by Kate Mahony

We met at a wine tasting in the supermarket. I had seen him often on the street, but still I was surprised to see him in the store. I had chosen white wine. It was rather lukewarm for my tastes. I grimaced. Our gaze met across the promo stand.

‘You like wine?’  I asked.

He smiled, his face and lips ruddy. ‘I like red.’

I never saw the free wine lady again.

But I did see him. Politely standing in front of the book shop.

Another time—quite early in the morning—I saw him on a side street. He carried a bag – he could have been a business person with his briefcase, only dressed more casually. He held his head high. He needed to be some place.

I saw him later down at his usual spot, smiling patiently. Waiting.

‘I saw you walking here,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘I live in the apartments on Elgin Street,’ he said. Not far away. I hadn’t expected that. I knew someone who lived in the same block.

I asked him his name.

‘Philip,’ he said. I nodded. Easy to remember. I had an uncle with that name. An odd sort of a character now I thought of it. Always trying to chase my little sister and me around the house.

We got talking some more. Philip said he’d been in foster care since he was five. He hesitated before adding the homes he’d been fostered to were bad. ‘Very bad.’ He glanced away into the distance for a moment.

His mother was an alcoholic. ‘Just like me,’ he said. Yes, she was still alive. They had met a few times.

A social worker had arranged for him to do a residential drying out programme. For six months. But when he came off it, he went back to the drink. ‘Like my mother,’ he said. ‘That’s me.’

In the weeks that followed, I’d see him around. I often called out to him by name. I’d ask how things were going. Now he was no longer just an anonymous figure like the other seven I’d see begging regularly on the same patch. He was Philip. He had a story.

Sometimes I’d see him slumped against a wall.

‘Stay off the drink, Philip,’ I shouted out to him more than once.

He’d grin back at me and wave a bottle. His face was crimson. I wondered why he didn’t go back to his apartment and catch a nap there.

Last week I headed to the little row of trendy shops in my own suburb. A delicatessen, a florist shop, and a vegan café. Not the kind of place that has large supermarkets and petrol stations and a library. I was approaching the cash machine in the wall of the local pharmacy when I saw Philip across the street. He lurched into the road and waved at a motorist as if trying to flag him down.

I thought the car was going to strike him. But then he straightened up, and got himself off the road and stood on the pavement opposite.

Turning back to the cash machine I requested $200. Then I heard his voice behind me, speaking to someone. I felt myself stiffen. The cash machine spewed out my money. I grabbed the notes.

I kept my back to him, my hands covering my face. When I peeped, he was heading into the bottle store.

The bottle stores Philip frequented in his own neighbourhood would’ve refused to sell him alcohol on account of his being so drunk. It appeared the same applied here because he came out from this one empty handed. He looked around.

I clutched the bundle of $200 notes in my hand and watched him stagger away towards the bus stop. I didn’t call out his name.

Kate Mahony’s fiction has been published in, among others, The Best New Zealand Fiction #6 (Random House, New Zealand, 2009), Landmarks UK, 2015, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), 2015, New York Litro, Blue Fifth Review, and Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, 2018).
http://www.katemahonywriter.com