Maria’s dog, Gortaithe, was coming along well. He had relaxed into his inner city, household life; as relaxed as a German shepherd like him gets. He had stopped looking aggressively at people and even let them pat him. He wasn’t overly enthusiastic about human attention, other than his own human, but he tolerated it with relatively good grace.
Other dogs, however, were a different matter. Every dog was still considered a possible life threat and treated accordingly. If Maria and Gortaithe walked the streets of Eraldus, he looked like a wild animal pacing the boundaries of his territory; head erect, ears up, leaning forward, eyes peeled. It was hardly pleasant to walk him and disconcerting to other dog owners. It made life easier to walk the laneways where dogs didn’t tend to go. Except for today, that is.
It was a calm, bright autumn day with the type of mild, warming sun which we crave after a bout of dreary, cold weather. As Maria and Gortaithe came around the corner, there was a huge dog, off-lead and unattended. Maria panicked expecting an all-out dogfight until she realised it was Galahad from the North Country. Instead of being his normal composed self, he seemed affronted.
“Who is this?” he said looking at Gortaithe.
For once, Gortaithe had lowered his head, crouched, and was backing away. Far from a wild beast, Gortaithe seemed a boy in the presence of a man. Galahad was still not satisfied. He stared at him and Gortaithe knew to look away.
“Don’t cross me,” Galahad said to Gortaithe. “Ever.” Then he was gone as quickly as he appeared.
Well, I’ll be, thought Maria. Everyone meets their match or, in this case, superior. It only took a minute and Gortaithe was back to his grandly dominant self, strutting the laneways as if he owned the world. Almost.
Ten minutes after returning home, Maria heard a knock at the door.
“Stay,” she said to Gortaithe who knew he had to sit at the far end of the hall, although, his spirit was bounding for the door. It was Mr. MacArthur. Maria hadn’t seen him for years.
Mr. MacArthur was the school principal of Waldmeer State Secondary School. Maria had known him for her entire schooling. When she was in primary school, he would visit assembly and give an inspirational talk which, for that age group, mostly consisted of the request to be kind. He had been the principal of the secondary school for a hundred years or it seemed like that to the children. Even their parents couldn’t recall a time when he was not the principal. As with many Waldmeer children, he was the most important father figure in Maria’s young life, second only to her father.
“You have greatness inside you. I expect to see it,” he would say in the secondary school assemblies. Then he would add with much gesticulation, “You are not just a small fish in a small pond. You can be a big fish in a big pond.” It was sort of corny and the students would, frequently, roll their eyes but they heard it so many times that, indeed, it became part of their consciousness in their formative years.
Having had no children of his own, he considered all his students as his children. His wife died about ten years ago. He was extremely community minded and was always winning awards for excellence. He was, also, always trying to win awards for his students. However, somewhere along the way, he forgot that he had a life apart from school. Sometimes, he almost seemed to get stuck in a time warp. It wasn’t the death of his wife that did it. It was more that he felt comfortable in his work world where he excelled and he didn’t possess the same sense of ease and purpose in the rest of his life.
Almost sixty and looking at retirement in the next few years, he actually had no idea what would be left of him when work finished. For this reason, he started to do a few little things that he never would have considered previously. They were just little things but they meant that he had opened something which was closed before.
On such a whim, he decided to call into Maria’s house when next visiting the city. He didn’t bother ringing as he was only going to go to the door and express his appreciation for Grace’s recovery. Grace and Joe’s twins, Mary and Harry, had, likewise, been with Mr. MacArthur for their entire schooling. He knew the family well.
“I bumped into Grace recently,” said Mr. MacArthur when Maria had opened the door to him. “She credits her return of health to you. I wanted to say what a wonderful thing it is that she is well again and you must be a very special person if you can make people well.” Mr. MacArthur was the first one to find a reason to congratulate people.
“Oh, how kind of you to call in to say that, Mr. MacArthur,” said Maria.
“Please call me, Thomas,” said Mr. Macarthur in a slightly awkward way. “We are not at school anymore,” he said trying to sound funny. It didn’t come across as funny but to break the awkwardness Maria laughed.
“Okay, Thomas,” said Maria with deliberate exaggeration. Now, she really did laugh and Thomas joined in. “Actually, Grace made herself well again,” said Maria, “but thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Well, I won’t keep you any longer,” said Thomas. He paused. “I have decided that I really need a bit of a fashion overhaul and so I am going to the shopping centre now. I’m not good at shopping and I’ll probably end up buying more of the same clothes that I already have but I’ll give it a try,” he said without the usual enthusiasm he had in assemblies for inspired living. Maria looked at his clothes. They certainly needed updating. They were very ageing and dreary. She didn’t have much hope for his shopping abilities.
