The first time I met Davy was in Tully. I was standing at the washblock sink, scrubbing at the sap stains in my jeans, when I heard a noise from inside one of the washing machines – a sound like a pair of trainers in the wash. The banging stopped. I turned over the jeans, found a new stain. Electric insect noise buzzed through the empty frames of the doorway and window. Clouded, starless night sat over the campsite. A mosquito spun and landed on my arm. I slapped at it and missed, drawing a red mark on the sun-tender skin. My mind wandered back to the day in the fields, the sound of the machete cutting a stalk above my head, angry shouts, endless rows of trees, green and heavy with bunches to hump.
Then the banging returned. Bang-bang-bang. Knock-knock-knock.
I dropped the jeans, moved closer to the machine and peered through its door. It splashed and sloshed with a tumbling layer of froth. I watched for shoes, but instead, a hand came forward and, while turning and twisting with the wash, it rapped against the glass. Knock-knock-knock.
I reeled away, appalled.
Then I lunged for the latch of the door. The machine had sealed itself. I sat on the floor and grasped the handle with both hands, pressed my feet against the base of the washer and pulled with all the strength I could muster. The seal gave with a suck and a jerk, and as I fell backwards, the contents spilled out onto the floor: silted water, suds, sodden clothes and a tiny, naked, withered old man.
He spluttered, coughed and tried to lift himself onto his hands and knees, failed and wheezed back into a slump.
I stalled, sinews locked. I had no instinct to tell me how to cope.
The wee man’s wheezing came out in syllables, ‘Fu.. huh.. fu… huh bas… bas… turt.’ Then he spewed a stream of foamy water and collapsed. His chest heaved, but his limbs gave up twitching. His overlarge hands and feet reflexively stretched then curled. Hair clung to his scalp in clumps and straggles of a white beard splayed across his cheeks and neck. Grey flaccid skin sagged on his emaciated frame. He was not much more than two foot tall.
I was panting too, from the exertion and shock. A puddle spread around me. From a basket, I grabbed a towel and used it to bundle him up, not daring to touch his flesh. I kept his head uppermost, outside the folds; his face was tense, pinched around the eyes and clenched at the mouth. I clung tightly hoping that the towel would rub him dry and abandoned my washing.
Clouded, starless night sat over the campsite. No-one else stirred and I passed unnoticed along the aisle between tents towards the row of fixed cabins. Cane toads croaked and bellowed in a nearby field. As I marched, the man’s wheezing subsided and when I looked down on his face I saw it relax.
My shoulders and back were tense, aching. I had to manage the bundle in one hand against my chest while I dug in the pocket of my shorts for the key then shunted the sliding door across. My stride across the room caught a chair and knocked a pile of folded clothes to the floor. I levered my arms through the overlap opening in the mosquito net and placed the towel, and man, on top of the sleeping bag spread out on my bed. For a while I held the net apart with open arms, looking down at the unmoving lump, then stepped back letting the net fall closed again.
I scooped the clothes up and left them on the table so that I could sit facing the bed. A fan mounted in the far corner panned around the room, billowing the net inwards then letting it sigh back. I watched the bed breathe and tried to follow it with my own breath, to slow down, hoping that my pulse would stop racing and the pounding would subside enough to let me think.
And then the shadow of the shape behind the net began to move. It jostled at first, rocked and pushed upwards. The apparition of a head rose. The silhouette of the man shucked off the towel. It padded around on the soft-sprung mattress in bouncing steps, then the shape bulged out the side of the net and slipped down to the floor. A hand appeared. A long nose poked under and sniffed.
The wee man burst through, flung himself upright, his arms thrown above his head and shouted,
‘Crivvens and help ma Boab! Whit a blaw that wis!’
I was dumbfounded.
‘Man, but it’s braw tae be up an aboot.’
He stretched high, then bent over and touched his toes, straightened up and spread his arms wide. All the time he hopped with a nervous energy, agitating himself across the floor like a toddler on jelly beans. In his turns, he kept banging against things: shunting the table, clunking against cupboards, springing them open and peering inside. But this was no child. He had lost the grey sag the water had given him and looked full-flushed and sanguine. His face was covered in a white puff of beard except for sharp eyes and pointed nose. The wisps of his hair were long around a shining bald patch. His limbs were long, but his body squat, thin except for a bulging pot-belly. The sight of him jittering around the hut also gave me the unsettling sight of his tackle. It was obscenely large, flapping around between his legs and slapping across his skinny hips.
