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Another Ragged Old Man


New Member
Not a story, this; just a piece of prose. From a longer piece about a child who, by virtue of some strange magic she owns, brings about a change in the mood and fortune of everyone with whom she comes in contact.

AN OLD MAN IN AN UNFAMILIAR CITY was as unhappy the day he met Wenjijaalen as would be a recently mortalised, unrecognised artist; as not at home as had been a foreign tourist on her honeymoon.

The old man was unhappy not because he was far from home, or aware of his mortality. He was a man without a home, one disinclined to spend his time thinking about such things as mortality. He was unhappy because his bottle of rum was gone, rudely tipped out by the security guard authorised to tip things out, the shopping precinct being private property, with firm rules against drinking alcohol from bottles, including outside in the car park.

Time was when this old man would have commanded courteous respect from someone like that security guard, but that long years ago. Unhappy dissatisfaction with his lot was not, but such things as courtesy and respect were strangers to this old man these days.

Walking towards the city centre he stopped to sit and rest on the seat at a bus stop. People waiting for the bus wrinkled their noses and looked at him askance. No stranger from those looks, the old man might have resorted to verbal abuse and threats of violence, and won at least some kind of pseudo respect, but he had not had enough to drink to be inclined to that, the security guard having taken his bottle and poured its contents on the wood chips covering the ground around the tropical plants. Alien, rather sinister looking plants, looking a bit like man-eating plants to this old man. A man who could not rightly have said where he was recently from, knowing only that a more temperate climate prevailed there than here. And less aggressive looking vegetation.

He examined his feet. They showed signs of wear. No wonder they hurt. Someone must have stolen his shoes while he slept. He could not remember where he had slept. He knew it must have been somewhere in this strange city, too hot and gaudy, and full of thieves. He wondered why he had come here, and how he had got here.

He didn’t wonder long. It didn’t really matter. He didn’t need to know how he got here. What he needed was to find a bottle shop. He needed to find one too full of customers for its counter staff to keep an eye on their video screen. Exchanging unfriendly looks with the people waiting for the bus, he rose and resumed his walk.

In a side street on the edge of the city proper the footsore old man came upon a boxing gymnasium, its door propped open by a brick.

Here was this old man’s kind of place, a world away from where he came from but full of fondly remembered sounds and favourite smells. The building even looked a bit like him, its paint all faded and peeling. Grime and cobwebs in its windows between security grilles and dusty glass. He climbed the steps leading up from the footpath and went inside.

He found a seat on a bench along the wall, sat down to watch men train with weights and punching bags, a couple wearing protective headgear sparring in the ring, receiving instruction. Here the old man felt at home, among his own.

Soon a sweaty man offered him a mug of weak, milky tea. Another brought him a towel, in case he might want to use the showers. Young men called him Pop. Older ones, some with damaged faces like his own, nodded politely when they looked at him. No one looked at him askance. On his way back from the showers he saw a broom, took it up and commenced to sweep the floor. When he had been a young boxer there had always been an old boxer sweeping the floor, offering advice, telling how things were in his day, reminiscing. In time this old man would become a local identity, here far from home but among his own kind of people. When he died he would have mourners.

Sometimes in his reminiscence he would mention the child in whose company he had been for only a few minutes. The day he had first come to this gym, it was. Respect had come natural to her, he would remember. None of that You have to be like me for me to respect you bullshit.

This old boxer’s memory was far from good. He will never know how he came to be in this far northern city in the first place, will often have trouble remembering what had happened yesterday. He will not know what had happened to his shoes. Perhaps he just forgot to put them on, didn’t miss them until his feet began to hurt. His memory will have long had big holes in it, where things like shoes fall through and are lost forever.

Oddly, though, he will clearly recall the child. He will remember amusement breaking through his gloom at her promise to go inside and ask her boyfriend Kenny if they had enough money yet to buy him some new shoes. Or her old man could make him some good sack-baggy moccasins with his big needle and string, if he came here today.

He will remember the word picture she painted of the place she came from, where the ground fit people’s feet and no one needed shoes, unless they had a sore foot; where the sky made music to make the people dance and where bits of gold and things to eat could be picked up from the ground. She must have come from that fairy-tale place always elsewhere, where manna falls from Heaven and the streets are paved with gold.

“Yes, that’s her,” he tells the scribe. His eyes light up as he looks at the photograph, when the photograph is shown him. “In the carpark at the shopping mall. We sat down, talked a bit. She talked, mostly.”

Here was not a man who kept up with the news. “Haven’t seen her since—she still around?”

Yes, he says, he would like to keep the photograph to remember her by.

