He was known to us all as “Mad Boy”, because, as far as anybody could tell, he was mad, out of his gourd, crazy, as only little kids can understand. The guy was bonkers, and not in a cute, adorable way. Mad Boy was our school bully, our blight, and our nemesis. He remains what I still think of to this day when I think about bullies and bullying. Unthinking, unhappy, unimaginative, a drag on the rest of us, out to cause trouble, sullen, wilfully stupid, slack around the mouth and dull around the eyes. The sort of kid who ends up repeating years, and winding up towering over little kids, making their tiny, helpless lives unbearable with witless torment, entirely because he could, because nobody would or could stop him.
His real name was Neil. But that and his surname are all I do know about the bullying artist known as Mad Boy. I never knew anything about his home life, or family circumstances. This was the 1970s. If you were a kid growing up in an abusive environment, it was all kept extremely secret. If your parents split up, nobody ever talked about it. The shame surrounding anything that wasn’t a standard nuclear family arrangement was hip-deep. I knew about this myself, from an oblique angle: my dad struggled badly with untreated bipolar disorder. It was hard for him to hold down jobs. Life was really difficult. Strange things would happen. Sometimes Dad would disappear off to certain special hospitals, but nobody could know. Everything happened in the dead of night.
Mad Boy was a blank. His home life was most likely a disaster, as bad as we can imagine, and I have imagined it many times. I’ve often wondered, why was he like that? Why did he have to be like that? What did he get out of being like that? Because he never looked happy. He always looked like he was dragging around a huge iron anchor of misery, and the people around him, the trying-awfully-hard teachers, and us hapless kids, only added to his torments. Why couldn’t we just leave him be?
He and I wound up in a fight once. It wasn’t much of a fight, though my sense of these things is that most such encounters rarely are. That they are 90% posturing, shouting, dancing about, hurling abuse and threats, and maybe 10% (if that) actually trying to hit each other. I got hit in the face. It was shocking. Stunning. I still remember it. Or at least Time Traveller Me thinks I remember how twelve-year-old me felt at the time. Trauma. Actual, brutal trauma. Someone had laid hands on me. Got me right in the face, on my mouth. Lip split and bled, swollen, and the whole area swelled up and stung, bruised for hours. For ages I sat, stunned out of my mind. Someone had hit me. Why? For what purpose? What was the bloody point? What did it prove? Why did he do it?
Except the answer is obvious. He did it because he was Mad Boy. He was walking, sullen chaos. This is why, when I think about all the bullies and tormentors I’ve known (and thought guiltily about the couple of people I have bullied at times over the years–oh no, the conscience records everything in its ledger), his idiot face is the one I see. He needs no reason to do what he did. That was the whole point. Why pick on me? Why not pick on me?
My mum always told me, when I came home in tears from primary school, that someone, whether Mad Boy or someone like him, was tormenting me, or threatening to beat me up (“see you after school by the bike racks, Bedford,” they’d tell me with a sneer, and you can bet I did everything possible to go nowhere near those bike racks, even to pick up my own bike, when school was over), “you’re twice as big as those kids, why don’t you just bash ’em up?” And I was bigger than them. I was a big lad, and fat with it. But I hated the thought of violence, even as a way to deal with these wankers. “You should take up boxing,” Dad would suggest. The thought filled me with terror.
I believed I should somehow defend myself, and deal with this endless threat, this climate of daily terror, often so bad I would fake illness so I could stay home from school. Sometimes Mum “believed” me, but usually she didn’t, and sent me on my way, full of fear and terrible knowledge of what awaited me. I knew I needed to do something. One bit of appealing advice was the suggestion that if you just ignore them, they’ll go away. Um, no, they redouble their efforts, and interpret your behaviour as a communications problem.
I never did figure out a strategy. But I did, one day in high school, long past the era of Mad Boy, but well into a ghastly new era with all new Mad Boys, I did finally reach my limit with these bastards. It wasn’t a decisive win, it didn’t make everything stop, but it did change things. Things after this were different, and better.
After school one day (I was about 15 or 16 and by this point well into the full-blown depression that would soon lead to a breakdown, hospitalisation, and the whole future saga of patienthood) I shuffled, extremely heavy grey school bag chock-full of most of my textbooks and files over my shoulder, and was looking at about six hours of homework that night. Exhausted, fed up, lonely.
There was a small bunch of cheerful dudes larking about where my bike was parked in the rack. I knew these guys. They were low-level hoons. By this point in high school, the real villains tormenting me were teachers. These low-level hoons were having the time of their young lives. They had pulled off the prank of the century, and they were dee-lighted to see me in particular. They could not wait for me to see their handiwork.
I came closer, cold iron dread in the pit of my gut.
I always locked my bike’s front wheel to the bike rack. I had a key for the lock on a cord around my neck.
But right now there were two locks on my bike’s front wheel.
Oh, how they laughed and laughed. They laughed so much the entire district could hear. Because the joke here was that ungainly, pimply gormless fat teenager Bedford, who didn’t have a girlfriend, and couldn’t kick a ball, and who was No Fun, couldn’t take his bike and go home to the safety of his family. This was the hilarious joke everyone in Lockridge and surrounding areas could laugh along with.
I did not pause, I did not even look up. I just spun on my heel and walked back onto the emptying school grounds, and made my determined way to the Manual Arts block. Once there (the air always smelled of pine wood), I found one of the teachers. He asked what I was doing there.
I explained my problem, and made my request. He helped me out.
I went back to the bike rack. The hoons hooted and laughed, but then noticed I was carrying a huge red pair of bolt-cutters. I applied the bolt-cutters to the problem.
The low-level hoons stopped laughing immediately, and suddenly were all upset. In news just to hand, it developed that this was just a harmless prank and a joke, that it was just a bit of fun, that I didn’t have to do that, that I–
I cut that damned lock and threw it at them.
I then unlocked my bike, and rode it, carrying the bolt-cutters, back to Manual Arts, and delivered my report. The teacher shook my hand.
The ride home, I was flying.
Whatever became of Mad Boy and all the other Mad Boys I’ve known and hated? I don’t know, but I have often wondered. I keep thinking, nothing good. Most likely a career in which they find themselves “known to the police”. I’d love to think Mad Boy, Neil, got the help and support he seems to have needed, and got out of what must have been a terrible situation, or so I imagine. Or he might simply have been, and remains, a creature of that sort of environment. You never know how people are going to turn out, what makes a person choose this rather than that. It’s something I think about often. I’ve been incredibly lucky. At age 16, just diagnosed, just medicated and labelled, I thought I was as finished with this life as Mad Boy had always seemed to be, the way he seemed to be just wasting time until he died. My own prospects seemed just as bleak at that point.
But now look. Who’d have ever believed things could turn out like this? I hope the Mad Boys out there are lucky bastards, too.