3rd Shedding Skin

What’s in a handbag? Lots.

What’s in a wallet? Essence.

The comparison in Toby’s mind was triggered by an item delivered a few minutes ago to his front door by a bartender from the Nightcliff Hotel around the corner.

‘We found this behind one of the pokie machines. There was a note with your address inside.’

Toby sat down and turned the tattered wallet over in his hands. It made him think of his Aunt Mildred’s handbag for some strange reason. In the 1950s, she would dress elegantly for a meal at her favourite Italian restaurant at the top end of Bourke Street, Melbourne. She completed her ensemble with a shiny black handbag. Invariably Aunt Mildred would have to poke around to find something inside, and a cornucopia of items would come out. It made the young Toby wonder how much stuff was in there?

By contrast, the wallet was totally different. It smelt of sweat mixed with that of leather long in a man’s back pocket and as scarred as the man to whom it had belonged.

Toby had met the loner several years ago under strange circumstances. He had come across a man coughing violently on the Nightcliff foreshore with a blanket draped over his head. The sight was out of place in the hot Darwin air of a December evening.

‘Are you ok? I can get you to the hospital if you want,’ Toby had ventured.

‘No hospital, no doctors. I just need a place to rest up.’

Toby was unsure what overcame him and, despite all the warning voices in his head, said, ‘I can put you up for a couple days if you need.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You don’t have to walk far; my unit is across the road.’

Once inside, Toby guided the man to the air-conditioned spare room, where he collapsed on the bed. In the kitchen, Toby made a packet of chicken soup in a mug and set it down on the sideboard beside the man. During the night, Toby could hear sounds coming from the spare room. They were the incoherent moans and babbles of troubled sleep.

In the morning, the man was awake and stretched out on the covers. His head rested on the pillows, and his coughing seemed to have abated a little.

‘Thanks for the soup. It really helped,’ the man said.

Toby noted that the man spoke in short sentences with an economy of words.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Rodney.’

‘My name’s Toby. I’ve put a towel and change of clothes out if you want a shower.’

Over the Christmas/New Year holiday week, Rodney recuperated. On the morning of day four, the loner had risen early to wash. He was seated on the couch reading a Stephen King novel from Toby’s book cabinet.

‘I feel fine now. Thanks. Can you help me shift camp.?’

‘Sure. Where from and where to?’

‘From Lee Point to Adelaide River. You don’t mind, do you?’

During Rodney’s convalescence, Toby gathered a few titbits about the man’s life. He lived a rough existence as “one of the long grass people” around Darwin. But made a point of keeping away from big groups. In one passing comment, Rodney said he was a Vietnam Vet, which made Toby think the night-time verbal ramblings might be a symptom of PTSD.

‘Ok. A drive would be nice.’

When Rodney appeared out of the bush with his swag at Lee Point, he wore tradie boots, shorts, and a high-vis jacket over a light plaid shirt.

‘Why are you dressed like a tradie?’ Toby asked.

‘Most times people ignore tradies.’

Toby saw sense in what Rodney had said. It was part of a disguise to protect him from unwanted attention. Then, just past the turn-off to Humpty Doo, Rodney became agitated over a sign for a quarantine inspection up ahead.

‘Stop the car.’

‘Why?’ Toby asked.

‘I’ve got a weed plant in my swag.’

‘Now you tell me,’ Toby said.

‘Don’t worry, I’ve got plan B. Drop me at Humpty Doo pub.’

Toby quickly turned the car around. At the pub, they went in for a drink. Toby relished the quenching coolness of his beer, but he became aware of stares from the patrons.

‘Are people staring at me?’ Toby whispered to Rodney.

‘Yep’

‘Why?’ Toby asked.

‘Because you’re sitting in the dealer’s seat.’ Rodney said matter-of-factly.

‘And you let me sit here!’ Toby said not hiding his annoyance.

That was the last time Toby had seen or heard of Rodney. Thoughts of the trickster brought forth both a smile and tears. Inside the wallet were a five-dollar note, a Veterans card, and a folded playing card. Toby’s address was scrawled on the back. He opened the card and turned it over. A joker smiled back at him.

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