The Other Man
Runner-up 2022 Biographical Story
Copyright 2021 by Pamella Laird
Photo by Alexander Nachev on Unsplash
This story is as told to me by my son who at the time was going through great personal sorrow.
pulled the heavy,
studded door behind him. Inside, a dull thud that mimicked his
dejection echoed from pillar to pillar. Then silence. A silence that
moved mist-like into the furthest corners and hung above him…
stranger to an atmosphere that despite his misgivings said,
‘Welcome.’ The walls seemed to hold a serenity in their
arms as if it were a national treasure, a gift to all who shuffled
namelessly into its haven. Cautious, alone, haunted by the loss that
had shattered his life Ken released his withheld breath. The world
had moved on, leaving him in an airlock of thinking that skulked in
his brain like a malevolent fungus.
far as he could
see in and around and beyond the shining brass lectern, there was
no-one in the building. He reached to the back of the nearest pew and
guided by its solidity, stumbled towards a side-aisle. The deeply
recessed windows of stained glass glowed like jewels in the late sun.
Despite the alien place smelling of snuffed candles and fusty
tapestry kneelers, a feeling of being wanted wrapped like a cloak
around his shoulders.
closing the door,
the world had vanished as if he’d entered some other dimension.
Pedestrian buzzer, car engines, exhaust-spewing buses and occasional
laughter had always added reality to his life. But today as in the
past months, that reality had gone. The chatter of sparrows in the
porch rafters offered more meaning. Crouched
forward on a polished seat, elbows on thighs, head in hands, Ken
Mason stared at his polished shoes. If the rest of his life was to be
a continued anguish, in consideration of his own dignity, his shoes
would always be gleaming. No-one could ever think he was a ‘down
and out. He sighed, long and deep; would it ever end?
last of the sun
gleamed through the round west window. Half turning his head he
noticed a wash of colours on the polished floor. A stream of floating
dust-motes drifted over his shoulder to the empty seat beside him.
Time passed while his mind, like an old film, replayed the hell of
previous weeks and months.
weariness, his body and shoulders slumped. As the church grew dimmer,
a sense of drowsiness, something close to calm, washed over him; the
first taste of peace he could remember for over a year. But his
bubble of peace was abruptly marred; every muscle braced—his
hearing so sharp it was almost painful. There was a presence—someone
in the church! Ken hadn’t heard footsteps but from no-where, a
man stood beside him.
saw a long black
coat and a pair of grimy feet in scuffed sandals. He lifted his eyes.
A tall, thin man with weary features and calm eyes smiled down with
an expression of patience and kindliness. Ken turned away and closed
his eyes. Even here, the sanctuary he craved and thought he’d
found, had vanished. Why couldn’t whoever he was, just go away?
Surely it was obvious that all he wanted was peace and privacy.
alright?” queried a quiet voice.
this, thought Ken.
Would you like to talk?”
to both,” muttered Ken. ‘Just go away, just go away.’
Had he actually said that? ‘Just go away’ kept on
hammering his brain.
along the dark, glossy wood making room for the intruder; maybe he
was putting space between them? He should never have come to this
unfamiliar place with its peculiar smells and even more peculiar
practices. I know nothing about these institutions; they’ve
always been weird. I don’t even know why I’m here.
possible this intruder edging into his space might have an answer to
some of the endless questions spinning through his senses. So far,
neither friend nor acquaintance had said or done anything that was
near helpful. He remained half-kneeling, clutching the pew in front.
felt a light
touch on one shoulder. “Would it help to talk?”
to start or
even whether to even begin telling his story? In
talking tended to make things worse. Ken squirmed, he hated being
hassled and now there was no escape. Should he tell the man to butt
out? That he’d been down the talking road before; it only
stirred up emotions and endless shattered feelings; the last
embarrassment he needed. There’d never been answers in all
those months. No comfort, nothing that made sense even from
professional psychologists, police counsellors, let alone family and
handkerchief, blew his nose, sat back and half turned towards the
sandalled man. “I don’t make a habit of this …
haven’t been to church since I was eleven. Not sure I should be
here now—bothering. I came for…” Why had he come?
man beside him
remained silent. In the stillness, Ken despite himself, found the
all-too bleak story spilling out yet again. He told of his wife’s
disappearance—over a year ago. At first the words came
awkwardly, gathering momentum as the sadness and emotion challenged
him. It was always the same, once he started—that overwhelming
sensation of loss, confusion and guilt. His shoulders shuddered as
his voice blurred into tears of helplessness.
name? Ken held
his breath. Her name? “It was… it was… Freya.”
