Sunday, 23 January 2011

"You still got all those books?"

The question from the man behind me in the "fast" line in the supermarket checkout startles me. I have to look a second time. It can't be him. It really is S.
I have not seen S since he arrived on our doorstep one Sunday morning with his friend D to tell me "Me Dad died." When I invited them in they had looked nervously around at our vast collection of books and S had asked, "Is this a library?"That was what, nearly twenty years ago? He had clearly felt uncomfortable in a house like ours, especially one with so many books. I can remember giving them breakfast and some lunch to take with them. We sorted out matters with the Probate Office and he went out of my life.
He was a street kid, one of the lads who roamed around a rather undesirable street in our city. He spent his days watching others play the game machines and kept his own money to feed himself. At the end of the day he would head off to the market and buy - or sometimes be given - unwanted bread, fruit and vegetables. If there was enough money over he would buy cheap sausages and feed himself and his two sisters while his father injected himself (when he was not in gaol) and his mother drank herself into a stupor. Eventually, along with D he decided he was not putting up with it any longer. He left with D.
A long, long story later he came back to see me to sort out the mess left behind by his father. By then he and D lived in another state and they were slowly getting an odd job business together.
I hoped they would make a go of it, knew they might not and that the odds were against rather than for them. I knew I would not hear from them again. They are not communicative boys. Their past was something they did not want to remember and I was a reminder of that past, even if I was one of the few people who had anything to do with helping them leave it behind.
But there is S standing there beside me. He hastily pays for the item he has bought and walks me out of the shop where he suddenly gives me a breath challenging hug.
"Down just for the day. One of my wife's lot getting married. The kids are with D's Mum. L here's Cat!"
His wife? He's got children? He is standing there looking immaculate in slacks and a sober casual shirt - wedding attire. I take a surreptitious glance at his hands. They are workman's hands but the fingernails are clean for this occasion. His hair is conservatively cut and his shoes are clean. He looks like any other decent young man of my acquaintance, indeed better groomed than some.
Business, he tells me, is booming and likely to get better rather than worse because of the floods. He and D have more work than they can cope with. They are lucky, they were about three streets away from becoming flooded out themselves.
He and D own their own homes. Both are married. Both have two children. Yes, still working together. They can turn their hand to almost anything in the maintenance line now.
A long time ago now S and D took themselves off to pick fruit "up the river" as a way of getting away from a situation they hated. They ended up more than a 1000km away. They live in a different state now but it is more like a different country.
And I get a second breath challenging hug as he leaves me.

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