by David Delaney
The dark that surrounded me on my journey home sometimes unnerved me. Maybe it was my senses being on edge or maybe it was the small voice inside my head telling me to be wary of dark shadows, I couldn’t tell. Seeing my breath fade into nothingness as it floated along the frosty night air gave me something to focus on.
Twenty minutes was all it took to traipse the well worn trail from the hospital where I worked to my home in Battery Point. Had my body not felt the tiredness of the previous ten hour shift I may even have enjoyed the brisk walk through the cold night air. Now though, the process of placing one foot in front of the other in the direction I desired became an ever increasing struggle. Unhelpful was my habitual checking of my mobile phone for the time, forcing me to take my hand from the warm embrace of my jacket pocket. A pointless exercise, but one I will no doubt continue with.
This late night meander through the streets of Hobart is a bitterly cold one. Five minutes into my homeward journey, my feet turn into what feels like blocks of ice. My phone tells me my estimated time of arrival is 12 minutes.
Moving my eyes up from the path before me provides me with a view of the harbour front. Unmanned boats bob from side to side. The scene is strangely hypnotic even soothing. I turn away from them onto Morrison Street. The street before me is lonely. A brief glance over my shoulder tells me that there is no other sinner in sight. I am alone to do as I please. I keep my head down and my pace constant. Reaching the end of the street brings me to a set of traffic lights. The red and green flashes of light mean nothing this late at night with no cars or pedestrians to observe them. With nobody to judge, I cross the road without paying attention to them.
As this journey is set firmly in my memory I fly on autopilot. The beauty of parliament house illuminated at night lies behind me as I walk across towards Salamanca, a place where I have spent countless nights. Many bouts of laughter and debate have taken place here regarding randomly chosen topics of conversation none of which will change the face of much. Passing each of the restaurants and clubs sparks a separate memory and brings a smile to my lips. This is the cause of emotional warmth but regrettably doesn’t translate to a physiological one. I’m still chilled to the bone. Oh well, home is but seven minutes away or so my phone tells me.
My turn is in sight. The sign reading Kelly’s, steps points me to the right. Ascending these steps will take me to the historic Battery Point where I have lived for many years. My longing for home intensifies as does the cold gripping me. Its bite is deep. Half way up the small and gloomy laneway something catches my attention. There is a dark shadow lying on the ground. I stop for a moment to consider it. My initial assumption is a black bag carelessly discarded in an improper place. I walk on.
My eyes must be playing tricks on me due to my weary state of being as I’m sure the bag has just moved. This sends an air of caution through me. My gait becomes less of a blind drudgery and more clinically considered. Speed of movement is not something I naturally possess but should danger enter the foray maybe it is.
The black bag moves once more. My eyes are not playing tricks on me as the movement is now continual. Suddenly without warning a sound emanates from the moving object which is now less than a couple of feet from where I stand. I’m startled with fright. Ironically it anchors my feet to the ground rather than forcing me into an all out sprint home.
“Hello, can you spare some time?”
I no longer fear the unknown. The moving object is nothing but a man in a black sleeping bag.
“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that”, I ask moving closer to the man.
“A moment for a poor man on such a cold and bitter night, if you please”
My momentum for home has been hampered as I speak to the man lying on the ground by my feet. As my eyes adjust to the gloom surrounding him his features come into focus. He is bone thin and wears a bushy beard. His sunken eyes look up with a sadness hidden behind them. Suddenly my longing for home fades. A growing feeling of guilt rises inside me. Surely I can help him out in some way. I lean in closer to better hear him.
“The night is cold. Would you please give me your coat? I am in much need of it”
His request perplexes me. It is direct. Money is what I was prepared to give this man as my hand had already sought for my wallet.
“Would you like some money, I have some . . . .”
“Money is of no use to me on this night, but a coat such as yours will provide me with warmth. The cost from lack of warmth may be too great a price to pay.”
My mind tells me to walk on. Why should I give up something which I need for someone not known to me? Another part of me tells me who cares about a coat. Do I not have the money to buy one, two or even three more to replace it? The latter argument wins. My coat is shed and handed down to the man. His relief is apparent and a joyous smile spreads across his face.
“Now please go home, I will not delay your journey any further”, he says pulling the coat around him.
