Photo Credit: http://www.walksydneystreets.net
“Have you ever been in love?”
I had this very question posed to me by two total strangers in the same week. It’s not a question I thought I would ever be asked by anyone. Not once and certainly not twice. It’s a throwaway line made cliche’ by Hollywood scripts and has no place in the real world. When spoken, those words become a bookmark in time. Where were you when Princess Diana died? I was being dragged to my first Holy Communion by my mother, a Protestant, as a ruse to get me into our local Catholic High School. It was the only high school in our area without a drug problem, apparently. Where were you the first time you were asked if you have ever been in love? I can tell you exactly where I was……
General Kenneth Phillips, retired soldier, fastidious drinker of tea, and since his eightieth birthday blind, deaf and dumb, or so Lenore, his part-time carer, would have you believe.
“I’m telling you, ever since his eightieth birthday he hasn’t said hardly a word. He just stares into space or occasionally mutters something rude about the cup of tea I just made him. Don’t you Kenneth?” said Lenore, a chubby, red-faced woman in her forties with a habit of asking questions she doesn’t want answered. “He used to be such a lovely man, so full of life. Well as much life as you can expect at that age I suppose. Isn’t that right Kenneth?” she asked again, taking a three finger chomp from her Golden Gaytime; honeycomb pieces raining down on her brightly coloured floral dress.
I shot a glance at my rear vision mirror and I’m almost certain I saw Kenneth give her the finger behind her back. I looked again but the old man was just sitting there, hands in his lap, staring blankly out the window.
My attention was quickly back on Lenore as she slurped, sucked and spluttered her ice cream while breathing heavily through her nose. She sounded like a bulldog eating custard. “I’ve got a really difficult job you know,” she continued, and in one breath said;
“You try being around death all the time and tell me how you feel. I lost three of em last year, four the year before. People are asking me all the time, Lenore, how do you do it? I’m just that type of person, I’m a fighter, I always have been ever since I was a little girl. My mum would say, that Lenore she’s tough, she will get through. You know what I mean?”
I nodded my head, pursed my lips and gave a half-hearted, “yeah.” Lenore’s rambling continued for the next five minutes. I completely tuned out, offering little more than “sure” or “ahhh ok”. I doubt Lenore cared if I was listening or not. She could hear herself and that seemed enough to make her happy. “Next left!” she said suddenly, raising her voice. “Now you’re going to drop me here on the corner. Kenneth lives over in Erskineville, about 5 minutes away. I’ll enter his address in now,” said Lenore, jamming her sausage fingers into her iPhone screen.
“Ok Kenneth, I’ll see you on Thursday alright?” said Lenore as she struggled out of my car, brushing the crumbs from her ice-cream to my floor. As she waddled up her driveway a raspy voice with a strong East London accent grabbed my attention from the back seat:
“Stupid bloody cow, good riddance!” growled Kenneth. I turned my head sharply to make sure I wasn’t hearing things. My remaining passenger, the old man hunched over in my back seat, was now sitting upright, his blank expression replaced with a look of self-righteousness. His dull, blank eyes now a sparkling blue; alert and brimming with life.
“Ooo yeh, I like this one. Turn it up please sir!” asked Kenneth with a grin. Mouth gaping I turned up the radio as Kenneth bobbed his head and tapped his knee from my back seat. Where had this man been hiding? I wondered, as I shook my head in disbelief and let out a wry chuckle.
I hadn’t noticed before but he was a seriously snappy dresser. A pair of pressed grey pleats, perfect length, showed just half an inch of crisp, navy coloured socks. The socks met a pair of polished, brown leather Oxford’s with precision tied laces and hardly a scuff. Up top, he wore a bright red woollen jumper with a tartan collar neatly folded at the neck. A grey trilby sat slightly lopsided on his full head of sparkling white hair. His face was an old map. Sunspots of varying sizes, from shirt buttons to 50 cent pieces, dotted his forehead and cheeks. A lightning bolt scar jutted from his bottom lip to his chin. There was one feature, however, that had no business being on such a weathered, old face. Fresh, piercing blue eyes, like two opals in a muddy creek, flashed with youth and energy. Lenore was wrong about Kenneth, he hadn’t kicked the bucket just yet.
