Fictions: Ginger Fred, the Pavement Artist

Gerry Huntman

 

I owe my life to Ginger Fred, but I can’t thank him because he’s gone.

I’m a real estate agent, and I’ve lived in Rievesport for ten years, lured by the prospect of the growing value of sea-side properties, and the increasing willingness of workers to commute the long distance to Melbourne—the Big Smoke. I used to work in the BS (as Lisa and I frequently call it) as a well-paid commercial lawyer, but the rat race got the better of me with a triple-bypass. I’m not disappointed with my sea-change; I’ve done well in my adopted town. I even have an office on the top floor of the four-storey Chamber of Commerce Building, the only structure with more than two floors in the entire town.

For all of my time in this locale I’ve been witness to a regular ritual carried out by the town’s itinerant dero, Ginger Fred. It was hard for me to miss, because his activity took place on the large cement paving area directly in front of the Rievesport Chamber of Commerce Building, in perfect view of my office window.

Rievesport has existed for near on two hundred years, founded on the strength of its small but deep port, during a burgeoning whaling industry in what was later called the British Colony of Victoria. It was never big—still isn’t—and it has a small-town, peaceful feeling about it. It sprawls into the nearby hills, and its major attraction is its pristine beach and views of the sea. From where I work I can see a happy civic tableaux spread out before me. At the sea edge is the beach, then a park with all the trimmings a young family could ask for, followed by a busy road that skirts the coastline, a car park, and finally the cement-paved square, with my building sitting perfectly at its rear. Classic progressive coastal town, as my flyers proudly announce.

The square was constructed of boring concrete pavers, and the locals were proud of it, in part because it was surrounded by fine trinket shops, cafés, a fish and chip shop, and the Chamber Building, as well as containing at its centre, a well-tended statue of Lloyd Rieves, the founder of the town. His brass sculpture was perched on top of a curious, multi-hued granite stone that wasn’t removed from the site when the grounds were cleared over one hundred and fifty years ago. The old sea dog was in his element, wearing his storm-weather gear, his right hand pointing to the open sea, and his left hand lowered, indicating an undefined point on the cement slabs before him. I often wondered what his left hand was pointing to, assuming that the statue was inspired from some old painting, or perhaps a daguerreotype, of an old whaler. Either way, the statue has been in the square, cement pavers or not, for nearly ninety years.

I first recall seeing Ginger Fred in the second week after Lisa and I moved into Rievesport. I was still working from home and I had just secured the fourth floor office in the Chamber Building that day, as well as advertising space at the ground level. We strolled into the civic square in front of the building and witnessed an astonishing sight. Fred was a fairly tall man, although due to his age and some poor luck with his health, was stooped, making him appear gangly and shorter than he really was. He was dressed in an insane collection of highly colourful second hand clothes, all greasy and grimy. It was summer and yet he had a tattered, burr-covered, pink and green checked scarf wrapped around his neck. He wore hikers’ boots with holes and non-matching footy laces. Perhaps the most striking feature about him was his hair and beard. Despite a hard life and the elements heavily wearing this itinerant’s face and hands—he couldn’t have been younger than seventy—he had a wild, splayed-out crop of red hair, with matching beard that grew to his waist, with only a faint trace of grey.

The dero had a rucksack lying nearby on the pavement, which looked like it had been soaked in lard for months before being dried out. There was no way I could tell what its original colour was, nor what material it was made from. I suspect all his worldly possessions were contained in that small bag. The only thing that was new and clean was a large children’s pencil box containing a wide variety of coloured chalk. The old man was furiously creating a masterpiece on several sections of the cement paving. Just where old Rieves was pointing.

What the old man was drawing was an illustration of a whaling vessel, the type that would have been based at Rievesport a hundred and fifty years ago, tossed in a violent storm, with its pilot grimly steering the vessel. It was dark and captivating, oddly distorted in perspective, and yet it seemed appropriate. The boat, the men, the storm and churning seas of the Southern Ocean: all were magnificently rendered. This man was an out-and-out artist of the highest calibre. Lisa praised him, and dropped a few dollars into his old seaman’s leather cap.

The wizened figure stopped his chalk drawing, got to his feet and theatrically bowed. “Thanks be to ye, Missus,” he said with a raspy voice, betraying an antique sea-faring accent. “I come abouts here once in a while, and give somethin’ of me on this here sidewalk. I likes drawin’ for the ol’ capt’n.” He pointed his arthritic hand to the statue of the old salt, and for a fleeting second, his eyes met mine, and he seemed, without words, to acknowledge me like some old lost friend.

