John walks up the path towards the front door, his feet making a series of soft crunching noises on the gravel. On first encountering John you see him as a virtual amalgam of the other Johns you have known in the past. It’s hard not to: before John has a chance to utter a word or make any sort of movement you are given his name, and so these past ideas of character and temperament become preconceptions. In primary school you knew a boy called John, he was boisterous, talkative, flighty even. He had pale skin and sandy blonde hair. Young John’s boisterous nature often led him to get overexcited though. He was great fun to be around, but those moments when he would become somewhat hyperactive and close to tears stick in your mind now. John, the John of the gravelly path, also has a tendency to become over excited you suspect. But is it really a tendency? How often does he get this way? You think you’ve observed it once in the past few minutes, and you’ve labelled it in your mind as a ‘tendency’. And in fact John looks excited again now. The skin around his face is flushed and he strides with purpose up the gravelled path. The soft noises of feet on gravel gradually become louder the further he gets up the path. There is a look in his eyes that leads you to believe a confrontation might be imminent. Another John, one you knew later in life, perhaps when you were midway through your teenage years, was quite different to the earlier, flighty John. He was a tall and athletic guy. He played hockey and possibly represented the state on a number of occasions. You weren’t that close to this John, but you did speak to him every so often and he had a certain way of speaking. Calm and assured, confident at all times. Perhaps the physically gifted always give off this air of confidence, knowing as they do how to be active in the world without any real awkwardness? You envied this John that. Sometimes, as teenaged John would speak (about a hockey game of the past for instance), his eyes would slowly drift off to the horizon… as if he was a stockman of surveying the distant sky for signs of stormclouds. You could almost picture him chewing tobacco as he did this. You think you’ve observed John of the gravellish path and excited demeanour behave this way too. In fact right now he stops, just short of the door he was approaching, takes a deep breath and then, scans the horizon with his eyes. It’s hockey playing John to a tee. All Johns are this John, you think to yourself, crouched in your secret location.
Why follow John around? It’s a question you have to ask yourself and because you haven’t until this point asked yourself that very question you feel like there could possibly be something wrong with you. You have to thrust that thought aside though – you’ve been down this particular gravelled path before. The self-doubt almost never leads you to a good place. (Like the time you wondered whether you should have been sending your elderly grandmother a birthday card for the past ten years, ever since you’d moved away from your parents and had been running your own life. Remember? Yes, you made some enquiries and it turned out you really should have been sending that card. Apparently your grandmother had mentioned your lack of contact in private conversations, wondering what she’d ever done to deserve such treatment. She lived her whole life in Western Australia and she used to bake elaborate cakes in a wood-fired oven, and when you pictured her saying these things, in your mind she was standing near the wood-fired oven, in WA, wearing an apron, her hands coated in flour, sometimes a tear running down her cheek. And then your grandmother died. There was and is no way to make this right. Doubting yourself had led you to this realisation of inadequacy that you now had to live with. Furthermore the result of this doubt kept popping into your mind as a sort of warning, urging you not to doubt your past actions, and so you could never forget your ill treatment of your elderly grandmother. If you have to live with this one terrible thing and this one sad floury image you may as well avoid a repeat and make sure all other past events have a golden glow.) Following people gives you an insight into the lives of others and therefore an understanding of ‘difference’. It is the rational and proper thing to do. (You have already decided this.) You are the least likely person to cast judgment, to be opinionated or biased. When John gave his name this morning at the newsagent – you were buying a newspaper; you gathered that ‘John’ was paying off an account for the home delivery of his newspaper, hence the need for him to give his name – you simply thought it interesting that you had finally encountered another John in your life, and you assumed (correctly) that he must live nearby, just like you. Perhaps this John, the final in a series of Johns, would be the John you would forge a connection with? This John could become a lifelong friend. Everything was in favour of it happening: he seemed to be around the same age as you, he lived nearby, and he was named ‘John’. You paid for your newspaper and casually walked off in the same direction as John. ‘John’, you repeated to yourself softly, under your breath, as you walked.
When John does finally get behind that door you will have to entertain yourself. All the windows are curtained and there is a tall and sturdy fence blocking access to the side yards. There seems to be no possible vantage that will allow you to see what is happening inside the house. This is depressing. But does it have to be? Do you prefer to see events unfold before you in a documentary fashion, or maybe perhaps to have things left open, to have to think and fill in the gaps and come up with some conclusions yourself? Well it doesn’t really matter what you think. Don’t be so egotistical. It’s not all about you and you are not better than everyone else. This is the way it will and does now unfold: John enters the house (perhaps he unlocks the door himself, or perhaps you catch a glimpse of someone who lets him in, a tall blonde woman in an evening dress for instance… whatever, it doesn’t matter) and you are left to mull over the possibilities of what is now happening within. You now have to picture various storylines and you may indeed settle on one that is either the most likely, the most exotic and fanciful, or one somewhere in between these two poles. As John pounded the gravel with his foot one last time and knocked on the door you were cursing the limited outcomes of your predicament. Once again everything has to be sorted out inside your own head. Not again, you think, emphatically, to yourself. The door opens and a tall woman (with blonde hair and wearing an evening dress) appears momentarily. She has a blank look on her face but the look is so blank you can’t even tell if it is intentional and directed at John (suggesting a lack of characteristic good humour, hinting at an eruption of temper to come; or if it is the result of a long period of blank boredom that not even John’s arrival can lift). John walks inside the house and the door is closed again. It is all over. The end.
