Sport 40: 2012
What a funny feeling for a child, to be born in the middle of a bad winter. He, John, was a small boy who lived with his mother in a house just out of town. She was a cat rescuer, and suffered from low self-esteem. Every time she thought herself a failure, she rescued another cat. Now the house was full of them.
How John hated the cats. They frowned upon him every morning as he ate his breakfast. And they kept them awake with their night- time battles, their throats agape at the moon. What John loved were birds of all kinds. His favourites were blackbirds. He would have to walk far out into the paddocks to see them (they wouldn’t come near the house, because of the cats). He liked to watch them hop along the grass, so cautious, so busy. But he liked them best when they were ﬂuttering in a wire cage. There was a special place he went to catch them. Often he would let them go after a time; sometimes not.
John’s birthday was on the ﬁrst of July. He had different ways of celebrating it. Sometimes he would wander through the paddocks in a thick jacket—a little black-haired boy oppressed by imaginary snow. He plucked stalactites off the plum trees, souvenirs of an imaginary hoar frost. The ﬁrst of July was usually grey and wet. What a funny feeling for John, being born on a day that was so often so bleak. His mother would make him a cake—a healthy one, with bran—in the shape of an owl. It had large banana chip eyes, and a slice of dried apricot for the beak. She would sing, ‘Happy birthday to you-woo!’ in a warble that was more operatic than it was owlish.
Only on his birthdays did John’s mother seem aware of him. At most other times she barely spoke, unless it was to make noises for the cats. It was like she had almost forgotten about him. But that one date seemed to stay in her mind. July the ﬁrst. Make your son a cake. They must always have nice birthdays to remember when they’re old. At the very least, you must make him a cake.page 348
But she just wasn’t good enough at prolonged attention.
The cats were, though. They never stopped watching. They knew when John left the house, and when he came back. They knew when he needed quiet, but they wouldn’t give it to him. They knew when he needed compassion, but they would show him none. They just walked away, their shoulder blades undulating, their tails in the air.
At school he would collect the screwed-up pieces of reﬁll paper that other kids had thrown out. He would smooth them out and clip them into his ring binder. His ring binder became a crackling wedge that was packed so thick the central mechanism strained and buckled. His teachers just shook their heads at it sadly.
History was John’s favourite subject. He was enamoured with sailing ships, you see, and History was full of those. He learned that the world was divided into two parts—the old part and the new. And the only way you could get to the new from the old was to sail there. John imagined a brand new island, located somewhere in the cold Icelandic north. It was an island of birds, ripe for discovery. The birds that lived on the island (many, many thousands) were black. Black were the curve-beaked stitch birds that piped throatily in the dawn; black were the ﬂightless parrots that waddled chortling through the night-time forests; black were the robins that hopped from twig to twig and leapt for buzzing insects; black were the grim-eyed seagulls that turned in circles above the bay.
No humans lived there, and none had visited for many centuries. John’s island lay in dangerous, unpredictable waters. But things were about to change, because a ship was about to set sail. It would be leaving from some old world port; perhaps from nearby Iceland, where the people were brave but wary. Or perhaps from England because, as John understood it, that was a land of curiosity and expansion. He was undecided. But, in either case, the sea would swish and heave the ship up on its shoulders, and the wind would rise, and the sailors would clamber up the creaking rigging, and the tea-stain-coloured canvas would go tumble-tumble-snap.
John loved History, but he never received good marks. He would start each class well, but soon he would get swept up in his own affairs, or the affairs of his own island.
John walked quickly, with a keen sense of purpose. He limped, page 349 too, but not because of any injury. He was right-handed and right- footed. His right hand, relative to his left, was blessed with strength and dexterity, so it was the one most often used. The same rule applied to his feet. The right one was the better of the two, so it did most of the walking.
Had he been smarter he would have longed for a friend. But he wasn’t a bright boy. He scored very low in the end-of-year exams. Had she paid closer attention, his mother would have been worried. But none of his catastrophes registered, and his daily limp to and from an unfriendly education was observed by no one but the cats. And they had no advice to give, or encouragement to offer.
When he left school he got a job as checkout operator at one of the local supermarkets. The name of the supermarket was Write Price Food Barn. Its slogan was Shopping’s never been like this before. John’s performance as checkout operator was above average. He was punctual, reasonably fast, and allowed the customer’s whim to reign supreme. However, his shift supervisor, Donna, developed a strong dislike of him. What a funny feeling for John, to be the centre of someone’s attention. It was his meekness that Donna hated. His oddness she could tolerate—that was ﬁne—but he never stood up for himself. He encouraged abuse. He almost, she thought, brought it on himself. He made people into abusers. Good people.
John hated working on the express aisle (15 items or less). Boys from his year at school who bought beer used the express aisle. Sometimes they didn’t recognise him—a small mercy. But most of the time they did, his tense little face being so distinguishable from so many others. These boys, who found it hard to leave high school behind, remembered with glee that little ﬁgure, cutting a stilted line down the corridors and across the courtyards. ‘Little John!’ they would say. ‘It’s little Johnny Little! What are you up to, Johnny?’ But they would not hear his response.
There were harried women who came in for the thing they had forgotten. Their need for urgency made John nervous, and when he was nervous he made mistakes. When he made mistakes, the women got angry. But they would ignore his attempts at apology.