We pulled into Kenneth’s street in Erskineville. Both sides of the road were packed in tight with old terrace houses, all chipped paint and rusted iron. Kenneth’s place was number seventy-eight. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it. A single story suburban house hidden among the urban sprawl. Complete with tidy front garden and a swinging silver gate, Kenneth’s cottage slept in the shadows of the 18ft terraces on either side. He even had the classic style freestanding wooden letterbox which was overflowing with junk mail. I pulled into the parking spot out the front and ended the trip.
“There you go Kenneth, enjoy the rest of your day,” I said with a smile and a nod.
“Please, call me Ken,” he replied, straightening his trilby with his left hand.
“You can’t go just yet son, I need your help with something out back,” he said, nodding to number seventy-eight and tapping his nose with his forefinger.
“Oh ok, no worries,” I replied, a little taken back by the request. This wasn’t the first time a passenger had asked a favour. A week prior I somehow got roped into carrying a washing machine down three flights of stairs in an apartment complex in Waterloo. The old Lebanese woman paid me with a Tupperware container jam-packed with crispy, gooey baklava. It was absolutely worth the hassle. I had already put on three and half kilograms since my first day as an Uber driver, a few Middle Eastern sweets would just add another centimetre of soft flesh to fold over my seatbelt.
I followed Ken through the silver gate, along the pebblecrete path and into his humble home. There it was, that smell. It took me back twenty years to my own Grandfather’s house in Boorowa, a small country town in Central West New South Wales. A combination of old furniture coated in dust, antiseptic (Dettol) and lavender soap. Talcum powder and mothballs. I breathed it all in and felt immediately comfortable in my new surroundings. Doilies on the arms of chairs, cricket on the fat back TV and a cockatiel in a cage above the fireplace.
“Fancy a cuppa?” asked Ken as I basked in nostalgia.
“Sure, thanks,” I replied.
“Take a seat son, won’t be a tick,” he said, walking through to the kitchen I imagined would be an exact replica of my late Grandfather’s.
I sat down on the double seater lounge just in time to see Mitchell Starc bag a wicket. While the Kiwi’s reviewed the LBW decision I ran my eyes over Ken’s lounge room; a well kept time capsule. Behind the birdcage and above the fireplace was a large, wooden framed, black and white photograph. It was an image of an army squad, with twenty uniformed men with cold, focused expressions and steel rods for backs. I squinted across the room, trying to find Ken in the group.
Ken emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later carrying my cup of tea and a blue tin of biscuits. Scotch fingers, milk arrowroots and ginger snaps.
“See, this is how you make a cup of tea. Take a look at the colour,” said Ken placing the mug on a coaster on the wooden coffee table.
“Boiling hot water, throw the bag in and wait a minute. Grab yerself a spoon and pinch the bag against the edge of the mug. Remove the bag. A splash of milk and a quick stir and you’ve got yerself a perfect cuppa,” he said proudly, offering me a biscuit to dunk in my tea.
“If one more person hands me a cup of tea with the bag still in it I’ll not be drinking it. What’s the matter with people? Bloody lazy, that’s what!” he said sternly.
“Now when yer finish that I’ll be out back in the shed. I’ll see you out there, alright?” said Ken, turning and walking through the kitchen and out the back door.
“No worries!” I said with a dry mouth full of milk arrowroot, spraying the coffee table with crumbs.
I sipped my tea wondering what Ken needed a hand with. I imagine he needed something heavy moved. Please not another washing machine.
I finished my perfect cup of tea and walked to the kitchen to place it in the sink. The kitchen window revealed Ken’s very unusual back garden. The entire backyard was blanketed in darkness from the surrounding buildings. The two terrace houses on either side and the building at the back of the property, which didn’t look residential, almost completely cut Ken off from any sunlight at all. There was one thin corridor of light which ran down the left-hand side of Ken’s garden. It was about two metres wide and was populated with two neat rows of brightly coloured green plants in pots. Inside the pots were wooden stakes about a metre and a half tall. The plants, more like vines, climbed the wooden stakes and bore some kind of fruit which resembled soft, green pinecones. The rest of the backyard was barren, all damp dirt and weeds. At the very back of the property stood an old wooden shed. From a distance, it looked as though it was leaning against the building behind it. I washed up my cup and headed toward the shed. When I pushed open the door I was completely blown away by what I saw:
Sitting on a thick, hardwood shelf which ran along the right hand side of the shed were three large silver canisters, each about a metre high and half a metre wide. Thin, clear plastic tubing connected all three canisters, with one final tube connected to a keg beneath the shelf.
