by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2012
A young woman goes to church to speak to God. Someone hears.
The ceiling is gorgeous. It’s not that it has some great artwork painted on it, or even that the wood is beautiful. It’s that it’s so high. I can barely see it and that makes all the difference somehow. It looks nearly black from here.
Swallow. Hm. It looks lovely.
Breathe. Nobody can hear. Breathe easier. God, why have I never come here before? I mean, ahh, ‘gosh’. Yeah. Sorry. If you’re, ah, listening. Ha.
Eva was unaware of her pupils expanding, didn’t realise how adorable it looked. Her hands were held together in an unconscious if right-spirited imitation of prayer, and the angle of her head made her straight mouth look like a perfectly innocent frown. She wore heels, a soft red overcoat and black tights. Had there been someone in the rafters to stare back at her, he would have smiled: she looked like a very sad cartoon puppy. Some footsteps from the street outside shook her concentration and made her notice the floor-tiles instead. They were good too.
She stood beneath the cathedral’s Lantern Window, although she never learned the name of it. To her mind it was ‘the big candelabra near the gift shop’, which was actually not a shop, but just a few leaflet-racks and a desk for conversation. Ahead of her lay twenty polished wooden pews leading to the Sanctuary.
It’s all very pretty.
To Eva’s right was the open doorway to Church Street. The city shopping district was the same as any in England, maybe a little greener and quieter than most, but here inside was a beautifully-made hall she had never gotten around to seeing. An older chap sat a few yards ahead, very still and reverent in a way that Eva felt her own generation were never quite able to replicate.
Something to do with attention spans.
It had nothing to do with attention spans. And although she would never realise, Eva was reverential enough, in her own way. She listened carefully when people spoke to her and she worried herself with it. In a roundabout way, she had learned this strength from her mother, who had been just the opposite. The standard rebellious stage people go through in their teens and early twenties had ended very neatly for Eva, leaving her strong and humble, and comfortable if a bit nervous. Her first dalliance with true love, via an excitable research student named Craig, had come to a more untidy end. This had all happened years ago, and Sheffield had grown on her, but often when annoyed she would think of Craig, sometimes without even noticing. She had a habit of giving the ‘silent treatment’ to her dog.
After a few minutes, just admiring the church hall didn’t entertain her anymore. She took a few steps forward and sat down, three rows behind the old man. Without noticing, she held one eye on the slab of sunlight laid by the door. Since stepping inside, she had carried herself like a newly-qualified teacher looking for a staff room, or someone proud asking for a bank loan. A little jumping nerve irritated the back of her neck very slightly, which she scratched absently, enjoying the satisfaction whilst thinking of other things.
I don’t want to be here after twelve and get caught up in the service. I have to cook today, and I’ll need to look around for bath towels. I need to do what I came here to do. Swallow.
Don’t breathe too loud. Don’t disturb that man.
And now I’m just looking at a stained-glass window. Jesus looks kinda weird here.
It was true. In the window the Messiah appeared silver-skinned, with his wavy hair and halo both dyed the same kind of off-yellow. The toga he wore was a bright, heavy red and he had a big sausage-hand stretching out to somebody invisible. To Eva, He looked grumpy, sick and alien. She was not alone, but a few people loved that window.
I don’t know what that facial expression is supposed to represent.
Ten minutes passed as Eva mused about ancient Rome, and then mentally replayed scenes from Ben Hur and Spartacus, confusing herself with the twisted plotlines. There was a weary kind of smile on her lips as she snapped out of it.
Okay. I want to talk to you. If you are there.
I haven’t prayed in years, and I’m not sure I believe in you. So, sorry. But for whatever it’s worth, I want to talk to you.
Ahead of Eva were three little altars. One was all but empty, just a pedestal. One was a mess of candles and the other held more stained glass. There was no need to light candles at this time of day.
The whole building is full of little bloody symbols I don’t understand. As if I’m visiting a little boy’s den. Ehhh…
The air feels cleaner in here, easier to breathe. Someone works hard to keep this place so austere.
As a matter of fact, the upkeep of the Cathedral was divided into three fairly simple shifts and shared gamely by friends of the building. It was a self-perpetuating thing: such was the cold beauty of the hall that visitors tended not to bring much dirt in, and were careful to leave no mess.
I want to ask what I have to live for.
Every morning I force myself to get up early…
Eva worked in the evenings, at the restaurant attached to a small theatre that used to be a cotton mill. There were no real demands, from engagements, conscience or social life: nothing to justify her getting up early.
…and I feel like I should take pride in it, in having some control, but I hate the mornings.
I don’t like my job anymore. I don’t exactly like the flat, but I don’t want to move. I’m not happy being single but I do not want to go on dates with strangers. I don’t enjoy myself anymore.
