In the story that I imagined I would write, I would begin with an image of a chocolate-brown Mercedes-Benz sedan that had been newly imported from a Southeast Asian country. I had never seen this brown Mercedes-Benz, but I imagined that it would be an ugly brown, a darker brown than the wooden floors of the house that I inhabit and walk upon nowadays; and yet, despite this ugly brownness the car brought my uncle immense pride. Why that is, I will never know, but my uncle, from the time I have known him, has always been with a Mercedes-Benz. In the years before I knew of this uncle, this brown Mercedes-Benz had been exchanged for a cream-coloured Mercedes-Benz with a model number beginning with the letter C. The cream-coloured “Benz,” as it was sometimes called, was no less ugly than the brown-coloured Benz, or so I imagined, for it would be hard to imagine anything uglier which had as its emblem a circle that contained three spokes. Nevertheless, the emblem, or rather the badge—which reproduced the emblem in such a manner that it could be inserted into finely machined openings in various parts of the car’s metal armour—turned what was a rather unbecoming assortment of modern machinery into what some might call a status symbol. But as a young boy who did not think unkindly on this uncle, I believed that he was simply a man of unfortunate taste. If he paid more attention to the look of a car, which was pretty much all the boy cared about, surely his uncle would prefer any of the models offered by the competing German manufacturer, BMW, which were, in the boy’s opinion, much seemlier and aesthetically pleasing. Of course, the boy would not have used those words to describe any of the models of the BMW. He would have only seen that the look of a BMW, whether a so-called 3 Series or 5 Series, was much preferable to any of the Benz cars whose model numbers began with a “C” or an “E.” In fact, almost any car that bore the BMW emblem, when compared with a car that bore the three-spoked emblem, was always superior, or so it seemed to the boy. (The BMW emblem was also superior: it resembled a heraldic shield, with crisscrossed squares or rectangles of white and blue.) It seemed inconceivable how anyone, given a choice between one or the other of the same class of car, would side with the Mercedes-Benz.
The boy once sat in the cream-coloured Benz and was told that the tan-coloured seats that he could feel with the palm of his hand were covered with a special type of manmade vinyl that resembled leather. One could run one’s hand down the manmade vinyl and not know it wasn’t leather; the boy ran his finger down one strip of perforated tan-coloured vinyl and had to admit that it was a very good imitation and might have fooled him if he had not been told. The imitation leather had a proprietary name unique to Mercedes-Benz, but I do not remember what it was. The boy wondered why his uncle would purchase a car with imitation leather seats when he might have chosen real leather seats; as he understood at the time, his uncle was not poor. His uncle was a doctor who treated children, a so-called paediatrician, although it was unclear to the boy why he was suited to treating children rather than adults. But his uncle, he’d heard, had done well in school and received one or two or three scholarships to study around the world, in the end choosing to study and work and live in the Western suburbs of Sydney. His uncle would bring up the issue of his achievements whenever he could, or rather when the boy would visit and stay for dinner, which would involve not just his uncle but his aunt and his three cousins. They would sit around a long rectangular table, his uncle would say grace, and then they would eat various Chinese-style dishes and spoon a watery soup from a large bowl in the centre of the table. The boy would be quick to spoon one or two mouthfuls of soup before each of his uncle’s family members dipped in their spoons; he would be horrified when his cousin, a girl three or four years older than he, would volunteer to finish what remained of the soup at the end of the meal.
