It was a good day. Sunshine poured through the "St. Dymphna-ministering-to-the-stricken" window, casting multihued lights onto the altar and Carolyn's wedding dress. She leaned in for the kiss and a smattering of applause erupted from the small gathering. As Maude Weatherall began to plunk out the notes to Mendelssohn's Wedding March on the tinny piano, Carolyn's mother was heard to sigh, "Well, thank goodness that's over."
The newly-wedded Mr. and Mrs. Roger Plunt clutched hands tightly, and Carolyn rather defiantly stuck out her seven-months-pregnant belly, striding out of the church under a hail of rice down to the pub where a modest luncheon had been laid on. The dozen or so guests followed, some lingering to gossip out of the family's earshot about how Carolyn had made it to the altar "just under the wire," or "poor Roger, he doesn't even know the baby's not his." Less than five minutes later there was no sign in St. Dymphna's that there had ever been a wedding, last-minute or otherwise, but for the trail of rice in the aisle and a few flower petals that had been trod underfoot.
Father McKenzie stared at the church door and shook his head. Carolyn had wept copiously throughout the service, but he'd seen no sign of love behind the tears. Hardly tears of joy, he thought, not even bothering to chastise himself for uncharitable thoughts. He gave the marriage two years, three perhaps, and after that no doubt the two of them would divorce, with or without Rome's consent. He shook his head again. Had they even listened to his homily? He might as well have been reciting the alphabet.
There was a soft scuttling sound from the rear of the church and he turned in the act of removing his stole to see a figure disentangling itself from the shadows. His heart sped up and he took a panicked breath. "Hello?"
There was a susurration of fabric as a narrow-framed woman in heavy black skirts stepped into the dappled light of the aisle and bent down. The priest's pulse settled, and he watched as her bird-like hands began to pick at the fallen rice. "Leave that, Eleanor. I'll sweep it up later."
But the woman stayed where she was, hands picking at the rice, one grain at a time, pick-pick-pick, like a chicken pecking at corn. She hummed tunelessly as she worked, depositing each grain of rice in her lap, individual white stars against the somber sky of her skirts.
Her profile against the filtered light of the windows was deceptive, bathing the sharp nose and gaunt cheeks in a charitable glow that made the pinched features seem almost aristocratic. The dimness from the altar and the light behind silhouetted her, obscuring the garish rouge with which she painted herself, the too-red lipstick that never conformed to the contours of her lips. By daylight she was a painted parody of womanhood, but in this half-light she achieved an otherworldly grace not unlike the holy saints in the narrow windows above.
A desperate sadness settled over the priest as he considered her. Perhaps once Eleanor Rigby had been a beauty. Now she was a wraith, a ghostly presence haunting the church, and the town that lay beyond the door.
Father McKenzie opened his mouth to speak to her again, but shut it without uttering a word. There was no purpose in engaging her – Eleanor would carry on, picking up the rice grain by grain until she was done. It was the same every time there was a wedding. What she did with it he did not know, but he hoped that God had the kindness to make her feed the birds with it, and not take it home for her own supper. Some things were too terrible to consider. He turned to carry the vestments through his study door, leaving Eleanor Rigby to her strange, meaningless duties.
In the town where Eleanor was born, there lived many men who sailed to sea. The coastal village was fed by favorable breezes in summer and cold winds in winter, but the sea kept them from the extremes felt by the more inland towns. The sea held an allure for many young men, and Eleanor's young man was no exception.
Jimmy had felt the pull of the sea, and had enlisted the Navy as war erupted. He told her of his plans as the two lay entwined under the statue of St. Dymphna in the corner of the church cemetery. In the soft warmth of the early September evening, Eleanor didn't protest the surroundings as she might've done, whispering in her girlish voice that it was sacrilegious and rather unsettling to go petting in a cemetery! Tonight she just wanted to hold onto Jimmy and never let him go. Her mind was turbulent, but words wouldn't come easily on this night of parting.
"I want to tell you, Jimmy," she murmured. "My head is filled with things to say. I—"
"Hush," he said, rolling her over until his broader frame covered hers, running his hands through her hair. "No need to say anything, darlin'. I'm coming back, you know. Save it till then."
