The rest of the children joined us on our mini adventure. Owen, (my previous reconnoitre partner) ran eagerly ahead to in order to present our “find” to the rest of the crew. He was pretty much ignored as the” treasure” drew them all in. Dutifully, he fell in behind the older children, but I could see that he was glowing with the knowledge that he was there first.
Our 12 feet clomped across the boards and around the twists and bends of the boardwalk’s conduit. There were no echoes in this forest; the damp wood beneath our feet sucked in the noise of our gallomping feet and fed it into the murky mud and rotting wood beneath, and the still, mossy trees absorbed our happy voices and playful laughter as if to say it was perhaps out of place. We didn’t mind and we raced on to the end.
The end was nowhere near as exciting as the journey itself, so we cast our disinterested eyes over the gravel path and sparse trees and retreated back to our path to return the way we had come. My older two boys hung back to explore a bit more but the younger three wanted to continue exploring the creek. It was then that I remembered I had left our picnic drinks, chips and chocolate, along with my camera back at the playground. I went ahead to retrieve it knowing the children were safe within earshot.
As I neared the playground, I heard a raw and thunderous man’s voice bellowing blue murder. I hesitated to see where it was coming from and saw a staggering figure a way past the pond. I collected my belongings and hurried back to the children like a mother hen, to draw them in close under my wings.
The children hadn’t heard the yells until I pointed them out and although they were ready to go home, I sat them down so I could see where this strange apparition was heading and to find out his intent.
The man was obviously very drunk, with a bottle of tequila in one hand and a bottle of “Sprite” in the other. He sat down at a picnic table and poured yet another drink and gazed belligerently around. He captured us in his sights and saw us all staring. He roared out, “Fuck Off”. Then, gazing through his bleary tequila goggles he bawled, “You’re beautiful”, and started to serenade me. It made me smile. I hadn’t been serenaded in a long while and it was quite sweet to hear the words, “You’re beautiful, so fucking beautiful and I fucking love you”.
By this time the children were equally disconcerted as well as highly amused. As they were a safe distance away, I decided to go to the car and retrieve my ventolin which I was in need of. I rummaged through my bag, took my puff and locked the door ready to return to the kids. I hesitated for a moment and thought, “I wonder if he’s hungry?” Going to the back of the car I took out the bag of chips I had just placed there and walked back to present the man my peace pipe. He groggily looked up from his contemplation of the ground and smiled. His hair was a shock of white frizz, sitting like a halo of dandelion seeds around his head and shoulders; and his beard tickled his chest, content to be more of the same. He introduced himself as Peter and smiled. His eyes were kind and his smile was genuine.
He told me I was beautiful again and invited me to have a drink. I politely declined mumbling something about the kids, but he said, “What if we pretend I’m your long lost brother that you haven’t seen for years and years and years?” I smiled at him and said “OK” and held out my glass.
I said, “Peter, where have you been all this time? We’ve all missed you so much!” We laughed and chatted a bit for a while. Peter told me that he had no family or friends that he had seen for 20 years and no home to call his own. It made me wonder what had happened in this man’s life that took him down this lonely and clearly painful boardwalk of life.
Curiosity got the better of my children and they gradually ventured over to us in ones and twos. I made their introductions and very soon we were all laughing. I went back to the car and got the rest of the picnic – Lindor chocolate and juice. We had just devoured the chocolate when my youngest stepped out from behind me and said, “Who are you?” to which Peter stood up and flung his arms out wide, then answered “I’M FATHER FUCKING CHRISTMAS!” I glanced up at him with Mummy discern to which he hastily apologised. Then he said, “What would you like for Christmas? I can get you anything you want.” Felix grinned and said he would like a car and Owen put an order in for a pirate ship. My older two watched in amusement while my little sleepover guest hid behind my back just peeping out from around my shoulder.
Owen then said, “Are you a hobo?” Again I glanced up at Peter gauging his reaction. I saw a current of pain flicker across his face and I gently said, “Out of the mouths of babes”. Peter smiled sadly and looked at the ground. Then he invited me to spend the night with him under the stars. I smiled and declined the offer. “What about a hug?” he asked. Josh, my ever diplomatic son jumped up and said, “I’ll give you a hug Peter”. And there it was in front of me, a gift of kindness from my son for a lonely stranger with an empty heart.
Suddenly, Peter stood up and threw away his empty lemonade bottle. He then upended the tequila, pouring his last few drinks to the ground. I couldn’t help but think he was going to regret that later. The bottle went flying through the air after it’s mixer mate and then he walked off without a goodbye or an explanation and I was left to finish my drink without my funny friend.
Josh looked down at the bench seat and said, “Hey Mum, he forgot the chips”. I told him he could take them to Peter if he wanted to; so he did. When he came back, Josh said that Peter had advised him to never leave home and had also allowed him to take a photo.
We left the park , and drove home talking about our interesting encounter, to light a fire outside and cook some sausages. I felt sad and reflective and couldn’t stop thinking about homeless Pete. Did he leave us because he saw his own shame reflected in the eyes of my family? I truly hope not, but I felt that our little tryst had perhaps only highlighted the life that he yearned for, but believed to be far beyond his reach.