During the day the boy had been free to play with the cousin who was closest in age to him. I do not recall much of those times except that the cousin enjoyed having showers that were very hot. After an hour or two in the backyard pool, the cousin would have a shower in the stone-walled outhouse near the pool, and would encourage also the boy to have a shower with water that almost scalded his back. They would return to the family room downstairs or go upstairs, where a grasshopper would bound up the boy’s leg and the boy had to take off his pants to let the grasshopper go free. The cousin would squeal with laughter, and then he would get into a fight with his sister, with whom he hardly ever got along. At night after dinner, the boy and his cousin-friend were summoned to his uncle’s bedroom, where they were to watch a Hollywood movie at the foot of his uncle and aunt’s queen-sized bed. The boy noticed that the television on which they were to watch a movie called A Few Good Men was the same as the television model he had at home. He was surprised, however, that this (at the time) large Panasonic television was in his uncle’s bedroom, while at his own home his parents had placed the television in the so-called TV room, a common room that was also a thoroughfare to the kitchen. His parents had never summoned him to watch a movie with them, but because his cousin so readily obeyed the summons of his father, the boy found himself leaning uncomfortably against the foot of the bed beside his cousin while the boy’s uncle and aunt lay in bed. When the movie ended, the uncle remarked on something about the movie, but all the boy remembers are the strained expressions on Jack Nicholson’s face as the character he played became more and more heated and animated. The boy noted that the line “You can’t handle the truth!” was something the writers of the movie were quite proud of, and every effort was made to repeat and accentuate the word truth throughout, so the sentence appeared as a revelation of sorts when it was shouted in the dramatic courtroom finale. The boy did not resent having to see this movie at the behest of his uncle but found it strange that a father could summon his son and his nephew to watch a popular Hollywood film in the master bedroom. (The boy’s parents occasionally watched movies in the TV room, but they seemed uncomfortable if the boy or the boy’s brother would join to watch. Most of the time the television set was turned off.)
I remember that this uncle, while seeing footage of some so-called tragedy or calamity on the news, would respond by putting his tongue up against his upper palate and make a sound that might be written down as tch. He would tch three or four times as the television screen showed a building crumble as a result of a military attack or a young girl abandoned on a dusty and gravelly road; he would tch at some report of some unfortunate incident that had befallen innocent people stuck in the crosshairs of interminable war. The boy was surprised at the outward show of disbelief at our violent world; his own father had never made such outward noises while watching the news, although it is likely his father might have quietly voiced some disapproval or resignation now and then. The boy wondered where his uncle had learned to respond to the news like that; he did not doubt that his uncle’s tchs were genuine, but the way the uncle so quickly sounded them made the boy wonder if they were overly insistent. Or maybe, the boy thought, this was the difference between his uncle and his father: while his uncle was able to articulate his displeasure so assuredly, his father would tend to hesitate. His uncle, after all, was the leader of the church he attended, and it was the place of worship for one hundred or so congregants. They would not have called themselves that; what they might have called themselves I am not sure, but they would have acknowledged that on Sundays they went to a chapel in a conference centre of a Protestant denomination located in a Western suburb of Sydney. They would have noted the large wooden cross suspended on the far side wall of the chapel, and even glimpsed the light green leaves and mottled shrubbery through the glass doors that flanked the slightly raised stage. They would have noted the black grand piano nestled in the brick-lined cavity in the left wall and perhaps the board of knobs and switches near the back of the chapel hall. But after several weeks, they would have simply wondered whose turn it was to preach, since the church did not employ a full-time pastor but rotated through a fairly steady roster of ministers or learned men who had agreed to preach once a month or so. One of these men was a professorial-looking man with a common surname who had, as the boy’s father put it, “the gift of the gab.” Every month or so this gifted man, as I shall call him, would come and preach on a certain passage of Scripture, using as a memory aid a few jottings made in a simple yellow or blue exercise book. The man would speak for thirty minutes or thereabouts, occasionally adjusting his glasses after he had consulted his jottings but speaking mostly from memory about this or that prehistorical time or “unpacking” the meaning and etymology of a certain Hebrew or Greek word. The boy understood little of what the gifted man had said, but he remembers the gifted man using his fingers on both hands like puppets to represent the constant displacements the Israelites had to endure. The boy remembers the fingers of the gifted man moving from one side of the lectern to the other and back again, which was accompanied by a soothing baritone voice. Unlike other preachers the boy had heard (and would continue to hear as he became a young man), this gifted man did not screech or shout or overemphasise his every word; nor did he mumble. The gifted man spoke as if he were beside you or across from you in a small group of willing listeners, so there was no need to raise his voice. Of course, speaking at the pulpit, he must have spoken louder than he usually did in normal conversation; must have been aware that he needed to project his voice, as some might say, to the back of the room. But he had no thought, the boy recognised, of needing to project; he spoke to the person in the last pew as if he or she were right beneath him.
