This is a short story I entered into a competition. I didn't receive a place, but I thought I would share it all the same. Alice is me and Cameron is Ron, a man I befriended a few years ago who lived across the road. My family and I don't speak to him anymore, but I do often think of him.
The man wasn't at the window that day.
It was 8:30am, and I could smell the early morning dew. The crisp, cool air sent shivers up my arms, raising the tiny hairs that I had forgotten to habitually shave in the shower an hour earlier. It was odd of me not to do so, and I remember noticing this more than anything else that day, wondering why I had so carelessly severed the routine.
I was walking to school alone today. My sister had become ill a few days earlier, and had not left the old house save for a quick dash to the letterbox. I would notice with fascination that each time she did so she would turn and pause, staring at the old house for the briefest moment, before rushing back inside.
Our house had been built during the 1870 - 80’s. The area had been mostly sugar plantations at that time, although subdivisions occurred to make way for land development and a promised railway line. There was much history in the area, and I soaked it up hungrily, eager for knowledge about the old houses and original train stations. The funny thing about our house was that it appeared to have been built backwards, as the backdoor faced the road. Before the land had been developed, and the railway station had been built in front of it, it had sat on a large property boasting two large mango trees welcoming you at the front door. Now, it seemed as though a mirror had been flipped, and the mango trees sat rotting away at the back of the house, and you were welcomed through a small door diminishing the grandeur of the house.
Across the road from us was a house build around the same time as ours. Each day as my sister and I walked to school I noticed an old man sitting in a chair by the window, simply gazing at the outside world quietly, as though everything he saw became part of a long repetitive chain of events that constituted as his life. He would sit there idly and seem to almost daydream, soaking up the warmth reflected through the closed windows.
After many weeks without acknowledging his existence, one particular morning I had the sudden urge to wave at him, so I did. Instantly he waved back, and thus began another habitual routine that I quickly assimilated into my morning activities before school.
We became good friends, he and I. I would walk to and from the letterbox every day, seeing his kindly face at the window and wave, as if saying “good morning”. I would walk to and from the shops and each time I turned the corner I would make sure I waved quickly before briskly walking down the street. Each day as my sister and I walked to school I would wave at him without hesitation, and when my sister questioned my actions I simply shrugged my shoulders and replied “I just wave because I do”. I began noticing the older woman who visited him every now and then, and I wondered why she didn’t visit more often. He seemed lonely, the man at the window, and his wistful gaze seemed to long for an adventure into the past.
One afternoon, as I was returning home from school, I had the sudden idea to write him a letter. So after I changed out of my paint – stained uniform, sat myself outside on the veranda, in the corner nearest to the shed on an old church pew, and began to write. My letter read as thus:
“Dear old man across the road,
My name is Alice and I live in number 11, across the street, in the old white house. We have waved to each other every day now for the past couple of months. I have noticed you every day sitting in the same chair, in the same spot, and I was curious to know who you were. What is your name? I don’t know if you will write me back, as I never see you leave your house, and I really don’t mind whether you do or not, but I just wanted you to know that my mum has made potato bake and was wondering whether you wanted any. I’ll come by your house later on to give you some. If you don’t want any then that’s O.K, but you should know, it’s pretty good.
Anyway, I hope you’re having a good day, I’ll see you later,
I had visited him later on, as I had promised, and delivered the potato bake. I had given him the big piece with the crunchiest outside layer. I had introduced myself more formally, and he had told me his name was Cameron. I thought it rather ironic that he should have such a name, as he had very striking features, most notably his large ears and crooked nose. We had not talked for very long, and so I left him with the potato bake, promising to return the next day to collect the dish and to resume our conversation.
The next day I returned to say hello, and he had smiled eagerly at me on his doorstep. He asked me how my day had been, how old I was, and remarked that he noticed I attended the local high school. I had made some non – committal response about the standards of the school, though mentioned that I liked walking there every morning, as my sister and I would walk beneath an underpass graphitised with a few stanzas of my favourite poem, The Raven. Cameron told me that did not much care for poetry, as he had lived his life outdoors, but he said he appreciated the talent of poets and writers alike. I had smiled and look a liking to him instantly.
Cameron and I became best friends. I would often bring him food from my mother and we would talk on his doorstep for a little while until it became late and I would be called home by one of my parents or my sister. Eventually he asked me inside, and I agreed to stay and talk for a little while, curious about the house and the tales he had to tell me. And what tales they were! Cameron and I talked about a myriad of different things, and I learned much about the town and his family. He had been born in the old house, had never married, and had taken care of his mother until she had to be placed in a nursing home. He told me tales of his boyhood years scampering around the town until the late hours of the night until he was escorted home by the police who were, in fact, friends of the family. He had many jobs and fondly recalled each one of them, his eyes sparkling as he talked about them all. I admired him and his audacious spirit, and wished that I could have as many adventures as he had during my life. We would talk for many hours until one of us grew tired and I would go home. He would watch as I crossed the street and wave as I shut the door, my head brimming with stories to tell my family.
