I parked our car by the kerb outside the church in Hornsby, then stepped out and scurried around to the footpath. Opening the passenger door, I retrieved my small handbag. I slung it over my shoulder, then locked the car and approached the front wooden doors. Tentatively, I opened them and slipped inside. The church hall was darkened, the colourful stained-glass window shaded over by the tall trees outside and the lights turned off. At the altar, Jamie stood with his mother and sister, hunched over unlit candles. I slowly walked down the aisle towards them. Eventually, a young woman whom I didn’t recognise turned around.
“Hello,” she greeted me when she reached me. “I’m Olivia, I’m a friend of Jamie’s. Thank you for coming.”
“I’m Nina,” I introduced, keeping my voice down. “I’m from Jamie’s support group.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Nina.”
I could feel my heart beating.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your brother.”
“Thank you. It’s been a difficult time.”
Olivia placed her hand on mine.
“I’ll pray for you.”
We sat down. I felt a little awkward. I’d been to a Catholic church before, but never been a regular attendant of Mass – we were Protestants, after all. I found myself looking at Olivia. She seemed like such a lovely person – beautiful and kind, sweet and pretty. I’d only known Jamie for barely six or so weeks. I always felt a little suspicious of a boy and a girl who were friends. Focusing on the back of Olivia’s head, I knew that I was being stereotypical. The priest made the sign of the cross.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen,” the congregation responded as one, two syllables rippling through the pews.
A heaviness was over me, which made it difficult to concentrate on the priest’s words. For a moment I thought that I might have had to leave, even though it would have been rude to flee. I jigged my left leg, but stopped when the heel of my shoe was tapping too loudly against the wooden floorboards. Causing a fuss was the last thing I wanted to do.
“The Lord be with you.”
“And with your spirit.”
The priest welcomed us to Mass. I glanced around. Some of the others from the support group had made it too.
“Brethren, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”
With a brief pause in the service, I bowed my head, expecting that we were about to start praying. I tried to remember the last time I’d been to a Catholic church. Perhaps it had been Jessa Laver’s first Holy Communion; I’d attended that with Greg, Natalie and Geoff. We sat in the nosebleed seats of a cathedral somewhere near their place, which seemed to have been built with 1970s mission brown at heart. Once the priest resumed speaking, I realised I’d been mistaken to begin with.
“I confess to Almighty God.”
The congregation were speaking the words along with their priest, so I mumbled along too. It would have been useful if they were printed or projected somewhere, but I couldn’t complain.
“And to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned.” All this talk of sin made me feel light-headed. “In my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
Everyone balled their hands into fists. They bashed their chests. I looked at Jamie, who seemed to know all the moves, not that it shouldn’t surprise me. He went to Catholic church and Catholic school.
“Therefore, I ask blessed Mary, ever-virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
The congregation finally put their hands down.
“May almighty God forgive us our sins, and bring us into everlasting life.”
“Amen,” the congregation responded, in response to their absolution.
I felt a little more at ease. Then, within my bag, I felt my phone vibrate. It would have been rude to answer in the middle of Mass.
“Lord, have mercy.”
“Christ, have mercy.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
The congregants rose to their feet.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill. We praise you, we bless you, we adore you--.”
I found great peace in the beautiful singing, as high-pitched as it was.
“We glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory. Lord God, heavenly king, O God, almighty father. Lord Jesus Christ, only begotten son.”
I breathed out. My phone stopped vibrating.
“Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.”
I hummed along to the tune. I’d return the call later, but it could have been Mum or Dad, it could have been news. I wondered if this was comforting to Jamie and his family, the familiarity of Mass and these old-fashioned hymns, the words of which I didn’t really know at all. At the same time, I appreciate the comforting nature of the tune. When the hymn concluded, the congregation were seated once again. I thought back to school assemblies, when we needed to be told to stand, and told to sit, and you got into an awful lot of trouble if you didn’t follow the instructions. I’d glad that church seems not to be like that. I noticed the baptismal font, a glass bowl with water in it. For a second I had a fantasy of gulping down that water. I’m really not sure what good it would have done. Before too long it was time to have Communion. I’m baptised, even though I’m not Catholic. I wanted to take Communion. Desperately I wanted to taste the bread and wine, and not just for the alcohol and the carbs, which are two of my favourite things in this world. I thought it would have been what Mitchell would have wanted. Walking up to the front, I took Communion. After eating the wafer offered, I took a sip of wine from the cup, the smell intoxicating even before the taste. My hands felt a little shaky. Still, the wine was sweet and washed down the wafer. When I returned to my seat, I tried to suppress my small, mischievous smile. I could feel the pew against my body, through my clothes. I kept my head down, before waiting for the others. Fingers clasped, my hands instinctively twisted, my body feeling too tense to be able to connect with God. Was I really just a disobedient person? I suppose that would be for God to decide. After the service, the congregants got up from the pews. There were some women serving tea and coffee at the side of the church. They seemed like nice enough church ladies and I did feel comfortable in their presence. I spent a little bit of time with the others from the support group.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Jamie told us, and then that was enough time with other people for me.
I stepped out, the sunlight blaring. I’d already bid my farewells, so I returned to the car. I felt a little lonely as I slipped into the driver’s seat. I returned home from the church, in time to get into Mum’s car to travel with my parents to the Devereuxs’ place. Sitting in the back seat of the car, I looked out the window. This journey was so familiar to me, and it wasn’t long before we arrived, parking underneath the carport as we always did, then walking up to the front door. Geoff gave me a hug in greeting while we were standing in the doorway, seeming to hold on for just a split-second longer than usual. When we finally parted, there was an indelible smile on my lips as I walked through into the house. Natalie had prepared lunch, which was cooked and ready, so we plated up and sat down to eat. We’d just started tucking in. When the home phone rang, Greg stood up. He scurried across the tiles to the phone, wiping his greasy fingers on his shorts.