And that was how I got to meet Ginger Fred. He didn’t introduce himself, but returned to his amazing work of art, and every month or so he would return and produce another masterpiece in a single day. By nightfall he was gone, and the pavement art would remain in its splendour until it was washed away by the rain, or simply degraded and scattered in the sea breeze. No one ever walked on his art. He was a derelict, but people respected him for his craft, especially the elderly who had been in Rievesport a long time and came to expect these minor miracles to regularly appear.

When I saw him for the second time working on his art—an illustration of a summer day at the beach with tourists and locals paddling, swimming and surfing, I was already set up in my office and found my view of his picture to be perfect. There were no distortions like I saw before, and astonishingly, all the people were depicted in photographic realism, as well as the breakers and the beach flags. They appeared to be jutting up, out of the cement pavers. I couldn’t resist dashing down to the square and looking at the pavement art closely. To my surprise, the optical 3D effect was not so obvious at ground level, and yet it still was a work of high craft. Ginger Fred momentarily stopped work and peered at me, winked, and returned to his art.

I left the man to continue his work and asked an old local I had recently befriended, whether he knew much about the artist.

“Ginger Fred? That’s his name,” old Bert Tailor responded, an eighty-year-old Rievesport local and three-times mayor of the shire. “He’s been paying visits for as long as I can remember. He doesn’t live here—just appears on the odd day and chalks what interests him—can be anything, past or present—an’ then he’s gone. Always had that wild carrot top, and we knew he was called Fred, so that’s what we call him, ‘Ginger Fred’. We don’t know where he lives and don’t even know what his surname is. Yet he talks like a local of years gone by, and we figure he must’ve been one of the last true fishermen of the region, ’cause no small number of his pictures are of the sea.”

“Did you say ‘as long as I can remember’?” I asked. “Is he older than he looks?”

Bert laughed, in a knowing, secretive fashion. “Don’t know how old he is but I remember him when I was a kid. That’d make him ’bout a hundred, heh?”

I wanted to know more, but for some reason Bert gave a feeble excuse to leave. Subsequent attempts to find out about Ginger Fred, including from a few other older locals I eventually befriended, resulted in nothing of material value. I think there was a reluctance to provide information on their part. All I knew was that this old bum spent most of his life wandering God knows where, up and down the coast, and more often than not spent one day in thirty in Rievesport. And as far as I could tell, he never chalked pictures in any other town. It intrigued me.

Over the years I developed an odd ritual in response to the activities of Ginger Fred, or at least that’s how Lisa put it. I always looked forward to the next masterpiece and never tired of gazing at what he was able to produce, but a form of apathy grew within me, a hazy, snail-paced progress, much like life in Rievesport. I only slowly investigated his origins, and never made the effort to know him well. I think it was because I didn’t want the risk of the magic of his pavement art to burst apart, to cease.

I seldom talked with Ginger Fred; he was usually busy with his work for most of the daylight hours, then he would pack his bag and wander off in a random direction. I wasn’t concerned with his lack of social skills, as he spoke with few people, and it was always short and superficial. There was a lot more behind his eyes.

Ginger Fred’s eyes. That’s how he communicated, when he chose to do so. On the days he worked in the square I would often stand mesmerised at my window, watching the masterful pieces come to life, observing the maestro furiously, tirelessly draw with his chalk. I’m sure that he knew exactly when I was studying his art, with some sixth sense employed, and every once in a while he would glance up at me and smile with his dark yellow, sparse teeth. From my fourth floor vantage point it was impossible to tell what colour his eyes were, and yet I found depth and some mysterious, cryptic message, embedded in them. He never spent much time staring at me, yet it was long enough for him to assess whether I understood what he was telepathically conveying. I failed, of course, and it didn’t seem to faze him; he just lightly shrugged his shoulders and returned to his artwork.

Like a storm cloud patiently looming over the horizon, growing and threatening to engulf the land, I felt there was something dark to the mystery of Ginger Fred. Not evil; something unnatural. It wasn’t altogether the dero’s behaviour that gave me this impression, it was more the content of his artwork, and the timing of it. It was recognising patterns within patterns over time.

