‘Actually, Vanessa,’ the Examining Brother said, creaking forwards in the best cane chair, ‘we aren’t told that the fruit Adam and Eve partook of in the Garden of Eden was an apple.’ I nodded, bowing my head, and picked at the scarlet hair dye that stained my cuticles. Brother Barry Hepworth looked around the audience of sixty Brethren and Sisters with barely contained triumph. He had wanted to set me straight for years. This was my punishment for reading Malcolm X when I was fifteen and declaring Jesus’ soul-man blackness in Sunday school.
My family were terrified. We were all crammed into a cousin’s home in Rowville for my baptism into the faith. Solemn but happy Brethren and Sisters spilled from the lounge room into the salmon-coloured kitchen, lining the halls with fold-up camp chairs and balancing note-filled King James Version Bibles on their knees. If you read the Bible correctly, they preached, baptism is the only way to salvation.
I nearly hadn’t made it through Brother Barry’s preliminary examination. This was unheard of. Nobody had ever, not in the whole five generations of my family’s belief, been close to rejection before. The preliminary examination is a longer version of the baptismal examination and is held a few days before the baptism.
In a process long perfected through fourteen years of attendance at Sunday school, the examiner recites questions from the Baptismal Examiner and the applicant responds.
‘Is there a devil?’ the examiner asks. ‘No,’ answers the applicant.
‘What does the term “devil” mean?’ ‘Sin in the flesh.’
‘Where does it say that?’
‘Romans 7:17, 18.’
‘Read it out, please.’
‘ “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.” ’ ‘Very good.’
I ran into trouble with Brother Barry when he tried to make me pledge that I would never go to the theatre, movies, football matches and ‘the like’—worldly pursuits, in other words.
The generally accepted sidestep for this line of enquiry is to say, ‘I will try to avoid such places.’ This is to allow leeway for the slightly more liberal members of the faith, such as my family, who regularly watched TV. For Brother Barry the faith was becoming lax and standards were falling. It was his duty to bring me back from the brink of apostasy.
‘Do we attend worldly pursuits?’ he asked in my preliminary examination.
‘It’s best to avoid them,’ I said.
Brother Barry’s eyebrows went into spasm.
‘Avoid?’ he said. ‘I think you mean it’s best if we never go.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s best to avoid them.’
For an hour he pushed. For an hour I didn’t buckle. Our sticking point was football matches. I don’t know how Brother Barry and I got stuck on football. It must have been the principle.
Football. I am so ignorant about the game that when I was younger and working Saturdays in the local newsagency I noticed everyone buying black and white streamers. I assumed everyone was having black and white parties. When I returned home Mum laughed and said, ‘The Magpies were in the Grand Final today.’
When I refused to tell Brother Barry that I would never, not under any circumstances, attend a football match, he panicked and fled. He drove one minute around the corner to my grandparents’ place and ten minutes later Grandad rang and told me that he’d sorted it out.
‘It’s best to avoid those places, hey, kiddo?’ Grandad said.
‘Yeah, don’t worry about old Barry boy, he gets into a bit of a flap every now and then. I’ve sorted him out. See you on Sat’day, kid.’
I should have foreseen it. I’d been born into the faith and had gone with my parents every Sunday to a hired hall in Wantirna, a hired hall because they didn’t believe in owning ‘pagan’ churches. Every Sunday I had sprawled at my parents’ feet on a rug on the hall’s polished wooden floor and had coloured in with the riches of my Crayola Caddy amid interruptions of hymns and prayers that we had to stand up for.
Brother Barry made his children sit and read on the green vinyl concertina chairs after his youngest daughter, Georgie, was banned from drawing after she coloured in too loudly with a texta. He would have liked the rest of the children to follow, but he couldn’t drum up the support. We children barely noticed the adults’ rituals.
During my baptismal examination Brother Barry threw in a question that he might have prepared me for had we not become entangled with the issue of football.
‘What’s the highlight of our week?’ he asked.
I floundered. Frontline? Friday night fish ’n’ chips? Wednesday night’s block of chocolate? Brother Barry’s eyebrows danced.
‘The breaking of bread,’ he said, eventually.
‘Oh,’ I said.
Every Sunday the Brethren and Sisters break bread, drink wine and ask forgiveness for their sins. A loaf of bread is divided into eight chunks, placed on eight heavy glass plates, then passed from baptised hand to baptised hand where a pinch is torn and eaten. It is like eating death. The wine is poured into eight glass jugs where the Brethren and Sisters fill their own tiny wine glasses then throw back their heads to take a swallow of wine. It is vile: bargain basement because some were worried that people might get a taste for it.
One week an unknown visitor to the rented hall broke into the locked cupboard where the wine was kept and poured some into a glass. It was so revolting that after a taste the intruder poured the rest back.
I was eighteen when I decided I wanted to eat the bread and wine. The first Gulf War was starting and Armageddon was close. I had no smart responses left to the perennial Sunday school question: ‘What will you do when Jesus returns?’
The question meant: what will become of you after you have been judged unworthy because you are not baptised? I thought: I will be alone; everyone I know will be saved.
Protocol meant that first I had to write a letter to the Head Brother. This was Robert Winterton, my first cousin once removed and one of my favourite members of the faith. For years he’d entertained me with impressions of the knights who say ‘Ni’. No-one else found him funny. Silly man, Grandma hissed whenever he bobbed past to deliver the announcements after the breaking of bread.
At the conclusion of that week’s announcements, which consisted of the news that Brother and Sister Charlie Sorrel sent greetings from Woy Woy, Robert said with an almost sinful degree of enthusiasm, ‘We’re very pleased to announce that we have received a letter requesting baptism.’
‘Dear Rob …’ he read.
I hunkered down in my seat and pulled the borrowed hat over my eyes.
