A Fairy Tale by Christopher Jackson-Ash
Once upon a place and time… I won’t tell you where or when because it might embarrass you if you find you know the dumb asses who make up the protagonists in my story. Alternatively, you might count yourself amongst their number, even be proud of it. That’s what makes writing so easy – there are real characters out there where truth is stranger than fiction. I watch you every day and embellish you in my stories, though truth be told, you need little embellishment. Sometimes I think you need to be toned down. Why am I so angry? I’m angry because of what happened. I’m angry because of why it happened. And I’m angry at myself.
Joseph wasn’t a dumb ass. He was a kind and gentle old man. Strange, I’ll grant you that, but since when did strange mean you should be hated? They say he was schizophrenic but didn’t take his pills anymore because they made his head fuzzy. Like living life in slow motion in a thick fog, he told me once. He wanted to see things clearly. Some said he was an atheist, others that he was a Jew. Either way they held it against him. I wonder who believers in God hate more, those who don’t believe in any God or those who believe in a God other than their own. Anyway, they all agreed that he was gay, so their children must keep away. Why do normally sane heterosexuals assume that gay equates to paedophile? So many unanswered questions.
The adults just called him that fucking queer crazy old Jew. The testosterone-charged teenagers added “bastard” and called him FQCOJB. They’d taunt him with “F Q C … O J B,” as he walked down the road. I wonder if Joseph ever worked out what it meant. He wasn’t stupid, just old and a bit crazy – a homosexual of uncertain religious views.
Joseph lived in an old house by the beach. It was run down, most of the windows were broken and it was overgrown with vines and creepers, but it was his sanctuary. He slept on a mattress on the floor and the breaking waves were his lullaby. He spent his evenings listening to an old radio. He enjoyed the old music and quiz shows. Above all, he loved to listen to the cricket. Sometimes he listened to the talk back, but he’d get annoyed and argue with the radio. He caught a few fish off the beach and the odd crab, which he cooked up on a barbecue he’d built from builders’ rubble. He had a few tomato plants which he tended lovingly. He pissed on them every day. They gave him a bumper crop in the summer. Summer also brought city-slicker neighbours who shunned him and muttered – in his presence – about him lowering their property values. They probably said worse things about him in the privacy of their fancy beach houses, in the hearing of their cherished offspring.
Winters were hard, and when the wind came off the sea its icy barb cut through his little refuge and seemed to knife him in every joint. However, winter brought solace from the verbal barbs, so Joseph counted his blessings and helped deliver meals to the old people. There were people much worse off than him, he told me once in a lucid moment when the voices left him alone. I used to bring him fish and chips and a bottle of beer. He’d not accept more than that. Sometimes he’d tell me about his past. He was an only child and had grown up on a country property. His parents had been distant, so he’d grown up self-reliant and a loner. There’d been some terrible tragedy; he would never elaborate on the cause. The homestead had burned down and he’d been the only one saved. Only nine years old, he’d waited by the ashes for three weeks until help arrived. He’d learned the hard way to survive adversity. I asked him if the voices had started then, but he said not. It had just made him terribly afraid of fire; he wanted to be buried, not cremated.
The over-stressed city dwellers come to the beach to spend January recovering from their ordeals. They bring their laptops and Blackberries, and catch up on the work they should have done last year. They bring their pimply offspring too, overloaded with testosterone and with the attention spans of gnats. The teenagers are bored rigid, so they resort to alcohol or glue or marijuana or worse to ease their long days. It’s easy to buy drugs on the beach, I’m told. Pretty much anything you like if you have the money. These kids have plenty of money. They go to private schools, church on Sunday, cadets on Wednesday evening. They’ll grow up to be big shots in the city, or lawyers or doctors. They are the pillars of the next generation.
Joseph was a pillar of his generation. He took up his country’s shilling and fought in Vietnam. He’d done it willingly, he told me. He hadn’t been drafted. The war changed him, though. He’d witnessed things that no man should have to see. The napalm had driven his fear of fire to a new high. The voices had started then, he said. They began by telling him he shouldn’t be there. He stood up to them and stayed. Eventually they got too strong.
Today we understand these things better and can help. In those days the Army gave him a medal, a small pension, and sent him on his way. He had had enough money saved up to buy his little bit of paradise on the beach. It would have been a fine dwelling then. Entropy and several generations of teenage boys have done much damage since.
On pension day Joseph would walk to the tiny village shop that tripled as the take-away joint and post office. He’d spend most of his money on provisions and hobble home, heavily laden. His legs didn’t work too well; I think that he had rheumatism from his continued exposure to the cold and damp. If he were lucky, the gang of youths would simply torment him with verbal abuse. If they were particularly bored, they would pelt him with eggs or overripe fruit. He did his best to ignore them, but when he got worked up the voices would start and he’d scream at himself or throw his groceries around. They laughed when that happened. I was driving by one day and saw it. I stopped and chased them off. I helped him home and tried to comfort him, but the voices had taken over. He cursed me, so I went away. My car was keyed the next day.
