On the edge of dawn. Somewhere between Goulburn and Mildura. Outside, the stars ebb back into the sky while, inside, we wait for breakfast, our bus stopped at a truck stop. Fluorescent light, pastel plastic, and “serve yourself and pay at the counter, mate.” I feel grimy and unslept. Hungry and queezy at once.
I load my plate with egg-like stuff, chewy toast and collapsing fried-tomato, and sit down, hardly noticing the woman next to me. Instead I stare at the TV on the wall. It’s evangelical hour — a broadcast from an American mega-church. The thing is like a stadium. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people, in row after row of cinema chairs. It’s clean, glitzy and ugly. The preacher’s doll-like, decked out in a suit and tie. His voice rises and falls, loves and condemns, advises and exhorts. The parishioners are ecstatic.
“Looks like a horrible place”
That’s the lady next to me. I’ve nothing against churches but she’s right: this one looks appalling.
“Yeah. I guess it doesn’t look that nice”. I glance at her then down at my plate, wary of speaking to people met on bus journeys. It’s still hours until Mildura…
“I used to go to a church like that”.
I look over at her. She’s middle aged with dark curly hair.
“Oh, um, what was it like?”
“Awful. They manipulated us. We had to give so much money. And when we left they threatened us and then told our friends never to speak to us again.”
“That sounds really wrong.” I’m looking at her more closely now. She’s lucid, sensible, suburban. Not rich or trendy, but tidy. In her 40s I guess. Her face is kind-of round, criss-crossed with care lines. By the looks of it, she’s dealing with sleep deprivation a lot better than me. How, I wonder to myself, did she end up beholden to religion?
“At first we thought they were wonderful. Just like a family. Felt at home. So secure. But they wanted to control our lives. And take our money. You had to pay so much.”
“So what did you do? How’d you leave?”
“Oh, it was awful. In the end we had to move houses. And the people we’d met there, our friends, none of them spoke to us again.”
On TV the audience was cheering. The preacher bathing in adulation.
“Oh, that’s um…so why are you going to Mildura?”
“I’m not. All the way to Adelaide for me.”
“No my daughter lives there, but she’s in trouble. Trouble with her husband. So I’m off to bring her home.”
“Oh god – that sounds like a difficult trip.”
When the bus driver announces it’s time to go we get up. Leave the TV behind. She’s short. Not slender but not chubby either. She moves carefully and deliberately. Outside, the tarmac’s speckled with litter. And determined, thirsty little trees are bracing themselves for the sun.
She’s seated near the front. My seat is down the back.
“Hey, um, nice to meet you and, um, good luck with Adelaide.”
Once the bus has pulled back onto the road, I put my walkman on, and sit there, looking out at the unending land. Mulling over people and gods, children and parents, lives and stories. And hoping for a happy ending to the story I’d just heard. Hoping for this lady, and the daughter I’d never met.