We just spent some time on a small tropical island in the Caribbean, which is home to about 10’000 people, the size of a good size village. Pristine beaches on leeward side, rough reefs and panoramic views on the windward side. One main street, several rum shops, a couple of grocery stores, a hard ware store, the jetty where all the activity is concentrated twice a day: when the ferry docks and again a couple of hours later when it departs. The town features one football field with a track surrounding it. It gets used for sports, civic celebrations, carnival and any other official activity that requires a large space. That about sums it up.
On the first day I noticed this young man who was always hanging around where the most activity took place. He was physically challenged and limped along in his flip-flops with a sideways gait because one leg was twisted to the inside and the arm on the same side just dangled beside his emaciated body. Billy, or Billyboy as everybody knew him, also drooled and his neck was kinked so that he always looked up from underneath his brow. It gave him a mentally disturbed look. He couldn’t talk properly but he always knew what was going on. If you wanted to find an event, no matter what time of day it was, you just had to follow Billy. He had an uncanny sense of gatherings, festivities and of course free food. Roadside food vendors would readily give him a hotdog, a cob of corn or a pop and the bartender next to the ferry dock always handed him a free beer. “He’s not daft or stupid, just handicapped,” the bartender told me. “Just treat him like you know him. He belongs here and everybody knows him and we all look after him. He’s perfectly harmless but of course the young kids are scared of him. He’s just different that’s all.”
Billy boy reminded me of a character in my hometown, where I grew up, which was not that much different from this island town in the Caribbean.
* * *
I was nine years old that summer when Kathy Jennings was five and she disappeared right out of a supermarket. One minute she was hopping along behind her mother, slobbering on a lollypop, and the next minute she was gone. Mrs. Jennings had stopped to chat with Mrs. Todd, and when she looked around Kathy was nowhere to be seen. She had vanished into thin air. Just like that.
To the horror and shock of the whole community, the poor girl never came back. The speculations were wild and the collective public fantasy imagined the worst possible fate for the unfortunate girl. A whispered favourite that some morbid creep dreamed up was the one where old Charley must have abducted and eaten her, piece by piece, so the gods would let him be ninety forever.
Everybody knew Charley. He was the town original who never missed a chance for a free cup of coffee or a meal or the occasional beer for that matter. Although he was deaf and dumb and about ninety years old (he was always ninety years old) his uncanny intuition guided him to gatherings of people. No matter if it was the annual beer-garden, the winter carnival or a sports event; Charley was always present when people congregated, except at church. He attended every funeral and wedding, but he never got drunk or bothered people. He would just roam about and make silly grimaces at people. If Charley didn’t show up then something was missing.
“Where’s Charley?” people would ask, looking around for the spindly, wrinkled creature. And when he finally emerged out of nowhere, nobody in particular would remark about it. His presence just made these occasions whole; he belonged, just like the music, the unfailing lousy weather, the kids and the booze.
All of us kids were afraid of him because he always made faces at us and then shake his gnarled, liver spotted hand at us threateningly, towards an invisible foe, waving his ancient cane in the air, enough to frighten any six year old who had been told tales of horror about Charley by their elder brothers and sisters. Even my mother used to threaten us with the “Wrath of Charley” if we didn’t behave.
“Charley’s gonna get you and take you away!” or “Wait until I tell Charley what a bad boy you’ve been!” were commonly used tools of persuasion.
He lived in this ramshackle little cabin at the edge of town, just where the woods started. The cabin belonged to the municipality but it was understood and tolerated by the town council that Charley was going to live and die there. The old hovel was just ‘Charley’s place’ and that was that. There was running water and the town even installed electricity, just to make life a bit more comfortable for the old geezer.
Two weeks after Kathy Jennings’ disappearance little Bobby Weaver went missing in broad daylight while his mother was shopping for some maternity clothes in the “Four Seasons,” the town’s one and only ladies wear store. The five year old Bobby was soon going to have a baby brother or sister. At the time of his disappearance he was playing in front of the store with Mrs. Wilson’s poodle, which was tied up there.
Again, no clues to his whereabouts were forthcoming. The whole town was scared, and consequently all the kids were looked after as if they were the crown jewels themselves. A horrible black cloud had settled over the peaceful community. Overnight we had received a dubious national status; a reputation that nobody was proud of. But neither the constabulary, which was reinforced from the big city, nor the private citizens, who searched every square inch
within miles of town, could find a trace of the boy. Of course, amongst us kids it was obvious what had happened.
“Charley was hungry again…”
“Charley had the munchies…”
“Charley likes soup with big chunks of meat in it…”
“Charley looks well fed these days…”
Everybody tried to top the other with a more gruesome version of what Charley had done with the little boy. We weren’t just being nasty kids. We were scared as well. I guess these horrible fantasies, over which we all laughed, were just a psychological barrier, a way to trivialize the unspeakable truth. Even kids can be neurotic, I suppose.
I was scared of Charley, that’s for sure. Especially after the two kids went missing. My worst fear was that I would be walking home after dark and run into him all by myself. For a long time I never ventured out after dark and I certainly never went to the dump by myself anymore, because it was one of Charley’s regular hangouts. He frequented the same places as all the kids did: The dump, the cemetery and the local watering hole behind Koenig’s farm.
