“Jump! Go on! Jump!”
I looked over the bridge railing at the water and the rocks below. He pushed me against the rail and tears welled in my eyes as I faced what I thought was my only option, to do what he said.
“Go on! Jump or I’ll bust ya nose.” He pushed me again, the voice louder and more aggressive. I looked at him, fear written all over my face and when I think about it now I’ll bet he loved every minute. He was an inch shorter than me but stockier, with a mean face - straight ginger hair hanging down in a fringe above small green eyes that glared, and freckles dotted either side of a stubby nose. His manner was usually surly and yet at times he could be really friendly, like the first day he moved to the farmlet next to ours. I’d met him before as he was related to the previous tenants of that farm. I thought he was okay then so when he arrived to live there he waved to me and I was pleased as he rushed over to talk, all excited, about the things we could do together. Mucking around near the creek, swimming in the dam, climbing the big pine tree. Then there was the ride to school; we could race each other.
The school was four miles away so we had to ride our bikes. It was 1956 and we lived about thirty miles out of Melbourne. It was considered country then. Parents didn’t pamper their kids in those days. You had to be tough and make your own way. If I was lucky, when it was pouring rain Dad might come and get me. That’s if Mum nagged him.
“That poor boy, he’ll be soaked in this rain.”
Dad would finally agree but by the time he got his act together - “I’ll go as soon as I feed the chooks.” - I would have battled the elements for half of the distance anyway, tears streaming down my face mixed with rain dripping off my hair. I would climb into the truck, the bike heaved onto the tray and in ten minutes I would be home by the fire, Mum towelling my hair and making a fuss.
“I’m so sorry son, I told him early enough but he just had to feed those rotten chooks. Come here, hug your mother then we’ll have a bowl of hot soup.”
She’d finish combing my hair and give me a big smile with that homely face. I would grin back as she wiped her brow with her apron and pushed back a strand of her hair that was flecked with flour from the day’s baking. I’d feel good by then and Dad would come in for dinner and ignore all the fuss. “The boy’s fine Martha. You didn’t get that wet did you Johno? It got a lot worse after I picked you up.”
If that was all I had to suffer I would have been fine but then Gordon Wilson arrived and the Bullying started. I began each day with the cold feeling of fear. Mum noticed that something was wrong but Dad was unaware, busy dreaming of the day he’d have a big farm instead of the paltry five acres he’d saved so hard to buy. He would never risk borrowing from the bank to buy that big property like his wealthy brother had done; how he thought it would materialise out of nowhere I never knew.
I climbed onto the first of two rails that ran along the edge of the bridge. The water running over the rocks below seemed to beckon; I could feel Gordon’s eyes upon me and imagine the smirk on his face. He was in control, he could push me, or just yell at me again to jump and I probably would, or he could stop me and we would move on. Either way he would win and that would give him confidence to dream up other ways of tormenting me. I was dazed and confused. I had never experienced anything like this before. No one had taught me to fight back. We lived far out of town so I grew up a loner, making my own fun with imaginary friends. I had a couple of other mates at school but they were pretty easy going country types, not like Gordon who was a city kid hell bent on showing the country boys a thing or two.
“Hoy, what are you doing? Get back from there or you’ll fall!”
The shout startled us, especially Gordon who pulled me back down onto the bridge. I looked over to the other side of the creek and saw him, Old Paddy. Paddy was a strange fellow. He was Irish. My Dad said he was the victim of a bad marriage and had become a recluse. He lived in a humpy hidden away amongst the trees and blackberry bushes lining the creek. He would have been in his late seventies at that time. He didn’t work; just collected his pension from the Post Office fortnightly and lived off that. He would have had no expenses apart from food, no light, power or water bills. I often wondered about him and what sort of life that would have been. Dad sometimes gave him a lift home from the town. He would sit next to me and I would feel sick because he smelt bad; I suppose he never washed properly. Paddy never said much apart from agreeing that it was a nice day, so he remained a mystery to us.
Paddy saved me from what would have been a nasty fall that day. I stared at him as we mounted our bikes and moved on. He in turn watched as we rode away, as if he was looking after me. Gordon didn’t say much the rest of the way home. He rode ahead of me all the way. I wondered how he felt, defeated, or angry and eager to take it out on me in some other way. When we reached my place he was all charm again.
“See ya Johno, catch ya in the morning.” and he patted me on the shoulder, like nothing is a problem is it. I sort of looked through him but my eyes were moist and he could see I was still scared. He really had won the day.
Mum sensed straight away that something was wrong. Mothers are like that, like animals they watch out for their young.
“What’s wrong Son? Has he been bullying you?”
I broke down but couldn’t bring myself to tell her why. I saw that as my failure and I would humiliate myself if I revealed the details. I felt sick in the stomach but Mum comforted me and I felt safe.
In the morning I usually waited for Gordon to ride around but he was quite often late so I rode off as fast as I could to try and beat him. He caught up just as we arrived at school and abused me for not waiting.
I said sorry, that I thought he must have been sick and wasn’t coming. He shrugged and actually looked hurt. I really think that he was lonely and insecure. Not many of the other kids associated with him because of his attitude so he regarded me as his mate.
