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The Skinny Man

Sunday Star-Times Short Story Awards - Top Prize Winner

rob jenkins author 2.webp

The shallows froze and midstream water moved slow and black as engine oil

Nobody walked the bank

We built a camp

Called it a fort

Played chicken on lock gates

Leapfrogged snubbing posts

Even after dark

Haunting the river like dead kids

Then one day we’re sliding stones on the ice and nursing our iceballs in case Minnie comes

The river is Minnie’s from the bridge to the pier

The whole towpath

All the air

If there was fish in that water she would have all the fish

There’s no fish

Just stray dogs and cats and rats and sometimes a kicked-out on his way to the city or a woman making rent

Minnie claims it all

Writes her name on it


Minnie’s Land


You have to pay to play in Minnie’s Land

And we aint got money

A grown man comes instead

The Skinny Man

He watches us

We move away

Keep playing

The ice is thin and in places just sludge and our stones aren’t getting far so we break stuff

Throw in rubbish

Watch it sink

Pretend to smoke cigarettes like foundry men at lunch

Slide more stones

At first the man keeps a distance

Watching mist in the east

Skyscrapers in the west

Everything washed out like ghostland

He comes closer


Watching me

Not me


Pretending not to

He’s got a fancy red pushbike

Top quality

He nods out

Does pretend smoking too


Starts deep breathing

Moving his arms wide to the side and back to the front like he’s trying to take flight


Motions for us to do it too

We don’t

When he’s done with that he slides stones like we do

Like we’re friends

We walk away

He follows

I swagger

Bluffing brave

Ivy picks her way like a praying mantis

We find two old beer bottles and pretend to get drunk and throw them in the air making them turn over and over so they shatter on the ice or break through and sink

The skinny man says, You shouldn’t do that

I say, I know

That’s the point

He grins


His teeth are white

His face is purple

Blue nose

Red hair


Like someone coloured him in

The pushbike’s a racer

Drop handlebars

Campagnola gears

Maybe five speed

Could be ten

Never seen ten

Maybe a Claude Butler

Hand built

Centre pull brakes

Road racing wheels

Dunlop white walls

Skinny as your finger

Chrome handlebars

Chrome bell

Red tape on the grips matches the frame

Saddle bags

Brass buckles

I see that bike as big as a bus

Every detail

Never seen a Claude Butler before

Seen pictures

Heard stories

He walks it towards us

Smile stays on

Must ache his face

Ivy slips her hand in my pocket

Tugs me to move

I don’t move

The skinny man’s trousers are held tight at the ankle with proper metal bicycle clips

You can’t trust a man wears bicycle clips

Every kid knows

Truancy officers wear bicycle clips

The schoolboard man



The bike doesn’t squeak or rattle or nothing

Even bumping over rocks

Fresh grease on the chain

Perfect paint

Cherry red

Sprung leather saddle



If God has a bike, it’s a Claude Butler


There’s a super-chrome go-faster front light just to the right of the handlebar stem

It’s shaped like a spaceship with a fin off the back and a hood over the front

Buck Rogers style

A small, bald teddy-bear is strapped on top

The skinny man stops ten feet away

The bike’s got a kick-down stand

He stands it

Takes off his coat and folds it into itself and rests it on the bike and grabs a towel from a saddlebag and wraps it around his waist to hide his privates and he gets into stripy little swimming trunks

Like it’s a summer’s day

Folds his clothes

Taking his time

Stacks them on his coat

Pats them flat

Makes sure they’re stable

The coat’s a duffle coat in black with a red blanket lining and wooden toggles and the toggles are backed in leather

That’s a class coat

Warmest coat ever made


He slips on a pair of black gym shoes

Elasticated tongues

Non-marking soles most like

Winks at me

He’s really white and hairy

Starts doing disgusting exercises

Bending over

Standing up

Again and again

Ivy watches

Frowns, grimaces, frowns, grimaces

Like she needs to poo but can’t

How’s the water? he says

Aint no water, I say

He laughs

What’s that then?

Motions to the river

That’s ice, Mister

He comes closer

Just a step

Says, I hope not. I want to swim. Well, plunge, I should say. It’ll be a quickie today!

He catches his breath

Puts a hand to his mouth like he’s in shock

I shouldn’t say quickie, should I? Silly me. You won’t tell? Our secret?

I tell him, You’re crazy, you’ll die

I bet I don’t! he says. It’s good for you! The colder the better. Watch my stuff for me?

I say, Yep… But I bet you don’t do it and if you do it, I bet you die

He grins

Genuine this time

Lips shining like they’ve just been licked

Is that your sister? he says

I nod

Is she deaf? I saw you signing

I tell him, She’s none of your business, Mister

He holds up his hand like he’s saying sorry

Says, She’s a princess though, isn’t she? Perfect

He waves at her

Ivy steps behind me, watching him round my leg

I’m thinking which way to run

He reads my mind

Changes tack

Says, Would she like my teddy-bear? He’s clean. And very lonely

He unhooks the teddy-bear and dances it left and right

Ivy watches

Doesn’t blink

I ask her

She says no

I tell him, She don’t want it



No what?