We have reached the future, but that old man has not. The photograph, in one of the black painted wooden frames from the cupboard in the back office, hangs now on the gym wall alongside similarly framed pictures of boxers, bearing their autographs. The boxers are posed in fighting stance, wearing boxing gloves and trophy belts. The child is posed holding a guitar.

“A good friend of one old bloke who used to work here,” the Schultz brothers, whose gym it is, explain to anyone who asks.

“Mine, too,” Colin will tell his new family, when he first sees the photograph. “Wendy of Hard Country, that one. Scorpio bugger of Novemb. She was very quick. Quick with her hands, and very quick on her feet.” These are the things Colin’s new family will have told Colin he needs to be, if he wants to be a better boxer.

Himself a Gemini bugger, an only surviving twin, Colin’s ambition will be to invoke his lost brother by becoming so quick on his feet that he can come at an opponent from two directions at once. The corner where the photographs hang will become his favourite part of the gym. He will go there whenever he wants to skip rope and improve his footwork. He will claim to be able to feel Wendy in his legs when they begin to burn from skipping.


New Member
Liked this too :)

Not as much as the other but still like it. Made me smile to hear about Wendy at the end!


New Member
Thank you, Wabbit. Here, for what it’s worth, is another passage, detailing incident referred to in opening of the one above.
It is written in this peculiar future tense (I don’t know if this might be irritating to the reader) for a purpose: it is a sort of taste of things to come later in the narrative, where meeting between artist and child is fleshed out, presented from another point of view and in a different way.
I promise not to keep doing this -- will make this the last one. You and I are probably the only ones who like it anyway…

THE UNKNOWN ARTIST, forced too young to confront his own mortality, will leave the surgery, go to Kelley’s Irish Bar and get a little drunk. A little drunk, having found only the most superficial kind of sympathy among the drinkers inside, he will sit for a while on a bench outside the tavern, feeling sorry for himself, waiting for his wife to come to collect him. “Histio Pathio bloody logical lesions,” he will mumble to himself, reading the piece of crumpled paper he will pull from his pocket.

He will feel sorry for himself to the point where he will begin to unload his self-pity on passers by. Even on a couple of children. Most of the adult passers by will ignore him. One will suggest he go away and pull himself together. The children, a boy and a girl, will be ones who know him. They will listen to his troubles. Perhaps even sympathise, in an offhand sort of way.

Eventually the artist will go home, where he will dry out sober and loosen up. It was about time he loosened up, his wife will tell him. As she had been telling him for some time, in his sober state he had been getting more and more retentive year by year.

Not retentive, disappointed, he thought when he first heard that, too sober that day to be willing to admit his disappointment. He had since adolescence wanted to be an artist, had expected by his present age not to be unknown but to be an artist of note. One whose talent was recognised.

Now, mortalised and loosened up, he will throw that wish away. All he will really want now is to be alive. What he would do with whatever life he had left would not be being anything—a recognised artist or any other categorised thing—but doing. What he would do with whatever life he had left was make art. Not teach, or learn, or waste time longing to be, but do. Do whatever he liked, without regard to trend or fashion or what anyone else might care to recognise.

No longer unknown, some of that artist’s work is today on display in galleries in important centres. He is becoming increasingly well known for doing interesting things with shape, more particularly shape within shape, and for his peculiarly minimised, sometimes even reversed, foreshortening. Viewers’ eyes are drawn to walls where his paintings hang and, when they turn away, drawn back again, their owners never quite knowing why. Some art critics still insist that his works are gimmicky, inconsequential; but looking at his subtly exaggerated shapes of common things depicted in muted colours, mostly pale browns and blues and greens, pleases many people, makes them want to look at more. He may never be a major figure in the art world, but he is becoming increasingly sought after in the market.

The artist’s output is by no means prolific. His agent does her best to encourage him to turn out more. So does his wife.

“I can’t do that,” he tells them. “I have to let it come out of me at its own rate. Or come out through me…” This artist feels sometimes less like the producer of the works he signs than like a channel through which they emerge.

He is still alive, of course, and feels healthy enough. As healthy as he has ever felt. He no longer even bothers to have regular checkups. It all must have been a false alarm, he has concluded. “Them mad bugger doctors don’t know dick,” he informs the scribe, raising a serious finger. It is a pronouncement he makes quite often when he has been drinking, says his wife.

Oh yes, he remembers the child, he says, brought back to the subject of the interview. A bright, sharp talent, hers. Very original. He has a drawing of hers on his studio wall. A sort of caricature, really. She drew him as a sort of insect. Something like a bumble bee.

He has a sketch of her, too, stashed around here somewhere.

He rummages in a drawer to find it. It is one he did ages ago, at the Port Sally Refuge. He had tried a while back to make a painting from it, tried to capture on canvas The Essential Wendy, but failed. He hadn’t been able to get her to come out of him at all…