Dora always left her back door open. Even while she was taking a nana nap or in the shower, like that summer afternoon. With the door open the dogs were free to wander in and out as they pleased to the garden. Beyond the garden to the right was Ivanhoe Park and Manly beach straight down the hill. She loved to welcome in the fresh sea air like a dear friend, looking out of the window at nature’s lavender gifts; the willowy jacaranda, flanked by agapanthus and hydrangea beds, in orderly lines like pews in church. Cheerful birds of paradise towered with long rubbery necks and sharp orange beaks. The obstinate yucca, reached upwards with spiky arms, growing confidently taller each day. It was at least as tall as her, not a difficult achievement as she was only half pint sized. ‘Precious gifts come in small packages’ her mum reassured her. Dora only repeated that line once at school. They laughed. So she used her ruler or fists after that – they were more effective than retaliatory words. As a consequence she didn’t suffer any bullying at school. Even though her older brother was the big guy and physically strong, she was fiercely protective of him.
‘Mum, I’m going to college then for a swim. I’ll see you this afternoon. Have a good day,’ called Ruby.
‘Ok love, watch out for the bluies, there’s a nor’-wester blowing. Fairlight might be good for swimming.’ Dora replied.
A door banged. Dora felt a draught on her shoulders and neck from the back door. The neighbour’s baby started crying upstairs. She turned, instinctively aware of someone watching, approaching. She shivered. The dogs would bark to protect her if someone came in, but as they say, it’s usually someone you know so they might remain silent if they recognised the scent. Dora shrugged off the blanket of paranoia. Charlie was circling her, impatiently tap dancing with white socked-paws, harassing her for his walk.
‘All right blossoms let’s go for walkies. Freddie, Charlie, come on.’
The park was alive in its green glory, pulsing, throbbing like blood to nature’s beat. It appeared silent but there was a sound, a feeling, and voice to it if you attuned yourself. She lifted her face to drink in the zest of Eucalyptus that fizzed in her nostrils and had become the smell of home. The high-pitched symphony of birds was led by the exuberant coooo-heeee of the kookaburra. Together the trees formed a generous canopy over the park that reached outwards with compassionate limbs entwined in an embrace, providing shady relief to all the park’s grateful inhabitants.
They tried to tame the rawness of this wild park. The rangers came every Thursday to trim the spidery tangle back into line, making it safe and acceptable. There was even rumour of a new rule to put dogs on leash, which Dora found outrageous. They loved to explore the longer grass by the scout hut at the top end of the park; the black underbelly, where the possums, bats and bandicoots congregated.
Under the scout hall used to be the druggies’ hangout. A dark, bone-chilling dungeon: yellowy blood-stained putrid mattresses, piles of rubbish, bricks, rubble and dirt. Dora never saw needles but imagined they were there, along with the belts, spoons and stench of shit and human misery; slithering downwards like tangled snakes in a pit. The lowest point in life. She heard their high pitched helium-like voices obsessing about where the next hit was coming from, glancing furtively to see if it could be found in the contents of a passerby’s wallet. Nobody knew this den existed apart from the odd dog walker like Dora, it was off the path that people used to walk to the beach and town centre.
It was once known as the homeless park but the council moved the druggies and homeless on, like sheep on a pasture, so ‘decent’ people could use the park. Only one homeless guy, Les, remained. He and Dora saw the park’s beauty.
Dora could hear Les ranting, chanting his mantra behind the palms in the rockery down at the bottom end of the park; the ‘sunset lookout’ – their favourite spot. His twang was distinctively Aussie, monotone, loud, though she couldn’t make out the words. He was in his own world, a bag of delusion. The raspy, alpha voice and Viking face reminded her of Jock, her old Scottish swimming teacher, with bright ginger hair and coarse beard, same blushed, rough skin, piercing bird eyes and angry nobility.