Lots of times we made an expedition to the dump, which was about twenty minutes walk from my house. The road passed by Charley’s place and then up a hill and through the woods by way of a shortcut. Stu, my best friend and neighbour and I had BB guns and Kevin even had a twenty-two. Kevin was Stu’s older brother; he was thirteen at the time. We went to the dump to shoot at rats and crows and once in a while a black bear served as our target. The bears were scared of us; not the other way around. I suppose we were just plain foolish when we threw rocks at them and shot their black mangy pelts full of pellets. They always turned away from us in a cowardly fashion and slunk back into the bush. We despised those dump bears and sneered at them with contempt, the same arrogant disdain we usually reserved for the rats and the crows.
The only creature we truly respected was Charley. In his torn, rotten rags he looked like he belonged there, always poking with his old stick amongst the garbage like a silent, stealthy creature from beyond time. He’d always find something and knew exactly where he could get a free meal or a cup of coffee or even a few pennies for his finds. Nobody ever refused the junk he brought them. It was a better system than welfare and everybody profited from it.
If Charley was at the dump, we didn’t stick around. He’d wave his cane at us and make grotesque grimaces; enough to scare the living daylights out of us.
“Of course he is harmless,” some of the saner adults would tell us. “He’s just old, and a bit funny in his head, but perfectly harmless.”
They were probably right, but then the adults were always right, no matter what the circumstance.
It was late August when the terrible news of Rose Metcalf’s disappearance hit the town. It was a Sunday, and they were on their way back home. Rose’s parents had apparently just lost sight of her for a couple of minutes and didn’t think anything of it. They’d been picking black berries at the edge of these woods many times before with their darling daughter. She was four and a half years old. It was near Charley’s cabin when they turned around and started calling her name. Other families and a couple of teenagers were also close by picking berries as well and all of them tried in vain to find Rose. Her disappearance was as inexplicable as were the other two cases. Her parents were devastated as was the whole town and as time moved on all hope to ever find their girl alive turned into relentless, life sapping agony.
This third case of a missing child sent a chilling wave of naked fear through the town. The local constabulary was at a loss, as was usually the case when it came to solving real crimes, but one thing was for sure. The child snatcher had to be a local resident. Someone among us was a monster.
A suspicious and unfriendly atmosphere engulfed the minds of the people like a thick, putrid fog. Nobody could be sure of their neighbours, their friends or even their families anymore. This black cloud of suspicion and mistrust invaded everybody’s spirits and guided their actions and thoughts. Naturally, we kids were not exempt from this ugly mood, but we tried to go on with our days as usual. Mind you, we always made sure that we were never alone anymore. Groups of at least two or three kids were the rule. I hung out with Stu and sometimes Kevin on the weekends, but during schooldays Stu and I stuck together like glue.
We didn’t talk much about the disappearances. The subject was taboo. After a while, nobody, not even the most vicious town gossipers mentioned the missing kids anymore. Even Mrs. Goslinger, the ageless magpie, who ran the “Briar Smoke Shop” on Main who could always be seen outside her store, rocking back and forth, swallowed her constantly wagging tongue on this subject. It was a collective denial of the facts, a neurotic mental block.
That was until Stu, Kevin and I accidentally stumbled onto the corpse of Kathy Jennings. Actually it was Stu who poked into the little girl’s decaying carcass. He let out a strangled scream, which instantly froze everything around us into a slow-motion time frame. Every single movement or thought seemed to take forever and I never felt so scared in my life.
“What the hell is it, Stu!” Kevin yelled. He was about fifty feet to the left of Stu, on top of the dump, scanning the area for treasure or prey. Now he was bounding over the heaps of garbage like an alley cat. There was no mistaking the urgency in Stu’s horrified expression.
I was about fifteen feet behind Stu. I just froze in place as if struck by lightning. Only after Kevin reached his brother, did my knees unlock, and I moved forward to take a look at the unspeakable horror. I’d never seen a dead person before and I have to this day successfully avoided funerals and corpse viewings. The horror of that moment in the stinking garbage will last me for the rest of my life. One bizarre image still stands clearly out in my mind. Her head…it was resting on a family size can of Ravioli. To this day I can’t eat Ravioli although I like any other kind of pasta. Her head…my God…her head.
All three of us scrambled up the bank as fast as we could and ran right smack into Charley who was waving his cane at us in his usual defiant manner. Our terror was complete and all encompassing. We took to our heels with all the might we could muster.
I never ran as fast in my life as I did that day. Kevin and Stu were ahead of me but there was no way on earth that I was going to be left behind. We tore through the underbrush, over the hill and down the dump road past Charley’s place towards town like the devil himself was chasing us.
“I have to get out of here; I’ve got to get out of here!” was the only thought in my mind. The blood was pounding in my temples, my lungs were on fire and my legs were full of lead, but I kept on pumping them until at last we reached the town and the indisputable safety of the police station.
