(C) Julie Boyd 2010
The man didn’t have an old face. His hair wasn’t grey but his eyes were as desolate as the Dead Sea. He was sitting alone on a park bench outside the local village shop, staring straight ahead. Directly in front of him, the sun bounced cheerfully from the rolling white tops of waves. Children were squealing with delight as one of the dads, looking like a beast of burden, walked through the water dragging them along the quiet creek on their body boards. Mothers sunned themselves in tiny bikinis, enjoying the escapism of holiday ‘read and forget’ books while they revelled in the few minutes of freedom from responsibility.
The man continued to stare sightlessly, a newspaper crushed on his lap, an overturned bottle of water dripping onto the concrete under his feet.
My dog, believing that his role is to welcome everyone to our tiny village, pointed his squat little nose toward the man and trotted over to say hello. As he approached, his tail dropped, his walk slowed. He moved gently to sit at the man’s feet, eyes staring in the same direction as if to say ‘I know what you see’. The man’s hand moved down to rest on his head. His newspaper falling to the ground, unnoticed, along with the tears that started to pour down his face.
‘They know don’t they?’ he mumbled. ‘They sure know when you’re feeling like crap, and they’re the only ones who really give a damn.’
I stood to one side, not wanting to intrude, then, as one, they both looked up at me.
’He’s a good little fella isn’t he. My boy was 17 years old. I’d had him since he was a pup. He died yesterday and I feel like I did too. He was the only thing that mattered to me.’ I turned a chair so that it looked out over the water and sat down beside him.
It suddenly occurred to me that this was my third encounter with deep loneliness this week, and they had all been with men.
In the first, my trusty mutt and I were walking along the riverbank near home. We spotted a bundle of old clothes, food wrappers and blankets under a bower of trees. My immediate thought was that another inconsiderate idiot had dumped rubbish for someone else to clean up. I was trying to remember if I had rubbish bags in the car as the nearest bin was some distance away. My dog moved over to have as sniff – new smells are wonderful adventures to him. I called him, concerned that a snake may have decided to call the blankets home, as the pythons have come out to play now spring has arrived.
He didn’t come, but moved a little closer, still sniffing.
My brain shifted gear as I thought- maybe it’s a homeless person’s ‘house’ and we need to just leave them in peace. I called out ‘is anybody home?’ feeling a little silly – but what else could I say? No response- from the blankets or the dog. Moving gingerly closer I urged my dog to move. He stood steadfast. Finally I saw what he was looking at – a face. ‘Are you ok?’ I yelled- even though I was so close I could have whispered. I wasn’t sure whether I was asking the face, the dog, or myself.
No response. There were no bottles around, so maybe he wasn’t an alcoholic. I mentally kicked myself for the assumption. I thought ‘he’s tucked in and looks peaceful – what do I do?’
I didn’t really want to get any closer. We had found parts of a dead body on the beach a few weeks ago, and another one would be a bit much to handle. So I called the dog away, we rushed home and rang the police. After I described where he was, the young cop on the end of the phone asked ‘Do you want us to call you and let you know what happens?’ ‘No thanks, mate, Just make sure he’s ok will you please’. I hung up, not knowing whether to feel guilty or not.
And the third one? A letter arrived in the mail. It was a Monday. I don’t usually bother collecting my mail until Thursday or Friday as the only snail mail that arrives these days are bills. I don’t know what compelled me to change that day. One letter fell out of the pile. A small, innocuous white envelope with a handwritten address, for me. I walked over the road to the beach, sat down and tore it open.
‘Hi. I don’t know anyone else I can ask this of, but I know you’re a psychologist, so you will handle this better than anyone else.’ The beautiful cursive script was that of someone who had grown up as part of my parent’s generation, when handwriting was a hard won skill. A truly strange missive, I read on with rising trepidation gripping my gut like a vice.
‘By the time you read this, I will be dead. I need you to call the police and ask them to go to my house please. I’ve left everything in order. There is another letter on the kitchen table that the police might need. The key is under the front door mat. Thank you. Regards Bruce.
I knew the bloke, but he wasn’t a close friend. We’d worked together on some community projects, and he was a passionate campaigner for resident’s rights. He’d resigned last week from a local association, saying that he had other family business to take care. He’d talked several times about how important a particular date was to him – the date he had written so beautifully on the letter. It had seemed a little odd to those around him at the time, but they assumed he was taking off to see one of his two daughters. How dangerous assumptions can be!
I sat on the sand, weighed down by sadness, I’m not sure for how long. Waves started to wash over my feet – the tide was coming in fast. Suddenly I sprang into action and hurried home, again to call the police, then drove to the house to meet them.
The key was under the doormat, and I started to laugh – a stress reaction, which shocked the young constable who was standing beside me.
‘Why are you laughing? She asked.
‘Why would a dead person be worried about locking the door?’ I responded to her highly disturbed face. She looked as if she hadn’t had much experience with death. It made no sense. Why would a person who had a lovely home, heaps of friends and was highly respected in his community, suddenly choose to take his own life? But he knew that I knew.
As we walked inside it became clear that thus was not a sudden decision. The police were amazed at his thoroughness. He had carefully washed, folded and packed all his bedding and clothes. They were all bagged and carefully labelled. Some for friends, some for the Salvos, some for other charities and community groups, and some for specific needy families. He had cleaned out all his cupboards and even the fridge. All his paperwork was laid out with similar instructions on the kitchen table. All his bills were paid up to the day of his death and the receipts piled neatly together. He lay on the floor, on a tarpaulin beside the table. He looked peaceful but unsmiling.
I called his closest friend. He’d just opened his letter. He said it was just saying goodbye and asking that no funeral or memorial be held. Bruce faded quietly from the community but not from our memories.
Yesterday my ex-husband’s last uncle was laid to rest amidst great pomp and ceremony. Stretch limos carried his daughters to the funeral. They’d slept by his bedside for the last couple of weeks before he died. They didn’t like him but one of them hadn’t been there when her Mum died, so she felt guilty and tried to over-compensate. The President of a local RSL club made a speech. He hadn’t known Clarrie, but he was a returned soldier (even though he didn’t get out of Darwin and never saw any war action), so it was the ‘right’ thing to do. The priest made a speech- even though Clarrie hadn’t been to church for so long no one could remember the last time he went.
Loneliness and aloneness. Human guilt and grief. Strange bedfellows