The Man By The Lamp Post
There was something out of place about the man leaning against the lamp post below my front window, but somehow my brain couldn’t quite define what it was. I’d seen him before; he had been coming at ten to eleven every weekday for the last six weeks, leaning against the post with his left shoulder, legs crossed at the ankle, left hand in his trouser pocket and the right clasped to his ear.
He usually had a cigarette dangling from his lips which waggled as if her were mumbling and his eyes were always downcast, hooded and deep, matching the sombre expression on his face.
He looked like someone who had lost all hope.
By eleven o’clock he would be gone, shambling back in the direction from which he had appeared, leaving me with my imaginings about who he was and why he came. There was no one I could ask because none of my visitors ever came whilst he was there. This made my desire to know all the stronger because, being unable to go down and ask him myself. I needed an intermediary.
On Friday morning luck brought me one. The supervisor of my care team dropped in for an unannounced visit, just to check that everything was as it should be. I was sitting in front of the window, looking down on the man, when I heard the outside door open and a cheery voice called out “Hello, Peter, it’s only Elsie. I’ve just dropped in for a moment because it’s ages since I’ve seen you. Is everything alright?” This last bit was said as she came up beside my wheelchair and looked out of the window with me.
“Hello Elsie. It’s nice to see you and yes, everything’s fine. Your team look after me very well.”
“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she said, looking out to follow the direction of my gaze. “watching anything in particular?”
“Yes, I was looking at that man down by the lamp post. He looks so lost and forlorn and I was wondering who he is and what brings him here every day at the same time,” I said.
“He does look a bit sad, doesn’t he,” Elsie remarked.
“I say, you wouldn’t be an angel and do something for me, would you?” I asked, taking an uncharacteristic plunge into the unknown.
“Of course,” Elsie said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Would you go down and ask him who he is and why he comes. If he’d like a cup of coffee, I’d be pleased to meet him and give him one.”
“Yes dear. It’d be a pleasure,” she said, already on her way out of the room.
A few moments later I saw her bustling out of the alley beside my block of flats and approaching the corner. The man by the lamp post looked, if anything, even more downcast as he spat the stump of his cigarette onto the pavement and crushed it under his heel. He was heaving himself away from the post when Elsie reached him.
As he turned his head to look at her, I saw his face clearly for the first time. I saw that he was even more world weary and woebegone than I had thought when he looked up at my window as Elsie pointed in my direction. He seemed hesitant, almost frightened to accept the invitation and yet somehow I knew he needed the contact. He needed to talk.
I leaned forward and made come hither motions with my workable hand as Elsie laid her fingers gently on his arm and encouraged him to come. After a moment he followed her, his head down. His gait was flat, without any spring in it, as if whatever it was that so oppressed him had taken the tone out of him as well.
I knew Elsie would have warned him not to be too shocked when he saw me, for I’m not a pretty sight, but the shock that showed on his face as he came into the room told me a lot. It vanished as fast as it appeared, but I knew that he understood my situation from first hand experience and I wondered what ithat had been.
Brushing speculation about this impression aside, I introduced myself and held out my good hand. “Hello. I’m Peter Watson.”
“Ted Ellis,” he replied in a soft, almost wrinkled voice as he moved his hand to stuff the mobile telephone he was holding into a pocket and reached forward to grasp my hand. The contact was soft although his hand was callused as if from heavy manual work and I felt his grip become slightly firmer after the initial contact.
“Forgive me being nosey,” I said, “I see you every day at the same time and wondered if you’re OK and what brings you to that lamp post. I have a lot of time to watch the world and wonder about it, sitting here every day.”
Elsie came in at that moment with two mugs of coffee, handed one to Ted and fitted the other into the special clip on the arm of my chair. “I’ll leave you two to chat,” she said, “And I’ll ring you in the morning, Peter. There are a couple of minor things I wanted to ask you about, but they’re not urgent. Nice to have met you Ted, I’m sure you’ll be able to find your way out when you’re ready, won’t you?” With that she turned and was gone.
“There’s a chair behind you. Have a seat,” I said.
Ted sat and sipped his coffee. “It’s the mobile phone,” he said. “The only place I can get a decent signal is by that lamp post and I have to get through at the same time every day to be sure of getting someone who knows what they’re talking about.” He took another mouthful of coffee and I waited. “My son’s in hospital in Southampton and I need to keep in contact in case he wakes up. There’s no one else.”
