Mirry is sweating. Her salmon-pink dress encloses her as if she’s a plastic-wrapped chunk of fish; the straps of her high-heeled sandals are buried in the folds of flesh that conceal her ankles. Stealthily, she shifts her weight from one foot to the other, clinging to the handle of the wheelchair to steady herself. But she is not careful enough. Gus Chaplin turns faded blue eyes towards her, irritation evident in the quivering of his wrinkled mouth.
She shakes her head. She will not leave her spot to lumber three feet to the pew behind them. It is bad enough that she is trapped up front for the ceremony. She hopes that if she remains still, she will be blessed with invisibility for the duration.
“I’m fine,” she says, pitching her voice sharp and low. Let the old boy hear it and shut up.
But he refuses to let go. “Don’t be stupid, girl. If I know anything about Vi, she’ll be late. You should sit down, take a load off your feet.”
Gus Chaplin has many good qualities, but tactfulness is not one of them. This she knows, so she ignores his words and takes refuge behind the mask she has worn for the past three years: dedicated caregiver, hardworking nurse’s aide. Her elderly charges don’t mind what she looks like; in fact, she sometimes thinks they don’t really see her at all. She reaches over, pats his gnarly, paper-thin fingers.
“Don’t worry, Gus. She’ll be here soon enough.”
“It’s not her I’m worried about.” Gus straightens the bowtie at his neck for the third time in ten minutes. “It’s you. You’re red as a beet, girl. Can’t have my wedding ruined by you keeling over at the altar.” He works his mouth for a moment, as if he’s considering summoning an usher to have her removed. “It’s too damn hot in here. We should have waited for September.”
“I’ll be fine.” She stares ahead, examining the daisies and roses that litter the front of the chapel. Above them, framed within a stained-glass window, Jesus gazes down at her, his smile fixed, his halo gleaming in the afternoon light. She averts her gaze. She doesn’t want to feel the eyes of this translucent God upon her, judging her for what she has become—a fat, ugly, middle-aged failure of a woman.
Mirry blinks as the flowers shimmer and dance in the heat. The straps of her bra are cutting into her shoulders, and she’s sweating again; she can feel the beads forming on her upper lip. Dear God, have mercy on me and get that woman down the aisle quick, she prays. And then laughs at herself. How pathetic, praying to a God she no longer believes in.
But as if in answer to her prayer, the first blasts of Mendelssohn’s wedding march boom out with a ferocity that startles her and she turns her head. Violet Poole stands at the far end of the aisle, clinging to the arm of her grandson Michael. She’s a roly-poly blob of a woman, with a pale face and a large mole on the side of her nose. Her head hovers somewhere near the upper button of Michael’s vest, and Mirry gets her first look at the lanky grandson whose grainy college graduation picture adorns the bookshelf in Violet’s room. He is, Violet has told her with pride, in seminary now, learning to be a minister. Mirry expects a pallid pastoral type in glasses and a shabby suit.
But this boy is no pale-skinned, mealy-mouthed cleric. Michael Poole is a self-assured young man whose gray morning suit makes him look simultaneously elegant and tough as steel. His dark hair has been tamed with water and there are deep shadows beneath his eyes. As his gaze sweeps across the chapel, Mirry flushes. He exudes a tough masculinity that unsettles her, makes her wish she could crawl beneath the wheelchair.
She will not look at Violet, dare not look at Michael. Instead she looks at Gus, who will need her help to stand to his feet as he waits for his bride to totter down the aisle. She reaches out a hand in anticipation, but Gus is rising from his chair faster than a jack rabbit. She stares at him, surprised, but it is not his agility that shocks her.
It is the look on his face that takes her breath away.
With hands laced across his chest as if he is trying to still his heart, Gus Chaplin gazes up the aisle at Violet Poole. He is entranced. Tears puddle in the corners of his eyes, threatening to spill down whiskery, age-spotted cheeks. Mirry is stunned. As his bride shuffles down the aisle, Mirry sees Gus’s lips quiver, watches him bite down hard to keep the emotions in check. But he cannot. Tears and smiles make a mess of his face and he snorts aloud, fumbling in his pocket for a dark blue handkerchief. Mirry cannot move.
