I was on the bus, on my way into town. I had just put on my iPod, and opened my book, when I felt the tap on my shoulder. I looked around. The bloke behind me was in his late twenties. Nervous looking. Boarding house type. I could see the sweat stains on the back of his collar. He had a smile that looked like he’d tried it on only recently and wasn’t so sure about it. Politely I pulled out my earpiece. His discomfort was acute, and the words emerged from his mouth as if he didn’t own them.
“You’d be Dave’s little brother.”
“Sorry?” I said.
He hesitated, and his eyes slid away from me. He reminded me of someone on the beach, the first swim of the season, standing gingerly at the edge, toes teasing the water, caught between desire and retreat. When he did finally speak again, his words were halting and unsure.
“Dave Armstrong… used to go to school with him.” He paused again. “You’re Tim.”
“Yeah. I am.”
I was calculating how soon I could pop the ear piece back in and turn around. “Thought I recognised ya.”
I waited politely. Just as I was about to turn around he continued.
“You probably don’t remember.”
His eyes snuck back to my face.
“Your brother and I, we used to hang out after school.”
He had edged further into the water, perhaps to his knees, and even though the fear was still there, a powerful urge to keep talking kept his eyes on my face.
“But you probably don’t remember.”
He was right. I didn’t.
“How is he?”
He took his eyes from me again and waded in waste deep.
“Haven’t seen him since we left school…I remember though…we put that car together… from scratch.”
He paused. I waited.
“Didn’t think we could do it…but we did.”
He stared down the long length of the bus at a far off horizon. He had braved the water and was now fully immersed, swimming cleanly below the surface with his first breath. Memory made his face look younger. As he resurfaced he seemed possessed of the lithe body of an athlete. I watched as he began to strike out towards the far horizon with long steady strokes; breathing evenly, on each side, at regular intervals. And then he paused, treading water, and I saw a shadow cross his face, and he made the reluctant decision to come back in. His eyes slowly came back to me, resting on my face, but not looking right at me.
“So what’s he up to nowadays?”
“He’s an engineer,” I said.
“That’d be right. Always was the hard worker.”
There was a nervous pulse on his forehead. As I watched it I saw his eyes shift to the book that lay open on my lap. “And what are you up to then?” He asked.
“I’m on my way to work,” I said.
“Me too. Well an interview,” he corrected himself. His eyes were still on my book.
“That’s a big book.”
“War and Peace.” I said.
He didn’t seem to know it.
“I started it while I was travelling around India.” He remained silent. “Handy for all the long train journeys.”
Looking back, it was at this point that I saw the muscles of his gaunt, angular face relax, and the yellow quality of his skin recede. It was as if my willingness to keep talking had given him oxygen, bringing extra blood to his face. The wariness in him was loosened, like rock can be loosened over time by the continuous polish of water, and so the words began to spill out.
“You know, 800 000 people are moved each day on trains in India. The crowds, they’re the worst, nothing like here.”
He paused, perhaps embarrassed by his outburst but then, excitement winning, he continued.
“Do you know that the longest train platform in the world is in India?”
I shook my head.
“That’s right, 825 metres long.”
Again he paused, as if to check that I was still listening. I nodded.
“And getting a ticket…people pushing in all the time… lucky if you get to the front of the line.” He stopped there.
“When did you go to India?” I asked.
Momentarily he looked caught. “Oh, no mate, never been, but that’s a great show.”
I forced my face into a polite but quizzical expression.
“Around the world in 80 days. Watched every episode. That was my favourite one.” Before I could comment he asked me what I did.
“I’m at Uni. Bachelor of Arts.”
“Make sure you finish Uni. Don’t quit.”
“No worries there.” I hadn’t paid all that money in order to decide not to finish.
“Easy to drop out…don’t know what’s good for you at that age…get into a whole lot of stuff you can do without,” he said.
I nodded as if in sympathy.
“I’m going to go to university myself. Soon as I get this job. Not 19 no more. Got me head screwed on now. I’m going to go to University.”
He said this as if he had practiced it out loud many times. He seemed to need an acknowledgement.
“That’s great.” I said.
