After that, Finn and I made it part of the daily popsicle ritual to go and see Mr O’Malley in the hedge. Sometimes he was out, or plain passed out, but most of the time he’d greet us with a smile and a ‘And what flavor do we have today?’. I think in hindsight I was a little scared of the man, but of course I couldn’t show it. I was six, after all. Practically a grown-up. Finn and I had come to an unspoken conclusion that it would be a bad idea to tell our parents about Mr O’Malley. We weren’t sure why, but there was a feeling that they would probably disapprove.
Since I’d sneaked a quilt from the airing cupboard and given it to Mr O’Malley, the hole behind the hedge had become a lot more inhabitable. It no longer stank, and Finn had taken his mother’s jewelry box for Mr O’Malley to keep his needles in. O’Malley said he was a naughty little thief and that he should take it back right away, but it was a nice gesture. Finn explained that it was the one she always complained about because the catch was broken, and she wouldn’t miss it. This seemed to make it okay. O’Malley never injected himself around us again, but he did continue to tell us war stories. Finn and I used to retell them in order to give ourselves nightmares, but neither of us had the panache for story-telling that Mr O’Malley did.
‘I was one of the last Americans left in that goddamn country. They insisted I stay and help the wounded until the bitter end. Oh, and there were so many wounded. Did you know that I once had to help keep a man’s guts inside his body whilst they tried to sew him up? All the time he was screaming for his mommy…Poor kid, couldn’t have been more than nineteen.’
‘But, nineteen’s really old, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘I mean, you’re a grown-up when you’re nineteen, aren’t you?’
Finn frowned at me, as if to say ‘What are you doing? He was in the middle of something.’ But Mr O’Malley only sighed. I got so used to that sigh over the coming weeks.
‘The thing about ages is, it’s all relative. So, nineteen is ancient when you’re six, but by the time you get to my age anyone under the age of twenty-five is a baby. This boy was only a year out of high school. People ain’t meant to die that young.’
As well as reliving his past, Mr O’Malley gave us lessons. To this day I declare that Finn and I were the most well versed children in the whole state of Illinois on the matters of geography, history, politics and philosophy. Mr O’Malley had an old map stored somewhere in the back of his den, and he used to drag it out to show us the world in which we lived. Finn was shocked to learn that Michigan was not in fact as far away as the Moon, and that the actual distance between Chicago and his Gram’s pig farm was just over 200 miles. This new information was met with a sulky ‘Well it /felt/ like an age when we had to visit last…’ Our knowledge of geography stretched far beyond the United States, however. Mr O’Malley unfurled his map one day and told us that the Vietnam he’d heard so much about was to be found in Southeast Asia. Suddenly it didn’t seem so scary. After all, it was tiny. I didn’t understand why it haunted Mr O’Malley so much. We were told what I have since learned was a potted version of Nixon’s presidency and the Watergate scandal. At the time I didn’t really understand the implications, I also suspect that O’Malley just wanted someone to talk to. He ranted and raved about politicians nobody had ever heard of, and Finn and I just sat in awe. I have never met a man like him, before or since.