As if on cue, Gabriel pulled up and jumped out of the car to drop something to Maria from Charlie. Maria introduced Gabriel and Thomas. Thomas would be the age of Gabriel’s father but he had died when Gabriel was little. For some reason, they looked at each other a moment longer than is customary for strangers. Maria explained Thomas’s shopping venture. Gabriel had a natural flair for clothes and enjoyed shopping. He looked at Thomas’s clothes and almost screwed his nose up in disdain. Maria tried not to laugh.
“Tell you what,” Gabriel said unexpectedly. “I am going to the shopping centre myself now. Why don’t you follow me in your car and I’ll show you a few good shops.”
When they got to the shopping centre, Gabriel pointed Thomas to a few suitable shops and said goodbye. Thomas walked up to one of the chosen shops and looked like a fish out of water. Deciding that his old pond was the best option, he headed for the conservative old man’s shop next door. He picked up one of the shirts on the rack. He couldn’t remember if he had one like it or not. All his clothes looked exactly the same, so it was hard to tell. Gabriel had been watching from a distance. Whether it was disgust or humanitarian aid, he walked over to Thomas and almost grabbed the shirt from his hand.
“It’s horrible,” said Gabriel.
He headed back to the store he originally suggested, expecting Thomas to follow. Gabriel had never been to Waldmeer Secondary School. He only knew his new acquaintance as Thomas, not as Mr MacArthur, and treated him accordingly. Thomas stood blankly for a moment and then obediently followed. He was used to being obeyed, not obeying.
Gabriel walked around the shop, with a bit of added drama for effect, picking out all sorts of clothes for Thomas.
“Try these,” said Gabriel handing Thomas the clothes. Thomas looked at them and hesitated.
“Look, I have other stuff to do,” said Gabriel. “Do you want help or not?” Then he added with a smile, “I think you need it.”
Thomas bought it all and they both walked out of the shop as if they had won a prize. “How can I repay you for your help?” asked Thomas.
Feeling that the exchange was not quite finished, Gabriel said, “Buy me a coffee.”
It was strange that they were so open to each other, being virtual strangers, but many things in life are strange. As if a barrier had already been broken, they started to talk about things that men don’t easily talk about to each other.
“I have decided that it is time to get a new lease of life,” said Thomas.
“I think I’ve had a bit too much of a lease of life,” said Gabriel.
“What do you mean?” said Thomas.
“I, sometimes, wonder if I am wasting my life. You have dedicated your life to people and your community. I wonder if I have spent too much of my life thinking about myself,” said Gabriel.
They seemed like opposites but, on the other hand, they were alike; good men, well adjusted, people oriented, natural leaders, kind hearted.
“I wish I had your sense of freedom and independence,” said Thomas. “It would have saved me from many mistakes.”
“What mistakes?” ventured Gabriel.
They had come this far, Thomas decided to be honest. “I have spent the last forty years of my life in service to others. I do not regret caring about people and I have gained many rewards for myself along the way. However, I have also made many choices based on fear. I wish I would have had your courage.”
“What sort of choices?”
“If I was braver, I would have left my marriage in the earlier years but I wasn’t and then the years go on and it becomes too difficult to change anything. The trouble with staying too long with someone you don’t want to be with is that you end up waiting for something to happen that will release you, even sickness or death. And then you feel bad that you could think like that but what other choice is there when one is a prisoner? You would never let yourself get in that situation.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Gabriel. “At least, you weren’t alone and lonely.”
“It was intensely lonely,” said Thomas.
“So is freedom.”
“But it’s brave.”
“Is it? I don’t know how brave it is. Maybe, it’s avoidance. That’s not brave.”
They both looked at each other a little lost and forlorn. Being the older, Thomas suddenly decided to change tracks.
“You know, Gabriel, I don’t think either of us has been wrong,” he said cheerfully. “In our own ways, we have tried to find happiness. Yet, I don’t think either of us is right either.”
The waiter took their empty cups and asked if they would like another coffee.
“No, I have to go,” said Gabriel still sitting there.
“I think there is a depth to life which only comes from our connection to other people,” said Thomas. “However, we have to find it without becoming a prisoner. And we have to believe that no matter what, we will be okay. That gives us courage. I hope it will give me courage, anyway.”
Gabriel got up and shook Thomas’s hand. “Enjoy your clothes and your journey.” He walked back into the busy shopping centre but, for some reason, he couldn’t remember what it was he had to buy that was so important a few hours ago.
From then on, Thomas never bought clothes without Gabriel. He would announce to his secretary that a certain day would be blocked out because he needed to see his stylist. He said the word stylist like no one else would know what it was because he didn’t previously know. His secretary would smile tolerantly. Thomas and Gabriel became unlikely friends who would help to style each other’s lives and thoughts.