Recognition of what I had seen in his eyes as he entered and saw me dawned in my mind like Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus. It cut me like a knife. “Was he in a car crash?” I asked.
“Yes. Hit and run. Four months ago, down in Eastleigh. My wife was killed, almost cut in half, and Nicky was battered black and blue and left in a coma.” His face seemed to crumple momentarily and then relax.
I wondered when he had last talked to anyone about this and understood what he was going through for it was the same thing that had happened to me.
“You?” he asked.
“Same thing. Five years ago now. I was reading the notices in the window of a Spar shop in Eastleigh when an old green Volvo mounted the curb and smashed into us. My wife and son were with me; we’d just stopped to buy some milk. She got the brunt of it. She and Tony were killed instantly and I spent eleven months in the hospital while they put me back together like a jigsaw. They couldn’t find all the bits, so this is the best they could do.” I motioned towards what is left of my battered body.
“Did they get the driver?” Ted asked, a slight edge in his voice.
“Yes. Someone else got the registration and the police picked him up that afternoon. He got four years. P 612 KNN was the car; I’ll never forget that number.”
“Good lord!” Ted exclaimed. “What was that number?”
“P 612 KNN,” I repeated it. The number had haunted me since the policemen told it to me about six weeks after the crash, when I was first fit enough to talk to them.
“Well blow me down. That’s the same car as hit Anna and Nicky.”
This news hit me like a sledge hammer in the guts. I felt physically sick, as if I was reliving the whole terrible experience all over again and that awful screaming, burning sense of loss that had left me mentally nothing more than a shell for nine months surged through me once more like an electric current. It must have shown on my face, for Ted stood up and came over, placing his arm comfortingly on my shoulders.
“Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He said with a tremor in his voice.
“No, it’s not your fault,” I managed to say. “It was just a shock to realise that that man is out of prison and has done the same thing again, to your wife and son. How old is Nicky?”
“The same age as Tony was. I thought the passage of time had settled all that for me. Now this makes me want to see that man nabbed and dragged into court in chains. I want to look him in the eye and hear the judge lock him up till the end of his days.” I could feel anger boiling up inside me like a geyser and fought to control it before it erupted. It wasn’t fair on Ted to let go; he still had a son in hospital.
Ted looked at his watch. “I’ll have to go,” he said. “They’ll be expecting me back at work.
“Yes. I’m sorry I got emotional like that, but I expect you feel the same.”
“Not yet. That bit hasn’t come yet, but I expect it will. I’m pleased I met you and I expect I’ll see you again.”
“Me too. But you don’t need to worry about the mobile signal. You can pop in here and use my landline any time you want to ring the hospital and given the similarity of our cases I should like to know how things are going with Nicky.”
“Thanks, I might take you up on that. But yes, I will come in again. I haven’t anyone to talk to about it who understands what it feels like and this has helped. Bye.”
He turned and waved up at my window as he came out into the street and I watched him walk back the way he had come with a more purposeful stride than before.
My emotions were still boiling inside and couldn’t concentrate enough to bring my mind back to the crossword puzzle I was trying to compile, so I did something else. I prodded the buttons on my speaker phone and dialled the number of Inspector Machin. He had been the investigating officer in my case. He was out so I left a message on his voice mail and returned to staring out of the window.
Time passed and my lunchtime carer arrived, bringing with her my meal that she picked up from the Meals on Wheels van on her way here. They had organised themselves so that the food round matches her arrival time each day and Janet is always the bringer of nourishment. Business like and efficient, she is a favourite among my team as she has the kind of mind I can connect with and she sparks ideas which I use when compiling crosswords. She’s also a dab hand at solving these so it’s become a bit of a challenge to compile ones she can’t complete during the hour she spends with me each day.
Janet had just left when Inspector Machin called back. I told him about Ted Ellis and asked if he was involved in the investigation.
“No, but I’ll find out who is and pass the word on. It’s bad news if that little rat is back on the streets,” he said. He asked me how I was and how this news had affected me and we chatted for a few minutes. The Inspector had been very supportive after my smash and in a strange way I now counted him as a friend. I knew he wouldn’t leave this unchecked.
