It was Hamish 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 Hamish 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 believe 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 (or at least fantasised) 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 Hamish 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 Hamish’, he said. 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, Hamish 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.
One grey, sleeting rain day, when Hamish lay semi-comatose, seemingly 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 Hamish, 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 Hamish’s comment about being dead-ringers floated into my head and a plan quickly formed.
Pocketing his wallet and his passport, I waited until dark, took a wheelbarrow from the worksite, dumped Hamish’s 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 Hamish, suitably bearded, 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.
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 consider finding a job. And for the first time for a long time, I was able to afford to eat out at restaurants.
At a local Italian restaurant 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 ‘Hamish, you miserable lying bastard!’. The only words I could utter were ‘I’m sorry, Miss, but who are you?’
The young woman looked like her face been slapped and she said. ‘Dad. It’s me, your daughter Janie. Surely I haven’t changed that much in the last five years.’
My mind was feverishly searching for a next move. Do I tell her about Hamish (minus the bit about burying him) and say he had spotted the resemblance before he disappeared? Do I play along and play desperate catch-up using clues that she fed me? The bottom line was that I had to get away from her as soon as possible so I could have time to think about this situation seriously.
Making my face as vacant as possible I said ‘I don’t know …. there was an accident … my head …’ and he began to stroke it gingerly. ‘What sort of accident, Dad? What happened?’ she pleaded. I stared intently at her and said ‘Who am I?’ Incredulous, she said ‘Charles Adamson, of course. You’re a stockbroker. You’re married to Angela, my mother. And you suddenly disappeared.’
Bingo. He had some names now and he could start to do some research.
‘I’m terribly sorry, Lainie, I …’ ‘It’s Janie’. ‘Yes of course. I’m sorry, I need the men’s room. Can you wait here a moment?’ The first semblance of a smile from Janie. ‘Of course I can, Dad. That part of you hasn’t changed.’ (What part?, he thought briefly, but he didn’t have time for that now.) While she was distracted talking to the owner, I diverted though the kitchen and scuttled out the back door into the night.
The next day I went to the library to search on their free computers and, sure enough, Angela and Janie were real and Charles Adamson had been a stockbroker, a very successful one. Or at least until the scandal of the collapsed Ponzi scheme he’d created came crashing into his life and he’d disappeared without trace, leaving an angry pack of creditors and regulatory authorities behind him. He left a note for Angela saying it was all a terrible misunderstanding; he’d sort it out and come home when he had the evidence to clear the air and everyone’s money was safe. Which of course it wasn’t but Angela kept repeating it, faithfully.
It dawned on me rapidly that Charles had found his new persona of ‘Hamish’ the same way I did, namely from the pockets of another dead homeless man that no-one was looking for anymore. He had all the ID he needed to create a savings account and with his financial skills he was easily able to gradually transfer funds into the account from his ‘investments’, which he laundered by duly (and cheekily) declaring to the Tax Office. What he planned to do with those funds remained a mystery.
More concerning was that now Charles Adamson had been ‘found’ by his daughter in a café, alive and well, a lot of very angry people would again begin pursuing him with a vengeance and his (and my) face would get blanket coverage in mainstream and social media.
The beard would protect me for a while but with security cameras in their thousands in the city and with the sophistication of facial recognition software these days, it would only be a matter of time before ‘Charles’ was caught.
Then, in a moment of clarity, I thought, so what? I was now Hamish for all intents and purposes and my DNA and fingerprints wouldn’t match those of Charles, so they’d have to let me go as an obvious case of mistaken identity.
I laughed out loud, poured myself a glass of single malt and started planning for a relatively comfortable future.
And then Hamish’s body was found. The real Hamish. His remains had been dug up by a building contractor on a new development site and he had been identified by dental records. The Forensic Pathologist soon established that Hamish had been brutally murdered around five years earlier. So, the Police asked themselves, who was the ‘Hamish McGillicuddy’ who seemed to be in possession of a substantial bank account in the same city?
As they began their enquiries, I boarded my flight to Ecuador and thought, ‘Charles, you miserable, lying, murdering bastard.’