As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… For some reason the walk from my car to the back door entrance of the church, with its overgrown shrubbery and crowded leaves, always made me recite Psalm 23:4 or was it Coolio? Each day was different, but on this particular day I skipped a little, dodged a crawling beetle on its pursuit for shade, and although my rap accent left a lot to be desired, I finished with … I take a look at my life and realise there’s nothing left.
The back door entrance was reserved for close members of the church; the select few who were given the trust from the higher bishops. Or, as Father so delicately put it while holding a stern smile, “The Lord will always be watching you, even when we are not”. Silence filled the space between us as the clunky keys were laid on my palm. “It’s your job to bring the youth back to God”. Fuck, how did I end up with such a task accompanied by the biggest key I have ever seen? I thought to myself, never brave enough to voice my concern. An awkward conversation over yet another stale weekly dinner seemed to have given Mum the green light to put my name forward, with Abby roped in too, as the new youth group leaders of St Luke’s Catholic Church. And now the key hung like a shackle from my once evenly weighted set of keys; one for my new apartment, two for my work and one for my reliable green car, Lucy. The weight of the world, or the after world, was trying to belong with the other keys to my life, but it was just too damn heavy.
Walking into the empty space of the church hall always felt familiar yet detached. It was almost like walking into the living room of an extended relative, it’s part of your blood but somewhat awkward all the same.
There was a scattering of grey plastic chairs across the carpet and lipstick rimmed coffee cups on the corner table, stained and left over from the morning bible reading - a session unofficially reserved for the elderly and the lonely. The children’s Catholic-approved craftwork was nailed into the pin-up-board on the wall and, while the date said they were done last week, the worksheet was the same one I eagerly coloured in ‘92. As my eyes made the familiar scan, they swooped into landing on the only life in the room, Abby. I know people say that they feel closer to God in a church, but for me, God always existed more freely in nature, when I could feel His breath from the breeze, or hear His gentle hum in the ocean. Here, in St. Luke’s, the feeling of comfort came from a far less biblical source, Abby, my best friend and somewhat unexpected church goer.
“Wat up Bri Baby! Ready to make these little bastards believe in God, or whatever the hell we’re meant to do for the next hour.” She almost yelled the words without any concern of listening walls.
“Morning Abs, but keep it down hey, the bible reading thing only just finished. I can’t believe we got talked into this. Do you remember Mrs. Melling from when we were 13 and signed up against our will?”
“Oh my God, YES! She used to play the recorder and make us sit in a circle and sing prayers every week!” Abby laughed.
“This place sure tested our faith. At least whatever we do will be better than that.”
The children flocked in every Saturday and just as quickly, flocked back out into one of the identical cars, strung together around the pick-up zone like a child’s train set. The mothers and fathers were waiting anxiously to hear the wisdom we had filled their minds with that particular afternoon. Although we joked about it, we were very aware that we held in our hands the delicate faith of children as they looked to us for guidance and influence. And if we ever forgot it, we were reminded every Sunday morning. Father never failed at giving the entire Church a run-down of our activities for the following week in a last ditched marketing effort, “… famously run by fashion industry employee and part-time model, Bridie … and music booker to the stars, Abby …” All that was missing was the free steak knives for sending an extra kid. Luckily manipulating the truth for the good of the church seemed to be a loophole in the Ten Commandments, otherwise the tag lines for our lives would have been far less glamorous. Either way, we politely took the rap, smiled and waved to the sea of beady eyes, with flashes of kindness, boredom and judgment. We were to continue on as the youth group leaders for what felt like forever, but ended just as abruptly as it started – with a heavy weight hanging from my life.
Considering I had only moved out 3 months before, arriving at Mum’s place should have felt like home for me. Mark and I had found our perfect place after only two weeks of searching; it could only be described as a wardrobe space with the occasional luxury of hot water. We both knew that what we really found was an urgent escape from the houses we grew up in. We found first love at 19 and with that we finally found freedom at 24 - freedom to make love, to drink in the sweet taste of alcohol and faltering inhibitions and, most importantly, freedom from the strict religious dens that we had recently called home.
The space was ours and it perfectly existed in the rolling sea of life that was Mt. Lawley; a trendy suburb close to the city, with its own melodic heartbeat designed by the residing young professionals and their weekend mistakes. There was not a crucifix in sight, unless it hung as a sacrilegious statement from the neck of a Perth socialite or footy WAG on their strut towards a laneway nightclub. The lack of religious paraphernalia was just one of Mum’s gripes about our decorating or ‘self-inflicted living conditions’ as she often described our home, lending the words straight from a third-world civil war documentary. Mark and I had no problem with it, as we knew that between our parents’ four walls, there was enough religious imagery to re-design the churches of Australia.
There was one cross however, in the top drawer next to my bed, beneath the card of St Clare, the Saint I chose to study for my confirmation. She was mine and in some sense, I was hers.
“Hi Bridie darling, is Mark joining us this week?” Mum said with a pot of bubbling vegetables co-existing within the sticky coloured sauce behind her.
“Yes Mum, he’ll be here. Where are the boys?” My brothers, Luke, Matt and John, or J as he had recently re-invented himself before starting high school, all still lived at home, while my elder brother Sean had moved out at 16. These weekly dinners were considered mandatory for all members of our family and any significant others, once they had obtained the converted title from Mum that was.
“They’re playing out the back,” Dad quietly said from the groove of his favourite chair, quite possibly the only area of the house that he had ownership of.
“They’re excited to see you sweet, as am I.”
The table had been immaculately set with a knowing Jesus statue looking over us with his ceramic stare. It felt similarly like walking into a classroom, as you arrive you settle into a seat at the back, pinpoint the clock in the room and wait for an appropriate time to leave.
“Who would like to say grace tonight?” Mum asked with the dart of an eye that landed on the person elected to answer.
“I’d like to tonight, Mary” said Dad with the acknowledgement of her glare straight across the table and onto his dinner plate.
My eyes closed on cue, my fingers laced together, as if they each housed an individual magnet under the skin, and my ears willingly opened to Dad’s calming voice as he began. When we arrived at this point of the dinner routine I felt a small amount of guilt towards my previous, and reliable apprehension, as the comfort of prayer before our meal felt right, grateful and even nostalgic as the tradition had not made its way into my new home.
“Dear God, thank you for this meal, the people at the table, our health, our safety, our happiness and our love for each other, for you and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.” He finished to a choir of religious repetition, “Amen.”
The goodbye routine played out like it had every week for as long as I can remember, although less than 12 weeks ago I was on the other side of the door waving my brother goodbye and wondering when it would be my turn to see it from his perspective. I kept this thought with me as I lay in my queen bed with Mark‘s warm body pressed into my naked back. I took his strong forearm and wrapped it tighter around my waist, as if it was the only thing preventing me from falling off the bed. “I love you so much Ru baby.” Even though I couldn’t see him, I could feel his big blue eyes behind me, fringed by long black lashes. I could smell his tanned skin and sandy hair and I could taste his words as if they were all I needed to feed me after a depleting dinner. “I love you too babe.”
Sleepy silence enveloped our bed and I began to pray, making sure the sign of the cross invited God into my thoughts and closed the prayer appropriately,
Thank you, Lord for the freedom you have given me to live a life that I now get to choose for myself, a life that you have guided me towards and one that I am proud of; a life where I can be young and find my own path, with you in my heart. Thank you, as always, for my family including Mark and Abby, and thank you for tomorrow, night.