They sit in rows. The boys with their legs crossed; the girls with their legs to the side. Because that’s how ladies sit, Mrs McCarthy had said. Wiry carpet fibres puncture Marie’s tights and she scratches at the prickles. There’s a thin grey fur all over the black nylon and Marie longs to wet her hands, to wipe them down her legs and make the fabric very black again.
Mrs O’Connor and Mrs McCarthy push-pull the TV into the room, edging the tin stand past splayed fingers. A rubber wheel whines softly, and Marie thinks it sounds like a please, please, please, but it doesn’t cut through the crisp packet rustle of the others. One of the teachers flicks the lights and Marie sees girls around her scooching together, already cupping their hands as they lean into curtains of hair.
The sandstone arch of the church ends catwalks from all directions, and families pause to wave at the videographer before they go inside. The twins arrive first; identical chestnut hair bouncing in identical silky ringlets below the hems of their veils. Then Grace, Hannah and Lauren, in short dresses. Marie’s ma said she had to get a long dress because bare knees weren’t appropriate for Our Lord. And she definitely wasn’t buying Marie fancy lace gloves either, for Chrissakes.
Aisling O’Flanagan appears, bony shoulders jutting ruffled angles everywhere. There’s a spike in the whispers. The twins dip their heads, shoulders shaking, and hissed words ebb and flow. Marie looks at Mrs O’Connor but she’s whispering at Mrs McCarthy, who’s filing her nails. Aisling’s looking down at her nails too.
Beaming, Aisling’s Mum elbows her daughter’s shoulder and points at the camera. The videographer zooms in and the girl’s face briefly droops wide across the screen. Aisling lowers her eyes and turns away. She follows a group of boys inside; carbon copies in white shirts and cable-knits, regal red knotted at their throats.
Marie sees herself arrive; sees the oblong bodice with the alter boy ruff, the frilly ankle socks and the ivory patent shoes. The skirt is flat; triangular, and too short for a long dress. Marie thinks about the other girls. How full they look with their skirts like upturned tulips or layers of rose petals; textures of white tulle bound with wide satin bows. She closes her eyes and bows her head. Let us pray.
When she looks up, Melissa’s cloudy curls fill the screen, sprays of tiny white buds twisted through the green halo on her head. The teachers nudge each other and look at real Melissa, then TV Melissa, and back to real Melissa again who straightens her back with a toss of her hair. Mrs McCarthy clutches a hand to her chest. Marie thinks, as if she’s trying to stop her heart from escaping.
At home, Marie holds down a button on the remote until the part where she gets up to read from the bible. She bows at the alter and approaches the lectern, hands joined the way they told her to.
The sound quality of the video is awful, but Marie’s voice is clear and even as she projects her words towards the back of the church. Marie thinks how easy it was, just to get up there and do exactly as they asked. To speak slowly, enunciate, and look up to say This is the Word of the Lord. She waits for the congregation to say Thanks be to God, and sits back down. She knows she does it well, flawlessly in fact, and she watches it again and again, pleased that she didn’t trip on Corinthians; relieved that she was able to be perfect at this one thing.
Because the others aren’t, she thinks. James mumbles and Amy talks too quickly; Mark doesn’t look up when he’s done. Marie thinks, you didn’t practice. You didn’t practice as hard as I did, and she feels puzzled because she remembers Mark’s parents, wrapping him in their arms outside the church, telling him that they were proud, so proud. Even though he got it wrong.
Pride is a sin, she remembers, and hits the stop button. But she thinks about the veil and the way that it shimmered as she bowed her head, the way it hid her face and made her feel as special as a bride.
Marie watches her ma, as her ma watches the screen. Thick fists of Marlboro smoke hang between them and there’s a quiet crackle as the woman draws, as she sucks her cheeks hollow and squints through the fug. Marie can’t take her eyes off the growing ash sagging on the tip; she can’t stop worrying about it because it’s going to fall on the carpet. Her eyes nip as sour tobacco creeps into her nostrils but she can’t look away.
The woman suddenly slices a loose crucifix through the smoke with her arm and lifts the remote. She winds the tape back and plays the reading again, dragging on the cigarette as she watches. Eventually she stubs it out in the ashtray, exhaling sharply.
“That bloody veil,” she says, getting up from her chair. She shakes her head. “That bloody headband, slipping down over your fringe the whole day.”
The ejected tape burns hot in Marie’s hands. She dips her head as the heat rises to her face.