‘We grew up together, From the cradle to the grave, We died and were reborn, And then mysteriously saved.’ – Bob Dylan ‘Oh, Sister’.
It was Charles who first noticed it. We were sitting in the back room of the abandoned offices that were our temporary home when he said ‘You know, we could be brothers.’ I was a little offended, given I’d maintained some level of decency in my attire and appearance in my fall from grace and Charles looked and smelled like what he was, a homeless man. As if reading my thoughts, he said, ‘I mean build, height, age. You’ve even got the same colour eyes. I reckon if you grew a beard, you’d be a dead ringer for me.’ I nodded, to be sociable.
That night, I lay on the former fake leather reception sofa that had become my bed and for the umpteenth time I replayed my descent. Heartily sick of my dead-end job and permanently behind on the mortgage and the bills and no hope of being able to live on the pitiful amount of superannuation I’d accumulated, I fancied myself as a day trader with a nose for the market. My first couple of tentative forays reaped some modest rewards and I was hooked.
But what I really needed was a decent stake to invest to make the big wins that I needed to get out of my current financial nightmare. The house was in my name, so I was able to arrange a second mortgage without my wife knowing, the first of many deceptions to come that I imagined would be forgiven when the money started rolling in. The rest is a familiar story of bad calls, the bank foreclosing, my wife leaving me, losing my job to someone half my age and not being able to afford rent and drinking more and more heavily. And thus my homeless life began.
I met Charles at the food van where I had eventually allowed hunger to over-ride shame. I was still enough of a snob to not want to converse with the regular customers. An educated voice came from a man at the other end of the bench where I sat to eat my sandwich and drink my soup. ‘The first time’s the worst.’ Initially, I turned away to hide my welling tears of self-pity but eventually turned back to the voice. ‘My name is Charles.’ Later, as we walked the streets, he said ‘Where are you planning to sleep tonight?’ I told him about a spot I’d found under the grandstand at a local sportsground. ‘Time to move upmarket’ he said. And here we were.
Our sleeping quarters were at the back of one of the many shops and businesses that had closed to make way for the new freeway. The footings for the massive overpass were already being poured and we knew it would only be days until the bulldozers moved in and we’d have to find somewhere else. At night, we’d drink whatever we could afford and talk about books, films, and music as though were still part of a civilised world.
Little by little, Charles drip-fed me his story. No living family, never married, became a university lecturer, started drinking during the day and chatting up his female students in his later years, dismissal, and then the money eventually ran out. He would tell me these things without any overt emotion or drama.
He had a small pension and one day, when he lay semi-comatose from the after effects of cheap sherry, he handed me his wallet and asked me to go to the hole-in-the-wall and withdraw some cash for him. ‘My card and a piece of paper with my PIN on it are in there. I know, I know, but my memory isn’t what it used to be.’
The next day, when I tried to rouse Charles, it was apparent he’d passed away during the night. I sat there for a long time, wondering what to do next. If I rang an ambulance to come and take him way, the police would inevitably be involved and I’d be evicted earlier than I was ready for but I couldn’t just leave him there. It was then that Charles’ comment about being dead-ringers floated into my head and a plan quickly formed.
Pocketing his wallet and what little ID he had, I waited until dark, took a wheelbarrow from the worksite, dumped Charles’ body and my own ID into the gaping hole that tons of concrete would be poured into very soon and covered it with enough dirt so as to look undisturbed.
Thus I began my new life as Charles and soon discovered that far from being impoverished, he had a substantial amount of savings. Clearly he had chosen the homeless life for reasons other than money but I’d never find out why now.
With my new-found funds, I was able to buy some decent clothes and afford the rent on a small but tasteful studio apartment in a decent part of town. I’d even begun to fantasise about finding a job. And for the first time for a long time, I was able to afford the odd meal at a local Italian restaurant.
And then one night, as I went to the counter to pay, a young woman leapt up from one of the tables, ran to me and started hugging me and sobbing ‘Oh, Dad, we thought you were dead. Where have you been?’ The only thought I could muster was ‘Charles, you miserable lying bastard!’