Friday, 10 December 2010

The street preacher

At five o'clock in Sydney the shops and high-rises empty their contents on to the streets, people blinking in surprise at the sunlight, everyone either rushing to get someplace else or lingering to avoid it. On George Street I passed a woman with a spray can, doing portraits on big torn sheets of butcher paper. Someone handed me an ad for a Chinese restaurant or a topless bar, I can’t remember which. I got coffee and stopped a while to watch a boy playing a decrepit homemade guitar, his fingers conjuring aching Spanish music, as if by magic, from the acoustic stump. I stayed for two songs, then a guy in a suit called out a request, some pop song, and you could see the boy was humiliated but he played it anyway, I could hear the sad half-hearted improvisations as I walked away. At the corner a preacher thundered about judgment and Sodom and Gomorrah and the weight of sin that drags us down and drowns us. A born-again biker, picture perfect with his beer gut and angry black goatee and leather Jesus jacket, he was talking about damnation and repentance when his beady black eyes saw me. He saw me peering out at him from the perishing faces of his beleaguered congregation. He saw me drowning in Sydney’s sea of wickedness and threw me a lifeline, a hideous gospel plea, have you sinned? have you been born again? Nervously I averted my eyes, pushed my hands into my pockets, hiding my sins from him there like the stones in Virginia Woolf’s overcoat, heavy and precious and inexplicable.

Why do I shrink from the street preacher? Why do I hide from his piercing eyes and scuttle away and try to lose his voice in the consoling anonymous clamour of the street? As much as anyone else that day on George Street, I have to hope he’s wrong, that his implacable rage against the city is not the rage of God, that the face of God is more than blood and thunder and holy indignation.

But what if he’s right? I was losing myself in the crowd, but his words echoed behind me, something about horror and the Bible and salvation. What if he’s right, and salvation means rescue from a bottomless pit of divine hatred? Could I accept redemption on those terms, could anyone? Could I be born again? Or should I ask the preacher to lead me in a prayer of unredemption, ask him please don’t save me, please let me stay in hell with everybody else? If Sydney is Sodom and Gomorrah, wouldn’t it be better to stay and be swept away than to flee for the lonely mountains? Could I explain all this to the preacher? Would God accept my testimony if I chose to bear witness in hell instead of heaven, if I loved those God hates more than I love God?

The preacher wants my sins. He craves them like a wild and hungry thing, famished with righteousness. He would ask me to confess; he would suck the marrow from the bone. I heard his last words, if you die tonight, before his voice was swallowed up and lost in the city’s godless clamour. I went down the steps to the Town Hall station. Beside me on the platform two teenagers were making out. The girl’s ear was studded with silver, her body pushed up against the handrail. A man with a briefcase was talking into his phone, sweaty and earnest, probably a wife or mistress. I watched the rubbish on the tracks and waited. I wondered if the preacher had been a prophet or messiah, the last hard truth at the world's end. I hope I’ll never see him again. Sometimes it’s better to be damned and ruined than left naked without a name. Sometimes your whole life is just one dull sin after another, and you can’t honestly repent of all that, not even if you wanted to. I buried my hands in my pockets, counting out my sins one by one like pathetic rosary beads as the man on the phone said no fucking way and the girl with the earrings moaned and the train rattled into the station, drowning everything at last in a grey monotonous thunder.

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