Passion had always been a blood-red word to Mary (Tuesday as green and yellow as unfurling daffodils.) She was looking at the ornate title of a tatty musical score. Easter was on its way and yet again the church choir would rehearse Bach’s story of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. This year they would sing the St. John Passion. She gazed at the fading cover and red flooded her consciousness. Her synaesthesia would overflow into the music; every note, every chord, every choral harmony and swell of the organ would plunge the sensitive girl again and again into an ocean of shifting colour.
And this year there would be a new conductor. Mr. Norrish had grown old; long hours of patient direction had become too much for quivering hands and an aching back. With fondness his little choir had said farewell with bouquets, tokens and his favourite whisky; with regret and so many memories he bowed out of the ancient church, took leave of the liturgical rhythms that had shaped thirty-six years of his life, left behind the long-loved smells of damp stonework, brass polish, and ageing wood. The organ in its little loft behind the crimson curtain would have to learn new fingers on its loosening keys, respond to the flex of new feet on pedals dulled with a century of wear.
It was now Tuesday.
Unusually, the vicar was there to greet the arriving singers.
“Passiontide will soon be upon us,” he said, with that habitual slight inclination of the body that comes from years of church service, “... and we welcome this evening our new organist and conductor, who rejoices in the name ...” smiling “... of David Sunday. I am sure you will all get along famously, and I shall now leave you, and the splendid Bach, in his capable hands.”
A scatter of applause, and then the choir were alone with this unfamiliar and unnervingly young musician who was to be the centre of their performing life for the forseeable future.
“Good evening, choir!” he said, with a nod to the pianist.”Shall we start, then? At the beginning ... Lord, our Redeemer, whose glory is in all the world, show us in this thy Passion that thou, the true Son of God, hast conquered death and tribulation ...”
His voice! Mary stood trembling on the front row of the sopranos, terrified that everyone would see the involuntary flush deepening on her cheeks. She gripped her score hard for fear of dropping it and drawing even more attention to herself. His voice! She felt as if she were melting, as if time and space were collapsing, drawing together souls that had been parted for lifetimes, electrifying the February air as Harry Jones played Bach’s introductory bars.
David cued his singers for the first dramatic cry of “Lord!” The word stuck in Mary’s throat. She couldn’t sing. She could only stare at the athletic and striking figure with his shock of jet black hair eclipsing everything around her, his bright, dark, utterly mesmerizing eyes locked into hers.
Eventually she sang. She sang for him. The words danced on the score in colours more vivid than she had ever known. For two hours Harry’s piano wrapped the rehearsal in rainbows. Once or twice Mary had been in love, but never like this. And she had no idea what to do.
He raped her in the churchyard.
Shaken, bleeding, Mary crept home and curled up sobbing in a corner of her kitchen. She could have left with the others. She could have gone to bed that night dizzyingly happy. She could have dreamed of gentle kisses and loving arms. But, heart racing, she had lingered until she was alone with David in the darkened church; he had offered her a lift home - and before reaching the car her colours had all turned black.
Mary cried herself to sleep. Something that should have been wonderful had instead been brutal and shocking. She had no-one to turn to. Her parents were long gone - not even sleeping under the churchyard turf but flung to the mountain winds. There was no sister, no brother. Nobody in the choir could know about this, and certainly not the vicar. At last overwhelmed by darkness, she dreamed.
She was in a different country. It didn’t seem at all strange to her. Golden hills stepped down to a tideless sea; there were houses but only dirt roads, all the roofs were flat and here and there a palm tree rose above sun-dried scrub. A man was pulling a boat from the water onto the shore and he turned to face her. The eyes that held her gaze were David’s eyes. Then she was in a house with only a rag across the doorway and this man she couldn’t stop loving was bearing down on her again, again, again, pulling her down by her hair, beating her, twisting her, hurting her until she wept and bled.
“I’ll be back, Mary of Magdala,” he said, tossing a handful of small coins into the dust.
The dream changed again.
He was back - but in a circle of men surrounding her at a cross-roads. “Whore!” they were shouting. “Slut! Scrubber!” Small boys ran, laughing and jeering, between the legs and robes of the men and then gathered, dancing and pointing, in front of her constant abuser.
“Me? I have nothing to do with her!” His face became ugly; he stooped for a stone and raised it in his sunburnt fist. The boys were now running from side to side of the road, gathering rocks almost too big to carry, hefting them into the outstretched hands of the grinning men. She was crouching now, shuddering with fear and braced for the first blow.
A stranger joined the circle - walked into the ring - strode toward her - lifted her to her feet. He was forcing her to face the attack. She began to panic. He held up one hand, preparing to speak. There was a murmur of recognition, of respect, and when he spoke the group was at last still.
“Only a man who has never sinned has the right to cast a stone at this woman,” he said.”Which of you is going to be the first?”
She heard stone after stone drop harmlessly into the dust of the road, and the warm voice of the Rabbi saying to her, “Now go home, and turn your back on sin. Choose more wisely.”
Mary woke, still in darkness. Her bed was drenched with sweat. Had that been a dream, or a memory? Whichever it was, Heaven must have sent it that night to open her eyes, to light a way for her at this moment of crisis. Had she indeed lived as the Magdalen? Was David the man who betrayed her so terribly by the shores of the Galilee? One thing she knew - that Mary had obeyed; she had turned her back on a degrading life to follow and love forever, with her whole heart and soul, the Rabbi Jesus who had rescued her. Startled, Mary realised that the story most close to her nightmare was to be found in the very same Gospel now forcing her together with David.
It was Tuesday again.
Instead of hiding at home, Mary returned to the choir and to her front row seat. When David’s eyes met hers she was already holding in her free hand the little olive cross she had bought at the weekend craft market and hung on a crimson ribbon under her jacket. She didn’t blush. She never smiled. The full glory of the spectrum danced for her over the worn pages as she sang more passionately than she had ever sung before.
“I follow thee too, my Saviour, with joyful steps.
I will not forsake thee,
my Life and my Light.
Hasten my steps and draw me to thy side!”
At the close of the phrase she lifted her eyes and saw, for just a few seconds in a flash of light over the stripped altar, a white figure ... a wonderful face ... a dazzling, welcoming smile that set her soul on fire. She could let go of David now. In front of Harry’s piano all that she saw of David was a gesturing collage of darknesses.
He avoided her. She didn’t care.
She watched him charm his way to Elaine in the altos and offer her a lift home. She followed in the shadows, and watched again as he wrenched the shocked girl into the same ancient hollow yew where he had raped her. She stood with her hands outstretched against the crumbling bark and challenged him while his hands were still at his fly, “David, this is the last time you will sully another soul.”
Mary could see the ethereal circle of women forming around the yew, each holding a stone ...
She took his fist in her face before walking away to the vicarage.