More than one kind of church

Dear Reader, I have been in the more recent past lately, trying to fill out the draft of my final-ish chapter (the Phalanx one). Howard Norman has suggested I try and perfect Phalanx and then go back to the previous chapters to use its narrative structure as a template of sorts. In the process of discussing this, he asked what in my past had prepared me to survive the events of 2015 and beyond, which gave me pause, sending me back to the distant past, and how I survived other things.

So, with that said, this section includes mention of cults (Scientology) and child abuse. If you can cope with that, here it is.

More than one kind of church

The only paternal cousin I had was RJ. RJ was eighteen months older than me, and I adored her. She had Irish black hair which she insisted on calling dark brown, and was always shorter than me despite her seniority. She was skinny and sporty and insisted on instructing me on all the things about which she was expert, which was everything. She showed me how to write on a chalkboard. She demonstrated the art of colouring within the lines. I pretended not to know my letters so she could teach me. She even corrected my singing, although it later transpired she was tone deaf. When, after an afternoon visit to her place, I was not allowed to sleep over, I knelt on the back seat and waved tragically through the back window as she chased our car down the street until her legs, sporting though they were, were bested by our white Valiant’s six-cylinder engine, and she disappeared from view. I cried until my face swelled and Gwen told me not to be ridiculous, I’d see her next weekend.

I was, as intended, suitably impressed by RJ’s superior skills in everything from knucklebones to roller-skating, and I was jealous that she was allowed to catch the green Metropolitan Transport Trust buses by herself from Thornlie to Perth city from when she was eight. The buses smelled headily of diesel in my favourite seats at the back, but whenever I caught a bus with Gwen we always sat close to the front, where it smelled merely of bodily heat trapped in nylon, Johnson & Johnson baby powder, and the leather hard with age and excessive use.

But the thing that most inspired my jealousy was the collection of cards RJ had from L. Ron Hubbard. Each year she received a birthday card especially from him, which showed how special she was: I had no such collection with which to compare. L. Ron Hubbard was the leader of their church, which was just like our church except it had headquarters in town in a large building on St Georges Terrace and was called The Org. That meant RJ was getting mail from the Scientologist’s equivalent of Jesus. RJ and I waited at the building sometimes, while adults went to their sermons. We drew pictures on the free literature waiting to be distributed to the public after the sermons. I used to look at the board with the list of top donors that was prominently displayed, plus the amount they had given alongside. When the adults came out of the sermons, their faces held an identical serene glow, their eyes mildly glassy. They glided from the rooms and smiled vacantly at RJ and me.

RJ wasn’t a Scientologist because you couldn’t be until you were a teenager, but Jean was and her new husband was. On his ute he had a sticker that said PSYCHIATWIST in twirly letters. When I asked what it meant my uncle said there were doctors who wanted to change your head and they should be avoided at all costs. My uncle was the kind of man everybody liked, and, unlike my religious family on Gwen’s side, he did not try to press his beliefs, whatever they were, onto the children in their midst. So I liked him too.

My uncle was liked by everybody except RJ. Everybody who liked him said this dislike was because she was jealous: she’d had her mother to herself for so long, and now her mother was married, instead of living with Gran and getting Gran to help raise RJ. She was so rude to him it made me embarrassed. She yelled at him and called him names. He acted as though he didn’t care, and Jean would sometimes say, ‘Now, now, dear’ and RJ would ignore her and keep being rude.

After my parents separated when I was nearly nine years old, I spent a lot of time at my cousin’s house. One day I wanted RJ to go swimming in their above ground pool, but she was in a bad mood. She was often in a bad mood, so I was preparing to swim by myself when my uncle said he’d swim too.

I loved swimming underwater. I loved the swoosh of water in my ears, the way the world blurred prettily. I gathered my legs and push hard against the vinyl lining and launched myself from one side to another. I wasn’t sporty like RJ but the water was where I felt weightless and playful.

My uncle would catch me at the side I was rocketing toward, lift me up, and throw me back. This was always the game he played, when he swam with us. I squealed, splashed, and returned to my launch site. On this day, my launch site faced the house; the other side, where my uncle waited, was facing the asbestos fence and the scrubby trees that were there to conceal it.

Then my uncle stopped catching me. With blurry underwater vision, I could see he was squatting at the pool’s edge. Maybe he was resting. Then I could see he’d pulled his bather bottoms down, and had his hand in his lap.

I pretended that I had not noticed that he was being a rudie, and I kept coiling myself up, launching myself, and now running, slow in the water that was up to my chest, back to the other side.

He stopped me the next time I arrived next to him. He took hold of my hands and pulled them toward his lap. I’d only seen boys’ doodles, which were were like wilting worms. My uncle’s doodle was more like an overcooked sausage. I did not know why he was moving my hands up and down it, but I was relieved when he stopped.

‘You won’t tell anyone, will you?’ he said anxiously as I was climbing up the pool ladder.

I smiled. ‘Of course not.’

Because I had been reading the Secret Seven and the Famous Five, and I knew how important it was to keep secrets. It meant you were a jolly good sort. And I knew, if I kept this secret, my uncle would keep liking me more than RJ. This seemed important.

Six years later, when I was fifteen and RJ was sixteen, a flurry took place in and around my uncle. I can’t remember the order of things, or how close or distant they happened, but they involved: my uncle punching RJ in the nose; my father, who had never hit anyone in his life, taking a swing at my uncle; my uncle lying on the ground outside my father’s house, being kicked by RJ in her shiny black Bata school shoes. And somewhere in there, me breaking a promise.

I had more important promises to keep, now.

‘Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls’