Father Divine by Tony Birch
Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing (2006), Father’s Day (2009) and Blood (2011), shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award. His new collection of short stories, The Promise, will be released in 2014. Tony teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
Walking home after the paper round one Saturday morning Sonny and me come around the corner and saw a furniture van parked in the street. Workers were unloading cupboards and tea chests from the truck and carrying them into the house next door to Sonny’s place. It had been empty for months and the landlord had cleaned it out, painted it up and fixed the roof on the old stable at the back of the house. The stable had been used as a carpenter’s workshop from a long time back, but had been padlocked all the time I lived on the street.
We stopped on the footpath and watched the removalists wrestle with a piano, standing on its end and strapped to a trolley. The workmen were sweating and swearing at the piano like it was some fella they might be fighting in the pub.
‘Fucken iron frame,’ one of them grunted to the other. ‘I hate iron frames. I’m marking up the job for this. Fuck it. Double time for the day.’
They stopped for a smoke. One of them looked over at us, leaning against Sonny’s front fence eyeing them.
‘What you two looking at?’ he bit at us. ‘Can you carry this cunt on your back? If you can’t, stop gawking and let us get on with the job.’
It was our street they we on, so we weren’t about to fuck off any place. I pinched Sonny on the arm and nodded. We shifted to the front of my place and sat on the front step.
‘You reckon he’s happy with his job?’ Sonny laughed.
‘Wouldn’t you be? No weight in that piano there. Your pushbike’s heavier. He’s piss-weak, I reckon.’
They finished their smoke and dragged the piano into the house.
‘My mum can play the piano,’ Sonny said.
It was the first time Sonny had spoken about his mother since she’d shot through on the family with some fella she worked with at the tyre factory some time last year.
‘You don’t have one in your place. Where’s she play?’
‘Before we came here. We lived with my auntie, mum’s older sister, for a time. They had a piano in the front room. Mum would play and we’d all sing.’
‘What songs did she play?’
He looked away from me, along the street, to the furniture van.
‘Just stuff. I forget.’
The men came out of the house and stood at the back of the truck. The one who’d abused us was scratching his head and looking over. He buried his hands in his pockets and walked toward us.
‘You two want to make a couple of dollars?’ he asked.
‘You just told us to fuck off,’ Sonny called back.
‘I was just pissing around.’ He held out his hand. ‘Jack.’
I shook his hand and Sonny followed.
‘We got a load of folding chairs in the back there, maybe fifty, sixty, and my mate, Henry, and me want to get away for lunch and a beer at the pub. You two want to give us a hand for a couple of dollars?’
‘What’s a couple add up to?’ Sonny asked.
‘What it’s always been. Two dollars.’
Sonny held up three fingers.
‘Two’s not enough. It’s a Saturday, so we’re on time and a half.’
‘Jesus, you a union organiser or something? Fuck me. Three dollars then. Let’s get cracking.’
The chairs were made of wood and weighed a ton. I grabbed one under each arm and followed the removalists through the house. It smelled of fresh paint. We crossed the yard and walked through the open double doors of the stable. The piano was sitting at one end of the room, next to a brass cross, stuck on the end of a long pole. Picture frames rested against a wall. They looked like the prayer cards the Salvos gave out on street corners, only a lot bigger. I read one prayer aloud.
There Can Be No Being before God, As God Has No Mother.
‘Amen,’ Sonny laughed, making the sign of the cross over his heart.
One of the picture frames was covered in a piece of green cloth. Sonny pulled it away from the frame. We stared at a painting of a man in a dark three-piece suit and tie. He had shining black skin, dark eyes and was posing in a big velvet chair. Kneeling next to him was a young woman with golden curls, flowers in her hair, and white, white skin. She was looking up at the black man and holding his hand. Across the bottom of the painting were the words Father Jealous Divine & Mother Purity Divine.
‘Fucken weird,’ Sonny said.
Jack, the removalist, called his mate over.
‘Henry, take a look at these two.’
Henry was stacking chairs against the far wall. He shuffled over, scratching the arse of his work pants. He stood next to me and crossed his arms and studied the painting.
‘She’s not bad looking, Jack.’
‘Look at the way that old blackfella’s into her with those eyes. Bet he’s fucking the pants off her.’
‘Fucking the pants off her,’ Henry agreed. ‘What do you reckon, boys? He fucking her or what?’
The black man looked old enough to be her pop, although he couldn’t be, I guess, seeing as he was black and she was white. Henry repeated the question to Sonny, who like me, was too embarrassed to answer.
I heard heavy footsteps behind me in the yard.
A tall thin man stood in the doorway of the stable. He was wearing a dark suit, white shirt and string tie. His silver-grey hair was cut short, and even from the distance of the other side of the room I could see his cold blue eyes burning a hole in Henry’s heart, who was rubbing his chest with his hand and showing pain in his face.
The man stepped into the stable, walked toward Henry and stopped maybe six inches from his face. He looked down at the ground, at his own shining black leather shoes and back up at Henry, who turned away, too afraid to look the man in the eye.
‘Your remark?’ the man asked, raising an eyebrow.
Henry licked his bottom lip with his tongue, trying to get it moving.
‘That wasn’t any remark,’ Jack interrupted. ‘We were just mucking about with the boys.’
The man turned and set his eyes on Jack, making him feel just as jumpy and uncomfortable.
‘Do you often speak on behalf of your co-worker?’
‘Like I said, we were just mucking about.’
No one moved. The man took a white handkerchief out of his coat pocket and dabbed his mouth. He looked around the room.
‘Please set the chairs in even rows, an equal number of chairs, separated by a clear aisle. And move the piano to right side of the room. Would you be able to hang the framed psalms? And,’ he looked down at the green cloth that Sonny had pulled away from the painting pointed to the end wall and said, ‘mount the portrait of the Messenger and Mother Divine in line with the aisle. Are you able to do that?’
‘The Messenger,’ Jack smiled. ‘Sure. We can look after him, can’t we, Henry? It ‘ll cost a little more … Mr Beck, weren’t it?’
Jack offered his hand. The Reverend ignored it. He wiped his hands clean with the handkerchief and put it back in his pocket. He took a small bible from his pocket and held it in his hand. His eyes flicked to the side, sharp as a bird spotting a worm. A girl had arrived at the stable door. She was around my age and wore a long plain dress, almost her ankles, and a scarf on her head covering most of her fair hair. Even in her costume I could see she wasn’t bad looking. The Reverend turned to face her. She blinked and bit her lip.
‘Selina?’ he asked, stone-faced.
She spoke with her hands held together in prayer.
‘Some of the followers are here, asking what work you need them to do.’
The Reverend opened his arms, raised his hands in the air and closed his eyes. And he smiled.
‘There is work for them to do here. In our church.’
He stared up at the roof. While Jack and Henry were looking at him like he was some circus freak Sonny and me slipped out of the stable, into the yard and jumped the side fence into his place.
‘Fucken lunatic,’ I panted. ‘Did you see his eyes?’
‘Seen them, but not for long. I was too afraid to look at them. And what about the picture of the old black boy?’
‘Yeah. Did you see the girl who come into the stable? She looked pretty, under that scarf.’
‘Your off your head. I bet she’s crazy too.’
‘Still not bad looking.’
‘And crazy. You hear what he said. A church? Must be against the law, putting a church in a back shed?’
‘Maybe. But then so is running a sly-grog. Or an SP. And the two-up. Police can’t close any of them down. Hardly gonna go after a nutcase running a church.’
Lots of people came and went from the house. Men in dark suits and women and their daughters in the same long dresses and head scarves that Selina went around in, although she didn’t go around that often. I never saw her in the street on her own, and if she went to any school it wasn’t to mine. I sometimes spotted her sweeping the front yard with a straw broom or sitting up on the balcony with a book. I made noises when I walked by the house to get her attention, but she never looked my way, not even from the corner of her eye as far as I could tell.
I was woken early one Sunday morning by banging in the street. I crept downstairs, so not to wake my old man, who’d got home in the middle of the night from a road trip, and opened the front door. It was cold out. The street was crowded with cars and people were pouring into the Reverend Beck’s place. I went back into the house, made myself a cup of tea and took it up to bed. I could hear the piano playing in the stable, followed by some singing of hymns and shouting and screaming out.
Sonny knocked at my window a few minutes later and let himself. He had sleep in his eyes, his hair was standing on end like he’d stuck his finger in the toaster and he was wearing the jeans and jacket he’d had on the night before. They were dirty and crumpled. He must have slept in them.
‘You look like a dero, Sonny.’
‘Fuck up. You’re no day at the beach yourself.’
He picked up my mug of tea and took a long drink.
‘You hear that racket going on next door?’
‘Yeah. It woke me.’
‘We should go take a look.’
‘It’s freezing out.’
‘Put a jumper on. Come on.’
‘Not me. I’m staying in bed.’
He finished off my tea.
‘Please yourself. Your girlfriend, that Selina will be there.’
He was halfway out the window when I called him back.
‘Wait. I’ll come. And next time don’t drink all my tea.’
I followed Sonny out the window onto his roof and down the drainpipe. A thundering tune was almost lifting the roof off the stable. Sonny unlocked his back gate and we crept along the lane. He put an eye to a crack in the stable door. I kneeled beside him and tried pushing him along so I could take a look. He wouldn’t budge and was muttering ‘fuck, fuck,’ over and over to himself.
‘Move, will ya?’ I hissed, ‘and let me take a look’.
He pointed to a knothole close to the bottom corner of the door. I lay down on my guts. The ground was muddy and I was soaked through in about two seconds. I put my eye to the hole. All I could see were hundreds of chair legs and the ankles of old women and young girls, escaping the hems of long dresses. I noticed one ankle, bone white. I reckoned it might belong to Selina. I followed it upward, tapping along with the hymn. I wanted to reach out and touch that ankle and slide one hand up its leg and the other down the front of my pants.
The singing ended and it went quiet, except for my heartbeat and Sonny breathing. When the Reverend’s voice boomed out across the stable, Sonny jumped and stood on my hand. I bit on a lump of dirt to stop myself from crying out in pain. The words the Reverend was preaching didn’t make a lot of sense.
‘… And we have been brought to this Holy Place at the call of the Messenger … God Himself, Our Father Divine has called us here from across the ocean … and Mother Divine, in her chaste beauty and purity calls us to abstain in this place, this House of Worship …’
‘You hear that, Sonny?’ I whispered.
He nodded his head and stuck his ear against the crack in the door.
‘… And was it not proven in the days prior to the Great Earthquake of 1906, that the Messenger attended the city of San Francisco, a site of pestilence and evil, at the behest of the Holy Spirit, and bought wrath upon the sinful … And do we not know that when the Messenger was imprisoned for His works his gaolers were struck down by lightning and He was able to free Himself …’
The more he went on with the Bible talk, the louder and deeper his voice got. Women in the audience started crying and the men called out in agreement. The Reverend stopped preaching and people in the room stood up and clapped and cried out. The piano struck up another tune and they sang some more. Sonny tapped me on the shoulder and called me back along the laneway, into his yard.
‘You ever hear stuff like that?’ I asked. ‘And all them women babbling? Gave me the frights.’
‘Look at you,’ he laughed. ‘You’ve been rolling in crap.’
The front of my jumper and the knees of my jeans were covered in a mess of mud and dog shit. I tried wiping it off, but all I did was move it around.
‘My mum ‘ll kill me.’
Sonny couldn’t stop laughing.
‘And after that your old man will kill you double.’
I scraped a handful of the mess from my jumper and flung it at him, whacking him on the side of the face.
‘Don’t think its funny, Sonny. She’s gonna flog me for doing this.’
‘Stop worrying. Come inside and I’ll throw the stuff in the twin-tub and dry it by the heater.’
We sat in Sonny’s kitchen, me wearing a pink frilly dressing gown that belonged to his mum, while my clothes went through the machine.
‘You got any toast, Sonny?’
‘I don’t have any bread.’
‘No bread? What about a biscuit?’
‘Don’t have any. There’s nothing left in the house,’ he said, jumping from his chair and tugging at the sleeve of his jumper.
‘Where’s your old man? In bed with a hangover?’
He sat back at the table and looked down at his hands
‘He’s not here. Haven’t seen him for two days.’
It made sense all of a sudden, why he looked like shit and why there was no food in the house.
‘Where’d he go? What have you been living on? Nothing I bet.’
‘Shut up with the questions, Ray. I can take care of myself. You want to play copper, get yourself a badge.’
‘I was just asking …’
‘Don’t ask. Or you can give back my mum’s pink gown and piss of home in the nude.’
With my father off the road we had roast for Sunday lunch. He never talked much while he was eating, but my mother loved a chat. Said that the table was the place for the family to come together.
‘Why’d you head off early this morning?’ she asked.
‘Come on, Ray. You’re never out of bed early on a Sunday unless you’re off with your mate Sonny somewhere you’re not supposed to be.’ ‘No place. I was in Sonny’s.’
