Better Safe Than Sorry

May 1983,

It is one of those perfect Melbourne winter days. The air is cold but bracing and the sun bathes the park in a clean fresh light, albeit unencumbered with any real warmth. The man, in possibly his early forties, is playing is with an English Springer Spaniel puppy, near the newly opened skate board bowl. His puppy is all paws and ears, bouncing clumsily at every new sight and smell.

The young mother chases after her wayward son as he runs straight to the puppy. “I am so sorry.” she says to the man as her squealing five year old engulfs the slobbery dog in his arms.

“Not at all.” The man replies, laughing gently, “please, let then play.”

The two adults, strangers, stand in comfortable silence watching the child and the puppy gently roughhousing each other, until the boy is distracted by the arrival of one of his play mates, and once again runs off, the puppy forgotten.

The mother smiles an apologetic, mildly exasperated goodbye. She follows her son to the new arrivals. For another ten minutes the man watches the young boys play falteringly on their skate boards, while the anxious mothers shout unheeded instructions of care and safety. Then he wanders off, with the puppy gambolling ahead on it’s lead.

*

August 1997.

In the respite between rain showers, a man, in perhaps his mid fifties, walks across the Elsternwick Park with his old spaniel dog. As he approaches the small wooden bridge over the park’s lake, a glorified pond really, he stops to watch a couple of warmly rugged up children standing on the lower rungs of the bridge’s balustrade, to lean out and watch the ducks swimming below.

He spends a good ten minutes watching them. Laughing quietly at their shrill voices and exuberant joy. Then, spying the darkening rain clouds rolling in across from the golf course, he continues his way across the bridge, past the children and their un-noticing mother, and proceeds on to his home. The old spaniel drags it’s heels somewhat, though his tail still wags at each “OK then boy?”

The following day the man’s dog died.

Every morning, for the last fourteen years, the dog had crept silently into the man’s bedroom and stared into his closed, sleeping eyes. Tail wagging. Then, as it’s master awoke, it would spring back onto it’s haunches and paw the edge of the covers until the man got out of bed and patted him. This morning the man awoke alone.

Walking out to his sunroom the man found his dog, sitting on the floor, panting heavily. Upon seeing his master, the dog stood up for a few seconds and wagged it’s tail, before laying back down again, exhausted by the effort. It rolled onto it’s side, drew a couple of long, drawn out breaths, and then expired it’s last. All the while looking into the man’s helpless eyes.

*

March, 2004

It is a balmy autumn day, with a crisp blue sky, and just the hint of a zephyr circulates the Elsternwick Park. A sixty old year old man sits alone with his thoughts, on a bench under a tree, off to the side of the playground. He is looking at the children playing in the park with a complex smile on his face. Not quite a happy face and not quite sad. He seems to be on the crest of an emotional wave. Caught between falling behind in the wine dark wash of regret and carving gracefully down the crystal blue face to doom or glory.

A mother of two of the children spies him out in the shadows. Her exhausted but momentarily relaxed countenance transforms through questioning, to disconcerted alarm and finally angry disgust. At first she just stares pointedly at him, but he does notice her warning glare. His attention is focused too firmly on a little girl who seems to be engaged in an energetic discussion with some fairies that only she sees.

This is just not right. She has been run off her feet and now, just when she has a few minutes respite, with the kids playing quietly for once, this creepy man destroys her harmony. Just this very morning her mother’s group friends were talking about monsters like him, in this very neighbourhood, but up until now she has never been exposed to one herself.

Not one to let sleeping dogs lay, she marches straight at him and demands “What are you looking at? You should be ashamed of yourself.”

He just stares back at her, uncomprehendingly. He has no idea of what to say or do, and so, says and does, nothing.

“I have a good mind to call the police.” She barks, and with that turns her back emphatically on him, gathers her confused and now complaining children, and stomps off to her car.

*

December 2014

The seventy year old man sits alone on his front porch, the unread book, open on his lap, is his shield. His excuse. In truth, he just likes watching the people walking by. Especially the children, with their joys and their tantrums. For as long as he can remember, he has enjoyed watching children at play. Unmarried, he never had any of his own.

In the past, as he remembers it, there never seemed to be anything wrong with finding joy in children playing. It had been as natural to him as the joy he got watching a puppy grow up. But now things have changed. Now he is alone. Alone because he is old and cannot risk getting another dog. What would happen to the dog if he died? And other things too have changed. Or so it seems, perhaps it is just that he has become more aware.

Now, he just feels guilty for a crime that he does not quite understand. He use to just enjoy watching them laugh and play, but for some reason that he can’t quite grasp, that is now a bad thing. Perhaps it was always a bad thing. A solitary man watching children at play frightens people, no, it repulses them. He does not want to be a bad person, to repulse people, so he stays away from anywhere children might be. He sacrifices his innocent joy for the good of the community, and for the mothers’ peace of mind.

After all. It is better to be safe than sorry.

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