But then you figure you have another half an hour here, with this. At most half an hour. Crouching here in the bushes any longer than that would have to arouse suspicion. Even if strangers walking past on the street caught a glimpse of you and ignored your presence, within half an hour you figure it’s reasonably likely someone who lives nearby, someone who knows ‘John’ will pass. This person will stop, look again, and realise something is amiss. At the very least they will call out ‘Hey!’ at you as your run off. At the worst they might tackle you to the ground and call the police. Inevitably you would be forced to confront John and attempt to explain yourself. He would perhaps be holding a small child and glaring at you with obvious anger. This can never happen you think. Things between you and John would be ruined forever. You decide you’d better think quickly. John’s garden is really beautiful but despite this there is a slightly unruly feel to it, a feel you think is related to the fact that there are many native plants and grasses on display. (You remember a school excursion to reforestation area once many years ago. You wished you’d paid attention. John had brought along a hand-held games console and a bag of lollies.) You start to entertain the notion that this John, ‘John’, might be an environmentalist. The many varieties of native plant suggest such a profession as a possibility. In fact: you realise that such a profession would combine perfectly his most telling traits, the defining traits of the previous two Johns. His tendency to get excited and even over-excited is an asset because as an environmentalist John is often charged with speaking to large gatherings of sceptical people. It gives him a necessary edge. (Perhaps this edge had been telling in those moments years ago when he’d needed to lift to beat someone’s highscore at Tetris?) Skill and a good knowledge of facts and figures might not win people over in every instance but passion, passion is a much better bet. Similarly, John’s natural and confident way of ‘being’ in the world clearly makes him well suited to environmental fieldwork. You imagine he is especially good at talking to landowners and forestry workers, his manner setting them at ease. It’s a reasonable bet that John’s favourite media image of himself shows him and a conservative, rurally-based politician staring out at the horizon in tandem. You now realise that John is the perfect combination of all other Johns. He’s identified his natural assets and chosen a career that allows him to use them and be commended for using them. All the other Johns must be very envious (the hyper-excitable John surely would have been a likely candidate to turn to heroin to help calm his nerves.)
But then John isn’t happy. That much is clear. While he is a man with a vital an interesting job, and beautiful and tall wife, and a secure house (he even has a newspaper delivered to his house!) there is an air of melancholy about him. Wait though… You look down at your feet and realise that this is an overly simplistic way of figuring things. John could have a real illness. Even you know that people suffering from depression aren’t simply sad about something that has occurred. The brain chemistry of the person isn’t functioning correctly and it makes living a normal, moderately happy life, really hard.
But despite your wisdom and clever thinking you still attribute a causal factor. You want to make things simple, solvable. As far as you can see, the person who has the biggest influence in John’s life is his wife. In fact you’ve only ever seen him once without her. Why would she be dressed in an evening dress at 3 in the afternoon with a blank look on her face? There’s only really one explanation. She’s been having an affair. And because she never gets out of the house, it’s likely carried out online.
No doubt John will find out about it. His wife won’t know he knows, but she is trying to drive a wedge between them anyway by looking blank all the time and by dressing as if she is going out to afternoon charity functions all the time. She believes this air of tension between them is a perfect sort of payback for all the real or imagined hurts she has tallied up over the years together with John. John feels paralysed by the situation and it’s hard to know if it is the situation to blame or some kind of real illness. He doesn’t think revealing all he knows would help make him happier. He hates conflict and acts mainly to avoid it. But keeping it to himself is definitely not helping. He is alternately cool and calm and then irate and over excited. He doesn’t know what to do and he is so totally all the ‘Johns’ at once.
This is where you come into the picture.
It’s a photograph taken by John’s next-door neighbour. The possibility of someone spotting you in your bushy hiding spot without actually walking past the house just hadn’t occurred to you. Then there’s the possibility of this person taking a photograph of you with his iphone before raising the alarm (people are so clever these days). So although there was no tackling of you into the hard concrete, you’ve still been caught and are now placed in that situation of having to explain yourself. It’s the worst possible scenario for you. (You remember your own next-door-neighbour when you were younger, a kid called ‘Stephen’, a couple of years older than you. So smart, always topping the class in tests and assessment tasks, but never well-liked. He had a bug collection. When asked what he wanted to do when he grew up you remember him saying ‘I want to be a millionaire.’)
The police officer pushes you roughly into a chair and turns the camera to the wall, the gesture such a cliché you almost laugh. He hasn’t told you but you suspect his name might be Stephen. ‘Oh you think this is funny do you’, Constable Stephen says, looking angry. ‘I’ve got John in the next room. And he’s not happy’.
You’ve watched enough police dramas to know read the cues in this police officer’s voice. ‘John’ has authority in this town. He wields power even amongst the police. What will he do to you? Who is he? ‘John’, you murmur softly to yourself, again and again and again.