My neighbor David Geraldson is a Green Man. I found out one night while I was putting the bins out. I wheeled out the main bin, then the recycling bin, then stopped to admire the green stars, the eggnog moon, various constellations. Then I saw a man over the road in a green robe, yellow sandals, carrying a lantern of fire.
‘Hey, Tom!’ he yelled, waving at me. It was David.
‘Oh, hi, Dave, what are you up to?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, walking off down the hill. ‘Take care, mate!’
Well, I didn’t take his word for it of course. David and his wife Edna had been in the street for eighteen months and we hadn’t really got to know them very well. Partly because my wife Jill and I had just had a baby, little Jerry Allen, so we were busy with him. But it had never occurred to me that David was the sort of fellow who would dress in a robe and wander around in thongs.
I made sure the house was locked up. Then I followed him at a distance down the hill, careful not to make myself seen. I have always been good at making myself invisible. Something to do with growing up on a mountain, you understand foliage at night.
After walking three blocks David finally came out onto the main road. I saw him stop at the traffic lights. He got out a brass key from a pocket in his robe. I watched him climb up the pole, unlock the pedestrian light box, crawl inside and shut the door. And then I saw a Green Man flash on.
A few people crossed the road and they had no idea what had just happened. They didn’t notice the vivid bright green light draping the road and the trees and their shoes.
But that was it for me. That was the moment I first realized David was a Green Man.
I went home and told Jill.
‘David from next door is a Green Man,’ I said.
‘What, an environmentalist?’
‘No, a Green Man. Like a walk signal at a traffic light.’
‘David? How does he fit?’
‘I don’t know, with great difficulty I suppose,’ I said. ‘Anyway, that’s him. I saw him. He’s a Green Man.’
‘How weird,’ said Jill.
I thought that too. How weird.
After that I became very interested in talking to David. It was tricky, though, because he mostly kept to himself. My best opportunities were bin nights or in the back garden when he was mowing the lawn or pruning or something.
Of course I could follow him to his traffic light pole any night I wanted, and I did a few times. It started to feel a bit creepy after a bit. Also it was winter, and I didn’t want to get a cold and pass it on to little Jerry Allen or anything.
Two nights after seeing David climb that traffic pole, I was braising a chicken in the kitchen when I saw him out in his garden working the sprinkler. I ran out to talk to him. With the chicken. Possibly a foolish thing to do but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to chat. I ran up to the fence. I waved at him.
‘Hey, dude, what you up to?’
‘Lawn sprinkler,’ he said.
‘Yeah, great. Got to keep the back garden green in this drought, for sure.’
‘Been dry,’ he said.
‘Hard to keep the grass green at the best of times,’ I suggested. ‘That nice green colour. I like it like that. Greenish hue. Important. Green.’
He looked at me oddly. ‘Yeah,’ he said.
‘Do you like that colour?’
‘Green. Do you like it?’
‘Sure,’ he said.
And I knew I had gone too far. Not sure how, just a talent I have always had, an ability to understand when I have overreached. I had to back away a bit.
‘Brown is good too,’ I suggested. ‘I see some of your grass is brown. Nice aesthetic. Well done.’
David looked at me. Then his eyebrows scrambled up his balding forehead a bit.
‘Yeah, well, that’s the problem, we don’t really like brown grass, hence the sprinkler.’
An awkward pause.
‘How’s Edna going?’ I asked.
‘Good, working hard. How are Jill and Jerry Allen?’
‘Good. Jerry Allen’s a bit pushy at the moment, he knocked over a kid in his playgroup the other day, stepped on the kid’s left ear, pretty grizzly, lot of blood, Jerry laughed about it but he’s two years old, not a worry.’
He looked down at my chicken.
‘You making dinner?’
‘Eh? Oh, the chicken. Dinner? No. No.’
‘What are you doing with it?’
‘Just a hobby. Just braising it. I like to braise chickens.’
‘But you don’t eat them.’
‘Jill eat them?’
‘Lot of questions about a chicken,’ I said.
Things were getting tense. Another pause. I was starting to think David didn’t like me much.
‘Anyway,’ he said. ‘Got to get rid of this brown grass.’
I let him get back to his sprinkling.
