T H E S I T T I N G M A N
The Story of My Life - Book One
Note: This is a WORK IN PROGRESS
Paul McDermott has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
What follows are the first three chapters from the second draft January 2021,
and the formatting isn't too pretty.
P a r t O n e
C h i l d h o o d
The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing;
every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.
- Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death
P a r t O n e P r o l o g u e :
T i m o t h y
1 9 9 0
When you want to understand something you stand in front of it, all by yourself, without any help;
all the past history of the world is of no use to you.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
Recently released from prison
‘The voices in your head, how many are there?’
‘No one’s ever me asked that,’ said the big man, leaning back into the worn beige chair, one of two that had been miraculously crowbarred into the windowless therapy room we were occupying. ‘It’s only ever been one.’
‘Always the same one?’
‘Yeah, always the same,’ he said, head down.
‘Whose voice is it?’
‘No one’s ever asked me that, either. Not my doctor, not my shrinks, none of the other therapists.’
‘Your mum and dad?’
‘Are you joking?’ he said, glancing up at me for a moment before looking back down at his hands, clasped together. ‘It’s Ian Botham. You know, the cricketer.’ He looked back up at me, held my gaze.
‘I know who Ian Botham is,’ I said.
‘You’ve heard of him?’ said Timothy.
‘I like old-school cricket. Five day tests,’ I said.
‘Me too, Paul’ said Timothy. ‘I like five day tests too.’ He’d called me by my name. That was something.
‘You can’t help but admire certain things about Botham,’ I said. ‘So, what does he say to you?’
‘No one’s ever asked me that either.’
‘Nobody? Not your psychiatrists or case workers?’
‘Nope. No one,’ said Timothy. ‘Botham always says the same thing, over and over and over.’
‘It doesn’t change?’
‘It never changes. It drives me …’
Recently released from prison
That was all I’d read of the assessment form. I’d put it in my satchel, and never went back to the several pages of it. I’d walked up the narrow staircase in the crisis centre, checked the room, wondered how two adults were going to squeeze into it, and went down to the waiting area to collect Timothy. I was way out of my depth, and I knew it.
Timothy was my first patient, and I don’t mean that day. I was a few months into a course on psychotherapy, a raw recruit, a neophyte. I could feel my knees trembling on the way back down the steep staircase. No handrail, nothing to hold on to. It would just be him and me in the little room.
He was the only person waiting, and stood up courteously when I entered. He was a big unit, about six foot two, his handshake too firm. He followed me up the steep stairs, to the brink of the therapy room. No window, two chairs, a small veneered side table with an orange plastic lamp and a red and white plastic clock.
At the threshold, he told me he’d been inside. I didn’t know what he meant, so I asked him.
‘Prison,’ he said.
I walked into our little cell, furnished by Ikea. Timothy followed me in.
‘I was in for geebeeache.’ he said.
He gave me a crooked look. ‘G.B.H. - Grievous Bodily Harm.’
We had to move his chair so we could shut the door. Once we were in, Timothy had to move his chair back in front of the door, so there was enough space for him to sit down. I wouldn’t be getting out without his consent. We sat face to face, our knees almost touching, the big violent insane man towering over me.
‘I broke my girlfriend’s nose,’ he said. ‘We were having a bit of a barney.’ It was hot in that room, stuffy, no air flowing in or out, little breathing space.
‘What was the barney about?’ I said. He didn’t tell me. He never told me.
‘Did they tell you I’m on medication?’
‘For the voices in my head,’ he said. ‘For the schizophrenia.’ He was nervous, maybe even frightened. A mouse in a shoebox. His voice quiet and unsure. He wouldn’t look at me, but at the same time was looking all round him, hyper-vigilant, checking for a way out. There was only the door, and that was blocked.
‘What’s schizophrenia?’ I said.
‘What can you tell me about schizophrenia?’ I didn’t know a thing about it. Couldn’t even spell it. So I did what I was taught in kindergarten - I sat still, paid attention, and listened to the story.
A few weeks into my sessions with Timothy, my supervisor said, ’You seem to be developing some sort of a Saviour Complex.’ We were a group. We always began by “sharing”. Sharing is like Catholic confession, you make some stuff up and the therapist-priest bestows their blessing upon you.
‘A Saviour Complex. You think can save anyone, as if you were Jesus Christ. It’s an ego trip.’
‘Are you saying I’m not Jesus?’ I said. No one laughed. If you want to kill a party, invite some psychotherapists, you’ll see.
‘And this word you use, “patient”,’ said my supervisor. ‘You’re not a doctor.’
‘The word doesn’t belong to doctors,’ I said. ‘Or dentists. The word means, to await with equanimity while events unfold as they were destined to. I looked it up. I find it a beau/’
‘It doesn’t matter what you think it means. We use the word “client” here.’
A fellow student asked me what that word meant. I’d looked that up too. ‘It comes from the Latin, cluere,’ I said. ‘It means, to listen, follow and obey. I don’t/‘
‘We use the word “client” here, Paul,’ said my supervisor. ‘If that’s okay with you.’
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t okay with me.
‘Listen,’ he said. I didn’t like that either, someone starting a sentence with “listen”. It means they have stopped listening. ‘I know you mean well, you like to shoot from the hip, but Timothy’s psyche is not for saving. Therapy can’t help him. You’re just someone to have a chat with once a week.’
Seasons passed as Timothy and I sat together in our little room, two monks in contemplation. We would arrive, out of breath at the top of the stairs, then do our little dance to fit in. Each week in supervision, my fellow students were keen to hear more about Timothy’s progress, of which there was little to none, and each week my supervisor was keen to hear exactly that.
Then, one day, Timothy got riled up about something. I don’t remember what. He leaned forward, raised his voice, and started swinging his arms around. Geebeeache.
‘You’re frightening me,’ I said.
