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Our Church Bells are Out of Tune

The young woman barely glances at the stark white Fedora as the early sun catches it in the shadows of the church steps.  The man’s crumpled suit might once have been the same colour.   The baby cries again.  She hushes it before hurrying into the dark sanctuary, stopping for a moment to daub herself with holy water.  With a practised movement, she covers her head with her shawl, bobs at the crucifix above the altar and slips into the back pew, grateful for the space and quiet after another sleepless night in the shelter.

Unbuttoning her blouse, she offers her breast to the whimpering infant.  ‘Well, little one, what are we going to do now?’ she says to it. Then more loudly to the crucifix, dimly lit by dying candles, ‘What am I going to do now?’  It ignores her, eyes closed against its own pain.  Her only answer is the soft echo of chanting monks from a distant part of the cloister.

Behind her, a shaft of sunlight pierces the church as the heavy door slides open.  A distorted shadow lengthens in the aisle.  It stops, raises its dark fingers, and removes its hat.

‘Maria!’ it whispers.

She freezes.  How did he know her name?

‘Maria, you’re here.’

But he stumbles past her to a statue of the Virgin at the front of the church.  The man seems smaller now than when he was sprawled on the steps; almost ghost-like, the pale suit hanging loosely from him.  Nervously curling the brim of his hat, he moves toward the statue and seems to be having an animated conversation with it. 

She watches for several minutes then looks again to the crucifix, trying to remember the prayers that will make it answer her.  It remains silent, indifferent. 

Suddenly the man’s voice becomes louder.  He is singing:  a perfect, gravelly tenor counterpoint to the baritone harmony of the monks.  It seems familiar somehow.  He closes his eyes, drops slowly to his knees before the Madonna and raises one hand up to her as his desperate song fills the room. 
A chill goes through her.  The profile is aged and unshaven, but the voice is unmistakable.  Her mother has every one of his records, and a signed poster of him in the same pose on her wall.  It’s Willie Thomas.

She hides her face with her shawl and tries to make herself invisible in the pew.  The baby stops feeding, looks up at her with its huge dark eyes, and begins to gurgle.  She gently rocks it to keep it quiet.

The man finishes singing, lowers his hand, and after a few moments awkwardly gets off his knees, shaking his bowed head in sadness.  He turns to come back up the aisle, now brightly lit by the sun streaming through the open door.  He sways and grabs the altar to steady himself.  He stares straight at her, but his eyes are unfocused, vacant.

'‘Maria?’

When there is no answer he goes out.

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