by Geraldine McCarthy
Fairy lights adorned the trees in the churchyard. They shone silver and white, like pearls on a thin piece of string. Myself and Mick mounted the steps to the church door, sure-footed, despite the coffee-brandies we’d downed in Murray’s to fortify ourselves against the cold night air. Elderly neighbours murmured ‘Happy Christmas’, while teenagers skulked at a distance from their parents. It was too late for children to be out; bar one little girl, in a pink woollen coat, with rosy cheeks and an inquisitive turn of the head.
My heels clicked on the tiles as I made my way up the centre aisle. I went half-way to the altar, before sliding into a seat. Mick followed, scowling. He was a back-of-the-church man, but made an exception for tonight. I sat on the hard pew and plunged my hands into the pockets of my faux-fur coat. We weren’t weekly Mass-goers, or even monthly ones. I clenched and unclenched my fists, while Mick fidgeted with his handkerchief.
The choir started up ‘Away in a Manger’ and the priest glided onto the altar. We responded to the prayers on auto-pilot, years of childhood conditioning kicking in. The little girl in the pink coat squirmed between her parents three seats ahead of us, playing with a baby doll, giving her a bottle. If she were mine I would have had her tucked up in bed, waiting for Santy.
The priest began the homily and I tried to clear my head of brandy fumes, and disappointments, and unease. He spoke of the Holy Family, of their unity, of the perfect love between them. My mind wandered to the party at Wilson’s afterwards, the hot whiskeys that would be drunk, the jokes that would be told. Myself and Mick could stay there until morning if we wanted. We had no one to rush home to.
We didn’t go to Communion. Mick jigged his right leg, gave a small sigh. At last the choir sang ‘Silent Night’ and we were free to go. As I genuflected at the end of the pew I noticed the small girl run to the crib with her parents, her right arm outstretched, pointing to the baby Jesus. I turned around but Mick was gone for road. A tear ran down my cheek, and I followed in my husband’s wake, as I had done these past twenty years.