Marie was given the news in a long letter from my mother who advised her not to rush back, and indeed to stay away longer than planned. For once she listened to advice and even, uncharacteristically, expressed herself shocked. Ordinarily one would have expected her to have declared that she had suspected something, but on this occasion she made no such claims. All she said was that Palitha had been amongst those who had urged her to go abroad when she did, and that this should have made her suspect something. At the time however, she had to admit, she had thought he was only concerned for her welfare.
It was my father surprisingly who claimed some sort of foreknowledge. ‘I never liked that fellow,’ he insisted. ‘You could tell he thought himself a cut above his station in life. I could never understand why Marie tolerated him. Normally she’s so particular. But this chap got away with murder. Why, one day I saw him on that bench in her cage, sitting down and talking to her while she was standing up. I had half a mind to stop the car and lace the beggar two slaps. But then I thought that she couldn’t afford to lose him so it was better not to interfere. I wish now that I had.’
It had not occurred to my father to think further of the matter. And perhaps there was no reason for me to do so either. But I had read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and one of the things that had stuck in my memory was the passage in which Isobel Archer saw her husband sit while Mme. Merle stood up and talked to him. James had endowed the scene with tremendous significance, for that was what had opened Isobel’s eyes to the fact that the other woman was her own husband’s mistress.
In the case of Marie such speculation was absurd. But the incident seemed to me, given how conscious she otherwise was of the proprieties, to indicate that there was some other power Palitha exercised over her. It could have arisen through fear or nervousness or whatever, in the face of an energy she could not fathom. Or perhaps, I found myself thinking, it was a power that sprang from her early devotion to Fr. Jude, and the strange fellowship Catholics shared through their membership of what they claimed was the one true and universal church.
After Marie got back, I asked her whether she had really never suspected anything.
‘Never.’ she said firmly. ‘Normally I can sense these things but that boy took me in completely. He was so well-mannered. I’m sure that he was influenced by someone else who was much sharper than he was. He had worked in the canteen at one of the universities, he told me. I’m sure that that’s where he was influenced.’
‘The police think that he was a ringleader.’
‘I know. I wanted to get his mother back here, but she has disappeared as well. The parish priest says the forces took her away too. Apparently they think that she helped him. She must have done I suppose, only I’m sure she had no idea what he was up to. She was a very simple soul.’
‘Not at all like him.’
‘If you had asked me earlier, I would have said that he was simple too. But you know what happens when these young people get together.’ She paused. ‘I suppose I should be thankful that I was away. I wondered at the time why he was so concerned about my trip, but I thought he was just being considerate. He seemed so interested too in all the people that I was going to visit.’
Perhaps that was all. Perhaps it was simply that Marie had needed to talk, and the floods of anecdotes and remembrances that we were all too busy to listen to had found a sympathetic ear; and also a subtle mind that was able to suggest things to someone who for so many years had felt essentially alone. Perhaps that was the way Fr. Jude had worked too, if indeed he had been involved, which need not have been the case at all. There were still many who said that his own work had been quite independent, and he had simply been unfortunate in that it had also been made use of by the JVP. In that case the same would have been true of his relations with Palitha, and there too he had only been used, to establish contact with someone whose mindset was as alien from that of the JVP as anyone could ever imagine.
That was not something about which we would ever know the truth. Nor would we know, finally, whether Marie herself had for once glimpsed a cause greater than anything that could be conceived by the little circle in which she habitually moved. When I thought about it seriously, it seemed unlikely that such feelings could have affected her, and stirred her to action. Yet there are moments nevertheless when I am haunted by the image of Palitha sitting, liveried, in his little cage; while Marie stands outside, waiting to be invited to a feast.