For months he hadn’t heard her name. Surely with the original
publicity, everyone knew her name? Shaken that in
block out the painful memories of a beloved wife, in a moment of
nervous tension, her name had all but disappeared. The man said
nothing, but in his empathy Ken felt a connection to his own
his eyes and continued telling of that haunted day. How she’d
gone to work as a PA, happily as far as Ken knew, and never came
home. No-one had an answer—not even her work-mates. It seemed
she’d never arrived in the office. Her colleagues were as
mystified as he. Her bank account remained untouched—she was
gone, vanished—leaving him alone and lonely. The police found
nothing of significance. Now, over a year later, he felt they’d
make-up, her clothes and one of her rings, the green tourmaline, it
was as if she’d never existed. “The worst part,”
said Ken “Is the not knowing … the silence. And I blame
myself that if I’d done something differently—I don’t
know what— we might have traced her? How can such a terrible
thing happen in this day and age? How can I go on like this? There is
now a dark hole beside me where once stood my darling Freya.”
continued to flow, he spoke of his helplessness, his loneliness and
feelings of rejection. People he’d thought friends slipped into
doorways or turned corners to avoid him. He knew only too well what
that meant. He’d been guilty of the same thoughtless reasoning.
What could they possibly say that was helpful or a comfort?
time went by he
began to feel that the man beside him was less of an intruder into
his anguish. “I feel I should carry a lettered board around my
neck. It says, ‘Avoid this man, he’s an embarrassment.’
What I have done or what I should have
done are endless
questions with no answers”
lost all sense
of time, hearing only the twittering of sparrows coming home to
roost. By the time Freya’s story had come to an end, the birds
were settled and the hum of the internal heating the only sound. The
sinking sun moved the stained-glass splashes along the pew like
sunflowers following the sun. Conscious only of a kindly human
presence, Ken hadn’t noticed the hand lift from his shoulder.
his head, pushed against the pew in front and leaned back. How long
had he been kneeling there by himself? About to stand he felt again
the press of a hand on his shoulder. The words were the same, “Are
you all right?” Ken opened his eyes. A stocky man with a ruddy
face, stood beside him, shiny-pated but for a fringe of silver above
his ears. He’d heard neither footsteps nor the opening or
closing of the great door that could be considered either a barrier
to entry or a shield against a cruel world.
a black cassock
the man wore a white surplice. So light it floated like gossamer
about him reminding Ken of the angels depicted in the deep-set window
glass. Glancing beyond the man’s shoulder, Ken saw that the
interior was now softly lit, but for them, the church remained empty.
you. I’m all right now, I talked to the other man.”
churchman sat on
the pew across the aisle, leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands
clasped. “What other man? There’s no-one else here.”
with the long, black coat. He was here beside me. I talked for a long
time. He didn’t say anything, he just listened.”
The priest hesitated. “Yes, I think I know who you mean.”
remarkable patience. As it turns out, it was what I needed. Just to
talk it through; get it out of my system. It was such a relief. Who
here often.” The cleric smiled. “I suppose I shouldn’t
tell you this, but he’s a drifter, we let him sleep in the
crypt. We know something of his story, he’s a good man. Who did
you think he was?”
his seat Ken
stared up at the man. “I have no idea!” A half-smile
wrinkled around his eyes. He stood up and shook the priest’s
hand. “A friend perhaps. I don’t suppose it really
The events in this story are true and accurate. And the individuals in it are those I know personally. The names and places have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Pamella's story list and biography
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