It was only much later that I realized what a gift Old Man McLaren was to us.
Every neighbourhood of kids needs an enemy, a nemesis against whom to rally and coalesce and put aside their factional rivalries and disputes, and that was Old Man McLaren. He lived next door to me and he did not like children. As I grow older I find I cannot fault him in this. Children are wretched and loud and not nearly as witty or charming as they seem to think they are, but while most of us just about manage to hide our true feelings in public, Old Man McLaren had no such scruples. Maybe that is the only difference between normal folk and Christmas villains – we all feel the same things but the villains don’t care what people think about what they feel.
Old Man McLaren didn’t like to hear the sounds of children playing. He would come out and shout and wave his stick and sometimes he would shake his fist. When we were playing cricket or soccer or skop-die-blok and our ball went into his yard he would emerge with a hasty, crabby, scurrying motion, like some 1000-year-old Wimbledon ball boy, and seize the ball and carry it back inside. Sometimes he would pause on his doorstep and brandish it triumphantly at us. He had been in that house long before any of us had been born or moved there, so he might have had decades’ worth of scavenged balls and Frisbees and shuttlecocks. Maybe they filled an entire room – the room, we speculated, that had once been his son’s.
I thought maybe his son had died in a terrible boating accident, and that the sorrow of it had hardened Old Man McLaren’s heart against children – why should they have fun, when his own beloved bright-eyed boy lay among the corals and the clams in a watery grave? – but Wayne Houghton thought it more likely that he had always been a miserable sod and that his son had just run away as soon as he could, and had taken his mom with him. None of us had any evidence that Old Man McLaren had ever actually had a family – he had always lived there alone in that small dark house with the swimming pool out the back which he kept sparkling and clean, and which he never used.
He had the only swimming pool in the neighbourhood, and it gets hot in Durban in the long bleary summers, and once someone’s dad knocked on Old Man McLaren’s door and suggested that it might be a nice thing to invite the kids around for a swim one afternoon. That dad was my dad, and I could have told him that he was wasting his time, that Old Man McLaren hid his kindness away as a miser hoards his gold, but when you’re small you think adults can do anything, especially your dad, so even though I knew the enemy well and from close range, still I was a little surprised when my dad came back with a face like thunder, shaking his head and saying, “There’s something wrong with that man.”
After my dad became sick and stayed at home, he had plenty of time to develop a running feud with Old Man McLaren. They would snarl at each other over the vibracrete wall and exchange sarcastic comments and especially toward the end, when my dad became more irascible as he felt his strength fading, there was occasional yelling and the exchange of strong words. I think it helped my dad to have somewhere for his anger.
Old Man McLaren didn’t put up Christmas lights. The only lights you saw from his house after dark were the blue flickers from his TV set which he would watch till late every night. I imagined him sitting there on an La-Z-Boy recliner with tennis balls and Frisbees and shuttlecocks piled in great mounds all around.
I had this in common with Old Man McLaren: I watched a lot of TV too. When my dad went into hospital and my mom spent a lot of time there visiting him, I stayed at home with my sister and we watched VHS tapes rented from the video shop: I liked movies with sharks in them; my sister liked movies with cartoon animals. The lights from the Christmas tree and would reflect on the TV screen, and my sister had draped a piece of silver tinsel across the top of the set that kept blowing off. It was an old TV and the colours were going weird – sometimes most of the screen was green – but we were used to it and we couldn’t afford another one.
My mom told Aunty Vi who lived in the duplex above us that the TV was a blessing. She said it kept our minds off things.
On the day my dad died I didn’t cry. I watched The Last Shark, starring James Franciscus and a shark. I also watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, although that didn’t have any sharks. And then that night the TV finally broke.
I remember my mom crying that it was Christmas and my dad was dead and the TV had broken. I tried to show her that it didn’t matter that the TV was broken, that my sister and I didn’t need to watch movies. I tried to play volleyball with her outside, using a plastic beachball, but it’s not much fun playing volleyball with a little sister who is only five, and we didn’t have a net, and she kept crying because I wouldn’t let her win any points so we ended up having a big fight. I wasn’t a great son, but I also wasn’t a great brother.
The next day, just before Christmas, when we came home there was a TV set on the stoep beside the front door. It wasn’t brand-new. It looked as though it had been unplugged from someone’s lounge and just carried over and left there. My mom asked around but no one knew anything about it. She plugged it in and it worked fine. That afternoon my sister and I watched The Rescuers, which didn’t have a shark in it, but it did have a couple of crocodiles called Brutus and Nero.
We never found out who gave us their TV. My mother thought it must have been someone from her church, and it probably was, but that night the blue flickering light wasn’t on in Old Man McLaren’s lounge, and it wasn’t on the next night, or the night after that. It only returned some days after Christmas, when the shops had opened again, and in his rubbish bin I saw what seemed to be a very big cardboard box that had been folded and crumpled and pushed way down.
People are strange. The next time one of our tennis balls went into Old Man McLaren’s yard he cut it up with a pair of garden shears.
The Times, 20 December 2018