When I was in primary school I used to practice my drums at Church. My Dad was the senior minister there, allowing me to be in the privileged position of being able to access the building out of hours. For my parents, this was a far better solution than me making my ‘infernal racket’ at home. It suited me too. There is a certain joy that comes from playing with true abandon…one is utterly unconcerned with volume or other such restrictions and is truly free to indulge the extent of one’s musical whim. The Church offered this opportunity and I accepted it with relish.
In those days I lived in a small town in which everything was quick and easy to get to. To get to the Church from my home I rode a shitty BMX with white tyres. The trip took about 20 minutes. I took a windy path which traversed both streets laced with standard country-town homes as well as more isolated parkland which lie in the shadows of St. Paul’s Anglican Grammar School. This educational behemoth stood arrogantly perched on a hill as if mocking those unfortunates who could not afford its prohibitive fees. Once clear of the parkland I would commence the final ascent up Bowen Street which lead to Church.
If I were to re-trace this route now I am sure it would appear trivial compared with the vastness of the distance in my childhood mind. The 5 minutes or so it took to clear the parkland felt as if I had entered a strange unknown, darkened world. The sparseness of this hidden nook contrasted so distinctly with the homely and familiar streets just beyond its border and resulted in a sense of undefined expectancy. The park also felt truly eerie, although I cannot precisely explain why. The dirt track was lined with dense native trees, which were themselves parallel to a mostly-empty creek bed. It should have been a quaint environment, and it likely was for the few who did venture into this neck of the woods. For me, however, the dark green overhang and afternoon shadows remained faintly unsettling, and I was always relieved when I would emerge from its clutches.
Soon enough I would arrive at my destination. Upon entering the Church I would always feel both intimidated and claustrophobic, although I was also determined to override these uncomfortable sensations with an assertion of my own toughness. Despite this resolve, however, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right refused to depart from my consciousness. Part of this was undoubtedly due to the geography of the Church itself. Sitting on the opposite side of the same mountain which housed St. Paul’s, the Church was surrounded by grassland which led down the mountain toward the local Golf course. This lonely space created a sense of vulnerability which was not helped by the fact that the Church building itself featured copious amounts of windows. No matter where one was positioned in the Church, there was a corresponding window which allowed for the possibility of external observation. During the daytime hours, this was a nice feature as it allowed vibrant streams of sunlight to penetrate the dim interior of the Church. One could also stare out the windows at the golf course, which offered charming views of its lush greenery. By late afternoon, however, the shadows would lengthen and the darkness would steadily increase as if Satan himself had gathered his demons and was launching an assault on the house of God. The soft, faint orange glow from the ceiling lights did little to remedy the fading twilight, and one had little choice but to accept that the Church had lost its battle to the dark realm.
The Church was a relatively new building-some ten years old- and was built with contemporary aesthetic tastes in mind. Sparse but functional, it featured a central worship area, offices, kitchen, a playgroup area, and a large foyer. As as child I remember thinking that the ceilings were ridiculously high, and that my psychical presence in the building was insignificant. The imposing structure was intimidating, and each time I entered its confines I could never really shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong. This was no place for trivial musical pursuits but was instead the very heart and soul of all serious Christian activity. At least that is what I was told.
This feeling of guilt was never quite strong enough to dissuade me from my purposes. So, parking my BMX at the front door I would barge straight into the foyer and do a quick walk-around to make sure nobody else was on-site. This was an essential risk-management strategy, as I had already been told off for bashing the drums too loudly by an old dear who was hidden away in one of the rooms on one occasion. I was accused by her of disrespecting ‘the Lord’s house-‘ a charge which was hardly an isolated event. After repeated run-ins with the senior folk of the congregation, I had learned from a young age that old people own the Church and that one had to cater to their tastes if one wanted to have a peaceful time of it. Undertaking a brief reconnaissance for the presence of these white-haired gate-keepers was a necessary step in protecting myself from additional outrage.
If the coast was clear, I would dump my back-pack by the side of the Churches drum kit and commence my assault. As a delightful red ensemble of 1980’s vintage, the Sonor drum kit provided me with all the tools necessary to unleash percussive hell. I would mostly try and recreate the beats I heard on my favourite recordings of the time, although my drum teacher had given me a book of rudimentary exercises to work through as well.
It was as the sun was fading one late afternoon that I first experienced a menacing presence. The drums were situated along the side of the Church stage, and to play them would require having one’s back to the empty seating area and Church foyer. In these twilight moments, the shadows would gradually eliminate the last vestiges of light, and I would take this as my cue to get the hell out of there. Even though the Church building was relatively new, it felt as if it was embedded with an oppressive presence. On the afternoon in question, I had immersed myself in my drumming for longer than expected and felt a spontaneous yet distinct feeling that I was being watched. As I continued playing, I turned my head to face the back corner of the Church, which housed a door leading to the kitchen. Whatever might be causing this feeling was coming from that section of the Church. I heard things banging back there, even though I had already checked the building for surprise guests. I told myself that it must have just been a draft of wind. In actuality, I had no idea what was happening. I told myself that my mind may have given itself over to creative embellishment, but I knew deep down that something just felt wrong.
When this sensation first struck me I felt a tingling throughout my body as my nervous system registered its cognisance of an imminent threat. In spite of the masses of space, I felt instantly claustrophobic. The air felt thick with a stifling warm air, despite the relatively cool temperature. I was frightened and I knew that I was somehow not alone in the Church. Telling myself over and over that I was overreacting, I decided to keep drumming, as if in defiance of the mysterious spirit encroaching upon me. My bravado was misplaced, however, and I felt the physical symptoms of panic rising within me: quickened breath, hot sweats, and rapid heartbeat. The feeling was growing stronger and more real. I couldn’t deny it any longer. I packed up my belongings and made for the door. I walked slowly at first- one last attempt at denying the reality of the situation. But as I approached the door I quickened my pace to an eventual jog. I shoved at the double doors, convinced that they would somehow refuse to open and I would remain a captive of the Church and its oppressive spirit. Yet the doors easily gave way with my push. I burst forth into the open air, leaving the claustrophobic darkness of the Church behind.