Soul of the Town

It’s probably the weirdest feeling I have ever had – visiting a town that is dead.

Okay, this town’s not dead. Not yet. But it’s dying. Deserted houses with dilapidated ‘For Sale’ signs in their front yards; shop fronts boarded up so long the nails have rusted into the wood; roads left to fall apart; parks and landscaping brown and over-run by weeds and grasses. The town is rotting. My town is dying. It’s lost its soul.

The local council’s tried to breathe life into the place on many occasions, but they generally succeed in nothing more than prolonging the inevitable. With every marketing push, all they seem to get is half a dozen retirees, two new businesses opening up beside the still-running deli and newsagent-cum-post office and a new owner for the service station. And then the downhill spiral starts all over again. None last. The service station gets yet another new owner. The shops on either side of the newsagent and deli empty again. And the real estate agent across the road sighs and drops the prices yet again.

There is nothing left here; the soul has been sucked right out of the town…

I wish it was not so, but there it is. And I miss it.

I come back here on a semi-regular basis. I have come to own one of those many ‘For Sale’ houses. Mine’s the large brick one on Murray Street, two up from the corner of Second Avenue, on the right as you head towards Festive Road and the old war memorial in Remembrance Park. Mine looks okay – better than most if I do say so myself. But that’s because I still come up here and tend to it. A part of me is sad to see it like it is, for sale in the middle of a street full of houses for sale with only five or six residents left behind, surrounded by uncared for buildings, a large pot-hole in the road out the front. But that is because of the memories tied up in there. Still, the house was never really mine. I merely inherited it when Aunt Jess died a few years ago and I put it straight on the market.

I needed the money more than I needed the property and the memories of the family that loved me and was now all gone…

I’m over it now. I’ve come to terms with her death. But not the death of this place. I still hope that it will not come to that; I hope it can be saved, that something can be injected back into this place.

The house still hasn’t sold, four years later. I’m asking too much for it, I know, and I won’t drop the price either. And I still spend at least one weekend a month here. Watching the whole area die. But I’m really still here. That ‘For Sale’ sign is a nice cover, but I haven’t really left this place. The place is leaving me.

It is dying.

And I know what inflicted that lethal wound.

I was here when he killed this town. Just as surely as if he had dropped a bomb in the middle of everything, he killed this town. Yes, I know he would say he thought he was doing the right thing. In fact, I am sure he would never admit to doing anything wrong, pompous, arrogant man that he was. He would blame everyone else and go on about his own thing, not caring about anyone else in the world except himself.

He killed this place and so many people will never forgive him for that.

But it is not well to speak ill of the dead, no matter how much they deserved it. He is not here to defend himself… I guess. Of course, he could be. In this town, you never know. But what is sure is that when he was here, in the flesh, he killed this place. He took a knife and cut its heart out, letting its life-force flow away.

He was a murderer and deserved what he eventually got in that pathetic hostel down in Adelaide. At least, that’s my opinion.

He killed this town. This poor, innocent town that had not done anything to anyone except give them a place to call their own, give them a home, nurture them, care for them, and let them rest in peace when, finally, they shuffled off this mortal coil and went to a better place. This was all so many people ever had, and now its life is slowly ebbing away.

I can’t blame the people for leaving after it was all said and done. Once that life-blood was gone, who could really blame them? The whole place was dead because of him. It wasn’t the same. I may not have been born and bred here, but I was most certainly raised here; this was where I grew up and where I finally found myself.

Where so many others have, as well.

This town was unique. It had a special life all its own. Local legends tell of it being established before Adelaide city itself, not long after the initial South Australian settlement on Kangaroo Island, but that’s really hard to prove. They talk of a collapsed copper mine being under the streets, and the hundreds of men buried there. They talk of an Aboriginal meeting and burial place under our feet. But they used to talk of the spirit of the place, how the town itself had a life of its own. If you were born here, it was inevitable you came back here to be buried. The Shrine of Remembrance has only twenty-three names on it. Twenty-three names from five conflicts – Boer War, World War One, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam. Most towns have that many from the Boer War alone. Sorry, six conflicts, because there is one name there from the Maori Wars in New Zealand. And again, this has to be the only Shrine that even mentions that rather dark part of our history.

