She came to me in June. I was wrestling with my newspaper: gusts of wind swept the park and punched at it with invisible fists. Apple blossoms blew in flurries like snow; the sun beat down on my head. Around me, children flew kites, chattered, pleaded for ice-cream. Then she came to me.
"Excuse me?" said a voice. I looked up, saw her milk white face beneath summer bonnet, her full, slightly parted lips, and reminded myself to breathe. "May I sit here?"
"Of course," I said, moving my newspaper from the space beside me. She smiled a thank you, and sat, her back straight and legs crossed, looking into the distance. The breeze teased the hem of her floral dress and fluttered the red ringlets that fell from beneath her hat. I returned to the paper, but my reading was self-conscious.
"Isn't it a lovely day?" she said, her voice cut-glass and cold.
"Indeed," I said, dry in the mouth. "Beautiful."
"I do so love the summer." She brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. "Don't you?"
"My favourite season," I said. "Life slows down in the summer. People stop rushing around like lunatics, the way they do when night draws in early. People take their time."
"Exactly," she said. "Each day a gift from the Lord." A pause. "I'm Mary. It's nice to meet you."
"I'm George." I took her cold, fragile hand. The hairs on my arm stood to attention. "How do you do?"
I'd made a point of avoiding careless conversation; bad luck and fickle friends do that to you. But as Mary and I moved through the pleasant to the personal, my hand still alive with her touch, I found myself telling her everything.
"Divorced," I said, turning my palms to the heavens in a 'what can you do?' gesture. "It was for the best."
"Yes," she said. "I understand."
"Are you married?" I said.
"Goodness, no." She laughed girlishly. "One day, perhaps. God willing."
"God willing," I said, and held back the laugh.
"Are you religious?" she said, her voice a little higher.
"I'm not _unreligious_," I said, truthfully, trying to articulate my position; part of me refusing to believe all this came about without some supernatural architect holding it together, and part of me bitter with life's dark, cold drudgery.
"I know what you mean," she said when I finished. "Our Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform."
"Mysterious is right," I said, and choked on a laugh.
She checked her watch, silver strap tight around her wrist. "I have to go," she said. Heat prickled my face; I felt ashamed, fearful I'd offended her. I opened my mouth to apologise, but she spoke first.
"Meet me here again?" she said, her eyes wider as though frightened I'd say no. "Same time tomorrow?"
"I'd love to," I said, surprised and delighted.
Slowly, she stood and walked away, bag draped over her shoulder. I watched her walk the concrete path lined by empty benches. Petals danced across the park like confetti. Somewhere in the sun-drenched distance, I heard the chime of church bells.
The next day was airless and baking; dressed in white shirt, cream trousers, I waited on the bench. Around me, young pale bodies peeled away clothes and sprawled on the grass to worship the sun. I'd awoken that morning to find my cotton sheets kicked to one side in a tangle of sweat. In my sleep, I'd dreamed of Mary.
And it was Mary I saw, her hand raised in greeting, her other hand clutching a book. In thick-rimmed sunglasses and headscarf, she could have been a golden-age film star. Perhaps she was. I realised I knew nothing about her. I wanted to know everything.
"I'm glad to see you, George," She spoke my name and blood warmed my cheeks. "I was hoping you'd be here."
"My pleasure," I said, watching her sit down and smoothe the lines from her dress. "Lovely day, isn't it?"
"Beautiful." She smiled like a child. "All things bright and beautiful," she said, her voice faraway, and laughed without joy.
"Yes," I said, unsure why I was agreeing, unable to look away. I wondered whether, behind black lenses, her eyes were focused on me.
"I was thinking," she said, "about our conversation. I brought you something." She passed me the book, the cover damp from where her hand had grasped it. It was a King James Bible.
"That's very kind of you," I said. I put my newspaper down and flicked through the yellowed pages out of politeness more than interest. An inscription inside the cover. 'To M., with love, Father.' Thick fountain pen. An absence of kisses.
"George?" she said. "May I ask you a question?"
