At the beginning of May my brother called me at work to ask if I’d been entering children’s competitions under false names. He sounded concerned, and had reason to be. A package had been delivered: a long cardboard tube, around a metre long. There was no return address, but inside, along with an item wrapped in plastic, was a letter, featuring in its corner the grinning, brown-eyed Paddle Pop Lion.
“You’ve won a prize!” it read. “Congratulations, Nestlé-Boy Vening!”
It was a child’s kite, green and insubstantial and also branded with the lion. We were thanked for entering the Paddle Pop giveaway and promised entry into a second-round draw for the major prize.
But what major prize? And who was Nestlé-Boy Vening?
“Did you do this?” my brother asked again, holding the kite between us. It looked like it would shatter in a stiff breeze. He held it like he was lifting a body from the earth. “Was this you?”
“No, my god!” I said. “I don’t have the heart for this kind of plot.”
We read the letter again. Whoever Nestlé-Boy Vening was, he was none of us. All we knew was that we had his kite and, we felt, we would probably never be the same again. He could be a secret brother of ours. He could have been a ghost from another reality whose hard-earned prize, by some accident of the universe, had come to rest in our hands.
More likely though was this: we were being taken for fools.
As this encounter took place I was getting the prickly feeling that comes when you’re not sure if someone’s making fun of you. It’s not the first time this has occurred even this year, and it’s not something I have swallowed well.
Some weeks ago, a student approached me to say she’d seen my business card left at her work. “The one,” she said, “with the misspelled name.”
I looked at her. “What are you talking about?”
“The card with the picture of the car,” she explained. The card with my name spelt incorrectly in two different spaces.
She wasn’t joking. “Bring this card to me,” I said, “or you’re failing the class.”
It was a cheap print but still of a professional quality. A stock background of a car racing through a tunnel. On the dashboard the dials showed a full tank of petrol and a high speed.
I felt the branching lines of possibility appear as they would with Nestlé-Boy’s green kite later. Could there be a man out there, with a name so similar, and chosen field and stomping-grounds identical to mine, who would have the gall to leave around (on purpose) possibly the shittiest cards ever produced in the western world? Could this be a coincidence?
Of course not. I was the target of a hoax. There was a man somewhere, I thought, a man or a lady, humiliating me for some gain. Soaking my name in a swamp and laughing about it to their imbecilic, rat-tailed friends.
I immediately drew and redrew lists of suspects. My students were smart but none was plucky enough to undertake this attack. I had friends and colleagues whose humour fit the style but whose modus operandi were inconsistent. There were those who had the means and the motive but would have been too lazy for the physical proximity to make sense. I spent the afternoon in panic. Everyone was working together, I convinced myself, and in my head drafted the letter I would write to every paper in the state, calling for justice:
Whoever this is is a snake and a liar, a real no good, prison-born motherfucker, made in hell and let loose by some incompetence on the part of the devil.
And who are the criminals who profited from this miscarriage? The faceless fat cat bosses of internet printing companies; what punishment is fit for them? Those who should be dragged through the streets by chariots, and fed slowly to wild animals, and fired from gigantic cannons into the deepest parts of the ocean.
I settled quickly on modes of vengeance. Websites set up in the names of the suspects; complaints made to the bosses of academic colleagues.
“Would you really wanna try to affect their job?” one friend asked, after I had already gone through the motions of accusing him many times.
“Affect their job?” I said. “I want these people to never have meaningful employment again. I want to salt the earth.”
What moderation he did manage to impart, though, was the assurance that this was all a good thing. “You have a mystery,” he said. “I would love a mystery. I would love something to follow in my life.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed, but it was enough to bring me down to a more reasonable level. I could see the humour in it from the beginning, but I couldn’t see who was making the joke, and to whom it was being made, and this was what pricked me. I felt like a kid being made gentle fun of by a roomful of strangers, and who had yet to develop the facilities to deal with light humiliation, or respond with anything but tears and punches aimed at groins.
But it passed. About a week before Nestlé-Boy’s kite appeared, I went south for the Easter, to see my parents and the trees all changing their colours. The nights were already winter-cold but their house was low and thick-walled and the heating systems was advanced and locks on the doors large and effective. I was safe. In my wallet I had copies of the card (more had been found), which we were able to all laugh about. I wasn’t sure if I were glad it happened, but sitting with my family it was hard to see it again as anything but a harmless anomaly.
Then, on the last day, as I was getting ready to fly back from my parents’ house, my father called me outside to say he’d found something. On the front lawn of their suburban home, a small scene of violence: viscera, the last earthly remains of an animal killed in the night. It was a small, neat pile of guts and, a few feet away, a wholly intact stomach, engorged, about the size of my fist. The whole scene was ringed with possum fur. There were no other signals of mayhem. The rest of the corpse had disappeared somewhere in the night, and the innards were the only evidence remaining.
“There was nothing,” my father said. “No noises all night. But look how clean it is. It’s like a hunter’s come through and taken him for fur and meat and left the offal.”
I could see him moving through the same patterns of suspicion the card had raised in me. But before I could suggest who would be testing him, which neighbours would want to see him sweat, how we could make them regret it, he buried it. He dug a hole in the earth, two feet deep, and rolled the remains in with the side of his boot.
“It will be good,” he said, “to see what grows here in the spring.”