Hardgraves, the constable in charge, took one look at us and he knew that this was no ordinary case of boyish mischief. He herded us into the inner sanctum of the small two man station and got us each a Coke from the fridge. It took us a couple of minutes to catch our breath and then suddenly all three of us started talking together.
The constable held up both his hands and said: “Settle down boys, calm yourselves. I can only listen to one at a time so please, why don’t you start, Kevin, since you’re the oldest.”
“No way! I found her, it was me that found her!” Stu argued, somewhat regaining his usual cocky manner.
At that time, we were all still scared out of our minds and only later did we take on the role of heroes and carried that one through with the assurance and arrogance that only young boys amidst their envious peers are capable of.
“Scared? Us? You must be kidding. Do you think we’re a bunch of sissies or what?” We were just glad that nobody saw us when we first got back to town after the gruesome discovery. Boy, did we milk that one!
Over the next few days the dump was turned upside down and they even brought in a couple of police dogs from the city, which eventually recovered all three corpses. Charley was always there behind the sectioned off area, watching the grisly search like an old hawk. Of course, he was the prime suspect, but for no apparent reason. He had enough mystery attached to his person and of course he could not defend himself in any way. Everybody steered clear of him, but there was no way to hang the terrible crimes on him, not without some hard evidence which wasn’t forthcoming. Charley just happened to be the natural victim of the town’s vicious gossip mill. No doubt, a few hundred years ago, he would have been burned at the stake without much ado.
There was a formal inquest; autopsies were performed on all three victims and a common cause of death was established: “Death by strangulation” was the coroner’s verdict in all three cases.
Who was the strangler amongst us? Whose hands were marked with the blood of children? For weeks, adults avoided eye contact with each other for fear of what they might see. Eyes are the windows of the soul as they say. Now everybody looked at each other’s hands or feet.
Amongst us kids it was obvious who the villain was. We all knew that Charley didn’t like us but that was because we always mocked the deaf and dumb relic of a man. He was the town freak and we treated him as such. Kids inherently have no pity and show no mercy. If they find a weakness in anybody, they pounce on it and dig right in, revelling in the pain and hurt they cause. Kids are cruel — honest but cruel.
The funerals were held at the Hillcrest Cemetery on a grey Sunday afternoon. The clouds hung low and heavy and were resting on the hilltops and mountains that surrounded the town. The threat of rain was in the air. It was a solemn day for a solemn occasion. Even the trees and shrubs growing throughout the cemetery seemed to droop their branches and fade their colours.
Everybody was present, even Mrs. Goslinger and of course, Charley, who stood apart from the crowd, absently poking the ground with his cane and casting suspicious glances at everybody. No doubt he felt the prevalent undercurrent that singled him out, marking him even more an outcast than he already was.
The eulogy was read by the parish priest, an elderly frail man who was soon to die himself. Father McFlury was his name and I’ll always remember how strong and passionate his voice was in stark contrast to his frail and feeble body. The black clad crowd stood in a semi-circle around the three small coffins and the three damp, rectangular holes in the ground. Wreaths and flowers of every description adorned the graves in a paradoxical festive manner.
Finally, after all was said and all the songs were sung, the three caskets were lowered into their respective graves amongst the general sobbing and snivelling. All us kids stood with our parents and I, for one, hated these morbid proceedings. I just wanted to go home and forget all about this unpleasant business.
A fine drizzle began to fall and the crowd quickly dispersed to gather again in town — in the pubs, on Mainstreet, in front of the “Briar Shop” and wherever a gathering of people was possible. It seemed like that day was the end of summer.
In late October a Mr. Willobie was arrested. He was a small, bald headed bachelor who ran a motor repair shop off Mainstreet. Apparently, he had a previous record of child molesting from before he moved to this town. The horrid monster by the name of gossip rose it’s ugly head once more just to die a pitiful death a few days later when Mr. Willobie was back in his shop, acquitted of the horrible crimes. His alibi for at least one of the killings was fool proof. He was in the hospital for a kidney stone operation. Mind you, despite his innocence, his business dropped to nothing; he was shunned by the town folks and within a few months was forced to move on.
Winter came cold and hard in mid-November. Temperatures dropped down to minus 30 degrees. Water pipes froze all over town while the fires in every house were burning at full blast around the clock. The cold spell lasted for two weeks and never really let up. The following weeks and months were remembered as the coldest winter in these parts in recorded history. Many of the elderly and sick succumbed to the brutal onslaught of old man winter. There seemed to be a funeral at least once a week.
Charley died on Christmas Eve. His body was found frozen stiff in his old Boston rocker; his head had fallen on his shoulder with eyes and mouth wide open as in a silent scream. His big ancient hands were still gripping the armrests of the chair and had to be pried loose by force.
Among his personal possessions was a folder of drawings, done in ink, pencil or charcoal. They were all portraits of the towns children, executed with a talented hand and in great detail. Only three of the drawings were coloured in with water paints: two girls and one boy. Nobody knew that Charley had an artistic talent, but then again, everything about Charley was a mystery.
Charley’s portrait of myself as a young boy adorns a space on the wall in my study. It’s done in black ink and I’ve framed the life-sized sketch with a simple wooden frame.