“I really don’t know what’s the matter with you!” bellowed Mitch in exasperation. “Every time I try to do or say something to help, you just clam up and I can’t get a word out of you for days. What the hell is wrong with you?"
The object of Mitch’s exasperation looked at him with that doleful expression that Mitch had come to recognise after six months of having the student live with him. Although he was in his late twenties, Mitch always thought of Theo as just a boy, maybe because of the age difference between them – he was more than double his years – and the small, slight build was more that of a child’s than a grown man.
Since Joyce had died a couple of years back – taken from him by that damned breast cancer – Mitch had drifted almost aimlessly through life. He now regretted having retired early but it was what Joyce had wanted at the time, “We’ll have more time together,” she’d said with that twinkle in her eye. Now that she was no longer here, each day seemed like drudgery, a hard slog that he just had to get through. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...on and on and on and on, it was like serving a life sentence. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, like a life sentence in solitary confinement even though friends and neighbours came and went and he had the occasional lunch with Bill or a beer with Terry, or a round of golf with George, it all seemed so empty and meaningless without Joyce to come home to.
Then Margie popped in to see him one day. Margie was always bright and cheerful, sometimes to the point of being irritating, but she had been an old school friend of Joyce’s and a bridesmaid at their wedding almost forty years ago. Mitch tolerated the cheerfulness - she meant well.
“Mitch, I need your help” announced Margie as she pecked him on the cheek.
“Oh, really? he said warily.
“Yes. You know I work for that student homestay organisation, well; I’ve struck a problem with the placement of one of my students. He’s due to arrive from East Africa in two days and the host family that we’ve matched him with are having a bit of a family crisis and have asked if we can find him alternative accommodation as they are finding it rather difficult to cope with their current situation. Apparently one of their own kids has just been diagnosed with a serious illness so I can understand that they need to direct all their attention to dealing with that without having to host a new person in the house.
"And where do you think I can help in all this?" enquired Mitch, already dreading to hear her response.
“Well, since it’s all rather short notice and we don’t have any other available hosts in the area, I thought maybe you could come to the rescue and put the boy up, just for a short while at least. You have the spare room, you’re near the Uni, and, she added, with an exaggerated lightness in her voice, “I think it would be good company for you”.
Mitch grunted, “I don’t need company, good or otherwise, and I’m not organised to be hosting strangers in my home”! Joyce brushed aside his protestations with a flick of her hand. “Oh, come on now, Mitch, just think of all the good you’ll be doing – it’ll be a win-win situation all round: you’ll be helping me out of an administrative nightmare, you’ll be helping the boy by giving him a safe place to stay and you’ll be helping yourself with some very useful income because everyone can use an extra couple of hundred bucks a week. And, no matter what you say, I think it will do you good too. It’s about time you moved on...you know what I mean. Margie bit her lip realising she may have gone too far.
She saw Mitch start to bristle and laid a calming hand on his shoulder.
“Now, Mitch, Joyce would want you to be happy. George and I were only saying the other day that you don’t seem to have got over it and it’s been two years. We understand how you feel but you need to make an effort – nothing stays the same. Look, we’ve been friends a long time and you can tell me to shut up if you want but please understand – we just want to see the old Mitch again”.Mitch closed his eyes, took a deep breath and threw his head back. Margie stayed quiet and waited timidly, almost expecting him to let out a bellow, but as the seconds passed, he exhaled slowly, looked her in the eye and said kind of wearily, “OK, let’s sit down and talk about this.”
And that was how it all began. Now, six months down the track, Mitch had to admit to himself that Margie had been right. Theo, his new housemate, had somehow brought a new dimension to his life. The boy was highly intelligent, which was apparent from day one. Over the first few days, and the following weeks, each of the men learned a little about the other, snippets of information that they stored away like squirrels storing acorns. Theo came from a small country which had seen internal strife some twenty years ago. Mitch was vaguely aware of reports of terrible atrocities that had been perpetrated there but avoided any pointed inquiries because, as a man who’d traveled widely in his youth, he realised that cultural differences needed to be considered and he didn’t want to put the boy in an uncomfortable position. Even just a simple question about which ethnic group Theo belonged to was met with a strange sad gaze and the veiled response, “I don’t really belong to any particular one.”
As time went by, Mitch learned that Theo had graduated with honours and had subsequently been employed in a responsible position in a government department before winning a scholarship to do his masters in Australia. His mother and father, both now dead, had instilled in him the importance of studying and working hard. A good education was, they had said, his passport to a better life. He was one of five children, the only boy and, as such, was given preference over his siblings from an early age. His mother strove to make sure he attended school and eventually university where he excelled. Besides growing up speaking two local dialects, he had also learned fluent French and English. Later, he added German to his repertoire of languages; self taught from the internet! Mitch deduced that this young man had an obvious flare for languages as he seemed very much at ease using any of them and he encouraged Mitch to correct any errors he made in pronunciation or inflection when speaking English.
