Isobel swears that once, when she was younger, she saw a fireball. One afternoon, locked out of the house during a rainstorm, she saw the sky crack open and a pink ball streak past. Despite Isobel’s vivid memory of the event, the fireball has, over the years, become another word for a lie. Mrs. Callaghan refuses to believe Isobel and endlessly questions her about the veracity of the fireball story.
Whether or not Isobel truly saw the fireball, she firmly believes that she did. Even though the story is a little outlandish, it seems that Mrs. Callaghan’s distrust and dislike of her daughter causes her to instantaneously write Isobel off as a liar, regardless of the circumstances.
Isobel concedes that she is indeed a liar—she often feels that a lie is often “the only contribution she [can] make.” Isobel knows she is cowardly, dishonest, and greedy, but she still tries to “protect” those around her from this knowledge. Despite her track record as a liar, Isobel continues to insist that the fireball existed.
Isobel’s claim to have seen the fireball is strengthened by the admission that she does often lie, but this isn’t one of those times.
One day, at Isobel’s school, she forgets her composition book. One of the nuns tells Isobel she is “not surprised,” as Isobel forgets a lot of things, most noticeably her school money every couple of weeks. Isobel has not been keeping track of her school money, but she is unsurprised by the nun’s accusation. At home, she notes, there is a “wild beast of poverty.” That afternoon, when Isobel relates the nun’s statement to her mother, Mrs. Callaghan lets out a brief whimper before asking Isobel to elaborate on the nun’s tone of voice, and whether anyone overheard the conversation. Isobel tries to answer her mother, but her mother tells her that she doesn’t ever know what she’s talking about. Isobel has been making an “earnest effort” to tell the truth, but in light of her mother’s dismissal of her, she accepts herself as a “born liar.”
This passage is intentionally written to bewilder the reader just as Isobel is bewildered by the nun’s accusations that she has somehow been lying or cheating her school. Mrs. Callaghan is obsessed with knowing exactly what transpired at school. Clearly, Mrs. Callaghan is worried about how the nun perceives her. However, Mrs. Callaghan ultimately uses the attempt to wring information from her daughter as yet another opportunity to degrade and humiliate Isobel.
Isobel believes that she has a “lying sort of voice,” and cannot make herself sound trustworthy even when she is telling the truth. As Isobel obsesses over whether she properly relayed the nun’s words to her mother, second-guessing herself and every aspect of the story, she notes that her mental preoccupation is “useless and fatiguing” but good for passing the time. When it is time for bed, Isobel is grateful for the chance to snuggle into bed and slip “behind the curtain of the dark into her private world,” in which she tells herself elaborate bedtime stories.
Isobel has an overactive imagination that is constantly at work. This is problematic because it forces her to fall down holes of self-deprecation and anxiety, but it is also beneficial because each night it grants her the reprieve of disappearing into a world of her own and escaping the trauma of her daily life.
Isobel gets caught up in her latest story but abruptly stops it when she suddenly realizes that her private world is “all lies.” Nevertheless, she does not want to give her stories up—there is “no living” without them. The “lies” of Isobel’s stories are not ordinary, common lies like the ones Isobel tells when she’s stolen chocolate or kept her mission money. The people she thinks up have become as monumental to her as the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus and are thus “false idols.” Isobel realizes that “her people” have taken the place of Mary and Jesus, and wonders whether she will be “doomed […] to eternal hellfire,” or whether things are not so simple.
Isobel fears that the dream-world or story-world that brings her so much comfort is really just another one of her lies. In this passage, she tries to distinguish between the lies that are “common” and have turned her into a liar, and these “lies” she tells herself that nourish her. The atmosphere of degradation in Isobel’s house, however, is so pervasive that she cannot stop coming up with reasons that her imagination is in some way evil or immoral.
Isobel cannot get back to the story in her head after so much deep, tumultuous thought, so instead she lies awake in the dark, hating her mother. She thinks of all the times her mother has asked, “Do you love me?” and begged Isobel to tell her that she does. Isobel wonders why, if she is “such a born liar,” her mother wants to hear these things from her. Isobel slowly drifts off to sleep.
Even though Mrs. Callaghan hates her daughter and abuses her constantly, she still longs to hear that Isobel loves her. This foreshadows Isobel’s later understanding that her mother looks to Isobel and Margaret to find satisfaction—whether that means successfully roping them into a screaming match or forcing them to declare their love for her.
The next day, Isobel is not sent back to school, and after a few days, she is transferred to a convent in the next suburb over. Isobel enjoys her new school and even comes to appreciate the long and slightly obstacle-laced walk there and back each day. That Sunday after Mass, the parish priest takes Mrs. Callaghan aside for a talk—afterward, Mrs. Callaghan is “blushing with satisfied pride,” and the next day, Isobel goes back to the local convent. Nothing much has changed, except that Isobel now thinks of herself as a “knowing sinner.”
In this passage Witting introduces the theme of the seen and unseen—it is not seen or known what happens between the priest and Mrs. Callaghan, but whatever it is, it works to Isobel’s benefit. Perhaps the two of them have struck a deal, or perhaps he has taken pity on the Callaghans for not being able to afford school fees.
One day, Isobel, Margaret, and Mrs. Callaghan dress in their best clothes and head to the bus to visit some well-to-do cousins. Margaret wonders aloud on the way to the bus what became of a gold chain bracelet she had once. Mrs. Callaghan reminds her that Isobel put it on and went for a walk and lost it. Isobel wants to scream “in her lying voice” that she didn’t, but knows better than to break the silence. Isobel remembers how a while ago, when one of her mother’s friends asked Mrs. Callaghan whatever become of her diamond, her mother answered, “My solicitor,” and made a “strange, shamefaced smile.” Isobel feels that whoever the solicitor is, he has the bracelet as well. Isobel does not believe for a second that she is responsible for the bracelet’s loss. Isobel breathes quietly, knowing for sure that she once saw a fireball.
This passage demonstrates to the reader that it is not Isobel who is a born liar—it is her mother. Mrs. Callaghan has either been selling off jewelry or making some other deal with her “solicitor,” and blaming Isobel when precious things disappear. This realization strengthens Isobel’s belief in her fireball sighting and restores in her the confidence that she is not as bad as her mother has been telling her she is.