It’s a long time since I’ve been to the beach. The sun on yellow sand. The wind whipping up eddies in the water. White foam on waves, and the smell of salt in the air.
The blue Ventura bus took us the length of Warrigal Road and turned across the Nepean Highway towards the Mentone railway station. We got off at the ten-pin bowling club with its long stretch of building across the way from a motel.
Who would want to stay in such a place? Close by the beach to be sure, but otherwise smack bang in the middle of grim suburbia, with not much on offer beyond the usual accoutrements of life in the suburbs. A potpourri of small shops and an L-shaped garage that still served its customers at the bowsers. These alongside the Catholic Church and its primary school, where we sometimes went to Mass.
It was in this church of St Patricks, not the Cathedral in the city by the same name, but the parish church in Mentone, where I first decided on giving up religion.
One Saturday at the six o’clock Mass. One of those rule changes that came in after Vatican Two whereby Catholics were given more options about Mass attendance. No longer an absolute on Sundays. We could get a sleep-in on Sunday mornings if we went instead on Saturday evenings. This was one of those rule changes that watered down the astringency of our religion and first gave me pause to consider.
Those hard and fast rules from my childhood were like putty in the Pope’s hands. He could change them at will. He was supposed to be infallible. But it was as if he had become a populist politician in search of votes. I knew that people were leaving the church in large numbers, drawn by promises of a secular life, or disenchanted by the hypocrisy some detected in their priests and archbishops.
It’s hard to say what I thought in those days, a young woman just past her entrance into adulthood. And what I have since concluded. The way current events affect our memory of the past. In this case, my memory as a young woman, just shy of her nineteenth birthday, when first seduced by a man and filled with awe at the mystery of it all.
The sex had not been great. It hurt, I remember, and there was blood. This clumsy seduction in Paul’s childhood bed where he lived with his parents in Edithvale. Paul who was six years older than me and had not yet managed to find a settled life for himself.
After school, he had begun a course in dietetics at Gordon institute in Geelong but didn’t stick it out. He took to working where I met him in Hall’s bookstore in the city, to fund his gambling habits.
Paul had one sister Janice and she lived in a bungalow in the back garden of their parents’ house with her husband, Dave. Jan worked as a secretary when I met her but soon after she fell pregnant with their first and only child, a little boy whose presence pleased his grandmother, Paul’s mother, but did little to assuage Paul’s desire to live anything other than the precarious life of a gambler.
This was only the beginning for me. When I met Paul, a solid man given to excess weight around his belly – he drank too much beer and loved rich food. He tried to exercise it off with little success. It mattered to him, but not to me. I liked him that way. I liked everything about him, especially the shape of his face, round like an open moon, with dimples in both cheeks that gave him an impish look.
The morning of my fall from grace he had called me on the telephone. I was at home alone studying for my first-year university exams. Full to the brim with apprehension in those days when our entire results rested on the consequence of one single exam per subject at the end of the year. In all subjects, except social biology, which Delys Sargent took. This radical woman who, towards year’s end, tried to ease the students’ burden by introducing a preliminary essay, which we needed to write under exam conditions for an hour but could prepare beforehand as she gave us the question ahead of time. Something along the lines of ‘Write about the effects of pollution on cities.’
I wrote my essay in full and virtually rote learned it before sitting the exam. As confident as a well-fed cat. I was shocked then when Delys rang me towards the end of swat vac to tell me I had failed said exam because I had not answered the question. I could however redeem myself, she said, if I did well enough in the forthcoming final exam.
How could she do that to me? After her call, the world swayed before my eyes. Not since mental arithmetic in grade six had I ever failed an exam. I had steered away from studies that were too hard for me, and in my later years at school only chose subjects that came more readily. But Delys’s Social biology was a first-year compulsory subject for all would-be social workers at the University of Melbourne and I had no choice.
Its quasi scientific approach to understanding the world troubled me. I could not manage the numbers, the bald facts of science. Too certain to my taste. As bad as the compulsory statistics we needed to pass for the psychology exams that first year, too. But at least in that subject there was a whole cohort of first year students who could not manage and Mr Ross, one of the senior tutors at the university, arranged remedial classes to go through the steps, as if we were in primary school. He steered us through. In Social Biology I was alone in my ignorance, or so I believed.
Social Biology was a trickster subject. The social against the biological. I had passed biology in my final year of school, my one science subject. Only just. I could not understand this thing called the human body with all its vagaries. And try as I might, the way things happened underneath my skin was still a mystery to me.
By the time I lost my virginity, that quaint expression still used today. To lose something in your body that bespeaks an innocence, a quality of not being used up, of being available as fresh as a bottle of milk, not yet opened. The thick layer of cream still there visible at the top. By the time I lost my virginity I was convinced I too would become a university drop out like Paul and need to work for a living.
I lost my virginity to Paul on his single bed in a room lined at one end with his books on horse racing and chess. A few miniature soldiers and other figurines from his ongoing childhood interest in war games. Some sealed paint tins to one side, and paint brushes left to soak in turpentine. In later years I loved to watch Paul sit still at a table, tiny soldier in one hand, paint brush in the other. He dabbed the necessary red of his soldier’s jacket first. Then with an even tinier brush dabbed gold points on the buttons and smeared the epaulettes on his general’s shoulders.
Paul loved these soldiers as if they were his children, his lovers. He attended to them more lovingly than to me, except on that first encounter when he wanted more than anything to take from me my virginity. He told me this later. But I could tell that mid-weekday in his house in Edithvale that I had arrived at his request for one thing only. For him to get to know me in the biblical sense. In another sense, I had come to rid myself of the burden of my virginity. I had come to enter adulthood.
In the church at Mentone that Saturday evening five days later, as I sat beside my mother listening to the priest drone on about those people who criticised the church as if it was not their church but someone else’s. As if they were not also responsible for our church. Something inside me rankled. I was no longer fit to belong to this church. I had sinned so grievously without confession I could not even take communion.
Until that day I had never been to Mass without taking communion. Like most others in the church, I had lined up in the central aisle and walked to the alter rails to wait in line for the priest to place the host on my outstretched tongue.
‘Corpus Christi (The body of Christ),’ the priest said and held the host high above my uplifted face before placing it on my tongue. Then I pulled in my tongue, the host perched there as my saliva soaked away its crispness. I continued to suck on the host careful to keep my teeth away from Christ’s body. Even as a young adult, with a different sensibility and awareness that this host was not in fact Christ’s body, but a representation and I would not hurt him if I chomped onto the host before swallowing, I could not bring myself to do anything other than to make the host go sloppy and shrunken enough to swallow whole. Even as I was afraid of choking. I knew it was important to chew all my food well before I swallowed.
That day I was caught in a dilemma. To take communion was a lie. In having sex outside marriage, I had sinned mortally and was no longer eligible. Not to go to communion was to let my mother know I was in a state of serious sin. Or else, as I made clear to my mother after the Mass had ended that I had begun to have my doubts about the value of religion. I had shifted my sin. The church was at fault. Not me.