“Hello, Greg Devereux speaking,” he answered the call.
We all looked over our shoulders at him, waiting to see who had called.
“Hello, Clara.” I drew my eyebrows together in surprise. “Yes, Leo, Greta and Nina are here.”
“Is that Clara who is the girlfriend of your cousin Hank?” Geoff asked in a hushed tone.
“Distant cousin, yes,” I confirmed. “I don’t know, I would think so.”
Greg placed the phone against his chest.
“Is it alright if Clara comes over,” he asked, “or would you rather that she comes to your house?”
“She can come here,” I permitted, “if you don’t mind us all staying for dessert.”
“I don’t,” Natalie allowed. “We have ice cream.”
“Thank you,” I responded.
Natalie smiled modestly.
“No worries,” she replied.
“You’re more than welcome to come over here,” Greg invited. “Yes, we’re in Castle Hill, 18 Stratford Street, just down from the main road.”
He ended the call.
“I wonder what Clara’s after.”
“I’m sure she’ll be able to tell us all when she gets here.”
So, we waited. Minutes felt like hours.
“What do you think about getting a dog?” I spoke up, to try and break down the tension.
“Nina, I haven’t heard that from you since you were seven.”
“It just popped into my head.”
I turned to Geoff, to change the subject again.
“Well, what would you like to do for your birthday? It’s only in a couple of weeks.”
Before he could answer, we heard the rumble of tyres in the driveway. Clara appeared in the doorway, beautiful as ever. She was dressed casually, in a jumper and jeans.
“Good afternoon, Nina,” Clara greeted me. “Sorry for bothering you on a Sunday, I hope that you’ve been having a lovely weekend.”
As I smiled back at her, my walls were starting to melt, from my natural prejudices. Clara wanted to help me find Mitchell.
“Now, listen, I’ve heard about this nurse in Salzburg,” she explained.
“Come on in, Clara,” I urged, and she entered.
“All we need to do now is make sure that Mitchell comes home,” she noted.
“So, do you think Mitchell is this nurse?” Mum asked.
Clara sat down at the table. She retrieved her laptop from her bag.
“Well, we’ll do anything we can to help. Just say the word,” Dad assured.
“Honestly, I’m here to help you.”
“So, tell us, what’s your background?”
“I’m a journalist,” Clara explained, seeming a little taken aback, although her smile barely faltered.
“Would you like a coffee or anything, Clara?” Natalie interjected, in the hope of keeping the peace.
“No, I’m alright, thank you.”
Clara pressed record, meaning that she was able to keep eye contact.
“I know that we’re linked, Nina. My partner, Hank, is a relative of yours.”
“Yeah, sort of,” I confirmed. “My Dad’s cousin, who I call Uncle Julio, Hank is his nephew, his wife’s sister’s eldest son.”
“Thank you so much for coming over.”
“That’s no problem. I want to speak about Mitchell’s disappearance. What have you been doing to assist you with coping with it?”
“I’m part of a support group. We meet on Wednesday nights at the Baulkham Hills Library, which is where I work.”
I laughed modestly.
“They’ve been meeting there for a couple of years now and I didn’t know, I didn’t think of it.”
“Do you gain a lot of solace from the support group?”
“Yeah, I do. I never thought this would be my life.”
“Nina, our investigations have located a man who travelled from Sydney to Perth and then to Austria on the day that Mitchell went missing.”
“He travelled under the name of George Ryan.”
“Alright,” I replied, noticing the insinuation, but trying not to take the bait unnecessarily. “Mitchell’s middle name is George.”
“Why would Mitchell travel to Austria?”
“The Sound of Music tour?”
I looked over my shoulder at Dad, whose attempt at humour I knew would have been to diffuse the tension. Not wanting to stare, I returned my attention to Clara.
“Do you have any proof that this George Ryan is actually Mitchell?”
I sneezed, despite my best efforts to hold it in. While I shook off the feeling, I ran my fingertips over my collarbone.
“Not at the moment, but I’m working as hard as I can on this.”
“Although would you mind if I left soon? I’m working tonight.”
“Yes, of course, that’s fine. Thank you so much for helping us.”
Clara departed. I waved her off from out the front, then headed back inside.
“We’d better make tracks,” Dad decided, so the three of us prepared to leave.
I hugged Geoff again, on my way out the door. It felt good being in his arms, but I knew that was finite – I couldn’t get too attached. We eventually returned home from the Devereux house. I trudged into my bedroom and lay down on the bed, while Mum fossicked about in the garden. Eventually she came in, carrying one hot pink flower.
“I’ll get a vase,” she murmured, footsteps looping to the kitchen and back to the carpeted floor.
Mum placed the stem of the rain-dusted camellia into a blue milk bottle by the window.
I raised the back of my forearm to my brow.
“Why do you think Mitchell would have gone to Germany?”
“I have no idea, Nina.”
That wasn’t a satisfying answer. I closed my eyes. In my mind I said a prayer, marvelling with thanks about how good it would be to have Mitchell home. None of this would be in vain. I would continue to attend the support group and be part of that community, no matter what.
“This could be it.”
When I opened my eyes, I realised that Mum had gone.
“Mitchell might be about to come back home.”
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.