‘Doing what?’ my father interrupted.
‘Nothing. Just hanging around.’
He poked his knife in the air.
‘You spend half you life hanging around with that kid. Ever thought of widening your circle of friends?’
I looked down at my half-eaten lunch.
‘Mum, Sonny’s father gone off some place.’ ‘What do you mean, gone off?’
‘Missing. He’s been gone for a couple of days and left Sonny at home on his own.’
‘Probably better off.’ My dad tapped the side of his plate. ‘His old man’s fucken crazy.’
‘Mum, he’s got no food in the house.’
‘None of our business,’ my father interrupted again.
She opened her mouth to speak. He slapped the table with his hand.
‘None of our business.’
I made it our business later that night when I climbed out of my window, knocked at Sonny’s window and told him I’d made a leftover roast lamb and pickle sandwich for him.
He licked his lips. ‘Where is it, then?’
‘On the top of my dressing table.’
‘Why didn’t you bring it here?’
‘Thought you might like to bunk at my place, seeing as you’re on your own.’
He didn’t want to make out like he was interested and shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t care one way or the other.
‘Eat here. Or your place. I don’t mind. But what about your old man? I don’t think he likes me.’
‘Means nothing. He don’t like me a lot. Anyway, he’ll be asleep. Can’t keep his eyes open once the sun goes down after he’s been driving.’
He followed me across the roof, through the window and demolished the sandwich in a couple of bites. He sent me downstairs for a second
sandwich. The radio was playing in my parents’ bedroom. My mother would be sitting up in bed, reading a book and humming in tune to the music.
Sonny was a little slower on the second sandwich. He tried saying something but I couldn’t understand him because his mouth was full. He waited until he’d swallowed a mouthful of sandwich and spoke again.
‘What’s the time?’
‘Time. What do want to know the time for?’
‘Cause I’ve got a secret for you.’
‘And what is it?’
‘Tell me the time first.’
I pointed to the clock with the luminous hands, sitting on the mantle above the fireplace.
‘Nearly ten. Now tell me the secret.’
He wiped crumbs and butter from his lips.
‘Same time, every night, I been in the yard watching the upstairs back window of the Reverend’s place. First couple of times it was by accident. Putting the rubbish in the bin when I look up and see this outline against the lace curtain in the room.’
His eyes widened and lit up like he’d just told me he’d found a pot of gold.
‘An outline? What about it?’
‘The outline of that girl, Selina. Side on. I could see her shape. Tits and all.’
‘How’d you know it was her? Could have been the mother.’
‘Bullshit. You had a good look at the mum. She’d have to be twenty stone. No, it was Selina. I seen her there the first night. And the next, when I put out the rubbish again. I been checking in the yard most nights since. And she’s there. Every night.’
I swallowed spit and licked my dry lips.
‘What time is she there?’
‘Just after ten.’
The small hand on the clock was about to touch ten.
‘You think we should go down in the yard and take a look?’
‘Better than that. I reckon we should climb out of this window and cross my roof onto hers. We might be able to see something through her window.’
‘She’ll see us.’
‘No, she won’t. Not if we’re careful.’
I looked over at the window and back to my open door. I walked across the floor, closed it and turned the light out. I nodded toward the window. Sonny opened it, climbed out and crept across his roof onto Selina’s. I followed him, trying as hard as I could not to step on a loose sheet of iron.
We sat under the window getting our breath back. Sonny stuck his finger in the air, turned onto his knees and slowly lifted his head to the window. When I tried kneeling he pushed my head down with his open hand, sat down, leaned across and whispered in my ear.
‘She’s got nothing on but he undies. Come on. Take a look.’
I turned around and slowly lifted my body until my chin was resting on the stone windowsill. Through the holes in the lace I could see into the room. Just like Sonny said, she had nothing on but a pair of white underpants. She had no scarf on her head and her hair sat on her shoulders. Her arms were crossed in front of her breasts. She was crying. And she was shaking. Her whole body.
I felt bad for staring at her and was about to turn away when the bedroom door opened. The Reverend came in, closed the door behind him and said something to her that we couldn’t hear. She turned away from her father and faced the bed. He took off his suit coat, slipped out of his braces, unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. The Reverend’s body was covered in dark hair. He moved closer to her and pushed her in the middle of the back with a giant paw. She landed on the bed, her sad face almost touching the windowpane. Suddenly it went dark and we could see nothing.