Tins tumbled out of the open cupboard where I had neatly stacked them; the sleeping bag was dragged across the floor; the bin tipped over and rattled as he banged into it. He tumbled over it, scattering cans. ‘Oof, aw ya bas… Sorry boot that. I’ll jist…’ He flipped the bin up with a long finger, too hard, and it tipped again, rolling away from him. And then, he stopped to stare at me.
The wee man said, ‘An how you keepin, laddie? Ye well?’
Strongly and distinctly Scottish.
He pinned his fists to his hips, gave me a wink and set off on an inelegant jig, grinning broadly. His heel caught my backpack toppling him backwards against the table and bringing over the plastic cup that held my pens.
I jolted forward. ‘Mind yourself.’ But couldn’t bring myself to touch his flesh. I picked up the pens. ‘Are you OK?’
He sprang back to his feet, dusted off and looked around, startled. ‘Och, wid ye look at the state o this place?’ His long fingers swept over the ruin of my room. ‘I’m mighty sorry. I seem tae huv got a bit carried away.’ He picked up a pen and handed it to me.
I took it from him, solid and assuredly held.
‘I’ll tell ye whit,’ he said, ‘Afore we go ony further, let’s gie the place the wance ower.’ He picked up an empty coke can, tossed it in the air, and deftly righted the bin before it clonked in. ‘Aye, and there’s nae better way tae tidy up than wi a chirpy wee song. Noo, how wid Mary Poppins huv it?’
He began to dance in jerky shuffles and leaps. His song started, ‘Da da dee da da dee da.’ He bent to pick up a sock, sniffed it and flung it in the air.
‘Aw, a spoon fu o sugar makes the medicine gae doon,
‘The medicine gae doo-oon,
‘Medicine gae doon.’
He danced and spun round the room, bounced off the walls and hopped over objects. He picked up the odd bit of rubbish and threw it to a corner. Objects moved, flew, redistributed around the room without any sign of tidiness developing.
In a few circuits, he had transformed the lyrics into,
‘A hof poon a butter makes the medicine gae doon,
‘In a simply slimy way.’
A naked, two-foot septuagenarian doing Julie Andrews with the words all messed up.
‘Stop. Stooop. Hey… mister. Hey old… please stop. You just… you can’t… can’t you just stop, please?’
He caught himself in mid-air, snatched a breath and landed with his hands clasped in front of him, looking up at me. ‘I jist thought I’d try tae ingratiate maself, y’knaw?’
‘Who are you?’
‘Aw, I’m Davy.’
‘But what are you?’
‘I’m jist yer wee big bollixed pal.’
I was taken aback. But it was true. I just wished that he would put them away.
‘Hey, mister… eh… Davy, please, let me get you something to put on.’
The first clean thing I could find was an old work t-shirt streaked with stains. As he pulled it over his head, he muttered something, but the words got lost behind the cotton.
I asked, ‘I’m sorry, you said something there.’
‘Eh? Aye lad, I said it’s the comfort o family and kindness o strangers that means the maist tae a needy man.’
The t-shirt touched the floor, the sleeves cuffed around his hands.
Davy looked down at himself. ‘Aw, that’s braw.’
‘Davy, I don’t know what to say. It’s just I… Davy, what happened to you? I mean, how did it happen? Or why? Are you alright?’
‘I’m fair pechin if truth be told.’ He rubbed his hand along his throat.
‘Aw, man, I’m sorry. I should have asked. After what you’ve been through. Would you like a drink or something?’ I went to the little fridge. ‘I’ve only got a bit of orange juice, or there’s some milk, or some water as well, but that’s not chilled. And I could fix you something to eat if…’
A hand thrust in under mine, startling me.
‘I’ll help masel tae wan o these, if ye dinnae mind.’ The hand came out again holding a can of beer.
‘Eh… ah… yeah, sure.’ I heard the pop before I turned to see Davy chugging back a big swig. He let out a gurgley burp and said, ‘Awwww jings. That’s the business. Will ye no huv wan yersel?’
I opened mine as Davy finished his. He crunched the can and flipped it into the bin.
There were two more cans of beer in the fridge, and he was eying them.
