Noel stretched his back as he pulled himself away from the seat of the black security car. The door of the Toyota Yaris gave a hollow clang as he pushed it to a swift close. He zipped his jacket. The quicker he completed this foot patrol, the sooner he could return to the car and escape the brisk winter night.
As he walked around the railway station building light danced from the federation era lights, each step changing how the shadows danced off the ornate features to give him imaginations of an earlier time when trains were his life. With brisk step through the crisp night air from the station building to the darkness of the old barracks, he occasionally kicked old lumps of coal from the bygone era of when this place mattered to all who travelled to, from, and through. Now more than a quarter more than a century since its inception, not many people frequented the railway station anymore. He’d never found a window open or door unlocked. His footsteps the only sound to break the nights quiet.
Noel walked about the barracks building in the way he’d grown accustomed over several years. Moving quickly through the dim light of the front, stepping carefully about the poorly lit side, entrusting each step to his torchlight about the unlit darkness of the building’s rear.
‘That’s not normally there,’ he muttered to himself, as the torchlight caught what appeared to him as a pile of clothes, a tartan blanket over the top. Noel considered this interruption to his night, thinking why someone might leave a pile of clothes on the back landing of the old barracks. As he thought in silence, the pile slightly moved. Noel’s torchlight caught the eyes of the someone beneath the pile, wearing the pile, every aspect of them concealed from the cold but their eyes and nose.
‘I’m sorry,’ Noel said with a startle, as he shone the torchlight to the ground, away from the persons eyes.
After a moment pause, he added, ‘You’ll be right to stay here the night. I’ll be back round after midnight, so don’t mind me. Other than that, you should be right till the morning, say about eight, as there’ll be railway staff in after then.’ Noel hoped that the hint was clear.
No words or sounds emanated from the clothes pile. Only the stare of stern grey eyes.
Noel gave a single nod to the eyes, then walked on, returning to the warmth of the patrol car for a few minutes before the next toil of walking another buildings surrounds.
The post midnight patrol found the pile otherwise unchanged, eyes now closed, quietly asleep.
Daybreak came as Noel completed his security rounds. Home, he snacked on some toast, then burrowed into the warmth of his bed for the morning.
The sun descended midway through the afternoon sky as Noel ate his breakfast, drinking the first of many coffees before he’d reach the comfort of bed again. Still midafternoon, hours before the patrol shift was due to start, he returned to the railway station to ease his concern that the pile of clothes had moved as he’d hoped. No clothes, no stern eyes. No sign of the guest of the night before. Perhaps, he thought, the torment of night shift had taken its toll, and he’d imagined it after all.
Noel carried on about his afternoon, then started his patrol. By nightfall the old barracks clothes pile had returned, almost though it’d had never left. A well-rehearsed display of street life. Take care of the good spots to be sure you can return easily unaffected each night for as long as is wished or needed.
The nights went by, the shifts otherwise the same, each night now including one tartan clad pile in anonymity of dark, huddled from the night cold at the rear of the old barracks.
As the weeks passed the seasons shifted, the longer Spring days giving twilight, then eventually daylight, to the beginning of each evenings shift. Noel approached the old barracks as normal, expecting to find the pile as had become normal. Instead he found where the pile had been a man seated in a light cloud of blue smoke. His shaggy grey bearded lips gently drawing on a rolled Tally-Ho. His beanie pulled to his eyebrows.
Noel paused from his well-practiced walk. ‘Evening,’ he said.
‘It is indeed,’ said the man, drawing another gentle breath of smoke.
‘All these nights, I hope I haven’t disturbed your sleep too often.’
‘It’s quiet here, a good place to rest, and nice to know there’s someone keeping an eye out on occasion too.’
‘I’m no one; just a wanderer,’ blue tinged smoke floating from his mouth as he spoke.
‘I see,’ said Noel, casting his eyes to follow the wafting smoke.
The wanderer leaned back a little, squashing the remainder of his Tally-Ho into the concrete verandah ‘Till the next time then.’
‘Till then,’ Noel said as he began to walk away, headed to return to the patrol car.