I do what he says. On my way home the cold causes me to shiver and my teeth to chatter. I appreciate the problem of not having a coat on a night like this.
The following night is colder still. I make my way home after another gruelling ten hour shift. Winter is in full swing again bearing its icy teeth. The roads leading home are unchanged. I travel them without deviation. Eventually they lead me to the alleyway and the dark object I now know to be the man wearing my coat.
“Hello again. Thank you for the coat. It makes the cold less of a burden”, says the man.
“It was my pleasure to give it to you. I am glad it helps keep the cold at bay.”
Indeed it does but would you mind if I ask something else of you”
‘Money, surely money’ I think as I make a grab for my wallet.
He must see my hand rummage for my wallet as he says, “Please no money, as I said it is of no use to me here and now.”
I am bewildered as I think of what else he could possibly want.
“Your shoes, may I have your shoes if you please.”
This request shocks me a little. I’m sure my face shows it.
“My shoes, I, em . . . my shoes?”
Tonight was without doubt colder than the previous night and my home still lay another 5 minutes away. To give up my shoes on such a night would cause a huge discomfort indeed.
“My feet have been bare for so long and the cold eats away at them. Your shoes would help me protect them and keep them warm.”
How would I explain not having my shoes to my wife? A jacket is one thing but shoes is quite another. I spend a few moments considering his request. My mind begins its internal battle once more. The over arching jury says no to this ridiculous request. The man is playing with you. That other voice, small and meek as before, tells me why care for the shoes when I have two more pairs at home. Before I have made my final decision I realise I have begun slipping them off my feet and handing them to the man. The man takes my shoes gently and places them onto his feet. His face once more lights up with a warm smile of gratitude.
“Now please I will not hold you here any longer, please go home.”
I do as he says, moving a little quicker than usual as a chill begins to slowly ascend my lower limbs. Explaining this will be difficult, smiling sheepishly at my wife as I enter through the front door of my home.
I have reached the last of my late night shifts. Tomorrow will be the start of five days off. A small piece of me hopes the thermostat somewhere in the cosmos will be cranked up a notch.
As I turn into the laneway I have come to expect to see the man laying there but I do not. An empty laneway is all there is to greet me, or so I think. I walk up to the site where he lay for the last two nights to find an envelope propped up against the rugged sandstone wall. I am bewildered, even thrown a little to find my full name written across the envelope. My mind tries to piece together our prior conversations.
Did I give the man my name? I am almost positive I did not.
Was my name within my jacket or strangely on my shoes? “Surely not” I say to myself.
How then could there be an envelope addressed to me? I am truly mystified. I pocket the envelope which appears to have something small and hard inside it. I continue my journey home.
Closing the door of my home, shutting the cold outside and embracing the warm inside, I take the envelope from my pocket. I hear a comment behind me joking about how I have come home tonight with all of my apparel. I smile at the source of the comment then hold out the envelope. My loved ones appear confused as I tell them how it came to be in my possession. We all stare at it with building shared anticipation. I tear the envelope open and remove its contents. Into my hand falls a key and a small hand written note. I read the note aloud.
I have requested the items which you have given to me so graciously from many people before you. Each time I was denied them. You were the exception.
Please accept the key now in your possession as my thanks for your kindness. It will unlock post office box 440 located at the general post office on Elizabeth Street.
We all look at each other with open mouths and blank expressions. Sleep will be difficult to come by tonight with the mysterious contents of post office box 440 playing on my mind.
The next morning leads me and my family to rows of post office boxes at the general post office in Hobart. I locate box 440. With a childlike excitement I slide the small key into the tumbler lock it was made for. The door opens smoothly allowing light to enter the small dark enclosure beyond. My hand reaches in. I grasp two pieces of paper. My other hand enters the small box and rummages around telling me that no more contents remain. I close the box, locking it with the key and placing it back into my pocket. I sit on the steps where my family now wait in want for knowledge of what I have found. The first piece of paper is a note. It reads,
Please accept with all my gratitude.
I move the second and much smaller piece of paper in front of the first. The content of the second piece of paper moves me to tears. I hand over to my wife a cheque in my name. On it is a seven figure sum and through falling tears I simply say, “How many jackets and pairs of shoes do you think this could buy?”