It was my first visit in a year. I have tried to see her at least twice a year. She is still living at home, capable of looking after herself. She tells me she had a minor stroke not long ago and was at the hospital for a week. She’s had small falls and other mishaps from which she’s bounced back.
Faith’s figure and features are diminutive. Her vocal chords strong, demanding your attention. She and grandma became widows in their 40s and both decided not to get married again. On the phone Faith asked me if I wanted to have lunch. I said no. I didn’t want to trouble her. I just want to see her.
She made me a cup of tea and was ready to slice up her home baked cake which she’s just taken out of the oven, resting on a large plate. We moved to the veranda, protected from the scorching midday sun but not from the mugginess of the air. I remembered several years back there was always a dog or two that she looked after. Her own dog, Raffi, had an accident and after a few years of first class treatments which included physio and hydrotherapy and other complementary care sadly Raffi didn’t recover and was put down.
Faith asked me where I lived. I knew that I had told her before. Obviously she had forgotten. It was not a sign of any memory loss. I have moved at least 4 dozen times. Even someone with an excellent memory can lose track of my residential address.
“I’m in Vaucluse,” I told her.
“Vaucluse! My mum is buried in the cemetery there,” she said.
“I’m not far from the cemetery,” I said.
“How long you’re going to live there?”
“I don’t know. I never had much luck with renting. I’d like to stay there as long as I can. I like the place,” wishing to buy my own shack one day and never move till the day I die.
Was she going to be there on my next visit? It was something I wondered every time I visited her. She was probably as healthy as me even though she was in her 90s. She looked exceptionally fresh and beautiful that day. Better than previous times. Her hearing was the only thing that was deteriorating. I found myself speaking slightly louder each time. One day I may have to speak at the top of my voice I thought.
I was in my early twenties when I met Faith at my local church. Apart from playing the organ at the morning service once a month, she organised parties for the elderly around Christmas time. Bringing people from the local nursing homes. I volunteered to help out one year. As soon as she asked for help I put my hand up. In fact I was her only helper. I drove the church minibus and picked up the guests and brought them over. She also had organised entertainment by having young school kids to come and dance and sing for them. It was quite a show. We had the church hall packed with people who had nowhere to go for Christmas.
One day I called grandma and told her that I had met Faith who’s so much like her, active, hospitable and loves gardening.
“When are you coming for a visit? It’s been more than 10 years since you left,” grandma asked.
“You know I can’t come grandma,” she’s asked me that over the years.
“You haven’t done anything wrong. The government won’t harm you. They’re only after their enemies,” she said, hoping to convince me.
“I’m their enemy,” I said proudly.
“I know, but they’re only after people who’ve taken up arms against them. But you haven’t.”
As if reasoning was enough to change the mind of a despotic regime.
“I know grandma. But they also don’t recognize dual citizenships. I have a right to choose to visit with my Australian passport. I don’t want to carry the passport of an evil regime.”
“You do whatever you think is right. But I miss you badly.”
“I miss you terribly.”
Grandma died 4 years ago. She had a fall and broke her back. Mum died 2 years later. And dad followed her shortly after. I held my own private memorial service for them. But it didn’t work. There was no one to share the grief with. Grief has to be shared otherwise it overwhelms you and it doesn’t matter how much you weep it stays there, until hands are put on shoulders and tears of others touch your skin-then you realise it’s every ones’ pain not just yours and your heart begins to breathe a little.
After we all left the church and scattered I visited Faith periodically and kept in touch and told her what I was doing. She took genuine interest in me. She sometimes even challenged or advised me on my career choices.
Over the years I became the only one who paid her a visit apart from her neighbours.
We never discussed theology, however. The verses were too sacred to dissect. They had to be read only in the context of worship on Sunday mornings. But I wondered what she really thought or believed, now that she was much older, retired and no longer went to church. Has she ever questioned any of her beliefs like I had? I knew theological differences can make enemies or at best strangers out of good friends. I didn’t want to risk it. We’ve been friends for so long. I couldn’t allow my doubts over the virgin birth, the divinity of Mary or if Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Galilee create a chasm in our friendship. Neither of us needed each other for anything. But it was the memory we shared together that was sacred. Those simple moments. The morning tea after the service when we all stood around sipping tea or coffee, wondering who to talk to and what’d be a kind thing to say to someone we had never met before. And we still heard the echo of the scriptures read in the service, “Love is gentle, love is kind…”
Faith and I quietly laughed at the ‘holy slipups’, of ourselves and others as we called them: singing the wrong hymn, or being awfully out of tune, losing the order of worship in the prayer book, forgetting to change the clock at daylight saving, turning up an hour early or late for the service.
