The church was ugly and the pews were empty save for some old women in the frontmost row. Along the wall the stations of the cross, executed in a perfunctory Victorian Gothic, reflected the light of halogen bulbs. It was early and there wasn’t much traffic on the street outside, so the man waited in silence for the service to begin. Eventually the vestry door opened and the priest and the boys came out with the crucifix in front of them. The priest was Indian. In his white robes he looked very dark, and when he stood before the altar and started to speak it was hard to understand him because his accent was so thick.
‘Eh redding from de Gospel Mark’…’
Glances, blearily exchanged beneath their headscarves, signalled the ladies’ displeasure. Even so they managed to reply on cue, if only because they had been to so many masses, The man watched them and followed as best he could. Being unbaptised and uninitiated, he found it much more difficult to mumble the correct responses, but he had spoken them before, some years ago.
Then the bell rang out and the priest came forward and the old women stuck out their tongues for the host. Standing there beside them, the man saw how white their mouths were, thick with white and a sort of cream-cheese yellow running in dried-out cracks. He saw how deftly the priest placed a wafer on each rotting tongue. Then he stood waiting for the women and the priest to file past and followed them out into the white October streets where the wind was whipping leaves up over the grey walls covered in deep green moss.
‘Thank you father,’ he said.
‘Is good yes? Thank you very much attending do please come again.’
‘Uh, yes. Thank you.’
He walked down the steps and went round the corner, hurrying to escape the old women. The wind caught him full in the face, like the breath of life. He couldn’t remember what the priest had said, nor could he forget the colour of the tongues, and he felt somewhat guilty about eating the wafer. But it was just a piece of bread. He saw a pub and went inside.