We moved into our brand new house in November many years ago. My baby girl, Carol, was just a year old. I would take her for walks every day, Sometimes she would walk and other days I would wheel her in her pram.
When she was in the pram the walks went quicker as I was in control. When she walked … oh well! Let’s just assume that she was in control.
She was fascinated by one of the houses that we regularly walked past. She always wanted to dive in to the gate and explore. I often had to pick her up so that we could carry on with our walk. She didn’t like that one little bit but I didn’t like the house. The grass needed mowing, weeds threatened to entwine the gate and all the border flowers that once existed there were being consumed by undergrowth.
Her fascination with the house increased as she got older. She found the ship’s bell that was mounted on the wall next to the door particularly fascinating. Her questions about the place were mostly unanswerable.
“Mummy, why are the windows always closed?”
“Mummy, why don’t we ever see anyone out walking in the garden?”
“Mummy, why don’t they clean up the garden?”
“Ah mom, can’t I just go in and ring the ship’s bell?”
All I could answer most of the time was “I really have no idea.” But that last question was always a resounding “NO!”
We never seemed to see any movement in or around the house. It could be a ghost house for all we knew.
Carol reached the age of thirteen and still the questions plagued her. One day it all got too much for her and she climbed over the fence and marched up to the front door. I swear that if I had known what she was going to do I would have done everything in my power to stop her.
When she got to the door she clanged the ship’s bell as hard as she could.
A wavering voice shouted out “Go away! We don’t need your kind here!”
She called out “What kind am I? You don’t even know me. I want to help you if you need help. I want to get to know you if you need a friend. I want to just be here for you.”
There was silence for a brief while and then she heard squeaking and squealing and bolts being unlocked and then the door creaked open. She found her courage leaving her and she was just about to turn tail and run - but she had left the decision too late. There poised in the doorway was an old man in a wheelchair. He had an unkempt appearance and was very thin.
“So now you have seen me what do you have to say for yourself?”
“I just want to be kind, be your friend.”
“I don’t need friends thank you very much and why would I want a slip of a girl to be my friend?”
“I don’t know.”
And the two just stared at one another for a few moments.
Finally Carol picked up the courage to ask “Do you need help cleaning the house, doing the garden, shopping?”
“Why? All you want is to grab my treasures. Who sent you?”
“No one,” replied Carol.
“Rubbish! It’s that ne’er do well cousin of mine isn’t it?”
“No! I don’t know your cousin. I just love people and old people are the best. You all have such interesting things to tell.”
And the two just stood there again sizing one another up.
Again Carol decided to break the ice. “Do you need me to do any shopping for you?”
“NO!” shouted the man. “I get deliveries of anything that I need and I don’t need nosey people.”
“I’m not nosey. I would just like to help.”
“Well don’t just stand there then. Come in, come in and see what you have been missing all these years. Yes, I have watched you since you were a tiny tot. This house has always fascinated you.”
“Yes it has. But I never ever saw you.”
”I was careful to always watch you from behind my curtains. I laughed when you tried to run away from you mother. So yes, I am a little bit curious about you as well.”
As she walked in she was amazed at how spotless it was. It was cluttered but clean and neat.
“How do you manage to keep it clean? Oooh that was insensitive of me. Sorry!”
The man laughed. “Not all. I do have help. Christine has been with me for many years. She lives in the top level of the house and I live on the bottom floor. She helps me when I need it and keeps to herself when I don’t need anything.”
He wheeled his way into the house.
“Come sit, sit! Let me show you my treasures.”
It turned out that the man was a sailor, going to many countries and many ports and at every port he bought mementoes of his trip. His parents had owned the house and he always came back home when his ship had docked in Durban harbour.
One day when he was 32 years old he had fallen down the ladder as he was coming down from the top deck. He had fallen on his back onto some equipment that was stacked at the bottom of the ladder. He lay there in great pain unable to move until he was found a few hours later.
