meany was expected to come by in less than an hour.
"You can't see God," said Attracta, adding sourly, "whoever He is. Anyway, I don't see you jumping up to get your clothes. It's you she's coming to visit, seemingly."
"Oh, don't be silly," he protested, although he knew himself to be the greater sinner.
"Yes, Rupert, I'm absolutely certain it's you she came to see. Because she likes your column."
"You don't think" he started to say, and then he went crimsonly silent with gratified authorship. The Virgin liked his column! Had such a thing happened to a columnist before?
Rupert Penrose was, despite his English name and his inability to uphold his marriage vows, a good Catholic. He respected the Pope. He strongly disapproved of divorce, abortion, and secular education. Hethought that the women's liberation movement was the worst thing to have happened in the world since the invention of the automobile, which last he also considered an offense against the natural order of things. On the subject of artificial birth control, he was not quite to be pinned down. He usually dealt with it only by implication, when praising the practice of celibacy in marriage.
That he was also a good Irishman, everyone in Ireland knew. His weekly column appeared in the popular Dublin Sentinel, a newspaper not too respectable to print the daily horoscope of Madame Bukowski but hardly gritty enough to publish the photos of topless beauties that appeared daily in the British tabloids. Penrose bemoaned the influence of all things English. He sometimes went so far as to urge that jamming devices be erected throughout Ireland to block out all radio and television signals from Britain. He was very proud of the fact that he had turned down the London publisher who once made him an offer for the rights to Ourselves Alone, and he always mentioned the incident in the column he wrote to young university graduates at the end of May, exorting them to go forth and do likewise in the face of all British blandishments. He dispensed much free advice to the young, seeing himself as the lone voice of moral sanity in a world growing ever more senseless with moral decay. He thought that the only hope for Ireland was to return to a simpler lifestyle back on the land, a life without modern machinery to deprive her strapping young men of honest labor and without television or cinemas to give her young women false ideas about the uses to which beauty ought to be put. He was so opposed to the automobile that he refused to own one, getting himself about Dublin on a sturdy English Raleigh of indefinite age. When it was pointed out to him that a bicycle is also a machine and that his was doubly damning because of being English, he would snort impatiently and say that he never pretended to be anything other than a poor sinner trying to make his way through the wilderness of this world. He was, he said, as much in need of protection from temptation as the next fellow.
He sometimes wrote that he looked forward to the coming catastrophe of worldwide economic and moral collapse, for then Ireland would be cut off from pagan America and Satanic London, and within onehundred years no one on the island would have heard of Candice Bergen or bulimia or Wimbledon.
When he said he was as much in need of protection from temptation as the next fellow, Penrose was being modest. He had quite a bit more than the average fellow's share of opportunities to sin. He was not particularly handsome, but he was certainly noticeable. A man of medium height, slender build, and rosy, healthy complexion, he had only one distinctive physical characteristic. His eyes protruded too much. He looked continually surprised or even alarmed by what he saw in the world, and this made him immediately appealing to women, most of whom wanted to quell his anxiety. But there was a certain kind of woman, the sort who read his column and admired it, who seemed to want to share his anxiety. These were invariably women, like Attracta Dorris, who had been mistreated by men, and they had vague but large fears about what the world was coming to. They were never happier than when lying in Rupert Penrose's arms listening to him denounce their favorite television programs.
Such women sought him out. They wrote him letters. They came to his lectures at the Toyota Night School where he reluctantly obliged himself to earn extra cash teaching Irish history to Japanese microchip company managers and the wives of foreign diplomats. Unhappy women had pursued him ever since the days he wrote a column in the Ballybunion Blotter, when the ideas of the women's movement were seeping out into the Irish countryside. All of Penrose's female admirers had in common a dread of the women's liberation movement and agreed with him that women were universally better off in the days when the female orgasm was a mystery that men were meant to solve.
