Encounter at the gate


Encounter at the gate

I'm standing at the front gate, about to go for a run when he swings round the corner. He has a heavy looking bag over one shoulder into which are tightly folded perhaps forty or fifty copies of the local paper. It arrives every Thursday, but this is the first time I've encountered the deliverer.

'Just drop it in the box,' I say. 'I'm off for a run.'

'Name's Roy,' he says, extending a sinewy hand.

'Brian,' I say, slightly taken aback but shaking hands anyway.

Roy flicks a paper from his bag, rolls it once and puts it into the box next to the gate.

'Sensible box you've got there. Some of 'em are so small they'd hardly take a letter let alone a bloody newspaper. Personally I prefer those bits of 90mm PVC pipe for papers. Not much use for rain water – they split – but fine for rolled up papers or magazines. Mind you, newspaper's a bit of a misnomer for this bastard.'

He takes another paper from his bag and waves it in an arc. 'Full of real estate advertisements. Not much content there. So you're a runner?'

He speaks in a deep, modulated voice that seems to run on like a quiet stream. Just when you think you might answer, the flow smoothly resumes, and he is an adept prince of the non sequitur. I manage to explain to him that I'd been running to keep fit for about thirty years, but these days what I did was more of a jog. 'My marathon days are long gone,' I add with uneasy self-deprecation.

'I'm a walker,' he says. I realise he means officially a walker, employed by the company that distributes the local papers.

'I walk round all the courts, roads, boulevards, closes, circuits, avenues, lanes and parades – nothing as bloody mundane as a "street" round here. The pay's pretty ordinary, but you keep fit and it's quite interesting at times. Fr'instance, there's this bloke I met the other day. I'd just left a paper in his box when he called out to me. I thought he was going to complain about something, but he was polite and pleasant. "Don't leave any papers here if you don't mind," he said, "because I can't read." I thought for a minute he was having a lend of me. He was well dressed, well spoken. Funny how you automatically equate illiteracy with being down and out.'

I can't help myself. 'Well, what was the problem?'

The man, Roy explains, had a stroke, but his otherwise full recovery had been marred by the discovery that letters, print, writing, inscription of all kinds, were an unrecognisable jumble. The doctors said this would gradually improve, but it didn't.

'Weird, isn't it?' Roy says. 'He can't drive because the signs are meaningless. And of course, the world of reading is closed off to him: printed books, magazines, newspapers, and even little throw-aways like this one.' He reaches into his bag and brandishes yet another of his wares.

'You'll be wanting to get running,' he says. 'Ever take a short cut through the cemetery?'

I nod.   

'Y'know,' he says, looking vaguely across the road at ti trees being plucked and rocked by the wind – I brace myself for another right-angle turn in the conversation – 'I reckon it wouldn't hurt some of these politicians to be forced to walk among the graves a bit, especially the ones who've spent their whole lives in politics and never been within a mile of a bullet fired in anger and who send the young blokes off to bloody Iraq or Afghanistan or some other hell hole to take our minds off what's going on at home. That cemetery is full of the "fallen", as they call them. Well, they didn't fall, mate, they were cut down.'

It's as if he feels embarrassed by his own sudden passion.

'Anyway, got to get on.' He hoists the bag higher on his shoulder.

I have to ask. 'Have you been within a mile of an angry bullet?'

'Vietnam,' he says. 'Number came up. Three gongs. Bad dreams. Lots of dead mates. Don't forget to collect your paper from the box. You'll probably find your dream home in it.'


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, column, By the Way, memoir



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Existing comments

I've been doing a bit of walking around a new neighbourhood for me (Colonel Light Gardens, Adelaide) and it's the only way to learn small & big things about neighbours. As usual, honesty of thought from Brian.
Pam | 11 September 2014

Take time to listen to another. Thank you for this article.
Rita | 12 September 2014

Thanks for sharing your reflective essay Brian. It actually brought a tear to my eye. The man who couldn't read, the many who delivered papers, the man who took a run through the cemetery. The people who didn't! A beautiful story! So many out there waiting to share a story-just waiting for a listener. I have learnt to listen to anyone who has a story to share, it's the way I learn now.
Geoff Kennewell | 12 September 2014

Why can't the rest of us write like this?
Frank | 12 September 2014

Beautiful piece of writing, Brian! Right up there in the vein of top Australian writing. And how you engaged with the casual passer by is what I aim to do too. It costs nothing doesn't it and you make somebody feel a million dollars and they amaze you too!
Peter Hardiman | 12 September 2014

What a lovely tale. Oh to be able to write so clearly, and lucidly tell others about yourself and your experiences/encounters. You have a wonderful gift Brian. And the paper delivery man; what a blessing. God's gifts are so many for those open to such. Go well good writer
John Pettit | 13 September 2014


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