On a Mission by Kerry Lown Whalen
Ed stalked men in their forties. He’d pick his mark, circle him and pounce. But there were times when he changed his approach and made overtures to older men. At age eighteen, Ed was on a mission.
He first noticed the old man on Sunday morning, hunched on a park bench by the sea. As children shrieked and squealed in the nearby playground, the man’s eyes remained fixed on the water, his white wispy hair lifting in the breeze.
The man was there again on Monday. On Tuesday Ed wandered over and stood in front of him.
The man waved his arm. ‘You’re in the way.’
‘Sorry. Okay if I sit here?’
‘It’s a free country.’
Ed sat. ‘I’ve seen you here before. Why this place?’
‘You waiting for something?’
Moments passed before the man replied, ‘Everyone’s waiting for something.’ The words creaked from a rusty place but Ed knew how to wheedle. And he liked a challenge, to tease and cajole information from unwilling mouths. Below him waves hammered the rocks, unleashing a torrent that surged against the cliff base and flung spray into the air. He sucked in its energy.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Your friends call you Wally?’
‘Only got one.’ His eyes returned to the sea. ‘Me mate the butcher. He calls me Wally.’
Ed’s heart pounded. He’d asked two questions and struck gold. ‘What’s his name?’
‘This a game of twenty questions?’
He grinned. ‘Yep.’
‘Ralph. His name’s Ralph.’
Ed stretched out his legs and contemplated his Nikes. Excitement fizzed in his gut. At this rate, he’d have answers today.
‘Ralph go to Vietnam?’
Walter’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Why’d you ask that?’
‘The way you said his name. Like mates who’ve fought alongside each other.’ He cracked his knuckles.
‘We were at Long Tan.’
The hair prickled the back of Ed’s neck. More gold. ‘Thought so.’
‘Why all the questions? You a journalist?’ Wally asked.
The old man shrugged. ‘That’s alright then.’
‘Ralph got a son?’
Wally frowned. ‘You’ve come to the wrong place if you want conversation.’
‘I’m a stranger. All I know is your mate’s a butcher who went to Vietnam.’ He gazed out at Wedding Cake Island, a cluster of brown rocks bedecked with foaming white icing. Seagulls wheeled over it, their squawks carrying across the water. ‘You said everyone’s waiting for something. And you’re right.’
‘What’re you waiting for?’
Ed folded his arms. He wouldn’t say. Couldn’t. Nor would he hurry his questions. He’d been lucky today. Hadn’t expected to meet Wally in a million years. ‘I’d like to know if Ralph has a son.’
Wally paused. ‘Yep. He works in the shop.’
Ed’s breath came in shallow bursts. He hoped his voice wouldn’t squeak. ‘What’s his name?’
The old man raised his hand. ‘I’ve told you enough. People like their privacy.’
Ed nodded. He’d back off. The old man would be suspicious if he pushed him harder.
He decided to tail Wally home and see where he lived. Tomorrow he would wait for him to visit his mate. He’d be easy to follow. Ed’s pulse raced. His lifelong search might soon be over.
Next morning he waited in the shade of a camphor laurel opposite Wally’s house. The gate creaked open and the old man shuffled up Arden Street to Clovelly Road. He turned left and entered a butcher’s shop beside the 7-Eleven.
Dry-mouthed, Ed approached the shop and stared through the window.
The image of a man old enough to be his father returned his stare.