Read by Susan Crothers
Theresa’s mother was quite clear about it. Look at Darwin, she’d said. Look at Karl Marx. Consider that man Rasputin, in Russia. Look at the Greek Socrates: he came to a bad end, sure enough.
Her father had agreed, gravely weighing in from his chair at the writing desk: ‘A man who wears a beard,’ he said, ‘is hiding something.’
Theresa had asked, once, why it was, then, that Jesus had a beard. Her mother had slapped her hard across the face. Jesus did not have a beard! she had screamed. Tell me where in the Bible it says that Jesus had a beard. You little harlot! she’d screamed.
Theresa was only eight years old. She just stood and cried. Though she was only eight she knew enough to know that in Isaiah chapter fifty the Messiah gave his cheeks to his smiters and they plucked off the hair – and she knew enough to say nothing, and to just stand and cry, and so not be slapped again.
Her mother must have told her father what she’d said because later that night, after she and her father had brushed their teeth but before they’d said their prayers, he knelt on one knee and put an arm around her shoulders.
‘Where did you learn that our Lord wore a beard, Theresa?’ he asked. He smelt of the weak black tea he drank with his dinner. ‘You saw it in a picture-book, I suppose?’
Theresa knew that her father wouldn’t hit her.
‘I read it,’ she said, humbly, ‘in the Book of Isaiah.’
‘Ah.’ Her father smiled. ‘This does you great credit, Theresa,’ he said, and squeezed her shoulders. Then with his other hand he half-turned her so that she was facing him. Now he looked grave. He had a beaked nose above a long top lip and a long chin above his clerical collar. ‘But might it not be so, Theresa,’ he asked – and it seemed to Theresa that he was asking in earnest – ‘that a man might wear hair upon his cheeks, enough to be plucked by Romans, and yet have none upon his chin? Might it not be so that a man might wear hairy cheeks and yet wear no beard?’
Theresa looked into her father’s worried eyes. She thought it over. She didn’t want to get it wrong. A man might, she supposed, have hair on his cheeks but not on his chin. She’d seen men like that: the man who delivered the milk wore his whiskers that way.
‘I think,’ she said carefully, ‘that that might be so.’
Her father’s eyes were tearful, and he smiled, and breathed out through his nose.
‘Yes,’ he said, nodding. ‘Yes.’ He patted Theresa’s arm. ‘You are a good girl.’ He lowered himself so that he was kneeling on both knees. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘we can pray with clear consciences.’
That had been ten years before, and now Theresa’s father was dead and Theresa was eighteen. The man who sat on the fence that followed the path that led to the chapel wore a beard: a pointed beard like Walter Raleigh (‘Raleigh was an atheist,’ her mother had said, once – ‘and, even if he wasn’t, he certainly smoked tobacco’). Every Sunday the man would smile and politely say ‘hello’. Theresa would unsmilingly say ‘hello’ in reply, and carry on walking.
If he hadn’t worn a beard Theresa wouldn’t even have said he was a man. Apart from his beard he looked like a boy. Perhaps that was all a man was, Theresa thought: a boy with a beard.
The man on the fence wore his right-parted brown hair long, right down to his shirt-collar. His hands were big and pink. When he smiled, good white teeth flashed amid the dark curls of his beard.
One Sunday, the man, instead of simply saying ‘hello’, said ‘hello – what’s your name?’ – and Theresa did not carry on walking.
Once the organist at the little chapel had struck the wrong organ-key during a hymn and Theresa had forgotten the words. This was like that: a little disruption in the rhythm of her day, and all of a sudden Theresa became forgetful of things she thought she knew by heart.
‘Theresa,’ said Theresa.
‘I’m Michael,’ said the man on the fence.
We both have saint’s names, Theresa thought. I a nun’s and he an angel’s. Whoever heard of an angel that wore a beard? Perhaps beneath the beard he is an angel, she thought. And perhaps beneath his coat he has wings. She smiled at the thought.
‘You have a beautiful smile, Theresa,’ Michael said.
‘I didn’t mean to smile,’ said Theresa.
The doctor wore whiskers as Jesus did (and as did the man who delivered the milk): they sprouted in badger-grey curls from his pale cheeks.
The baby didn’t have any hair at all.
‘A boy,’ the doctor said, towelling his hands as weeping Theresa cradled the child.
‘A bastard’s bastard,’ said Theresa’s mother.
Once Theresa had allowed herself to believe that beneath his beard Michael was an angel. She no longer believed this.
‘You will dispose of it,’ Theresa’s mother said to the doctor.
‘I will take him where he will be cared for,’ the doctor nodded.
In fact Theresa no longer believed in angels at all.
Her principal job at the library was to re-shelve the returned books. Thomas’s principal job was to make tea. She didn’t think that Thomas would have been able to grow a beard even if he had wanted to. Others at the library said that Thomas was a simpleton but Theresa wasn’t sure of that. Once, opening a book, she found between the flyleaf and frontispiece a slip of paper: at the top was written ‘Theresa’, and at the bottom was written ‘Thomas’, and in between was written a poem. Theresa, mistrustful of poetry, had not read it.
On another occasion Thomas had said: ‘Theresa – have you ever seen pictures of Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Theresa?’
Theresa had. In a folio volume in the Art section she’d found a photograph. The sculpture showed Saint Theresa in ecstasy, and an angel standing over her with a golden spear. Theresa had blushed and closed the book with a whumph of dust and mould.
‘I saw a painting of Saint Thomas,’ Thomas said. ‘It had Saint Thomas poking Jesus’s flesh with his finger.’
Theresa hadn’t seen that, but she blushed in any case.
So Thomas knew about poetry and art but all the same all he did was make tea at the library. When he took her hand his hands were still warm from washing out the teacups.
‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Once.’
The next day they went into one of the back rooms. She didn’t even take off her shoes. Thomas built a sort of a chair from a stack of medical textbooks and that was where they did it. Theresa didn’t want there to be another baby so she asked him to stop but afterwards he explained that if he’d stopped he’d have made a mess all over the books.
All the way through she thought about Saint Theresa, and about how Michael had been gentle even if he hadn’t really been an angel.
‘I’ll marry you, if there’s a baby,’ Thomas said, buttoning his flies. When they went back into the library he held the door open for her.
There was a baby, and Thomas married her.
Theresa’s mother went to the wedding and (because Theresa’s father was dead) made a speech at the reception. All she said was that she was ever so grateful to Thomas – more grateful, she said, than she could say. Everyone toasted the couple with sparkling water.
They named the baby after a saint in the end, Saint Oswald, but only because Thomas’s father had been an Oswald. ‘We’re all named for saints, in our family,’ he said.
‘Ours too,’ said Theresa.
In the end, Theresa didn’t believe in very many things. Not in saints and certainly not in angels. She believed that her father had been right, though: a man who wears a beard is hiding something. He’s hiding the fact that he’s really only a boy – and boys, Theresa knew, are brutes. Men are hiding the fact that they are brutes. Even saints, if they were men, and wore beards, were really only boys, and therefore brutes, beneath their beards. Her father had been right.
Theresa and Thomas had five more children. They were all boys, and they were all named for saints.
Saint Theresa by Richard Smyth was read by Susan Crothers at the Liars' League Pride & Prejudice event on Tuesday May 10th, 2011 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Richard Smyth is a freelance writer, researcher, editor and cartoonist. One day he will be a Proper Writer, just you wait, but for now he's happy enough writing for obscure magazines and setting quizzes. He lives in north Leeds, alone but for his parsley plant.