It was a few years ago that I felt the first inkling of this ominous side to Ginger Fred. As usual, he turned up early in the morning, and immediately started to draw. No planning, no hesitation with contemplation. He just started in one corner and hurriedly marked the pavement with his collection of multi-coloured chalk. I was already at work—I’m an early starter—and between briefs, planning and calls, I stood up and watched the next piece of art come to life. Already, a few tourists and locals had started to congregate with their coffees and teas on café tables near the artist at work. At first I wondered why he was using so many grey and brown hues, textured with white and black, to highlight, add depth, light and shade. There were moments when I surprised myself: I held my breath too long while being immersed in the rendering of a particular shape or figure. By lunchtime I was astonished by the illusion of a large, jagged hole in the pavement, with several naked demonic humans, all with grim, pained faces, trying to crawl out into our square: failing, caught in some nightmarish hell. By mid-afternoon Ginger Fred had drawn a small area next to the gash in the earth with a young blond girl, lying half naked, one arm slipping into the hell-hole, ashen faced, almost peaceful in death. This final form of the picture separated the squeamish from the strong-stomached among the onlookers, with many of them leaving, shaking their heads. Ginger Fred had a brief argument with an elderly lady called Mavis Brown, the local moral authority of the town and stalwart of the Methodist Women’s Auxiliary.

Aside from the weirdness of the Dantesque drawing, I thought nothing of it until late the next day, when the local television news reported that three teenagers from Rievesport were charged with the rape and murder of a Dutch tourist. The photograph was of a bleach-blond, smiling girl. It took a while, but I managed to convince myself that Ginger Fred’s hellish drawing was purely a coincidence.

Six months later Ginger Fred drew one of his many beach scenes, but this time with a large, ragged-edged fin protruding from the sea, just outside the breakers. The next day a local surf life saver was attacked by a shark. I couldn’t fall back to the coincidence argument anymore. I nevertheless, almost religiously, hung onto the belief that there had to be a rational explanation for it.

In my spare time I began to investigate our itinerant artist. Spending hours in the library, and the state and shire records, I found nothing of value. Not even a mention of him, despite his frequent visits to Rievesport for, presumably, eighty years. Given his age and affinity with the sea, I researched the maritime history of the local area and discovered that Lloyd Rieves had a profound influence on the town, aside from being its founder. It was with that revelation that I wondered if there was a connection between Lloyd Rieves and Ginger Fred—after all, the pavement art was always rendered directly in front of the founder’s statue.

Surprisingly, I also found little information on the enigmatic Lloyd Rieves. He was the captain of a ship, employed by the East India Company. He made a small fortune and chose to settle where Rievesport now exists. He died in 1858 aged ninety-six, remarkably by accident at sea in a fishing vessel. I then realised the aptness of having the old salt’s statue depicting him in foul weather gear. There was little stated in the published local history, or official records, of Lloyd’s private life. I felt I needed to know more about him, and talked to the older locals, hoping that some useful information had survived through word of mouth.

I bumped into Mavis soon after my poor attempt at research, and her reaction to my questions was surprising. “The statue is a blasphemy to God.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Lloyd Rieves was a heathen, Mr Jones. He journeyed to Unchristian lands, and went native, so to speak. While he didn’t openly practise whatever uncouth rituals that he believed in, he never once attended a church service, in any denomination, throughout his life. When they brought his body back after his fall on his boat, he was buried in an unmarked grave. He didn’t deserve a Christian burial and now he rots in hell.”

I was momentarily left speechless by the matronly Mavis. “Where is he buried?”

“That’s where the shire made a mistake,” she replied, shaking her head. “That stone that the statue is placed on marks his grave. He’s under that big granite rock.” She wrinkled her brow, realising that she had said something she shouldn’t have, and excused herself, leaving as quickly as her old bones and walking stick could carry her.

That discussion took place a year ago and Mavis, God bless her soul, was given a Christian burial only a few weeks ago. At least what they found of her.

I didn’t lose sleep over the news that good old Captain Lloyd Rieves was buried only a few dozen metres from my office. However, there were moments when I pondered the possible connections between a dead body lying for well over a century below a statue, and a venerable pavement artist. I suppose the sheer weirdness of the connection shied me away from pursuing it further. It was laughable at the time, and now I regret my mental lethargy.

A month ago everything changed. I had to get to work early with a lot of preparation for a few customer inspections in the morning, and I got down to reading with my extra-large, extra-sugared, latte. I hadn’t taken more than two sips when I heard the distinctive scratching sounds of Ginger Fred hard at work on his latest project. As usual I picked myself up to have a quick look and saw him in his usual frenzied chalking. I did notice something odd. I can’t describe it in detail, but my five years of observing him at work, or perhaps my growing concern that I was somehow tied to Ginger Fred, Lloyd Rieves, and Rievesport, caused me to believe that Ginger Fred was off balance. Anxious. I studied what the artist was doing at the expense of my own work.

