There came a time for me, as it does for many, when going to church was no longer obligatory. I suspect it's most common in those middle years of adolescence, when parents feel the need to loosen their hold over you, but with the blanket of judgement ever fixed.
My wane in piety was not unforeseen. Each Sunday morning, as my family was getting ready, I'd linger by the bathroom still in my pyjamas, wondering what to do or say. The plan was always to tentatively make everyone aware that I wasn't quite up for church-going that day. Of course, reactions varied.
On a good day, my mother would appear nonplussed, almost indifferent, preoccupied with attaching a dangly earring or putting on her makeup. She'd say, 'That's fine, you go back to bed and rest.' My heart would leap for joy. Not only did I dodge the three hours spent swaying to an old piano in a sticky hall; but the whole house was mine, a veritable bounty for doing what I wanted where I wanted.
She'd be happy to go with my father and two sisters, and tell me about the sermon when they got home. Sometimes she was even glad for me. 'Well it's a good job you didn't come today, they had that woman who shouts at the end of every sentence. I mean, I'd understand if she was shouting "hallelujah" or "amen", but no, she just builds up and up to a shout every time. Makes my ears hurt.'
At other times, she was curiously concerned about the state of my faith. Her worried face would turn from the mirror, and pouting her lips, she'd start to tease me. She kept calling me 'sleepy head' and 'my little heathen', poking my flabby arm with her long nails.
When it came to asserting the seriousness of my not wanting to go, she'd turn fretful and annoyed, toying with my future like it rested on that single Sunday morning. If forced to come, I'd have to get ready in a frantic ten minutes, spent mostly ironing a shirt. I'd sit in the car, feeling hard done by. She always pretended to act as if no coercion had occurred.
I found the journey nauseating as she played gospel house music. I think she found it energising, or at least agenda-setting. She'd gradually take on an air of spiritual grandiosity. Later, as she sipped from a foam cup of coffee after the service with her friends gathered around, she spoke of family or friends who had gone astray, detailing her efforts to keep them on the straight and narrow. Sometimes, I came up.
I remember one instance very well as it was just before the youngest sister of the family got married. I was wandering aimlessly, as I always did, through the clumps of people bowing their heads to catch conversation. Sometimes I stopped to indulge acquaintances of one type or another, but I preferred to circulate the foyer until my parents called me to leave.
"At night I would feverishly read my Bible, switching to the giant commentary book upon the slightest bit of doubt. Guilt played its part, but was by no means all-consuming. Ultimately, I felt I had missed out."
On this Sunday, I walked passed her little group hunched around a table, and heard her announce my reluctance to go to church and to the 'deeply connecting' array of Bible study groups. She didn't catch my glance, or pretended not to. It was a strange feeling — being put up for pious inspection. I'll never forget the image of her — purple beads strung around her neck to meet her lap, the flowing dress, and all the while making her earring bob up and down by stroking the back of her ear.
When she brought me to church I hated her. The hoards of people enmeshed to make me the outcast, broody and alone. And yet when I did get away with not going, I was alone still, watching TV or on the computer, killing the time I so desperately sought to gain. I remember taking up the most mundane tasks; clipping my nails over the sink, dusting the bookshelves in the study, rearranging the tins and spices in the pantry. When I finally heard the car drive up and the garage door open, my heart would leap for joy. Mum would then offer her analysis, and I would help her with lunch, as my sisters sniggered by the pool, and my dad read the Sunday paper, intermittently reading aloud the headlines nobody was interested to hear.
At night I would feverishly read my Bible, switching to the giant commentary book upon the slightest bit of doubt. Guilt played its part, compounded by my mother's sighs during the day, but was by no means all-consuming. Ultimately, I felt I had missed out. It was alienating, I see that now. The desire to question somehow harboured a desire to be left alone.
Most painful of all was saying goodnight. On the days I didn't go, she wouldn't come to my room; the ritual of saying goodnight and of asking what I was reading withdrawn. Naturally, I always assumed she was teaching me a lesson. I didn't consider that it might be painful for her too, painful to see her son drift and wander through the people looking utterly lost.
Ryan Suckling is a Perth student and film editor at Pelican Magazine.