She struggles for control, fighting off the misery that threatens to choke her. How many times has she begged God to take away her fat, to make her beautiful? To make her loveable? But she doesn’t believe in God, she reminds herself, stifling the sobs. So she concentrates on her feet—ten stubby toes tipped with red and squashed into a pair of fancy sandals—and feels despair sinking like stone to the empty pit of her stomach.
Michael Poole and his grandmother have reached the far side of the wheelchair. The tiny chapel is filled with rustles and coughs as the elderly guests release walkers and canes and settle back into the pews. Gus and Violet join hands, their weathered fingers entwined like teenagers. Violet smiles shyly up at Gus and the minister is a beaming blur of black and white in front of them. From the window above, Jesus watches them with his unblinking eyes. Mirry stares at the ground.
“…gathered together in the Presence of God…” The sonorous voice rebounds off the walls and after a brief inner wrestle, Mirry sneaks a quick look at Michael. His grandmother still clings to his arm, and he covers her hand, absently stroking her fingers with his own. As if he feels her gaze on him, Michael looks up and catches Mirry peeking at him. Heat rushes up her neck and into her face, and she jerks her eyes away. As she does so, he smiles at her, but it’s a meaningless, all-purpose kind of smile. Hot with humiliation, Mirry longs to disappear, but she is glued to the floor by her bulk and her role in this ceremony.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! She tries to concentrate on what the minister is saying.
“… to have and to hold … in sickness and in health … to love and to cherish, till death us do part ...” As the service unfolds and the sun slants lower through the stained-glass window, Mirry feels dizzy and wonders if she is going to faint. But then Gus turns towards her and extends his hand. It is her moment. She reaches into her purse, steps forward and places the ring on his outstretched palm.
The old man smiles, and his hand trembles. The ring glitters in the sunlight, a seal of love to be given and received. Mirry relaxes, relieved. Her part is done. She steps back towards the pew where she can sit down and—
“Oh my—Mirry …”
Gus’s hands are empty, his mouth agape with bewilderment. Mirry turns her head, sees the band of gold skipping across the cold floor towards the foot of the heavy altar table.
Mirry looks up. Violet is wobbling, paler than ever, with both hands now welded to Michael’s arm. Gus is groping for his wheelchair, confusion creasing his face. The minister blinks and clutches his Bible to his breast like a shield.
Then, as one, they look at her. Mirry feels a nauseating surge of disbelief as she realizes she’s the one who’ll have to retrieve the ring. Slowly, she places her purse on the pew, knowing by the burn in her face that everyone is watching her.
As she faces the walk to the table, a sick tide of anger catches her unawares. She wants to grab Gus round his scrawny neck and curse him for his stupidity and clumsiness. It’s all his fault! She glances at Violet, sees her mouth hanging open like a codfish, and thinks she’d like to strangle her, too. What right has she to such happiness, at her age?
It’s not fair!
Mirry storms forward, sandals clacking on the tiles, pink dress rustling round her legs like grass in a hurricane. She reaches the table and peers behind it, but the ring has rolled deep in and she cannot see it. Humiliation swamps her as she lowers herself awkwardly to her knees. This is horrible, horrible. She swipes her hand beneath the table, aware of the eyes watching her, and prays for the touch of cool metal beneath her fingers. But there is nothing.
She will have to go lower to find the ring. Immediately she knows that if she does, the bridal party will be treated to the sight of her rear end swaying to and fro as she gropes beneath the table. And her rear end, swathed in yards of pink chiffon, is not a pretty sight. Waves of shame and rage sweep across her and she wants to run, screaming, from the chapel. But she is trapped, trapped by her fat, her faults and her failings, trapped in a life she hates …
The silence is broken by the tiny rustlings, muffled coughs. People are becoming restless. Mirry hesitates, her face burning.
