The Other Man

Pamella Laird

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.

He 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… waiting.

Ken hesitated, a 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.

As 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.

On 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?

The 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.

Overcome with 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.

He 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.
Are you alright?” queried a quiet voice.

I don’t need this, thought Ken.

Can I help? Would you like to talk?”

Probably ‘no’ to both,” muttered Ken. ‘Just go away, just go away.’ Had he actually said that? ‘Just go away’ kept on hammering his brain.

May I sit with you?”

Reluctantly Ken slid 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.

Was it 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.

He felt a light touch on one shoulder. “Would it help to talk?”

Where to start or even whether to even begin telling his story? In the past, 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 friends.
He grabbed a 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?

The 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.

What was her name?”

Her 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 wanting to 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 heartbreak.

He faltered, mopped 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 lost interest.

Apart from her 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.”

As the words 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?

As 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”
Ken 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.

He raised 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.

Over 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.

Ken replied, “Thank you. I’m all right now, I talked to the other man.”

The churchman sat on the pew across the aisle, leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped. “What other man? There’s no-one else here.”

The tall man with the long, black coat. He was here beside me. I talked for a long time. He didn’t say anything, he just listened.”

Oh yes!” The priest hesitated. “Yes, I think I know who you mean.”

He had 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 was he?”

He comes in 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?”

From 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 matters.” 

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.

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