And then there was kissing, and mussed clothes, and for the first time and quite possibly out of desperation she said yes, Jimmy, yes you can do it and she let him, though it hurt and made a mess.
When she realized she was late she didn't dare tell her mother, who would've slapped her until her ears bled for doing such an un-Christian act. As for what Father would do – no. No, God forbid Timothy Rigby would ever find out his only daughter was pregnant.
Eleanor's friend worked for the national health. "There's a doctor, you see," Daisy told her, as the two sat in the furthest corner of the pub, "and he can get rid of it for you." Daisy pulled out her wallet. "Let's see – that's one for you, nineteen for me, right?"
"Fine." Eleanor pushed money across the table. She huddled in her seat, one hand self-consciously over her stomach as if all of Charington could tell she was five weeks along. "Are you sure he can – I mean…is it safe?"
"Safe as houses, Ellie." Daisy leaned closer. "Don't tell anyone, but I heard from Emma down the street that Clarice Martin's cousin Celia, you know, the one from Barkside—"
"The pretty one? The one going with—"
"Yah – that slutty blonde seeing Davy Frain – oh, not saying you're a slut or anything, Ellie, these things happen." Daisy reached across the table and patted her hand in way Eleanor had seen actresses do in the movies. "Well, anyway, she went to this Dr. Robert when she needed help, and he fixed it for her. Dr. Robert can fix it for you, too, if you like. I'll set it up."
"Oh, come on, Ellie." Daisy was beginning to sound impatient. "'S not like you can have it."
"No. Of course not."
She made an appointment to see this "Dr. Robert," but the thought lingered that it was a sin, that the priests would know, that everyone would know, and she'd be eternally damned, which was at least as bad as living with a bastard child and having the town point at you and your father beat you within an inch of your life. And wasn't the child a gift from God, the last reminder of Jimmy, who valiantly gave his life in battle, for his fellow sailors and his country as the telegram said, though of course the telegram didn't say the truth, that Jimmy died falling off a pier in a dead drunk and breaking his neck on a piling. No; there was no way she'd kill Jimmy all over again.
There was a place, she knew. Maybe there they'd know what to do.
She was alone, she took a ride, she didn't know what she would find there, but she went to the Sisters of St. Margaret.
Eleanor Rigby. Just one of many, all of them lonely. All the lonely people.
Now that was a topic for a sermon, one he knew about first hand. Sometimes it seemed to Father McKenzie that he'd always been alone, all the thirty years of his life, though truth was he'd always been surrounded by people, from the orphanage he grew up in to the parochial school, to the seminary – dozens, perhaps hundreds of people around him all the time. But still, still he felt the echoing aloneness in every corner of the church, the rectory, the town. The nuns in the orphanage and school had been relatively indifferent to him, not uncaring but not close, not like a mother would be. The priests had been opaque, not inspiring in the least, forcing the priesthood on those with nowhere to go, and really, had he had any other options? As for his fellow students – some were expecting to change the world, some merely hiding from it. Everyone, always, wrapped in his or her own cloak of loneliness.
Oh, yes, he could write a sermon that would address loneliness in the most personal way possible. He should write it for this coming Sunday, and perhaps the indifferent flock might look around and think, let me speak to my neighbor. Let me make a friend. Let me connect with someone. He looked at the page before him, empty but for the words Where do they come from, all the lonely people? A good starting place.
But his hand stilled. It wasn't as if anyone would be coming to Mass Sunday besides a handful of pensioners, and the last thing any of them would want to hear would be a sermon about their own loneliness, or about being forgotten by the world at large. He took a breath and crossed out the words with heavy strokes and an even heavier heart. No – better to talk about charity beginning at home, or when your prize possessions start to wear you down, or the Vatican's good works in Africa, or…
What was the point? No one would hear. No one would care. Father James McKenzie scrubbed a hand over his face. Pointless. All of it. If he'd had a purpose in life, it'd been sucked out of him long, long ago, when even his mother, whoever she was, had walked away and abandoned him.