‘What?’ said Timothy, mid-swing.
‘It’s frightening when you do that.’
‘When you shout and wave your arms around, yes. It’s intimidating. It scares me.’
‘You’re frightened, of me?’ He was staring at me. I glanced at the red and white plastic clock, visible below his raised right arm. Twenty minutes to go, and I couldn’t get out. His arm slowly floated down. My heart was pounding as I sat, still and quiet, waiting.
‘I never thought anyone could be afraid of me,’ said Timothy. Tears filled his eyes, his head bent down toward the floor.
I sat still, quietly waiting; nowhere to go, nothing to do.
Timothy began to weep, speaking down into his rubbing hands, ‘I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt you. It’s me who’s afraid of everyone. I’m afraid of you, I’m afraid of that lady in reception, of the people on the bus. I’m afraid of the voices in my head. I’m frightened all the time, and I’ve been frightened as long as I can remember.’
We sat together, both of us sad.
‘When’s the first time you were frightened, Timothy? Really frightened?’
‘I don’t know.’
That was when I asked about the voices in his head - how many, and who. And then I said the forbidden word, ‘crazy.’
‘Yeah,’ said Timothy, ‘It drives me crazy.’
‘So, what does Botham say?’
‘He says, “You’re the one! You’re the one! You’re the one!” It feels like he’ll never stop. I must have done something terrible, really terrible, but I can’t remember.’ He looked down at his hands again. I could have reached over and laid my palm on his head for absolution, Three Hail Mary’s and one Our Father. Go in peace, my child.
‘It torments me,’ he said.
‘Have you thought that Ian Botham might be saying it in another way?’
‘What?’ He looked up at me, his mouth open. I saw something shift inside him and move out onto his face. It came out as a smile. ‘No, I hadn’t thought of that. Are you sure it’s me who’s the crazy one?’
‘I don’t believe you’re crazy at all, Timothy,’ I said. ‘But I’m sure the world is, completely and utterly. Is Botham’s voice nasty or accusing?’
‘No, it’s not, now you come to mention it. He sounds, I don’t know, he sounds concerned or something.’
‘Me, I guess. About what I did.’
‘Could it be, given you said there’s no disapproval in his voice, could it be that Botham is concerned for you?’
Timothy leaned back into his chair. He seemed relieved of something. And from that moment, the voice of Ian Botham in Timothy’s head was not heard from again.
It was a beginning.
‘It’s funny,’ Timothy said one day, ‘I can see this time, with my father at the pub. I don’t know why it’s come back. I don’t think it was that different from any other day.
‘He’d take me there, and as usual I’d wait outside. He’d buy me a bottle of pop and leave me sitting out there. He’d be in the pub for hours. Luckily pubs closed earlier in those days. Sometimes one of his mates would poke their head out the door, check I was still there, that I was okay. I wasn’t, but I always said I was. Some of them would even come out and sit with me for a bit. My dad never did.
‘This day I was four. I don’t know how I can possibly know that, but I was four. Something happened. I wasn’t out the front for some reason.’ Timothy began to shift in his chair.
‘I think someone had complained to my dad or something, complained about me sitting out there all afternoon. I don’t remember. But I remember he put me out the back of the pub. That’s it. That’s all. Funny, why would that come back to me now?’
‘What was out the back of the pub?’
‘Nothing. I can see him taking me through the bar.’ Timothy began to shake.
‘What are you feeling in your body?’ I said.
‘Like throwing up.’
He sat quietly for a moment, trembling. ‘His mates were in there. Some of them were pissed off about something. Maybe with him. I remember my dad taking me through the pub. He had to drag me through. I don’t know why. I remember the floor was sticky, and all the legs of the men, and everything stunk of cigarettes, and it was loud. Too loud. I didn’t want to go with him. I don't know why. I was scared for some reason.’
Timothy was squinting, as if trying to see into that dimly lit bar, looking back some thirty years into the past.
‘He picked me up, and I started to cry. But the bar was really noisy, and no one ever gave a shit about me anyway. I was alone, even with all those grown ups round me, drinking and being loud.
‘My dad dumped me in the backyard of the pub, and the bastard slammed the door.’ Timothy began to raise himself out of his chair, as if he was about to leave the room. He stopped there, in indecision, then lowered himself back down into his memory.
He spoke to his writhing hands. ‘And then I heard the lock turn.’
His hands stopped moving and gripped each other, white knuckled. ‘I tried the handle, but I knew it wouldn’t budge.’ He began opening and closing his hands, as if checking they still worked. ‘The yard had high filthy brick walls. I can see it clearly. I was terrified. Like I could’ve wet myself or shit my pants. I was so scared. Then I heard them.’
Timothy covered his ears with his palms, as if expecting his head to explode. ‘Why hadn’t my dad seen them?’ He shook his head, face down. ‘I started screaming for him, banging on the door with my fists. I didn’t want to turn round and have to see what was making the noise. My dad didn’t come and get me. I screamed and screamed. But all the time I knew that even if he heard me he wouldn’t come, the drunken bastard.’
The big man leaned back hard into his chair and took some big breaths. ‘The hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end,’ he said. ‘My dad never gave a shit about me. Never had. But, I mean, to do that to your own kid.
‘I turned around and faced the dogs, and they began to bark. I was out there all afternoon, cornered in the stinking backyard of that stinking pub.’ Timothy looked at me, tears streaming down his face. ‘Two Doberman pinchers. And while my dad was inside getting off his head on the Guinness, I was out there, pissing in my pants, shaking from head to foot.’
Once a mouse realises it’s trapped, it begins to tremble, and that trembling does not stop.
We sat quietly, Timothy and I. This time, I was with him. He was no longer alone. His breathing slowly eased, his hands opened and flexed, his shoulders let go a little.
‘That’s the first time I remember being really scared,’ he said. ‘To answer your question.’
