It started with a wall.
At least that’s where I saw him first. You wouldn’t have believed it if you’d been there. You really wouldn’t. The very few people I told about it looked at me as if I was making it all up. They shook their heads in despair. I knew what they were thinking. “There he goes again. Telling his stories, confusing reality with something he saw once, in an old film. Just nod understandingly and get away from him as fast as you possibly can.”
It happened, though. I saw it, others saw it. They put it down to coincidence and circumstance but I KNEW.
He was standing there, leaning against a wall in the most exaggerated, theatrical manner you could imagine. One leg crooked against the other, one arm stretched up over his head, palm flat against the wall.
He looked a mess. Clothes, far too big for him. His trousers an enormous patchwork, more patch than trouser leg. A huge hanky sticking out of his jacket pocket. Violent ginger fright wig jammed on his head. He was old, too. God, he was old.
The eyes – they were young. They sparkled, mostly. There was a joy of living, a vivid and keen delight in just being alive. They radiated energy out of that ancient face.
I’d seen him so many times before. Seen that pose. I knew what was coming. A policeman came round the corner. You don’t see them too often these days, but they’re out there, if you know where to look. The gods of comedy had sent him along, just in time. This one was taking his job just a bit too seriously, I was delighted to note.
“Oi, you! What do you think you’re doing? Standing there all day. Haven’t you got somewhere to go? Move on, will you?”
The old man didn’t move.
“What do you think you’re doing? Think you’re holding that wall up?”
The old man nodded, vigorously.
“You think it’s going to fall down if you move?
Another nod, followed by a cheery grin that said, you’re going to get a bit of surprise in a minute.
The policeman grabbed the old man by the arm and pulled him away. And slowly, with an almost balletic motion – the wall collapsed.
Amongst the chaos, the old man disappeared. I don’t know where he went; I was leaning against a wall of my own, laughing myself into a choking fit.
Every day, for the next few weeks… I kept on seeing him. Everywhere I went, this demented force of nature seemed to appear before me. Leaping like a satyr into the middle of normality, disrupting then disappearing. I was sitting in an internet cafe and I heard someone curse soundly a couple of computers up.
“Ah, bollocks. I’ve forgotten my damn password.”
At which point, the old man leaned over from the next PC, opened his coat and produced a gigantic fish with a sword sticking out of its mouth. He pointed at it, then at the screen in front of my cursing colleague, then back at the fish. Nodded his head vigorously and smiled THAT smile again.
The bloke at the PC turned to me, wonderingly. We shared a glance. I knew that when we both turned back, the old man would be gone.
“Swordfish, right?” I said.
“Yes…” said I-forgot-my-password-man.
“I’d change that if I were you”, I said, and left the internet cafe before they giggles overwhelmed me.
Next time I saw the old man he was being hauled away from a local lemonade stand. How the hell he found the only lemonade stand in the country, I don’t know. Yet there he was, lemonade dripping from his bare feet as the police hauled him off, the vendor looking in horror at the open top of the barrel of lemonade they’d just dragged the old man out of. I knew that the health and safety people would shut him down, but I also knew that the bastard deserved everything he got. He’d short-changed me the day before last.
It couldn’t last. He was becoming “a public nuisance”. Every new disruption, every new “outrage” got him hauled up before the local authorities. He made headlines with the “paste a naughty picture over the top of every public notice” campaign. The repeated theft of crockery from local hotels got him into court – the cascade of knives, forks and spoons that erupted from his sleeves when he got there was enough to send him down for thirty days (I swear a couple of plates and a soup tureen came down in the cascade too).
They got him eventually. After he devastated the local immigration office with a bunch of rubber stamps, franking everything and everyone he could get his hands on, they called in the doctors. The presence of an ancient horned gramophone strapped to his back with Chevalier ’78 spinning on the turntable was a particularly nice touch, I thought – but it proved to be one touch too many. They put him away. The ancient old man with anarchy in his eyes disappeared from public view and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. People could go about their business again, untroubled by the possibility that they might find themselves holding a casually hooked leg. Phone calls could be carried out in normal voices, with no risk of the human on one end of the line being replaced by a carefully modulated sequence of horn squeaks in lieu of conversation. In short, life returned to normal. Things were dull, but normal. The old man? Forgotten. A problem for someone else.
I couldn’t rest. I had to speak to him. You see, I had to tell him. I knew. Knew who he was. Knew what he did, why he did it. I had to tell him that someone recognized him, remembered him, and valued him for everything he gave us. I wanted to see him, just to say “thanks”.
It took a bit of doing. They hid him well but I found him. God, the hoops I had to jump through, just to get them to admit that he even existed. Grudgingly after several months of nagging, I was granted an interview. I was nervous, frankly. How often do you get to talk to a force of nature?
The nurse led me down through the traditional warren of corridors. Everything smelt musty and forgotten. These places do, they always do. It seemed to take forever to reach his room but I knew we were getting near because I heard him before we ever reached him. The harp melody rang through those forgotten corridors, clear and strong.
When I was growing up those bits were always the bits I fidgeted through, waiting to get to the lunacy I knew was waiting on the other side. Now I’m older I realise that he was always a master of pacing, as were his compadres. They all knew. They knew that you can’t keep laughing constantly. You have to take a breather every now and then. You need to stop, recharge your batteries and when the next onslaught hits, it’ll be twice as funny because you’ve had the chance to process the stuff that came before. Always the master of pacing, that one.
I peeked in through his door. He was sitting there, rapt with concentration. The fingers glided over the strings of the harp, teasing the melody out. I never ever knew what it was called, but it was the one that kept on turning up in their films, the one that went “sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime”. His brother made great play of it when he was shooting the keys on that old piano of his as well.
I stood in the doorway and listened. He seemed utterly at peace. Consumed by the music like he always was. He couldn’t constantly be running around disrupting the world, deflating the pompous. I always felt that this was where he wanted to be, where he could rest. Just for a few minutes. The fingers started to spin that wonderful glissando down the strings and I knew that he was nearly done. He looked up at me and smiled gently.
I walked over to him and sat down. He looked at me, silently.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” I said. “Arthur died, all those years ago but it’s you.” He gave me the innocent, I-don’t-understand baby face. “It’s ok, I’m not going to tell anyone.”, I said. “I always knew you were still out there, somewhere. The world’s full of idiots and maniacs. Every bit as much as when you were around the first time.”
He threw me a gookie.
“You’re still loved, you know.” (baby face again). “We grew up with you. We never forgot. We never will. I know you’re probably going to go away for a bit. You have to. I’m sorry about the way you’ve been treated. It’s not right, and it makes me angry.” As I’d hoped, this brought forth the “I am furious” face, complete with the straight arm fist swing. I waited til he’d finished.
“They don’t mean to hurt you. They just don’t know. They don’t know who you are. I do. I can’t help you, but I wanted to come here, just for a few minutes with you. Just to say…. Keep on being silly. Don’t let us get too serious. And thank you.”
He looked at me solemnly. Just for a moment. Then as I turned to leave, I heard him speak. Just two words. Low, soft… spoken with a voice rich and dark, smoked with amusement.
I walked out before he could see the tears in my eyes. Behind me, “Sugar in the Morning” started again.