As he walked around the tree, Victor noticed three small green apples hiding in the foliage of a low branch. He plucked and devoured them in seconds. When a rough inspection of the other branches yielded no more fruit, he left the tree and strolled around the overgrown flower beds. Roses, daisies, and at least a dozen flower varieties whose names he had never learned all flourished in a twisted yet attractive mess, like a movie star wearing an unkempt beard for his role as a secretly brilliant homeless man. Victor stopped to study a lone flower on a thick, dark green bush. Two bees seemed to like the bush. The flower was small and white, with overlapping petals; he had never seen that kind before. He passed another door—not the one to the pool room—and moved on to the wooden garden shed beside it. He set his hand on the door knob, but then made a double take at a patch of garden nearby, where a vine had wrapped itself around a small, rotting wooden ladder leaning against the wall. Hiding, almost camouflaged, in the leaves of the vine were five heavy clusters of plump, green grapes.
Victor ran to relieve the vine of its fruit, shoving it into his mouth by the handful. Halfway through the third cluster, he set the grapes down and put his hand on his stomach.
“Ooh,” he winced. “I think that’s enough fruit for now.”
He went to the shed, opened its door and stepped in. It was much bigger than it had seemed from outside. He knew it immediately; as a child he had been there three hundred times—or at least a place like it. He closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of pews, hymn books and old ladies’ perfume. Yes, it was the same. High ceiling, stained glass windows, loud timber floor, oversized pulpit and a near-life-size replica of Christ’s crucifixion. (The wooden cross was neater than the original probably was, and varnished. Christ’s body, too, was smooth and shiny, showing no effects of the scourging and beating he had suffered before the actual crucifixion.) The only oddity in the room was that, though daylight streamed in through the windows, the electric lights were on. On a long, fold-out table to the side of the room were plates of sandwiches and lamingtons.
A sea of wool suits and long dresses drifted by him as the congregation filled the uncomfortable long bench seats. Victor took a place at the back of the room. All whispering and shuffling ceased as a tiny old woman exerted supreme effort in climbing two stairs onto a platform, and then inched her way to a bulky organ. She sat down on a cushioned stool, put on the exact pair of glasses she would have worn had she been a cartoon version of herself, and leaned forward to squint at the morning’s sheet music. Everyone stood in unison, to the unanimous creak of the pews. Pages rustled as the faithful turned to hymn one hundred and sixty-seven in their books. A brassy blast from the organ, and the melody kicked in. Voices low and high, talented and tone deaf, shy and overbearing, all combined for a heart-warming sound. The music was a little erratic though, causing the odd awkward lone voice to start singing a line too early, or hang on a note too long.
“Good Lord,” muttered Victor, “that woman needs a metronome.”
After two indistinguishable hymns, the organ silenced and everyone sat down. Someone near the front coughed. A thin, scowling man in a brown suit stepped up onto the platform and behind the pulpit. Sandwiched between narrow spectacles and bushy eyebrows, his disapproving eyes scanned the flock before him. He clunked a heavy bible on the pulpit and opened it, while keeping his glare on the congregation. His flaring nostrils vacuumed a furious breath, and then he slammed one hand down on the pulpit, while the other hand extended a finger trembling with judgement. The finger pointed at Victor.
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