Helen prepared lunch — dumplings, one of her specialities. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. No work and the usual sounds of neighbours mowing lawns or talking to invited friends was thankfully absent. Only the sound of a gentle breeze moving through the trees penetrated Helen’s kitchen.
The sound of footsteps, large and heavy, made her turn towards the glass door that led to the back yard.
His silhouette was motionless.
Helen should have been startled. The person behind the silhouette was familiar and warm, or so it seemed to her.
“Can I have some of those?” said the man.
“I’ll get you a bowl,” said Helen.
The aromas of the outdoors rushed past the man and into the kitchen, momentarily brushing away the smell of her dumplings.
Helen returned with a Japanese bowl, part of a set — perfect for dumplings. The bowl had three dumplings, steam rising from them. Helen brought chopsticks instead of a fork because she knew he prefered them when eating Asian food.
“Thank you,” he said, “I’m really hungry. I’ve walked a long way.”
The man was dressed in long pants and a shirt — both clean but unironed, giving him a mildly unkept look. His sneakers were dusty, and his hair was tousled from the breeze — he didn’t bother to brush it.
“These are very good. I remember these. You are a very good cook,” said the man.
“Where have you been?” asked Helen, as she sat at the small kitchen table with her dumplings getting cold.
“Traveling. Coming home.”
“What happened to you?”
The man did not answer, he was finishing the last of his food. “Is there any more?”
Helen took his bowl and put three more dumplings in it. She was saving them to take to work the next day.
“Where were you travelling from?” asked Helen.
“A long way away,” said the man with a mouth full of food. “I started in Queensland, and I travelled along the coast until I reached Melbourne.”
“Have you been travelling all this time? All these years?”
“Why didn’t you call?”
The man didn’t answer. He was strangely calm, and hungry.
“Can I have water?”
Helen filled a glass and put it in front of him. His smell filled her nostrils.
“I’m very tired. Can I lie down on the couch? You do still have the couch?”
“Yes,” said Helen.
The man lay down and fell asleep. He was still asleep several hours later when Helen went to bed.
When Helen’s alarm went off, she went out to the kitchen and put the coffee on. For a moment she thought she may have dreamt the previous day’s appearance. She pocked her head around the corner of the door and peeked into the darkened loungeroom. The couch was empty. Maybe she had dreamt it.
Helen prepared for her working day and as she walked through the kitchen on her way out she saw the two dumpling bowls lying in the sink.
“He looks so much like your late husband — my heart skipped a beat when I saw him,” said Helen’s neighbour.
Glenis and her husband, Bill had lived next door to Helen and Charles for several years. They moved into their houses only two weekends apart. Not exactly fast friends, but friends all the same. Someone to have coffee with on a day off from work.
Helen had a full-time job and still does. Back then it was a way of ‘getting ahead’ — saving for ‘things’, holidays, cars, furniture, maybe a baby — maybe. Now her job was part of her survival, financial and emotional.
Glenis didn’t work, not in the traditional sense. Her life revolved around her husband and his career, the house and the children. It wasn’t enough, but she never said it out loud — out loud would make it real.
Glenis was often at a loose end, and this was one of those days.
The sudden appearance of Charles’ doppelganger was too much for Glenis; she needed answers.
“He’s Charles brother,” said Helen.
“Why haven’t we seen him before? We’ve lived next to each other for years, and I’ve never seen him before.”
Helen could feel the insistence in Glenis’s words, and it would only be a matter of time before she said something that Glenis would latch on to. Better to be rude and end this — at least for now. Helen knew that putting her neighbour off would only give her a moment’s rest; she’d be back.
“He’s been working on the oil rigs. I really do have a terrible headache Glenis. Could you excuse me, I need to lie down.”
For a moment, Glenis considered the possibility of hanging around while Helen slept. A chance to look around and see what she could see, but she quickly abandoned the idea.
“Of course dear. You rest. You must be tired.” I wonder what you and the brother get up to when no one can see.
Glenis took her unspoken innuendo and went home.
Helen was dreamy and distracted at work, but no one noticed. Her workplace was dull and predictable with people on autopilot — not rude, just not fully there. Helen bought her lunch from the cafe on the corner and thought about the dumplings she planned to eat. She told none of her workmates about her encounter.
At the end of her working day, her ride home was uneventful. The train carriage was full of the usual assortment of daily commuters. A high school boy offered her his seat, which she gladly accepted. The boy quickly went back to talking to his friends, and her encounter with him was virtually wordless — all hand gestures and eye contact.
When Helen arrived home, she cautiously entered her home, happy to have avoided her neighbour who seemed to be perpetually at her front gate.
There was no one in her house. What was she expecting?
The neighbour’s cat walked in when she opened the back door and curled around her legs.
“Am I your first port of call Puss, or have you been working the neighbourhood all day?”
The cat purred, which could have meant anything.
Helen gave the cat some scraps, and it curled around her legs again before eating and gracefully walking out into the backyard on her way to visit her next benefactor.
Tuesday went a lot like Monday and Wednesday was threatening to do the same, but when she got home, Helen made a cup of tea and watched the sun go down from the comfort of her kitchen table.
When the man appeared she didn’t jump, didn’t show any signs of surprise or alarm — she was back in that dream again. She wondered if she had fallen asleep at the table — she was tired enough, but she seemed to be awake, either that or this was a very vivid dream.
“Do you have any more of those dumplings. I love your dumplings,” he said while standing in the doorway wearing the same clothes he had a few days before. His hair still needed brushing, but the beard she remembered from all those years ago was gone. That’s what it was, the beard.
“When did you shave off the beard?” she heard herself say.