No, she don’t want it

What about please and thank you?

What about she don’t want it

His mouth tightens

Nods his head

I say, We’re waiting for our mum

We’re meeting her just there

11 a.m. this morning

I point to nowhere

Ivy looks


Trying to join the dots

It’s an amateur lie


I’m embarrassed

He knows

Says, So, you correctly say, No, thank you. Try it

I don’t

Try it, he says again


I say, No… thank you

Ivy tugs my pocket

The man claps his hands like a teacher getting your attention

Well done you! And let me you about the a.m. thing. It’s important. You don’t say 11 a.m. in the morning. By saying 11 a.m. you’ve already indicated it’s morning, so by saying 11 a.m. in the morning you’re effectively saying morning twice

You correctly say either 11 a.m., or eleven in the morning

It’s grammatically incorrect otherwise

Sounds picky but it’s important

Little things, little things

The skinny man bends down, getting closer to Ivy’s height and he wags the teddy bear left and right

Ask her again, he says

He’s a lovely teddy and he’s very, very lonely

He bunnyhops a pace closer

I say, She don’t want it. Thank you

He says, She doesn’t, not she don’t… Ask her

I tell him she says, No, thank you

He’s close enough to touch now

To smell

I don’t know how he did that

Closed the gap that way

With a bike and all

And me and Ivy being street-smart gangsters

He huffs and shrugs and refixes the teddy astride the front light

Taking his time

Not rushing

Skin bluing and blushing

He says, Well, if she changes her mind, he won’t be going anywhere without me, will you Teddy?

He tickles the bear’s chin and does a baby voice, No, no, no says Teddy!

Ivy watches


He says, Have you got a name?

I say, Have you?

He says, Of course. Everyone’s got a name

I say, You don’t need mine then do you Mister?

He frowns

Asks again, his voice deeper

What’s your name?

I say, Piss off

We walk away

He follows

That’s not a name, he says, that’s a phrasal verb

Do you know about verbs? Do you know what a phrasal verb is?

I don’t


No one does

Probably no such thing

We walk faster

He says I’ll give you a lolly if you know

I say, fuck off

He says, Yep, that’s one

He keeps pace

The air’s cracking

Earth’s shaking

Everything narrows

Like we’re in a tunnel

My gutbrain tells me to grab Ivy and run

He knows


Rets his hand on my shoulder

I slip him off

Keep walking

He says, Don’t do that. We’re friends aren’t we?

His hand goes onto Ivy’s head

She slips him too

The bike is definitely a Claude Butler

It’s written in small scrolly writing on the frame and there’s a long chrome pump catched under the crossbar and hanging under the back of the saddle is a puncture repair kit in its own little metal box

So cool

Not cool


The skinny man gets teachery

Says, What is your name? And do not be rude

He’s not abbreviating now

Means he’s holding down his temper

Kids ears are tuned to that shit

He’s step for step

Breath smells of mints

Does a big man’s voice

Bigger than him

Like he stole it from a movie

Says, If I am polite to you, you will be polite back!


He barks

I flinch

I stop

Pull Ivy beside me

She grips on

He speaks slow, like I don’t know English

What is your name?

I say, My name is Chuck

Same speed

Same emphasis

I’m lying

Skilful this time

He buys it


Takes a breath

That’s better… Thank you

Hello Chuck

He reaches out to shake hands

I step back

Take Ivy with me

Chuck’s a good name, he says. Strong

A strong boy. A proud name

Can you guess my name?


Shall I tell you

I say, Up to you

Free country

He grins

Says, Maybe later

I’ll look for you… In the market? Or here by the river maybe?

I’ll ask for big brave Chuck



I nod

If he comes around the market asking for Chuck, he’ll be sorry

There’s only one kid called Chuck in my neighbourhood and he was killing perverts before he was six years old

Everyone knows

Stabbed one once when he was five

On a night bus

In the gonads

Nutsack kebab

I say a little prayer

Please Baby Jesus let the skinny man find Chuck

The skinny man takes a deep breath



Says, And this must be Ivy

I’m caught out

Knocked down flat

Everything swims

He nods his head


Knowing her name just moved him up the pervert league

Top boy now

Proper dangerous

This aint a chance encounter

Nothing like

I say, That’s not her name

He says, Really? I think it is

And I know where you live

Number thirty, isn’t it? Hmmmm?

Ivy narrows her eyes

She seen her name on his lips

Does her silent movie face

All tension and angst

Says, We Go Now

I tell her, We Wait

She says, Why? Whyyyyy?

