Everyone except Patrick attended the funeral. Although Mary had not seen the inside of a church for years, the pews of St Thomas’s overflowed with neighbours, colleagues and women with whom she’d gone to school. Patrick’s father was there, too, skulking at the back, flanked by his remaining children.

Why? Why – the question on everyone’s lips. A woman in the prime of her life. A beautiful woman, as if the fact of beauty made it all the more tragic. In the days leading up to the funeral the neighbours, even the few who had liked Mary, had twittered under their collective breath about snobbishness, pride coming before a fall. With her nose always in the air, always thought she was better than us. And now look – look how she’s ended up.

Even at the funeral, while dabbing their eyes, these whispers spread like an ill wind, words gouging a festering wound. Grace heard them on the crest of the wind, heard them as they danced in dust devils, in front of her, around her. She heard the whispers subside as she came into sight and watched them fall dead at her feet. And although her mouth remained shut, she wanted to shout at them to shut up and leave her mother alone. Grace sat in the front row with Ouma, Mary’s mother, as they wheeled the casket in, draped in a white shawl symbolising Mary’s  baptism  and  rebirth  in  Christ.

Yes,  thought  Grace, perhaps she will be reborn in Christ. She hoped so, but had doubts  about  Mary’s  suitability  for  heaven.  But  then  a  sick feeling washed over her as she pictured her mother in hell.

Mary had not been to church in years, a mortal sin for Catholics, and had regularly cursed God. But she had had every reason to do so, thought Grace. Perhaps God would strike a bargain with her and allow Mary into heaven because of the raw deal He had given her, and the way He had allowed her to die. Perhaps the shock and pain and betrayal she’d felt in her last moments were enough punishment for her own  sins,  and maybe He was allowing her now to rest in peace. If not, Grace reasoned, perhaps her purer soul could be traded for her mother’s hopelessly stained one.

Right there in the church she made a pact with God that from this point on, she’d live a spotless life in exchange for Mary’s redemption. Grace would take on her mother’s sin and go to hell in her place, when the time came. If Jesus had washed away the sin of mankind, maybe Grace’s blood would be enough of a price for Mary.

Ouma held Grace up, bracing her. Ashamed, the mother of the murdered woman didn’t know where to turn her eyes, swollen red with grief. The neighbours must be whispering– oh, what they must be saying! Ouma knew some of the difficulties her daughter had faced in life, but even in her death, she could not come to terms with them. Haughty, prideful … and now look how she ended up. She must have done something for a man to go berserk like that. The shame, the shame of it all.

The priest waited to greet the swaddled coffin at the altar while swinging a thurible, filling the small church with wafts of myrrh. The incense pressed down on Grace like an invisible hand in the centre of her chest, setting the room off into a dizzying spin. As the casket came to rest at the altar, a low moan swept up from the back of the church. As it broke over the rest of the congregation, it went into full-throated sobbing.

Grace turned and found the source of the wailing. Rowena, her face planted into Tim’s shoulder, sobbed and heaved. Johnny was still not home. Johnny. His face was just a blur now to Grace who, despite her best attempts, could not summon it.

She had completely forgotten about him until this moment. Now the image of him escaped into irretrievable memory, a place she used to visit in another, distant life.

And her mother was gone, into the same void as Johnny, to a place with no co-ordinates that no amount of love or no unbearable longing could bridge. What was Mary doing? Was she cold? Was she happy? Would Grace ever see her again? Was Johnny there too? Where was Patrick? It all became too much for her. She closed her eyes and willed herself to move to the top of the room against the church ceiling and fly beyond.

When she opened her eyes again the giant incense hand still constricted her throat. The priest was going on about how he had married them, how Mary had been a good Christian woman then but had moved away soon after. But it was not for them, mere humans, to judge. That was God’s work. For no one could know the state of Mary’s heart, nor her relationship with God. Perhaps in her final moments she had repented and found peace. Grace knew this not to be so. No one had asked her about those moments, despite the knowledge that she had been witness to them – no one wanted to know what she had seen. Those images were hers to carry, hers alone. We all have our crosses to bear.

Friends of Mary’s, people Grace had never seen before, stood up and told stories of a kind girl with a golden heart, someone who always stood up for those weaker than herself. They talked about a girl who loved animals and painting and beauty.

To Grace this woman only vaguely resembled Mary. She tried to imagine her mother as a girl her age. She had never thought of Mary before as a child who had harboured dreams, who had wanted to be something in the world, not just somebody’s wife or someone’s mother.

The thought loosened her. Grace started to cry, first softly, then in huge, heaving sobs. Something took possession of herbody as she shook andwailed. The incense hand dropped and her body broke free. She cried and cried and cried – for the young girl Mary, for the woman she had become, and for what had happened in between.

She cried for Johnny, for Patrick. She cried for herself, alone and forsaken by every single star in her personal cosmos. Others joined in the wailing. The chorus grew in strength and built up to a majestic, weeping crescendo that rolled until it was truly spent and all that was left in the stuffy, smoky church were a few muted moans. In the silence that followed, the priest prayed for Grace. He asked God to look after her, to bless her and keep her always on the right path. The congregation affirmed him with a roof-raising Amen, but Grace did not hear it.


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