Big Issue, 2001
Public places are full of stories – and secrets. Jenny Denton remembers her chats with a homeless man living in a local park – and her shock on hearing of his terrible fate.
A light mist hangs a few inches from the grass and Mort and I are breathing fog-puffs as we hit the night air. We follow the water’s edge, Mort’s form disappearing then re-emerging from the blackness. The bay is latticed with reflections. Mounted high like sparklers on a cake, the Anzac Bridge lights throw wobbly orange bars onto it.
Mort leads around the point, across the stormwater channel, then down the neat paved path back to the sea wall. Beyond the Moreton Bay figs, with their mighty canopies swaying and groaning softly in the wind, the wall of the Blackwattle warehouse meets the water. From here you can see the full span of the bridge, the geometry of its splayed cables, as toy traffic beetles over it.
We continue our circuit, head away from the water, and come to the old stone toilet block at the edge of the oval. Directly ahead is a small spectator stand. As we approach, a shadow comes into view. Someone has taken up residence there, their form and the shapes of possessions piled around it visible from a distance. We usually skirt the oval behind the fence-line, but Mort takes off towards the shadow.
A white haired old man with a long grey beard is perched on the top step, drinking from an enamel mug. Beside him is a pile of bedding and a cask of wine. He looks chirpy and meets my eyes, giving me a nod as we get nearer.
“I hope you don’t mind us walking through your front yard,” I say.
“No, no, mate, go right on through. Nice dog you’ve got there.” He holds his hand out, palm low, to beckon to Mort. “Mmm, a working dog,” he says. “Good dogs, those, very smart. I’ve had a few of them.”
“You’ve got a nice spot here.”
“Yep, lovely view and facilities nearby.” He nods in the direction of the toilet. “Got everything I need, really.”
“You don’t find it too cold?”
“No, well, you get used to it. I’ve got my blankets. And a drink to warm me up.”
We talk a bit about border collies and kelpies, about Holdens, and the cold, and living in the bush. He’s a nice old feller and seems lonely for a chat.
After a short silence he gestures around the 90-degree view of the night sky and says, “Do you know, I’ve counted every one of them. There’s a hundred and thirty-seven.” And he starts pointing out lamp posts, one by one.
“He’s lost it,” I think.
He counts the lamp posts in the park – the orb lamps glowing like giant cartoon stars along the water, the torch lamps scattered through the trees. Then he starts on illuminated windows and lamp posts in the surrounding streets, and finally the far-away reflections on the water.
I don’t keep up with the calculations, but as I follow his gaze I’m struck with a sense of his perspective. From here, the sprawl of lights, as well as the stars, trees and toilet block, are kinds of furnishings.
I always looked for Reg after that night. The next time we spoke he didn’t seem to recognise me, but asked for a cigarette and we exchanged pleasantries.
We passed through his front yard a few more times, Mort always stopping off to check his regular piss spot. When Reg was there he always seemed to be sleeping, cocooned in blankets, a cask of wine by the bed. When he wasn’t around, I wondered about him. Where else did he sleep? What did he do in the daytime? I wondered what had happened in his life for him to end up living in Jubilee Park.
One day as I was reading the paper a headline with the word ‘homeless’ in it caught my eye. Scanning the article I saw: “The latest victim was killed on the steps of a small wooden grandstand at Jubilee Park.” I re-read the line. I started the article from the beginning again. Then I just stared at the page.
In the early hours of the morning while he was sleeping Reg had been bludgeoned over the head. He was found by another homeless man at six the next morning. “You should’ve seen the mess,” said a council worker who had helped remove the body.
Four homeless people had been murdered in inner-city Sydney in nine months. There was no appareent motive. The papers speculated about a serial killer. The police didn’t have a clue.
The day after the murder flowers appeared and covered the spot where Reg had slept. There were no cards or crosses or messages, just flowers. Then the flowers died and were taken away.
I found out from the paper that a lot of people knew and liked Reg. One letter-writer described him as “unfailingly courteous” and said, “On Sundays I would bring Reggie some grog and a bit of tucker…a little bit of light has gone out of my life”.
He had been an ambulance driver and an engineer, but had been sleeping rough for 20 years. One of his three daughters spoke to a reporter, saying, “He had a problem with alcohol. He let that rule his life. He never hurt anyone though. He just lived life the way he chose to live it. He lived wherever he could put his head down.”
It’s the nature of public spaces, I guess, to be rich with stories, but inscrutable. Recently I went and stood in the spectator stand at Jubilee Park – just a little brick box with four wooden steps and a verandah, the sound of brooding pigeons forming an incessant soundtrack. On the weatherboard wall a few brass plaques are hanging – one dedicated by the council to a curator of the park who died in 1933, the others in memory of cricketers who belonged to the local club. Just a few feet away is the spot where Reg died. If you look closely, you see the outline where a section of boards – inexplicably small, like the coffin of a dwarf – has been chiselled out and replaced.
The park’s got its own lightrail stop now. The old Blackwattle Studios artists warehouse has gone and the redevelopment of the site into apartments is underway. Across the bay, luxury cruisers, rather than rusting old ferries are moored.
As the area is developed more, striving for aesthetics and financial returns to match the bridge views, that too-small wooden grave at the top of the stands in Jubilee Park is a powerful reminder to me of the stories, both big and small, of the day-to-day life of the park. It is a reminder that the park is a place where people have met and talked, walked their dogs, shared food, sat by the water, fallen in love, argued, slept. And died. A reminder of a friendly old feller called Reg, and a reminder that lamp-posts and toilet blocks and casual chats are the furnishings of people’s lives, as much as harbour views.