Portrait

Forgiveness in the face of personal suffering. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

Unceasing wonder

I call Johnno to remind him of our meeting, catching him before he leaves for the elderly ladies’ craft group at his local church. He likes packing up the tables and chairs for them. He’s never missed a week.

I see him from across the road, a middle-aged man fiddling with the uneven drawstrings of his faded black tracksuit pants. He scratches and tries to knot them higher up on the curve of his swollen belly. I try not to look, deeming it a private moment, one better for me to pretend not to see. When I allow myself to look again he is stumbling towards me, brisk but off-balance, a scar like spilt milk trickling down his forehead.

“Hey, mate,” he says, and I watch his glasses go grey in the cold sunlight.

“Hi, Johnno.” 

“I got a three-hour park. Can you see my car? It’s behind that silver one over there. The disabled park. Can we do this in less than three hours?”

I nod. “Do you wanna go to that cafe down the road?”

“Yeah, whatever, I’m easy, I’m easy, mate,” he assures me.

We walk into the crammed cafe. The table is so small I’m afraid we’ll knock knees. I check the chalkboard. Moderately cool and very overpriced. 

“Full-grown men and women drinking coffee in a bird-house,” Johnno says.

A waitress puts a wine bottle filled with water and two wet glasses on the table. She brings out her notepad and looks at me.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.

“Nah. I don’t let girls buy me drinks. I’ll shout ya,” says Johnno.

“I’m not hungry,” I admit, feeling the eyes of the waitress on the backs of both of us.

“Do you have any menus?” Johnno asks.

“The menu’s up there.” The waitress points her pen at the chalkboard. 

“Oh! Right in fronta me face.” Johnno says, laughing. “Nah, I don’t want anything either,” he says.

“We’d better go then.” I turn to tell the waitress this but she’s already serving the table next to us.

We wind up sitting on a park bench with our feet in the soggy grass and dirt. Hot air escapes from my mouth when I speak. 

“Ask more questions,” Johnno encourages me.

“Can you remember your accident?” 

“How much dough ya got for me?” he quips and then begins. “When I was 17 I bought myself a motorbike. I thought I’d be the best rider ever. The safest and the smartest. But I treated it just like the pushbike I rode around as a kid. One time at my mate’s house – Derek Maxwell, his name was – I was skidding around in the gravelly church car park he lived near, showing off. Spinning the back wheel to kick up rocks, trying to impress my mates. I was trying so hard, the bike slipped out of my hands. I fell off and the right foot peg hit the panel under Derek’s dad’s car door before sliding right under. It put a big clean dent in the car.” 

Johnno licks his fraying lips. 

“I still feel as if I owe him for that,” he says softly. “Then one night I was on my mate Steve Remnant’s bike, riding from HMAS Cerberus to see a girl. I was riding down St Kilda Road, near Roy Street, and this shabby little brown VW pulled out of a park and hit me.” 

He pauses to think this over. “Or maybe I hit him. Doesn’t matter. However much you look at the thing, it stays the same.” I nod.

“The bike stopped; I didn’t. I flew over his car and came down on the ground on my chin.” 

He says nothing and I have nothing worthwhile to say. But I say it anyway: “Go on.”

“I have seen pictures of me in a coma … I remember being in Cerberus hospital, the repat, Coonac and other rehab places, but I still have no actual recollection of the accident … I wonder what trauma I went through, what pain, what actually happened when my head hit the ground. I wish there was some process I could take to find out. I remember someone telling me it was the brain’s way of protecting itself to block out large hurtful events like that. I wish there was something I could do to rekindle those memories.”

He continues speaking as if he has learnt his lines by rote. “I got better in time for my little sister’s birthday. May 20. Then I was in and outta hospital for five years.”

“What happened to the guy who hit you?”

He laughs. “You wanna know what happened to him? He got a $40 fine; cos I didn’t die or anything, they couldn’t get him with much. Illegal U-turn, pulling out? Traffic infringement. $40 fine.

“This was before I started going to church, but I knew it was no use hating him. I called him up and said, ‘Hey mate, stuff happens, I forgive ya.’ He said, ‘That’s nice.’ I don’t think he cared.” Johnno tugs at this last word, pulling it out of his throat slowly. “He said, ‘I just made a small mistake.’ That’s what he said. I told him, ‘It was a small mistake by you that had big consequences for me.’ ” He snaps out of his story. “No use hatin’ him,” he says again.

Johnno swings from side to side nervously. “You don’t have to put this in your story but – and I’m not skiting, I just thought you ought to know – the doctor said I’d never wake up. Let alone walk.”

I nod.

He goes on, shyly. “They called me Wonder Boy.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2015 as "Unceasing wonder". Subscribe here.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.