But what I’m getting at is that this town looked after its own. It was part of that place. When you came here you were always welcome. Everyone welcomed you, and the town itself welcomed you.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe it didn’t welcome him. Maybe he did not want to be welcomed by such as this. Maybe he just wanted to prove that he was better than anything else we could ever have.

In this day and age, he came in like a nineteenth-century land-lord, presiding over all of us, and proceeded to try to tell us how to live our lives. We rejected him…

And he killed the town in revenge.

And now he’s dead as well.

He came in after a long time without one like him. I never knew his name, only that he was the Reverend.

My Aunt Jess – who stayed here after it was all over until her own death – never liked him. Even before he had introduced himself to the town, on the day he arrived, he went to the sign-board outside and changed Reverend McCurdy’s words. ‘Jesus Loves Everyone’ had been on the white, wooden board, in the standard black letters ever since I had been sent up here by my mother, Jess’ niece. ‘Repent ye all who wish to walk in the way of God!’ was the message the new reverend imparted. And within a week he killed this town, driving a knife into its heart, taking its very soul.

Reverend McCurdy served our town as well as three others in the area. Four services every Sunday, one in each town, more than eight hours on the road for the round trip. But he chose to stay with us during the week, only leaving when he was called out to a neighbouring town for a wedding, funeral, baptism, or even the odd bit of counselling, maybe even supervising church building repairs. He liked it with us, though; he accepted the town and the way it was. All those who came to see him when he had first arrived had not scared him off. In fact, my Aunt Jess always thought he had been flattered by all the attention.

But he had the accident. He had always planned to retire with us and our town; he even put an offer in on a small place on the main street. It’s been deserted since then, the original ‘For Sale’ sign still out the front, virtually white now after so many years. See, the accident put paid to that. I remember hearing about it in the main street of the town. I ran home and Aunt Jess told me that it was true. He had been hit by a car while crossing a street in one of the other towns he serviced while waiting for a wedding party to show up.

I started to cry – I was only thirteen years old and finally felt at home for the first time in my life after eighteen months in the town – but Aunt Jess just smiled at me. “He’ll be back,” she said. “They always come back.”

I had no idea what she meant. Two nights later I found out. And that was when I knew I had really been accepted as a part of the town.

It took eighteen months – not long after my own fifteenth birthday – before a new reverend arrived in our area. People still went to Church on Sundays, conducted for the most part by lay-preachers. Some people I heard would comment on how good the sermon was, and that was when I knew who had conducted it that day. I understood, though I never went. I was going to the area school in a nearby town, in my second year of high school, and tended to spend Sundays doing homework. Being in this place had really changed me. By now I was so different from the rebellious, irresponsible youth my mother had dumped on an elderly relative that my ‘old life’ seemed to have happened to a different person.

In fact, my mother had wanted me to return to Adelaide with her when I turned thirteen. I stayed with Aunt Jess, who convinced my mother that the environment up here was better for me. I worked on Saturdays in the service station, earning my own pocket money, and was even learning to drive despite being underage. I did not want to leave here. In the end, I was allowed to stay.

The town did not like its own to go. And I was accepted, a part of it all. I could not have left.

So, the new reverend came. And, as I said, the first thing he did was change the sign. It went from a pleasant message to an old-style Bible-bashing. My Aunt Jess told me a little later that he had been sent up from Adelaide because his parish had not liked his old style attitude, but that could have been gossip generated to make him out to be even worse. Brow-beating, long-winded sermons was all he seemed to bring with him from the one Sunday he actually preached in our town. But he alerted the town – the real town – and they readied themselves for him. Unfortunately, he fought it.

That Sunday the sign changed and the new reverend came up to the pulpit and breathed fire and brimstone and hell and damnation down upon all and sundry. The congregation was stunned, but then he was gone, not even waiting around afterward, off to the next town to fulfill his next duty. Everyone was stunned and already seeds of doubt were sown in the minds of the townsfolk. And they talked.

That was how I discovered a lot about what happened: through good ol’ town gossip. But even the gossip’s stopped now. My Aunt Jess has been dead for four years, and all this happened two years before that, so for six years even the normal channels of communication have been closed. Another sign the town really is dead already and just doesn’t want to admit it.