I went back inside and put the chicken in the oven, shook my head. How come I’d said I wasn’t cooking the chicken for dinner? Of course I was making the chicken for dinner. Just the way my brain worked, I was always coming out with stupid stuff like that. If I’m not careful, I thought, David is going to think I’m a real idiot. A real big one. I was sure he hadn’t reached that conclusion yet, but if I wasn’t careful . . .
Over time David’s job as a Green Man, and his unwillingness to share this with me, or anybody, started to make me feel very sad. About life, really. Society. Our inability to talk to each other, to share, really started to disturb me.
The worst moment was a street barbecue over Christmas. Most of the people in the street came, Jill and Jerry Allen and I went, David and Edna were there, but I couldn’t get David to talk about his Green Man job in front of anybody, no matter how hard I tried.
He was happy to talk about his work as an accountant. His problems with the brown grass in his lawn. ‘Man, brown grass is good,’ I offered at one point, ‘green is better though, right?’ Everyone but David nodded.
It was just very sad.
Even Jerry Allen tried to get through to David. He toddled over, stepped on David’s right foot, said ‘David made of green.’ I hadn’t kept anything from Jill or Jerry Allen. Indeed I had pointed David out to Jerry Allen at different points, said things like, ‘that man there is a woodland sprite,’ and so on. It’s just an important part of parenting, I’ve found, sharing neighborhood gossip with your child. But David frowned at Jerry Allen. ‘You’re standing on my foot,’ he said.
‘Jerry standing on foot, Daddy,’ said Jerry Allen. Classic moment from Jerry Allen, there. I’m very proud of that boy.
Later I took a turn at the barbecue, made sure the sausages were well done. When David came for his meal I took a sausage from the grill and dropped it onto his plate with the tongs.
‘There you go, Green Man,’ I said. It was an accident. I didn’t intend to say that. It was a joke that went wrong.
David raised his eyebrows. Then he shook his head and walked off. I’ve got no idea if he liked the sausage.
He never told me.
David started to ignore me after that barbecue. I would run out into the garden with a giant turkey attached to my hand, or I would leap out there carrying a big pot of spaghetti bolognaise, or whatever, and I’d ask: ‘How’s the brown grass going, mate?’ and he’d run off.
Again, I just felt sorry for him. Tragic really, not being able to live with your true nature like that. I personally have never had that problem. Well, I have, I suppose, but it didn’t involve municipal hardware or electricity, so it’s a whole other thing, I think.
One night I put Jerry Allen to bed, and I turned off his nursery light, and I happened to glance out the window. I saw David on the footpath over the road, and he was in his robe, scampering down the hill in the dark holding his lantern up high.
I felt like following him that night.
I said to Jerry Allen, ‘Daddy has to go and spy on the Green Man,’ and he understood. ‘Daddy catch David Green,’ he said.
‘That’s ‘Green Man’, Jerry, you weren’t one hundred percent right there, but you’re on the right track.’
‘Jerry on track, Daddy,’ he said.
‘To a degree,’ I said. ‘We’ll work on it, anyway.’
I told Jill I had to duck out, that I was just going for soft drinks and chips, then I locked up the house and hurried down that hill.
I saw David from a distance. He climbed up into the light box. That box instantly flickered to life, casting a deep green haze over the whole street. A group of teenagers crossed over the road, too busy with their hairstyles and their money to notice anything.
I stood there for a while, just watching that luminous green light. Then I heard a cough. A man walked past me. He was wearing a red robe. Smoking a big cigar.
He stopped at the traffic light pole. Yelled up.
‘I’m here,’ he said.
The light box door opened, and the Red Man, for it was clearly a Red Man, climbed up it, clambered inside, and shut the door behind him.
That was an odd one for me. How did these two fellows fit in the one light box? It looked very cramped from where I was standing. Very odd. I wanted to ask them. I wanted to run over to the green light with a braised duck over my shoulder and ask David, but I didn’t think I should do that.
I didn’t know what to do. I walked up to the convenience store, bought soft drinks and chips, munched on them as I walked back through the suburb under the moldering stars, the dripping galaxies above.
The houses and the streets were like a yacht club of magnificent old boats.
