“When did you stop being a nun?” said Lyra.
“I remember it exactly,” Mary said, “even to the time of day. Because I was good at physics, they let me keep up my university career, you see, and I finished my doctorate and I was going to teach. It wasn’t one of those orders where they shut you away from the world. In fact, we didn’t even wear the habit; we just had to dress soberly and wear a crucifix. So I was going into university to teach and do research into particle physics.
“And there was a conference on my subject and they asked me to come and read a paper. The conference was in Lisbon, and I’d never been there before; in fact, I’d never been out of England. The whole business, the plane flight, the hotel, the bright sunlight, the foreign languages all around me, the well-known people who were going to speak, and the thought of my own paper and wondering whether anyone would turn up to listen and whether I’d be too nervous to get the words out… Oh, I was keyed up with excitement, I can’t tell you.
“And I was so innocent, you have to remember that. I’d been such a good little girl, I’d gone to Mass regularly, I’d thought I had a vocation for the spiritual life. I wanted to serve God with all my heart. I wanted to take my whole life and offer it up like this,” she said, holding up her hands together, “and place it in front of Jesus to do as he liked with. And I suppose I was pleased with myself. Too much. I was holy and I was clever. Ha! That lasted until, oh, half past nine on the evening of August the tenth, seven years ago.”
Lyra sat up and hugged her knees, listening closely.
“It was the evening after I’d given my paper,” Mary went on, “and it had gone well, and there’d been some well-known people listening, and I’d dealt with the questions without making a mess of it, and altogether I was full of relief and pleasure… And pride, too, no doubt.
“Anyway, some of my colleagues were going to a restaurant a little way down the coast, and they asked if I’d like to go. Normally I’d have made some excuse, but this time I thought, Well, I’m a grown woman, I’ve presented a paper on an important subject and it was well received and I’m among good friends… And it was so warm, and the talk was about all the things I was most interested in, and we were all in high spirits, so I thought I’d loosen up a bit. I was discovering another side of myself, you know, one that liked the taste of wine and grilled sardines and the feeling of warm air on my skin and the beat of music in the background. I relished it.
“So we sat down to eat in the garden. I was at the end of a long table under a lemon tree, and there was a sort of bower next to me with passionflowers, and my neighbor was talking to the person on the other side, and… Well, sitting opposite was a man I’d seen once or twice around the conference. I didn’t know him to speak to; he was Italian, and he’d done some work that people were talking about, and I thought it would be interesting to hear about it.
“Anyway. He was only a little older than me, and he had soft black hair and beautiful olive-colored skin and dark, dark eyes. His hair kept falling across his forehead and he kept pushing it back like that, slowly…”
She showed them. Will thought she looked as if she remembered it very well.
“He wasn’t handsome,” she went on. “He wasn’t a ladies’ man or a charmer. If he had been, I’d have been shy, I wouldn’t have known how to talk to him. But he was nice and clever and funny and it was the easiest thing in the world to sit there in the lantern light under the lemon tree with the scent of the flowers and the grilled food and the wine, and talk and laugh and feel myself hoping that he thought I was pretty. Sister Mary Malone, flirting! What about my vows? What about dedicating my life to Jesus and all that?
“Well, I don’t know if it was the wine or my own silliness or the warm air or the lemon tree, or whatever…But it gradually seemed to me that I’d made myself believe something that wasn’t true. I’d made myself believe that I was fine and happy and fulfilled on my own without the love of anyone else. Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I’d spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.
“And then someone passed me a bit of some sweet stuff and I suddenly realized I had been to China. So to speak. And I’d forgotten it. It was the taste of the sweet stuff that brought it back, I think it was marzipan. Sweet almond paste,” she explained to Lyra, who was looking confused.
Lyra said, “Ah! Marchpane!” and settled back comfortably to hear what happened next.
“Anyway,” Mary went on. “I remembered the taste, and all at once I was back tasting it for the first time as a young girl.
“I was twelve years old. I was at a party at the house of one of my friends, a birthday party, and there was a disco, that’s where they play music on a kind of recording machine and people dance,” she explained, seeing Lyra’s puzzlement. “Usually girls dance together because the boys are too shy to ask them. But this boy, I didn’t know him, he asked me to dance, and so we had the first dance and then the next, and by that time we were talking… And you know what it is when you like someone, you know it at once; well, I liked him such a lot. And we kept on talking and then there was a birthday cake. And he took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth, I remember trying to smile, and blushing, and feeling so foolish, and I fell in love with him just for that, for the gentle way he touched my lips with the marzipan.”
As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognized the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on:
“And I think it was at that party, or it might have been at another one, that we kissed each other for the first time. It was in a garden, and there was the sound of music from inside, and the quiet and the cool among the trees, and I was aching, all my body was aching for him, and I could tell he felt the same, and we were both almost too shy to move. Almost. But one of us did and then without any interval between, it was like a quantum leap, suddenly, we were kissing each other, and oh, it was more than China, it was paradise.
“We saw each other about half a dozen times, no more. And then his parents moved away and I never saw him again. It was such a sweet time, so short… But there it was. I’d known it. I had been to China.”
It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what she meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all. And inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.
“And at half past nine in the evening at that restaurant table in Portugal,” Mary continued, “someone gave me a piece of marzipan and it all came back. And I thought: am I really going to spend the rest of my life without ever feeling that again? I thought: I want to go to China. It’s full of treasures and strangeness and mystery and joy. I thought, Will anyone be better off if I go straight back to the hotel and say my prayers and confess to the priest and promise never to fall into temptation again? Will anyone be the better for making me miserable?
“And the answer came back, no. No one will. There’s no one to fret, no one to condemn, no one to bless me for being a good girl, no one to punish me for being wicked. Heaven was empty. I didn’t know whether God had died, or whether there never had been a God at all. Either way I felt free and lonely and I didn’t know whether I was happy or unhappy, but something very strange had happened. And all that huge change came about as I had the marzipan in my mouth, before I’d even swallowed it. A taste, a memory, a landslide…
“When I did swallow it and looked at the man across the table, I could tell he knew something had happened. I couldn’t tell him there and then; it was still too strange and private almost for me. But later on we went for a walk along the beach in the dark, and the warm night breeze kept stirring my hair about, and the Atlantic was being very well-behaved, little quiet waves around our feet…
“And I took the crucifix from around my neck and I threw it in the sea. That was it. All over. Gone.
“So that was how I stopped being a nun,” she said.
- Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials (The Amber Spyglass)