When the boy reached the age of twelve or thirteen, he was no longer allowed to leave the chapel after several songs had been sung and two or three prayers had been offered up on behalf of the congregation. Rather than leave the chapel for some other activity that involved the supervision of an aunty or an uncle (as they were addressed by the children), he would have to continue sitting on an ochre-red cushion in one of the pews and listen to one or another middle-aged male preach from a birch-coloured lectern for thirty or thirty-five minutes. Now that he was in high school, the boy would have to learn to tolerate these longer periods of time when a single voice, directed more or less toward him, would continue uninterrupted. Preceding the monologue or sermon, as it was known, was a reading of an excerpt from Scripture in which the reader—usually a lay member of the congregation—would identify the passage by the name of the so-called book, and then the chapter and the range of verses. The reader would add the page number of the passage to be read, which could always be found in the “blue pew Bible.” The boy had been struck by these words, perhaps because they sounded a little strange, or because the reader, whose so-called native language was very different from English, would struggle to say this phrase properly. Among the words in this phrase, it was the word pew that seemed to cause the most trouble according to the boy’s ear.
For one of the sermons preached, the page number of the reading corresponded to one of the early chapters of the first book of the Bible. The boy obediently turned to the page in his blue pew Bible, and after the reader had read the passage and said “this is the word of the Lord,” the preacher took his place at the lectern to speak. But after a minute or two had elapsed, the boy returned to his blue pew Bible and began to read beyond the passage just read aloud. The boy was familiar with some of the names he read, but there were many he had never seen or heard of before; and as he continued to read he discovered that the book he was reading was a collection of stories. Although he had heard of Abraham and Lot, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel and Joseph, he had been surprised by the cunning of many of these characters. The boy believed at the time that all these characters or personages were real, even Adam and Eve; were real insofar as they had existed long ago in a certain part of the world and had done the things recorded in this sacred book. But in another sense, the stories told in the first book of the Bible did not seem so different from other tales that the boy had grown up with. The boy therefore did not mind being detained in the chapel for thirty or so minutes while one or another man preached, for he could continue reading the stories collected in the blue pew Bible and occasionally be shocked by them. His favourite was the first book of Kings where each king who was chronicled in the twin columns of small type was worse than the last. Each generation, the narrator of the book told us, was more evil than the preceding one, each son and each daughter-in-law more malicious, scheming, and audacious, until nothing, it seemed, was beyond the pale—no action taboo, no scandal scandalous enough. The boy had wondered how each king could be even more evil than the last, and sometimes the book did not say in what way. As I write this now, I do not remember any of the names of the wicked kings mentioned in 1 Kings except Ahab, whose wife Jezebel surpassed even the evil for which Ahab was renowned.
For the two or three years the boy was obliged to stay back in the chapel to listen to the sermon, the boy had read through many parts of the Bible. The boy tended to skip the so-called legal sections and preferred reading of the Israelites as they made their way into the promised land and suffered one or another expulsion from their land, forced to serve sometimes a benevolent, sometimes a craven, monarch, who would reject their peculiar monotheism. Each week, the boy would notice that the preacher was different from the previous week’s, and after following along with the Bible reading would resume where he had left off in the Old Testament. While he occasionally would look up when the preacher seemed to say something, or when the congregants laughed, he would continue reading the various travails of the Israelites or the prophets, who seemed quite unwilling to be the mouthpieces of Yahweh. Apart from the gifted man, who dared to preach on these often miraculous and sometimes gruesome stories, the preachers tended to choose passages from the New Testament, which usually consisted of a few verses from one or another letter written to churches located in what must have been a dry and arid land. The boy had wondered how a preacher could speak so long on this or that verse (which often sounded, to his ears, rather pompous or overwrought), but in many of the moments during which the boy looked up from his reading, he caught on to the fact that the preacher would not be talking about the passage at all. The preacher would be mentioning something that occurred to him that week, or something that he had read in the newspaper, or recount a semi-amusing incident he remembered from his daily life. He would speak of his wife, or his children growing up, or some encounter which would illustrate or explain a point that was supposedly linked to verses in the Bible passage. But often, the boy noticed, many of the things said or the stories told were in order to elicit a laugh. The preacher would make some sort of quip or imitate some sort of accent to get a rise out of his audience; he was not only hoping to deliver some kind of message, but to do so sometimes in a comedic fashion. One of the things a preacher had to be willing to do, the boy thought, was to make jokes. Even if the apparent subject matter was serious, no sermon could pass without at least one or two jokes. A sermon without a joke was a deadly serious affair. It was also deadly boring. It was better to elicit even a faint chuckle than allow the congregants to withdraw into inchoate thoughts and daydreams.
