Week 28- Saturday 8 December to Friday 14 December 2012
Williamstown beach, like any beach, can be a sanctuary, a haven. It can be a place for individuals and for groups, for families and for loners. And sometimes a place for the lost, the desperate, the crying.
The following story was first published in The Big Issue in April 2007.
This is where the man was crying.
This is the sand on which he was lying.
This is the council-worker, wearing an orange vest and picking up rubbish with extended tongs.
This is a Thursday morning on a suburban beach. Just after seven o’clock. November.
The man, somewhere between 40 and 50 years old, is lying on his side, crying and sobbing into the sand. He is just a few metres from the water’s edge. The water is calm. It is a mild morning. Late November.
I had gone for one of my regular short dips and had decided to walk out of the water 200 metres from my towel, to enjoy the warmth of the rising sun on my back.
As I stepped through the shallows I could hear a cry. All I usually hear on these mornings is the sound of my own thoughts, mingled with the water in my ears. The cry is neither a seagull’s squawk nor an infant’s squeal. The beach appears empty, save for the council worker in the orange vest.
Then I see, almost right there in front of me, a man, crying in the sand.
He has a leather jacket over his shirt, long trousers and shoes. His shoulders are heaving from the crying and muttering and moaning. I am wet, virtually naked and my heart is pounding from the quick dip in the cold water.
This is the line in the sand.
This is when you make decisions that might matter.
This is when you stay or go.
I gaze up and down the near empty beach. The council-worker is about a hundred metres away, between my towel and the crying man.
I say nothing to the crying man and walk to the council-worker.
“Seen this guy before?” I ask.
“No, is he okay?”
“No he’s not. He’s sort of crying.”
We look at each other, then down towards the man. “I think he needs help,” I say.
“Not just sleeping off a hangover?”
“Maybe,” I say. “But I think it’s more than that.”
We stand in an awkward silence, the council-worker holding his long tongs in one hand and a rubbish bag in the other. I’ve got my hands on my hips and the sun’s warming my back. He resumes picking up rubbish, flicking little things into his bag. It is not that he is uncaring. Like me, he is unsure of what to do.
I walk back to the man. I have no emergency or medical or counselling skills. I decide that if he is aggressive – physically or verbally – I will simply jog back to my towel, pick up my things and head home. In a way, this would relieve me of any further involvement.
I crouch down by the man, on the balls of my feet, and wait for a pause in his crying.
“Hello,” I offer. “Hello. Can I help you?” The question is directed at myself as much as it is at the man.
While I wait for a response I wonder what it could be that has brought him to the beach, in this state. Has his whole life fallen apart? Has his wife left him? Has his child died?
“Do you want me to get you a doctor? Could the police help?”
He tells me, while still lying on his side, that he had been to the local hospital earlier in the morning but his own doctor was not there, that he was told to come back later.
“But I needed him then. Right f—n’ then!” the man bawls.
He tells me he has been sacked from his job while “bloody drug-infected bastards” still have their jobs at his workplace.
He tells me he’s gone and smashed the windows of the workplace. “Go and have a look, you’ll see. In Blackshaws Rd.”
He lies silent for a few seconds. Eyes closed. Breathing heavily. Resting.
I try to make sense of his words, try to turn them into a story I can understand.
Beyond the sand, the morning walkers are stepping out along The Esplanade.
The man swears and mumbles and moans. Then he opens his eyes, raises his right arm and opens his hand. We shake and hold hands. “Thank you. Thank you.”
The moment sits there. Two strangers on a beach. Hands clasped.
“I just want to walk into the water,” he cries. “I just want to walk in.”
These are the sorts of words I act upon several mornings a week but from a rather different perspective. Sometimes I try to swim a bit, sometimes I snorkel, sometimes I just float and gaze at the sky.
Then the man lets go of my hand and takes his car keys from a pocket. “Here. Take these. I shouldn’t be driving,” he says. “A truckie said that to me last night. My car’s just up there.”
I take the keys and ask again if I should get someone. A doctor or the police.
“You can call the police if you want. I’ll show them the windows I smashed.” The he starts up again about the “drug-infected bastards”.
“I’ll be back,” is all I say. I still don’t know what to do. And now I have the man’s car keys.
The council-worker is picking up rubbish near my towel. “How is he?” he asks.
“Not good. Not good at all.” I show him the car keys and tell him what the man’s been saying.
“My mate in the council-ute has got a phone,” he says, looking down The Esplanade. The ute is on the footpath not far from the man on the sand who, by now, is sitting up.
The council-worker can see that I’ve run out of ideas. He’s ready to take on the baton of responsibility. “I’ll look after the keys. We’ll call someone.”
I pick up my towel and clothes. My heart is still racing and my legs are now shaking. And not from the cold of the water.
The man is sitting upright, perhaps wondering where he is, or what has happened to his car keys. Then he slowly falls. Flat on his back. Maybe he’ll sleep now. Maybe he’ll rest.
It is probably half-an-hour since I first heard the cries as I walked from the water. I don’t have to be home in a hurry and I usually love spending as much time as I can at the beach but now I know I’d rather be sitting at my dining table window with the sun on the sports pages of the paper and a bowl of cereal at hand.
The council-worker walks over to his mate in the ute, then down to the man on the sand. He stands by him talking. The man then gets to his feet and the two walk towards the ute.
I get dressed, take one more look, and ride home.
I don’t always go to the beach at the same time, and the council-workers probably work various rosters. So it’s not until well after Christmas that I recognise a man in an orange vest and ask him about the crying man.
He says that, yes, the man seemed in a bad way, talking around in circles; that they waited half an hour for the police to arrive; that the police knew about windows being broken in Blackshaws Road.
I ask him if his job has training for these types of incidents. “No, we’re just given our cleaning instructions. I’ve only been in the job a few months but I’ve seen some things. It’s not much fun going into public toilets, I can tell you that.”
Neither of us know what became of the man. I consider asking at the local police station but figure that for the police it’s probably just something that happens every day, in parks, at pubs, in homes. On beaches. Lives falling apart.