As I approached the old man, he nodded politely but then faced away, as if to stiffen himself against well-meant intrusion. I was guessing he had experienced plenty of that, so I was going to be careful about implying he should “move on” for what others might deem his “own good”.
“Hello. I’m from the Observatory. Well, I suppose that’s obvious. I should say I’m in charge there. We have a sort of computer business. My name is Drew.”
“I’m…pleased to meet you.”
His manner was not so much hesitant as that of someone struggling with a foreign language. I wondered about his origins.
“I just wanted to say hello, that’s all. Since we are neighbours.”
“And your name is?”
The old man thought a moment.
“Rex. I suppose you could call me Rex. A lot of people have called me that.”
“And where are you from, Rex? I mean, originally.”
“I suppose…from down by the sea. From Avalon. But there were places before that…”
“And were you born here? In Australia, I mean?”
“Born…I think I was born in Wales. It’s hard to tell.”
“Well, I just wanted to pop over and meet you. Do you have enough things?”
“You know, clothes and so on. We have spare blankets here.”
“Ah, I see. No. You are kind, but I have clothes and such things.”
“I need no food. I am well, as you see. I am very well. You are kind, sir, but I am well.”
I felt I had said and done enough by way of being a neighbour. It was a relief to discern that the old fellow was not merely without harm but also without the ingrained frustrations and hostilities such eccentrics often display. His odd formality and hesitant, antiquated speech even had a certain charm.
Shortly after there was a problem of sorts. Rexie wanted to enter the premises for some reason but was stopped by the extra security guard we now had posted at the gate. The internal security guard informed me and I decided to sort it out if possible.
As I walked outside I was passed by Laura Wilkie, one of our secretarial people. She was carrying a large box.
“Help you there, Laura?”
“No. I’m fine, Drew.”
Rexie – we had already nicknamed him – was still standing patiently by the guard.
“Hi, Rexie. Is there a problem?”
The guard explained:
“The gentleman wanted to come in when he saw Laura carrying the box. He just wanted to help her.”
“Rexie, that was very nice of you, but Laura was fine with the box. I asked her myself.”
The old man was shaking his head:
“But…the lady had…bundles.”
We resisted laughing. If Rexie was a simpleton, he was the best kind. When he was gone, I suggested to the guard that he be allowed within the perimeter as long as staff were happy to interact with him. If that caused a problem for anybody I would deal with it, but my policy was to treat Rexie as a neighbour, fully-fledged. The guard, another seen-it-all peninsular boy who had already encountered the old fellow a few times, did not seem concerned.
In the coming weeks Rexie did, in fact, seek admission to the premises, and each time it was to help one of our ladies with parcels. When he had given assistance he withdrew, giving a sort of continental bow, which was peculiar but not disturbing.
Just to be safe I asked one of our programmers, Tania Stock, who was accustomed to much attention from men, if she had felt at ease around Rexie, or whether there could be what we call “issues” in these prickly, political times.
“Rexie? No, there’s no problem there. In fact, I find him…mmm…”
“Nice…No, wrong word. He’s gallant. Gallant’s the word. It’s like something he can’t help. Like a code.”
One Friday morning, Rexie came to the fence and left a huge, freshly caught and cleaned flathead. He just brought it to the gate, asked the guard to give it to me, “for that gentleman’s kindness”, and then disappeared back into the scrub.
I should explain, Mr Ruan, that the flathead is one of our local fishes, with a sweet and delicious flesh. I had no qualms or hesitations in receiving the gift. What surprised me was that the fish had obviously been hunted: it had been speared through the top of the head, not hooked. I guessed that it had come from the estuary side of the peninsular.
When I next saw Rexie on the road I stopped and got out to chat.
“Rexie, thanks for the fish. It was a feast.”
“I’m…pleased you received it.”
“It looked like you, or someone, had speared it.”
“Yes, I tracked the fish…then speared it.”
“You have a gun? I mean, a speargun?”
“Gun? Oh…no. I sharpened a stick, burnt its end. I tracked the fish over reeds…I was very quiet…”
“That’s amazing. Where did you learn to do that? The Cammeraigals died out here long ago. They were the only ones who could fish that way.”