I got home and ate for an hour. I thought and thought ’til my brain hurt, but nothing good came. Finally I went to bed. Jill whispered to me as I got under the covers.
‘You’ve got to let this Green Man stuff go, it’s ruling your life.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘By the way, I saw the Red Man climb up into that light box tonight.’
There was silence
‘How do they fit?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know. No idea.’
‘Very odd,’ she said.
I made a decision that night. I lay awake in the dark, looking up at the night ceiling, at the bugs, at the geckos, and I decided that I was going to have to take this up with David. These questions I had. This secrecy. Lying there in bed I devised a plan. We would host a garden party. And I would arrange things so that David would have to own up. He would have to start talking.
Jerry Allen woke up early in the morning, and I went in to his nursery and told him about my plans.
‘Daddy gonna make Green Man very sad,’ he said.
‘You better believe it, buddy,’ I said. It was good to get his support.
When I told Jill about my plans, she wasn’t so keen, but I worked on her, and a week later we sent out the invitations.
Then I got to work.
I rearranged the garden. I did what I could. I put up large tarps so David and Edna couldn’t see what I was up to.
Then, on the evening of Friday the fourteenth of January, I opened the gates up. Almost immediately our neighbors started coming through.
When David and Edna walked through into the garden with their coleslaw and their snags at quarter to eight, I shut the gate behind them, barred the way, watched for their reaction.
Ahead of them there was the exhibit I had worked up.
It featured some very significant Green Men of the past. A large woodland spirit effigy, bigger than the mulberry tree. A big Green Man gargoyle, based on the kind you see in churches. Made out of paper mache. Bit messy but you could tell what it was. There was a leafy jack in the green outfit, the sort that used to march through the London Streets on May the first, getting pies thrown at it and so on. There was a big flow chart I made, sketches of different Green Men representations. I also included an essay I had written about the Green Man.
Finally a big sign. ‘Be open, be honest, admit you’re a Green Man, David. Thankyou.’ I was quite proud of that sign. I felt I’d done a decent job with the lettering, anyway.
David looked over the exhibit. He turned to Edna.
‘Screw this,’ he said.
And he turned around and he saw me. He made a fist with his right hand.
‘You bastard. You’ve been following me.’
I pleaded with David. ‘Why not just tell us? Why did you have to keep it a secret?’
‘What’s a secret?’ asked Mrs. Phelps, who lived two doors down.
‘That David here is a Green Man at the traffic lights down the road.’
‘Really?’ said Bob Knolls. ‘How do you fit?’
‘Good question,’ I yelled, ‘because, get this: He shares his light box with a Red Man!’
‘It’s simple, right,’ said David, ‘it’s just like a magician sawing a woman in half, except there’s no magician. And no saw. And er . . . no woman.’
Nobody said anything. I looked at him. I looked into his eyes.
‘What I want to know, David,’ I said, ‘is, why the secrecy? Why the mystery?’
‘Because you’re all bloody idiots,’ he yelled.
That didn’t go down well. People started to murmur.
‘Edna and I moved here to start a new life,’ he said, ‘a good life together, and all we found were petty idiots with too much time on their hands. Nosey, spiteful. You’re the worst, Tom. Absolutely pathetic.’
‘Well, I’m not lying about my profession,’ I said.
‘Well, why is it any of your business?’
‘Because we’re raising our kid Jerry Allen here, David. So we have a right to know. It’s called gentleness. Or something. It’s not called gentleness. Respect, maybe? Not sure.’
‘Well, so far you haven’t passed on much gentleness to young Jerry Allen if he’s stepping on people’s ears.’
‘How dare you,’ I said, raising my voice.
‘He stepped on my foot the other night,’ said David. ‘He’s out of control.’
‘You keep my son out of this,’ I said.
But then Jerry Allen toddled up.
‘Green Man is very strange,’ he said.
Well, that really set David off. ‘You tell your boy to pipe down,’ he snarled.
And we both had to be held back. I wanted to throttle David, he wanted to throttle me, it got very ugly.