I checked the clock. We were okay.
‘I don’t think I’ve stopped being scared since. Is that the paranoia?’
‘Not a very helpful thing for the shrinks to say to you, was it Timothy.’
Over the following months, Timothy weaned himself off his medication, went out into the world and found himself a job, then a place to live, and so was able to move out of his childhood home, an alcohol fuelled nightmare that was his parent’s existence.
Timothy stood up at the end of his final session with me, and I was again struck by his size. A big unit. He moved his chair away from the door, we did our little dance, and he turned to me on the threshold and spoke.
‘Thanks, Paul,' he said. ‘Thanks very much.’ That was it.C h a p t e r 1
M i s t e r Đ ứ c
1 2 J u n e 1 9 6 3
The man walked into the middle of a busy intersection, sat down, and crossed his legs. I could see right off he meant business.
There were people all round him, pushing and shoving each other like mad. Some wore robes, like in the pictures of Jesus. Others wore uniforms. They were all expecting something to happen. I could feel it from the corner of our living room, where I stood. ‘And not a peep out of you’.
It was hard to make out the pictures on our black-and-white telly, but I reckoned the sitting man had closed his eyes. The newsreader man with the brushed hair and the neat pile of papers in his hands told us the sitting man was a Buddhist monk. Dad said that was sort of like a priest, except for a god someone just made up.
The newsreader man always sat very still, like you’re supposed to. He’d nod his head, looking down at the papers in his hands and then back up at us in our sitting room. He’d make a pile out of the pages he’d read, a pile that got bigger and bigger until he put down the last page, the one with the animal story. He was a really good reader, which was probably how he got the job.
Dad was an accountant, because he was good at numbers. Mum was a mum because she was good at making stuff, like cakes and clean floors and babies. I didn’t know what I’d be good at. It was like that bridge to nowhere Pop told me about once.
‘There’s this bridge over the Wanganui River,’ he’d said. ‘It’s a proper job. Concrete. Built by the Public Works Department in ’36. It’s something. Locals call it the Bridge to Nowhere. You know why?’
I shook my head, looking up at my thousand year old grandfather.
‘No roads either end of it. Nothing but bush all round, bush so thick you disappear into it after only a few steps. No roads, just the big concrete bridge that joins one cliff to another, high over the gorge. It’s really something.’
I guess I felt pretty much like that old bridge, like I'd been made for something but there was just no way of knowing what it was. I was hoping like mad someone would tell me before it got too late, but so far they hadn’t.
Anyway, the newsreader man was good at the reading and he was really good and making a perfect pile of papers, without even having to look or anything, just fiddling with them while he kept up the reading and nodding and staring at us. He could look up at you through the telly, right into your eyes, without even losing his place. I reckoned he must have practised, a lot. Even when you moved around the living room he was still looking straight at you. It gave me the creeps, him staring at us like that.
Mum said, ‘He can see what you’re up to, don’t you worry.’ It was like looking at those photos on the wall, the one of mum and the one of dad. They’d be staring at you all the time, no matter where you went. In the photos they had on these square black hats, and black capes like superheroes. There was nothing else on our walls, until one day a university student came round selling paintings.
The university student said the Chinese had made the paintings, and we all felt bad about the Chinese starving to death and everything, so mum and dad invited him in. They usually kept not inviting people in. The university student said one person was good at doing the sky, so they always got to do the sky, and one person was good at doing the water, so they always did the water, and it went like that. Mum and dad bought a painting of Venice, which had sky, water, buildings, boats, and people, so must’ve taken five Chinese painters to make. And they bought a painting of Montmartre, which was my favourite. I liked the red in it. That painting had sky, buildings, people, and a street. Mum and dad were real proud of their new paintings, and put them up on the wall after taking about a hundred years to figure out the best place.
Mum and dad were there in the sitting room too, watching The News at Six under the Chinese painting of Venice. I liked to watch the newsreader, and how he did the pile of papers. He always stacked them on his right. Except for the animal story, him stacking those papers was the most interesting thing. I always listened to what he told us though, like you’re supposed to. But when that man walked into the middle of the busy intersection, sat down, and crossed his legs, it felt different.
Vietnam was on telly every night. What I knew at five years and one month old: People from our side went to Vietnam to kill the Commies, who wore plants on their helmets. Other people went to Vietnam to watch the Commies being killed, and show us.
I was standing in the corner of our sitting room because I couldn’t sit anyway. I was still trembling. It was hard to make it stop. I was watching, no peeps coming out of me, feeling sick and cold with the pain and that. It was my first time getting the whip. I felt real ashamed about the crying and everything, but then I started watching the sitting man. He seemed so peaceful.
Our house was light green and made of wood, which was second best. Our house looked like a giant shoebox dropped on the side of a hill. It had a red corrugated iron roof. Bricks were best. They all had brick houses on Coronation Street, which was always on after The News at Six except on the weekend when everything had to be different.
The flies in our sitting room were having a bit of a breather, upside down on the ceiling. Flies watch you all the time, like God does. They have about a thousand eyes or something. They watch you and when you’re not looking they zoom down and vomit over all your food. My brother John told me. They’re just waiting to spoil things. The flies on our ceiling were watching my family eating dinner, and my family were watching Vietnam on the news.
I wasn’t allowed to eat that night. I stood there, staring at the monk inside our telly. I could smell the meat and the gravy, the soft soggy vegetables that mum always made that way. I felt the flies on the ceiling, waiting, like the sitting man. I dug the tips of my toes dug into the carpet. My dressing gown was alive with astronauts, Jupiters, and rockets, my flannel pyjamas with cowboys and lassoes and bucking horses. I was trying to make sure they didn’t stick to the welts on my backside.