If it had not been for the complication of a Mrs. Penrose, he might have been the happiest of men. But, alas, his wife was one of the prime examples of a woman being gradually ruined by the trendy articles in the Sunday magazines telling about husbands who did the family ironing and wives who worked on oil rigs. Further complications, in the form of little Penroses, developed along the way, which meant that the laundry pile which no one in the Penrose household would violate his or her principles to touch grew by leaps and bounds, while outside hishome Penrose found himself more and more frequently called upon to relieve the psychic pains of women whose whole raison d'être was being torn from them, now that their husbands had started doing the washing up. Penrose was all too willing to dirty these women's dishes and lift not a finger toward the sink, and ere long, illicit passions flared up over the soiled teacups. There ensued a couple of rather scary encounters when inflamed and whiskey-besotted husbands with dishpan hands came around to deal with him at three o'clock in the morning. Mrs. Penrose did not like being awakened at three o'clock in the morning, nor did she like having to defend the household against another woman's irate husband, Penrose having directed her in each case to please inform the gentleman that he was abroad on assignment, a patently absurd assertion, considering the size of the Ballybunion Blotter. Nevertheless, the first intruder swallowed it and exited blustering, "I'll be waiting for him!" But after the second cuckold sneered, "In a pig's arse he's in Moscow!" then chased Mrs. Penrose around the piano with a pistol and locked her out of her own home, leaving her no recourse but to run to the Garda station in her dressing gown, where the Guards required her to fill in seven forms in triplicate before they would go forth to arrest the armed aggrieved husband, who by then had fallen asleep atop the unspent pistol, Mrs. Penrose took the six little Penroses off to her mother's house in Mullingar and refused to speak to Rupert again.
In defiance of his beliefs, she obtained a legal separation, and he began receiving very chilly letters from her solicitor demanding her weekly check. He did not see the logic of this. If she hated being an appendage of his, then she ought to support herself. As for the children, they were getting child allowance from the state.
Penrose swiftly moved to Dublin to an undisclosed address and, for the sake of his unshakable convictions, spent five years groveling on the bottom rung of the Dublin Sentinel's career ladder, covering funerals of the lesser-known residents of fashionable Dublin 6. Never in all that time did he ask for or receive a byline.
The day came, however, when he could not resist the summons of fame. The Sentinel's chief funerals correspondent had gone to Saudi Arabia on a brief holiday visit to see his daughter, who was a nurse there. He was caught smuggling twenty bottles of Jameson's inside aleaking golf case. He was thrown in jail forever. The Arabian concept of the infinite was altered in a twinkling when two boatloads of healthy Irish bullocks arrived in Dhahran Harbor courtesy of the Irish government. The Sentinel's chief necrophiliac, as he was lovingly known back home, was released to the Irish ambassador.
By then Penrose's reputation had been made, for he had outdone the chief correspondent in slavish veneration of the famous newly dead. The editors decided to try giving him his own column. It was a success, but two weeks after he started it, his wife's solicitor sent him a court order stipulating that four-fifths of his weekly paycheck should go to her. At this point, he relented and began sending her the money.
He lived close to penury in the bed-sit in Rathgar, not because he liked the neighborhood's trendy shops and bistros but rather because he thought it afforded him as much anonymity as a newspaper columnist could achieve anywhere in Dublin. In truth, every merchant and landlady up and down the street knew who he was and took note of his comings and goings as well as the ages of the ladies who often came and went with him, and they did not fail to record mentally which ones emerged flushed and sparkle-eyed and which ones did not. But being merchants and landladies of urbane sophistication, they never let slip in front of one of his lady friends a reference to another.
He knew that his private life did not match the elevated moral tone of his column, but he had long since reconciled himself to contradictions inherent in a nature like his own. He was helped in his complacency by the knowledge that many men of genius seemed to have had, like himself, an unusual ability to empathize with unfulfilled women. He was soothed also in his conscience by the awareness that his columns were often read from the pulpits on Sunday mornings, and he had discovered a very tolerant confessor in the little church of St. Barnabas around the corner from his flat. On duty every Friday evening, this man had helped him achieve a sort of moral equilibrium that allowed him to sin and be sorry as often as he liked.
Aside from the weekly annoyance of having to write a check for three hundred pounds to a woman who would not talk to him, there was only one other real sorrow in Penrose's life. His last book, his magnumopus, Where We Went Wrong, had been cruelly panned by Dublin's chief man of letters, Dennis Davitt McDermott. A self-confessed patriotism hater who never should have been allowed near a book built upon the premise that both Egyptian and Greek civilizations were founded by Celts and were once Gaelic-speaking, McDermott had written Penrose the world's worst review.
Dennis McDermott was, unfortunately, brilliant. He had great intellectual stature in Dublin notwithstanding his scandalous past. He was a spoiled priest who had left his first parish in Tanzania without permission, taking with him the sixteen-year-old daughter of the British consul. He had married her and brought her to Ireland to live, but somehow people still thought of them as living in sin. McDermott's critics liked to advert to his marriage when attacking his ideas, but they were divided as to whether the source of the wrongheadedness was the English wife or the desertion of the priesthood, although he also came under suspicion for having taught at Brandeis University and for giving the odd lecture at Oxford. He wrote as though he expected to be read beyond Ireland, with a tinge of disloyalty to his race. He was keenly respected by Dublin literati and popular also with Dublin's better hostesses, for McDermott could be counted upon to create a stimulating evening.