“Oh, you learn these things over time…much time…”
I decided to learn a little more about my neighbour.
“Rexie, what have you done before…before what you do now? And where have you been?”
“Oh, so many places I’ve been. Mostly fighting.”
“Fighting? You were a boxer or something?”
“I just fought.”
“You were in the military?”
“Yes, the military.”
“In Malaya or Vietnam or somewhere like that?”
“In all places. I just fought. Some have said I fought too much. Others say better things of me. I only know that I fought.”
“But…have you been married? Had a family?”
He sat himself down on a lump of sandstone and thought a moment. The question seemed to have stirred him; his eyes glistened.
“If these are rude questions, Rexie…”
“No. I was just thinking. I had a wife and family. And many friends. I had a lot, much more than other men. But in the end, it all went. I thought I could keep it all, control it all. I thought I could make things perfect. But making things perfect makes them brittle. Nothing will stay the same, nothing can stay the same…Do you understand me?”
“You are a young man. Know just this: nothing will stay the same, people will not stay the same. You lose all when you try to make things perfect, when you try to make people perfect. I know. I fought to make things just so. That failed and now there is only fighting for me. I fight because I know how, and because it’s all I know.”
The old man was making half-sense at best. I was regretting my peep into what had obviously been a troubled life. And I had a business to run.
“Well, thanks again for the fish, Rexie. Let me know if you need anything from the Avalon shops. I’d better be off. Busy day again…”
He looked up at me sharply, as if a thought had rushed into his head and he had to unburden it.
“I have to fight. Do you understand? No, you can’t. But it’s all I do now, and what I have to do. In the end it’s just the fight. Win or lose. When all the words have been spoken. Then it’s time for me again. Time just to fight.”
“Rexie, I have to say I don’t understand. There’s no-one to fight now. You’re here with us. People esteem you. You don’t have to fight anybody anymore. You’ve chosen to come here and people are glad.”
“Chosen? Chosen to come?”
“Well, yes. Of course.”
“I never choose. I have to follow it, always.”
“Follow what, Rexie?”
He looked down the road in the direction of the Observatory and was about to say something more. Then the words seem to catch in his throat and he fell silent. He rose from his rock, gave one of the shallower bows he reserved for males and walked off into the scrub.
What we might call the disturbances began on the 21st of June. Fortunately, this was a Saturday and only our security staff were present when problems became apparent after about 8pm. Most of our staff and associates are still unaware of all that happened over that weekend, though they are aware of the aftermath.
I might point out, Mr Ruan, that June 21 was the date of the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere.
In between May 1 and June 21 there were no technical problems and no security breaches of any sort. I can say with certainty that everything had been done to ensure protection of the project and safety of staff. (I sent you all details of these new measures after Kyle’s death and you approved them without delay or exception, as I am sure you will remember.)
About half past eight on that Saturday night I received a panicked call from the internal security guard on duty. He had barely said a word when another voice came on the line, inexplicably. What that voice said was terrifying:
“Sarah Tobin, was she acceptable shark feed? Or do the Great White Christian Sharks spit the Jew flesh?”
I froze, but only for a moment. My mind is quick, as it needs to be in my work. It made an immediate connection with the break-in of May 1. I spoke as calmly as possible, hoping that my security man was still on the line:
“Jacko, who is there with you?”
“Nobody, Drew. There’s just me and the outside guard. But something is going wrong here…”
“Jacko, did you hear that other voice on the line just then?”
“Other voice? What do you mean?”
“Never mind. Ring me back on your mobile. Don’t use the office mobile, just your own if you have it. Oh, and ring my second mobile. Do that now, will you?”
I hung up and waited.
My mobile phone rang and I answered.
“All right, Jacko. Now explain to me what’s going on.”
“Need a cab? My name is Legion.”
“Who is this? Jacko, are you there?”
“Jacko doesn’t know us yet. Kyle Foster knows us. That little box of ashes you scattered off Longreef, he knows us. Need a cab? My name is Legion.”
“Jacko! Are you there?”
(To be continued)