The sitting man had a name which was real hard to remember, Thích Quảng Đức. Dad said those heathens had everything so mixed up they sometimes even had their names round backwards, so I didn’t know if it was Mister Thích or Mister Đức. But that Mister Đức wore robes like Jesus which dad said were most likely orange because he’d seen colour photographs in Time magazine. Jesus liked white underneath and light blue on top. At least that’s how I coloured Him in. I tried not to go outside the lines, otherwise you spoil it. You can’t rub out crayon.
Those Buddhists weren’t allowed into Heaven, ever. They didn’t even know about the Holy Mary Mother and the baby Jesus and that. They were heathens, which I thought the Devil quite likely was. Mister Đức was a heathen and was bald, so I reckoned the Devil was most likely bald too. That would’ve served him right. I believed in the Devil. Jesus had an ocean of hair, like Tarzan.
The newsreader man always had a suit and tie on, even in summer when it was boiling hot. I didn’t know how many ties he had, millions, because he always had a different one on every night. He told us the Americans were in their B52s, bombing everything all over the place, but they were in big trouble because heaps of other countries said it was a very bad way to make a war and was against the law actually. I thought a good way to make a war would be when no one got upset, and houses weren’t on fire, and soldiers weren’t kicking other people’s stuff around while the people cried and hugged each other and looked scared out of their wits. Sometimes I was scared out of my wits, but there was no one to take photos to show other people.
In Vietnam they had cute children and little bent-over wrinkled grandparents and sad looking mums and they ran and they cried and they carried things in cane baskets while their villages were on fire, burning up with everything inside. And they died and they died and they died. Some died from the B52s, some from the machine guns and the hand grenades and the flame throwers and being chucked out of helicopters alive, some from the napalm, and some just got so sick and scared and tired they dropped dead on the side of the road and everyone walked past them without looking. Look both ways. The people who went there to watch it all, they took the photos to show us.
Mum and dad always had the big armchairs, which were made out of stuff like carpet with patterns shaved into it. They were pretty comfortable chairs, except I had to reach up to put my arms on the arm rests. If mum and dad weren’t there, us kids would fight about who got to sit in them, so we weren’t allowed to any more. That evening mum and dad were snug in the big chairs, watching the The News at Six. The newsreader man always got extra serious when he read to us about the wars or the people starving to death or the people dying in earthquakes and stuff. He never cried or anything, so I wasn’t sure he cared that much. Maybe he was just proud he was on the telly. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.
Standing in the corner, like I’d been told, I had one of our cats in my arms. It wasn’t purring. Maybe because it could feel me trembling. Or maybe it was like when all the animals know to run out of the jungle way before the fire’s even started.
On the telly, Mister Đức was just sitting, looking like he’d got nothing better to do than sit in the middle of a busy road all day. And even though his eyes were closed - I reckoned they were - he didn’t look sleepy. He looked wide awake, like he was paying attention, to everything. Looking at Mister Đức wasn’t like looking at someone watching the telly. It wasn’t like looking at us.
Then another man in robes with a big white plastic jerrycan came up behind Mister Đức and poured water all over him. I thought it was a really mean trick, but Mister Đức didn’t seem to mind one bit. It was always roasting in Vietnam, all the American soldiers sweating like mad, so I thought maybe Mister Đức was quite glad about the water, like when dad squirted us with the hose on the front lawn and we jumped through the coolness of it, running and slipping and leaping about, the smell of the warm wet grass and concrete, the sun sparkling through the spray, the chance to scream as loud as we could without getting belted.
The people in robes surrounding Mister Đức were all bald too, like my grandfather Pop. I wondered if maybe Pop was a heathen because he said, ‘Going to church is like jogging on the spot,’ which was evidence. I reckoned he was most likely right, except it was a bit confusing what he meant exactly. We had to go every Sunday.
The men in the uniforms were all busy pushing around the bald people and the bald people were all busy shoving the men in uniforms and then the man with the jerrycan lit a match and dropped it on Mister Đức and no one had to tell me it wasn’t water
it was petrol
and everyone on the telly gave up the shoving straight off
mum and dad and my brother and sisters stopped eating
and even though the people on telly weren’t Christians
the whole thing began to feel like it was holy
like in church but even more
we all knew to keep quiet and still - we could feel it
to be respectful of him, just like with God
and the sitting man was so still
not a peep out of him
I looked over at mum and dad, to know what I was supposed to be feeling and that. They were staring at the telly, mouths open, not moving a muscle. Like when they went up to the altar, ready to receive Holy Communion, poking their tongues out at God.
Black-and-white flames and dark smoke poured out of Mister Đức. The plastic jerrycan that had been dropped beside him began to buckle and melt from the heat, like it was coming alive as he burned, sucking up his life and beginning to move by itself. I stood stock still, staring. I didn’t know we could burn like that.
We were all staring, my family and the men in robes and the men in uniforms. And Mister Đức just sat there, legs crossed, on fire, in the middle of the intersection. And I reckon we were all thinking the same thing. How can he just sit there, on fire?
The cat that wouldn’t purr started making noises in my arms like she was trying to sick up a tractor. I realised I was squeezing her guts out, so I dropped her. She ran off, stopping to lick herself in that way cats pretend they don’t care about anything when really they do. I knew right off she wouldn’t feel that safe with me again, like me with mum and dad.
Mister Đức started to lean over, like the fire was eating up his insides and making him hollow. It looked like he was falling asleep, falling asleep like a melting doll.
He’d come into our house, this monk in black-and-white orange, all the way from Vietnam, a ball of fire and smoke on our telly, interrupting everybody’s dinner. We watched, all of us waiting, even Mister Đức I guess, waiting for it to end.
I couldn’t tell when he died, or even if he did.
The newsreader man came back on with his suntan and everything. Sometimes the things he said were pretty hard for me to get actually, especially after what just happened and everything, but I thought he said how that monk was sad about the Catholics were in Vietnam picking on his people.