Penrose well knew that a stimulating evening was more valued than all the gold of the Indies in his tiny island nation, and he prided himself on his own social talents, which, if not schooled in foreign universities, nicely made up for that deficiency with his fund of accumulated newspaper gossip. But for weeks after McDermott's review appeared, Penrose had received no dinner invitations at all, the worst sort of disgrace a famous man could suffer in Dublin.
When he did get invited again, his friends treated him as though he had just recovered from a terrible illness. They were sickeningly solicitous. They studied his face for signs of unusual strain.
But only his enemies mentioned the book. They would wait until the inevitable visiting foreigner began gushing about Irish history.
"Rupert's just written a book on the subject," one of them would slyly announce.
"Oh, really? What's it called?" would come the thrilled response.
"Where We Went Wrong," some unfeeling fellow guest would reveal.
"What an intriguing name for a history book," the foreigner would remark, seeming to sense odd undercurrents. "How's it doing?"
No Irishman expected Penrose to answer this question. It was how he didn't answer it that interested his enemies. He would always forge ahead with a capsule history of Ireland, keeping his eyes on the tablecloth so as not to see how alertly his fellow Dubliners were poised to hear the quaver of defeat in his voice. It was a horrible ordeal. He knew now beyond a shadow of a doubt that all of Dublin, when they saw him coming, recalled the title of McDermott's review, "Godhead Meets Dunderhead."
Briefly he considered leaving Dublin, but in his heart of hearts he knew there was no escape. The Irish kept track of their celebrities, just as though they were family. And wasn't he the first to say that was the charm of the place? Hadn't he written that Irish people put no distance between themselves and the great ones, that politics in Ireland was a very intimate affair? Hadn't he also written that the beauty of Irish society was its small size, that Ireland could still be looked at and grasped as a whole by one human brain?-Dunderhead he would be from now on over every inch of his beloved Emerald Isle.
Any normal man would have wanted to murder Dennis Davitt McDermott, but Penrose was a man of letters. He wanted a revenge more humiliating than murder. He knew that Dennis McDermott's fondest wish was to be appointed to the Kerrygold Chair of Irish Literature at the City University of Dublin. Penrose was passionately determined that Dennis McDermott should not get his wish.
But thwarting the cruel critic would be no easy matter. The word was that McDermott stood a very good chance of getting the appointment. The university trustees were eager to show that CUD was no longer an exclusively Catholic university, and McDermott was now sufficiently irreligious to bolster the new image of the university as a place where great minds of any sort were welcome. McDermott was also highly regarded as a literary scholar in the United States. He had written the seminal textbook on Irish literature, the abridged version of which was already required reading for all first-year CUD students.
As a sort of holding action against McDermott, Penrose had put hisown name forward for the Kerrygold Chair. He had succeeded in getting onto the short list of candidates, although he had no real hope of being chosen. His strategy was to scare the trustees into thinking that he had a major constituency, however, in order to make it appear that the appointment of McDermott would cause offense among them. He hoped thus also to create the impression that McDermott commanded his own constituency, the small but influential group whose members had run the last government but one. They might loosely be described as liberals, although they were not liberal on every issue. Penrose himself described them in his column not very accurately as "the godless" and much more accurately as "the ultra self-regarders." This last label was of course a sour echo of the ones which critics were always sticking on Penrose and his fans, "the ultra-Catholics," and "the ultra-Irish."
The CUD trustees were nervous of constituencies altogether, and Penrose had been writing them letters from phantom supporters of both McDermott and himself to further the illusion that they each represented a "side" rather than a middle. The appointment had generated woefully little real public excitement to date, but Penrose was not discouraged. It would take so little controversy to overwhelm the trustees with political dread, he did think he might succeed in blocking McDermott in the end, for, given the slightest bit more show of pressure from each side, the trustees should be persuaded to at least consider a bland compromise candidate who commanded no constituency whatsoever.
But who was bland enough to fit the bill?
Penrose had been pondering this question when Attracta arrived, and now, truth to tell, as they lay paralyzed together under the duvet with the sorrowful figure of Mary gazing down at them, Penrose could not help turning his mind again to the quest for an ideally inoffensive candidate to fill the Kerrygold Chair. It was difficult to find a qualified man in Dublin academic life who was well and truly bland. The brilliant men always seemed to veer off into dangerous political extremes or they were drunkards or were not on speaking terms with the other experts in their field, or else they were simply adulterous to a degree that would put them outside blandness forever.