The person who had found him realised that he was badly injured and called the captain. It was a small cargo ship so there was no medical staff. Four crew men were called and he was gently laid onto a pallet and secured there. Fortunately they were close to the port of Calcutta. The captain radioed for medical staff to meet the ship as there was a severely injured man on board. He was taken to hospital and spent 3 months there. Part of the time he was in a cast but the injury was very severe and there was no hope that he would ever walk again. He ended up in a wheelchair and was sent home to his parents.
At first he was too angry to allow people to visit. Soon people got tired of trying to be social and he was left with just his memories and his parents. His parents did the best that they could until their deaths and then he grew old by himself. The only person who was a more or less constant in his life was Christine.
After he had told Carol his story the ice was broken and he was keen to show off his treasures.
He took pride in the way he had stored his treasures. Each downstairs room was devoted to a country that he had visited while he served his time on the ship.
The first room they explored together was his Chinese room. Carol was fascinated. Soon she was trusted to hold some of the artefacts. There were tapestries. There was one that was placed in the centre of the one wall. Carol was captivated by its beauty. It was a geisha girl standing in a garden. Her face was protected by a gold and scarlet parasol. This gold and scarlet theme was picked up in her dress. There was a cherry tree full of blossoms behind her. Her face was pretty and was lovingly sewn to show her small scarlet lips and strange blue eyes. She had a large blossom in her neatly done hair. Her stance was typical of geisha girls, knees slightly flexed and body slightly twisted at the hips. She gazed unseeingly from the stitched fabric.
Next came some carvings, there several Buddhas, and numerous Chinese dragons. There was a small, delicate carving of a boat with a boatman standing at the back holding a long pole. The boatman wore a typical conical hat.
Colourful cloths adorned the carved tables. The tables were intricately carved in a Chinese theme. Carol felt that she was lost in another era, another time, another place. She gazed in wonder at the willow pattern plates that adorned the walls and tables.
With a start she came out of her almost trance and realised that she had been missing from home for quite a long time.
“I really must go. My mom will be wondering what has happened to me and I haven’t got to see everything that this room has and I haven’t seen any of the other treasures. I just love this room but I really need to go. Can I come back and see you again? Please? Please?”
The man laughed and said “I have really enjoyed your company. Yes please come to see me again so I can show you the other treasures in my home.”
“But I want to see the rest of the treasures in this room.”
“Yes we can start here next time.”
“What can I call you? I need to have a name that I can attach to the mind picture that I have of you.”
“My name is Paul.”
“Must I call you Uncle Paul or what?”
“No just Paul will do.”
“Thank you Paul. I look forward to my next visit.”
She left the house with a smile on her face as she skipped back home.
She was greeted by her frantic mom.
“Where have you been? I have been outside calling you. I have been running up and down the street. I have been calling you on your cell. I have been so close to calling the police.”
“Oh mom, don’t be melodramatic! I’ve been visiting Paul. And sorry but I forgot my phone at home. Forgive me? Please? Please?”
“Why do you always think that repeating the word please will get you what you want? And who the heck is Paul?” demanded her mother grabbing onto the fact that confused her.
“Paul lives in that near abandoned house that has fascinated me for years.”
“You didn’t just go there? It could have been dangerous. You are not to go there again.”
“Ah mom don’t be like that. It’s fine. He is an old man in a wheelchair. He was a sailor...”
“Do you hear me? NEVER again!”
Carol’s lips formed a stubborn line as she said “You can’t do that to me. I am old enough to make this decision for myself.”
“No you are not,” spluttered her mother. “He may molest you … he may kill you, poison you, keep you a prisoner…”
“Mom would it make you feel any better if you came with me next time? I promise you will be just as fascinated with him, his house and his treasures as I am.”
Her mom thought for a moment and then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. The next day the two of them made their way to Paul’s house.
Paul was not pleased to see two people on his doorstep the next day.
“Please don’t be cross!” said Carol. “This was the only way I could come back. Mom thought you may be someone depraved who wanted to harm me.”
“I remember how protective she was of you when you were little. Okay come in come in. Don’t stand there letting the dirt get into my house.”
Carol’s mom held her hand out. “Hi. I am Claire. Nice to finally meet you Paul.”
Carol watched as her mom’s eyes widened with the splendour around her.
“See mom. All is well. Let’s explore!”
© Vera Alexander