There was no hot water in his beach shack. He’d stopped paying his utility bills long ago and had been cut off. Sometimes Joseph forgot to wash for weeks at a time. His clothes were little better than dirty rags. The youths were afraid to get too near him – they might catch something. I have to admit he often smelled quite vile. Yet when he helped the old people, he would dress up in his one set of special clothes: dark suit, white shirt, and red tie. He did his best to comb his unkempt flyaway grey hair and beard. I saw him one day and thought that with a cloak, a staff and a pointy hat he would make a good wizard. I told him that and he laughed. It was rare to see him laugh.
Most of his broken windows was the work of thrown rocks. They could still hurt him, without getting too close. Generations had grown up, spending their summers taunting the smelly crazy man. It wouldn’t surprise me if parents now passed on their stories to the next generation.
Joseph was philosophical about it all. He told me he was now anti-war. He had seen too much of man’s inhumanity to man. It seemed to me that he viewed his treatment as karma, punishment for the mayhem he had wreaked on the Vietnamese. Perhaps he was religious after all. The last time I took him fish and chips he told me that he was thinking of selling his land and moving into a nursing home. He was ready for God’s waiting room, he said. I wasn’t sure if that was a joke or he’d realised that his time was nearly up.
It was just before Australia Day, one of those hot summer days when the oppressive heat melts the bitumen and crushes the soul. The kids must have overdosed on sunshine and boredom. They told the court that it was just a bit of fun. They got carried away; they didn’t mean it. They would say that. Joseph was probably lying on his mattress, trying to keep cool. It is likely he was naked. We can never know what really happened. We only have the court transcripts to go on, and each youth told his own version of the story in an attempt to minimise his level of involvement.
It was pack mentality at its worst. They wound each other up until they went over the top. The petrol bomb was a spectacular success.
I arrived just after the Fire Brigade. Joseph was still alive when they brought him out, but his burns were horrendous. His hair, beard, and normally bushy eyebrows were gone. His tortured face was tight in a grimace of terror, pain, and the aftermath of third degree burns. I still see his face in my nightmares. Mercifully, he never recovered consciousness.
Some days later, I found his war medal poking about in the ashes. It’s at the Shrine of Remembrance now. They bulldozed the site and someone has built a flash new holiday house there. Some of the offenders will be released soon. They managed to shift most of the blame onto one boy. Their identities are concealed, but I have heard that he is different – a Muslim or gay or foreign or something like that. He will rot in jail for a long time. The court records are sealed. The rest have had minor bumps on their roads to successful careers. I wonder what stories they will tell their children round the beach house barbecue on a stinking hot January day in the future.
I made sure they buried Joseph; someone had to. After so many fires while he was alive, he could not have borne cremation. I paid for a simple Christian service and a headstone. In death he couldn’t refuse my help. I had ‘peace at last; no more voices’ inscribed as his epitaph. I hope that it is true. I visit his grave from time to time to keep it neat and tidy. I should let it run to overgrown ruin – it would suit him better – but for some reason I can’t let go.
I did some research on his childhood and found the microfilms of the press coverage from the time. There was no proof, but much speculation, that Joseph had started the fire, some thought deliberately. Even back then, most people hated him. He had never spoken to me about the boys’ correction facility they sent him to. I can only imagine the terrible abuse he must have received there. I wish we had spoken more. I wish the voices had told him to trust me. I remembered one thing he’d said to me, though I’d dismissed it at the time: ‘No one ever told me they were sorry.’ Sorry for his loss? Sorry for his illness? Sorry for his abuse? Sorry for his predicament? I was sorry that I’d never noticed it then, and apologised to him.
Kurt Vonnegut said that he never knew how to finish a short story without killing all of the characters. He said that a character must do at least two out of three things: change, learn something, or apologise. I thought that only happened in fairy tales.
Today, I came to Joseph’s grave. I hadn’t been here for over a year and I expected it to be overgrown. I found it beautifully tended with flowers, albeit dead and in a vase. As I marvelled at this mystery, a young man approached with a bunch of fresh flowers.
The young man is quiet, polite and deferential. I don’t recognise him as one of the yobs I’d chased years before. He is about to graduate from university with an arts degree. He wants to be a writer. I ask him why. I mean why he comes here and brings flowers.
“We didn’t want to hurt him. It was just a bit of fun. I have spent a long time trying to work out why making someone else miserable seemed so much fun. He was just different, an easy target. I don’t see the others anymore. They haven’t changed. They still hate anyone who is not like them. They… we, got it from our parents, I think.”
I wait for the clichéd revelation that he found Jesus in prison. That man must do a lot of time. I’m surprised by his revelation. “In juvenile detention, I stopped believing in God. I’m trying to believe in Humanity.”
“I’m sorry we keyed your car,” he says. “I’m sorry we murdered your friend.” We hug each other and cry.
Once upon a place and time, a young man made some serious mistakes. He has tried to put them behind him, but he can’t. He goes on punishing himself. The biggest mistake was to become part of that gang and to conform to the herd mentality without question.
I write now, about the dumb ass that I was, and I try to say I’m sorry. I pretend that Joseph had a friend who helped him. I invent a meeting that couldn’t have happened. I strive for Kurt Vonnegut’s ending, but it’s not possible while Simon is still in jail. I search for a way to live happily ever after.