The House that Jack Built

By skepticlawyer

My friend Jack has a kitler. That is, a cat that looks like Hitler. Such things are not the product of some internet fantasy or determined skill in photoshop. I pulled up in his driveway a few years ago to see the thing sitting on his verandah, licking its paws, toothbrush moustache well in evidence. ‘Does it,’ I wanted to know, ‘ever express a desire to up and invade Poland?’ The cat kept licking its paws, sometimes looking sidelong at me. I wondered if it knew what I thought of it.

Apart from his kitler, Jack was known around the district because he built his own house with his own hands. I remember seeing him covered in fine cement dust, pouring concrete for the foundations. Everything he owned was made in Australia. He told me once that if we all bought Australian, ‘there would be no more sons of Nippon’.

His house was an A-frame, with a pointy gable, unsuited to Australian conditions. He had a weathervane attached to the roof copied from the one at Lord’s. For some reason he painted it scarlet, not black. Perhaps he thought death a jolly fellow. The house was perched on the side of one of those narrow, twisting hills that cover much of Brisbane. Only the city centre is properly flat, and that only because some early city planner thought to flatten it, scraping the rounded mounds off the earth’s surface. He let tall gums grow up around it, hemming it in so it was invisible — save the top quarter — from the street. Children used to stand outside and put dead toads in his mailbox. When I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I learned that every neighbourhood has its own Boo Radley. I’m not sure we wanted him to come out, though. The thought of him coming out filled us with dread. Maybe that’s why we put dead toads in his mailbox.

My mother told me not to interfere with Jack, to leave him alone. ‘You’re becoming too Australian,’ she said, ‘you should learn to leave people alone. Jack harms none.’ After that I stopped walking past the A-frame house on the way home from school, taking a flatter route past a local agricultural supplies store. I could see Jack’s house in my mind’s eye, and I wondered if people had graduated beyond dead things in his mailbox.

At some point I became a good distance runner, and my training route took me past Jack’s house. I would climb faster there, training my legs to take hills. ‘You’re good on the track,’ my coach would say, ‘but you need to work those hills.’ Once I saw him on the roof, clutching Old Father Time and slowly describing a circle above the pointed gable. I stopped and called out. He kept turning. It was then I saw the kitler for the first time. ‘Your cat looks like Hitler,’ I said. ‘That’s kind of cool.’

He clung onto the weathervane, turning and turning. I told my mother that I thought Jack was a nutter. ‘Jack harms none,’ she said. ‘Let him turn.’

Jack’s hair was as black as his cat’s moustache and as shiny. He was thin but not old. He had no apparent source of income but his garden was always neat. He was on the roof often as I grew older. Sometimes my mother expressed fears for him, but no-one in the street or on the hillside ever went to his aid.

One day, Jack asked me why I ran. He was digging in his garden. I told him I wanted to win the regional titles. He said that was ‘a fair ambition’. He also asked why I, alone of the neighbourhood children, did not torment him any more. ‘My mother says you harm none,’ I told him, feeling the sweat cooling on my back and knowing that I shouldn’t pause mid run like this. He said nothing in reply.

Last week, I learnt that at some point in the last three years — since my move to the UK — that local children, in a perverse way our heirs, successors and assigns — burnt Jack’s house to the ground. With him inside it.

Time has telescoped since I was child, and in all probability the kitler is long dead.

If not, I hope it got away.

25 Comments

  1. Posted May 21, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Awful. If he’d just worn a footy jersey and bashed his head on a rock every day, he’d have been welcome anywhere.

    Mockingbird is an amazing book, not the least for its ability to make 2 very distinct, though also related, moral points, in a way, told so well, that kids can understand it and apply it to their worlds.

  2. Posted May 21, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    My dad built our house when I was about 1 – doing everything apart from the electrical stuff. And everything was spot on. Nil eccentric about him.

    I suspect I make up for that.

    But kids burning houses with people inside? Jaw breaks on floor. If they know it is children, they know who… so what was the legal outcome.

  3. Patrick
    Posted May 21, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    If that’s true I hope indeed they locked the bastards up for a long long time. Poor guy.

  4. Posted May 22, 2010 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Dave Bath – the same thing happened in Victoria, just a couple of years ago IIRC.