Mum said, ‘What rubbish.’ She stopped looking at the telly. I looked at dad, but he kept not saying anything.
Then the newsreader man read the cute animal story and, even though I was only five and one month old, I got it - it was so we could all forget about the people in the earthquakes and the people starving, and we could all forget about the burning man. I didn’t.
When the news was over, mum and dad started talking about last night’s episode of Coronation Street, waiting for it to start. It began to rain. Maybe it didn’t, but the way I remember it, it did. I heard it before I smelled it, rumbling on the red corrugated iron roof of our green wooden house. The rain tried to give me that warm safe feeling inside. But it didn’t work. Sometimes it rained so hard you had to turn the telly right up. Dad would say, ‘I can hardly hear myself think.’ I always could.
The sound and the rain and the new smells got the flies moving, like they’d all decided there was something important they had to be getting on with. I felt the oldness of our carpet, smoky swirls of grey and purple, stiff under my toes. The smoke had poured out of Mister Đức, rising up like the smoke signals Tonto could make on The Lone Ranger. You could see them for miles.
Dad lit a cigarette, put his feet up on the footrest, had a sip of his beer.
‘Dishes,’ said mum. My brother and sisters got on with it. She looked round to me in the corner and I took a step back, as if I’d got too close to the fire.
‘Bed,’ she said.
‘Don’t forget to brush your teeth,’ said dad, smoke coming out of his mouth. He could make smoke rings. And he could breath smoke out his mouth and up his nose. But sometimes he hadn’t had a puff for ages and he'd say something and smoke would just come out anyway. Thin smoke, like it had been hiding in him, waiting, and was sneaking out.
I had to walk out right in front of everyone. I closed the door behind me, walked along the wooden floor of the corridor in my bare feet, and into the bathroom. I squeezed the red and white striped toothpaste onto my toothbrush. Mine was green, like our house. ‘It’s your favourite colour,’ mum said. So I’d asked her what my favourite number was. ‘Five,’ she said. It didn’t sound like a guess.
Brushing my teeth in the way I’d been told but not really, I looked up at myself in the mirror. Big hazel eyes, black curls on top, short back and sides. Dad cut my hair. ‘It’ll grow back.’ I looked at the cowboys and horses on my winter pyjamas, and checked my pyjama bottoms again, that they weren't sticking to the welts on my bum. They hurt like mad.
In bed, with the door open and the light on, my body shuddered like our big fat refrigerator when it was shutting down. I could hardly even open its door. In bed I had to lie on my side or on my tummy. I pulled the blanket up to my mouth. It was a Swiss army blanket, like the ones Pop had. I think his even came from the war, the First World War, but I wasn’t sure. Tiny woollen hairs stuck to my tongue. I loved it when mum came to tuck me in, but she never did when I was In Disgrace. I didn’t always feel they loved me, mum and dad, but it wasn’t like I was hoping things would get better or anything - I didn’t think there was anything wrong in the first place.
I lay there under our red rain rattled roof. I was still, like the sitting man, the heathen who dressed like Jesus but never went to church. I reckoned he was probably pretty dead by then anyway. He wouldn’t be allowed into Heaven either, that Mister Đức, even if he got there. God wouldn’t let us in, not in a million years, even though he was quite like Jesus, that Buddhist monk, letting himself be killed like that. Even at five years and one month old, I reckoned he was trying to tell us something no one else was telling us, something important.
C h a p t e r 2
T e n t
2 2 N o v e m b e r 1 9 6 3
It wasn’t so long after Mister Đức that I saw nobody could be safe, not ever. You weren’t even safe if the police rode around you all day on motorcycles with their lights flashing and their helmets and sunglasses and everything, even if they were trying really hard to look after you. That’s what they did with that President Kennedy and his wife Jackie. President Kennedy got himself shot right in the head.
He was sitting there smiling and waving with Jackie, in the back of that ginormous American convertible. It was a Ford, a Lincoln Continental. The whole thing was on The News at Six. Jackie had a hat on and looked pretty happy about the whole thing, but then the President leaned over on her. That was the first bit.
Then she reached out to him, like something had gone wrong, and then you saw this little puff of stuff come out of his head like a whale blowing out water. Jackie let him go then, and got away from him as fast as she could. She even tried to climb like mad out off the back of that car. Even though the picture on our black and white telly was pretty fuzzy, you could see she was the most frightened you could ever be about anything, as frightened as those people in Vietnam were all the time every day.
President Kennedy being killed like that was really terrible. You weren’t allowed to shoot a president in the head or anything, specially if his wife was as nice as Jackie. But you were allowed to shoot the Vietnamese, and bomb them and burn them up alive with the napalm and throw them out of helicopters and stuff. I’d rather be shot in a big car than burned to death by the napalm. Who wouldn’t?
With President Kennedy, that they called JFK, it was like with the burning monk - we stared at the telly, not knowing what to do. I hadn’t seen anything like that before either. Like I said, that was when I learned for sure there was no way to be safe, not ever.
The next night, dad told to me to stop washing the dishes and come quickly into the sitting room. He was there, watching the news, having a cigarette and a beer, and I was frightened. I didn’t know what I’d done this time. He pointed at the telly and said, ‘Who’s that man, the one holding up his hand?’
And I said, ‘That's Mister Lyndon B. Johnson.’
We were told about the whole thing at school so I knew the right answer straight off. I felt proud about it too, but I tried not to show it.
So dad said, ‘And what’s Lyndon B. Johnson doing?’
And I said, ‘He’s being made into the next president of the United States of America because that JFK man was president and is shot dead and isn’t ever going to get better.’
