A new promise made in the wake of heartbreak
The day my mother died four years ago was the same day I promised myself I’d never step foot in a church again. I guess some promises are impossible to keep, because after a hellish day at work I find myself in front of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Despite my aversion to all things religious, I can’t help but admire the cathedral as fallen autumn leaves dance around my feet and people rush around me on their commute home. Its sandy-coloured bricks have darkened over time with wear, the unpredictable Melbourne weather taking its toll. It does nothing to detract from its overall beauty, however, as the cathedral stands tall and proud amongst the modern buildings threatening to outshine it. The architect in me wants to study every inch from top to bottom, whilst the rest of me embraces the usual bitterness I feel when looking at a church. I stuff my hands deep into the pockets of my winter coat as I run my eyes over the cathedral’s surface, hunching forward to bury the lower half of my face into the neck of my coat. Although it’s only May, the wind is icy and the sun provides little warmth.
Today is Tuesday. On Saturday, I’ll be back at this church to watch the love of my life get married to a guy who isn’t me.
“What the fuck am I doing here?” I mutter to myself. As usual, the thought of Sienna has me holding my breath as I will the tightness that spreads across my chest to dissipate. A strange need to see the cathedral before the wedding pulls me up the steps until I’m standing before the stained-glass double doors. I open the entrance door and step inside.
I make my way to the pews, nodding to one of the attendants as I walk by him. I choose a seat by the aisle, towards the back, pulling my beanie off my dark hair as I sit down. The wooden pews are just as I remember: old, narrow and uncomfortable for a guy my height. The only good thing about the pews are the plush, red cushions which weren’t here the last time I was.
I’m greeted by the pipe organ, morbid and gothic, the rich notes reverberating through the air and filling the cavernous space. There are other people here, some sitting whilst others walk around. Some are clearly locals, taking a break from their lives to talk to God, or maybe to talk to themselves the same way I am. The majority, however, are tourists. I watch as they snap pictures of every interesting thing they see whilst chatting to each other in different languages. Children run up and down the aisle to entertain themselves, their shoes slapping the tiles.
I notice a woman a few pews ahead of me. She’s kneeling on the floor praying, whispering into her interlocked hands. For a moment, I forget who I’ve become after my mum’s death and it feels natural to bow my head and clasp my hands together, like muscle memory. In this moment, I’m not the man hardened by grief, struggling every day when he wakes up and realises he has no family left; I’m just a guy seeking silent guidance from the man upstairs, eager to progress, to love, to experience life. Then, I hear my mother’s voice in my head, fragile with illness but hopeful as we pray from her hospital bed for a few more days together. As usual, the thought of her brings a new wave of grief that threatens to consume me while it wars with my desperate need to move on. I’m quick to put my hands back in my pockets and sit up straight. Why bother praying when the most important prayers of my life went unheard?
I lose track of time as I sit there in the afternoon glow of light filtering through the stained-glass windows, projecting shades of red, blue and orange. Most of the tourists have left. The pipe organ is silent whilst soothing music is being played over the speakers in the meantime. Someone’s been coughing for the past few minutes, and the sound makes me itch with irritation as it echoes through the cathedral, reminding me of the sounds my mother made in the confine of her hospital room. Despite the cushion underneath me, my arse went numb a little while ago. The cold is seeping through the tiles, penetrating the soles of my boots, and I can’t wait to step into a steaming hot shower.
I’m about to call it quits, to forget about the ridiculous impulse which led me here today, when I hear the sound of a pair of heavy winter boots hurrying down the aisle. My glance towards the person is habitual, my eyes being drawn to a sound I hear, but my gaze quickly switches from indifference to shock when I get a good look at them.
Her bright, fiery, red hair fans out behind her as she speed-walks over to a priest waiting near the alter. She seems flustered and, even from a distance, I can tell that her cheeks are flushed from the cold. She rummages through the large tote bag that hangs from her shoulder before pulling out some papers, handing them to the priest. They exchange words for a minute, shake hands, and then he’s disappearing behind a pillar while she makes her way back down the aisle, slower this time.
