Sibelius Lobey (Part 1)
Sibelius Lobey was as much a fixture of our childhood as the old disused railroad track at the edge of town, or Watkinson’s store, which hadn’t been run by a Watkinson since the turn of the century. We thought he was strange and we felt he was old, although we knew he had been to school with our parents. We were never actually told not to talk to him; we avoided him without knowing quite why. Before that summer of 1970, the only conversation we had with adults about Sibelius Lobey was when we were reprimanded for imitating his stiff, jerky walk.
Every day, whatever the weather, whatever the season, he made a morning patrol around town. His route never varied. It took forty-five minutes all told: down from his small wooden house on Louis Avenue, along past the stores on Duclos Street, past the church and the pool hall, along Kilcannon Drive, where our family lived, then up Clairmont Street and back to Louis Avenue. His appearance was just as immutable. His skinny legs were always encased in blue jeans tucked into the top of hiking boots, the sleeves of a checked cotton shirt were always rolled up round his bony elbows, and his long grey hair hung in wisps around his gaunt face. He walked with his eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead, his chin thrust out as though pulling the rest of him along a stretch of railroad track that only Sibelius Lobey could see.
I was nine years old that summer, and photographs show that there was nothing extraordinary about me. A sandy-haired, not quite skinny boy with freckles, a few battle scars on my knees, bitten nails, a slight lop-sidedness because of a small malformation in my hip. My sister Diane was twelve, and in the last year of that limber, unselfconscious grace that lucky people have in childhood. I envied her that.
Now when I look at those old photos, I wonder what Sibelius Lobey looked like as a child. The only pictures I ever saw of him were the ones they dug out for the newspapers at the end of that summer, showing a barely recognisable young man in military uniform, with short blond hair and fine cheekbones. I wonder if he was graceful or clumsy, as a child. If he stared challengingly at a camera, the way Diane did, or instinctively flinched from its gaze, like me. Did his eyes always have that glitter, or did it come later?
We kids knew that Sibelius Lobey did not work, but it never occurred to us to wonder how he met the bills for the house on Louis Avenue, or paid for his groceries at Family Fare. He never went to the store itself. Mr Delano, the manager, used his own car to deliver the orders. Diane once asked our mother how come Mr Delano did that for Sibelius Lobey, when she and I had to collect and deliver our Grandma’s groceries.
‘Sibelius Lobey is a Korea veteran. It’s respectful of his service.’
Diane frowned. ‘Papa’s a Korea veteran. And Mr Crawley and Mr Southey. How come we don’t get groceries delivered?’
Mama said, in a soft, warning voice, ‘Well that’s not really any concern of yours, Diane.’
Diane, twelve-going-on-sixteen, couldn’t just leave it there. ‘I don’t see why some nut job like Sibelius Lobey gets his groceries delivered and we don’t.’
Mama’s voice remained soft. ‘Perhaps taking out the trash for a week will teach you some respect, Diane.’
‘But Jeff takes out the trash!’
‘Not this week,’ said Mama.
Summer settled on our town that year the same as every year, only hotter. Air with the texture of syrup and the honey scent of full-blooming oleander coated the houses, the roads, the animals and the people. Any uncovered metal burned the skin off your fingers. Asphalt softened and sucked at the soles of your shoes, while dogs lay behind screen doors, on the near-coolness of tiled floors, and panted with as much energy as they could muster.
Once school broke up, all kids but the littlest made their way to the creek pretty much every day, to dive or jump off the rocks and sit on the rough scutch grass. We relished the cool water on our skin, until the sun evaporated it off and burned into the flesh below. We all burned, every year. Then our skin peeled, and we tore long milky strips off our limbs and shoulders, biting our lips and dribbling our tears from the pain. In due course we healed and browned properly, and no-one thought anything of it.
Momentous things were going on in the world that summer. Dim echoes reached our youthful ears, but they were drowned out by shrieks as we hit the water, and yelps as we flayed ourselves. They were masked by the surly sound of cars and pick-ups with reconditioned engines, and neighbourly discussions in Family Fare or over the back-yard fence. The clicking of cicadas and the dutiful intoning of Sunday hymns drowned them out. The houses and the stores and the railroad track closed round us, and we heard only vague, distorted snatches of the conversations determining the shape of the world beyond. Now and again the word Pinkville drifted out of the TV and radio, leaving a faint echo as it floated away like gauze in the summer haze.
It was Sibelius Lobey who dragged it back.
