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Clement's Corner: Good Intentions

Old friend Ken turns up after many years with dramatic news.

Owen Clement tells a tale concerning a troubled man.

Once everyone had left I locked the house, wandered down to the beach and looked out to the restless sea. A late-autumn cool zephyr carried with it the smell of ozone from the surf’s spume. My thoughts were on Dell’s and my habit, before she became ill, of taking our evening strolls along the sand fossicking for shells or weathered driftwood, which she displayed around the house and garden.

I saw a lone scrawny figure in the distance trudge my way. I knew immediately that it was Ken Marshall. I sat on a tussock of wiry grass at the base of a dune and waited.

Ken had been my closest pal during my school days. Me being an only child, we had been as close as brothers. As boys we had done everything together. We even divided our pocket money equally, even though mine had been greater. He, his mother and his two much younger twin brothers had been abandoned by his father when he was barely a teenager. When his mother started work, he had to take over the housework and the care of his two brothers. He had found embarrassing the kindness of the local storekeepers who would put aside their fruit and vegetable seconds and dented or out of date merchandise for him.

His worst moments were when he was repeatedly molested by his mother’s male friend. Ken had stabbed the man with the kitchen knife late one night while he was asleep. Fortunately the man survived, saving Ken from being charged with murder. All three boys however were then sent to foster homes. The other two were returned to their mother whereas Ken at sixteen set out on his own. Concerned, I had tried to find out how Ken was getting along. I had asked our old schoolmates and mutual friends if they knew where I could find him. Sadly, he had just vanished. Once in a while one of them would inform me that he had been seen and each time he would go missing again.

Ten years after his first disappearance, when Dell and I had just returned from our honeymoon, he showed up with a dozen red roses for Dell and an expensive camera for me. As boys we had both been fascinated with my father’s black and white photographic darkroom. ‘To keep a good record of the family,’ Ken repeated what my father had said. I noticed that he had become a heavy drinker. Without giving me a chance to ask what had happened to him during those years, he left the next day, leaving no forwarding address or phone number.

Ten years later, he arrived unannounced bringing along his bride Theresa. Both Dell and I took to her immediately. Petite, with black curly hair, a Latin complexion and matching bright dark eyes, she bubbled with charm. They obviously adored each other and we noticed Ken had refused any alcohol. They spent a very pleasant two weeks with us before heading back to their home in Perth. We took our two boys and visited them. Theresa, a high school teacher, made a great fuss of our boys showing them the best beaches and other interesting sites while Ken took us around the gardens and the cultural venues.

Theresa had told Dell she could not expect to have children due to a genetic problem.

We kept in close touch by letters and phone calls. It must have been about twenty years ago that Ken had arrived breaking into sobs as soon as he saw us. We could not believe the change in him. He was physically even more gaunt and an emotional mess. He had started drinking heavily again. He was also suicidal. Theresa had left him, he said. A friend had started him drinking again and he had gone back to his promiscuous ways with one-night stands. Theresa made him promise to stop drinking. When she found out that he had broken his word and had gone off for a fortnight’s ‘business trip’ with a lover, she left him. She had known that he was a troubled man and had tried very hard to help him but this was one episode she could not forgive.

We called her to let her know that Ken had come to see us and was showing signs of being suicidal. At our request she flew over the next day. Dell and I put it on the line to him to seek counselling, which he promised he’d do. As a result, Theresa took him back and they returned to Perth.

A couple of months later we received a long letter from Theresa saying that Ken had gone back to drink and his promiscuous ways. We were devastated when she thanked us for our concern. Even though she had treasured our friendship, we would not hear from her again, nor were we to try and find her. She did not reveal her destination.

More than anything we were frustrated at not being able to apologise for any hurt we may have caused and to say that our intentions had been for the best for both of them.

I sensed Ken arrive beside me in the gloom.

‘G’day,’ he said.

‘G’day, Ken,’ I said and pushed myself up.

He hesitated before saying, ‘It’s been a long time.’ He drew out the ‘long’.

‘I knew you’d show up, I’d have hoped you could have been here for Dell’s funeral.’

‘It’s no accident, my arriving here today,’ he said. ‘I came as soon as I heard of Dell’s death. I knew that you and Dell blamed yourselves for becoming involved in Theresa’s and my affairs and that she wrote to you not to contact her again. I wanted to get in touch with you, but in the state I was in, I couldn’t. You see, I had a major breakdown and have had treatment off and on ever since. When I read Dell’s death announcement I decided the time had finally arrived to -’

I broke in, ‘You’re amazing you know. You have always popped up out of nowhere at opportune times and then you’ve disappeared again immediately leaving many questions unanswered. Dell would have loved to have spoken to Theresa and to you. It really distressed her not being able to - me as well.’

Ken said nothing.

‘Well!’ I challenged.

Croaking with emotion, he said, ‘I couldn’t while Dell was alive.’

I was stunned into silence for a few moments before blurting out, ‘What the hell do you mean?’

‘It’s difficult,’ he said.

The breeze had begun to pick up and Ken, who was only dressed in t-shirt and shorts, began to rub his arms to ward off the chill. Aware of his discomfort, I said, ‘Come on, you’d better come over to my place.’ I moved off without waiting for him. Without saying a word he trailed behind me until we reached the house. Once inside, seeing his expression of utter misery, I offered him a tot of rum to warm him up. He shook his head. I had forgotten that he was an alcoholic. I then offered him a hot drink, again he declined.

‘I stayed off the grog for over a year after Theresa and I got back together. Everything was going along fine until one night a friend insisted I join him for just one drink. I got pissed and we ended up picking up a couple of girls. Theresa knew as soon as I came home what had happened. She was okay for a while then when I did the same and took off for a couple of weeks, of which I remembered nothing, she packed up and flew to New Zealand.’

‘We didn’t know where she had gone,’ I said wondering what was coming next.

Ken nodded and then carried on, ‘Not long after she left I got word that, like my mother, she was killed in a car accident. That’s what the police said. The most awful part was that the autopsy showed that she was pregnant with twins when she died. That was the reason I could never let Dell know.’

© Clement 2010


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