The next day was Saturday and I didn’t see Ted by his lamp post. Sunday seemed to drag more than usual because again he didn’t come. The streets were quiet and there was little going on for me to watch, nothing to take my mind off Ted, his situation and some painful reflections about my own disaster. My mind became so bogged down with dark thoughts that it took me until Sunday afternoon to realise that the reason I had not seen Ted was that he had gone down to the hospital to sit with his son. Crushed and damaged though the child must be, I envied him that comfort. All I have is the memory of my son and his lovely mother and even that is tainted by the last sight of their crumpled shredded bodies.
The image had burned itself into my mind and been the fuel of nightmares for a long time after the event. The fact that another child was now in a similar state, barely clinging on to life, because of the same man’s actions, stirred up turbulent pressures in my mind. Somehow it didn’t erupt as I feared it might and the thought that I was no longer alone in my agony because another man shared it gave me comfort. After a while my thoughts settled and calm reasserted itself.
Monday was a bright, sunny day and I sat in front of my window wishing time away, waiting for the hands on my wall clock to crawl round to ten to eleven and for Ted to arrive. Time moved particularly slowly that morning and every passing minute became an agonising aeon, competing with geological time for the accolade of slowest. I became so wrapped up in thinking about this that I failed to notice the minutes escaping and next time I looked at the clock it was after midday and I heard the front door opening and Janet arriving with my lunch.
Ted’s failure to appear made me feel as though I had been filleted and new anxieties about what might have happened began to darken my thoughts. I asked Janet if she knew anything about Ted, but she didn’t. She was always so busy in making her rounds that she paid little attention to anything or anyone else. I was left wondering until late that night when the last of my care team arrived to get me into bed. David was a local man who knew everyone and could find out about those he didn’t know. I told him about Ted and asked if he knew him. He did and as he got me ready for sleep he told me all he knew. He’d find out in the morning why Ted hadn’t turned up that day and let me know.
I had hardly got into my wheelchair the next morning when David arrived to tell me what he had found out. It was surprisingly little and left me with more questions than it answered. He told me Ted worked in the engineering works round the corner from my block but he hadn’t turned up for work on Monday and nobody knew why. He’d keep asking and let me know.
I sat and waited as the clock hands again crawled round to the appointed time but again, Ted didn’t come. I hoped nothing had happened to his son and felt a twinge of desolation at the possibility. For the next three weeks it was the same and a part of me lived in a vacuum of anxious anticipation. Life had resumed its normal pattern but for the absence of the man by the lamp post and Janet remarked that the crosswords I composed had taken on a dark and gloomy aspect. The clues were more convoluted than usual and the solutions were often ponderous words, loaded with dark emotions.
Five weeks to the day from when Elsie had gone down and brought Ted to meet me, the front doorbell rang and a familiar voice called out, asking if he could come in. It was Inspector Machin and he had some news for me. Nicky Ellis had woken up.
I couldn’t see for several minutes as tears of relief and joy flooded my eyes. I felt a tremendous surge of strength as I grabbed his outstretched hand with my battered claw and clamped it round his fingers. After all we had been through together after my smash up, he understood and patiently stood and waited until the emotion passed. Then, in typical police reporting style, he told me all the details.
This was wonderful news but there was better still to come, although at first it seemed like something catastrophic. The previous morning an old dark green Volvo had mounted the kerb outside the same Spar shop in Eastleigh and deliberately aimed to mow down a woman and her child who were looking at the notices in the shop window. Happily the woman heard the revving engine and was able quickly to push her child in through the doorway and go in after him. The car scraped along the front of the shop and hit a steel pillar that had recently been installed on the pavement for shoppers to tie their dogs to while they were in the shop. It bounced back into the road, hitting a parked car as it went and rolling over five times before it crashed into the front of a heavy ballast truck coming in the opposite direction.
Yes, it was the same car and yes, it was the same driver, only this time he left the scent in an ambulance, not driving off at speed like he had before. At the hospital he was put in the same room and the same bed as I had once occupied and which young Nicky Ellis had so recently vacated. The doctors tried, of course, but he didn’t make it through the night.
A week later I was sitting in front of my window as usual and I noticed a man striding up to the lamp post outside. He stopped beside it, leaned his shoulder against it and stuffed his left hand in his trouser pocket as he crossed his legs at the ankle. The posture was familiar but it wasn’t the same man. This chap looked bright and in tune with life.
A few moments later a blond haired boy of about nine arrived from the opposite direction and stopped in front of the man. The two exchanged words and then the man gestured in my direction. He and the boy turned together and looked up. As our eyes made contact life suddenly had meaning again for all three of us.
© Ian Mathie, 2010