There is a Crazy Man in every New Zealand childhood
Each month, Jamie went to his father’s house for a weekend. His father picked him up, drove out of the city and down long unlit roads, fog rising from the fields, until they reached his place in the country. One night though he detoured. He drove into town to a second-hand car yard, where he inspected one of the cars for sale. “Don’t tell your mother we’re wandering around town at night,” he told Jamie, smiling. And, when he crouched down to peer under that car, Jamie did the same, even though he had no idea what they were looking for. Afterward, they went to a restaurant for dinner – Jamie ate squid rings from a plastic basket – and leaving, stepping back out under the streetlights, they heard a shout. Across the road, in a carpark a group of men stood laughing. “He spewed,” one said.
“Hey,” another shouted to Jamie’s father. “Have a look at this.”
“Nah, nah,” his friend said. “There’s a kid there.”
But it was too late. Jamie had looked. He saw a puddle of grey vomit beside the wheel of a car, and one of those men bent over beside it, his face pale and glistening in the light.
His father didn’t seem surprised, just sniggered. “Drunk,” he said. They carried on. Jamie walked close beside him.
That was town. That was the sort of thing that might happen there. In the suburb where he and his mother lived things were quiet. There was a block of flats where, his mother said, rough people lived, but that was about it. Each morning he walked past those flats. He went to school, to the class he was in with Reagan as well as Tom and Ben. The other members of the Explorers Club he’d founded, although it was unclear that the others thought of themselves that way. He told them about the spewing man: “They were drunk.” He’d known it all along.
“I was drunk once,” Tom said.
They shouted their disbelief.
“At my cousin’s wedding. I drank some of my dad’s beer.”
They talked about this. They didn’t return to Jamie’s story.
Of course, Jamie never told his mother. She would worry, want to know why his father had taken him into town so late, then get on the phone to him to complain and insist. Safer and easier to save that one for school. It was at school too that he first saw the man. The Skinny Man, the Crazy Man. These were the names they would come up with for him. He had appeared during maths, at a moment when Jamie looked at the division equations in his book, hoping that looking alone would somehow unlock them and make their answers reveal themselves. The bell rang for lunch before he would need to admit defeat.
“Stay in your seats,” Mr Todd said, shouting over the shuffle of books and pencils being hurriedly put away. He told them that a stranger had been seen walking through the school grounds. There was no need to worry. The police had been called. The man seemed harmless. But just to be on the safe side, they would stay inside until he had left.
At once, everyone turned to each other, talking about who this man might be.
“Quiet please, quiet,” Mr Todd said but soon gave up. Quiet was impossible in the circumstances. Someone realised that outside might have been off limits, but there were windows. They rushed from one side of the classroom to the other, desperate for a glimpse. Was that him?
“There he is!”
This time it was true. They jostled to see a lean man in jeans that hung, too big, from his belt. He had a shopping bag hooked around one finger and slung back over his shoulder, and in the other hand he held a can of beer which he sipped from as he walked, strolling across the concrete pad between the class room and the back field.
They yelled. Mr Todd ran over, shushing loudly, waving his hands. The class barely noticed, their eyes were on that man and hearing their noise, he turned their way. His skin was sunburnt and tight over his cheekbones, making his eyes deep, and on seeing all the children staring, he came to a stop.
“He’s looking at us!” someone shrieked.
The man raised a can to his face, tipped it high and glugged away. Finished, he gave it a little shake to confirm it empty then threw it into the tussocks under the classroom window and walked on.
Jamie, Reagan, Tom and Ben would retrace this man’s journey through school. Carefully they walked it, guessing the bits they weren’t sure of. The highlight was finding a cigarette butt – proof of where he’d been, and of his wrongness too. These were the height of the Smokefree years and Mr Todd had warned them more than once about the dangers of smoking. What Jamie never let on was that his father walked about with a cigarette in his mouth most hours on those weekends he spent with him. At his father’s place Jamie could go anywhere, do just about anything. His father didn’t care, but for whatever reason, his mother’s voice still with him maybe, he never left the section. There was bush at one end and he could traipse around the edge of that. Once he took an old exercise book to write a journal – he knew this was an essential part of the explorer’s kit – but sitting in the shade of a shed, he found himself at a loss. “No sign of natives” he wrote, the only thing he ever wrote in that book, baffling his father who would later come across it in his room. Sometimes when his father was away, Jamie would go to the bag he’d brought from his mother’s and bury his head in it, smelling the familiar smells of fried food and the laundry powder his mother used. Smells that took him home, away from that that old house with its tobacco and man smells.