Once as we were clearing the pews after the service she asked me if I were an Anglican, I said no I was an Episcopalian. And that was it. She laughed and then I laughed and neither of us could stop. She went and sat behind the organ and began to play, hoping to stop the hysteric laughter but it only made it worse. The only cure was to leave and we couldn’t even say goodbye to each other; like two teenage pot smokers we convulsed out of the building. And we never could work out what was so funny about her question and my answer. Perhaps it was a gift from above to unburden our soul from whatever it was that had laden it.
She pours me more tea. “Have some cake.” I always felt a completeness, while I was at her presence.
When Michaela dropped me one afternoon outside her place I was going to introduce her to Faith.
“Who’re you visiting?” she asked.
“Faith is an old friend from church. She lives on her own and is quite old,” I replied.
“Didn’t realize you’re religious,” her tone of voice made me feel as if there was something wrong with me.
“Do you go to church?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” I said and scratched my head-not sure where she was going with it.
“Wow. Just when I thought I knew a fair bit about you.”
It wasn’t a good idea to ask her to drop me off I thought.
“Why didn’t you tell me before,” she said like I was hiding something.
“We never thought about it,” I said “Well. I believe in certain things,” I told her, trying to explain my belief, as abstract as it sometimes appeared to myself.
“Creed, you mean?”
“Maybe that, I never thought about it that way,” I said. Sitting in her car outside Faith’s house, overlooking the picturesque middle harbour in the soft, late afternoon sun that demanded nothing but adoration in silence.
“Like homosexuals go to hell. Life after death. And the old man with the white beard watching us all from the sky.”
She became quiet like we were in a courtroom. It was my turn now to speak and defend myself I thought.
“Come on, Michaela. You know me,” I said with voice now slightly irritated.
But I wondered how much we really knew each other.
“Have I ever said anything against anybody, except the politicians and expensive, useless shrinks. One of my favourite muso is Freddy Mercury, he was gay, who cares what sexual orientation people have,” I paused there but screamed inside my head, my own life is messy enough why should I judge others!
“Life after death. I don’t think death ends our lives. Many people believe that you know, you don’t have to be religious,” I stopped there and mulled over my next line of defence about the old man with long, grey beard. I haven’t thought about God like that for many years now.
“We all know there is no one up there watching us. But perhaps there is a force, energy whatever you want to call it that knows us better than ourselves and watches us with compassion from somewhere down here. And wishes one day we all learn to do the same,” I was glad in a way we were talking about what I considered important.
“I’m not religious at all. Nor my family. My father brought me up as anti religion. He always says religion has a lot to answer for.”
I was wondering what she was going to bring up next. The Crusades. The Spanish Inquisition, recent paedophilia cases.
“Religion or religious are just words, labels. Our actions and thoughts are important. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?” I said
She didn’t say anything.
“I need to go. Faith is waiting for me.” I told her and got out of the car.
“I was going to introduce you to Faith. But I don’t think you’ll like her because she’s very religious. Doesn’t matter if the whole neighbourhood adore her but you won’t like her.”
Walking home that evening for the first time I felt the ground underneath me was seesawing and I was not treading on it safely. The mourning of all the funerals that I couldn’t attend seemed to be taking place in my heart all at once without my consent. I sat down to see what was happening. I had this terrible need to see Michaela. If I saw her again, I knew I’ll be okay. There’ll be enough strength in me to stand up and walk away. But I knew it was over.
* * *
“Have you been back home since you left?” Faith asked me.
“No. And that was long time ago, as you know,” I said.
“It must be hard,” she said.
“You get use to it,” I said but knowing that downplaying doesn’t really help. For loss and grief like melancholy have their own powers that like canker can gradually consume you.