The pavement art commenced like many I have seen before, with one of Ginger Fred’s recurring themes, a modern coastal depiction of Rievesport, including a dominant view of the beach. And yet my heart was beating like a teenage boy waiting for his first date. My eyes were locked, unblinking, on his masterful chalking. The houses and commercial buildings sprang to life in three-dimensional glory. The children’s park and Norfolk Pine exploded in vivid colours. The Great Ocean Road snaked its way before the park, including the…three car pile-up. I suddenly realised the oddness of what was being drawn. I leant as close to the glass of my window as I could to catch every detail.

Ginger started to chalk faster than at any time I had seen before, and yet he had never looked so old, and worn out. It was surreal. A larger than normal group of onlookers gathered around his art.

He turned to render the beach and extended his drawing. It was devoid of sea for fifty metres: rocks, fish and seaweed were scattered in sludge and pools. A dark, frothy wave stretched from headland to headland, the height of the Chamber Building. Ginger Fred returned his attention to the beach proper. He sketched several people running toward the town, and despite their small sizes in the picture, appeared terrified out of their minds, the type of fear that can only coldly clasp one’s soul when there is certainty of death. Ginger Fred drew similar figures on the road and streets, and in the square.

The picture was completed, and it wasn’t even 11am. Ginger Fred nearly collapsed, but managed to get to his feet. He gazed up at me. He lingered longer than usual, with that penetrating, telepathic stare.

I was less concerned with his interest in me than what the wave meant. I hurriedly scanned the picture to see if there was a clue as to when the tsunami was going to hit.

Ginger Fred smiled—the one and only time I saw a genuine, spontaneous grin. He clapped his hands twice, and packed his gear.

I noticed the rendition of the clock on the Post Office building—it read 9. It was daylight in the picture, which meant that the tidal wave would not hit today. I sighed, and Ginger Fred’s response to our silent interchange registered.

He wanted me to be desperate.

I thought about Lisa, and our home. Even Sniggles, our Fox Terrier. I told Sandy, my secretary—who lived inland—to take the next two days off. She resisted and I shouted and swore at her, and she left, weeping. I rang my two agents and told them to stay clear of the coast. “No questions, just stay clear,” and hung up. I ran down the steps and found that most of the crowd that had clustered around the pavement art were still there. Ginger Fred had already scampered off.

I was about to explain my theories to Bert Tailor, Jack Featherstone, Ingrid Peterson, and a host of others, when Bert held his hand up.

“We know, David,” he said, his voice cracking. “We’re heading off for a few days, mate. You’d do it too, if you’re smart.” He looked me square in the eye, although his jaw was shaking from the fear and sorrow. “Yeah, you know.” He helped Ingrid walk quickly down the street to her home.

I saw no point in hanging around. I drove home and Lisa and I gathered what possessions were dear to us, packing them in our cars. We drove to Lisa’s parents’ farm far inland. Lisa didn’t question my sanity; she saw truth in my worried eyes. We made two more shuttle trips before I called it a day.

All evening I debated with myself about whether I should call the authorities and the media. Lisa left me alone, concerned with my anxiety, but remained unbelievably supportive. In the end I chose to do nothing. I figured no one would believe me.

The next morning a volcano erupted under the sea, coinciding with a magnitude 8.5 earthquake. It was connected to a fault line in the Antarctic, but more importantly, Rievesport was directly in line with the worst of the oceanic surge. Tsunami warnings were issued in the southern Australian States, giving, by the time the authorities got their act together, one hour of warning—if a resident was listening to a radio or bothered to read an SMS message.

I watched the footage of the wave hitting a dozen seaside towns that night and was grateful that the one-hour warning saved most lives. But not all. Hundreds of people died. Including Mavis.

Four days later I was allowed to drive into Rievesport and found the majority of the town at sea level washed completely away. All there was left was a jumbled heap of crushed and splintered wood, masonry, furniture, and other unrecognisable odds and ends, piled against the adjoining hills. The only construction that survived was the Rievesport Chamber of Commerce Building, although it would take a few weeks to return everything to working order.

I parked near the Commerce Building and eagerly picked my way through the debris and mud. I wanted to see how the square fared. The smell of rotting vegetation and fish, combined with the saltiness of the seawater pools, was overpowering.

The tidal wave had undermined the pavers in the square, and the majority had collapsed or were washed against the building. The statue was broken and half was jutting out of the main entrance. The granite base stone had been washed three metres away from its original position.

I couldn’t resist. I moved closer to the hole where the rock had been, and peered in. The soil had been churned up by the catastrophe and I saw rotting wood poking through a yellow, muddy pool. It was unmistakably a coffin, turned with the force of the tsunami, one end facing up.

I returned to my car and grabbed my tyre lever. By now my shoes and trousers were ruined, but I didn’t care. I returned to the hole, climbed in carefully, and started to lever the end of the coffin open. It was easy, and I eventually loosened it. I grabbed the crumbling lid and held my breath before I wrenched it.