I felt pretty good about that answer too. I could see he was quite surprised to hear what Lyndon B. Johnson was doing. I reckoned that newsreader man must’ve forgotten to say anything about it, so dad had to ask me. It was sort of like my whole life I’d been waiting for dad to ask me something I knew the answer to, and then he did, and I could tell him. It was nice to help dad out like that. I was hoping he had more questions, and I could answer them too.
What is the capital of Peru?
But dad went quiet, and stared at the telly. I began to have a bad feeling, like when you’re too close to a busy road or something.
‘Which number president is he?’
You sort of give up then. I was standing beside my dad, him with his beer and his cigarette, sitting in the big chair in front of the telly. It was like something dropped out of my guts and made me feel sort of empty. The thing was, I could see he didn’t actually want me to know any of the answers. It was obvious. Which number president?
I shrugged, 'I don't know.' and looked down at the carpet, the smoky swirls, waiting for the next bit from him. I saw how the legs of his big important chair kept pressing down onto that carpet and wouldn’t stop.
‘You can go to bed now,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to worry about the dishes.’
‘Shall I brush my teeth?’
Mum was there. They didn’t answer.
On the way to the bathroom I started pretending I was Laika, that space dog. I used to imagine being her, a lot. She had that rocket all to herself. She died the year before I was born, so it was too late for me to do anything about it. It was the saddest loneliest story I’d ever heard. Maybe because Laika had no way out.
She was the first animal in space. I reckoned she must’ve felt pretty proud. She might’ve even felt lucky to be away from everything here on earth. If I’d’ve been Laika, I’m not sure I’d’ve wanted to stay here, with us. But maybe she’d wanted to. Laika means “barker”. I guess she must’ve barked a lot.
They said she was a stray, part terrier, part husky. I don’t know which parts. She was caught by the Russians on a street in Moscow. They said if a dog could survive on Moscow’s streets, it could survive being blasted off into space. I guess they got that wrong. Pop’s dog was part terrier too. I couldn’t work out which parts with him either. It was hard to tell.
Maybe Laika kept up the barking because she was put in a steel kennel she couldn’t get out of, which was put in a cage she couldn’t get out of, which was put in a space capsule she couldn’t get out of, which was put on a rocket she couldn’t get out of, which was blasted into space, which she couldn’t ever get out of either. She didn’t even have a window to look out of or anything.
I’d read in a book there’s no sound in space. It’s totally quiet up there, and peaceful, not a peep out of anyone. I wondered how long it took Laika to figure out she was trapped, like that mouse I caught. And then I wondered how long it took before Laika could see that no one was coming to let her out. And then I wondered when she stopped barking, stopped trying to show us where she was.
They said you could see her Sputnik from the earth at night, a small shiny ball with Laika inside, one thousand miles from home and no way of getting back. She went round and round in circles, until she died.
I felt sad for poor Laika. I reckon we should be nice to the animals and that, even horses. When we went to the zoo, I’d stand there staring for ages. I had my three favourites. I’d stare at the dusty orange orang-utans, Topsy and Turvy, sitting in their dirty cage, leaning back against the concrete wall. I’d stare at the black panther, walking along and along behind the big black iron bars. Maybe it was a jaguar, I don’t know how you’re supposed to tell. She didn’t have a name, and she really looked like she didn’t want one either. She moved from end to end like one of those huge black iron balls on the end of a chain, the ones that smash people’s houses to smithereens. Sometimes I felt I wanted to be one of those iron balls, smashing everything, and I bet that panther did too. And I’d stare at Chimo, the polar bear, trapped in his white hole of concrete ice. I’d look at those animals for ages, like I was looking for something I’d lost.
Pop had been kept in a cage too. It had been an underground cage because he used to try and run away out of the prison camps. He’d been in the First World War, when he was a teenager, and the Germans caught him. He called it ‘The Great War’ and he called the Germans ‘Jerrys’.
In the prison camp Pop-the-teenager was allowed out two times a week, five minutes each time. If you add up the two fives, that make ten minutes a week, which was even less than we got at morning playtime at school, every day. We got fifteen minutes to run round like mad. Pop didn’t. I couldn’t get why people would do that to someone like Pop, or even to a dog like Laika, even if Laika was a mongrel and a Commie. Pop wasn't.
And it turned out they lied about Laika dying painlessly up there in space. She didn’t run out of air like they said. That was a big fat lie. She boiled to death, then stayed up there another five months in that space capsule.
I guess she was in Limbo all that time, with my dead brother Michael. Maybe they played together. Who can say? I don't know what you're allowed to do in Limbo. Then Laika and the space capsule burned up like the sitting man, when they got too close to earth. I reckon Laika would have gone straight up to heaven for being such a hero and everything, and she was already sort of half way there anyway, but they wouldn't've let her in either.
Animals should go to heaven, even though the nuns and them say dogs and cats and things aren't allowed up there. Commies probably aren't allowed in either. Seems most things aren't allowed into Heaven, so I guess it’s pretty empty. Maybe Heaven’s like Mister McCarthy’s place across the road. He says it’s called ‘minimalist,’ which is pretty hard to say the first few times. Maybe God likes minimalist too, so He keeps Heaven empty with hardly anything in it like Mister McCarthy's sitting room. Our house isn’t minimalist - it's completely stuffed.
God being a minimalist and that would mean He'd most likely leave the animals and all them outside. He wouldn’t let them in. I guess He'd feed them and everything, but He could be mean, God. He was like dad. They were okay, like they loved you more than anyone else and everything, but if you did something wrong they could be really mean. And like I said before, I was worried Pop wasn’t going to be allowed in either, and Pop was nice.
Pop could walk on stilts, fix up almost anything he set his mind to, and spent all day - except meals and smoko - shut up alone in his workshop. He’d been in that underground cell with about three thousand men sometimes. It had been made to hold a hundred.
Pop said, they all had to all wee in this one big barrel.
It’s hard to imagine three thousand men weeing in a barrel.
And Pop said, it didn’t take long to fill up and overflow.