Eleanor Rigby walked through the town, rice and flower petals commingling in her pockets. She was humming again, this time the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, for our wedding day, Jimmy, for us. The setting sun was still rather warm, and she had the odd sensation that it burned her feet as they touched the ground. Strange, that, and yet exciting. A glow around her, and around the world! It was a sign from God, surely, that it was time. I'm coming, my beloved. Wait for me. Wait.
Eleanor lay in her bed as they took her child, and thought she knew what it was like to be dead, what it was like to be sad. The nuns made her feel like she didn't exist, like she'd never been born. The baby was all – she'd merely been the vessel, and a damaged one at that.
They took the child, her baby boy, and turned her out.
She moved on, because there was no going home after so long, no returning to shame and scorn. She went to London, a place of big buildings and loud noises, of big bands and immense temptation. There was booze, and there were drugs, and often it felt she was in the middle of a dream, floating eternally upstream, neither awake nor asleep. People were running everywhere at such a speed; she couldn't keep up, and so she let herself drift. And there were men, because she was still attractive, and since she had other no skill to make a living, she let them take care of her, for a price. All the attention in the world, and yet a hole at her center, hollow, hollow, lonely.
Each day went by so fast; she turned around, and her youth had passed. Then, and only then, Eleanor came home.
Father McKenzie looked out his window, socks and darning needle in hand, and watched Eleanor Rigby stroll by in the evening twilight. For a moment it seemed she was about to turn up the flagstone path to the rectory, but instead she continued on. The haunted look that usually filled her face was curiously absent. Instead of looking vaguely mental, as if she were about to scream, Eleanor seemed calm, almost serene.
Very curious indeed.
He very nearly stood to open the door, invite her in, but something held him back. It was suppertime after all, and probably Eleanor wouldn't want to come in anyway. And even if she did come in, what had he to offer her but some not very good sherry? It wasn't like he could share a meal with her. Certainly not! He'd barely scraped together some sausages and potatoes, not enough or fancy enough to share. And perhaps she'd take that amiss, being offered alcoholic beverages by a single man young enough to be her son.
No. Best to leave things as they were. He picked up the sock and snapped on the light above his chair and continued darning his sock. Eleanor walked by into the growing shadows.
Eleanor Rigby reached for the drawer in the desk by the window and pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen, and began to write in an awkward hand, To my son. Through the fog of her thoughts she wrestled the words carefully, words like loss and child and James and love and forever. She didn't bother to read it over, but folded it once, twice, and placed it under the jar of rice on her desk. Her hand darted again into the drawer, found her lipstick, the color Jimmy had liked ever so much, She Said Red, the color she'd worn that last night, that had smudged so on his collar. In the small mirror she watched herself circle her lips again and again until to her eyes her glossy lips looked plump and rosy. Rouge followed, scarlet powder for her cheeks, trailing up to her forehead. The blush of youth, it was. Blue shadow slid into the wrinkles of her eyelids, black eyeliner winged up in the corners. There. Done. Carefully she lay the makeup aside, and reached into the drawer one more time.
It was shining, shining, calling to her. The revolver was small and silver in her palm.
Eleanor Rigby smiled and lay down all thoughts, surrendering to the void.
Father James McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walked from the fresh grave, reflected that he'd participated in Eleanor Rigby's sin. The coroner might talk, might mention self-inflicted wounds, but it was doubtful anyone would listen. It wasn't as if Eleanor had had any family. As far as Father McKenzie was concerned, the woman had died of natural causes, and would so swear if asked.
There'd been no funeral, not a soul to mourn her. But he'd done the best he could for her, saying the required prayers, treating her dead body with the respect it had been denied in life, burying her in an unused corner of the cemetery near the statue of St. Dymphna.
As for her immortal soul – well, no one was saved, and there was little he could do about that. At least Eleanor's loneliness was ended, even if his persisted. If he'd tarnished his own soul in the process, it hardly mattered. Father James McKenzie had stopped believing long ago.
He reached into his pocket and felt paper crinkle in his hand. A letter, written for no one, to someone with no name, no address given. Some day, perhaps, he'd read it again, try to find meaning in it all.
But not today.