There was a thud from the rockery, like wood being chopped. What was he doing in there? Maybe it was a bird flapping its wings. Dora’s eyes jumped, she turned sharply over her shoulder. Then he emerged.
He didn’t know who she was that day. He clocked her but he didn’t see. Startling blue eyes, glassy, staring, blurred with alcohol and mental confusion. That familiar strong nose and arms dangling loose like a monkey. As he strode purposefully away from his den, Dora nipped into the rockery and left ten dollars, a tuna and mayo sandwich, a packet of salt and vinegar chips – that used to be her school packed lunch, and a bottle of water – to rehydrate that poor liver crying out for relief. He stashed his beers in the rockery for safe-keeping. Dora knew that giving him money to feed his addiction was futile but it was his only solace. She was just trying to help, so someone was caring for him.
You could tell Les was homeless. He didn’t carry his life in tell tale bags, supermarket trolleys or 70s pull along shoppers but he often carried a clear plastic bag of beers. He wore all his clothes, even in the height of summer – the thick ex-army jacket and two pairs of trousers, black and ragged like Robinson Crusoe’s, ripped at the thigh with fringes flapping out from the knees, slapping his calves and ankles like cowboy chaps.
Dora watched him piteously, stomping around the cricket oval like a lumbering incredible hulk bursting out of his layers, sandy dreadlocks down to his bum, shoulders rounded self-protectively around his dark heart like paper măché, diminishing his imposing frame. She knew his routine. He lived between the park, the beach and the bottle shop. Like most people, Dora and Ruby included, his life was contained within a five-kilometre radius.
From the ‘sunset lookout’ you could watch cricket on the oval and the retirees play bowls in their team whites on the scorched bald green. Dora’s apartment was visible, the lone palm tree was a beacon in the back garden, waving like a flag and bending precariously in the wind towards the house next door. The Spanish sandstone church in front, atop the hill, majestically observed the beach, keeping its godly eye out for foul play in the park.
Dora sat for a while, throwing the ball for the dogs, musing how the bird’s nest fern looked like a teacup and saucer, and watching the graceful sway of the palms. The creek tinkled, gurgling like a contented baby being tickled. The spiky urchin plant was like an electrocuted Afro, it reminded her of Auntie Doris’s fibre-glass plant in Colwyn Bay, Wales, that they weren’t allowed to touch.
He was back again. Snorting and sniffing up snotty phlegm. He sat camouflaged amongst the ferns drinking his long necks. Bloody hell! Freddie was running over towards him. Even he knew Les was different to the other people who passed through the park.
‘Argh, sparahhjas!’ Les shouted something indecipherable.
Freddie persisted barking, boldly going within spitting distance to him. Dora was torn between a confrontational rescue and running in the opposite direction in the hope Freddie would follow.
‘Freddie!’ she heard the shrill rising panic in her voice, trying to entice him away. ‘Come on.’
He smelled her fear and continued to bark, warning Les off. Les hurled something from the rock garden and Freddie darted, wide-eyed, tail between legs, bolting uphill to catch up with Dora and Charlie. He’d taken the last half hour of sun that selfish bastard, thought Dora resentfully.
Manly beach was enticingly quiet Ruby noticed that afternoon. Mercifully, the weekend army of tourists were absent, spilling off the ferry in endless swarms with their giant colourful umbrellas, striped beach bags stuffed with towels, sunscreen and snorkels, excited kids in tow—hand in sticky hand, munching fish and chips, dribbling ice-creams down sand-salty fingers whilst dragging Batman and Little Mermaid body boards.
During the week Manly was reclaimed by its locals—dog walkers, runners, cyclists, mums’ clubs with gaggles of gurgling babies and shrieking toddlers, marching identical three-wheeled suspension prams up and down the promenade in black Lululemon yoga pants, dishevelled ponytails and this season’s Ray Bans. There was the odd lone swimmer, and grommets revelling in the opportunity of catching an uninterrupted wave. Mr Dreds, the homeless guy (aptly named by his dreadlocks that looked like heavy wet sand), was perched on his usual bench by the surf club, shaded under the Island Norfolk Pines, which stood tall side-by-side like lanky old men, with sparse brittle needles like cold arthritic fingers.
