Living on the streets of Wellington by choice, an old man’s life subtly entwines with those around him. Hiding behind a smile. A Vietnam veteran. Haunted by flashbacks of the forgotten war. A solo mom struggling for a better life. A stuttering adolescent searching for a way out, caught up with the wrong people, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. An undercover operation involving sex, drugs and strippers. A cheating wife that can't get enough. A husband fearful of losing his son. Lives become frayed and entangled. Knotted. Bruised. A mysterious man watches over Alfie. Who's watching over you?
On a wooden pallet beneath a leaning hoarding lays a large carton. Inside. Insulated by the inclement weather, an old man stirred from his sleep. A regimented body clock had woken him. Morning light leaking through gaps of the flaps of the opening. Sounds of commuter traffic penetrated the inner sanctum. Thankful to be have been woken from a troubled dream. Allowing horrid images to slip from his mind. The old man pushes open the doors of his temporal manor and assesses the day in the city of wind.
“Hmm!” He grunts at the foul weather. To live in Wellington, you had to love to the wind. You got to love the wind.
Fingers push through the opening. Peeling back the flaps he surfaces into the light of day. And as if surfacing from beneath the ocean, gasps for a breath of the cold early morning air. Crawling from the carton. Stands and supports himself against the hoarding gathering his thoughts. Thankful for another day. Another breath, another pain. Pain that murmured from a long forgotten war.
A rat scurries along a wall. Stopping to look at the human momentarily before scurrying away behind a dumpster in search of a morsel of food.
“Charlie.” The old man greets his neighbor of the sunken alleyway.
Squeezed between two dilapidated Villas. He had found the tendency that suited his budget and life style. Marion Street an exclusive inner city commercial suburb. Providing a comfort and security that met his needs. A step up from an earlier abode. The seedy red light district on Vivian around the corner. Noisy and colorful. Overtaken by opioid addicts and mongrels of the human kind. On discovery of the new real estate, had uprooted himself and relocated to the splendor of the quieter surroundings.
Undisturbed and unnoticed, for now. Times would change, they always do. Nothing stays the same forever. For now it was home. Sanctuary from the elements. Sanctuary from a war that was closing in on him.
Wanting no trouble the old man kept to himself. Distancing himself from people. Blending in with the pavement. The buildings. Withdrawn from the world that had wrenched him from sanity of life. And thrust him to the insanity of war. Lacerated wounds would heal. Psychological wounds ran too deep for any sutures to reach.
Straightening himself. Feels the creaks of his joints. Cold damp morning air and diesel fumes fill his lungs. Taking a comb from an old briefcase and runs it through thinning grey hair. A pair of scissors trim a stubby white beard. Looking at himself proudly in the reflection of a window of the equally aging villa. An abandoned paint store once lively with tradesmen and customers. Now long abandoned as he was.
Pulling on a tired overcoat he had used as a pillow. Reties a narrow black tie with a Windsor knot. Straightening the tie in the reflection. Adjusting the brass Return Service badge on his lapel. Giving it a rub and polish. Reminding himself to stand tall as if a Warrant Officer was about to inspect him. Patting down his trousers. Secures a well-worn faded fedora. And runs his fingers along the edge. Giving the bleached briefcase a rub with a sleeve to polish the fading black leather. Taking a weather stained length of drift wood. Firm fingers clutch about the heavy twisted knob. Balancing himself, relieving the pressure from a troublesome leg.
One would never have known the old man as being homeless. And in some ways he was not. He had an abode he could call his own. Albeit a large carton. Appearing like an elderly gentleman going out for a daily walk. The hat, walking sick and brief case adding to his guise of respectability. His mind was as sharp as the day they had shipped him off to war. Bruised, but still sharp. A forgotten generation. Used and discarded. Let to fend for themselves.
Checking a gold watch, 8:00AM. He had slept in. But was happy for the extra half hour. Giving the watch a couple of winds before tapping the face as though to remind the second hand to keep moving. Much as he should be soon. Looking to the sky to a sun shrouded by the thick rolling clouds threatening to piss on him as any moment.
Pulling a retractable umbrella from the brief case. A rare find on the street. Like a magpie his eyes on the lookout for objects that others overlook and walk by. One man’s misfortune is another man’s luck. Opening the umbrella in time to catch the first spits from the heavens above. Securing the buttons of the tired overcoat he begins his daily round.
“What day is it?” He asks himself. “Monday? No that was yesterday… Tuesday… Must be Tuesday.” He confirms with himself.
Perhaps he would treat himself with a cup of hot tea and bacon and eggs. And he knew just the place. Wondering if Samantha was working today. There was no rush. He had all day. His diary was clear. As it was most days. Straightening himself out again. Feels his spine clicking into place. Masking the limp. And casually strolls from the alleyway to the footpath to decide the best way to head.
How the street had changed over the past fifty years before the world had gone mad with economic growth. Multileveled car parks stood where once an array of commodity stores had loitered. Pushed aside by progress and money. Supplanted by designer stores and high rise office buildings. Sandwiched between the grey tarmac and the grey clouds above. As was much of the city that day. As it would be for the winter months to come.
A steady pulse of one way commuter traffic crawled and bleed its way along the arterial routes onto Vivian. Stopping and starting, stuttering and stammering. Weaving their way to work, vehicles shuffled themselves like cards into lanes. The daily congestion clogging already blocked arteries. Encouraged by the ever increasing number of parking buildings sprouting up like mushrooms over the city. Space was limited in the harbor enclave. And the only way was up.