He said, if the Jerry’s had taken your boots away from you, it was pretty grim in there.
They did take pop’s boots, to try and stop him running away. The prisoners didn’t have near enough food or clothes either.
Make do or do without, that's what Pop reckoned.
That was the thing about Pop. He never went to the shops, ever, and he never threw anything away. I mean it. He hadn’t owned a rubbish bin or set foot in a shop since 1917. My grandmother Nan said so. She was mean, but she wasn’t a liar.
Nan whistled from the moment she got up, and she wouldn’t stop. You never saw anybody whistle so much in your life. She whistled while she made Pop his four Weetbix for breakfast, whistled through the dishes and the laundry and the cooking and the cleaning, all day until lights out. For all I knew, she kept it up right through the night as she slept. It wouldn’t have surprised me, her not being a Catholic or anything. But she’d look after Pop when he woke up screaming and that, shells whistling overhead in the dark.
If Pop hadn’t decided to give the shops a miss after 1917, I’d probably never have been born. I know everything all about it because it’s my first memory - it was given to me by mum. It comes from when she was a baby, and it went like this.
Pop and Nan were poor and they lived in an old wooden house in a small town by the sea. The town was called Napier. I’ve never been there. Every morning in summer, Nan used to take mum-the-baby outside, and leave her in the pram. Nan always left her in the same spot, safe under the shade of the brick chimney than ran up the outside of that old house. I don’t know how long Nan would leave mum-the-baby out there, but it wouldn’t have surprised me either if it'd been pretty much all day. I reckon mum would have felt pretty lonely anyway.
One morning - and I know which morning exactly it was - Nan had Pop sat down, Pop took off a shoe and a sock, and Nan drew around his bare foot on a piece of paper. Keep still! He needed shoes, and shoes were one of the few things he couldn’t make for himself in his workshop. He could make pretty much everything else. I’ve seen him make a carpet and I’ve seen him make a truck, and he can roll a cigarette in one hand. That was the most magic thing he could do, in my opinion, roll a cigarette in one hand and make it look just like a bought one from Mister Who-Dackie’s dairy on the corner.
Anyway, Nan got the drawing of Pop’s foot and she took the drawing and mum-the-baby to town, so she could get some shoes to bring back for Pop to try on. Mum said they’d only give Nan one of each pair, in case she was a robber. That’s how Pop got shoes, what with him not setting foot in shops or anything. Nan was always nice to Pop at least.
The day was Tuesday the third of February 1931. At 10:47 a.m., two hundred and fifty-six people were killed in the Napier earthquake. I'm pretty good at numbers. Pop and Nan’s wooden house wobbled around in the earthquake like a wooden house is supposed to, which pushed the chimney over. It fell onto the spot where number two hundred and fifty-seven would have been, squashed flat as a pancake.
When mum told me that, that she might easily have been killed dead, I could see right off I wouldn’t have ever been born. No me. It gave me the shivers, seeing that, because it meant I was just a fluke.
After that, Pop and Nan moved to Gisborne. I reckon they must’ve liked small towns by the sea, because Gisborne was another one. The car Pop drove them there in was a Scripps Booth. I liked cars. I knew their names. Sometimes I didn’t even know how I knew them, but I did.
That Scripps Booth was the first car Pop buried. It wasn’t the last. He put it in the orchard round the back of the old villa in Gisborne, and it sat there, rusting under a pear tree. That’s when he got it into his head to bury it.
Mum said, Pop could not be talked out of anything. And Pop said, the Scripps Booth wasn’t being used but it could still be useful. He reckoned it would make good a mineral fertilizer for the trees in the orchard, all that iron and stuff. Pop said burying that Scripps Booth gave him a feeling of intense satisfaction. Mum told me all that, making another memory for me.
She wouldn’t have ever been around to tell me if Nan hadn’t taken her to the shops on Tuesday the third of February 1931. I wouldn’t’ve been around either. And dad wouldn’t have ever got married because he wouldn’t’ve been able to find mum, anywhere, no matter how hard he looked. It’s true. He would’ve just been Brian Noel McDermott.
But then I guess he could’ve been more like James Bond, like he wanted. We saw Goldfinger. You could tell dad wanted to be like James Bond. James Bond didn’t have any kids or anything. If mum had been crushed to death under the chimney then dad could’ve had an Aston Martin too, with machine guns behind the lights and an ejector seat in case some kid might get in by mistake and then dad could’ve just pushed the red button.
At Goldfinger, when we all stood up for God Save the Queen before the start, a teenager in front of us didn’t. When we got home after, dad told mum that teenager was a Yahoo and A Disgrace. James Bond wasn’t. He never sat around with his feet up while they played God Save the Queen. James Bond was always really busy murdering people and breaking the speed limit and kissing women who shook their hair a lot and then got murdered too. That teenager had even put his feet on the back of the seat in front of him. And he was smirking. Dad said it to mum - smirking. I had to ask my best friend Granny what smirking was. Granny knew. I practised it after, for school and being an altar boy and that.
I was shocked anyone could do something like sit through God Save the Queen, especially with their feet up on the chair in front of them. He had boots on too, cowboy boots. You had to stand. But that yahoo made me wonder if I really want to stand. It’s hard to explain. Like, I stood up and everything, like you’re supposed to, but then I could tell part of me wasn’t wanting to have to be standing up for the Queen and them. It was a strange feeling, seeing part of me didn't really want to have to do stuff like that.
Anyway, if mum had been squashed I wouldn’t've seen Goldfinger and I wouldn’t’ve had Nan as my grandmother, but then I wouldn’t’ve had Pop either. That made me feel pretty sad about the whole thing, even though I wouldn’t’ve been here to feel sad. It’s confusing. But I didn’t feel right after mum told me about the earthquake and everything. I felt like a helium balloon someone had just let go of.
