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The stranger

“I have a story to tell, but if I tell it, they’ll kill me.”

“Who will?” I ask, compulsively. Because even sober I’d want to know the answer to that.

“When I was 18, I was beaten by six screws. I was naked. Neddy Smith asked me if I’d screamed.”

My thoughts settle into the shape of a quiet ‘wtf’.

“Did you?” I ask.

“Wouldn’t you?” he says.

“Think Neddy would’ve screamed?” I ask.

“He likes to think he’s tougher,” says the man, “but I reckon.”

Neddy Smith. Famous murderer. As Sydney as the Harbour Bridge. Serving a life sentence (since 1989, I learn later). The TV show of Neddy’s life was banned in his home state of NSW for years.

And this guy — a stranger, a man who’d stopped us in the dark street not because he needed directions, as I’d thought, but because he had a story to tell — this man was claiming he knew Neddy-fucking-Smith?

My boyfriend is with me, taking up a reassuring amount of room to my right. Otherwise I might not have stopped. The stranger smells clean, really clean. His aftershave lingers hours after where he touched my arm to get my attention. Not that he needed to. He was too convincing already. Him and the tatts that lined his arms.

“I walk to Darling Harbour and talk to myself the whole way there,” he says. “People think I’m crazy, but it’s only the book.”

“You should write that book,” I recommend.

“But they’ll kill me,” says the man.

He says it without fear. Only a cheerful certainty. I know there’s a solution to this, but I can’t think what it is. I’m still sobering up.

“You should at least write it down. Or record it,” I try.

But shit, if he’s right and the cops are crooked, more crooked than we even realised, then where do you safely stow a record of that?

“You should post it to someone,” I suggest. “The Herald.”

He thinks my recommendations are dumb but he’s too polite to say. It’s nine-thirty at night and I’m not awake and I’m not sober, but I know I’m not going to stop him talking. Even if I wanted to, which I don’t.

He says, “You know Roger Rogerson.”

With a kind of of-course-you-do tone.

Of course I do. Rogerson haunts my neighbourhood even now, the corrupt cop that shot dead drug dealer Lanfranchi just a few streets from where the stranger is accosting us now, on a spot strangely marked with an X in old sandstone. (No one knows where the mark came from. Well, someone knows. But they haven’t said. Even Rogerson wonders: “In the old sandstone gutter where Lanfranchi fell dead someone has scratched an X“. Now that X features in a Nick Stathopolous painting destined to hang in my loungeroom. Roger Rogerson. Who’s survived long enough to comment on the stories they tell about him, the legends they’ve made about him).

The stranger’s off on another tangent and I’m having trouble keeping up.

“We used to go to that pub there on Broadway, you know the biker pub?” says the stranger.

There’s no biker pub on Broadway: what he’s pointing at is a student-style cheap and cheerful cafe where you can get jugs of sangria with your bowl of chips and gravy. But still I believe him.

“Sally Ann Huckstepp used to live in that house right there, and we’d go to the Broadway,” he says, pointing at one of the terraces sunk below street level, a modest hovel. “I’m sixty now, but when I was twelve, Neddy Smith introduced me to Huckstepp and do you know what he said?”

“What’d he say?”

“He said I was a good kid.”

Neddy Fucking Smith said that? Quick, what were the years Neddy Smith terrorised Sydney? I’m trying to remember.

“What year was that, when you were twelve?” I ask instead.

“Let’s see,” says the stranger, ever the obliging host on the streets of my city. “I was born in 51, so that was…”

He hesitates, unable to complete the maths.

“Sixty-three?” I suggest.

“Should I clear his name?” asks the stranger, “Because I can. For the family. Wouldn’t they want to know he wasn’t a rapist?”

I’ve lost track of who he’s talking about again. Someone accused of raping Sally Ann Huckstepp. She’s famous in her own right in Sydney, largely for turning up dead in a pond in Hyde Park. Went out to meet someone. Never came home. Ratted on her criminal friends to the cops. Knew she was going to die. That’s what they say about Huckstepp.

“I know who really killed her,” says the stranger, following my thoughts. “One’s on a life sentence, one’s dead, and there’s me.”

And there’s me. If all of this is true, if any of it is, for god’s sake how do we get this guy to tell the story? Does he mean he killed Sally Ann? Or is he talking about someone else again?

“You’re carrying drugs,” he suggests to me.

“Er, no,” I say, “but okay.”

“You’ve got drugs in your handbag, right,” he says, not noting the fact I don’t have a handbag, “and your boyfriend’s with you before the fact and after the fact, see?”

He outlines some strange archaic law about before and after the fact, which is hardly ever incited but by which he could prove someone guilty and that’s why he’s in danger, see? Because he can prove it and if he does, they’ll kill him. I mean, if he’s right about the story, sounds like he’s right to be paranoid. There’s an internal logic to what he says that I’m finding inescapable. But the premise of the story, now that I’m not sure of.

Neddy Smith, I later learn, has Parkinson’s now & has asked for compassionate leave from his sentence. He’s been refused. People don’t want Neddy Smith out on the street again. I smell the stranger’s aftershave and look at the thick lines of tatts on his right arm. I wonder about the Broadway. Am I really that close to history?

“You should write that book,” I say again.

We walk away and the boyfriend says, “Wow, we should invite that guy around for a cup of tea.”

“Didn’t he say he’s one of the three that killed … someone?”

Sally Ann? I’m growing even more confused, the protective spell of his internal logic wearing off as he beats his path to Darling Harbour.

“He’s sixty,” argues the boyfriend.

“He’s real,” I say.