Trolley buses with puppeteer poles pushed their way through the minnow of smaller vehicles. That scrambled to get out of their way. In the jostling madness. Drivers cursed in one breath. And forgave in the next. They were all in the same predicament. Addicts in desperate need of their morning fix. Caffeine.
Deciding to avoid Vivian he headed to the other end of Marion hoping that was quieter. Leaning on the walking stick to ease the discomfort of the old wound. The leg a barometer to the weather. Stopping at the corner musical store to inspect the colorful display of instruments in the window. And to rest the leg. Admiring a beautiful grand piano. Envying those that could play and entertaining the thought that perhaps he should learn. He had all the time in the world. His grin turned to a frown as thoughts of being confined in a dim dark room overcame him with fear.
“Perhaps not.” He said dismissing the wishful notion.
The café was about as cooped up as he ever wanted to be. Its large windows opening on to the street a bearable confinement. Hoping no one had taken his table. Checks his watch again. It would be open by now. He was running late and like the Mad Hatter off to meet the Alice. Samantha.
And he smiled. And at that moment he materialized to the people around him. Gradually the smile faded. As did he from the street as a cold gust of wind slapped his back side causing the umbrella to blow inside out.
“Bugger.” He cursed. And turned about to invert the anomaly.
Sheltering close to buildings made his way to the next intersection. Stopping to obverse the coming and goings of morning commuters. Appearing invisible, unaware of the old man’s presence.
A chilling wind snapped at his heels. But he resisted its nudging preferring to go at his own pace. The limp lessened as he found his stride. Only to ache again to remind him it was still with him. The café laid just ahead. Sheltered from the howling southerly on Courtney Place.
Cowering under the umbrella. Seeing people rushing to escape the weather and scattered showers of rain. Rain drops sounding like artillery shells exploding. Dark thoughts germinate in his mind. Then shells fall silent, as a cold gust of wind pushes at him. Almost causing him to lose his balance. An unseen hand catches him from falling.
Looking every part a businessman on his way to the office. Stopping at the entrance of the café and closes the umbrella. Giving it several sharp shakes to loosen it of rain that had collected. Pushing the door open a buzzer sounds as he enters. Disappointedly sees his table has a reserve sign on it. About to take another table a voice calls out to him from the counter.
“Morning Alfie!” A waitress calls out from behind the counter.
“Morning Sam.” Alfie replies looking about for another suitable table near the window.
“I saved you your table.” Samantha indicates the sign was for him.
“Oh… Thanks. I thought it was reserved for someone else.” Unsure what to make of the gesture.
“Can’t have my favorite customer miss out on his favorite table… The usual?” She smiles at him.
“Thanks Sam… Cup of tea would be nice. A bit nippy outside.”
“Coming right up… Make yourself comfortable.” She tells him.
“Mind if I use the rest room?”
“You don’t have to ask, of course you can… You know where it is.” Said Samantha.
Taking the opportunity to enjoy the hot water. He relieves himself and washes up. Splashing water on his face looked at himself in the mirror. A handsome looking seventy five year old man stared back at him. Behind the mask of an old man, a mind that had not aged a day. What had happened to the youthful face that had been there before?
Time, he conceded. It passes gradually then catches up on you all of a sudden. No one was immune to it. The youth may think they are impervious. Until the next generation pushes them aside in their hurry to be somewhere they did not need to be. Alfie smiles, reappearing in the mirror, sees himself smiling back at himself.
“What are you smiling at?” He asks himself.
Then the smile drops, Alfie disappears and an old man gawks back at him.
“That’s more like it soldier….” He tells himself. Taking a more serious tone.
“Papers on the table Alfie.” Samantha calls out.
“Busy day today?” She asks.
“Maybe… Lets’ see how the stocks have done shall we?” Alfie lied.
Flicking through the pages hoping a head line would catch his attention. Same news, on a different day. Only the places and names have changed. Opening the center of the paper for the outbreak of World War Three. Not today, maybe tomorrow. The President was acting like a bull in a china shop. And it never ends well for the bull.
Was New Zealand any better he wondered? Having not voted in thirty years he had no reason to criticize or complain. Conceding that half a dozen Plunket nurses and a couple of smart asses from the University could run the country better than the barnacles that clung to bowels of the Beehive.
“There you go Alfie…” Said Samantha placing a large white plate before him. “…I gave you an extra ration of bacon.”
Looking out the café window to the street watching an umbrella take flight. It’s owner desperately in pursuit.
“You’re alright Sam… Thanks.” Taking in the feast.
“Don’t tell Kaye.” She winks and about to walk away.
“What’s your dream Sam?” Asked Alfie by surprise.
“Sorry?” Catching her off guard.
“Your dream? … You must have a dream to get out of here… No offense, but this can’t be what you want from life?” He asked curiously.
“But if you could?” Alfie probed having seen a look in her eyes.
“Well…” She hesitates, “…I’ve always wanted to study law…” She confessed her deepest secret.
“Law? …” Taking him by surprise, “… Really?”
“Yeah, I’m saving, but I never seem to have enough… Then there’s Sarah.”
“How is she? … How old is she now?”
“She’s adorable… Coming up five… Daycare takes much of this…” She sighs surrendering to her predicament. “… She takes priority.”
“I understand… Don’t give up… No one ever got anywhere by giving up… You’ll get there.” He offers his advice.
“Yeah I know… One day.” Samantha sighs at the elusive dream.
Seeing Alfie distracted by the passersby outside she leaves him to finish his breakfast. She had never asked him what he had done for a living. Accepting what others saw in him. An old man with a brief case. An overcoat and tie. Going about his day. A gentleman. A retiree going about his day. There was something about him that roused her curious. A feeling there was something more to him that met the eye.