Ruby surveyed the conditions of the bluey-green ribbon that curved around the ocean, framing the walkway from South Steyne to Shelley beach, reading its intention. The water was like a boisterous little boy with a secret, the cheeky white caps smiled slyly, daring her to play, lapping the rocks to and fro blosh blosh, like a gregarious dancer learning their steps, threatening to pull the surfers into the rocks at Fairy Bower. She plunged in and glided through the water like a smooth fish, effortlessly slicing the slapping swell.
Mr Dreds, the mad alkie, was in the bottle shop as Ruby queued for her Shiraz on the way back from the beach. It used to shock and amuse her to see him out of the park, as if he only existed there. Lately he was everywhere, like her shadow: at the beach, on the corso, in the bottle shop. The stench was over-powering and predictably sour – beer, urine, damp stale earth, that unwashed smell of degeneration; spiralling down life’s ladder to the dark abyss, festering in the same clothes. Neural pathways dying and misfiring. Endless days endured, stagnating, without purpose, nobody to talk to, nothing to feed the mind.
The druggies all hung out in packs but Mr Dreds was always solitary, the only homeless person Ruby noticed. His long necks clanked in his plastic bag as he trudged, muttering, in front of Ruby around the oval to the park. She used to wish he’d find somewhere else to drink and shout nonsense but she’d grown accustomed to him. The park was his home. Everyone knew who he was and she’d seen him on an almost daily basis for ages and nothing had happened yet. She just avoided eye contact.
Ruby lost sight of him. He’d probably gone into his usual hiding hole in the trees. You’d think you were alone in this park but there’d always be someone, usually Mr Dreds. He’d suddenly appear, like a walking tree, ragged trousers like the crispy bark peeling off the trunk and hair like tangled willow sap hanging down in ropey strands.
The swoosh and guttural clucking of the grey-white blur of pigeons announced the clockwork arrival of the pigeon lady at 3 pm. Maud bustled up the hill on chubby little legs squashed like sausages into stockings, even in summer, Coles bag in little hands, to feed the pigeons. It took Ruby straight to Trafalgar Square in London, as a little girl in her green gumboots and anorak with the fur hood. She stood in the middle feeding them bread crusts, she’d never seen so many birds. The swish of their wings sounded like an applause.
Ruby watched the straggle of people ambling up the path in the park; mums with kids balancing on the wall alongside the hedge, the squeak of sandy thongs slapped the concrete, dragging happy legs from the beach. She admired a beautiful woman, black skin contrasting against a billowing canary yellow summer dress, Afro curls pulled back in a ballerina bun, a few spring-like strands escaping. It was that time of day where the blonde surfers drifted through the park, barefoot in wetties, boards under arms to catch the waves before sunset. She kicked off her thongs to brush away the sand, feeling her toes against the spongy grass, and sauntered home.
What was that? Dora thought she heard heavy footsteps from the back door as she showered. They were not trying to disguise themselves. Must have been someone walking down the side of the apartment block or going in next door. Strange the dogs didn’t bark, at least, she didn’t notice if they did.
Dora dried herself briskly with the towel, and threw on her favourite summer shorts and T-shirt. Nothing else to do this afternoon. Bliss! She padded through to the living room in bare feet on the cool wooden floorboards.
‘Ahhhhhhhh!!’ She stopped dead. Her mouth and eyes stretched open like three O shapes in shock. The earth shifted beneath her feet like tectonic plates. Sliding. Sinking helplessly in mud.
Les’s long limbs were folded into concertinas on the sofa with Freddie on his lap! His face looked overcooked – angry red, inflamed with alcohol, toxicity, sun, shame and neglect.