We both knew what we’d seen but didn’t know how to talk about it. I made Sonny a bed on the floor with my sleeping bag and spare pillow. I hopped into bed, my guts turning over and over. I couldn’t sleep.
‘You awake, Sonny?’
‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Not much. You?’
‘I was thinking about her face. I’ve never seen a look like that before. Never seen anyone so frightened and angry at the same time. Like she
was gonna die. And like she was about to cut someone’s throat.’
When the bedroom door opened I jumped with a fear of my own. My mother was standing in the doorway. She spotted Sonny’s bed on the floor and closed the door behind her.
‘Jesus, Ray. I thought you were talking in your sleep.’ She looked down at Sonny, who’d ducked into the sleeping bag. ‘You warm enough there, Sonny? Can I get you a blanket?’
‘No thanks, Mrs Moore. This is plenty warm.’
She leaned over the bed and looked at my face.
‘What’s up? You look like you’ve seen an ghost?’
I shook my head and answered, ‘nothing,’ without looking her in the eye.
‘Right then. Sleep now, and no chat. You don’t want to be waking you father.’
The next morning she knocked at the door with a spare pair of pyjamas under her arm.
‘Put these on, Sonny, and the two of you come down for breakfast.’
‘What about, dad?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry about he pyjamas,’ Sonny interrupted. ‘I can climb back out the window here. I’m okay.’
‘You won’t be climbing out any window. You do what I said. Put these on and come down for breakfast.’ She tousled my hair. ‘And don’t worry about your father. He might have the bark, but I’m the only one who bites around here.’
Sonny and me didn’t talk about what we’d seen that night. I couldn’t speak for his feelings, but I knew I was ashamed of what I’d seen, even though I didn’t understand enough of it. I also reckoned that speaking about what we’d seen would be dangerous. I had nightmares about the Reverend turning into an animal, a bear, and other times, a wolf. When I passed him in the street I couldn’t take my eyes of the long hair growing on back of his hands, something I hadn’t noticed before. And if I came across Selina in her front yard I’d look the other way, full of guilt, like I’d done something bad to her myself, which in a way I had.
In the middle of the winter I was walking home from the fish and chip shop one night sharing a warm parcel of potato cakes with vinegar with Sonny when we heard the siren of a fire engine off in the distance. His father had turned up back at home after a week on a bender. He put himself on the wagon and an AA program and hadn’t had a drink since. Kept himself dry but miserable. But at least Sonny was getting a feed and the house was in order.
We turned the corner into the street. The scent of wood smoke was in the air.
‘I love that smell of wood. Means my mum will have the fire going and it ‘ll be cosy in the house. You’re dad put the fire on?’
‘Yep. Since he’s been off the piss, he orders in whole logs and chops the wood in the back yard. Doing his punishment. When he was on the grog he was happy to throw the furniture on the fire.’
I could see people were gathered at the far end of the street, and sparks leaping into the sky somewhere behind Sonny’s place. Or maybe my place. We started running. Sonny’s father was standing on the footpath out the front of his place with his hands on his hips.
‘Is it our joint?’ Sonny screamed.
‘Na. The religious mob next door. In the back stable where all the singing goes on.’
Less than a minute later the Fire Brigade tore into the street, lights flashing. The men jumped out of the truck and ran through The Reverend’s house, into the yard. Another fire engine turned out of the street, parked alongside the back lane. I could hear the old timber of the stable cracking and exploding. Selina was standing outside the house, holding her mother’s hand. She was wearing a crucifix and praying out loud. The Reverend was nowhere to be seen.
By the time the fire was out there was nothing left of the stable. It was burned to the ground, along with everything inside, including the piano, which turned to charcoal, on account of the intense heat. The police had turned up and one of the firemen was explaining to them that they hadn’t been able to get close to the fire until some of the heat had gone out of it.
‘And then we had to break the stable door down. It was heavily padlocked.’
While the copper was taking notes another fireman came out of the house and spoke to his mate.
‘We have a body. A male.’
‘In the stable. Under a sheet of roof iron and framing. Would have fallen in on him. Got a decent whack in the back of his head’
The policeman looked up from his notebook.
‘I thought you said the door was padlocked from the outside?’
The fireman looked insulted.
‘I know my job. I’m sure.’
Sonny stared at me and I looked across the street at Selina. Her face was as blank as a clean sheet.