Finally I said: ‘Thing is, I reckon you’re not coming clean. I don’t just think you’re a traffic Green Man. I think you’re a Green Man Green Man. I think you’ve come from a church. I think you were in the forest before that. I think you’re a genuine woodland sprite with terrifying green powers. I have a suspicion that you are dangerously powerful. And I think you should own up.’
‘Maybe I am an all-powerful green god,’ he said. And he gave me a very ugly look. His eyes flickered bright green, like his luminous traffic lighting. ‘Maybe I have walked the forests for ten thousand years. Walked from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans tending to canopies. Talking to oaks. And maybe I did spend four hundred years up a church ceiling, inspiring saints, whispering to visionaries, guiding human beings along a better, healthier path. And maybe you’ve come in and spoiled things. Interrupted my work. Set me back years. Maybe, and this is something you are going to have to think about, sport . . . Maybe I am dangerous. Maybe you should watch yourself . . . ’
I shook my head.
‘Well, you just sound like you betrayed your own cause, going electric like that. Doesn’t seem quite as holy as perching halfway up a church.’
‘Dylan went electric and he’s still Dylan,’ said David. He was seething.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘but you’re not Dylan, are you. You’re David Geraldson. A whole other thing.’
David started to growl. We needed almost all of our guests to hold him back after that comment. For me it confirmed everything I had thought about our neighbor.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘all I’d say about that is if you can’t manage your anger after ten thousand years I wouldn’t trust you with my begonias.’
He had no answer to that.
‘Come on love,’ he said to Edna, ‘these people are jerks. Let’s go.’
They walked off into the night.
Despite all that unpleasantness between David and me, it ended up being quite a good night. Jill and I had fun. Jerry Allen stayed up late eating ice cream. At one point he threw his spoon at Don Edwards who lives down the street. Got him in the neck.
‘Now, now, Jerry,’ I said.
‘Drop ice cream very bad, Daddy,’ he said.
‘You got it, son.’
Near the end of the night, just before the garden party ended, Bob Knolls approached me.
‘That guy was a total jerk, well done on exposing him.’
I felt really good after speaking to Bob. He’s has always been a very honest, very decent guy. If Bob Knolls thought I was on the right track, well, I almost certainly was.
Bob made my night, really. He really made it good.
A week later a ‘for sale’ sign appeared on David and Edna’s lawn. A week after that they were moving out.
I tried to talk to them, but they ignored me. They buzzed off, and they were replaced a week later by a strange old hippy couple, Leon and Miriam Wallis. Horribly obnoxious bunch of no-hopers, I thought. I worried about their influence on Jerry Allen, what with their beads and the incense they no doubt burnt, though I had no proof about that. Just a hunch. I told Jerry Allen to watch out for the hippies. I told him that all hippies are bad.
‘Hippies very naughty, Daddy,’ said Jerry Allen.
‘You said it Jerry. You said it.’
I hated those hippies right away, missed David and Edna.
One night I was putting the bins out, and I looked up, and Leon Wallis was standing there smoking a cigarette, leaning on his front fence.
‘Hi, Tom,’ he said, waving, ‘lovely night, makes you think about the late sixties, doesn’t it? When just about anything seemed possible?’
He wasn’t wearing a robe. Or a lantern. I felt very bored by that.
I walked down the hill, wandered through the back streets, up to where the traffic lights were. There was David in his light box, flickering green. I walked up to him.
‘I’m sorry about what I did,’ I said.
The Red Man spoke on suddenly.
‘Piss off,’ he said.
I go every night though, now. I watch the Green Man flicker from a distance.
I tell you, I wish he was back here. David and Edna were much better neighbors, the new ones play a lot of Paul Simon songs. James Taylor. Okay in small doses, but it’s constant. I’m thinking of hosting a garden party featuring flow charts showing how both have a lot of weaknesses as songwriters, but I’ll wait a bit. Wait until they admit how bad their taste in music is.
‘Their music tastes very bad, Daddy,’ says Jerry Allen at the dinner table, throwing spoons at the fridge.
‘It’s the worst, Jerry,’ I say. ‘They’re going to know it, too.’
Any day now.
BEN PULLAR lives in Brisbane with his family. He writes stories, novels and songs. He has had stories published in Jersey Devil Press, The Journal of Experimental Fiction, Metazen, and other places.