The traffic whizzes by as I sit here. The cars and trucks are inhuman, like the drivers who sit in their metal shells and slide along like snails on steroids, leaving behind their polluted trails.
It’s like the rest of the world — anonymous because it passes me by. It doesn’t see me in my cardboard box in the alley. Just another piece of rubbish. Surplus to requirements. Unneeded. Unwanted.
I used to be wanted. I used to have a job and a family. I was a valuable member of sobriety. Until some drunk moron driver wiped my wife off the face of the earth.
I tried to keep it together, getting the three kids off to school. I put on a brave face for them, increasingly supported by whiskey. John, the oldest, ended up having to make the breakfast and lunches and seeing that the younger boys got dressed properly and off to school. He usually left a plate of bacon and eggs on my bedside table.
Dinner was usually takeaway.
It was a nosy neighbour who got the department involved. She made a point of inviting the boys over for hot chocolate after school and grilled them about how it was at home. I suppose it would have happened eventually, because the dole wasn’t enough to buy food every day and keep the mortgage up. It took the boss a month to sack me after I stopped turning up. He said he owed me holidays and was hoping I’d get it together. I was his best, he said.
At least the boys went together to that family. I haven’t seen them for ages. They wouldn’t know where to find me and it’s better they don’t see me like this. They think I’ve gone to stay with my dad in the country.
Camilla would be ashamed. She’d be disgusted. What have I done to our boys? They’ve lost their mother and their father. But what sort of a father could I be? I lost the only person who mattered to me. No, that’s not fair on the boys. They’re here as a result of Cam and me getting together. We had a ball, at uni and after. She stayed at uni and did post-grad. She was beautiful and smart. She didn’t have a chance to get very far as a researcher, because the babies started coming just as she was building a reputation. She would have been brilliant by now. She’d have been earning enough for me to stay home and do what I’ve always wanted — write books. I have no idea what happened to the two books I was working on, because they took my computer away with everything else.
I can’t get hold of enough booze or other stuff to blunt the misery that I wake up with every day and try to sleep with every night. I get nothing from the government now, because I have no fixed address. Officially I don’t exist. I have no bank accounts, I don’t vote, I can’t get a Medicare card. Anglicare knows about me, and the Salvos, but they can’t find me a shelter — there’s a waiting list. They give me some cash occasionally.
I’m a number in the reports people write about people like me who live on the street. I’m a statistic. We’re all like that, just numbers in reports and research papers. But we’re not the same. Like the kid sleeping at the end of the alley, who got thrown out by his father because he finally stood up to him and wouldn’t let him use him anymore. A bit like the girl who got kicked out by her mother because she complained about what her father was doing to her and had been for years. Her mother said she was a slut and had no right to live with decent people anymore.
And the old man who used to be in a psych hospital until they ‘released’ him to live with his daughter. But she and her husband couldn’t cope with him and the hospital wouldn’t have him back because he wasn’t sick enough. So he went to live in a park.
I really can’t compare myself with any of them. I’m a miserable bastard, too caught up in my own pain. My counsellor told me that. She said I needed to pull myself together and make a new life for the boys and me. I tried. I tried so hard, but trying was not enough. Nor was crying. My counsellor told me that the crying would eventually stop. It didn’t, until I dulled the searing pain with drink. She told me the pain would grow less, but it only does so with the help of booze. I stopped seeing the counsellor.
There’s a bloke at the place where I go for a free feed every day, who says he was like me. He lost it when his wife left with his kids and another man. This bloke says it took him years to drag himself up again and he managed because he discovered Jesus. He joined the Salvos. I told him I can’t do that. Religion makes me sick and I can’t get past blaming God for taking my wife. They say God made all the creatures on this earth, including the monster who killed my wife. There’s no way I can go with that idea.
This bloke also said that I should embrace my inner demons. I told him I do that every time I can get hold of some booze — it’s the genie in a bottle that lets me forget and sleep occasionally.
Then, like a change in the wind, this woman comes running up my lane and plonks down behind the box I’m in. She’s breathing heavily and moaning. Then there are shouts at the end of the lane — two men arguing. She becomes still as death behind my box. The arguing continues and then goes off into the distance. She starts to cry.
I don’t know what to do. I can’t get out, anyway, because she’s leaning against the flaps. I cough and she screams and moves away and I crawl out and she screams again and scrambles to her feet and runs off up the lane and around the corner. She reminds me of someone, but I can’t remember who. Images of Camilla flash through my soggy brain. I feel homesick and hopeless and lost. I slump against the alley wall and tears run down my face. What can I do to pull myself out of this wretchedness? I look for a bottle of solace, but they’re all empty. I need Camilla by my side, her steady, reliable presence. My heart feels as if it will explode out of my chest. “Camilla, I miss you so much. Why? Why? Why?” Great sobs wrack my body and I find it hard to breathe — there just isn’t enough air. I beat my fist against the box and keep calling her name.
“Rick? Is it you?”
“Camilla?” I open my eyes, expecting to see her standing there. But it isn’t Camilla; it’s that woman again.
“You’re Rick! I thought I recognised you. What …?”
We stare at each other. I’m still sobbing, snot is flowing from my nose and my face is wet.
“You don’t recognise me? Angela. Camilla’s cousin. We …”
I blink and then rub my eyes, then stare at her again. Both of us fall silent. Memories come flooding back: us as kids; big family gatherings; moving to another town and missing that crowd; meeting Camilla and Angie again at uni; falling in love with both of them; Angie dropping out of uni when Camilla and I got engaged. She came to our wedding with a guy she lived with but never married. We saw each other at family dos from time to time, but we were cool in each other’s company. Camilla felt it. She said once that if she hadn’t proposed to me, I would probably have married Angela. There seemed no jealousy in this, just a statement of fact. She was probably right. The last time I’d seen Angie was at Camilla’s funeral.
Angie and I are still staring. I feel wretched and wish she would disappear. All those memories hurt and I have nothing to drown them with. She kneels on the ground in front of me. When she reaches out to touch me, I recoil.
Finally Angie seems to make a decision and she stands up. “Come with me.”
I look at her and shake my head. She repeats it and I slowly get myself up, glad that she’s taking charge, as I’m beyond making decisions. I bend down to pull my blanket out of the box.
“Leave that. You won’t need it. Leave it for someone else.”
I hesitate, then follow her out of the lane and into the stream of anonymous pedestrians.
[Shortlisted in C J Dennis Literary Awards, June 2011]