Mary is on her way to the new sandwich shop on Saint Michael’s Road, quietly obsessing on the relative merits of coronation chicken versus tuna mayo, when she spots Graham lolloping down the street towards her. At least it looks like him, she can’t be certain at this distance, but who else still wears his thinning grey hair hanging loose to his shoulders? He doesn’t seem to have noticed her, probably plugged into his MP3 player and off in a time-warp with the Rolling Stones, but she isn’t going to hang around to check. She has a moment’s grace to backtrack and take refuge in the churchyard.
Once there, however, she feels lost. Foolish. There’s nowhere to hide among the flattened gravestones and, if Graham should catch her skulking there, it would be all too obvious she’s trying to avoid him. Without stopping to think, she darts up the path to the porch and rattles the door handle.
Amazingly, the church is unlocked. Hard to imagine what kind of service would be going on at a quarter to one on a weekday, but the fact that there is anything is almost enough to restore her faith in God.
Mary creeps inside. It smells of damp and incense, with a parsimonious chill to the air. Three ranks of wooden pews are lined up to face a trio of altars flanked by stone statues stemming from a more elemental age. The gloom is kept at bay by little more than a bank of candles alongside the minor altar on the right, and the borrowed light from the outside world that, filtered through the stained-glass windows, casts watercolour shadows on the flagstone floor. Hugging her coat around her, Mary inches forward.
The meagre congregation kneels a few rows back from the candle-lit altar: a trinity of women with white hair frothed up like meringue. No sign of an officiating priest. Perhaps the women are waiting for the service to begin. Mary slips into a pew in the middle section half a dozen rows further back, to watch, and wait with them.
She doesn’t kneel. The wooden bench looks uncomfortable enough. Her stomach rumbles and she promises it she’ll only stay a moment. Just long enough to see what happens. Just long enough to ensure Graham is safely out of the way.
A door creaks. Her gaze follows the sound to a wood-panelled cubicle jutting out from the right-hand wall below a stained-glass image of a half-naked saint shot through with arrows. A woman in a green quilted jacket steps out and hobbles towards the pews in the middle section. One of the meringue-haired women gets up to replace her in the cubicle.
Mary smiles. The women aren’t waiting for someone to come and lead the prayers from the altar. Each has come for her own private service: the holy sacrament of confession. An old woman and a priest with only a shrouded partition between them. She confiding her transgressions, he granting absolution. Mary could appreciate the attraction.
But, oh, the agony of waiting. Mary remembers it well. The shuffling along the queue of kneelers, rehearsing over and over the sins she would parade before the priest when her turn came. The awful list of a whole month’s misdemeanours clogging her mouth with a sour taste of guilt. The searing shame of giving them voice, even if only to gentle Father Harrison who was the type to crack a joke midway through his Sunday sermons in commiseration for the children who struggled to sit still for so long. The fear that this time even he would decree her offences too serious, would slide back the grille between them and announce that God could not forgive. The dread too awful even to share with the best friend who knelt beside her.
The quilted-jacket woman produces a chain of crimson beads from her pocket and kneels down a couple of rows in front of Mary. Her right hand zooms from her forehead to her chest to her left shoulder to her right and then down again. She palpates a bead between finger and thumb as her lips shape the words of her prayers.
The rosary. Mary spools back through forty years of godlessness in an attempt to recall its strange mathematics. Ten Hail Marys topped and tailed with an Our Father and a Glory Be to make a Decade. Five Decades to make a Mystery. One Mystery to a set of beads. She can’t say how many Mysteries for a full-blown rosary. She’d never got that far.
She watches now as the woman fingers her sacred beads. She imagines going and kneeling beside her, tapping her on the shoulder and whispering What did you get?
Kneeling side-by-side, their sun-blonde hair covered with black lace mantillas, Mary would nudge Bernadette. “What did you get?”
Bernadette always finished first. Just the one Our Father and a couple of Glory Bes for her. In comparison, Mary felt the weight of her punishment. From behind the veiled partition, Father Harrison boomed, “And for your penance, say four Hail Marys.” Always the same: four Hail Marys. HailMaryfullofgrace theLordiswiththee blessedartthouamongwomen andblessedisthefruitofthywombJesus. HolyMaryMotherofGod prayforussinners nowandatthehourofourdeath Amen. Even rattling them off like a tongue twister, it seemed to take an eternity.
The quilted-jacket woman continues to work through her beads. So many trespasses to atone for. Yet the woman looks so innocent in her cosy jacket, her tweed kilt and her sensible brown shoes. So ordinary.
The four Hail Marys used to bother her. She wondered if it were because more was expected of a Mary. She was called after the mother of God, a girl or woman could go no higher, whereas Bernadette was only a saint. But how, when he couldn’t see her face, did the priest know she was Mary?