"Of course," I was aware my own palms were damp.
"Could we maybe go out one evening?"
"Yes," I said, too quickly. "Please. When?" I was ready to throw the few plans I had onto the fire to see her again.
"I was thinking of Thursday night," she said. "I could meet you here, perhaps?"
"Sounds perfect," I said. "Around seven o'clock?"
"Yes," she said. "Yes."
We sat opposite one another at the window table of the restaurant, candles setting her face aglow, shadows dancing in the corners like ghosts. She ate gracefully, and sipped from a glass of water. We talked of my work for a while, the National Gallery commission that would see me more than comfortable. I was aware of dominating the conversation, and there was so much I didn't know about her.
"Do you work?" I said, refilling my wineglass.
"I raise money," she said. "For the church."
"Oh," I said. Every time I looked at her, I found something new to captivate me. Tonight it was the burst of freckles around her collarbone, part covered by her silver crucifix.
"My father," she said. "He's the parish vicar."
"A family business," I said and smiled. "You live with him, then?"
"Yes," she said. "In the old vicarage, near the park."
"That's a beautiful house," I said. Grey bricked, with tall bay windows, set back from the road in a garden of reds and ambers — I'd often stopped on my way to the gallery and thought of setting my easel on their lawn to sketch it.
I walked her home through the empty park, the sky a rich, dark blue, faraway street lights sparkling. At the gate to the vicarage, Mary let me kiss her just once. "Goodnight, George," she said. "I've had a lovely evening."
"Me too," I said. Giddy with wine and lust, I tried to pull her to me and kiss her again but she turned away, her cold hand on my chest.
"I'm sorry," I said, chastened and foolish.
"What are you doing on Sunday?" she said.
"Working," I said. "Sunday's wonderful for working. The quiet inspires me."
"Come to church," she said. "Please, George. I want you to meet my family."
"I don't know," I said, suddenly uncomfortable. I'd barely glanced at the Bible she'd given me. "Why don't we go out again soon?"
"Thursday," she said. "Next Thursday."
"Not any other night?" I said.
"No," she said. "I'm busy except for Thursdays."
"I don't want to wait a week to see you," I said, already aware I'd said too much.
"Then come to church," she said, smiling. "Then you won't have to. And you can meet my sisters, and Father, of course."
I listened to her walk across gravel to the house. The branches of the trees on the front lawn bowed, black silhouettes against windows bright with lamplight. She stopped at the doorway, illuminated by a soft glow, and looked back toward me before slipping inside. I stood at the gate for a while breathing the summer air.
The crowded church was small, hot and airless. Sunlight poured in, illuminating stained glass, the brilliant blues and greens of Saint Peter. I stood, cotton shirt stuck to my back, with five other well-dressed, perspiring men in the second row. The congregation was male and middle-aged, except for two old ladies in heavy coats, hats like cakes balanced on their grey heads. And across the aisle, on the front pew, Mary sat with her four sisters.
She turned her head toward me and smiled when I first arrived, but that was all the attention I received. Her hair was pinned high on her head; during the seemingly endless sermon, I allowed my attention to focus on the curve of her neck and her bare shoulder. I longed for the service to end so we could speak.
"Please rise for hymn three hundred and three," the bald vicar said, his face red and sweat-beaded. "Jerusalem." There was a rustle of pages and a clatter of feet as thirty people stood as one. One of Mary's sisters slipped her fingers across the keys of the church organ. The singing, more enthusiastic than melodic, climbed to the eaves of the small church.
We filed out silently into sunshine. By the ancient wooden door, two of Mary's sisters smiled and gestured at the collection plate piled high with coins and notes. I emptied my trouser pocket of loose change, and they nodded me their thank you.
She smiled at me from the graveyard's mossy tombstones. One of my neighbours from the service was talking to her. His suit jacket was overlarge, drowning his narrow shoulders. Mary nodded, smiled and nodded at him. As I crossed the carpet of grass and moss, he walked away, looking at the ground.
