Do you find that in the phantasm of memory, places are larger than their physical reality? That a set of walls, columns, ceiling or windows, surface in your mind then tower over you like a Sphinx, contemplating you with entrenched superiority? History grows on places like a fungus until they have eyes of their own, a secret soul, a hidden murmur.
I can still feel the invasive pollen in my nose from the orchids in the chancel. On a bright day, the sun would turn stained glass faces, robes, angels, saints, skies and disciples of every shade and hue into a bewitching seduction. In my mind's eye, I walk slowly down the nave of my old friend, enemy and companion. As ever my tentative footsteps, light as they are, make the empty church certain to betray me; each step lets the watchful air cry out my presence, from the slow deep thud of my boot heel to its chorus of echoes rippling like alarm bells off the aisles to the chancel, through the transept arches and back to the nave again. Funny how it always seems louder the slower you walk. It is a comforting sound, but only when you know you are alone, and always loudest when you desperately need to be invisible.
I look up. The old beams are of pale timber, like the revamped floor, thanks or no thanks to council-funded refurbishment rather too garish for a church this age. Authentic in swerving elegance, those beams are insulted by walls of cheap white paint, where the original Renaissance stone claws its way back through the papery layer in grey patches and cracks, glaring at the modern floor as if to spit on it. I take comfort in that, too.
I was a curious sort of girl, I suppose. As long as no one watched me, this building, the stained glass and meditative echoes, were all mine. As a child I was granted the freedom to play solo games, imaginary adventures or hide and seek with myself, running up and down the aisles, finding secluded shadows in and out of the transepts, usually hiding from my elderly aunts behind the arcade pillars, my trusty allies.
Aunts Pam and Alison would spend ages at a time chatting with Minister Falkirk, complimenting his altar flowers, where did he buy them, might they have a cutting, and so on, incessantly tedious babble. Whereas I, from the age of three onwards, was given free rein, a temporary window of liberty to run around the church on their nagging condition that I stay indoors. I soon found some favourite spots.
The pipe organ always unnerved me. Classical in appearance, oversized for the building, to me it was a gigantic overbearing leviathan; I was afraid to go near it, half-certain it waited ready to open its mouth in some great gape of baleen pipes and chew me, further, further in, and gulp . I grew bolder with age while the organ comparatively shrank in size, until ultimately, we reached a truce, the company of that loud beast preferable to the two elderly ladies I was obliged to call family.
Family. Related by blood. I found it hard to believe. I saw nothing of myself in them; they raised me on the principle that family is a good thing, where all caring and self-sacrifice comes from, but if I was already at odds with run-of-the-mill normality, I was certainly at odds with them . Their reaction to my perpetual indifference was to try and 'smooth out the inconsistencies in her character', all because normality, according to popular opinion, is also supposed to be a good thing.
I feel it necessary to explain to you my connection with this church, so let's just clear up something important first, shall we: God, religion, prayers, Moses, the Ten so-called Commandments? It did not occur to me to care, I was taken to sermons and told to sing hymns because that is what little girls are expected to do - what they're told. While heads bowed in prayer, and Falkirk, astute and gloomy in his ministerial garb, prattled on from his lectern, I lost myself in the sta