What does she have to lose, that she hasn’t already lost? God has abandoned her to a life that is meaningless, a future that is empty. Felled by the black weight of hopelessness and despair, she goes down, flat on the floor, prostrated in front of the altar table. The smell of polish is in her nose and the floor is cool beneath her cheek. But she is barely aware of this.
God, just let me find this damn ring.
She wriggles forward, puffing, and sweeps her arm under the table, groping for it. Her fingers brush against something smooth and cold, and in amazement and relief she pulls her arm out, grateful that she’s been so quickly let off the hook.
But she’s not free yet. In her hand is a tiny glass, dust-smeared and stained with the dregs of communion wine.
She wants to scream. She wants to let rip with a string of epithets that will make elderly ears sizzle and force the clerics to adjust their plastic collars. Instead, hot pricking tears finally spill over, blinding her. In despair she turns her gaze upward, and goes back to trying to find the ring with her fingers, trying in vain to stop the humiliating tears. It feels like the end of everything.
High above her on the wall she sees another Jesus. But this Jesus wears neither halo nor translucent smile. This Jesus is gritty and real. He is trapped, nailed to a rough-hewn cross and his face is contorted with agony. Sweat drips from his brow and through her tears, it seems as if he is struggling to free himself.
Do you know how I feel? Mirry screams silently at him as her fingers trawl across the floor. Her body quivers with misery and she can taste the salty tears. Why did you make me like this? I hate you! she tells him…
…and feels something ripping open, because deep inside a voice is telling her it isn’t true. She wants to hate him, wants to blame him for the mess she’s made of everything, but she can’t anymore. Mirry teeters on the edge of the abyss, struggling with the ambivalent emotions that surge through her. She swipes at her eyes with her free hand and blinks, trying to see the sculptured Christ. Words pour from her, a silent hemorrhage of sorrow and longing and need.
I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Please help me. I’ve made such a mess of it all…
She lets go at last. Now she is falling, plunging deep into the echoing void. As she falls, she feels as if she is being drained of everything, scrubbed and wrung out to dry. And she wants to cry again with the sheer, gut-wrenching relief of it.
Mirry’s still-questing fingers close upon a circle of cold metal. She pulls her arm free from beneath the table, sits up and wipes her eyes quickly with the back of her hand. She’s disorientated, as if she’s been flat on the floor for hours.
“Well done. You found it.” Michael Poole squats at her side and offers her his hand. His eyes are dark brown, and crease up at the corners as he smiles at her. “Let me help you.”
He slides an arm around her and lifts her to her feet as if she weighs no more than a kitten. Then he bends, retrieves the little glass from the floor and sets it on the table. She hears the squeak of his shoes, catches the scent of mint on his breath as he offers her his arm for the walk back. Minutes later, Gus and Vi are pronounced man and wife and the wedding ceremony is over. The organist launches into the recessional and Mirry’s moment of humiliation dissipates in a cloud of hubbub and chatter as the guests prepare to leave the chapel. It’s as if nothing happened.
Mirry sits down, blows her nose and wonders what she’s supposed to do next. She glances up, sees Michael enfolding his grandmother in a hug while the minister shakes Gus’s hand. Guests are heading down the aisle, smiles of congratulation on their lips. In a flurry of black and white, the minister turns and sweeps over to her.
“Well done, Mirry dear—thank you so much.” Mirry smiles, shy now, and sees Gus beckoning her over. He takes her hand and his eyes are apologetic.
“What a clumsy old fool you must think me, Mirry.” He reaches up and touches her face. “To put you through that when you’ve been nothing but kindness itself to me. I’m so very sorry.”
“It’s OK.” Mirry hugs him, almost overpowered by the camphorated scent of his moth-balled suit. “It was nothing.”
But she knows it was a lot more than just nothing. As she turns to wheel Gus up the aisle, she becomes aware of a swathe of colored sunlight falling across floor in front of them.
She looks up.
In the window high above them, his halo glowing in the late afternoon light, the stained-glass Jesus is smiling down at her.
Unravelling life one word at a time ...