After two or three years, the boy began to listen to the sermon more frequently. He had read what he had wanted to read from the blue pew Bible, and now had to force himself to sit through thirty or so minutes listening to a male’s voice. Most of the time he did not follow what was said, and would often look around to see if the congregants were listening or asleep. He noticed that the congregants always paid attention when the gifted man spoke, and would also warm to the slightly nasally voice of the man with wisps of white hair and metal-rimmed spectacles. They would laugh at another visiting preacher’s bad jokes, who ingratiated himself with his Chinese-inflected humour. On occasion, it would be announced in the order of a Sunday service that the boy’s uncle would be preaching, and the boy could not help noticing a collective feeling of disappointment—a silent groan, as it were. No one would say so, of course, but it was understood that one would have to endure a flat and ponderous homily which would test the patience of the congregants. It was not that his uncle was a particularly bad preacher, but in comparison to the roster of preachers who came each week he always seemed to be deficient in one respect or another. At times, he seemed like a student minister wishing to appear as wise and as profound as the gifted man.
The gifted man, the boy’s father once said, had gone to Cambridge University to study. He had obtained a postgraduate scholarship to study classical languages or perhaps ancient history, but for one reason or another had returned to Sydney without completing his degree. The boy’s father suspected that the gifted man’s return to his hometown had to do with his then-wife. Whether his then-wife had accompanied the gifted man to Cambridge or had stayed in Sydney instead for some or all of the time the boy’s father did not say. What the father did mention was that shortly after the gifted man had abandoned his degree in classical studies at Cambridge, his wife left him. Because the gifted man would soon be a divorced man, he could not in good conscience serve as a pastor or a minister of a congregation. Given his own personal failings, chiefly his inability to honour his marital vows to a single person, a woman he had believed he had loved and had even said so to her on more than one occasion, he saw himself unfit to lead others or counsel them on spiritual or relational matters. When the gifted man returned to Sydney, none of his friends or the ministers he knew could convince him to change his mind. They knew, of course, that a divorced man would not be looked upon favourably by many clergy and parishioners. But in the case of the gifted man, even the most hardened of churchgoers would surely forgive his personal failings in light of his evident gifts. In any case, not to make use of them would be such a waste. And who was he to spurn the God-given gifts he was meant to use? But no matter what his friends or superiors said, there was little that could be done. He was a broken man, the boy’s father said, and no amount of persuasion would alter that fact.
The gifted man, having returned home, took on temporary positions at one or another high school, teaching whatever subjects were needed for the term. He was still a broken man, but his ex-wife, as she was now called, had moved to Adelaide, making his decision to stay in Sydney much easier. His superiors and friends at his former church, who were beginning to occupy ministerial posts across the Anglican diocese, had encouraged him to finish his studies; but when it was clear that the gifted man would not go back to Cambridge, they suggested that he teach a few classes at the evangelical Bible college where they had trained to be ministers of the Word. The gifted man resisted, just as he had resisted after he had graduated from Bible college and had chosen, for the space of three or four years, to indulge his penchant for classical literature. In his quieter moments, he could imagine nothing better than spending his days translating Homer and reading the ancient Greeks. Although he had mastered Latin, or well enough to read some Cicero unaided, he preferred the temper of the Greeks, which seemed much removed from the temper of the Romans (not to speak of the tempers of peoples that followed). There was something obscure about the Greeks that intrigued him, and he thought he might become more acquainted with that obscurity through translating Homer. Of course, no Bible college or university would pay him simply to translate Homer. He would have to devise a thesis or at minimum a “thesis topic” that required proving something about Homer, which in turn would require him translating Homer into English. He could hope to prove, for instance, that one of the so-called authors in the New Testament had drawn upon Homeric epic to produce what came to be known as a Gospel.
