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Clement's Corner: Stefan

Stefan seems to be a loner, a man who walks within his own four walls. Until, that is, he confesses to what happened 20 years ago… Owen Clement tells a thoughtful tale.

I was happy to see Stefan’s lumpy body casually slouched in his dispatcher’s chair chatting amiably with two other solidly built semi-trailer drivers standing near the warehouse’s huge roller-door. He looked in good spirits while checking through his paperwork. Behind him pallets of stock glistened in shrink-wrapped plastic stacked in their allotted bays ready to be forklifted onto the semi-trailers and transported across the country.

I could not hear their good-natured banter due to the din of mechanical pickers, fork-lifts and storemen going about their business which echoed off the corrugated iron walls and high ceiling.

I thought back to a very different Stefan not that not that long ago whose body language signalled, “Keep away”. His central European ancestry and his standoffishness had not endeared him to his workmates who called him, “A Bloody Ethnic” and ‘Lard Arse” behind his back. They often taunted him to go back to where he came from.

I, as the foreman, had been dealing with Stefan for a couple of years. We had both been appointed to our present positions at about the same time.

My early friendly overtures met with little success as Stefan kept all his work relationships at the strictly business level. He did his job well. He was completely trustworthy and his fellow workers respected his fairness, even if they disliked his not wanting to join them in their banal chatter, mainly on women, sport and liquor. He walked within his own four walls. I rejected out of hand the implication that he was a homosexual. Not that I stereotype homosexuals. It was just that his whole persona did not suggest that in any way.

Our relationship changed completely after work one steamy hot Friday afternoon a few weeks ago when I dropped in, as I did occasionally, at the local pub. It was full of working men enjoying their end-of-week get together with their mates.

There was an empty stool at the end of the bar and as I sat down and ordered my usual schooner of Light lager I was surprised to find Stefan sitting next to me.

“How are you going, Stefan?”

‘Fine thanks.” His answer was non-committal.

“It’s a bloody stinker isn’t it?”

“Yeah it is.”

His “no-go” barrier was as up as ever.

I decided that the time had come to try and break it down, even if I made just a tiny chink. I believed that underneath his gruffness lay a decent person no different to anyone else. I began by talking about myself. “Í don’t normally have a drink this early but seeing it’s such a cow of a day, I decided I would. I’m sure my dear wife and kids would completely understand. I might compensate by taking them for a drive down to the beach this weekend.” I changed tack and said: “Come to think of it, I’ve never seen you here before on a Friday”.

“I don’t usually drink in this place.”

“Are you doing anything special this weekend?” It was a minor challenge but I was determined to try and get him to open up.

“No.” He drained his glass as he spoke.

I pressed on: “Do you have family or friends nearby?” I felt him stiffen and I was quite prepared for him to tell me to mind my own damn business, and for him to get up and leave. However, he said nothing for a while and then he turned and looked at me. I was dismayed that instead of annoyance at my constant questioning I saw his eyes swimming with tears and his expression, one of indescribable sadness.

“I - I’m sorry” I stammered, “please forgive me, I didn’t mean intrude”. I felt dreadful and extremely guilty that my invasion into his solitude had caused him such distress. Unconsciously I had laid my hand on his arm. My empathy must have seemed evident to those looking at us as when I turned around, I saw some of his workmates across the room watching us curiously.

Stefan pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes and as he inhaled, his body shuddered slightly.

“I’ve never told this to anyone and I would appreciate you keeping it to yourself.” His voice barely carried to me.

“Of course, if that’s what you wish.” I had removed my hand by this time and pushed my empty glass aside.

“I was a teenager, not long in this country,” his husky voice continued just above a whisper, “working as a cargo handler at a regional airport. While we were waiting for the afternoon flights to return, the reservations clerk and I held a pretend drag race along the empty airstrip in our old bombs of cars. We were on our fourth and final run when the other driver’s little toddler broke away from his mother and ran straight in front of me. I literally rubbed the little fellow out. His remains were put into a plastic bag.” He broke off and brushed his hanky across his mouth before continuing. “That was terrible enough but when I was at the little fellow’s funeral, I overheard a matronly woman, a so-called friend or family member, say to a woman next to her, “Imagine spending all that money on an expensive coffin for something just in a plastic bag”.

Stunned into silence at first, I finally said to Stefan, “Some people say and do the most extraordinary things at times without thinking.” It was all I could think of to respond to such a catastrophic event.

We sat for a while without speaking before he looked at me and said,” That happened twenty years ago today.”

I was both surprised and delighted that from that day on, Stefan gradually grew more relaxed with the other men and even cheerful. His curious fellow workers never knew the reason, as Stefan and I never mentioned the appalling incident again.

Whenever I see a loner or a derelict I sometimes wonder if they had some traumatic event in their past lives that they had never shared with anyone.

© Clement 2006


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