Over the many months I learned more and more about the history of the area. Cameron seemed to know everything there was to know, and he had one of the most accurate memories I had ever come across. Sometimes he paused mid conversation, to remember the date Whittaker Manor had been built, or the year the school first opened, but he would always remember in the end. He told me all about the old shops and the roads and the original houses that had been built and who had lived in them. He recalled climbing the mango trees in my backyard and burying treasure under their giant roots, stating that it was probably still there. He told me about the many times he had played on the veranda of my house, and had run up and down the narrow hallway with his brothers and sisters. His family had been good friends with the original owners of the house, until they had moved away. It fascinated me to think of a whole generation of people growing up in the house I now lived in! Who were they all, what did they do, what exciting things had happened in the house?
We had many conversations about various different things, and most interestingly about Whittaker Manor, one of the original houses in the area. The residence, was completed in 1889 by George Vernette, and boasted a floor area covering 150 square meters. Cameron told me many old stories about the house, as it was used as a family residence, hospital, sanatorium, and nursing home. Many people reported unexplained phenomena, including hearing children’s footsteps running as they played, the voices of singing and laugher, of cries and moans and even hair pulling. It made me value my own home so much more, as it was only a street away and must have been involved with the manor, and I was grateful Cameron could enlighten me on such interesting information.
I began to think of the house as not only a place to live, but as a vibrant home once filled with life, vivaciousness and spirit. I longed to be part of that life, and to dance and sing in the large white rooms, my voice echoing around the tall ceilings. Often when nobody was home I would feel my body fill with life and would dance and sing around the rooms to myself, my songs reverberating around the house, my joy showing through the bright sunlight that shone through the French doors that beckoned you onto the sunny veranda in the summer.
I also began to value my town as something much more than the place that I lived. Cameron told me so many stories about The Second World War, and how the US had set up camp in the area during 1943 and 1944 to conduct shooting and bombing practice. He also told me about how businesses had changed, when in 1959 a chemist, doctors surgery, butcher, garage and fish shop were established when the farmland was divided and sold into blocks. His stories charmed and captivated me, intrigued and enveloped me, and I began to feel a strong bond for the house and community that I had previously overlooked.
Every day I would make sure I waved to Cameron, just so he knew that I cared for him, that he wasn’t as lonely as he seemed, and that I valued the rich stories that he told me. Friends of mine remarked about him, and when I told them I had befriended him, they were generally surprised. All they saw was a lonely old man staring through the window, but I saw a life that had lived a thousand adventures, the adventures well worth telling, a man who had a million stories to tell, and a history well worth knowing.
This morning, as I stared at the raised hairs on my arms, I looked across the road and noticed that Cameron wasn't in his usual spot at the window. The curtains were open and I could see the faint outline of the yellowing lounge room walls, tainted with the accretion of smoke over the decades. I turned and looked back at my own house, then looked up again at the window, but still no familiar face smiled at me from the window. The old man wasn’t there. A fierce wind blew my hair out of the headband that it back from my face, and I watched as it slowly blew down the street. My stomach knotted and I took a step backwards to grasp the old iron letterbox. My fingers closed around the lid tightly and I took a deep breath, swallowing the build-up of saliva that had accumulated in my mouth.
I knew the old man had died.
I stood at the front steps of the house and simply stared at the window, which now seemed so lonely and forlorn. A woman had arrived in a yellow sedan and I watched as she walked back and forth from the car to the house, carrying useless items. Cameron had told me about her, and how she wanted the family house for herself. I had imagined her as a cruel, greying, twisted old woman, but this morning she appeared quite domesticated in her lilac woollen suit and iron curls. I sighed and simply stood there, staring at the window. I imagined I could see him seated there, smiling happily down on me. I realised that perhaps he was doing that right now, and this comforted me, although I felt a knotted pain in my heart where I felt his sincere friendship. I turned to take my sisters hand for comfort and I realised she was not there. I picked at the hairs on my arm, plucking them out one by one. Looking down at them, I remembered I had not shaved and wondered whether I should have recognised this as a sign that something was wrong. Perhaps this idiosyncrasy was a warning, and perhaps I had forgotten to shave many times before in similar situations but had not realised. If so, why? Was this unfortunate occurrence more noteworthy than other times? Why had the break in routine bother me so much this morning?
I realised that I had never known anyone that I had treasured to have died. Both my grandparents were alive; my aunt, who was recovering from Lymphoma, had not died; I had never owned a pet, as both my parents disliked animals; I did not know anyone who had died in an accident, or from old age….until now. Cameron was the first person I had personally known to have died, and I didn’t know what or how to feel. Over the short time that I had known him I had come to regard him as my truest and most trusted friend. He had been kindly and sympathetic and full of knowledge about a kaleidoscope of different things. His stories had given me hope that one day, I too, would have an adventure of my own. And he had taught me to always be interested in the seemingly uninteresting things around us that many people were too blind or ignorant to see. I did not shed a tear, but simply turned away and stared at the street ahead of me, wondering what adventures awaited me. And as I walked farther and farther away from the old house across the street I grew excited in the knowledge that Cameron would be watching over me, encouraging my late night scampering around the town until I was brought home in the early hours by the police.