But when the gifted man returned to his hometown, he could no longer bear the thought of Homer, let alone translate the supposed poet’s words. When he sat down with the principal of the Bible college, he said that he would be willing to teach any course the faculty saw fit; but he would not, under any circumstance, teach the Gospel of Luke. If possible, he would prefer to teach a subject that involved Biblical Hebrew, or at least one course a semester on the Old Testament. He said that he did not doubt the authenticity of Luke’s Gospel, nor did its disputed authorship pose any real problems to him. He only asked for this exemption on account of what he called a personal fault.
Over the years, the gifted man became a much beloved teacher at the Bible college, although he remained at the more or less permanent rank of lecturer. While his colleagues had begun their rise up the seminary ladder, even those whose talents were hardly distinguished, the gifted man stayed on the lowest rung, always dependent on the benevolence of the principal. When the principal retired and was replaced by a man who knew nothing of their prior arrangement, the gifted man was forced back into his former life of temporary placements at secondary schools. For one of these placements, the gifted man was assigned to teach Latin to a pampered but well-behaved group of teenage boys. The gifted man thought he might have preferred to teach classical Greek—which was only, at this time, an extracurricular subject for especially keen students. But to his surprise he discovered the morphological structures of Latin a pleasure to teach. While his students memorised one paradigm after another, he could wonder at the remarkable tautness of the Latin language, which he had always thought of as a vulgar and officious debasement of classical Greek. Nothing could dislodge from his mind the superiority of Greek, but he had to admit there was a pleasing logic, a quasi-mathematical quality to Latin, that made it worthy of attention.
Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.
(I, the narrator of this fiction, would learn this sequence of words, which was used as an example of a conjugation of verbs that had a certain ending in the infinitive. Unlike the gifted man, I gained no such pleasure in reciting this sequence, which he would have taught to grammar boys of ages twelve or thirteen. By the time I had committed that and many other sequences required by my class instructor to memory, I would have fallen out of love with lingua Latina, the Latin tongue. I would go on, nevertheless, to pass the examination in order to continue my graduate studies at a university a former professor of mine had once compared to Cambridge. But despite my distaste for Latin, which I would have to continue to read in the coming years, I had no wife who could cut short my studies and speed my coming home.)
The gifted man would go on to teach sequences of Latin conjugations, and much else besides, at the same grammar school for more than a decade.
Four or so years since the teenage boy had sat down in a chapel on a Sunday morning to listen to a thirty-minute sermon or otherwise read in a blue pew Bible, his parents encouraged him to look for another church. For five or so years the boy’s family had lived in a suburb in the North Shore of Sydney, which meant it took the duration of a sermon to drive from their home to the chapel located in a Western suburb of Sydney. On the car ride home the boy, travelling on a near-empty stomach, would often get nauseous. His father would have to stop partway to let the boy out onto stable ground, or the boy, upon reaching home, would run upstairs and stretch out on his bed. But one Sunday the boy’s father would drive by himself to the Western suburbs to fulfil the last of his duties at what was known to the boy as his uncle’s church.
The father, who was younger than the boy’s uncle by two years, was used to playing what the father’s wife called “second fiddle.” And since the father always played second fiddle, it followed that the father’s wife and children would always play second fiddle. Thus, while the father attended all the church meetings and chaired many services and played music for them, the church became synonymous with the uncle’s first name, for he was the leader. And the uncle’s three children, as a matter of course, played first fiddle in their own domain, instructing the other children in singing, acting, scriptural knowledge, and Bible reading. For apart from the weekly grind of Sunday school and youth group meetings, there were the more spectacular but occasional events to be prepared for, such as the Christian musical imported from America. In the second sentence of this paragraph I used the word always, but an exception now comes to mind. When the uncle’s oldest son fell sick, there was no alternative but to give the starring role of a certain church musical to the boy’s brother, who was the next oldest male child with musical training. The boy’s aunt, however, could not conceal her jealously when she dressed the boy’s brother up in a costume that was supposed to resemble a book, or Psalter, nor when she saw him singing the solo her eldest should have sung, with the spotlight keenly focused on him.