“Beer,” said Ken proudly. “Been brewin me own for years! Did yer see my garden of hops?” he asked.
“Were those the green plants down the side?” I responded, unable to hide the look of surprise and wonderment on my face.
“Sure are. They give me brew a nice little bite,” said Ken, lightly kicking the keg on the floor with his shoe. “Now, if you don’t mind, could you disconnect the pipe and pick up the keg on the floor? Then, follow me.”
I did as Ken asked. I had worked countless shifts as a barman and knew how to disconnect the keg without getting a faceful of beer. I picked up the keg and turned to walk out of the shed when Ken exclaimed, “wrong way son, over herë!” I turned sharply to see him walking toward the back of the shed. Surely he didn’t just want me to lean it up against the back wall.
Ken retrieved a set of keys from his pocket when he reached the back of the shed. I stood behind him, squinting over his shoulder to work out what he was up to. He reached forward and pushed the key into a small opening in the wall. I heard a loud click when he turned the key. He then pushed on a section of the wall and it folded back to reveal a narrow passageway. Ken’s shed was connected to the building at the back of his house. What the hell was going on?
He flicked on a light switch and the tunnel connecting the two properties was now clear to see. It was about four metres long and connected to another door on the other side. Without saying a word Ken led me through the tunnel to the other door. He pushed it open and a gust of cool air swept over me. The door led to an enormous, concrete room with stacks of kegs leaning up against the far wall. Long, thick tubes ran from the kegs up the walls and into the ceiling. We were in the keg room of a pub. I was speechless, gobsmacked, flabbergasted.
“Put that down over there,” said Ken nonchalantly, pointing at the rows of kegs at the far wall. He didn’t even bother to look at me for a reaction.
“Hahaha are we in a pub Ken?” I asked in astonishment.
“Sure are! Now, you must be thirsty. We’re almost there,” replied Ken walking to yet another door at the back of the room.
I followed Ken through the door, up a small flight of stairs and into the pub. The air was much warmer in the pub. It was empty, besides the barman standing at the taps.
“Ayyyy Ken! How are ya mate?” announced the young, bearded barman with genuine enthusiasm.
“Andy, good to see yer son,” Ken replied warmly, taking off his trilby and laying it down on the bar.
“I’ve just dropped off another batch in the cool room alright?” said Ken, pulling out a bar stool and taking a seat.
Andy opened the till behind the bar and handed Ken a wad of fifties. “Everyone loved the last batch Ken, keep it coming mate!” said Andy, shaking his head and grinning widely. Andy had exactly the same look on his face that I did.
“Thank you, now two of mine please sir!” said Ken, folding the fifties and stuffing them into his pocket.
I sat down next to Ken and took a gulp of his homebrew. It was delicious. I couldn’t believe what had transpired since our car ride. Lenore is already planning Ken’s funeral when he’s got more life than most twenty-year-olds. There was something that was bugging me though, so I just came out and asked him, “Ken, why don’t you speak around Lenore? She seems to think you’re not really here.”
Ken took a long, hard gulp of his beer, then turned to me and said, “have you ever been in love?”
Again, Ken had shocked me. I wasn’t expecting him to ask me that question. Before I had a chance to answer, Ken took a deep breath, then said:
“On my eightieth birthday, my beloved Marney left this world. We were together for fifty five years. Our love endured war, time apart and even death. I still love her. I still think about her every single day. There are few people who understand the kind of hurt I am talking about. I’ve been around a long time son, I don’t need to spend too long with someone to work out if there is the faintest chance they have felt like I have. You can see it on someone’s face, in their eyes, if they have ever had their heart broken. Most people just think I’m a miserable old sod, slowly wasting away into nothing. If I’m sitting there quietly, I’m thinking of her. There aren’t many people out there who understand that,”
Ken raised his glass before taking another long, hard gulp from his beer. I did the same.
I placed my hand on Ken’s shoulder and bid him farewell before leaving the pub, this time through the front entrance.