Late spring had approached with the usual warmth of day and cool of night. Noel found that the longer days offered the wanderer more time to sit idly watching the freight trains go by with a rolled Tally-Ho in his lips, whilst keeping a bedraggled book in hand, making the most of the provided natural light.
Rarely more than a standard exchange of ‘evening,’ ‘indeed,’ passed between the two. Noel felt not much more needed to be said. He did though wonder how long this wanderer would stay before following his natural restless state. How many years had he’d wandered; how many more years he could wander.
Where he would go when he couldn’t wander anymore? A life of walking roads can weather a person’s age. The wanderer did seem to Noel to perhaps be beyond his retirement years.
Weeks passed. Noel hummed Good King Wenceslas as he approached the wanderer’s corner of the verandah late in the evening. The summer heat threatened to ramp up soon as the festive season continued.
The warmth of the afternoon had the wanderer dressed down to a button shirt, sleeves rolled up, suspenders holding his long pants. He kept a rolled Tally-HO between his lips as he sat waiting for the next freight train.
The wanderer spoke first.
‘Curlers getting about now, better watch ya step.’
‘Curlers?’ Noel asked.
‘Yeah, curlers. Brown snakes, they curl to walk you know,’ the wanderer chuckled as he demonstrated with his hands a curler’s walk.
Noel grimaced at the thought. To date he hadn’t walked into the path of an Eastern Brown, second most venomous snake in the world, and as common as birds in that part of the country.
‘Better watch ya step then,’ said the wanderer again, waving his hand out toward the empty land between the old barracks and the railway line. ‘I’ve seen them out that way towards the rail tracks, it’s this time of year they’re on the move of course,’ he added.
‘Thank you,’ Noel said, with a deep swallow. ‘I’ll be sure to keep an eye out.’
‘You’ve been staying here a while,’ Noel then added, ‘Several weeks now, how often do you wander off?’
‘Tryin’ to get rid of me then?’ said the wanderer.
‘Not at all,’ said Noel, ‘Just curious about where you’ve come from, and where’ll you go?’
‘Oh, I’m from around and allover,’ said the wanderer. ‘I needed some down time and hadn’t been through this way for many years. Figured it wouldn’t have changed much. These small towns rarely do during a lifetime. Everything you need to get by, nothing much of the things a simple person doesn’t want. Which keeps it quiet and safe for an old vagabond such as me. I go where I want when I want, and places like this are just big enough that I can be out of the way of the town folk, but small enough that people will let me be if I keep to myself; no drifting groups of thugs looking for an easy target to prove themselves to their mates.’
The wanderer paused with a stare out across the railway lines as a freight train rumbled through.
‘It’s not much of a life for most, but its more than enough for me. I’ve been all over this great country more times than I can remember. Travelled beyond its shores when opportunities arose. Seen more things then I could ever dream. Worked more jobs in more places than most would ever consider. My boys mightn’t approve, but they’ve their own lives to live, they don’t live mine. They haven’t needed me for a long, long time.’
‘You have a family?’ Noel asked
‘Had. Once. She didn’t want me anymore. Fair enough too. In hindsight the bank was killing me. I wasn’t worth living with anymore. When she told me to leave – I left. Gave it all away for just the clothes on my back. I walked away from her, the boys, and an endless career as a bank manager. Gone. I guess it was a break down. From here it looks like it was a breakthrough. As the last thirty plus years have been my best,’ the wanderer said.
‘Has any of your family tried to find you?’ Noel asked
‘I see one occasionally. The youngest boy lives a few hours north from here. I let him know at times that I’m alive, and still free.’ He cleared a chesty cough, followed by a deep draw from the rolled Tally-Ho.
‘It’s a cheap life. The smokes the greatest expense. But we all need at least one vice,’ he coughed a blue smoke laugh.
Noel paused. The wanderer had spoken words that cleared the clouds of life between them.
‘I must keep going, work to be done,’ Noel said, as he started to walk toward the patrol car. ‘See you soon then,’ he added.
‘Indeed,’ the wanderer replied.