However, despite all the gossip, the first the town even knew of the arrival of a new reverend was the sign change, and then that Sunday service. He spent the next three nights at one of the other towns, but other bits of information filtered down to us over that time. One of the other towns – Dragoton, I think – had almost booed him away from the church the previous Sunday and he was abused when leaving another service. But that apparently made him more determined than ever to “bring God to the heathens who live up here!” But even that abuse got too much for him to bear and he took up the Church’s offer to come to our town and take up residence behind the church building, in Reverend McCurdy’s old rooms. It was well-known that he chose us because he had not suffered at our hands; the fact of the matter is, he did not give us a chance to.

And the town came to see him away from his pulpit. Throughout the day he had many visitors, given home-made cakes and jars of jams and table-cloths and towels and everything else that people had to give. What should have taken him two hours at the most to unload ended up lasting the entire day. And eventually at eight o’clock that night he put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the front door so he could get some peace.

Robyn Terrence, the town’s Church secretary, was already in the hall the following morning, cleaning the pews down as she did every Thursday, when the Reverend appeared. “Don’t the people in this damned town read?” he growled.

“Sorry?” Robyn returned.

“Last night, after sunset, there were voices and people moving outside my window and I know I saw eyes staring at me while I was in bed!” he ranted.

“Ohh.” Robyn fell silent, then muttered, “I suppose when they’re used to you, they’ll go away.”

“Well, I want you to tell me who they are,” the Reverend demanded.

“It’s hard to say,” she managed to reply. She said later that she was afraid of the look in his eyes, like a maniac out of some horror film.

“I see,” he stated coldly. “I’m the outsider. You all may claim to be welcoming me, not abusing me like those other hicks, but I’m just being checked out. I can handle that. I really can. But last night it went beyond curiosity. It was perversion! So, I command you to tell me who they were!”

“I really can’t,” Robyn stuttered.

“Fine.” And he strode back to the residence with, Robyn told everyone, an air of real anger.

It did not take long for word of this to spread and a concerted effort was made by members of the community to ensure that he was made to feel welcome. But none came away particularly impressed with the man or his demeanour. By six o’clock even the Reverend realised that the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign would not be necessary. But he did not see anything wrong with what he was doing; these people were known as God-fearing but not particularly religious, and he had decided that he was going to be the man to lead the flock back to the Shepherd. He was a pastor, a teacher, a leader of men, and he demanded respect and obedience, not love. They had to love God. They only had to obey him. For he was destined for greater things.

The sun had barely broken over the horizon when Robyn and her husband were rudely awoken by the loud knocking at the door. Shaun went to answer it and the Reverend barged rudely in. They could both see just how angry he was. “They came back last night!” he fumed, not even waiting to be introduced to the husband. “I demand that you tell me who they are!” His face was red and he was puffing; it looked like he had sprinted across from the Church without stopping.

Shaun looked at Robyn and before he could stop her, she muttered, “I really can’t say for sure…”

“One of them came into my room!” he ranted. “And he was wearing a priest’s clothes! What sort of sick joke is that? Are you just trying to make me angry, to get rid of me? Well, it won’t work! God has spoken to me! He has told me…”

“Was he an older man, bald on top, white hair, broken nose, one eye scarred?” Shaun asked suddenly and calmly, interrupting the Reverend.

“Yes!” The Reverend stepped up to Shaun, who dwarfed him easily. He’s now working down in Port Lincoln on a tuna fishing boat while Robyn does that company’s accounts. And they have a daughter now as well. Their house was sold early on, but the owners only lasted two months before they put it on the market as well. “Who is he?”

Shaun pushed the priest away and returned the angry glare, making the cleric take a step backwards, but the aura of fury still hung in the air about him. Shaun paused, then simply replied, “Reverend McCurdy.”

“He’s dead,” the pastor snapped back rudely. But Shaun turned his back on the religious man and lead his wife away. “Tell me the truth!” the Reverend screamed hysterically, but he was left all alone in the hallway. The next Robyn and Shaun knew the door had been slammed shut and they were left in peace.

