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They were almost at the edge of the town when they saw the FOR SALE sign planted in front of a tall hedge. Nick pulled over to park on the verge and leaned across her to peer up at the old church, his chin close to her cheek, his left hand resting on her thigh. How warm that hand felt, how firm and secure, how strong the current of his energy. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s even more picturesque than it looked online.’

They climbed out and pushed at the iron gates that swung open with a resistant creak, and there it stood at the top of a steep driveway: a small, handsome edifice of sandstone and granite with a tin roof and an empty belltower. The grass around it was dry and trim, and they thought they might as well try the door, but as they drew close they saw the snake, coiled and sleeping on the worn sandstone steps of the porch.

‘We could throw a rock at it,’ she said.

‘No,’ he said, ‘leave it be.’ The interior could wait.

They began their inspection on the southern side, where there were three separate stained-glass windows mounted with sturdy iron grilles. While Zoe tried to make out the figures in the glass, Nick stood back, gazing up at the stonework, his hand cupped over his eyes against the sun. She remembers thinking that he still had it, a man of sixty-three with a certain charisma. He was slim and fit, and his cropped grey curls gave him a Roman look, like one of those busts in a museum. After all these years she still took a secret pleasure in looking at him. His face had a perfect symmetry that had long cast a spell over her, the more potent for its being broken only by one crooked tooth in the front that slightly overlapped another tooth, as if to frame the perfection of the rest.

After all these years she still took a secret pleasure in looking at him.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘the walls have been heavily patched,’ and he pointed to where the sandstone blocks and granite chunks had been roughly mortared over so that some individual stones were all but obscured by the dun-coloured paste. But the imposing corner stones were in good shape, as were the buttresses, and the guttering around the foundations was a warm orange brick that Nick thought might have been convict-made. Two squat tin chimneys rose above the roof for ventilation, and at the western end stood the empty belltower, a rusted weathervane on top, fixed and still.

Behind the church there were sheep grazing in a dry paddock and on the far side of the paddock they could see a dense eucalypt plantation, rows and rows of identical trees with spindly trunks that rose up out of stunted undergrowth. At the eastern end of the church, presumably the altar end, was a massive three-panelled stained-glass window, and they wondered at the expense of this in a small rural church. They thought it must at one time have been a well-heeled congregation, either that or a dedicated one, but again the iron grille obscured the figures.

She remembers hearing a loud screech and looking over to a stand of old macrocarpa pines where two black cockatoos were perched on a bough protruding from the nearest tree. She can still see their black bodies outlined against the blue of the sky, the strength of their hooked beaks, the way they balanced on one claw and held a pinecone upright in the other, as if it were a fruit. Then she spotted the others, counting five in all, a flock, and one of their favourite birds: so elegant in flight, so comically imperious up close. Nick thought it a good omen.

One of their favourite birds: so elegant in flight, so comically imperious up close.

They turned the corner and began their stroll along the northern wall, until they came to a single bush of Scotch thistle sprouting from a crack in the brick gutter. It drew their attention to a rectangle of worn sandstone carved with the inscription

ANNO DOMINI
MDCCCXC

So, it was late Victorian.

Back at the entrance the snake was gone. Nick tried the door, a solid gothic arch with iron hinges and a ring of plaited brass. It was locked, and they stepped back to gaze up at the belltower, lingering in the bright sun, and he put his arm around her waist and smiled.

‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘not at all gloomy.’ Then she thought of those iron grilles that covered the windows. Not only would they be living in a church, it might feel as if they were living in a gaol.

Nick looked over to the grazing paddocks beyond. ‘A graveyard,’ he said. ‘You’d think there’d be one.’

Zoe pointed down the hill to the iron gates. ‘It’s across the road. You didn’t see it?’

No, he hadn’t, but was glad to find it set apart. It was probably on a separate title, and so much the better. There would be visitors coming to lay flowers or chase up their family tree for want of something better to do. And besides, they didn’t want to have to manage a lot of crumbling headstones and funereal obelisks tilting at an angle, and those awful little kitsch angels with downcast eyes. No responsibility for the dead; he was not up for it. In his work as a therapist, it was enough for him to deal with the living.

They drove on into the town, only five kilometres to the north. Crannock was a small settlement that lay in the valley between two larger towns and all three serviced the coalmines for which the valley was known, though in recent years much of the surrounding grazing land had been planted with vineyards.

It was a Sunday and the local realtor was closed, so they parked around the corner from the Jubilee Arms, a handsome colonial hotel with timber balconies painted green and cream. Inside, the hotel smelled of disinfectant and beer but the dining room had been refashioned in an austere minimalism of black granite and stainless steel. The publican’s wife was obliging and offered them a late lunch, and they settled to a grilled backstrap of lamb, simple but perfectly cooked, with a glass of one of the local reds.

They had driven to the church on impulse, with no appointment to inspect, but already Nick was feeling optimistic. On the drive back to the city he was in good spirits and announced that he felt somehow unburdened, though of what he couldn’t say. Zoe was less upbeat. Yes, the church had been charming, and yes, it had a lovely aspect, but a church was after all a church.

‘Meaning?’ he asked.

‘Well, not a house,’ she said, lamely, ‘not a home.’ And then: ‘I suppose it’s been deconsecrated.’

Nick thought it likely had, not that it need make any difference to a prospective buyer, not unless they were believers, and maybe not even then. But the thought unsettled her. Surely the church hierarchy didn’t just abandon these places? Could you pretend a church had never been a sacred site? There must be some ritual involved, some way of letting go. If they bought it, would they risk having a sense of trespass? Some of the congregation might resent the sale, might feel they had lost a piece of themselves.

Could you pretend a church had never been a sacred site?

There couldn’t be much of a congregation, Nick observed, or the church wouldn’t be on the market. And the few diehards left might have an initial reaction but others would be grateful to them for rescuing what might otherwise become derelict. In any case, this stuff was all in the mind and need not trouble a prospective buyer. Neither he nor she had had a religious upbringing and they would come to it unencumbered by habit or superstition. There were Indigenous peoples who held certain waterholes, rocks or trees to be sacred, but that didn’t mean they held any special meaning for whitefellas.

‘That’s different,’ she protested.

Is it?’ And he smiled at her indulgently. ‘You think it might have some ghosts?’ he teased.

No, she didn’t, but she did think they might have to deal with locals who had a psychic investment in not just the building but the site itself. It would only be natural. ‘You’re the psychologist,’ she said, ‘you’ve always maintained that there’s a psychology of place, that we become attached to certain places and go on inhabiting them mentally long after we leave them behind physically.’

Of course, he said, but that psychology was not fixed, it evolved. At the right time and in the right place, one attachment could be replaced by another. The church, any church, would be what they made of it, and what was an abandoned church anyway? Just a big open space with infinite possibilities, and it felt right that it should come to them at a time in their lives when they were picking up the pieces from their losses in the financial crisis. ‘See it as a gift, Zo.’

And so buoyant was he that she felt it would be churlish of her to argue. With luck, this would be another of his enthusiasms, soon to be replaced by something more suitable.

This is an edited extract from The Conversion by Amanda Lohrey (Text Publishing),  available now at your local independent bookseller.