Words || Emma Harvey
When I first meet Jamie he is mid-conversation with the automated voice over the train loudspeaker.
‘This train will stop at Hawksbury River, Berowra… ’
‘Thanks very much!’
He sways in his seat, beer in one hand, a blue plastic bag in the other. There aren’t many people in the carriage. A girl with thick eyeliner wiggles headphones into her ears. A man in a suit with a receding hairline stares fixedly out of the window. My friends and I are hungover and eating Doritos.
‘German beer, can you believe it?’ He says this directly to us. ‘German! I couldn’t afford anything else.’
My friends and I smile politely, crunch on our chips, hope he’ll go away.
‘How do you fit a hundred people into a car?’
‘This can’t be good,’ one friend whispers. We brace ourselves for some casual antisemitism.
‘Ninety-nine in the front and Maxwell Smart in the back!’
It’s delivered with such dramatic flair and childlike triumph that the three of us splutter with laughter. Thrilled to have found an audience, the man plonks into the seat adjacent from us and continues to ramble.
We are introduced to Jamie Fletcher, a small, smiling man, with a plastic bag full of old skateboarding magazines and a ten-dollar note in his left sock. He produces one of the mags, SLAM 1999, for us to flick through. It’s tattered and worn with grungy, angular font and faded photographs of skateboarders twisting above ramps and clearing concrete staircases.
‘Can you do that?’ I inquire offhandedly of one of the pictures. Jamie flicks a few pages ahead.
‘That’s me,’ he says matter-of-factly. He is pointing to a photo of a young man suspended mid-air before a camera-flashing crowd. My friends and I trade sly smiles. Then catch sight of the caption: Don’t mess with Fletch.
Our smiles slacken, eyes swap from man to magazine, and back again. The train speaker cuts through our stupor.
‘Next stop: Epping.’
Two days later and I am five pages deep into a Google search on Jamie Fletcher. I’ve learnt a few things, mainly that a) privacy is well and truly dead in the information age, and b) the drunken man we’d met on the train was actually a 90s skateboarding champion. Scrolling through YouTube comments, skate forums and Facebook threads, I am equally saddened and intrigued.
The most naturally gifted skater I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
A tragic man, complete mess these days.
In the days that follow I message strangers, send emails, and submit queries to websites that haven’t been active for years. My only lead comes from a guy named Justin, on Facebook.
‘He was with his Dad in San Remo a few years back,’ he tells me. ‘Let me know if you find him. I’ve been trying for years.’
I take to the White Pages, and after four unsuccessful calls, Darryl Fletcher answers. A television hums in the background and from the tone of his voice, he’d much rather be watching it. After a brusque chat, Darryl reluctantly recites his son’s phone number down the line. Ten minutes later:
‘You have made my life!’
I’m thrilled to have finally located Jamie and he seems equally stoked.
‘I’ll tell you everything!’ He pauses. ‘Do I have to cry?’
I propose we meet over lunch, or coffee.
‘Yeah, I don’t do coffee. I do VB. Or Tooheys. Or Carlton Dry.’
The concourse of Central Station is bustling but Jamie isn’t hard to spot. It’s been almost a month since our first encounter on the Central Coast train line (one he no longer remembers thanks to ‘German beer!’) but Jamie’s tiny, tattooed frame is distinctive among a tall, suitcase-wheeling crowd. As I approach, he is mid-conversation with a much taller, broader man, with a button-down shirt and hairy arms. I introduce myself and learn that the pair have just met on the train in from Queanbeyan. As they exchange phone numbers and the promise of ‘a few beers down the track,’ I realise that I am not at all surprised by this fast friendship. There is something about Jamie’s bumbling demeanour that is both utterly sincere and intensely likeable. We walk outside and Jamie nods to the Greenpeace Australia people handing out flyers near the taxi bay.
‘I’m voting for you guys,’ he assures the not-for-profit, non-government volunteers.
A boy skates past on a board, and Jamie calls out for a turn. The boy gives him a bemused look and continues on.
‘He would let me if he knew who I was,’ mutters Jamie.
We head to a pub across the road. I go to the bar to buy Jamie a VB, myself a coke. When I return, he’s lined up his old SLAM magazines like well-behaved children. I find myself speaking to Jamie in the same deliberate tone I use on my partially deaf grandmother. But it’s not because he’s stupid. Perpetual intoxication can’t be doing favours for his cognitive function but Jamie’s delivered nothing but sharp wit and knowing quips from the moment we met. I have to speak this way because he is completely preoccupied by his prized magazines. He knows almost every person on every page, their name, and the trick they are performing.
‘That fella right there is Dustin Dolan,’ he points. ‘He sent me five or six skateboards in the mail. And I know a few people in that picture there. Gus can kick-flip wild. Peanut doing a frontside melon. With all his Volcom Stickers.’
The lingo is lost on me. I sit back and sip my coke, watching as he scans the articles with the hunch and intensity of a scientist inspecting petri dishes. His face is taught and tanned, with a deep scowl and darting eyes. His head is too big for his body, which is thin and veined and covered in tattoos (he explains each one to me, and they all involve skateboarding). As he talks, I begin to realise that Jamie is far happier talking about what his friends are doing with their lives, than he is talking about what he is doing with his.
‘Blake Convie. He lives in Melbourne now taking care of a skatepark down near the water,’ and ‘Troy Young. He has a scaffolding business.’
Most of the people he describes are working-class, family men who have more or less moved on from skateboarding as a career. Jamie, with his plastic bag of tattered magazines, has clearly not. After leaving school at fifteen, Jamie would skate for over nine hours a day. He was heavily sponsored during this time, by On Edge Skatewear, Get Rad Skate Shop and Omni, respectively.
‘If I didn’t make a trick, I would say to my mates, “I’m not leaving until I get the trick.”’
They’d blast their car horns impatiently and call at him that it was time to go.
“Go where? I told ya, I’m not going anywhere until I make this trick!”
We’re nearing the end of our conversation and there’s still one question that hasn’t been asked. It’s the ‘what the hell happened?’ question and we’re both guilty of avoiding it. When I finally broach the topic, his initial response is similar to when I first asked him for the interview – ‘I’m a forty three year old man. I’m not gonna cry.’
At eighteen years old, and in his prime, Jamie skateboarded down a hill and slammed into a stationary car at the bottom. The impact broke nearly all of his major bones, including both legs. It was months before he could walk again and even longer before he was able to balance a skateboard.
‘What did you do after that?’
‘Started drinkin’ a lot of beer. And thinkin’. And drawing, a bit.’
‘Oh yeah? Like what?’
‘Mainly snakes. They’re not so bad actually.’
The subject is well and truly done with as Jamie returns to his magazines. While he finishes his beer, he recounts one particular night of heavy drinking, when he was targeted by a group of men in the street, his head thrown against concrete.
‘When I finally got up I just walked. Walked and walked. I was completely lost.’
‘Where did you end up?’
‘Well I don’t know how I got there, but I woke up in a skatepark.’