When the father came to do the last of his duties, his brother had not expected him. While the rest of the father’s family had sought new places to worship on Sunday mornings or Sunday afternoons, the father felt he ought to do the last of his rostered duties, which was to accompany the congregation for two hymns and two or three contemporary Christian songs. When the father returned home he had with him a church bulletin that was handed out with the order of service, which was printed on both sides of a yellow A5 sheet. The bulletin contained a story about a young man who had betrayed his village. The young man had been raised by a humble village and enjoyed growing up and serving among the villagers; but when he came of age, he decided to leave the village for another, more exciting land. The moral of the story, it seemed, was that the man was ungrateful. The young man owed everything to the village and the villagers, but out of a rebellious pride had decided to betray them for selfish ends.
The father said that this so-called parable would not have been printed that week if his brother had known he would come to fulfil the last of his duties. The father’s wife was incensed upon the hearing of this incident, but the couple knew that little could be done now. For many years, they would be shunned by the villagers of this parable. Indeed, some of them would never venture to that other land they had heard about. But some of them would eventually leave the village, and when in time they caught sight of the young man and his wife—who were no longer young but tanned and wrinkled—they would smile at them as they once had when they had all lived in the village.
The village, of course, was the uncle’s church, and the uncle would one day not only call himself a doctor but also a pastor. He was, as the boy’s father put it (or as the boy put it to himself), both a doctor of the sick and a doctor of souls. Although his uncle had no formal theological qualifications except for a certificate or degree he obtained through correspondence courses at a local Bible college, he was in the eyes of his hundred or so congregation members their pastor—the shepherd of the flock. Each week, an itinerant preacher would deliver a sermon on whatever topic or passage he chose. On occasion, however, the pastor would deliver the sermon; and on occasion, too, the pastor’s youngest son would give “the message.” Sometimes this youngest son would preach beyond thirty or thirty-five minutes, clocking nearly fifty minutes one Easter Sunday. This youngest son was once the cousin who had encouraged the boy to have a shower that almost scalded his back. But neither the boy nor I would recognise this son of a pastor, who had reportedly spoke with great fervour but had on several occasions tested the congregation’s patience.
I have never heard my cousin preach. I know that in preparation he had begun private speech and drama lessons in his late twenties, and that around that age, from what I could gather in the four or five times that I spoke to him as a young man, he had become suddenly serious about matters concerning the church. He had once said, in a lowered tone that I had never heard from him before, that others of his age were not taking church seriously enough. Of course, the church he was referring to was still his father’s church—my uncle’s church, that is. But in the distant future, when my cousin had children of his own and received a certificate or degree from a local Bible college, as his father had, would my uncle’s church become my cousin’s church. And surely then some gifted man would come to speak every month or so and use his hands as puppets to illustrate the one or more exiles suffered by the Israelites.
In that distant future, I wonder if there would be a boy who, upon being forced to sit through one or another sermon, would read stories of the Israelites in a blue pew Bible, and after being satisfied with whatever had been printed on two narrow columns in delicate page after delicate page, would glance up at the speaker or look around at the faces in the congregation. I wonder if this boy, too, would have a fiddle in his hand, and when he was not playing along to some hymn or Christian song would be careful not to pluck the strings of his instrument during times of silence or public prayer. Would the boy begin to feel distant from the boys at church he had grown up and played with and counted as friends? Would he find, by his mid-teens, that he could only strike up a friendly conversation with one or maybe two of those boys? And would the boy, having heard or listened to the sermon on Sundays for three or four years, find that he would no longer sit in the back seat of his father’s car for the length of a sermon in order to attend his uncle’s church?