Mama was scrambling breakfast eggs one Saturday morning when she looked out of the window and said, ‘Now what on this earth is he doing?’
Diane and I got up from the table and joined her. Sibelius Lobey was standing in the middle of Kilcannon Drive, in his regulation jeans and cotton shirt, under the already merciless sun. His back was straight and his arms rigid by his side, but his head, normally held firm and upright as if in a brace, was slightly bent forward and very, very slowly turning from side to side. As we watched, it crept round until it faced our window, and his eyes fixed on the three of us. The corners of his thin lips flickered upwards slightly, then pressed into the creases round his mouth. If it was meant to be a smile, it was the kind that made your back prickle.
His gaze held us for a few seconds, and then began the return arc towards the Crawleys’ house over the road.
‘What the hell?’ said Diane
Even the peculiar spectacle in the road could not mitigate the transgression of cursing in the house.
‘Diane Bailey, that’s half your weekly allowance going in the church plate tomorrow.’
‘One more word and that’ll be the other half.’
Papa came in and said, ‘What are you looking at?’
‘Sibelius Lobey,’ I told him.
Papa raised his eyebrows and came over. Across Kilcannon Drive Mr Crawley was standing at his kitchen window, Mrs Crawley behind him, watching Sibelius Lobey.
‘Go sit at the table,’ said Papa.
Even Mama shot him a look. The kitchen, and the mealtimes in it, were her territory. She gave the orders, and administered the rebukes. Papa was only required to admonish if a crime occurred off the property and was reported by another adult, or in the unimaginable event that one of us openly defied Mama.
Confused, we continued standing there until Mama said, ‘The table. Now.’ She turned to Papa. ‘Do you think he’s all right?’
‘He’s never all right.’
‘No, but do you think something’s happened?’ She glanced back across the road. ‘Bill Crawley looks like he’s seen a ghost.’
Papa moved swiftly across the kitchen and out into the hallway, and a moment later we heard the front door bang shut, the screen door slapping after it.
My sister craned to look out of the window.
‘Stay where you are, Diane.’
‘But what’s the matter with him, Mama? What’s the matter with Sibelius Lobey?’
Mama ladled eggs onto our plates. ‘I guess he needs our prayers, Diane.’
Papa came back in as we were finishing our breakfast.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Be quiet, Jefferson. Let your father have his breakfast.’ I winced. Mama was the only one who ever called me Jefferson. Even Papa settled for ‘Jeff’, unless I was in real trouble. ‘Go and clean your teeth. Both of you. Have you made your beds?’
Diane looked at her in disbelief. Would we have dared show our faces in her kitchen if we hadn’t?
When we’d closed the door behind us Diane said, ‘What the hell?’
I looked nervously at the door. ‘You’ll have no allowance for a year if she hears you saying that again.’
We stood side by side in the bathroom, looking in the mirror as we brushed our teeth.
Diane addressed her reflection. ‘Lucas Southey says Sibelius Lobey hasn’t been right in the head since Korea.’
She spat. ‘I don’t know. Maybe he was a prisoner, like Mr Lyle.’ The Lyles lived next door to the Crawleys.
I considered this while I rinsed. ‘Mr Lyle was a prisoner of the Japs.’
‘So? I expect they had prisoners in Korea. I expect they have prisoners in Vietnam.’
I shook my head. ‘Mr Lyle has to go away every couple of years, to the looney hospital, so the doctors can fix him. Sibelius Lobey never goes anywhere.’ Papa always said Sibelius Lobey had never been beyond the railroad track since the day he came back from the city for his mother’s funeral. The track, unused for mine and Diane’s entire lifetimes, marked the boundary of the town to the north. To the west and south the houses and the roads petered out in rocks and scrubland, with the creek marking the southern boundary. To the east, the town stopped where the pitted grey of Duclos Street butted against the smooth black surface of the Lannisville to San Aurea highway, with the outline of the Melville Hills rising sharply in the distance.
Diane watched while I rubbed my face with the towel. ‘If Vietnam goes on for ever, you’ll have to go fight, like the Jensen boys.’ The Jensen twins had just been drafted. We had gone to the farewell barbecue.
I put the towel back on the hook. ‘Wars don’t go on for ever.’
‘This one might. You’ll have to go fight and you’ll come back not right in the head, like Mr Lyle, or Sibelius Lobey.’
‘Although in your case,’ said my sister, ‘who would be able to tell?’