Now they’d noticed him, the man was everywhere. Walking home from school one day, Jamie spotted him further up the street. His gait he noticed before anything else. The man walked in a particular, striding way. Too purposeful for those suburban streets. It made him stick out, and Jamie hung back, following although it turned out they were both going the same way anyhow. They walked past the flats where the rough people lived, and the man turned down a street that was a block from Jamie’s own. Jamie stood there and watched him go into a flat there. That was where he lived. It was frightening to know he was so close. By then he had begun to let himself believe all the things they said about the man at school: he was dangerous, a murderer maybe. The man had been a regular topic of conversation since that day he’d walked by their classroom. This time though Jamie knew something that Reagan and all the others didn’t. He practised the way he would tell them. Casually perhaps, saying it as if he assumed they knew too. But when the day came and he found himself listening to Tom skiting about his weekend trip to Cobb & Co, he blurted it out urgently, obviously excited to have some news to share. Their response was pleasing at first.
“You found him,” Reagan said.
“I tracked him down,” Jamie said.
But Tom noticed something else. “The Crazy Man is your neighbour,” he said and laughed, and some of the others did too.
“You live in Crazy Town,” he said, and the others laughed again, more loudly this time.
That night at dinner, when his mother asked about school, Jamie thought about telling her all this. He was certain Tom had changed in some way. They all teased each other, found things in their talk to trip each other up. But Tom went further, listening more carefully to Jamie than he did the others. It was hard to explain, and so instead he told her about his trouble with division. At this their idle talk became serious.
“You need to try really hard Baby,” she said (He hated ‘Baby’ but she could never get herself to stop). “You can do a lot of things, anything you want with maths.”
Jamie nodded, eating while she spoke.
“I can help you. Bring your books out after tea and we’ll work through them together.” In her words he saw them both with heads bent to his text book, studiously finding their way through the sums that had caused him so much trouble in the day. He pictured this even as he knew that when it came to maths homework she was worse than him. And when dinner finished he didn’t say anything and didn’t get his book. Casually he switched on the TV, and after the dishes, she slumped down on the couch and he took his chair. They watched the news and the shows that came after. They watched everything just as they did every other night. Neither mentioned division, and finally time came for Jamie to go to bed. Watching TV was the thing they did most. And when they did, those things they worried about – jobs, maths, rough people – all seemed small. Sometimes at the end of the year, when it came time to make their reports, the teachers would look baffled at his results. He was quiet, obedient. It was easy for them to not notice that he was a poor student, struggling with most things. Even the one subject he should have been at home with, English, he made hard with his daydreaming and the ease of letting whole evenings disappear in front of the TV, his books unopened.
That Sunday, his mother sent him into the dairy for milk while she waited in the car. He went in, taking his time as he walked past the plastic tubs of gobstoppers and giant Jaffas. More interesting were the brightly packaged brand-named lollies: PushPops, Sourz. You could buy one or two of those for the same price as a bag of the other. Which to choose? Quality or quantity? This was always the dilemma, and pondering that he made his way back to the counter and almost walked into him, the man himself. Skinnier, rangier than he remembered from that day at school. The man glanced down at Jamie and went to the counter, said something to the dairy owner, who handed him a pouch of tobacco, and that was it. The man was out the door again. When Jamie came out he was gone.
He mentioned this at school on Monday, hoping the others would ask more. He had decided that the best counter to Tom’s jibes would be to go with them. Rather than defend his neighbourhood, with its unkempt gardens and broken-down cars, he would emphasise those things, talk about its tough and dangerous streets, making him tough by extension.
They spent their lunch breaks doing something new now, a game called paddle tennis. It was really just tennis on concrete, played with a solid plastic paddle the shape and size of kind used for ping pong. At the start of each game, they handed out these paddles, decided on teams. It was then that Jamie mentioned seeing the man in the dairy.
“Doesn’t he live near you?” Tom said.
“There’s all sorts living nearby,” Jamie said. “There’s these flats down the road…”
The others waited. He hadn’t thought this through. Sometimes a woman from those flats sat on her doorsteps in bare feet, something his mother called ‘slovenly’ but which he knew wouldn’t sound like anything that serious to his friends.
“Flats?” Reagan said.
“There’s drug addicts at them,” he said at last, but the pause had undone him. They looked away, knowing he was lying.
Tom broke the silence, changing the subject altogether. “This is nothing like proper tennis,” he said, looking at his paddle. “That’s a real game.”
At any other time, Jamie might have stuck up for paddle tennis, their game, but this time he let it pass. If anything, he was grateful.
Tom turned to Reagan. He said, “When my dad served, you didn’t even see it coming.”
Reagan chuckled. Immediately Jamie knew what this meant: the two were hanging out together after school. When else would Reagan be playing tennis with Tom’s dad? And, until this moment neither had mentioned it. They had kept it a secret from him. Reagan glanced his way, smirked a little, completing the lesson that Tom had begun. Jamie saw ahead, his place as Reagan’s best friend replaced. He would be invited to birthday parties and the odd gathering yes, but never a Saturday afternoon at Reagan’s house. Those days were over. He would need to make a new alliance with Ben, someone he’d only tolerated so far.