Stamps her foot

Implores the heavens with clawed hands

I tell her he’s too close

I’ve messed up

He’s got the upper hand

We gotta be smart now

Smart smart

And I want to see him swim


She’s not convinced

I tell her he’ll die under the ice and I can have his bike and that big warm coat and she can have his scarf and everything else

She nods


Yes, Teddy

The skinny man says, What’s all the talk

I say, Nothing

He says, Well, it must have been something

I say, She doesn’t think you’ll swim

Says you’re bluffing

He plants his hands on his hips like Peter Pan

Thrusts his hips towards her face

His inner thighs are hairy

Curly hair

Soft skin


Wags his finger

Just you wait and see, he says

Big slow mouth movements

Like deaf means stupid

He touches his finger to the tip of her nose

The scar from her cleft lip

Ivy steps into me tighter

Wipes where he touched

The skinny man braces himself and goes to the water’s edge and toes the ice

It’s thin

He snaps the fringes with little stamping actions until his feet break into shallow water

Goes deeper

Small steps

Soon he has to bend and break the ice with his hands

It breaks easy

Knee deep

Waist deep

He splashes his chest

Chest deep

Deep breath

Thick water parts like custard

He bounces up and down until only his head is visible

I think he must die

They’ll find him in the thaw

Bloated on a bend

We’ll bounce stones off his dead body

Play him like a drum

He ducks under

Comes up fast


I say a prayer

Please Baby Jesus

Drown the pervert


He ducks again

Three times

Three prayers

He don’t die

Ivy’s devastated

He don’t notice

He starts back slow

Breath steaming

Water misting



Feet feeling the riverbed with every step

Slow progress


There’s every kind of evil object on the riverbed waiting to cut or trip or snare him but he comes on unscathed

Pervert lucky

Like he’s blessed

Chest deep

Waist deep

He aint white no more

He’s mauve and red and kind of yellow

Like some weird sea worm grew legs

See? he calls. Not dead!

Ivy kicks my ankle again and again

Tugs my sleeve until I look down

She’s holding two iceballs

One in each hand

Big as oranges

Glistening white

The rest sit ready in the open backpack at her feet

She makes them every night

Balls up snow and leaves it on the step to freeze

Looks like a snowball

Hits like a brick

She passes me one


Looks at the man

Smiles until dimples come

He waves

She waves back

He laughs

Blows her a kiss

Her nose is running


Steaming slightly

She licks it clean

One swipe

Tongue like a Labrador

I say no

She stamps her foot

Sets her jaw

Next she’ll pee her pants

I toss the iceball up and down, testing its weight

And pitch it like a baseball player

Not good

Well wide

Never could pitch

Skinny laughs

Thinks we’re playing snowballs

Number two connects


Sounds like Cluck

A hollow noise


He’s stunned


Holds his head

Slowly he comes upright and fills with rage and rushes forwards and stumbles

Ivy reloads me

I connect again; A bouncer off the ice

Catches his neck

He spins away and falls and flaps around getting his feet

Ivy passes me another ball

I miss

One more

Last throw

Full facial

His hands go to his mouth and nose and come away red

He holds red fingers before his face

Looks at his own blood

Blood flecks the ice like confetti at a wedding

Spreading like rose petals

He dabs it

Swipes it

Tests it texture

Gathers his sense

Starts to vibrate

I rifle his clothes for money and find nothing and scatter the clothes onto the ice and grab the coat and kick up the bike stand and start wheeling the bike away and I see Minnie standing on the top of the bank by the road

A hundred yards off


Hands cupped over her eyes like she’s holding binoculars


Ivy sees her too

We face off for five seconds and she moves


Coming down the bank on her bum

Like it’s a ski slope



She wraps her scarf around her face as she slides

Slips on her goggles like a fighter pilot

At the bottom of the slope she takes up a fighting stance

Nods at me

At Ivy


Ivy drops my hand and runs

I go after her

Fast as we can

She pumps her arms

I push the bike

The Skinny man lumbers towards the riverbank and starts bellowing


Swimming his arms

Losing his feet

We scramble up the bank, bumping the bike over rocks and slipping and clawing in the snow and shingle and the cold air burns my lungs and Ivy turns to help me and she grabs the front wheel with her fingers in the spokes and gets her wrist caught up and I have to stop to untangle her

I feel Minnie almost on me

Her iron knuckles splitting my skull

I get Ivy free and drop the bike and spin fast and get ready to smash Minnie in the face but she aint chasing

She’s by the river

Standing where we stood

Watching the man in the water

He’s talking

She’s nodding

She bends down and knocks away snow and stacks rocks

Building a cairn

Checking the size and testing the weight of each rock

Tossing them hand to hand

Discarding one

Keeping one

Working quickly

Watching Skinny

He’s lost his composure and he’s cold and angry and off balance and his left foot’s dragging but he’s in thigh deep water now and almost out

I see him like Ivy sees him

In silence


Minnie tosses a rock hand to hand

Picks it clean

Kicks her heels

Almost dancing

Lets him come

Squares her feet

Slips her coat

Folds it neat

Lays it down

Squares her shoulders



He sees


Stops coming

She rocks back

Left foot lifts to right knee



A silhouette

She steps forward


Best pitch I ever seen


The skinny man yelps

Yelps carry


He shouts


Swear words carry


Panic carries



Silence carries

I don’t feel bad for none of that

He came for low hanging fruit and overreached

That’s all

I hid the bike in the sheds

Someone stole it

Ivy kept the teddy-bear

Called him Snowball

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