“Hullo, what is your name?”
“I am pleased to meet you Martin. I am Jimmy.”
And that was the end of my hope for a seat to myself for the 10 hour run from Canberra to Melbourne…
It was Christmas Eve, and the bus was packed. The seat next to mine was the only spare before young Jimmy arrived. I had not been able to book a flight and was going to surprise my girlfriend by turning up in time to join her at her family’s Christmas dinner.
Her family love inviting me to their social occasions. They enjoy train wrecks… The first was when I unwittingly repeated a Billy Connolly story in response to an innocent enquiry on table etiquette. The story would have brought guffaws from my family but hers responded with a stony silence, broken only by my girlfriend’s eight year old nephew asking his mum “Mum, what’s foreplay…?”
The second was at her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, held at the house of the local catholic priest. I accidentally (and loudly) dropped the F word while telling a joke to a bunch of nuns.
They always want me back though. They have a morbid fascination with what I might do next…
Jimmy settled himself next to me, clutching a supermarket shopping bag, which was his only luggage, tightly to his chest.
Jesus… I thought. Just my luck. I get the Special Case.
“Martin, can you help me with my medication please?” Jimmy’s idea of small talk…
Oh shit. What the hell does your medication stop you doing??
“Yeah, sure mate.” I replied out loud.
Jimmy handed me piece of A4 cardboard covered in massive plastic blisters. Days were written under each blister, each of them containing enough pills to choke a horse. I pushed today’s pill pile into his outstretched hands, then climbed over him to fetch water from the drinking fountain at the back of the bus.
While taking the pills Jimmy explained himself. He was hit by a car when four years old and had bashed his head in badly. Like a smashed watch, his brain basically stopped there. He was 23 years old and had been living as a 4 year old for nearly all of them.
Poor kid. I thought. Most 4 year olds are plucking daily chocolate treats out of Advent Calendars at this time of year. This poor bastard gets mouthfuls of medication to keep his memory working.
I began to give him more than one word answers to his constant pattering of questions – but he wasn’t finished with medication yet. The antibiotics came next.
“I am sorry Martin but I have been sick. Can you count these for me? There should be three.” He was extremely worried that there would be the wrong amount. I counted three. He asked me to count them four more times before taking one.
“Says here they need to be taken with food. Have you had any food mate?”
“Yes Martin, I have had a coke and a packet of chips.”
“No Martin, I had those this morning.”
I knew how crappy it was taking antibiotics on an empty stomach. I gave him one of the vegemite sandwiches I had prepared to save me from the wrinkled, crusty garbage that had fossilised in the ovens of the only food stop on this trip. It was inhaled. I’m not sure he even chewed.
Sighing, I gave him the other one.
“You are a good man Martin.” He said, facing me through a huge mouthful. I grunted while wiping several thousand damp sandwich crumbs off my shirt…
“Martin, have you ever met Sam Newman?”
Wha…? “Yes, as a matter of fact I have.”
It was as if I had set off a bucket of firecrackers under the guy’s bum.
I explained, between repeated questions about every tiny detail, how I had greeted Sam once as he walked past a restaurant table I was sitting at. He had even said Hello back. I was an instant celebrity. Well, my fame spread as far as the next seat on the bus anyway.
Jimmy was a curious lad. His main form of communication was to ask questions, always using my name to begin one – probably as a way to remember it. His memory was shocking. Ninety minutes after asking a million questions about a certain topic, he would ask them all again.
I explained how I had met Sam Newman a LOT of times that night…
The topic of conversation roamed greatly. He asked if I believed in god (I don’t, he does). He asked if I like gays (I have gay friends, he does not as his Mum says they are bad). He asked all about where I was from, what I did and so on. I answered all his questions and even asked some of my own.
He was able to accept my atheistic, gay-sympathising ways but was completely unable to accept the fact that I had never watched the League version of The Footy Show. He took great offence and returned to it time and time again. It was as if I had slandered his beloved Mum…
I learned a great deal about Jimmy too. He loved to be home with his Mum. His Dad died only a few months ago. He wanted to stay with his Mum but could not, as if he lived at home the carer’s allowance couldn’t possibly cover their living expenses. He had to live away from home in order to claim an allowance large enough to actually live on. Barely. What a fucked system eh?
He loved a smoke too. About 20 times in 10 minutes he asked “How long until we stop? I really need a smoke.”
“About two and a half hours Jimmy.”
“Oh, not long then…” Jimmy had real trouble with the whole concept of time – even telling the time was a challenge.
Eventually I said “About two and a half Footy Shows Jimmy.”
“Oh. That is a long time…”
“Martin, have you ever met Sam Newman…?”