"I'm glad you came," she said.
I smiled. "So am I."
"Did you enjoy the service?" she said. "It gets hot in there this time of year. I meant to warn you."
"Yes," I said. "You look beautiful." Beautiful in her long cotton dress. Her sisters were beautiful creatures too, slender waists, elegant shoulders. She accepted the compliment with a smile.
"I didn't realise church was still so busy," I said.
"They come for forgiveness," she said. Then, in that faraway voice, "her many sins have been forgiven - for she loved much. But he who loves little has been forgiven little."
"I see," I said, not seeing, and aware of the crowd watching us from the church door.
"My sisters," she said, looking over. "I'll introduce you."
Amidst the male entourage, I shook the hand of each of her sisters, each of them tall, fair skinned and classically beautiful. "How do you do," they said with prim smiles and the hint of a curtsey.
"Do you want to see me this week?" Mary said afterwards as we stood in the shadow of the bell tower.
"Of course," I said, desperate to grab her, to force my mouth onto hers.
"Thursday evening," she said. "Are you free?"
"I was hoping it could be sooner," I said.
She shook her head. "I'm busy except for Thursdays," she said.
"Until Thursday," I said and moved forward to kiss her. She turned away, leaving me stood amongst stone gargoyles as she moved on to talk to another of her father's wool-suited flock. It was when she walked away from me that I wanted her most.
Our dinner finished, I held the door for her and nodded farewell to the dark-haired waiter. Outside on the deserted pavement she let me kiss her once, but this time I kept my hands upon her, wanting her to sense my desire.
She checked her watch. "Take me home," she said. We didn't touch or look or speak during the taxi ride. Through the front door, over the threshold, and she pulled me toward the bedroom and unbuttoned her dress.
She stood there, not refusing me, not accepting me, as I ran my hands across her cold skin. Her lips were parted, but I was kissing and she was being kissed. My breathing was hard and impatient and she was silent and passionless, her arms motionless at her sides. Her face, pale as milk in the moonlight.
I took my hands from her waist and stepped away. "Is everything alright?" I said.
She said nothing, her eyes said nothing, and she stepped toward me in unspoken sacrifice.
She made no sound save for a sharp breath as I pushed my way inside her and she stared, her eyes like glass, into my own as, above her, I grunted and cursed and I clawed and grasped and I quickened and then I cried out. The moon gleamed from her crucifix and, but for her breathing, she could have been dead.
"I'm sorry," I said, spent and breathless, scared of what I had done.
"It's alright," she said with a whisper, cold hand on my shoulder. "You'll be forgiven."
"Mary," I said, naked and shamed. "I—"
"No," she said. Quickly, she began to dress. I watched her. I wanted to ask her so many things, about her and me and us; yet, I was too afraid to say a word.
"Can I see you?" I said, finally.
She turned her head to me from the door. "Sunday, George. At church."
She was there, talking with the bald, bespectacled vicar, his black gown as wide as it was long. She beckoned me over with a wave of her gloved hand and a joyless smile.
"Father," she said, "this is George. I see him on Thursdays."
"George," he said, his fat hand clammy around my own. "Always glad to welcome a new member to the fold. What brings you to our parish?"
"Your daughter," I said.
"Yes," he said. "Fine women, my daughters. Spreading the good word."
"For He loved us so that He gave his only son," she said in her faraway voice.
"Shall we begin?" he said, checking his watch with a vague joviality. "We mustn't keep Him waiting."
One by one, we filed into the same airless church, and I stood among the same five men and we sang the same hymns and once more I stared all the while at Mary.
And this is how the web was spun, I think, as I watch her fade to a silhouette in the ink of night. I repent every Sunday to a bald, sweating man for the sins of the flesh I commit every Thursday with the woman I need in my sorry, sad life. The church is full, the congregation reverent and shameful, the collection plate swollen with the wages of sin. In this way we humble ourselves; therefore He will not destroy us.
Jesus. Now she's even got me quoting Him.
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