We can only guess what happened that night. Word of his altercation with the Terrences spread like wildfire and the townsfolk decided to just leave him alone until Sunday, so he was not seen by anybody that day. Then the night came and went… and something happened. Robyn decided not to go into the Church that Saturday to help prepare things. Shaun said she was upset, but my Aunt Jess said she was really angry.

Despite everything, that Saturday Nana Terrence, Shaun’s widowed grandmother, went to the priest’s residence as she always did on Saturdays to clean it, even when there had been no priest. The reverend let her in absently, but then went into the study where she saw that he was poring over the parish records, looking at names and photographs and dates.

In the bedroom, the first thing she noticed was a Bible on the floor, open and with half the pages folded under. It was obvious it had been thrown here. As she went across to pick it up she also found a crucifix and plastic cup on the floor. She could have sworn that he had been throwing things at a blank wall. She said nothing, but made sure she had a close look at what he was reading as she tidied up around the Reverend.

As she bid her farewells, the pastor asked, “What do I owe you?”

She smiled. “Nothing, dear. I’ve done this since my good husband died and I’ll do it till my arthritis tells me it’s time to stop.”

“Well, thank…” he started, then stopped and stared at her strangely. She felt very uncomfortable and it took all of her will to not run away from those piercing, intense, maniacal eyes. “Is your husband one of these men?” he asked suddenly, indicating some photos spread out on the table before him.

She came across nervously and smiled despite herself. “That’s him,” she stated, pointing at the picture immediately.

“Donald Terrence,” he read out loud from a piece of paper stuck to the bottom of it. He stared at the older woman as though about to ask her something else, but shook his head as if changing his mind. “Thank-you again, Mrs. Terrence,” he muttered absently as he turned back to his books and photographs. Nana noticed for the first time that his eyes looked like he had not slept a wink all night. But she did not stay around; she was simply glad to be out of there.

What tipped the Reverend over the edge? The pastor before Reverend McCurdy has lasted just one Sunday before leaving, my Aunt Jess told me. And in the 1960s they went through five in a row before one had the courage to stay. I guess everyone in the town assumed the extra populous would just drive this one away as well. But it didn’t. He fought it. That night he fought it, invoking a power that should not have been his to control.

And the town’s long and painful death started.

I hope it isn’t as terminal as it has seemed so far, but I fear it is…

That Saturday night, Sunday morning, for the first time, the Reverend was not visited, and maybe he thought it was all over. For by now he surely knew who those intruders had been. But he was not prepared for what did happen that night. He stayed awake, ready for anything, armed only with his Bible and some knowledge of who he was facing. But all for nought. He started to drift off to sleep when the first sounds reached his ears.

The front door of the Church hall opened and closed, and then voices were heard. Hushed whispers and a little laughter. Fear gripped him as he made his way to the hall. He opened the door tentatively and saw three elderly people seated in the pews near the centre. He strode angrily over to them. “What are you doing here?” he demanded. “It’s one o’clock in the morning!”

One of them – I think it might have been old Mrs. Michaelson, who was never afraid to speak her mind – just smiled at him. “We’re waiting for the service,” she replied. “Nowadays we always come to this one.”

“Our friends all come here,” Mrs. Peters, her sister, added. The third, Mr. Peters, Mrs. Peters’ brother-in-law, nodded.

The reverend’s anger made his face flare bright red. He had not slept now for over two days, and it showed in his haggard features. “Look,” he growled, “I don’t know what you think…”

“It’s so good to see a new face joining us tonight.” The Reverend stopped and turned slowly. His fury had been replaced by terror. Beyond fear, Mrs. Peters would later say. Standing behind the pulpit was an apparition he knew from photographs and nocturnal visits, glowing blue, but looking as solid as anything else around them. “Will you be assisting me tonight, or will you be a member of the congregation?” Reverend McCurdy asked not unkindly.

“You’re dead!” hissed the Reverend, striding down the aisle framed by the pews. Out of the corners of his eyes, he could see the seats filling up, all the glowing blue faces staring impassively at him as he delayed their service. Gradually the whole room developed this faint incandescence, giving everything the feel of a very realistic dream.

Reverend McCurdy smiled at the newcomer. “I know,” was all he said as the man came up beside him. And, on impulse, the Reverend struck out at the image before him. He almost toppled as his fist came into contact with nothing. “I thought you would have learnt after throwing things at me in our room the other night,” the dead priest rebuked gently.