Satisfied with my contribution he continued.
“Been thinking I might do it part time, through the army. They pay you to study.”
He hesitated at this point. It was as if he was weighing up how much he could tell me. Then regardless, he plunged on.
“But if I don’t get this job, I’m gonna join the army anyway,” he paused. “To be honest mate, I don’t really think I’m made for civilian life.”
He had my attention now. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“But I’m doing o.k. Only got three months of me parole left so I should be right.”
Then he looked away.
“There’s an AVO out on me but I’ve been told they won’t hold that against me.”
When he looked back he didn’t look at me but at something beyond my shoulder.
“It’s the mates, the camaraderie, as they say, that I’m looking forward to. You need mates.”
We had reached Oxford Street. I considered pushing the bell and pretending it was my stop. But the bus was too crowded and the thought of pushing through made me feel ill.
“Haven’t travelled much. Like to do a bit of it one day. Army’s good for that. Travel’s bloody expensive.”
“You know what gives me the shits?”
I shook my head.
“Those ads. $29 to Melbourne. That’s all right you might say. So you go and book. Then you’re told it’s only one way.” He shook his head. “They’re liars they are. Nobody goes only one way. Maybe when they’re dead, but that won’t be cheap, most expensive holiday you’ll ever take that one.”
We had segwayed neatly into a meditation on death.
“I’m thinking of making a will. Haven’t got much, but got a kid you know, three year old. And I’ll leave him what I can.”
He stopped as if waylaid by the image of his child growing to adulthood without him. “Don’t see him much. It’s me girlfriend, his mother, that’s got the AVO out. I gotta make special arrangements to see him. Just gets too hard you know.”
I nodded. I could see the edge of Hyde Park in the distance.
“Anyway I reckon I’m gonna get cremated. Cheaper. Easier for everybody too.”
Again he nodded to himself, as if finally making a decision.
“But I did hear a story once from one of the blokes I shared a cell with. He was an ex- cop. Told me about a woman who came into the station one day with her husband’s remains in an urn. He wanted to be disposed of at sea but she couldn’t open the urn.” At this he allowed himself a small chuckle.
“Being an old lady, she must have thought the cops could help, so she took her husband to the station. Well this bloke and another officer did what they could. Finally got the thing open. Used a tyre lever. Problem was, as they opened it, the old man fell out all over the floor. Luckily they had a vacuum cleaner, so the poor woman got her husband back, and was able to dispose of him according to his wishes.”
He paused and seemed to be chewing on a thought.
“I reckon though you can never get carpet really clean.”
We had reached the city. The bus was edging its way along Liverpool Street. Through the glass I could see the cenotaph in Hyde Park. I still couldn’t remember him. Had he really been a friend of my brother’s?
He stood up to get off the bus and held out his hand.
“Remember me to your brother,” he said.
I wonder if he noticed my hesitation. His hand, when I took it, was surprisingly clean. I had expected ragged nails and dirt etched into the creases of his skin.
“Matt. Matt’s the name. He’ll know me.”
He shook my hand. He wore a ring. It was silver with what looked like gargoyles and vines twisted through it.
As the bus pulled away I noticed his shuffling walk, as if his legs had never been fully rehabilitated after an accident.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I spoke to my brother. I mentioned that I had bumped into Matt.
“Matt Douglas? Really? What’s he up to?”
Of course he remembered.
And then this morning, as I sat reading the paper over breakfast, I was stunned to see him again.
A lot of people don’t like to read the paper. They get depressed by the constant barrage of news. I find it stimulating. A bird’s eye view of the wheel of fortune as it turns. I particularly like the social interest stories but I’ll happily read the world news too. I guess it helps me to feel connected, maybe to something bigger.
But today it was someone I knew that was in the paper. I looked at the photograph. It looked like a picture that nobody had looked at in years. He looked younger, but the eyes were his. Even staring out at me from the page they seemed to want to slide away. Underneath were the words, ‘Homeless man kicked to death in City Park’.
Do people unknowingly give notice of their impending death? Do they connect with a stranger and ask for absolution before they move on?
I turned the page and Matt disappeared.
This story was published in The Curious Record in 2012