She notices me from about ten metres away. Immediately, she grins and rushes over. For the second time today, I forget my circumstances as a smile forms on my face at the sight of her. Then, as she massages heat into her likely cold hands, I see the diamond on her left ring finger and remember that we’re only friends and there’s no hope of becoming anything more. I force the smile anyway; I don’t want to hurt her feelings.
“Joseph! Hey!” she whisper-yells, taking a seat beside me. She squeezes my arm in greeting but pauses as realisation hits.
“What are you doing here? I didn’t think you’d come to a church unless…” she drifts off, confusion clear on her eyes.
“Unless it was a special event? Like one of my closest friends getting married on Saturday?” I tease, trying to act normal despite how painful being her friend is. “Thought I’d get reacquainted with God before I walk in here on Saturday,” I murmur.
We sit beside each other in silence, staring at our hands for a few minutes; me thinking about her, while she probably thinks about her fiancé. Then, she turns to me.
“Do you sense your mum at all here?”
“She’s everywhere, Sie…” I collect my thoughts, surprised at the question, but then a soft laugh escapes my mouth. “She used to do this thing where she thought she was silently praying, but her lips would move and if I listened hard enough, I could hear her. It was barely a whisper. Remember that time Jake and I got caught driving the car your dad was gonna give him after he got his licence?”
She snickers at the reminder of her brother and I getting in trouble before slapping a hand over her mouth. “Yes! He was a week off getting his licence. Dad made him pull apart the entire engine and put it back together before he was ever allowed to drive it again. It took him seven months because he had no clue.”
“I had to be there every time he worked on it. It was punishment for both of us.” I smirk, shaking my head at the memory. “Well, the Sunday after that, my mum and I were here. It was early and dead silent and I could hear her whispering. She was telling God that I was a little shit and praying that her hair wouldn’t go grey before 40.” She then asked God to help me find my way, of course. I never told her that I heard her; just tried to be better.
“Your mum was the coolest,” she whispers, after her giggles taper off.
I nod in agreement. “She was.”
“How do you feel being here?” she asks, her voice full of tenderness and concern. It’s one of my favourite things about her.
I chuckle before saying, “Honestly? I feel nothing but cold in here.”
She touches the back of her hand to my cheek and laughs again. “You’re freezing!”
I grab hold of her wrist gently and pull her hand away from my face. It hurts to have her touch me and all I can think about is how I wish things were different. I wish I wasn’t an idiot teenager, too scared to tell my best mate that I had a thing for his sister. I wish that I hadn’t tried to distract myself from my feelings by seeing other women. I wish I realised that life was too short before my mum died because by then Sienna had already met the one. And it wasn’t me.
I realise we’re sitting in silence, staring at each other, my fingers still wrapped around her elegant wrist. I clear my throat and let go of her.
“Are you really okay? You seem a bit off,” she says, her eyebrows furrowed as she takes me in.
With the afternoon sun lighting up her red hair, making her the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, I realise this is the last chance I’ll ever have to tell her how I feel; my last chance to tell her I’ve loved her for years but have been too scared to say anything. Tell her, you dumbarse, my mind whispers.
But I can’t. I can’t ruin what’s going to be the best weekend of her life by being selfish. Instead, I lie.
“I’m fine, Sie, don’t worry about me. Are you excited yet?”
With that question, the focus comes off me and lands on her. She talks animatedly about the wedding as my chest burns with self-hatred. I nod my head and murmur in agreement when the conversation demands but struggle to pay attention.
The conversation starts to slow and she’s looking at her watch before telling me she needs to get going. She presses a chaste kiss to my cheek and grabs her bag from the floor before standing.
We smile at each other, agree that we’ll see each other on Saturday, and then she’s walking away.
“Can’t wait,” I say roughly, but she’s already gone. My head falls into my hands and I sigh deeply. As I sit there in the wake of a broken promise I made myself four years ago, I half-heartedly make another: after Saturday, I’ll forget that I ever loved Sienna and move on.