Thus far, Penrose had only come up with two names, and he fearedeven these might not be inoffensive enough. The first, Ulick Brown, whose vast published work, An Irish Post-Structuralist's Reading of the Oxford English Dictionary, no one had read, at least sounded promisingly dull. But if his name were put into play, the trustees would be forced to read his book, and so would Penrose. He did not know whether he could bear it. The fact that Brown had focused on an English dictionary might scare the trustees right at the outset. And no one Penrose knew had ever met Brown. He was said to be a photographer and a chess champion, both of which suggested difficult opinions.
Penrose thought his second choice, Michael Groarke, was a safer bet. Groarke was actually a historian, but he wrote a quite passable column on Irish letters in The Countrywoman magazine, and his Ph. D. thesis from Galway City University was rather famous. Groarke seemed physically excellent for Penrose's plan. He had the kind of face you know you've seen somewhere before, perhaps behind a post-office window, perhaps just before you underwent anesthesia, a reassuring, forgettable face. He was a sweet man. Penrose knew him slightly. Groarke never disagreed with anyone. But of course the title of his thesis, "Irish Milking Through the Ages," would not be regarded in some circles as suitable for a professor of literature. Penrose wondered whether Groarke might be persuaded to change it.
Pleased with this idea, Penrose took a deep breath and stretched his limbs in anticipation of victory. He smelled perfume.
"What's that smell?" he said to Attracta. "Do you smell something?"
"White Shoulders," said Attracta. "It's my favorite scent."
"How odd," he said. "You didn't seem to be wearing it before."
"I'm not," said Attracta. "It's her."
Penrose shivered involuntarily. What if the presence were to speak? He was beginning to feel a distinct urge to get out of there. He groped behind Attracta's back for his watch.
"Get away with you, Rupert!" Attracta whispered sharply.
"I wonder, love, whether you might fetch my watch," he said quietly.
"Wherever from? I'm not moving while she's looking. That's for certain."
"It's just right next to you there on the floor."
Attracta reached out for it without a word.
"Oh, my God! I hadn't realized it, Attracta. You must dress yourself right away. I've a bishop coming here in five minutes' time."
She did not respond.
"Attracta, did you hear me?"
"Rupert, there's never been any perfumes in any holy visions, has there?"
"Attracta, I'm telling you, you must get dressed! Bishop Augustine Meany, who is top assistant to the Papal Nuncio, will be here in five minutes, no, four minutes!"
"You never said anything before about him coming. What if I'd decided to spend the night with you?"
"You told me you had to leave early to meet a friend, don't you remember?"
"I did. But it wasn't true."
"Please get dressed, Attracta, this instant!"
"Why don't you, if you're so close to the Papal Nuncio. I don't see you moving."
He reluctantly heaved his naked form out from under the duvet. Keeping his back to the Virgin, he swiftly dressed himself. He thought he detected a flash of critical appraisal in Attracta's eyes. She was nearly thirty years younger.
"It's just that I can't figure how she would have got White Shoulders back there in Palestine. Unless they had that scent, I mean, Rupert."
Should he try locking Attracta into the cupboard? She might protest rather too forcefully. The cupboard latch was none too strong. How to explain a naked girl tumbling forth from his meager wardrobe. How to explain her in the bed. Bishop Meany would never buy a story about a young cousin stricken with the flu, not a cousin as strikingly beautiful as Attracta with her color up. Bishop Meany had already seen two or three of Penrose's lovelier students fully clad. He was not a pious idiot.
Oh, Virgin Mother, Penrose silently addressed the apparition, why did you not think of coming to my office?
Bishop Meany could have him ousted from the paper. He was indeed a very powerful cleric. Penrose had invited him to tea because the good bishop had lines in to various organizations that were known to influence the trustees of CUD. The bishop had accepted the invitation withpleasure, saying he had been interested to hear Penrose's name in connection with a possible university post recently.
"Attracta, you simply must get up!" he commanded.
"Well, get dressed under the duvet, then," he said, and he gathered up her clothes and handed them to her.
She squinted at the apparition again, wasting precious seconds.
Three loud knocks sounded on the door. Attracta looked at Penrose with large frightened eyes.
"Bishop Meany," he whispered, making a sign of a slit throat.
Now he saw pure terror. Up she got, naked as the day she was born. Scooping her clothes from the floor, she tiptoed toward the wardrobe and, utterly of her own volition, stepped inside it and pulled the door shut on herself.
Copyright © 1993 by Mary Breasted