I didn’t notice the man in the flannelette shirt and tracksuit pants approach me. I was walking in a daze, on autopilot, his request jolted me, and I was baffled, “Sorry? Change?”
He smiled, “Yes, just a little. I need to make a phone call”. Although he looked old and slightly scruffy, his salt and pepper beard grown wild, he definitely didn’t look impoverished.
He had caught me off guard and I had no excuses, all I could manage was a quick and pitiful apology, and I continued walking. The short encounter had roused me from my comatose state of mind, a dark world of grief and of revolving negative thoughts. Speeding up my pace I looked around the busy street and then up at the grey overcast sky. There was nothing to uplift or revive my normally positive and happy self. My seemingly hopeless world darkened further. Approaching the edge of the road, my head heavy from lack of sleep, I waited for a break in the traffic before crossing.
My destination was a bustling corner café. Despite the cool weather some people sat outside wrapped in scarves and gloves. As I got closer the coffee smelt wonderful. Despite my eagerness to grab my morning hit, I paused at the door unsure whether I wanted to immerse myself amongst the dozens of people. Thinking of the crusty instant granules from the dirty kitchenette at work, the aroma won me over.
The morning rush had yet to subside and I spent an uncomfortable ten minutes in the queue. I retreated to my normal spot beside a wide pillar, my safety blanket when seated in public places. I had a view of the street in front of me, obscured only by a few tables. One woman glanced up at me idly as I sat down. Behind me was a babbling table of private school girls gushing about something ridiculous and meaningless. It would be nice to enjoy a ridiculous and meaningless conversation right now, one in which you had no cares in the world.
As I waited for my coffee and toasted sandwich I felt empty, like a shell, still while life swirled around me. Staring out to the street I thought of the man who had approached me and I was reminded of my father; he was a similar age, I imagined him, homeless and poor. These thoughts stirred some deep powerful emotions in me, my chest began to ache.
Why didn’t I just give the man some change? A few dollars meant nothing to me.
For the next twenty five minutes I sat motionless, watching without seeing. I managed to finish half of my coffee, and left the toasted sandwich untouched. As I got up to leave I tried to remember what it was like to function normally, moving through life without a care.
The following day I stopped in at the same cafe for my morning coffee. My usual table was occupied so I chose one by the window. With my jacket off and comfortable in my seat I looked up and was shocked to find the man from yesterday grinning back at me from the table opposite. He wore the same flannelette shirt but looked neat and not at all out of place. With a cup of tea and a newspaper laid out in front of him, his large weathered hands gently held the sides of the pages. He dipped his tea cup at me with a slight nod and smile, and took a sip.
I managed half a smile in return. It was a stupid idiotic smile. I was completely unsure of how to react. I pretended to look out of the window trying to find something to focus on. My coffee arrived carried over by the young female waitress in skin tight black clothing. I responded only with a muffled “Thank you.” Even though I may as well have ignored the poor girl completely, she promptly left seemingly unaffected by my demeanour.
Today the smell of my coffee was strong and overwhelming, and as business people swarmed around me I felt trapped, suffocated. Opposite me I was faced with my selfish actions of the day before, the man now quietly reading his paper. The sadness was engulfing and turning me into an awful being. Despair began to unfurl like a fast rolling storm cloud. The familiar ache crept up my nose to my eyes, the tears were coming. Taking a deep breath I pressed my palm to my forehead, forcing away the tears that threatened to fall.
Poor thing, she looks terrified. I asked countless people for change yesterday. I didn’t feel any anger towards her, I only felt sorry for her. I’ll get on with my tea, she’ll figure out I’m not fussed.
Looking back at my newspaper, I continued to read the article on plans for the new sports complex. I read about the latest greatest technology and facilities that would be on offer. With a loud sigh I reminded myself that I probably wouldn’t be using any of them.
Turning the page I found the jobs section, Might be something worth a look. A couple of positions stood out but after reading them in more detail they soon proved to be out of my reach; there was always a certificate I didn’t have, or I fell short of the correct years of experience. A bricklayer position was still there that I’d applied for a few weeks back. Geez they must be picky. I knew better however, I’m old, past it, they’re looking for young-uns.
Frustrated by the job advertisements I glanced up again, searching for a distraction. The young woman opposite looked so familiar. I just could not put my finger on it. She looked incredibly troubled, her gaze lifted every now and then, only to bow her head moments later. In one laboured movement she pushed her coffee into the middle of the table and rested her head in her hands.
Wow I could really pick them aye? Should’ve left her right alone yesterday.
She looked up at me and caught my eye but swiftly moved her gaze out of the window. She acted as if she were busy focussing on something, a bus perhaps, it looked very awkward.
Better head off before the poor girl loses it. I closed the paper and headed for the door placing it on the pile near the counter. I paused. Turning back, a name on the back of the paper had caught my attention, and under it was a photo. I picked it up and had a closer look.
Glancing once again at the woman sitting alone by the window, I now knew who she was.
As I stepped out of the front door the rich delicious smell of jasmine engulfed me. The sprawling bush that inhabited the entire front fence was in bloom. The sun was already warming the day and despite the events that would transpire, I felt some happiness and a little hope. For the first time since my father had passed the world was giving me positive energy.
I picked up my mother from her home that was only a short drive away, she was thoughtful, calm and collected. At the church my brother arrived with his wife and young children, they were all dressed smartly, the children looking more sweet and a precious than ever before. Friends and family slowly began to arrive, and we greeted them with as much strength as we could muster, leaning on them for support as they leant on us.
While I spoke quietly with the minister, I saw him arrive. The man from the street, the man from the café. Today he was dressed in a suit and tie. He walked up to me, and took my hand, “Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Bert, a very old friend of your fathers.”
Bert was gracious and kind, and he told me all about growing up with my father. He couldn’t remember when they had met but it didn’t matter, they were brothers, forever bound by the same experience. They had been orphans, their families were only a distant memory. He spoke fondly another boy named Paul, who completed the troublesome trio. Paul could not remember ever having a family at all. The three of them had stuck together, that was until Bert had been sent away at age eighteen to work in the city. He never saw my father or Paul again.
I was moved by Bert’s story because it was all too familiar. My father had spoken about Bert often and it was at this moment that I felt my father had been close while I travelled through the dark days of the past week; two chance encounters with someone who had known him from the very start of his life. This thought filled me with such hope, my father had gone but everything would be okay, his spirit would live on.
At the end of the day I thought of a way to repay Bert’s kindness and forgiveness but also the magic of his presence. I found him sitting with my mother on the porch of our family home, he was animated, obviously reliving a funny story about his childhood. Mother was smiling, she hadn’t smiled since father was diagnosed with prostate cancer 12 months earlier.
As they both fell into quiet reflection, I took a moment to speak with him. “Bert, would you please join me for lunch next week? I would love to hear more about the trouble you two got up to as kids.”
“Sure, sure. Name the place, I’m free any day” he grinned.
We met before noon at a restaurant not far from the café. The meal was wonderful, and the conversation was easy and carefree. He talked about my father with such fondness.
Afterwards I asked him to join me for a stroll. We walked through the gardens of a local nursing home, the sun was beaming down and the grass was lush and green. A man in a wheelchair sat alone by a pond, he was a family friend of mine. He had dementia and had been in the nursing home for about a year. He no longer knew me very well but I thought perhaps, just perhaps…
As we approached the pond, I whispered to Bert, “I’d like you to meet a dear friend of my fathers, although I think maybe, you’ve already met.”