There were the matriarchs and patriarchs who came in for the fortnightly butchery specials. The worst moment, by far: a big man— page 350 Samoan, with Samoan tattoos—ﬂinging two halves of a pig’s head down on John’s conveyor belt. The head was halved vertically, and each half ﬂaunted a clean cross-section of the snout, the jaw, the brain. The halves were wrapped in plastic, but what use is plastic against blood and brains? It left a wet smear on the conveyor belt. John couldn’t swallow. His eyes watered; the distress was obvious. But the man never registered it. He just swiped his card, took the head halves and left.
John went to Donna. ‘I can’t do the pig heads,’ he said. He tried to swallow, but made a sound like gah!
Donna stood there looking at him. Pity moved within her, but never made it to the surface. ‘If they want it,’ she said, ‘you scan it. This is a supermarket, John.’
Donna watched him limp through the door to the break room, forlorn in his oversized shirt, the blue tie clutching at the wrong side of the white collar. ‘God, I dislike him,’ thought Donna. ‘But I’m not a bad person.’ And she walked back to the customer service desk saying to herself, ‘I’m not, I’m not, I’m not.’
That evening, when John arrived at home, his mother was cooking oaty pancakes. There was a plate and cutlery set out for him at the table. She greeted him, and her eyes were strange and bright. She sang, ‘What did you learn in school today, dear little son of mine?’
John stood in the doorway, taken aback. But the moment quickly passed. By the time he had gathered himself up to say, ‘I was at work, not at school’, she had gone again, had turned her back.
‘Crowley-boo, that water’s not for you!’ She swatted a tortoise- shell who had its paws in the sink. Then she left the kitchen, the frying pan smoking on the element.
John saved some money, and moved away from his mother. He rented a small house in a street not far from the supermarket. In each room hung a single bare lightbulb. In each room the white wallpaper was cracked at the corners. John didn’t buy a heater, and he spent his winters shivering above frozen water pipes.
Birds came to his lawn and his windowsills. As well as the blackbirds, John developed new favourites—the starling posse that shufﬂed and fought in the neighbours’ guttering, and the female sparrows, sweet and unadorned.page 351
Then a cat found him. It was a dark-faced tabby who appeared one day on the concrete outside his back door, silent and expectant with something in its mouth. John thought, with a horrible thrill, that it was one of his birds. He grabbed the cat (to his surprise, he was faster than it was) and dug his ﬁngers deep into the hinge of its jaw. The cat mawed its disapproval. But after a short minute of wrestling it gave in, dropped its catch and wriggled away, only to come padding back with a hopeful look on its face. John yelled and aimed a kick at it, and it scooted over the back fence.
It wasn’t a bird that John had saved. It was a skink, which was black and greenish in colour. He took it inside and put it in the bottom of an ice-cream container. It folded itself into a corner, its little pouched sides going in out, in out.
John stayed awake that night. He put some damp leaves in the bottom of the ice-cream container, because he didn’t want the skink to become a stranger to nature.
The skink didn’t die, so John bought an empty terrarium made of plexiglass. He assembled a habitat from stones and shards of bark and wood. He put the terrarium next to a desk top lamp, because he had an idea that skinks and other kinds of lizards responded well to light bulbs.
The cat appeared again, in similar circumstances. But this time, the skink it carried was already dead. John forced the cat to drop it, but when he picked it up it lay limp and heavy across his ﬁngers. He put it back down on the concrete and went inside, but the cat didn’t want it either.
The supermarket rebranded; it was now a New World. Donna stalked up and down the aisles in a demure grey smock. She presided over the Christmas rush wearing a headband topped with Santa hats. The hats waved to and fro on little wire coils.
People came in a hurry to cash in their Christmas Club vouchers. Donna would compliment them on their careful saving.
‘It makes such a difference, doesn’t it? A little aside each week.’ The customer would say, ‘Oh yes, yes.’
‘Much better than a hamper, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, yes, absolutely.’page 352
She would come to John’s checkout and do that a lot. Make conversations. Then she would be called away, and she would give John a look that said, That’s how you do it. That’s how you talk to people.
The next person who had Christmas Club vouchers was a tall woman with glasses and curly hair. She was reasonably elderly, and had an over-arching top lip, like the beak of a turtle.
‘It makes a difference, doesn’t it?’ said John.
‘You know, when you put aside money every week.’ The woman stared at him.
‘Is that your business?’
‘Can you hurry up, please?’
John tried to hurry, but there was a frosty bag of peas in the woman’s trolley that just refused to scan.
The supermarket radio, which was broadcast from speakers in the ceiling far above, played relentless Christmas carols. ‘Winter Wonderland’ was often repeated. But when John walked outside, the weather was hot and ill-tempered. Sometimes it rained, and John would have to walk home caked in the smell of sweat and wet tar seal.
His living skink ﬂourished behind the glass. It heard stories about the island, which John harboured in the deeps of his brain, and which he sometimes described out loud, when the night was old and the light bulb was glowing and buzzing. On John’s island it was forever winter. Ships could only come to it through juddering mats of ice.
The skink would lie on a rock with its head and chest at attention. Listening silently. What a funny feeling for John, to have a silent listener.
The island was hard to ﬁnd if you used your eyes. But if you listened, from far away you could hear them singing. Birds, birds, birds. Black birds singing on the bare trees.