“Don’t do it, mate,” Bert Tailor said from above.

I looked up and smiled awkwardly. “I need to know.”

“Why?” Bert was in overalls and Blundstones. Smarter than me.

“I just need to know. This should be Lloyd Rieves; just want to be sure.”

“You don’t need to disturb him, David. It’s him. The old families know that. Let me organise a reburial.”

“Christian?”

“Nah. He was heathen. But he does deserve a headstone.”

I leaned back against the glistening clay of the side of the hole. All my energy drained into the murky, stagnant water I was standing in. I imagined the same water mingling with what remained in the coffin, bringing up a taste of bile in my mouth. “He should be honoured. Not just with a statue.”

“Exactly!” Bert said, exploding with relief. “Now let me help you get out of this here pit.” The old man grabbed the end of a large slab of concrete that was jutting from the ground, and extended his other hand to me. I clasped it and pulled myself up the slippery side.

Bert strained while supporting some of my weight, when he suddenly yelped as my hand slipped from his. I fell backwards into the hole, my shoulder smashing into the coffin-end. As if it was meant to be, the wood, loosened already by my earlier effort, popped open.

The smell of stagnant water reconstituting Lloyd Rieves’ body wafted into the air, nearly causing me to vomit. I heard Bert whimper, “No, no, no,” when I noticed the corpse’s slimy skull, with long red locks of hair still attached in places. Red hair. Ginger.

“Enough,” Bert said. “We’ve done enough to the poor man. Please, put the wood back over him.”

I complied. Gladly. Then I retched into the pool.

I managed to get out of the hole and sat on the side, exhausted. Bert comforted me with a gentle pat on my shoulder.

“No man should’ve seen that,” he finally said.

I nodded, finding it difficult to get the memory of the sight of the corpse and it’s horrendous smell out of my mind. “Who is Ginger Fred, Bert?”

The old man sat solemnly next to me. “Honestly, I don’t know. No one knows. We asked him and he never talked about it. We tried followin’ him, once, but he just disappeared into the night. Some of the old folk—when I was young—reckoned he looked like Lloyd Rieves, or his grandson.”

“Are there any descendants of Rieves alive today?”

“No. His grandson died in the Eighteen Nineties and he had no children. Julian Rieves was the last of his line.”

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“Lost at sea, me boy. Washed o’rboard on a whaler, the body never recovered.”

“I just don’t know what to believe.”

I got to my feet and had one last look at the coffin. I could still mentally picture the hair on the corpse’s head, exactly like Ginger Fred’s. I thanked Bert for his assistance and returned to my car.

***

The view out of my office window isn’t pretty and it will take time to fully rebuild Rievesport. The square is just a dirt plot now, and the Shire Council is planning to lay pretty new pavers on it. The statue will also be restored, minus the coffin of course. This will not be enough to get Ginger Fred back.

There is only one thing I do know for sure: Ginger Fred saved my life. Whether he was a ghost or a real man, I don’t have a clue, but he hasn’t come back since that last, ominous chalk drawing, and I don’t think he ever will.

 

—/—

Copyright © Gerry Huntman 2012


Gerry Huntman lives with his wife and young daughter in Melbourne. He is an IT Consultant to make the real money, while a writer , co-owner and Chief Editor of IFWG Publishing (small specfic traditional publisher based in US), and publisher/contributing editor to SQ Mag (an international specfic ezine), to make the Monopoly money, but keep him sane.

Gerry publishes short fiction in mags, ezines and anthologies, in all three main genres of speculative fiction, and many of the subgenres. He divides his time equally between fantasy, horror and scifi, but much of his fiction tends towards dark and no small number cross genre. Very recent short fiction have been published in Penny Dread Tales II steampunk anthology (Runewright), dark fantasy and historical horror stories in Dark Dispatches anthology (Static Movement), and a dark dystopian piece in After The End (Static Movement). Other work scheduled to be published in 2012 will appear in Blood Moon Rising, Stupefying Tales and Tales of Horror and Mayhem From Deep Within The Box anthology (Evil Jester Press, ed. Charles Day) among others. He recently published a young teen fantasy novel, Guardian of the Sky Realms (IFWG, 2010). He is on the judging panel for novels and novellas for the Australian Shadows Awards.

 

VN:F [1.9.7_1111]
Rating: 4.6/5 (5 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.7_1111]
Rating: +3 (from 5 votes)
Fictions: Ginger Fred, the Pavement Artist, 4.6 out of 5 based on 5 ratings