The Reverend looked near tears as he turned and ran to the back of the hall, clutching his Bible close to his chest.

Reverend McCurdy smiled serenely at the congregation before him. “Sorry for the delay,” he began. “Let us begin, shall we? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy…”

“In the Name of God, the Father, protector of all things, Master of the World, I cast thee out!” screamed another, high-pitched, hysterical voice, and a shower of water sprayed out from the rear of the altar.

Reverend McCurdy stopped, his eyes widening in pain or surprise, before fading to nothing, a picture on a television screen that lost its power. And the Reverend re-appeared from the rear of the hall, his purple robes on, a bottle of water in one hand, a large, golden crucifix atop an enormous shepherd’s crook ion the other, his Bible clutched tightly under an arm. “In nomine Dei Patri et Filii et Spiriti Sanctus, pro Magistro Mundi, ego teum proiceo!” he screamed as he sprayed the water at those gathered. Every single one of them that the droplets touched froze and disappeared except the three elderly people seated in a row.

“What are you doing?” Mrs. Michaelson sobbed.

“I am saving this town from itself!” he screamed in reply before striding defiantly out into the street.

It was terrible. Absolute carnage. He burst into houses and sprayed water everywhere, chanting in English and Latin alternately. Blue images of people would appear, freeze, then fade, and he would move on to the next building. And with every step he took his voice became more and more hysterical, his eyes wider and more frantic, his voice more manic. People tried to restrain him, but he shrugged them off as if they were young children. Even someone as large as Shaun Terrence could do no more than slow him briefly. He was possessed by something greater than any of us could imagine as he ran rampant through the town.

As he killed our town.

And the sun rose and he returned to the Church, laughing like a lunatic the whole while, as all of us stood out in the street.

We all knew straight away.

A lethal wound had been inflicted.

The very soul of this town was gone…

Later that morning the Reverend was found with his face a bloodied, bruised mess. No-one helped him. It was not until someone from the next town came to see what had happened to him, why he had missed his service, that he received any aid at all. No-one ever found out who had laid into him because his mind was already gone. Whatever had taken hold of him that night had left with more than it had arrived with. Maybe he had killed the soul of our town, but his own soul was the price he had had to pay.

The last we heard he was found dead in a Salvation Army hostel in Adelaide only a few months later from an apparent heart attack. Despite their best efforts at restraining him and attempting to institutionalise the mindless idiot he had become, he had somehow found his way onto the streets of the state’s capital where he died an anonymous, lonely, confused man, old before his time.

None of us shed a tear for him.

But we all cried deep down inside for the town he had murdered.

And so here I am again, sitting in the living room of my Aunt Jess’ house. Six years have passed, but still the town will not go. It lingers, holding on as well as it is able. I just wish I knew how to put it out of its misery… or how to put things right again.

I went back into the Church building this afternoon. Apart from the priest who came after the Reverend, not one single person had stepped inside until I opened that door. The paint is peeling, the iron gutters falling, the wood rotting, some of the windows broken, but it is still the same. Dust has caked everything inside. Sunlight struggles to push its way through the dirt-encrusted window panes.

But when I stood behind the altar I could not help but smile as a tingling sensation ran up my spine. And I actually prayed for the life of this place, the only home I have ever really known, for the life that was lost, that it once had, for its vitality, its heart. Its soul.

The sun slid down over the horizon half an hour ago.

It’s so calm and peaceful here still, despite everything.

Someone’s in the kitchen.

I hope my Aunt Jess makes me a cuppa as well. I could really do with it.

And we’ll drink it together as we watch our town come back to life. Slowly, surely, little by little.

I hope.

No, I know

S. Gepp

 

S.Gepp is an Australian, with two children, two university degrees (and counting), two tertiary education diplomas, and a resumé that looks like a list of every job you could ever have without really trying, including stints as a school teacher, scientist, editor and journalist. He has also been a performance acrobat, a professional wrestler, a stand-up comedian and an actor. He has been writing for 30 years (with some publications: one novella, about 10 poems, 40-odd short stories, and counting) and hopes to be a real writer if he grows up. A dull life.

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