On the ride home he didn’t bother me; he was quite distant. The next morning he didn’t turn up at all even though I waited, reluctantly. It wasn’t until I came home that I found out why and it was like an early Christmas present. Gordon had the Chicken Pox and would be home for two weeks. I was elated. Two weeks of peace and freedom, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
The first week was great; Mum couldn’t believe how happy I was. The following Monday however, Dad told us some sad news that put a damper on the second week. Old Paddy had been found dead in his humpy. From then whenever I crossed the bridge I would look across at where he lived and wonder what a dead person looked like. I tried to imagine but couldn’t. I’d seen dead animals but a dead human being was beyond my comprehension. One night I couldn’t resist. I just had to see where Paddy had lived so I followed the narrow pathway to his humpy. Something deep within me seemed to draw me there, to satisfy my curiosity, to say a posthumous thank you for helping me that day. I can’t really explain the feeling.
It was like a small shed made of corrugated iron and wood and secured to a tree. I looked inside. There was only enough room to lie down and a small space beside. There were still bits and pieces of his belongings lying about, an old blanket, a saucepan with no lid, and a wooden chair outside where he used to sit. I was deep in thought as I looked at what little remained of a life, and wondering why he would live like this when a movement in the bushes nearby set my heart racing. I yelled and ran back to my bike, hopped on and rode for my life. I looked back from the bridge terrified that something scary was chasing me bur all I could see were a couple of cows grazing. It might have been one of them but regardless I vowed never to go in there again.
I got the feeling that Mum had said something to Mrs. Wilson about Gordon’s bullying tactics and it bothered me. On the Sunday before he was due to go back to school he came over to my house but didn’t say anything and we played Monopoly. He was his ever charming self. He always behaved when there were adults around. I got the feeling we were buddies again and for the first four days of the week he left me alone. On the Friday we were in a lighthearted mood and I hoped that considering he’d been good all week that all would be fine from thereon. I should have known better.
We decided we would have a race from school to the bridge. As he had not been well his strength hadn’t fully returned and I beat him. I rode right across the bridge just in case. When he caught up with me he was angry. His face was almost as red as his hair. He came straight up to me and punched me in the stomach and I doubled over in pain.
“You cheated!” He said. “You took off before me.”
“No I didn’t.” I managed to say with my stomach cramping, gasping for breath and tears about to flow.
“You’re a liar” he grabbed me by the collar and dragged me up the rise onto the bridge.
“You’re going to jump off for that, and that old man can’t save you cos he’s dead.” He said that with such conviction that I hated him for it. It was as if old Paddy deserved to die.
“No, I don’t want to.” I bleated as he pushed me up to the railing.
“And you’re a dobber! You told your Mum that I was pushin’ you around and she told my Mum, and I got into trouble so now you can jump. Go on! Get up there!”
The fear of three weeks ago came flooding back as I looked down. Over near Paddy’s humpy the cows looked at us with disinterest. I was up on the railing, straddled with one leg over. I froze, I had tears streaming down my face, my heart was pounding and he was there goading me. He couldn’t, however bring himself to push me so it became a stalemate but then he became so verbally aggressive that I could see no way out so I steeled myself and looked down at where I could land without hurting myself. At that point he must have sensed that I was going to do it and knew he had me. He stopped yelling, his mood changed and he grabbed my arm.
“Na, come on let’s go home.”
Later on I reflected; he knew that he had won but if I had jumped and been hurt he would have really been in trouble and that’s where the bully turned coward. Alternatively he could have lied, saying that I was clowning on the rail and fell. I’ll never know. But that’s not the end of the story. As I climbed down off the railing a truck came speeding down the hill toward the bridge. We both pressed ourselves against the rail as it passed us and then there was a metallic crunching sound but the truck kept going.
In his anger Gordon had left his bike in the middle of the road and the truck had run over it. You should have seen his face. He was stunned and then to my amazement he burst into tears.
We walked home together, him dragging his bike on one good wheel and snivelling. The other wheel was buckled way beyond repair. He was terrified of what his father was going to say so there was I sympathising with the boy who had made my life miserable, and helping him fabricate a story, God knows why. It was like he needed help and he was a mate. Did I really hate him? If I did, why did I help him? These are some of the things I find hard to understand about my behaviour, about human behaviour. We made up a story of how the truck had left the edge of the road and run over his bike while we were throwing stones in the creek. I doubt whether his father would have believed it, I’ll never know.
That was the last time I really saw him. He wasn’t at school much after that; when he did go his father drove him. Three weeks later they moved back to Melbourne. I never forgot him however. For years after whenever I crossed that bridge I got a hollow feeling in my stomach but then I’d look across the creek and I’ll swear I’d see Old Paddy smiling at me. When I looked again however there would be a cow staring at me with big brown eyes.
The impact of the bullying still lives with me. If someone confronts me or yells at me aggressively, even today, I have trouble handling it. I’m a lot better than I was and I’m getting more laid back with age but I still don’t like confrontation but I do know now that most bullies are cowards and can be beaten. I often wonder what Gordon is doing now. Did he meet his match? I’ll bet he did; those sorts of people get their just desserts eventually, so I hope he did; do I care? Not really!