Sport 38: Winter 2010
We could hear his voice at night, while we were lying in our beds wrapped up tightly in white flannelette and mauve chenille. It didn't sound smooth and clear like singers on the radio. It was fractured and flawed and cracked over the high notes, but it made something in my chest move. We never got to hear a whole song. He sang as he walked through our tidy streets and it took less than a minute for him to pass by our house and out of earshot. We'd lie there in the dark on our twin beds, facing each other, whispering about our friends and their brothers, pausing every few sentences to see if we could hear him. We'd jump every time a neighbour turned on their radio, and sometimes when we heard our parents talking. Is that him? It was clear when it really was his voice. It was unmistakable. Rosemary always gasped when the first low note reached us. It would get louder the closer he got to our house, and the blood would rush through me so quickly I worried that Rosie would be able to see my skin ripple. They were always sad, the songs he sang. Mostly they were about a woman, a careless woman who was treating him badly or who had done him wrong. I'd treat you right I'd think, curling my toes up. Then, too soon, he got quieter. We wouldn't talk at all after he was gone. I always tried to hold his voice in my head as I went to sleep, hoping that I'd dream about him, but I never did.
Our parents were not pleased. Neither were the neighbours. But we were. At school, my sister and I and our neighbour Vanessa, we couldn't talk about anything else. Who was he? We knew almost everyone in town.
Our bedroom didn't face the road, and we didn't dare go into the living room where our mother sat knitting and our father sat reading, to peek through the lace to the street. The adults never confronted him, our fathers never stormed into the street to tell him to quiet down and move along. They stayed in their warm living page 151 rooms with our mothers, muttering under their breath and sipping their whiskies.
Rosie and I went down the beach after doing our paper run. We left our bikes in the dunes and walked up the hill. Our town was crescent shaped, with a line of farm clad hills at one end and a sharp peninsula, pointed like a scimitar, at the other. We had a special spot that was ours, on the top of the smallest hill at the west end, the only one still holding on to patches of native bush, where we could see everything. There was a roofless WWII bunker that we'd lean against, put there to watch out for the Japanese, which had slowly been taken over by weeds. Rosie had stolen a couple of cigarettes from Dad's packet, after he had fallen asleep in his chair and I had three fingers of pilfered whiskey in the bottom of my water bottle. The wind was blowing each match out as she lit it. She sang his song from the night before as she took another out of the box.
'. . . my girl, my girl . . .'
'No, I think it says black girl, black girl,' I said. 'I thought it did anyway. Is that racist?'
'No, he could be black after all.'
'Oh my goodness, Rosie. He is not black. Have you ever even seen a black man?'
'Not in real life. I think we should sneak out, hide in bushes out the front and find out who he is.'
'Dad would kill us, he would slice us up into little pieces and lock us in our rooms for the rest of time.'
'Well, do you have a better idea, Francie?' She took a sip of whisky and lay down in the scrub. 'What do you suppose he is like, really?' She had stretched her arm up and was spreading her fingers wide open then shutting them slowly, changing the angles at which the sun hit her face.
'I don't know, Rose. It isn't a normal thing to do to walk around the street singing. Not here.'
'No,' she said, dropping her hand back into her lap. 'I think he must be sad. Or foreign.'
Vanessa was the first of us to see him. She told us at lunchtime, sitting on the octagon, a big memorial seating area in front of the administration wing. It had been built out of the remnants of blackened wood that were left after Errol's cousin Morgan tried to burn the school down ten years before. I was carving a little house into it with my compass. 'Well.' Vanessa grinned. She was rarely the centre of attention, and she was keen to make the most of it. 'Mum and Dad had gone to Nana Jean's cause of the heat wave, so I was home alone.'
Vanessa's mother Pat (who had a mouth like a torn sack, according to our mum) was a delicate creature and when the temperature hit thirty she wilted, and couldn't be revived until she hit the damp side of Arthur's Pass.
'Nana Jean has been on a bit of a Jesus streak since Grandad died, so Dad nearly didn't go.' Vanessa was pulling single strands of her hair gently as she spoke, then letting the hair fall into her lap. She'd often get in trouble for doing that in class.
'Just tell us who it was, Vanessa, bloody hell.' Rosie got impatient easily.
'So, I was sitting in the front room, with the lights off of course, and the curtains opened just a tiny crack, I didn't want him to see me back, he could have been anyone.'
'And . . .' I said.
'And, I saw him. I saw the songs coming right out of his mouth and I knew him and both of you know him too.'
'Vanessa! Who was it? Tell us!' I said.
She smiled and leaned forward, and said his name as slowly as she possibly could.
'Mr Skip?' I asked.
He lived in the last house at the point. He was the man we took birds to when our cat had attacked them. Once while we were walking with Mum after dinner, we found a little blue penguin on the beach. Mum had taken off her jumper and wrapped it up in that and the three of us had stood at his door while he gently lifted up its wings and opened its beak. He told us that it was a baby. That sometimes they got separated from their mothers, and it was hard for the babies to survive without them. When he looked at our faces, he added that page 153 this one might get better and we had done our best to make sure it would be all right. The next day he returned Mum's jersey. Washed and dried and folded! What a lovely man! Mum had said. When she asked how the little penguin was doing he shook his head and smiled sadly.
'Well, I think it was him,' Vanessa said. 'It was very dark. And his face was mostly in shadows. He was wearing a Swanndri though. A blue one. I think it must have been him, he always wears a Swanndri. And, he's a strange guy, don't you think?
'But he's old,' I said, disappointed. 'It can't be him.'
'Skip Thompson?' Rosie repeated. 'I don't think he would be that old. He is probably less than thirty.'
'That is completely old,' I said.
'Not for a man it isn't,' Rosie said.
