"Ben, you've done your tie all crooked again." Lucy reached up to fix the knot with small, fluttering hands. They were just like little white butterflies, he thought, as lovely, and fragile too. He caught them as they moved toward his neck and kissed them, once on each perfect knuckle. She giggled and swatted him away. "Come, there's no time for that! We've got to go to church!" Benjamin sighed with mock exasperation. "Yes, my heart." He allowed her to straighten his tie, but not before embracing her, his nimble fingers twining themselves through her yellow hair. There was no denying that they were beautiful, the pair of them, and Nellie Lovett watched their playful teasing with a mixture of amusement and envy.
Mr. Barker in particular always looked conspicuously handsome on Sundays. He made a dashing figure in his worn but well-cut suit, his shirt always clean and meticulously pressed. His dark hair would be carefully combed, swept majestically back from his smooth, honest face. "I reckon you'll be the cleanest-shaved man there, eh, Mr. Barker?" Nellie sometimes joked, and he would laugh. She loved his laugh; it was friendly and genuine, with rich, almost musical undertones. In those days he had laughed often.
Then the barber would slip his arm about his wife's tiny waist and they would step out together, strolling contentedly down the soot-stained streets. Mrs. Lovett always felt a peculiar pang in her gut as she watched them go, which was strange as she had never been an especially religious woman. Albert preferred to sleep in, and Nellie usually spent the morning baking. Sunday afternoons were busy, the shop bustling with hungry churchgoers.
Once, Lucy had tried to coax her into coming with them. "We can go together, the three of us," she chirped, radiant and charming as always.
"Thanks, dear, but I'm afraid those sermons is a bit out of me depth. 'Sides, that priest's got an awful boring voice. He'll put me right to sleep."
"Oh, but you must come, Mrs. Lovett! The stained glass is just beautiful. Tell her, Ben."
Benjamin regarded her warmly. "Those windows are something lovely. Please come, Mrs. Lovett." His face twitched into a mischievous grin as he leaned close and whispered in her ear conspiratorially, "Don't tell Lucy, but Father Brown's sermons often put me half to sleep as well."
"Well, alright Mr. Barker." She smiled up at him shyly. "You've convinced me."
Nellie's first impression, upon entering the church, was that of drowning. The chapel of her childhood had been a small, one-room affair, an annex to the home of the local preacher and his family. She was utterly unprepared for this behemoth, this cold immensity. The high, vaulted ceiling swept up and up and up, making her feel small and threatening to crush her. The walls near the pews were covered with cheery wallpaper, but this did nothing to soften the stone austerity of the building.
Mounted behind the altar was an enormous image of Jesus on the cross. His head lolled to one side, hair matted with blood, but his eyes were open. He didn't look angry or even as though he were in pain. He just looked tired. Nellie felt sorry for him.
The sermon itself was at least familiar, if not particularly enthralling. Father Brown's voice droned on in the monotone that it seemed was common to all men of the clergy. "Lord Jesus, deliver us," he said, and Nellie glanced up again at the tired-looking man. Poor bloke. Nearly two thousand years dead an' people still wantin' him to solve their problems.
She turned her focus to the heat she could feel radiating from Mr. Barker's body and waited for the service to be over. She spent most of the time looking worshipfully at the barber, drinking in the intensity of him, tracing his jaw-line with her eyes. She tried to adopt the look of polite attentiveness that she saw on his face, but her mind wandered despite her efforts. In truth, she didn't understand most of what the preacher was talking about, although she gave a guilty start when he mentioned something about coveting thy neighbor.
"Well?" Benjamin had prompted her afterwards. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"Yes," she lied. The day was humid, and she noticed fondly that his wayward hair was beginning to escape from the smooth uniformity he had so carefully combed into it that morning. There was a pause, and she reached up jerkily to tuck an errant stand behind his ear, a tender, awkward gesture that puzzled him.
She didn't go to church with him again.