There is a story behind every person, every thing and every place. My friends Gary and Tammy visited us one night last year and over dinner they told us a story about their new cafe in Dutton Park, Brisbane, Queensland.
Across the road from their cafe is a subsidized government accommodation which housed people from all walks of life. These people also have their own stories. They frequented Gary and Tammy’s small cafe. Gary and Tammy provide a service that no government nor expert can provide for free. The two cafe owners know they will never make millions for the coffee nor Gary’s super home-made health juices. But what is NOT on the menu is Gary and especially Tammy’s open heart and good listening ears for the many desolate people. They come often to buy a cold drink or coffee but most times they just talk to another human who is prepared to listen.
Another dear friend, Ileen comes to mind when I wrote this short story. She is a lawyer and a very smart woman. She probably could be employed in some high flying legal firm or corporate office or even stand in a high court fighting an easy case and collecting fat cheques. Instead, she has chosen to work with a charity organisation that provides low cost housing for ex druggies, alcoholics, criminals, you name it. Her job entails fronting up to used needles on the floors, threatening tenants, tenants fighting each other and smashing the property or trying to attack her. She has to calm these people down, negotiate and talk some sense into them unless it becomes too violent, then and only then, she calls the police. I really admire what she does but sometimes I am very afraid for her. There is something good in all of these even if it may not seem that way sometimes.
“The Penthouse” is for Gary, Tammy, Ileen and all those unsung heroes out there, who give their love and dedication to helping the forsaken souls. This story is fiction and I wrote it as part of my exercise from looking at a picture my teacher Isabel D’Avila Winter showed us during my Creative Writing Workshop. In this exercise, you choose a picture and free-write what comes to your mind about the picture. In my case, I also related the picture (I chose) to people that I knew. May be you could guess what picture I chose in order to write this story. I hope you enjoy “The Penthouse”. And, feel free to suggest any improvements.
JLeahy Nov 4, 2013
I stepped forward. The wind gust slapped me. I swayed back and steadied myself. Then, calmly, I held my head up and gazed out over Brisbane’s Dutton Park. I held her note closer to me in my joint hands, cradling it like a precious gift. One single lined A5 sheet from an old doctor’s appointment with one sentence scrawled across the back in weak ball-point pen ink.
I was relieved there were no shakes today, the hands were calm. Otherwise the wind gust would snatch the note from me. I felt really good. Earlier, when I had left my apartment block on foot, my watch had told me it was 6pm. The block run by Church of Christ Queensland sat on Dutton Road, right opposite Café 169. The café was a place to sit, have Chinese; drink cheap coffee and talk.
Tonight, I was proud to have made it this far. I am on top of the world. She would have been proud of me too. I climbed up sixty unpolished concrete steps to The Penthouse. Lucky the stairway was almost completed and security lights were on. It would have been hellish trying to get to the ‘penthouse’ without steps and my poor eyesight.
Most of the buildings in the parklands and its surrounds were low. Coupled with an old pair of eyes and fading light I concentrated and re-arranged the shapes below me to my memory. From the top, each landmark gazed back in faded pastel of all shades.
From up here, and in this light, the houses below seemed fake and almost insignificant like a scene from a child’s story-book. The large park spaces were gently turning into dark puddles.
Suddenly I had a moment of realization. My name is Jim Riley although mum and Mildred always called me “Jimmy”. I have lived in DuttonPark for 10 years. The Church of Christ Housing has been my home since Centrelink re-located me from Arthur Gorrie Corectional Centre. My one-bedroom apartment is full from top to bottom with things that people left on BrisbaneCity curbside collections. I like my things. In my lounge is a large black 40 inch Samsung TV. It doesn’t work but that doesn’t matter. Just like the black porcelain cat with the missing tail, whatever I collect looks good and adds character to my apartment. Everything I have collected is neatly arranged. But without Mildred to appreciate them, they have no use.
All these years, living amongst many that have been in and out of jails and those that have been on and off drugs added to the daily challenges of survival. The weekly state and church visits had attempted to sew many shredded lives together in one large tattered fabric. We were kept together. We lived quietly, separately. It is a different jail. No loved one comes to visit.
Sometimes a body would be found in an apartment and cops would turn up to take it away while we all watched. I am sure, across the road, the neighbors must think we are part of one big freak show. Mildred changed everything when she arrived.
Tonight I needed to rest my mind. It is a new beginning for Mildred and me. I needed to see the red bench where together Mildred and I sat every night. That was why I climbed up to The Penthouse. The eyes were not good but I barely made out the building that housed Cafe 169. Using that as a landmark, my eyes followed the road to Dutton Park and our red bench. In the dusk, there were only vivid outlines but I knew the red bench was there. The old oak next to the red bench is just a dark round mop now.
I had chosen the centre building out of the three construction sites. It is almost finished. Out of the three, Mildred and I had decided The Penthouse would have been built into this centre one.
I figured no-one noticed me leaving the block and no-one would find me once I sunk into the freshly dug ground. It was soft and my feet sunk into it when I made my way up here. With added mud from last night’s downpour, I could easily get swallowed by the soil. Any grader work would be perfect to seal any remaining evidence.
I caught the whiff of the surroundings. A concoction of wet soil, Chinese food and dog shit. My K-mart black socks were cleaned and felt comfy against the rotten old Stockman. I wore the Country Road gingham shirt mum gave me for my fiftieth. Mum got it second-hand but it was suave. Twenty five years later it still fitted. My black General Company pants from Vinnies came nicely over the shirt and under a matching leather belt. I had never felt better.
Two days before, Mildred and I sat in front of Cafe 169, discussing the three multi level construction sites. We watched them grow rapidly in the past 12 months. We planned to win the Lotto and share The Penthouse which we imagined would be right here on the top level where I am standing. The Penthouse would have a private pool and a Jacuzzi for late night hot tubs. We agreed it would be a fine change from sitting on the red bench and coping with the cold bites. I smiled. My eyes stung with salt and I blinked my tears back. My ears burnt at the thought of what could have happened. I felt a little awkward and stood at ease. I had never touched Mildred. At 75, I felt like a school boy all over again.
All I ever wanted was to see Mildred every day. That was enough. Even after three years, that was still enough.
I looked at her note again. “Dier Jimmy O-raali, if der wos any one I wud love and be with, it wud only be you”. She signed, “M”.
The note had come to me last night after the police found another body. I was told by a knock late in the night and the note handed to me. Police confirmed Mildred had another of her Schizophrenic fits, her very last one.
I was numbed. The Sergeant handed me the note. He said “Sir, this must be for you. Jamie across the street said Mildred was your friend”.
The cops left 24 hours ago.
I stood solemnly in The Penthouse.
The sun almost disappeared, dragging its last half yoke. I gazed out over Dutton Park once more and found myself looking right into Mildred’s hazel smiling eyes. Her ash grey wavy locks tucked over her ears and curved neatly under her ear-lobes, showing off her favourite red large heart-shaped drop earrings. At 52, she looked stunning. I starred at her. Her mouth remained in the smiling curve. I reached out and stepped forward to touch her. My foot was off the ledge, feeling nothing solid under me. As I almost touched Mildred’s face, I could hear Mildred whispering, “I’ve got you Jimmy”.