Telling tales in the playground

“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.

Smoking © John MacPherson

“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.”

A quiet moment © John MacPherson


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.


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Catherine says:

    Thanks for this gentle rendering of a tragic story. There’s something tells me that you might see him again.

  2. Ian Forsyth says:

    A sad story. An amazing story. A thought provoking story. An inspiring story.

    • Thanks Ian.

      Yes it was a very sobering discussion, there with my own 4 year old, and listening to a gentle recounting of a sad tale, without any detectable self-pity from Jamie. He’d weathered the worst of it, it seemed, from the way he spoke. His only expressed ‘fear’ was that being there in the playground and watching the children was somehow ‘not letting go’ and rather morbid, but I disagreed and talked to him about ‘celebration’ and remembering significant moments that defined the good times they had enjoyed together. He smiled and seemed relieved that there was perhaps another way to view his behaviour.

      There are remarkable stories everywhere.

      Thank you for yours: the images of your daughter Rose, and her story, which you graciously shared some time back, were profoundly moving. I didn’t comment then because there was little I could add that others had not already said. But the ‘celebration’ in your words shone through.

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