Creative non-fiction / September 2014 (Issue 25)

The Act of Insanity

by Lucas Stewart

I used to watch him from my balcony, spinning, rotating like a shrunken ballerina, arms flailing, hands flapping, like a playground helicopter, bright yellow hair staining the road like the spark of a fresh match. Nobody took any notice of him; passers-by passed him by without a flinch, without a second thought. No curiosity, no panic, scorn dulled by familiarity.

He can be found in every road in Burma.

Five feet low, impish face scowled, leather skin creased, perhaps forty, forty five, it's hard to tell with the Burmese; it's the thanaka, pale wood ground to yellow paste, youth in a jar, yours for less than a dollar.

In the morning, he stamps the thanaka on his cheeks, circles of cream, and goes from door to door, like a postman with no letters, calling on the street. Nobody locks him out, throws him out, he enters then a moment later he leaves. Many people knock on my door, click the bell that doesn't work; government bill collectors, street cleaners miming for tea money, orphans from across the river. But he never does. What would I ask him? Where is your family? Did something happen to you? Would you like some coffee?

At midday, he proudly struts—chest bared, purple underpants hitched around his blotched thighs—down the centre of the road. He reaches halfway then returns the way he came. A Burmese catwalk. In my country, we would mock him, cross the road to avoid him. Worse, we would record and upload him, 50 Facebook likes, 5,000 YouTube views. Here, housewives lean out of eight-storey high balconies and applaud him; a car creeps behind him, horn sounding in appreciation; orange sellers slide rattan baskets out his way, so he doesn't stumble.

In the afternoon, he peers over the top of the betel stall on the corner. He squeaks and grunts, no words, just pitched echoes of the throat. The owner, tall and skinny, slips on his medical gloves, massages the brilliant lime, sprinkles the chopped betel and folds the leaf, wraps the leaf, like a Christmas present. He takes it in both hands, no money exchanged, I don't know why. He crouches next to the stall, one leg either side of the narrow open sewer. He pops the gift in his mouth and chews, and sucks and kneads. The saliva pools, straining against his cheeks. It dribbles with urgency out of the corner of his mouth and down his chin. When the time is right, as he always does, he lowers his head between his knees, down into the rank, stinking passage and spits. It's thick, blood red, like an open wound; he then watches. Watches as it clots and clings with the rest of the street's wastes, washing away, and then spits again until the bats come out.

In the evening, the muezzin calls him close then lets him go. He follows other men to the old Chinese man's shop front (you will know it when you come, look for the last light before the black street of merchants). Somebody hands him a lit cheroot, but he doesn't smoke. He traces the tapered end in the air, invisible signatures cascading into ash. Coming back from work, I would see him edging further away from the men, distracted, chasing rats again. I caught his eye; I flicked my hand, trapped between the indecision of a thumbs up or a wave. I'm not sure if he even recognises me.

Once I thought I heard how he became. A couple of years ago, my first Thadingyut full moon, late October with the lanterns in the sky, he started shouting in the street, an angry shout, a painful shout, yet full of clarity and precision "Women. Bitches. Women. They did this. Can't trust them. Bitches. Women. All of them."

So it was a woman! A broken heart? He won't have been the first. One day a unit, the next not. The surprising treachery, the stomach cramping absence, the so many questions which one to ask first? Think back to that last night, sitting at the teashop, when you knew something wasn't right, something had changed. She was late, she was never late. You ordered her usual tea, simple green tea, but she changed her order, tea with milk, she never drinks tea with milk. The chipped, red cup is distracting her, have to take that spoon off her, stirring around and around, a small maelstrom spiralling out of control. The spoon falls to the floor, didn't mean to snatch that hard, but then what does it matter, so long as everything returns to as it was.

It was only later that someone, a neighbour, an Indian immigrant, second generation, long hair, kind smile, remarked that full moons make all us a little bit crazy. He looked up to the rising lights, pricks of yellow against black, and then told me a story.

"I was born here, in this street in 1958, lived here my whole life, and I can tell you he did not grow up with me, what I mean is that he wasn't born here, he just appeared, one day, just like that, there he was, nobody knew him, or why he had come, but that wasn't important, so we took him in, people cared for him, that's what we were supposed to do, can't see him sleep every night under the sky, in the rain, sleeping in the rain is not good, not good for the health, he is already sick so it didn't seem right, not right, but we wondered, his family, why did his family let him go, how could they let him go, we don't do that here, maybe in your country, but not here, but you should know, and I guess you do know about what happened, back in '88, you know, Aung San Suu Kyi, the revolution, the students, the army, the shootings, of course you know all about that, well, you should also know that one day some men on the street, I don't know who, well, they took him out drinking, I have never seen him drink, I don't think the drink agreed with him, the men came back and told stories, said he was drunk but not drunk, said they gave him five cups of beer, and whisky, 3 packs of whisky, High Commissioner whisky too, 3 packs, said they wanted to get him drunk, they thought it would be funny, you see they were bored, I don't drink when I am bored, I read, books, newspapers, I ... I ... I have forgotten what I was saying, oh yes, drink, but he wasn't drunk they said, he became, well, sober, so they say, sober, like a man fresh in the morning, as if the drink was waking him, but it also woke something else inside, a memory perhaps, though it is a strange memory if it is true, a memory of who he was, and of course this is only a rumour, this is only what they say and you can't always trust what these men say, and I am only repeating because it can't really be true, and if it is not true, then no harm can be done in telling, at least that is what I think, only if it is true, then perhaps I should not be so candid, even if his true identity should be discovered, not that it should matter, things have changed now, I am sure they are not still looking for him, that was all in the past, he probably doesn't even have those satellite phones anymore, probably threw them away or gave them back to the underground resistance or whoever he was working with, that's what I would have done anyway, I mean if the secret police was looking for me and I was hiding phones, illegal phones that could give information to the outside world, and I had a choice of pretending to be mad so the spies wouldn't suspect me or throwing the phones away, I would throw them away, I wouldn't throw away my sanity, you see that is what they say he told them, that night in the beer station, in a voice as sane as yours or mine, that he choose to act like a mad man, to throw them off his track, nobody would follow a man pissing in his longyi, talking to himself, but it worked too well, everyday pretending to be something he wasn't, it became normal, the act of insanity took hold of him until it wasn't an act anymore, it was him and that is who he is now."

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