We had to wait for a bird to die. Or to almost die. We took the shiny end crusts that our mother sliced very thinly off the bread and scattered them in tiny pieces over the back lawn. Puss was grateful for the assistance and dutifully brought us a tiny fantail in her mouth, soft and still warm, its tail contracted to a speckled column. As we walked to Mr Skip's house, its little body pumped in my hands.
'Shouldn't we have taken Vanessa?' I asked.
'Oh my god, no. She'd totally have tried to take over.' I noticed that Rosie had slid her singlet down off her shoulder so that you could see her pink bra strap.
His house was immaculate. It had belonged to his mother. He'd come back to look after her when she was sick, and then he'd stayed on after she'd died. It had mint green weatherboards with white trimmed windows and on the concrete stoop, a lacquered black tyre that had been expertly carved into a swan. As he took the dying bird from us Rosemary asked for a glass of water. He looked surprised, but was polite enough to regain his composure quickly.
'Of course, yes. Please come on in.'
We sat at the kitchen table drinking his metallic bore water. I drank from a glass that had scratched citrus fruits painted on the outside and Rosie drank from a teacup.page 154
'Is the fantail going to live?' Rosemary asked, in a slow, deep voice that didn't usually belong to her.
'No,' he said. 'No. I will have to put this one in the freezer.'
We followed him out to the laundry where there was a large freezer filled with dead birds wrapped in crunchy plastic bags, their feathers frosting with ice. I recognised seagulls and starlings and tui through the frost, and at least three little blue penguins. One of them might have been ours.
'Is that an owl?' I asked pointing at a large-eyed specimen.
'It is a native owl, a morepork. You might be able to hear it at night. It knows its own name you know. Morepork.' He imitated the bird's call. 'Morepork.'
'What kind of music do you like Mr Thompson?' Rosie asked. She wasn't looking at the birds, she was looking at him.
'Oh, this and that, I suppose.' He put the fantail into a plastic bag and rested it on top of a frozen seagull. Its warmth made the bag turn opaque like breath on glass. He picked the morepork up, rolled the red rubber band off the bottom of the bag and slid the bird out. I reached out to touch its cold stiff feathers.
'Gosh, it has such big eyes,' I said.
'Yes, very big and, strangely, he can't move them. To look around, he has to swivel his entire head. It's quite amusing.'
'Do you like American music?' Rosie dragged a drowsy finger along the waistband of her shorts. 'The blues and stuff?'
'Oh no, not really.' He looked down at the bird in his hand and smiled. 'I listen to classical music mostly. Before I came back here I played in an orchestra in the city. Just a small one, but it was good fun. I played the flute.'
'What do they eat, the moreporks?'
There was something about looking at something that didn't have a soul left in it that felt forbidden, a thrilling stillness.
'Mostly small insects, weta, that type of thing. I once saw one take a sparrow out in midair. They are the most formidable hunters.'
'Astonishing.' Rosie looked down at her watchless wrist.
'Can I have a look at a penguin?' I asked. 'We brought you one once, do you remember?'
'Actually, we better be going, Francie, Mum will be wondering page 155 where we've got to,' Rosie said. She was using her normal voice again.
'Oh, do we have to?' I said. I didn't want to leave, I wanted a closer look at the penguins.
'Thanks for the bird, Mr Thompson. For taking the bird. And the glass of water.' She looked out towards the door instead of at him while she spoke.
'Well, it has been most pleasant to have such interested visitors. You should come again, I have some albatross bones that are worth having a look at.' He put three fingers on Rosie's shoulder, the middle one falling on her bra strap, and two on the flesh it separated, and smiled down at her.
'Thanks, Mr Thompson,' I said. 'That was great.'
'Please, call me Skip.'
That night the singer came again. Before we heard him, we lay in bed talking and watching the crystal that Mum had hung in our window throw moonlight around the room.
'It's definitely not Skip Thompson,' Rosie said. 'What a waste of time that was.'
'How do you know? He could have hidden depths.'
'He's not the type. More like hidden bodies under his floorboards. He is such a weirdo. He plays the flute for God's sake, a grown man.' Rosie lay on top of the blankets; she often got too hot.
'Well, I liked him. Those birds were amazing.'
'What's he keeping them for? It's crazytown.'
'I don't know.' I pulled the blanket up close up under my chin. 'Maybe for the conservationists. So they can see how they died.'
'I don't buy that at all. It has to be something creepy.'
'Like what?' I said.
'Shhh.' She sat up in bed. 'Listen.'
His voice crackled into the bedroom. It was a song about throwing a woman. I curled my toes up, anticipating the thrill I always got when I heard him, but it didn't come. As his voice began to quiet, Rosie jumped up suddenly and pulled her jeans on under her nightie.
'I'm going to see who it is,' she said.
'What! No! Stay here!' I sat up in bed. 'You can't go, it could be page 156 someone terrible.' It occurred to me that there was every chance he was just a drunk, with beer on his breath and a dirty shirt.
'Come with me then. If you're so worried.' She pulled a cardigan out of the washing basket and slid into it. My legs were heavy against the mattress, and I felt weighted to the bed. I didn't want her to go by herself. If something happened.
She opened the window, and slid her leg out over the sill.
I didn't draw the curtains. I sat on my bed with my head against the wall looking at the square black window, spotting darker with rain. Every few minutes I'd turn on the bedside lamp so that the pane would whiten and I could see myself sitting there. I looked different to how I did in the mirror. Softer, and smaller. A girl in an old photograph. I sat there waiting and the night was silent. When she finally climbed in the window it was already starting to lighten.
She pulled off her jeans and slid into bed opposite me. Her eyes were big and dark and I could see that her chin was grazed.
'Francie.' She started to cry. 'Oh Francie.'