Quite apart from his linguistic ability, he had a keen intellect and delighted in discussing a wide range of subjects. He was a skilled debater and knew his way around an argument which often left Mitch feeling inadequate in comparison. One thing was for sure – life was certainly a lot more interesting now - thanks Margie!
All in all, the two got on well despite not seeing eye to eye on a number of things. These differences were highlighted during many of their discussions which resulted in some pretty heated arguments. Politics and religion were like tinderboxes and the two went at it hammer and tongs, often well into the night, when such subjects as these were raised.
This time it was different, though. In a conversation that had started with generalities, Mitch had gone on to ask Theo about his intentions for the future once he had completed his degree. Was he interested in the possibility of staying on in Australia? What sort of career did he intend to pursue? What plans did he have for his family back in Africa? Had he thought of marriage and a family?
He hadn’t meant to pry but Theo immediately showed signs of resentment at being bombarded with all these questions and this was what resulted in the present stand-off between the two.
“Mitch”, he started, in response to the demand for an explanation. “I do respect you. You have been so kind to me by taking me into your home. We have had many conversations about many things. I know that you are a non-believer. I also know that you think that the West – Europe, America and Australia – are great benefactors to Third World countries like mine. But, as I’ve tried to explain before, not everything is quite so rosy. The reality is a long way from what you think and that is why Africa will be a victim of poverty and hunger and wars for generations to come.”
“We have many sayings in my culture – they pepper our everyday language so much that one cannot have a conversation without saying or hearing a number of them. One of them goes something like this: “Only a fool or a brave man turns his heart inside out”.
“I am neither a fool nor brave so please don’t ask me to show you everything that’s in my heart”. The boy’s face seemed to display a mixed expression of hesitancy and fierce pride.
The older man stared at the upturned face before him and opened his mouth to speak but uttered not a word. Instead, he reached out his hand and squeezed the boy’s shoulder. His mind turned over some of those many acorns he’d collected over the months: the night he’d come home famished from a day of golf and found Theo with his head in his books. “I’m starving to death”, Mitch had declared and the boy had looked up and simply said, “Mitch, you don’t know what real hunger is.” And another time when he’d complained bitterly about having missed his bus into town and had been forced to walk almost half an hour to make his doctor’s appointment on time. Theo had smiled that sad smile and recounted the story of a certain eight year old boy who had walked through the day and the night and the following day, not knowing how many miles he had to go to reach safety. The boy wore three T shirts because they were his only possessions. He wore sandals made from the rubber of old car tyres and carried a bag of yams on his head. Now that was a walk! Then there was the time they’d argued about life after death and Theo had asked suddenly, “Have you ever seen anyone die”? Mitch’s heart missed a beat. He’d sat with Joyce for three days towards the end, held her hand, tried to get her to sip from the cup he held to her lips. He’d whispered little endearments in her ear and told her everything was going to be alright. Then he’d slipped out of her room for just five minutes to grab a badly-needed coffee from the cafe next door. “Be back in a minute, darling,” he’d whispered. When he returned, he knew immediately that she’d gone and never forgave himself for deserting her at the end, for that was how he saw it.
“No, I never saw anyone die,” he said in a voice that sounded hollow in his own ears.
Theo didn’t look at him, his face was turned to one side and he appeared to be looking back, as if through a dusty window pane. “It’s awful, the way the blood froths around their mouth, a dirty brown colour. And the flies, the sound of flies everywhere...” and his voice just trailed away.
All these little incidents, the snatches of conversations, of things said and things unsaid, the shouting matches, the lighthearted banter, the happy memories and the dreadful ones, the quiet reflection, the laughs and the somber moments, all these came to Mitch in that moment and he saw things with a new clarity. It was like turning the ring on his old camera lens – everything came into sharp focus.
Of all the conversations the two men had had, covering so many different subjects, the one thing they had never discussed was Mitch’s years with Joyce and how much he missed her. Theo never asked and Mitch never volunteered anything – it would be like treading on sacred ground, like turning his heart inside out...
“Don’t take any notice of me, mate,” said Mitch. “I can be a grumpy old bugger at the best of times.” Theo looked up and smiled.
“You’re a good bloke, I reckon” he said, trying out his newly acquired Aussie accent. They both burst out laughing and headed into the kitchen to share a nice cup of tea.