  5. Peter Patton
    Posted May 22, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Even before I got to the Mockingbird reference, the name “Boo Radley” was already in my head. The amazing and powerful moral instructions from that book that obviously remain etched in our consciousness forever justify its permanent place on high school reading lists.

    Though, I imagine today it is replaced by morality tales with a more contemporary inflection. An immigrant – scratch, make that refugee – girl born of two mothers – one Phillipono-Albanian the other Iraqi-Barzilian – artifcially inseminated by a transexual of Fijian-Danish extraction. Her struggle against the odds to be selected to join the Big Brother house, will provide life-long moral guidance for today’s Year 9 children.

  6. Posted May 22, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Wow!

    I know the word may not be appropriate considering the subject matter but I thought this vignette quite beautiful. Truly. Fine stuff.

  7. Posted May 22, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks all. I’ve shifted some details (as one must in circumstances like this), but learned what had happened thanks to an old friend’s visit to the UK. And as Helen points out, things like this have a distressing habit of happening over and over again.

  8. Peter Patton
    Posted May 22, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    SL

    You really have an art for making the seemingly banal (not that the ending was banal at all; quite horrifying, actually) into a compelling read. That must go a long way in the Law.

  9. Peter Patton
    Posted May 22, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    It brings back grim memories of Jamie Bolger (?) and that trend was all the rage in the UK a few years back of “happy slapping.” Gangs of kids would go out, find a drunk or homeless person, beat the crap out of them, video it on their phone, and post it on YouTube! Charming.

  10. Posted May 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Grown-ups can be monsters too. I think this kind of behaviour is just an indice of a very unpleasant fact of human nature. Morality is herd instinct and confined to the group of which one is a member.

    Anyone outside is fair game for all the cruelties the human imagination can devise. Hostility is directed outward. This makes sense in a natural environment. It doesn’t, obviously, in a civilized one.

    But we’re only as civilized as our cultivation’s made us. And kids are still wild animals.

  11. Peter Patton
    Posted May 23, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I have to say these kids abominable behavior is not caused by ‘society’; it is caused by their lack of society.

  12. Patrick
    Posted May 24, 2010 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    LE, anyone who has had kids must appreciate the kernel of truth in that. But inmho, William Golding got it all wrong otherwise. Lord of the Flies is like Marxism – a few kernels of (blatantly obvious) truth all buttered up to be a whole story.

    I do agree that SL’s piece was beautifully written.

  13. Posted May 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Lord of the Flies is like Marxism – a few kernels of (blatantly obvious) truth all buttered up to be a whole story.

    Que? I don’t see Lord of the Flies asserting any worldview apart from the thin veneer axiom which is what I s’pose you’re referring to as blatant.

    Please explain?

  14. Posted May 24, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    There was an Australian film, I forget the title, set in a boarding school. There’s a voice-over bit by the main character which goes: People wonder why so many followed Hitler. Never surprised me.

  15. Patrick
    Posted May 24, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    That actually sounds like a line from The Power of One?

    I agree totally that Golding’s book is partly about demolishing the myth of childhood innocence. I agree with that, too.

    Although I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit it given how fortunate I was to grow up as pampered and coddled as I (as all of us here) did, my school experiences did include their share of nastiness. I even went to boarding school, which is afaik never very pleasant.

    But kids are also capable of being kind, of protecting one another and of resisting violence. I think Golding went overboard. Maybe that’s just my opinion. I am an eternal optimist, after all.

  16. Posted May 25, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    one person in a group can make all the difference

    I think that’s very true. I’ve had a few work experiences wherein there was the resident bigot. And in each case everyone seems to let the coffee break litany of I hate [insert whatever group here]. Thing is once you get to know everyone you realize that no-one agrees with them and everyone secretly hates them. But they never stand up to ’em. I don;t understand this because bigots are always bullies and 99% of bullies are cowardly. Stand up to ’em and they fold.

    It can go the other way when a leader type comes along and stands up for tolerance and respect. Unfortunately these people are rarer than the beetle-eyed bigot types.

  17. Posted May 25, 2010 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Case in point the way the Danish people reacted en massse to the Nazi invasion and proclamation that Jews wear yellow stars.

    Simple really they said: no.

  18. Patrick
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    and the counter-case to prove your first point -France!

  19. Peter Patton
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Adrien

    Ditto the Danes with the Muhammad cartoons. 😉

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