He was at the fridge in a few quick steps, bare feet slapping on the linoleum. With the second can, he took a slower, smaller sip and I noticed that though he wasn’t much taller than the fridge, the beer can sat in his hand much as it did in mine; his fingers reached most way round it.
‘Mighty me, better than soapy bubbles, that’s fir certain.’ He lifted the short green can towards me in a toast, one bushy eyebrow raised, the corner of his mouth curled up below it.
I raised mine. With a couple of sips, my tension slipped a little and the mad whirl in my head began to settle.
‘So, young laddie, whit dae I call you?’
‘I’m William. I… I guess…’ He held out his hand. I hesitated, then took the handshake. ‘It’s nice to meet you.’
His palm was wet and cold from the can, but the skin was rough. He didn’t let go. ‘You guess? Whit d’ye mean, ye guess?’
‘Well, I’m sorry. It’s just… really, you’re not…’
‘Whit? Not normal? Wid ye go up tae an auld boy in a wheel chair and tell him he’s no normal? Some poor wee chap wi nae legs and nae arms, You’re no normal, pal. That’s very nice that is.’
‘No. No, I wasn’t gonna say that. It’s just… you’re… not… from… round here, are you?’
‘Aye, right ye were. I am but. Queensland through n through. Gawd streuth, mate. Don’t cahm the raw prawn wi me, cobber, and aw that. Nah, but, fair play tae ye wee man, I dinna suppose I’m whit ye were expectin on a Monday night at the laundry. Probably doon there hopin tae meet the lassies.’
‘Well… maybe, but, the thing is… What happened in the laundry? How did you end up inside that machine?’
‘Och, there’s no much tae tell, just a wee accident. Didnae knaw the lassie fae Adam. Jist a wee mix up, accident like I say.’
‘What lassie? Did someone put you in there on purpose?’
‘Naw. No. Nane ae that. It was only, someone like me, there’s folk oot there take exception tae us, cause we’re a bit special. It’s prejudice like, y’knaw.’
‘But, it’s just… I’m sorry but you’ve gotta see that it’s a bit difficult. I mean… what is someone like you?’
‘Well…’ Davy walked over to the chair and still holding his can, levered himself onto it in one deft movement. ‘…I can tell ye a story, but ye may find it a bitty hard tae believe.’
‘Try me. Please, because I don’t…’
He held up a hand to stop me, took a deep breath and began, ‘Lang ago, in a land far away, there lived a poor auld peasant farmer and his wife who longed tae hae a son.’ The note of his voice dropped, more soothing. ‘Wan day they struck a deal wi some nasty wee goblin who promised he wid bring them a son if he could sleep in their hoose jist the wan night. Durin that night, a helluva storm blew up that rattlt and shook their hoose. It soonded like aw the hoonds ae hell battrin oan thur walls. But come the mornin, the storm had passed, the goblin wis gone and low n behold, there was a wee bonnie bairn asleep in a basket next tae the hearth. The thing was that this wis nae ordinary boy. He was very, very wee indeed.’
‘What, and that was you?’
‘Aye, and that’ll be right! Ye think I was born in a fairy tale! Naw, away wi ye. I’ll tell ye though, ye ever heard o a leprechaun?’
‘Or a brownie?’
‘What, like a girl guide?’
‘Naw, ya gowk, a brownie. It’s a wee Scottish leprechaun pixie thingy, y’knaw? Breaks intae yer hoose at night and daes aw the dishes n that.’
‘Are you trying to tell me you’re some sort of pixie or something?’
‘Well, I’ll tell ye, but I kin only whisper it tae ye, so come here.’
I bent over and Davy cupped his hands around my ear.
My head shook and ears rang.
Davy rocked with laughter until he tumbled off the chair. After giggling on the floor for a while, he climbed back up and sat with his legs apart, his hands propped on his knees, shoulders pushed back. ‘I’m nane ae they things. I telt ye, I’m jist yer wee pal.’
I shook my head to stop the ringing as Davy sat there, looking certain and resolute. I tried to smile an acceptance. ‘Well… that’s… good to know. I guess.’
‘It is lad. A pal is aboot the best thing ye could ask fir in life, except, mibbe, a lassie tae call yer ain.
‘Now laddie, you have done me a service, and I am indebted tae ye. Saving the life of one soul such as me is no small thing and it gies us a bond that will no easily break. I owe ye, and will repay ye.’
* * * *