Telling tales in the playgroundWritten by John Macpherson
“I’ve got a green lollipop!” said my son William (4) with great excitement! He was waving it in front of a lone fellow who was sat on a bench on the edge of the children’s playpark looking distinctly out of place. I’d noticed him when we arrived. He was not alert and poised to sprint after a disappearing child, unlike all the other parents constantly scanning the park for ‘runners’. This man was apparently uninterested in anything or anyone in particular.
The chap lifted his head and smiled weakly at William, roused from a slump-shouldered headphonemusic daydream. He pulled out an earphone and spoke in a soft but curiously concerned tone “Better for you than these things” and raised his smouldering roll-up cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke they’re bad for you!” said William with the directness of a child
“They don’t do you any good son, you’re right, stick with lollipops” he replied.
“OK!” said William and ran off to the climbing frame.
“I’m not a paedo mate” the smoker said, looking somewhat anxiously at me, a six foot broad shouldered dad.
“I didn’t think you were” I replied smiling “you just look like a very weary bloke having a smoke.”
“Yes” he nodded, obviously relieved.
“Why don’t you give up?” I asked.
“Been at it too long. Addicted.”
“Have you tried the patches?”
“Yes. Tried it all.”
“Surely considering the cost of it would frighten you into stopping? Smoking must cost you quite a bit?”
“Hmm.” And he thought a moment then added ‘Too late for that”.
But there was an edge to his comment, something unspoken.
“I don’t understand” I said “How long have you been smoking?”
“Since I was nine. And I’m 23 now.”
“Thats a lot of money spent.”
He looked at me carefully, sizing me up, judging my response.
“Thats not the cost I mean. I lost my daughter. She got cancer. I dont know if it was my fault. It might have been I smoked so much. I think it was my fault, but it’s too late now. Doesn’t matter if it was or wasn’t. She died of cancer when she was three years and three months old. We buried her in a white coffin. She didn’t deserve a black funeral.”
“Thats terrible.” I replied, quite surprised by his admission. “How are you coping? I mean…..are you coping?”
“I’m dealing with it, it’s been a struggle but I’m ok now. You have to struggle. I come here and sit. It might be a bit strange. But I just like to watch the children enjoying themselves. I used to bring Natalie here. I don’t know if this does me any good, but it’s what I do. I get some funny looks. Shame really. But…well…..anyway…here we are…..”
We shared a quiet moment.
I presume you work? Are you on time off just now? I asked.
“Yes I have two jobs, in a supermarket and I work in a Spanish restaurant in the evening. I enjoy that.”
“What are your plans for life, you’re a young guy, are you still married?”
“No the illness and Natalie’s death destroyed that. We split up. But I’m trying to learn a language, German, but its not easy. I want to go abroad, maybe to Norway or Australia.”
He smiled as William raced past brandishing the lollipop, loudly admonishing the smoker for still smoking “You should have a lollipop too, not a cigarettttttttttte!” he cried. We both laughed. A shared and knowing laugh.
“Thats good advice” the smoker said smiling “My granny gave me good advice when I was younger, although I didn’t realise it at the time, but I can see now what she means. She told me “get land, god’s stopped making any more of it”. That might sound funny, but it’s what I’d like to do – get a little piece of land and build a very small house, and really just grow my own vegetables. That would be a good thing to do. Being self-sufficient. “
We sat in silence for a bit.
Then I spoke “Can I ask something of you? Can I take a photo, anonymous if you want – maybe of you sitting here, and your cigarette, just to give a flavour of who you are and the space you’re occupying. I do some writing and photography, about people and their stories. I like chance encounters and the stories that sometimes reveal themselves. May I do this about you, just write a few words about what you’ve told me, would you mind?. I don’t even need to show your face, just some aspect of you, here, in this place, now, with your story and your memories?”
“Do you get paid for it?”
“No. It’s something I do because I think its important. Everyone has a story. And sometimes things are not always what they seem on the surface.”
“That’s a good reason. Yeah we all have stories, don’t we. Yes go ahead, but anonymous please, not my face, just use my first name, Jamie”
And so I took a few frames, and thanked Jamie and wished him well. And as the rain that had threatened all afternoon finally began to fall we parted.