The night patrol offered hours of solitude. Time to think. Time to consider the wanderers world.
Noel wouldn’t return for a few days. His next rostered shifts would include Christmas. A time when his kids, and their kids, would gather and celebrate family and the festive season.
Noel stretched as he pulled himself from the patrol car. The afternoon heat drew a sheen of sweat to his brow, soon to be cooled by the evening breeze of the setting sun. The night began as another of the same old same old. Another chance to chat with the wanderer before Christmas came in two short days.
‘Evening,’ Noel said as he approached. The wanderer was setup for the evening, blue smoke wafting about his head.
‘Indeed,’ he replied.
‘Will you be here for Christmas too, it’s pretty soon,’ Noel said.
‘So you are tryin’ to get rid of me. Ha!’ said the wanderer, a slight grin through puffs of blue.
‘Not at all. Not at all,’ Noel said. ‘Just thought, been nearly Christmas, you might see the son you mentioned. Or another arrangement, perhaps.’
The wanderers face stiffened. His gaze steady on Noel.
‘Just hoped you might have a family gathering to look forward too, that’s all,’ Noel said through the wanderers’ grey eyed stare.
‘Mind yourself and yours,’ said the wanderer, his gaze fixed. ‘You no doubt have a family to care for, and of you, at this time of year. The ring you wear gives me reason that might be true. I need only worry about myself, as mine have families of their own to care for.’
Noel raised is brow. ‘You have grandchildren too?’
‘I do; they have no grandfather though,’ said the wanderer.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Noel, breaking from the wanderers’ gaze. His eyes landed on the tartan blanket, neatly placed to the wanderers’ side.
‘Don’t be sorry, I’m not. My choices brought me here now. No one chooses to end up on the streets, but very few like me choose to stay. Pity those who can’t choose. Experiences may be all I have from this life of wandering; but those experiences are mine to own.’
Noel wiped the light sweat from his brow. He stared at the tartan patterns of the blanket.
‘You have comfort?’ asked the wanderer.
‘Yes,’ said Noel.
‘You have family too?’
‘Yes,’ said Noel.
‘What do you have that’s just you?’ the wanderer asked.
Noel looked back to the wanderers grey eyed gaze, the stern conviction still trailing from his words.
‘I thought so,’ said the wanderer as he returned to his Tally-Ho packet to roll another.
Noel broke the following silence. ‘Your tartan blanket, it’s an Irish tartan, isn’t it?’ Noel said.
‘If you say so,’ said the wanderer. ‘I brought it back from Dublin many years ago. Worked a cargo ship then. It’s just a blanket to me.’
‘I recognized the tartan pattern. I’m of Irish convict descent,’ said Noel.
‘Have you ever been there,’ asked the wanderer, ‘or anywhere for that matter?’ his words gruff.
‘No. I’ve never left these shores. Only dreamt of maybe one day seeing Ireland,’ said Noel
‘It’s a part of your story you can’t fully express then,’ said the wanderer.
Noel stepped back. He’d stayed too long. ‘Till next time then,’ he said, as he started to walk away.
‘Till then,’ replied the wanderer. ‘Till then.’
Noel considered the wanderers words as he packed food typical of an Australian summer Christmas. Cold ham, turkey, chicken. Accompanied with assorted salads. A traditional pudding for dessert. The wanderer deserved a decent meal, it was Christmas Eve after all.
A gift of festive meal in esky, Noel approached where the wanderer had been each evening for months. The wanderer’s belongings were packed. His duffle bag lay in wait. The wanderer nowhere to be seen. Noel left his gift next to the duffle bag, a simple note of Merry Christmas taped to the side.
By the second night patrol, past midnight to be Christmas day, the duffle bag and esky were gone. Only a neatly folded tartan blanket remained.
The wanderer had moved on from his extended stay. Noel couldn’t. He wondered whether the wanderer had thought better of seeing family at Christmas; or had he simply wandered on?
Noel continued for months to think of the wanderer’s words, and his final message, the neatly folded tartan blanket.
Noel considered all this as Dublin came into view through the aircraft window, during the flight’s final descent.