‘Shiit!’ he jumped up equally surprised at her white-faced terror, knocking poor Freddie to the floor.
‘Les!’ She couldn’t control the stiff panic in her strangled squeal. Act normal, be normal, she told herself. Blood thrashed furiously in her head, heart banging in her belly.
‘It’s me. Dora.’ She tried to wrestle her voice to slow down but fear betrayed her. She swallowed, tried to breathe but there was an obstruction, like a dry piece of toast in her throat. Did he know who she was today? Had he been watching her? Did he remember where she lived? Or was it just chance?
‘Dora. Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you. Tthhe, the door was open, I called out…but.. nobody answered.’ Les slurred gruffly, not meeting her eye, head bowed in shame, face long with disappointment. Caterpillar eyebrows in a straight line, hanging like a bowing bridge over his sunken eyes.
‘It’s OK. Sit down, please. Er, sorry, do you fancy a cup of tea Les?’ Dora rambled, at a loss to fill the awkward silence. Tea always made things better. A nice cup of hot tea in a favourite china tea cup and saucer, brewed in a pot with loose leaves. The thoughts busied her, calmed her. She didn’t wait for an answer but stumbled into the kitchen and bustled around pulling things out of cupboards.
Dora was dying to take a pair of scissors to his lion’s mane of hair and beard. She visualised him transformed, like he was before, with a bath, shave and clean clothes. He looked so much older than his years. His clothes were smeared with black soil or tar. She imagined him as a small boy, blonde, fair skin prone to burning, shy, tall, awkwardly standing back from the group wanting desperately to be included. He always was a loner, found it hard to make friends. It made Ruby wonder if the voices were always there, the ones only he could hear.
She wanted to enclose him in the comfort of that old cream aran sweater that smelled of their dad, his pipe smoke and chopped firewood. Not many people knew the real Les. Her older brother. He’d been in and out of mental hospitals and rehab clinics since his teens, since his diagnosis as a schizophrenic.
‘As long as he takes his medication he’s not a danger to himself or to society,’ the psychiatrist’s diagnosis said, washing his hands of yet another burden. ‘He’s free to leave.’
Yeah right. But if he missed one dose he spiralled into confusion. He had his freedom but at what price if he couldn’t look after himself. Where should he live? Where would he call home, be safe, by an open fire, with bubbling meaty stews on the stove, hot baths infused with lavender oil; a place he could let go. She wondered if Les preferred his home in the park to that cold, shabby one they used to live in with the dodgy back door?
‘Hi mum!’ Ruby sauntered in the back door, dripping, sandy, and halted in concrete feet.
‘Mum! Are you OK? What’s going on?’ Her thoughts clashed. She was ready to run back out and raise the alarm for help. Freddie was on Mr Dreds’ knee for god’s sake. That had to be a good sign, the dogs were a good judge of character.
‘Ruby (pause), meet Les. Umm (Pause. Deep breath in and out), uncle Les to you.’ said Dora.
Ruby stared in disgust at the grey-black curling toenails, crispy skin, blistered creeping flesh, swollen with heat, mottled with cold; like corned beef, bulging veins protruding in a criss-crossed map of desperation. The putrid odour of cheese and onion made her stomach lurch and twist. She ran to the bathroom and vomited in deep retching hacks from the soles of her feet up to her eyeballs.
‘Sorry Les, bit of a shock for Ruby. I never told her who you are, er, as you can see. She’s just a kid.’
‘I think you’d better start at the beginning.’ Ruby said as she reappeared. ‘But first Les, er, uncle Les, sorry to be blunt but you really need a shower. Here.’
Ruby handed him an old towel and ushered him emphatically but kindly, with her long monkey ballerina arms, towards the bathroom.
The afternoon sea mist released its clawed grip, enveloping the air with the salty freedom of the ocean. Clouds slid gracefully across the sky. A stream of afternoon light poured in through the open back door washing the living room in a yellow glow.