Instead of getting smashed to smithereens, mum grew up quite brainy and went to university in Auckland city. That’s where she met dad. He had eight older brothers and sisters and one younger sister and they all lived on a farm with heaps of beds and dad-the-kid didn’t get his first pair of shoes until he was already at school. They were poor, dad's mum and dad. Dad-the-kid was so proud to have shoes he slept in them and everything. He told me. His first shoes of his were plastic rugby boots.
Mum said she liked dad straight off and they wanted to get married but Nan hated Catholics like anything. She really really hated Catholics. She’d hated us from before mum and dad even met, when they were still Gretta Patricia Coles and Brian Noel McDermott. Mum said she was named after somebody I’d never even heard of called Gretta Garbo, and dad’s second name came from somebody else I’d never even heard of called Noel Coward. She said they were movie stars, but I’d never seen them at the flicks.
Nan hated us Catholics and I reckon she might've even hated God’s guts too. She didn’t even have Christmas, she had Xmas. She wrote Merry Xmas on her Christmas cards, which wiped out Jesus straight off. When I asked, mum said it was because of us all being Catholics and Nan being an Orangeman and Nan's dad had been the Grand Master of the Loyal Orange Lodge and the orange men didn’t like us Catholics and I couldn’t understand anything much of what mum was talking about. Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies. That was a lie for starters.
When mum and dad got married, Nan wouldn’t let dad or any other of the Catholics into her house.
Mum said, ‘It was ridiculous. I was a Catholic by then.’
She had to be, to marry dad. We have lots of rules, us Catholics. I bet you we have the most rules more than anyone else does. But Mum and dad got themselves married in a church in Gisborne. Mum said there was no music and no flowers because people didn’t much like the idea of them getting married and having kids and everything. I thought mum and dad were brave and felt proud of them.
Mum said the wedding do was in Nan and Pop’s backyard. They have a long-drop, which is an outside loo. It's the only loo Pop will use. He won't use the proper one indoors. I’ve used the long drop heaps of times. It's pretty scary up there over that dark hole which you could fall into any second. And it stinks like anything. You have to hold your breath most of them time you’re in there, especially in summer.
Polar bears can hold their breath for three minutes. I can’t.
So Pop and Nan had the long drop and then the Catholics didn’t have to set foot in their house at all. I never knew what Pop thought about us Catholics. He never said. I never asked. He was always nice to us though.
The wedding do was in a tent Pop and Nan had made when mum was a kid. Nan had bought the calico. Canvas was too expensive and they were poor like dad’s family. Pop and Nan waterproofed the calico in their old tin bath, then they put the tent together on a treadle Singer sewing machine. It was a proper job and lasted decades. It’s another one of my memories that mum gave me. Another one from before I was born, in a world I never knew, with people I hadn’t even met yet.
The tent was made for camping, not for marrying their daughter to a Catholic. Pop and Nan had an old Plymouth by then. It was loaded with the tent and camping kit and kids and Nan and Pop drove for miles on dirt roads that led to a piece of land by the sea on the East Cape. It was a rough road. Sometimes Pop had to stop the car and get out and grab the shovel and fill in pot-holes or flatten a ridge or a bank, so the big old Plymouth could get through. If the whole thing looked too risky, Pop would tell the rest of them to get out, and he’d go it alone in the car while the rest of them walked along behind. They must’ve been hoping he’d make it.
At the end of the road Pop drove straight across two open paddocks, and camp was set up on the grassy banks of a river mouth, where they could keep to themselves. Pop always liked to keep to himself.
Logs washed up along the river banks became fire wood for cooking and diving boards for the kids. Food was found at low tide around the rocks, buckets of crayfish and paua, snapper were caught on the line, and mullet were shot out of the river. Everything was cooked on an open fire.
When Pop came back from the war, he was carrying a lot. One things was a .303 rifle, and like most everything else he’d ever owned, he still had it. If he didn’t fancy setting a line for snapper, he’d take the .303 and sit on a high bank by the river, from where he had a clear view of the mullet swimming by. If he’d hit any of those fish with a bullet from a .303 there’d be nothing left worth saving. So he’d aim near enough to stun the fish, then roar down the bank and grab it before the mullet could figure out what the heck was going on. Pop and Nan could live on the beach and feed their family, no worries.
At low tide each day, Nan would head out on foot around the rocks at the end of the beach, with a billycan and three pence, and walk the three miles to Whangara Pa to buy milk from the Maori tribe. Then she’d walk the three miles back before the tide was far enough in to drown her. They were at home there on the beach, far away from everyone.
We used to stay out at the beach in the tent Pop and Nan made too. Pop and Nan and all of us would stay out there for days. The stars were bright in the complete black of the night, like millions of possums staring down at you from dark trees. You could see the Milky Way like a white finger painting across the sky, clear as day.
Those stars made me want to stay up all night, sitting by the fire looking up until my neck was sore, looking around at the flickering red faces of my family in the firelight. It made me sleepy though, specially after a day on the beach, hours and hours in the sea, eating food out of my hands while sitting on a log in the sand with a towel wrapped around me and salt in my hair, toes digging down into where the sand was cooler, and the whole day we were outdoors and then being cosy by the fire with my flickering family all around. It was nice. You’re sleepy and wanting to stay awake at the same time.
So anyway, mum met dad and they loved each other and Nan hated the Catholics and mum and dad were brave and poor and there were no flowers and no music and they had their wedding do in that same tent. There’s this photo, black and white, a big fold-out paper lantern hanging down, wedding cake as tall as a three year old. Maybe mum looks like Gretta Garbo in that photo. That would be Gretta Garbo in a tent in a backyard in Gisborne. And I reckon dad would’ve had other shoes by then, not just rugby boots. They’re standing there behind the cake, smiling in black and white, a knife in their hands.