I step into the church adjoined to the school, carefully dipping my fingertips into the font at the doorway, imagining the nod of approval from Jesus. I bless myself. Careful to not scuff my feet, I edge closer through the bronze archway, aiming to go towards the back pews. They are empty.
Head down. Head down. Look up.
No one has noticed me yet. I see my teachers up at the front of the congregation, kneeled closely to the altar, their necks tilted upwards in admiration to Father. He is blessing the chalice. The altar bell chimes. We all bow our heads in prayer. I hear whispers from the pews close to the middle aisle. Little juniors, scuffling in their seats, pulling on each other’s pigtails.
The back of Sisters hand skims over the napes of their necks, commanding stillness. I catch a tear trickle down the smallest one’s cheek.
We are not allowed to make noise outside of prayer. It is forbidden to glance at each other unless it is a command from Father. We are only allowed to touch when offering each other the sign of peace. We must not engage outside of this, for it is what Sister would call “reckless behaviour”.
My thoughts are interrupted when the alter girls move down through the aisle for the offertory. I fumble in my breast pocket for a pound to give. The basket is thrust back and forth through each pew. I gingerly reach forward, tossing it in.
The pale, pearly fingernails, gripped on the wicker handle, graze over my hand. I look up.
Gentle brown eyes bore into mine. Ones I have seen before.
I met her in the girl’s bathrooms a few Sundays ago. It was dark and cold. We stood shivering in the showers. I reached past her for my towel. I couldn’t help but peek at her figure, much more mature and developed than mine.
She saw my eyes travel down past her chest, pausing at her belly.
She realised what I had seen.
Panic. She leapt at me, hand pressed over my mouth, stifling my gasps.
“You must not say. You must not speak a word. They will condemn me for this. They will send me away.”
Her pleading eyes are still here now. She only looks a little plump, stood here in her white gown. Her red cincture is knotted tightly over her soft belly. At breakfast this morning, Sister commented that she was eating too much bread.
She turns away. Her head hangs shamefully.
The overwhelming smell of incense suddenly sears through my nostrils, catching in my throat, releasing a cough. Heads whip around from their rigid shoulders, one by one, until a whole congregation of beady eyes are upon me. I remember my place again and bow my head.
Melissa Grindon studies Writing at Liverpool John Moores University.
This piece is a runner-up in the Oxford Scientist’s Creative Competition for Trinity Term 2020, theme ‘viral’. The judging panel consisted of the senior editorial team at the time of the competition.