Their game began, and Jamie lost over and over. Finally, playing Tom, he wheeled around, flinging himself at the ball, hopeless and desperate, his nose beginning to run. He stretched his arm out to the ball, the paddle slipping from his fingers and spinning out like a tomahawk, whizzing through thin air until, finally, sickeningly it hit Tom in the face.
Tom dropped to the ground, his hands up. “I’m bleeding!” Blood dripped down his fingers, coming to a puddle on the court.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said. “I’m sorry Tom. I just lost my grip.”
Tom glared at him, then looked again at the blood on his hands. A gash ran vertically beside his eye.
“Is it bad?” he said.
“It’s pretty bad,” Ben said.
It was a Friday, and he was walking home when he saw him. The man was doing his usual stride. There was nothing more to say about him, no point in sharing more. Weeks had passed since they last talked about him. Still, Jamie watched him carefully. When the man turned down his street, he went that way too. He watched him veer off urgently toward the first of three connected concrete block flats. The man unlocked the door and went in. From a safe distance, Jamie watched him close the door behind him, and he dawdled for moment, looking at the house in case there might be something of interest, some clue in its concrete block walls or weedy garden. Suddenly though, the door swung open and the man came striding out, walked onto the footpath and off down the street, leaving that door open behind him. Jamie stood for a moment longer. Checking to make sure the man was still walking away, he went to that door, he slipped into his house. There he blinked at the gloom until he could see clearly. He was in a room with a TV and a table that held a neat row of sauce bottles. A room not unlike the sitting room in his own home except that there was also a bed. On it lay newspapers and an empty shopping bag. There was nothing on the walls except for a pharmacy calendar, the very same one his mother had hung in the kitchen with a picture of Milford Sound for this month. Nothing then of interest, nothing to justify his actions. He should have left right away, and yet he couldn’t. For the longest time he stood in a quiet, internal panic. This went on until he heard movement, someone’s steps outside and at last he came to his senses, looked about him and with no better idea than one he’d seen in a movie, fell to the ground and crawled under the bed.
Battered shoes came into the room. The man stood for a while, and Jamie worried that he could hear his breath. He was panting loudly. He tried to hold it in, but that led to his taking gulping breathes, even louder than before. Still the man stood. Any minute now he would track the sound to its source, and he would lean down to where Jamie lay. Jamie waited and waited but this moment didn’t come. Instead, the man moved around the room again. He muttered, “All around the mulberry bush…”
He flopped onto the bed. It bulged down onto Jamie, just gently touching his back. Jamie remained terrified beneath, waiting and waiting without knowing that he would ever leave. He began to make all sorts of crazy, impossible pacts. Please he hoped, let me get out of this and I will never do anything bad again. Please get me out of this and I will say sorry to Tom. Above him, the man was flicking through a newspaper. Jamie recognised the sweep and rustle of pages. The man sighed, he put the paper aside. Jamie’s fear was still strong but less urgent, it lay there, as he did, a constant. Incredibly he was able to think other things, to be bored even. The man sighed again. He shifted his weight. Jamie lay with his hands over his face, thinking of home, his room with his posters and model aeroplanes and the rock he had picked up on the beach because there, washed over by the sea, it was a brilliant, almost translucent maroon, but which, as it dried on the car ride home, became a dull, reddish lump.
The man walked to another room. A toilet flushed. He returned to sit on the bed and after a long moment of quiet, he got up and went to the bathroom again, and this time, Jamie’s desperation overcame his terror. He shuffled out, and stood up, discovering that his whole body ached. He went to the door and pulled on it, forgetting to unsnib the lock. The door rattled in his hinges. Realising his mistake, he undid the lock and pulled the door open, saw pavement. It was then that the man came back into the room. He looked at Jamie, their eyes met. The man’s didn’t seem to hold any surprise. Instead, they narrowed. “A fucking kid,” he said, and he made no move as Jamie bolted, and ran and ran down the street, away as fast as he could to home.
Jamie lay, face down on his bed. “Where have you been,” his mother said, through the door. “You’re late.”
“Nowhere,” he said, his voice muffled by the pillow.
“What?” She pushed open the door and came in. “What’s wrong? What happened?” she spoke tentatively, worried what the answer might be. “Where have you been?”
He was trembling, a mess of relief and shock. “I don’t know. I was lost. I just got lost,” he said, trying to stop her from asking more. He could feel her nearness, her hovering beside the bed, anxious and uncertain. She put her hand on his back, and rubbed it gently as she must have when he was small.
“What happened?” she said, speaking slowly now. And then, after a long pause. “It’s okay, you got lost. You just had a fright.”
He sobbed gently now. His pillow began to smell like warm, damp cotton. A nice smell, a reassuring smell. He burrowed his face into it.
“You just had a scare,” she said again, and she sat there for a long, long time, her hip against him. She was terrified, he could feel it, hear it in her voice. All those rules she had made for him, all those worries and concerns, and still he had brought something home, something big. He waited for her to say more. She waited for him. Together they waited.
Next week’s short story is “Hush” by James Pasley.