They don’t go to the church with the steeple and the organ chamber any more. At the Free Church there are no stained glass disciples, fonts or baptisteries and no robed choirboys for her to envy. The hall of the Free Church is shaped like a shoebox and open to interpretation. When it’s empty, if not for the thin cross, mounted on the wall at the front, it might not be a place of worship at all. Here, the spirit of praise and prayer is invoked, not by architecture but with slideshows of good works in faraway places and hill songs accompanied by guitars. Gone then is the oaken grandeur of All Saints, where she could tune out soporific sermons, dream and be safely invisible. Now she sits alert waiting to be pounced upon.
Here, in the Free Church, they call her by her name. To them, she is not invisible. Here they don’t feel the need to ignore brown people – on the contrary they single them out for special attention. They ply her with soft drinks and bible tracts, and offer to take her to camp. They cast her in the church plays. They have given her the part of Mary Magdalene, because she speaks so well and this is a special honour because today they will perform in front of a visiting preacher. He’s visiting from America, which up to this point in her life is somewhere that only exists on TV. It’s a big occasion.
Mrs Turpin rushes them through breakfast ‘to get there on time and get seats at the front’. In the rush runny egg yolk spills on her white T-shirt. The T-shirt has a thick neckband and a hole cut out over her throat and until this moment it has been her favourite T-shirt. Now dead centre between the faint mounds of her budding breasts, it has an egg-yellow stain. Mrs Turpin rushes her to the car, chiding as she goes
“Stop fussing. It’ll dry out. Who’s going to notice?”
“Me” is what she doesn’t say but she does notice it, all through the opening hymns and the prayers and for each long minute that she waits to be called up to perform. She practices hiding the stain behind her hands and then with one arm slung casually across her chest. The poses aren’t casual but awkward, backache inducing failures. The stain refuses to be cowed and thrives, swelling and deepening before her eyes. By the time the start of the children’s contribution is announced to the assembled church it is not a dribble of yolk, but the sign of the beast that she can feel splashed in sunset yellow across her chest.
She takes the stage, along with her fellow Sunday schoolers to enthusiastic applause. The part has been easy to learn. Mary Magdalene is despised, shunned by all and then accepted and saved by Jesus. She’s unclear on the reasons for the shunning except that Mary, like all of them was a sinner. The Sunday school teachers have been uncharacteristically vague in their telling of Mary’s story and silent on the specifics of her sins, apparently so dark and dirty that they are unspeakable.
Bradley Reedham opens with his only line, thrusting his arm out in from of her
“Move away woman! A great healer approaches!”
She takes a practiced step back and recites word perfect lines,
“What grace! What light! My eyes have never beheld such a man”
The other children, posing as the crowd, move ahead. They push her back until she is almost out of sight before parting again, as Lenny Bell, who is playing Jesus, spots her and beckons her to approach. The precise choreography is the result of weeks of practice and it takes her by surprise, as she moves through the human corridor of her peers when an unscripted awkwardness pushes out from inside. It clings to her, gathering weight with each step and she feels herself sweating in a T-shirt that’s suddenly too tight and too imperfectly white. As she hits the front of the stage and comes face to face with Jesus, instead of the scripted kneeling she falters, caught in the glare of the gaze from the front row. Jesus speaks, waits and is then forced to repeat himself
“Woman, what is your name?”
Dragging her gaze away from the audience and down to the varnished pine of the stage she manages to recover enough to speak
“Mary” she says “of Magdalene”
The scene continues, Mary and Jesus centre stage, he reaching out a hand to touch her and her pulling away in shame
“I am not clean Lord,” she says, her voice shaking
A flicker of a frown appears on Jesus’ face
“What ails you?” he says
“Sickness my Lord” she replies, her voice dipping again.
With each line the source of her own voice seems to ebb further away
“What kind of sickness?” demands Jesus, raising the volume of his own voice to compensate for the quietness of hers,
“The sickness of sinners Lord” she mumbles, “with devils hounding me day and night”
Her final words, the ones that she was told to ‘bounce off of the furthest walls of the church’, are less than a whisper
“Praise his holy name, I am free”
There’s a moment of confusion in which no one is sure that Mary has actually spoken and Jesus has to decide whether or not to continue with his lines.
“Weep no more,” he says, eventually.
As Jesus turns his back to the audience to cast out Mary’s demons with seven arcs of his right arm, he shoots dirty looks in her direction. She is engulfed in a wave of embarrassment and relief as the play ends and the children are drowned in applause.
Back in her seat she’s still burning with shame when the guest preacher rocks up to draw all the attention. A toothy wide mouthed man with a precision haircut he has a solid frame packaged in a crisp beige suit and garnished with a bow tie. He sweeps down the aisle that has been formed between the rows of chairs and bounces up to the lectern with a charge that seems to emanate directly from his high polished winkle pickers. Everything about him says pay attention. He holds a sturdy finger up between him and the hushed congregation,
“Already ye are clean,” he says, “because of the word which I have spoken unto you”
She feels the vibration of his voice deep in her chest.
The preacher continues, conducting his voice like a full orchestra as he weaves a symphony in and out of the gospel and through people’s everyday lives. He takes the congregation with him as he navigates the movements. When he drops to a whisper they lean in to hear and when he raises the volume, shoulders pulls back to attention. A hundred eyes follow the dance of his arms as they point down to hell, up to heaven and then out at them, personalising the message to each and every person present. As he reaches the climax, his hand strikes the lectern, evoking drums and the crash of cymbals
“Are you ready?” he asks, “Ready to be cleansed?”
Several members of the congregation say ‘yes’ but he acts as though he hasn’t heard and cranks up the volume again
“Are you ready to let HIM into your life?” the sturdy finger, crooked now, raps on an invisible door, “Ready to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?”
This time several members of the congregation rise to their feet and the assent is more substantial, bolstered with applause and isolated break outs of joyful whooping, or perhaps weeping – it’s hard for her to tell without turning around. The commotion persists, even as the preacher himself, pursued by handshakes and back pats, returns to his seat. The person with the job of reading the notices has to linger at the front for what feels like forever before it’s quiet enough for him to be heard. Fortunately today’s notices are short. The brownie guides will be holding a jumble sale next Saturday afternoon to raise money for African children. Any person who would like to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus please join with others to receive the preacher’s blessings in the side room. Refreshments will be served from the kitchen at the back of the church. She sits for a few crucial minutes, torn between good deeds, orange squash and salvation.
The room at the side of the church is dim and smells of polish. She is the last one to arrive and eases herself inside with her back to the wall so as not to disturb the circle of people, already deep in silent prayer, eyes closed, hands outstretched. Slipping into a gap and aping their stance, she wonders what it is that they are praying for. Since she can’t ask she makes her own prayers. She prays for African children to have food and for there to be no more earthquakes and for the Holy Spirit to come down and speak to her. There are things she needs explained. Why doesn’t Mrs Turpin like her? Why can’t her t-shirt stay white? Why can’t her skin? What is this stain that clings to her wherever she goes? How will she know when like Mary, she has been forgiven? When will Jesus wash her clean? What kind of sinner is she?
Mrs Turpin is pacing the stretch of pavement next to the car, arms folded, bull bars across her stomach
“Where the hell have you been?”
“I’ve been looking all over for you! You must have been somewhere!”
She shakes her head and shrugs, picks at her t-shirt. Her mouth is parched, empty of words.
“I’ve been worried sick,” says Mrs Turpin, “Worried sick!”
Neither of them says any more as they get in the car and drive home. In the back seat she keeps her face to the window, watching but not seeing familiar streets, praying that the Holy Spirit knows where they live.