‘… I have been attending Sunday school since I was four and have realised that I will only be saved through baptism. Please make the necessary arrangements. Yours faithfully …’
Everyone, even the lounging teenagers playing Game Boys behind the back of Brother Barry held their breath wondering who it was going to be this time. With the forthcoming war the barely twenty-somethings had been converting in chronological age order. I was way out of line—ahead of me should have been Sam and Georgie, Kirsten and Nick, and maybe even that wayward pal of mine, Bronwyn.
A collective sharp intake of breath sucked the oxygen out of the room. I started to cry. As soon as the concluding hymn ended, streams of Brethren and Sisters congratulated me. Brother Barry’s mother-in-law held me in her cotton wool arms and told me that the next week would be frightening, but I had the love of my Brothers and Sisters. Several joked and said they weren’t expecting my name. Sam, Georgie, Kirsten, Nick and Bronwyn shuffled away.
While I was having my hat knocked off with enthusiastic hugs, the Arranging Brethren were gathering in a circle in the antechamber. The Arranging Brethren were an elected group of seven men who administrated the faith. One of them would examine me. I was desperately hoping for Brother Arthur Quinn, a gentle and patient man, but he’d examined the last applicant and there was a strict rota system. Oh, please, no.
Brother Barry broke through the chain of congratulating Brethren and Sisters and took me to the antechamber.
‘I will be your Examining Brother,’ he said.
‘Fantastic,’ I said, my tone of voice betraying my first sinful wish towards a Brother not five minutes after I’d applied to join.
‘First of all,’ he said, ‘we’ll need you to change this letter.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’ I said, my first act of defiance against a Brother five minutes and ten seconds after I’d decided to live in eternity with him.
‘It’s not right,’ he said. ‘In the future, nobody will know who “Rob” and “Vanessa” were.’
We’re not supposed to have a future, I thought, Jesus is coming back at any second. Remember?
I added my last name to my Christian name and crossed out ‘Rob’ (rather messily and impatiently) and wrote ‘Mr Winterton’, as if I were writing to a stranger for life insurance. Brother Barry arranged a time to come over during the week and put me through the preliminary examination. It was right in the middle of Frontline.
Baptism day. I was dressed in a not-very-demure hot-pink dress and desperately trying to tuck my disastrously dyed red hair up into my new Sunday hat. Five minutes to go and Brother Barry hadn’t arrived. A hymn rattled out of an asthmatic organ. Late-arriving Brethren and Sisters pushed through the throng to get to the kitchen with cream-filled party cakes while early arrivals shifted in their already uncomfortable camp chairs. I hadn’t heard from Brother Barry since the preliminary examination. One minute to go.
‘Still on?’ Brother Barry whispered in my ear. He creaked into the cane chair and addressed the audience. The organ music faded to a stop, camp chairs were hastily snapped open and King James Version Bibles fell open to Genesis 1:1.
‘Let’s start with Adam and Eve,’ he said.
The crowd shuffled. It was going to be a long night.
‘What caused the fall of Adam and Eve?’ he asked.
‘They took an apple from the tree …’ I began.
‘Actually, Vanessa,’ he said, ‘we aren’t told that …’
I looked at Grandad. He raised his eyebrows and gave a rueful smile. The Brethren and Sisters squirmed for me. I fought down a glare at Brother Barry. So this was how it would be.
After two further hours of questioning Brother Barry came to the subject of ‘worldly pursuits’. Despite his earlier Edenic produce lesson I felt confident that because of our stand-off at the preliminary examination he would allow me to use the sidestep.
‘Do we attend worldly pursuits?’ he asked.
‘It’s best to avoid them,’ I said.
Brother Barry looked at me evenly then addressed the audience.
‘Avoid?’ he said. ‘I think you mean it’s best if we never go.’
I held my breath. I thought about my options. There weren’t any. I could sit and argue. I could shame my family. I glanced at Grandad. He rolled his eyes.
‘Yes,’ I said.
Brother Barry stretched, and the cane chair cracked. He asked if any Brothers had more questions. After a silent minute I went to prepare in the laundry.
I wore the baptismal gown, a white cotton top-to-toe shroud underneath which my hot-pink bathers were clearly visible. I walked barefoot into the aluminium garage, holding up the gown’s hem. In the middle of the garage the baptismal bath was assembled. It was homemade, about thirty years old; a plastic pool-liner had been cut to fit a coffin-shaped frame. I stepped into the bath at the direction of the Bath Brother who had stayed outside tending it. The water was warm. The Bath Brother told me to sit down and I waited, mind blank, for everyone to troop out to witness.
Brother Barry marched over. I thought I might cry. He placed his hand on my head and I shuddered.
‘Do you agree to abide by the laws of God as laid out in the Holy Bible?’ he intoned.
‘I do,’ I said.
‘Then I baptise you, and may your sins be washed away.’ He mumbled into my ear, ‘Hold your nose,’ and pushed back my head. Underwater I was held down by Brother Barry and two Brothers who pushed down on my legs and arms. Full immersion, or the baptism is invalid. After ten seconds, satisfied that I was fully immersed, they let me up. Brethren and Sisters were already walking back into the house.
I was sin-free. Everything looked brighter, in focus. I wondered what my first sin would be. I wouldn’t, I thought, I’ll never sin again.
I dressed back in my hot-pink dress that was too bright and tried to position my hat over my wet blazing red hair. I squelched up to the front to silence and Brother Barry welcomed the new Sister Vanessa. Sister Vanessa who hasn’t sinned.
Afterwards my cousin Robert congratulated me. ‘You’re the first Sister to have Ronald McDonald hair,’ he said. I laughed loudly, and my new Brothers and Sisters turned to glare. Brother Barry’s eyebrows twitched and I wondered how long I would last.