Australia is a scenic country. In autumn, the trees add their bit to heightening this beauty. The leaves in the park where I take my daily morning walk are a riot of colour: red, orange, yellow, green, rust, russet. It is on one such morning that I pause to catch my breath and admire the view.
A man seated on a bench nearby greets me with a “hi”. I reciprocate. “Help me,” he says. For a split second I think to myself, “Oh, no. I hope he’s not having a stroke or something.”
As soon as that split-second passes, however, a rational part of me realises that no man having a stroke would call for help with a friendly smile. Especially one in his mid-30s with so much life left to live. I ask how I can assist. “Help me pick one of these,” he says, gesturing to the leaves on the ground around his feet.
An hour later, when I’m seated with my laptop writing this, I realise that this is how one can get drawn into the world of a total stranger and come away with yet another perspective on humans and human nature.
I admit to feeling silly, temporarily, being asked to pick a random leaf without reason. But only temporarily, for the man on the bench informs me, “It’s for my son.” I suggest the leaf that’s two-toned, half-lemon, half-red. “Jackson’ll love it,” he tells me, accepting the leaf.
Jackson, the son, I learn, is six. He’s still too young to figure out adult complexities. He can never know, or fully understand, why his dad had to leave the family — his mother and him — for a year. “Addiction’s not easy to get a kid to understand, let alone rehab,” he says. “His mum’s been a pillar of support and I’ve been lucky.”
Forty-one days and counting. “Clean. Totally clean. Couldn’t feel better. Couldn’t feel more proud.” All the while, as he talks and continues to, like a non-stop train, never once apologising for breaking up my walking routine (which I don’t mind at all), all this time, however, a tiny part of me is filled with an unrequited curiosity. Like a mystery that’s not been quite properly solved.
‘Daddy is a champion’
What’s with the leaf picking? I wonder silently and, as if reading my thoughts, he both apologises for holding me up and says, “Every day, I take one of these home to the son. Jackson’ll stick it on his bedroom wall beside the others.” His mother helped him (Jackson) write ‘Daddy is a Champion’ on the wall face that’s parallel to his (Jackson’s) bed so he can see it first thing when he opens his eyes. “He thinks I’m training to run the half-marathon for over-35s in a few months’ time.”
The man, whose name I learn in parting is Drew, says that’s the story he and his wife have settled on for now. “Later, when he’s older and can handle it, he’ll be told the truth.”
For now, though, “Watching his little face light up every time I return home from these runs in the park, is enough motivation to keep me true and keep me going. He can’t wait to get his leaf and stick it up on the wall because he’s counting the days to the marathon with each leaf. While I’m counting the days too, like celebrating each one, but for a different reason.”
I have encountered Drew since, a few times, sweating it out, striding with a pretty impressive lope. One day I’m going to ask him if maybe he will seriously consider taking on the half-marathon? I mean, wouldn’t that be the best way to live the white lie?
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.