“Not long after I came back — a few days after, I guess. I saw myself reflected in a shop window and I thought, ‘that’s not me anymore’, so I shaved it off.”
“How?” asked Helen.
“A friend loaned me his razor.”
“Did he help you get back home?”
“Not directly, but I stayed with him for a while. He taught me how to fish. It turns out that I’m pretty good at it. He gave me somewhere to stay for a while, but then he disappeared, so I hit the road.”
Helen got a packet mix from her pantry and began to make the shells for dumplings. The whole process took a little while, and the two people inhabiting the tidy kitchen remained silent until the steaming dumplings were ready to eat.
The man hunched over his bowl with the steam curling around his face.
Helen made more than she usually did in anticipation of her lunch and the request that she knew would come.
“May I have some more please?”
The man slept on Helen’s couch, and he was still there in the morning.
Helen anticipated his presence and wrapped herself in a floral dressing gown hiding her naked, freshly rested body.
She pulled the gown tighter as she walked into the lounge room. Despite his recent disappearance, she was sure he would still be there this time.
He sat up when she entered, stretched and rubbed his eyes.
“Do you want a shower before breakfast?” Helen asked.
“No, you can have it. I’ll shower when you go to work,” he said.
“Eggs or cereal?”
“Do you still have that cereal that pops when you put milk on it?”
“Yes, but I don’t know why. Force of habit I guess. I never eat it.”
“Can I have some?”
“It might be past its ‘use by’ date. I’ll check.”
Helen made toast and put a tiny amount of Vegemite on hers. She nibbled at the edges of her toast as the man gobbled down his cereal. “Can I have some more?”
Helen showered and dressed. She paused at the front door and said, “Will you be here when I get home? I have a student coming around at 7pm. I should be home before then.” The man smiled at her but did not answer.
Helen’s working day seemed to take forever, even more so than usual. The numbers swirled on the page — no one noticed her distress.
Widows learn how to hide their pain.
The man was still there when she arrived home, and she barely had time to grab a snack before her student came with her mother in tow.
The mother of the maths student eyed the man before expressing her concern about her daughter’s grades.
“I pay you a lot of money to tutor Annabel, and her grades don’t seem to be improving,” said the slightly overdressed lady. Her daughter rolled her eyes. “Why do I have to do maths? I’m going to marry some rich bloke who owns his own panel beating business, and I’ll never need to work. Numbers suck.” When someone starts to embezzle money from your husband’s panel beating business, it would be handy if you had enough knowledge to see it happening before you both went broke, and you have to go out to work, thought Helen, but all the mother saw was a smile.
“Annabel needs to apply herself and do the assignments I set for her, then her grades will improve,” said Helen as pleasantly as possible.
The tutoring work was necessary because her job was not enough to keep body and soul together since her husband disappeared while working as a marine biologist on assignment in Queensland.
It had been a struggle, but she had managed to hang on to the house. The insurance company would not pay out on Charles’ life policy in the absence of a body. Seven years was a long time to wait for some financial relief. His employer had tried to be helpful and had paid her all his accrued holiday pay and long service leave, but it only helped delay her penury.
When the reluctant student was gone, Helen made two cups of tea and joined the man who bore a remarkable resemblance to her dead husband, and they sat in silence until the man said, “Are all your students like her?”
“No. Some genuinely want to learn, but I can’t afford to turn anyone away.”
“Can you take some time off work? I’d like to show you where I’ve been.”
“I have some holidays due to me, but I don’t have a car anymore. I can’t just up and leave.”
“Because I have a house to pay for and responsibilities.”
“I understand,” said the man and they sat in silence until it was time to sleep.
“My bed is very big and much more comfortable than the couch. You are welcome to share it,” said Helen who was avoiding eye contact.
“I’d like that,” said the man.
He waited long enough for her to prepare for bed and when he came into the bedroom, he noted that it was as tiny as the rest of the house. He walked around the bed and turned away before disrobing. Helen peeked over her shoulder and admired his tall, firm body — straight back and round buttocks. She looked away as he turned.
The man who looked like her dead husband slipped silently into bed curled up and faced away from her.
Helen could feel his warmth, and she longed to reach out and touch him but felt that such a move would be too bold.
Where had he been? Why was he here? Why did he seem so unconcerned?
For that matter, why was she not afraid. Her heart told her that he had not just run away. He had died. They never found his body, but he had died. There were witnesses to him falling off the research vessel. The witnesses were drunk, but they knew what they had seen. In the confusion, it took too long to turn the boat around.
This was the official version that came from the inquest. They called it an open finding, which meant that there was not enough evidence to show what had happened. The indistinct nature of the finding gave the insurance company a reason not to pay out on his personal life insurance. They wouldn’t pay out on the company policy either. Taking the company to court would most likely bring a result and force them to pay up, but Helen had neither the money or the energy to fight them. Something they were probably counting on. His employer only had to wait until the seven years was up and they would collect — with interest — cheaper and easier.
When Helen awoke, she was alone in her bed.
The man who smelled a lot like her husband was in the kitchen eating cereal that popped when you put milk on it.
“Can you buy some of this today? It’s nearly all gone,” he said without looking up.
“Probably,” said Helen.
“You talk in your sleep,” said the man.
“Have I always done that,” asked Helen.
“I don’t remember,” said the man who likes the same cereal as her dead husband.
Helen drifted through her workday with the only highlight being a magpie in the park during lunch. It came up very close the way that birds do when they have chicks to feed — reckless parenthood. It warbled every time she gave it part of her sandwich.
Helen put her shopping bag down before unlocking the front door. The cereal box was bulky and threatening to burst through the thin plastic carry bag.