John goes into his room. In the darkness he kicks off his shoes, changes into a pair of black satin pyjama pants, and walks barefooted out his verandah door. He sighs when he turns and sees the kitchen light echoing through the yard. Toby’s clattering movements bounce off the church and come back louder, perhaps, than they would have otherwise.
John pours himself a vodka, drains it, then contemplates the empty shot glass for a time. He walks back inside his room and puts it on the bookshelf. Returning to the verandah, he picks up the bottle. Leaning against the sturdy wooden post, he squints through the overhanging native foliage to the dark church beyond. He sighs again. He swings the bottle gently, tapping his thigh with it. Drinking more of the strong spirit, he walks restlessly up and down the verandah, making silent gestures which only he can understand; each gesture accompanies a silent word, phrase, or exclamation, which only he really knows. Each time he reaches the northernmost reaches of the section of verandah, he turns and stares at the church. A few circuits on, he starts to salute it with the bottle. Finally, sick of pacing, he collapses on his bum, legs crossed, chin on hands, staring at the church.
Tearing his vision away from the sight of the staunch, dark building, John tries to look elsewhere: first the road, then the city nestled in the plain, then up into the tree directly overhead. He always ends up staring back at the church.
After a while, John casts aside the mostly-empty bottle, stands up carefully, but wobbling, and swaggers up to the tree and attempts to hoist himself into the lowest fork. It’s not much more than chest height. Failing on the first attempt, he tries again. Then he tries a run-up, a push-off the trunk with his left toes, and a leap into the air. He falls heavily onto the gravel below. His face set resolutely, there he remains, sorrowfully rubbing his feet; then his legs; and finally , his face.
The noise ceased in the kitchen a while ago. The light just went out. The backdoor has not clanged shut and the car has not left, so Toby must still be inside somewhere. John doesn’t seem to notice. Tears well up in his eyes and roll down his cheeks with every sighing breath. He can barely be seen in the darkness, despite the streetlamp, whose pale beams dapple through the trees, to hit the verandah post before stopping.
Toby slowly opens the door to John’s bedroom and, seeing the screen door open and the soft cream and blue muslin curtains breathing in the breeze, makes his way to the verandah. He pauses in the doorway, arms crossed, watching John. A faint mopoke call echoes through the undulating streets. Jasmin from the neighbour’s wafts in over the yard. Stepping out onto the verandah, Toby nearly trips over the vodka bottle, which rings as it rolls a few centimetres away from him over the wooden boards. Toby reaches down to pick it up. He turns the bottle slowly upside down, watching through the its glass of it carefully. Turning inside and placing it next to the shot glass, he gently shakes his head.
Toby plants his feet solidly, noisily, on the verandah. ‘John,’ he calls softly. ‘Maybe you better come back inside.’ He receives no answer, no indication that his presence has been noticed.
‘John I say,’ he repeats, louder. Toby walks out further onto the verandah and stands over the priest\. When he speaks, it is with reverence and deep empathy: ‘let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My name; ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.’
‘John fourteen, twenty-seven; and sixteen, twenty-four,’ comes a husky, slurred voice. It drops to a whimper. ‘Good old John.’
Toby squats at John’s back. He whispers over the priest’s right shoulder. ‘It’s not the end of the world, John. It’s perfectly probable you’ll live another twenty-five or thirty years, and by then you’ll be an old man. And this old beast,’ Toby points to the church, ‘will always be here for you, even if the bureaucratic elements don’t think it should be.’ He grabs John under the arms and hauls him to his feet, turning him bodily and leaning him against the tree. ‘You don’t need to lead people to have faith.’
John sways gently, as though the tree were moving slowly from its base in a strong wind. He stares at Toby; criticially? definitely unfocused; and and doesn’t answer. More tears roll down his cheeks.
‘Remember what it was like for me, John?’
‘Remember that I had nothing, in addition to positive results?’
John nods again.
‘You’re lucky. You’ve got me and a whole community. Whether they understand or not is a different matter entirely, but they’re still there. And I’m still here.’
John nods. John stares.
Sighing, Toby lifts John bodily, his hands nearly slipping off the satin pants. He walks slowly with him inside and lays him on the bed. As he turns to leave the room, John calls him over.
‘I love you.’
Toby grunts. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know. Get some rest, right? You’ve only got a day to recover and considering you don’t do this very often, you might need the whole of the weekend if you don’t rest now.’
Picking up the vodka glass and the mostly-empty bottle from the bookcase, he silently leaves the room.