She wondered if it were because her misdeeds were so much more heinous than her friend’s. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four weeks since my last confession and these are my sins. I have been quarrelling, telling lies, disobedient ...”
Four decades on, Mary shivers. This litany of wrongdoing, unchanging from one month to the next; how was it that they never questioned what it was all for?
“So what?” said Bernie, when she told her what she had done. “Everybody slips off the rails once in a while. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
The quilted-jacket woman makes the sign of the cross and returns the beads to her pocket. She struggles arthritically to her feet.
Once a month on a Saturday afternoon, she and Bernadette made their confessions. Each month Mary fretted that Father Harrison would tell her that God could not pardon her. So there was a wonderful sense of release when it was over, of stepping out into the sunshine with her soul scrubbed clean. To go forth and swap her pocket money for Sherbet Lemons and Pineapple Chunks to guzzle on the swings. To have a few blessed hours without the stain of quarrelling, telling lies and disobedience blotting out the light of God’s love.
The quilted-jacket woman moves into the aisle. She genuflects, crosses herself again and turns. Despite the wrinkles, her face has a beatific glow. She limps past Mary’s pew towards the exit.
Mary stares at the space the woman has vacated: the wooden pew, the padded kneeler, the scattered hymnbooks. The emptiness. She imagines the woman coming back, taking her arm and leading her across to join the queue of repentant sinners below where Saint Sebastian’s torment is glorified in stained glass. The quilted-jacket woman would kneel with her, offering encouraging platitudes to see her through the wait. She would promise her redemption if only she could bring herself to confess.
The ache of her buttocks on the hard seat brings her back to reality. How could she tell the priest what she has done? The only words she has for the confessional are those of a child. Her slipping off the rails with Graham, as Bernie put it, requires an adult vocabulary. The seventh commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Wedged between Thou shalt not kill and Thou shalt not steal, hers is far too serious an infringement to shrug off with four Hail Marys.
“An eye for an eye,” said Bernie. “You were only playing Nick at his own game.”
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” said Mary. Her husband’s cavalier approach to his marriage vows is no excuse for her own behaviour. It gives her little comfort that Nick is in no position to judge her; nor can he provide her with the absolution she craves. Nor have these priests -- with their rituals serving as an alibi for all kinds of dubious behaviour -- the power to assuage her guilt. There is nothing to be gained from throwing herself on the mercy of a man. And yet she needs something. Her sin is growing cancerous inside her.
One of the meringue-heads emerges from the cubicle and lumbers towards the little altar on the right. Beside the bank of burning candles she drops some coins through a slot in the wall. She takes a fresh candle from a wooden box and, with a shaking hand, lights the wick from one of the flames. She places her candle at the front of the metal rack and drops to her knees before the altar.
Despite what Bernie might think, Mary has sinned. She made a promise to Nick and she broke it. Yet no man has the right to convict her, no man the authority to set her free. No God, either.
She is tired of having to dodge Graham at lunchtimes. She is going to have to confront him, tell him it was once and never again. But she can hardly bear to look at him. The thought of his Casino Royale duvet cover and the leaky tube of haemorrhoid ointment on his bathroom shelf fills her with disgust.
If she were going to break the seventh commandment, why couldn’t she have done so with someone she actually fancied? It was so wasteful, so unnecessary, like defaulting on a diet with sugar-saturated chocolate-flavour confectionery when she might have had the seventy-percent-cocoa-solids real thing. A miniscule pleasure for a mountain of regret.
Mary falls to her knees. She’s thinking of the four Hail Marys. She’s thinking how a child never thought to ask what the words might mean.
No man can condemn her, no man exonerate. No God, either.
She bends forward, rests her forehead on her clasped hands as she used to forty years ago. She has done wrong, but it is time to move on. Time to find a way of relating to Graham as just another work colleague. Time to have a heart-to-heart with Nick about whether there’s a future they can share.
She raises her head, squares up to the altars, the stone statues, the stained glass. “Hail Mary,” she says to herself. She does not need a priest to prescribe her means of atonement.
“Hail Mary,” she whispers, feeling calmer already.
There is no God, but there is Mary. “Hail Mary,” she says aloud. In the quiet of the church, her voice sounds brash. Brazen. Beautiful.
No man can. No God. Only she. Alone. Accuse, acquit, move on. “Hail Mary,” she shouts, godless in the echoey church.
The meringue-heads turn round. They seem surprised to see Mary kneeling there but they soon recover, and bestow on her their holiest smiles.
Anne Goodwin writes fiction for the freedom to contradict and continually reinvent herself. She has published almost 60 short stories online and in print which can be accessed via her website, annethology. She pontificates about reading, writing and psychology on her blog, Annecdotal, where her real life and fictional sides coincide. As a break from juggling her own words, she is an avid reader, gardener and barely-competent soprano in a mixed-voice choir. Her ambition, of course, is to publish a novel. She can be contacted via her website or on Twitter at @Annecdotist.