Faith grew up in the same house where her parents lived and where she was born. I had lived in 3 countries and Australia was my fourth. I have been living in Sydney now the longest. Would I live as long as Faith, or grandma? Would I one day be as whole as them? I had left so many pieces of myself in so many different places. I hope a long life for me didn’t mean another country. I couldn’t bear it. Sydney was home now. For better or worse.
The humidity in the air was pushed away by a brief, mild breeze.
I don’t know how I would react when I come for a visit one day only to find out that she had died. Adding to my collection of people that I no longer had access to but longed their presence.
“Would you like more tea?” she asked me.
“Yes, Faith, thanks.”
“Have another slice of cake.”
“I shall. It’s a lovely cake,” An expert in baking.
“I’m glad you like it. What was the name of that movie you took me some years ago?”
“The Colour Purple,” I remembered.
“Did you like it?” I asked
“I can’t remember much of it really,” she said.
“I love that film,” I said.
“I haven’t seen a film for years,” she said, without a regret in her voice.
“Did you want to go and see one?” I asked her.
“Not really. I prefer to read,” she answered.
“I love reading too. But I also watch a film at least every fortnight. Takes me out of my world for a few hours. What’re you reading now?” I asked.
“The biography of Genghis Khan,” she answered.
“Are you enjoying it?” I asked.
“Yes, very much so,” Faith said.
“It’s too hot,” I said.
“Would you like to move back in the house?” she asked.
We go and sit in the kitchen and she turns the fan on. I noticed three small, sealed jars of pickled jam sitting on the kitchen table.
“What’re these?” I asked.
“Do you want it?” she asked.
“If I know what’s in it,” I said while holding a jar in my hand.
“It’s written on it,” she said.
“It’s hard to read the writing. But it’s dated Dec, 2000,” I said while examining the jar.
“ One of my neighbours brought me a few jars. I’ve just left them there and forgotten about it. They told me what it was but I forgot. Take one.”
“Do you think it’s okay? It’s been in the jar for over 12 years.” I asked her while trying to decipher the label.
“It’s been preserved in alcohol, it should be okay,” she assured me.
Finally I make a breakthrough. “It’s kumquat.”
“Is it? That’s lovely.” Faith said.
“And they have used brandy to preserve it.” I said.
“There you go. It should be fine,” she assured me.
We sit around the kitchen table like always.
“Has anyone from St Augustine’s apart from me visited you?” I asked her thinking if she’s been simply forgotten.
“No, just Lucy.”
“Who’s Lucy? I don’t remember her.” My memory started working hard but retrieving no one from that period by that name.
“Lucy, was from St Clement. Sorry you don’t know her. I thought she came to St Augustine.
Faith had provided shelter to number of us over the years when interim residency was desperately needed. Every now and then someone was in trouble, out of work, kicked out of his or her flat, or separated from a spouse and had nowhere to go. But Faith doesn’t complain that no one has been there to visit her. She is happy. If happiness was a gift like a talent she had it.
I told her that I’ll try to pay her another visit soon. She always comes out to the front gate with me and watches me walk away or drive away.
* * *
Through my kitchen window I could see the lit up rooms of my neighbours, mostly migrants from other countries. I have no idea who most of them were, except the Polish family and the Vietnamese. United in our enviable citizenship we dare to stay anonymous year after year.
I know there are holes in my newfound freedom that no amount of rights can fill.
I slowly open the lid and remove the extra inner layer of plastic which was used to make the jar airtight. Soaked in syrup, the small fruits had turned dark brown. I spoon one out, and carefully put it in my mouth. I could finish the small jar in one sitting. I put some on my tongue and slowly press against my palate. With my eyes closed, its delightful flavours spread. I feel whole for a short while. All my senses have bowed to this newly discovered taste. Could this be just kumquat in brandy?
The church hall flashes before my eyes, deserted and gloomy, like nobody had ever stepped onto its large, empty floor. Was there anyone today that organised a party for the elderly, fed them creamy sponge cakes, organized children to come in their shining dancing shoes and brightly coloured clothes to sing in front of the lonely, frail and the dying who had no where to go for Christmas.