There was silence, as always, and unfortunately the Reverend Cowling, some way away by the Hunter’s room, chose this moment to cough. The sound immediately shamed Eva. She felt as if she ought to blush, but did not.
That’s all. I sound like a spoiled child who has to finish her homework. ‘I don’t enjoy myself any more’.
For a second she wished someone she knew had died. That she were grieving. She would have been more comfortable that way, for this moment at least.
Her mother used to say that God is everywhere and time and culture have no meaning for Him, but if you’re going to ask Him favours then you should go to His own house and dress up a bit.
This is a terrible prayer. I’m not used to begging. I don’t know how to do this.
I want to know if life is worth living, and if it is then why I don’t agree. It’s not that I’m complaining about my life… exactly. I feel as if I just don’t know how to use it.
I have a dry throat now. I should have had some coffee, but I didn’t know if there was a toilet near here. Swallow. Again.
And I hate what I’m doing here. These gaudy window-pictures of Christ don’t show him being crucified, but they remind me of it anyway.
‘A man who let himself be tortured to save strangers, and then spent two thousand years making them feel guilty and having them surround themselves with pictures of it.’ This is the description of Christ she would think of later that day and tell an atheist co-worker the next morning. When she did, she would think of this picture and get lost in thought.
I’m sorry. If you’re actually hearing this, I’m sorry. I just don’t feel like I should be here. I don’t really have anything specific to ask.
Ah… How is my brother?
He was fine. Lately he had reconsidered joining the military to ‘make something of himself’, and though their mother had neglected to mention this to Eva during Skype calls or email correspondence, her concern showed through. He still felt bad about the last argument he and Eva had before she left home. He was interested in a girl who he thought was too good for him, and this had made him spend more time alone.
Or… I guess… or how are, ah… I don’t know. I can’t concentrate. It’s one thing to walk into a church and start demanding answers, but another thing to walk out in a huff.
Craig was, exactly as she suspected, very happy with another woman. He was working a small office job which left him dissatisfied but he was able to delude himself very well, and when this didn’t work found joy in other things. He occasionally thought of Eva, but did not truly miss her anymore.
What am I supposed to live for?
The old man is leaving. He looks exactly like the people who sit in front of me on the bus. I think he just noticed me looking and smiled at me, and I missed it. Never mind. He looked happy. Probably got whatever he came here for. Whatever it is that people do come for.
It took a while, but the man (Bill)’s footsteps got quieter. She found his footsteps heavy, awkwardly-placed, careless, and didn’t know whether to be slightly annoyed or feel a little sorry for him. When she lost patience thinking about that, Eva trotted over to the candles in the right-hand chapel. This, more than any area of the Cathedral, looked untidy. There were rows of lit candles, some at slight angles and some straight but melted-down, all supported by a short wooden test-tube rack and all made into funny shapes by the way the wax had slid down and cooled at the bottom. There was a row of fresh ones, separated from the others. One was upside down, for reasons no-one knew.
And what’s the point of this? What do they mean?
They were a way to make visitors feel at home. As well, the light was symbolic of God’s presence. It was that simple.
I’m going to light one of the candles. Good.
She picked one of average length from the left and held it against the brightest flame, centre-second row. The look on her face and the slow breath through her nose challenged the act to mean something, to change something. As if she were threatening it not to.
Swallow. And put it back. In her grip the candle rattled against the wood, but the frictionless wax made it silent. She felt it.
What’s the point, here?
The point was very hard to explain.
I suppose there are just some things that people want to know.
Even when you won’t tell them.
Eva lost her interest in the display quickly but glanced at the top of the chapel archway before she left. Now that she had a good view of the old stonework, she lingered for a moment, frowning. And just like that, she was done thinking.
It took her a minute to reach the street again, during which she distracted herself by frowning until it hurt just a little and pushing her thumbs against her palms. Once she was off Church street and in a quiet spot outside a bar, she spat at the floor.
Michael, a nineteen-year-old boy with a large camera around his neck, briefly admired her figure before stepping into the cathedral himself. For a minute he stood and nodded, wondering if he would be allowed to take pictures, and then simply wondering if anyone would stop him.
The camera was expensive and new. At the time, Michael had an idea about pursuing photography as a career, and had already livened-up a few of his days wandering the city and finding unusual shots. He lacked skill but was at least serious enough to recognise that fact, and understood that he had a knack. In his way, he wondered if he might finally be able to impress his dad if one of his little hobbies turned out to be a bit more serious, and maybe even made him some money down the line.
Reverend Cowling shooed him out five minutes before time so that he could prepare for the afternoon service. Michael didn’t manage to take any photographs, but the fresh air was nice.