The bus stopped at the Albury-Wodonga railway station about 1am. Jimmy was very excited.
“I am going to smoke four cigarettes!” he proudly exclaimed while exiting the bus.
After eating some wrinkled, dried, unrecognisable substance from the café, I wandered the length of the massive platform. At the end was an old diesel engine. I have always loved them. Their sound and smell are inextricably linked to adventures, new places and just travelling OUT of old places. I climbed all over it, peeking into vents and staring at the driver’s seat for a while, lost in daydreams and enjoying a moment of solace.
The break was over all too quickly and we were jammed back into the crowded bus.
“Did you smoke your cigarettes?” I asked Jimmy as he sat down.
“Yes Martin! I had three!”
We left Albury-Wodonga behind while I tried to explain how ATM’s work to a six foot tall four year old…
By 2am Jimmy was still going strong. The rest of the bus was trying to sleep, but Jimmy’s voice had no volume knob – he was still talking at the level of someone in a crowded bar. I was actually worried about mutiny.
I had a flash of inspiration.
“Jimmy, I am very tired. I am going to have a sleep for a while, okay?”
“Okay Martin. Just one more question!”
True to his word, he asked only one more question, then I pretended to sleep. No way I actually COULD sleep by now, but I thought the others might get a break.
I snuck a peek at Jimmy after about 20 minutes. He was quiet, rocking back and forth, still clutching his bag of pills. He had not let it go for an instant during the whole trip. I could imagine him being told over and over to never lose his medication or there would be big trouble.
He had grown on me over the hours. Polite, curious, honest, trusting and simple. Sadly, that made him all too vulnerable in this world. Lonely too. I can’t imagine the crap he would have been dealt over the years.
Feeling unbelievably callous, I shut my eye again.
Another twenty minutes later I tried another peek. He spotted my open eye.
“Martin, what kind of car does Sam Newman drive??”
Around 3am I got blindsided.
“Martin, I am sorry I am like this. Do you think the doctors can fix my head?”
Aw Christ. What kind of a question is that to hit me with at 3 in the bloody morning???
He met my eyes – simple, honest and trusting. No way I could lie.
“I don’t know mate. They do some really great things these days and they are learning new stuff all the time. They might be able to one day. I don’t know.”
He seemed to accept that, and we moved on to discussing what colour shirts look best on Sam Newman when he is on The Footy Show…
Jimmy was getting off at Shepparton and we were due to land there at about 4 in the morning. By 3:30 he was very excited and every question was about what I thought his Mum might be doing now.
“Well, what do you think she’s doing?”
“I think she will be having a coffee and a smoke at the kitchen table Martin!”
He went on to explain how extended family and friends would all be at the house tomorrow. There was always heaps of food, presents, drinking, smoking, laughing. He obviously loved it all – and from his descriptions I got the impression he was treated pretty well by everyone too, especially his Mum. Not a bad effort, considering all that has gone on.
Several times Jimmy invited me to their Christmas lunch. He was very serious and I admit it was tempting to say yes, but I had to keep explaining that I was going to Melbourne (“Melbourne! That’s where Sam Newman lives! Have you ever met him?”) and could not stop in Shepparton.
Eventually the bus pulled in to the Shepparton Station car park. Thanking me for looking after him so well, Jimmy got off the bus with half a dozen others. I watched through the window as he bounced on the balls of his feet, scanning the cars for the one containing his Mum…
Oh crap. No no no.
His Mum wasn’t there.
We had arrived over five minutes early, but other folk were being found, greeted and led away. Jimmy strode nervously about, trying to find his own ride, with that shopping bag still clutched to his chest. A 23 year old body containing a kid who’d been stuck at 4 for the past 19 years, and was now being left alone in the dead of night. On Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sake.
My chest suddenly ached. I had the urge to stop the bus, jump off, lead Jimmy home by the hand, make sure he was okay, sleep on the couch and spend Christmas day with a bunch of people who wouldn’t give a shit if I told a bawdy joke or swore a bit. If they took him in and loved him so readily surely they’d take me…
But I didn’t. I was 99% sure that his Mum was on his way and we had just landed a bit early. Jimmy would be okay. The bus barrelled on into the fag-end of the night and I rested my head on the cool window. Relieved at the sudden silence and guilty at being relieved, I stared into the flashing darkness, thoughts flitting through my head like the rain streaming past outside.
One thought kept sticking though, echoing about my head for the rest of the trip and beyond.
It had Jimmy’s voice.
“You’re a good man Martin.”
Huh. Yeah, right…
I travelled by bus a few times between Canberra and Melbourne. Each time I met people you would never meet on a plane. Interesting people. Different people. Folk who exist a little further toward the ends of the Bell Curve than most.
Jimmy I will never forget.