‘O magnum mysterium. Oh great mystery.’
Mrs Davies paused for effect.
‘God came to earth and was born of a virgin.’
There were titters from Emily and Madison. Stacey glanced over to where they sat at the back of the class and gave them a quick, secret, smile. They weren’t her friends, but they amused her. In another life, where she wasn’t square, she imagined they could get along. It did not occur to her for a second that she could approach them in this one. She was invisible. She turned back to her notes, AKA doodling. Like a virgin, she hummed under her breath, touched for the very FIRST time. Like a viiiiiiirgin … She mentally recorded Mrs Davies and played her on a loop over Madonna’s backing track. At the end of each phrase, Mrs Davies moved stiffly back and forth – reverse, forward, reverse, forward. O magnum o mag mag mag magnum. It passed the time.
Stacey was acutely aware of the passing of time. This was her 15th Christmas and her life was as beige and average as a prototype. No, not a prototype, because that would at least look like something. She was a basic model, waiting to be customised. Everyone she knew seemed to have developed into someone; bright and loud and bursting with originality. She was just … alive. She intuited that she lacked some crucial ingredient required to progress to adulthood. She had no interests, no features, no soulmate, and no style. There was something wrong with her. For sure. After school that day, she walked past the LGBTQI+ crowd on her way to the bus stop and envied them in all their uniform diversity. She would feel too conspicuous in bright pink Converse and rainbow socks, and public displays of affection, or indeed any emotion, made her blush. She kept her head down, which meant that she didn’t see the girl with dark hair running to catch her. At the sound of pounding feet, she swerved and they nearly collided.
She was panting, bent over with her hands on her thighs.
‘Mary! Is that you?’
Her heart gave a little flutter, like a sparrow in a bird bath.
‘It’s me. I’m back. It’s a Christmas Miracle.’
‘What do you mean you’re back? For good?’
‘No. Not for life, just for Christmas. Staying with my Nan. Coming to carols?’
Stacey had had no intention of coming to carols, but everything changed when Mary was back. In primary school she had been known as Mary’s little lamb. No wonder she’d not managed to grow up.
‘Sure. See you there?’
‘Yup. Meet you at the gate at quarter to. Can’t wait to catch up. Ciao!’
And just like that, she was gone again, and Stacey’s mood settled like dust. Back to beige. She shouldn’t even go, really.
The carol service was held in the cathedral. Other schools used their sports ovals or gyms, but those were the sorts of events where people brought picnics and kids ran around the margins holding overcooked sausages from a P&F BBQ. At those sorts of events, children performed corny Christmas songs out of tune and Santa visited on a truck. It was understood that those sorts of events did not happen at Stacey’s school.
She spent longer than usual getting ready and still arrived early. Quarter to came and went. So did ten to, and five to. Stacey, usually invisible, felt the eyes of the world upon her. Perhaps Mary was inside. She checked her phone but was too shy to text. As the choir lined up to process in, she panicked and ducked quickly through the door, immediately swept along in front of a family and seated in a corner before she had time to look around. It didn’t matter. As she sat, straining to look over her shoulder, her phone gave a ping and a picture flashed up on Mary’s Instagram. She was at the beach, backlit by golden evening light, squeezed between Emily and Madison.
‘Catching up with my besties. Love you guys’, read the caption. Posted just now. She wasn’t coming.
Stacey deflated, sinking down into her seat, surrendering to gravity, too numb to do anything else. There was something wrong with her and she knew it. Everyone knew it. Even her childhood friend. She couldn’t bear the humiliation. She stopped thinking at all. She would stay there forever.
Outside, the evening sky deepened and the first stars began to show silver against the blue. Moths fluttered and late night birds flew home to roost. Inside the church, candlelight flickered warm on the stone walls and bright against brass and gold. Carols were sung. The congregation shuffled and sighed, turned pages, sat and stood and sat again. They settled around Stacey as she hunched, immobile as a rock in a stream. And then for one long moment, without even knowing that it happened, they all took a breath in together and breathed out again at the same time. And into that moment, by some magic, came the sound of a single pure note, straight into the chaos of Stacey’s hurting heart. It caught her attention as cleanly as a bell on a silent afternoon. She looked up, transfixed.
‘Oh’, the choir sang, dropping the note for a full moment and then picking it up again unharmed. ‘Oh magnum mysterium’ Oh great mystery.
The music entered Stacey’s body not so much through her ears as through her skin. As more voices joined, it swelled and grew inside her like tears, or joy, or breath. She was floating, she was sinking, she was water and music and air itself. She was enfolded in warmth. She was an instrument, a molecule, a spark. She was perfect. She was made for this. The song drew to a close, and Stacey sat there in the silence; a mystery, a wonder, a single pure note. Her whole life was ahead of her. She was going to be fine.