‘I’m from a little place in Western Australia. You won’t have heard of it,’ said the man from a little place in Western Australia.
‘I’ve heard of it,’ said the man who’d heard of it.
‘Nobody’s heard of where I’ve from.’
‘Yes, it’s called Western Australia,’ the man who’d heard of it replied.
‘But you don’t know a little place called Perfect, do you? Well, that’s where I live when I’m out there. Been out there all my life until I came over here. It’s a long way. My place is a long way from anywhere. If I ever write a book I’ll call it A Long Way from Perfect. A good title, eh? Books with titles like that sell a million. I could write that book. Then I could retire. You know where I’d retire to?’
‘A long way from Perfect.’
‘How did you know that?’
We were in the café with a view of the distant white mountains. The sound of the sea’s surf crashing against the rocks so far below was the constant rhythm. Here, beneath parasols, we refreshed and relaxed in the afternoon heat of the island.
‘How did you know what my book’s going to be called? You a writer? You could help me write my book. Fifty/fifty share of the profits. You’d be rich. I’d be rich. What do you say?’
The man from a little place in Western Australia and the man who’d heard of it were sitting at the next table to us on the left. They had met only moments before. The man who’d heard of it was a Londoner making his first visit to the island. His companion had never been far from Perfect until he took the bus to Perth for the internal flight to Sydney, then out across the world to Europe, and from there he took the boat to the island. He seemed in pursuit of a dream. We were not sure of his dream.
The man at the table to our right seemed oblivious to the conversations at neighbouring. We were barely aware of him. He was an elderly man reading a newspaper in a café. Cafes the world over always have such a customer. They always sport goatee beards. Our man was true to type. He had a goatee beard that he thought gave him the look of distinction. The young have beauty. The elderly have distinction.
We were watching a caterpillar crawl across the café lawn. The grass had been freshly cut. Because of the rains that had fallen all summer everything green was almost luminously so. The man – I was never to see him again – said, ‘You must live according to your dreams.’ They were the only words he spoke to us. He made no introduction, said nothing further, and soon afterward disappeared when we were preoccupied with our own conversation.
He had leaned across from the next table to say those words to us. He was sitting alone. He looked like a man who lived alone. He lived alone with his memories of battles and conquests. A widower, he employed a widow to keep house for him. As a young man he had forced himself upon a much older woman who accepted her lowly position without a word of protest. But these days his interest was in younger women paid to keep silent. Theirs was a different silence, and a different submission.
Of course we were never to see the man again. It would have destroyed the mystery had we known who he was. Speaking to him, learning about his life, should have destroyed the mystery. This man was about mystery. It was a curious remark casually dropped into the conversation of strangers. He was the unknown figure who vanishes, leaving behind the enigma by which he is sure to be remembered.
He wanted us to remember him, to wonder about him, to speculate on the meaning of his remark, and then to speculate on his identity.
‘Do you know who I am?’ the memory of him asks me. No, I have no idea. I can try to imagine. This I find myself compelled to do. It is what he wished me to do. He continues to wish this of me. He repeats his advice over and over.
Most advice we are given we ignore. We ought to ignore most advice because most people are thinking not about us but about themselves. They think that what works for them works for everyone. People can be so self-centred. They can be generous with their time, their money and, especially, their advice. All the while they are thinking of themselves. They are going out of their way to help, but the road they take you on is the road they would take if they were you. That’s what they say: ‘If I were you.’ But it’s not you they mean. Most advice we can ignore.
‘It was spur of the moment coming here,’ the man from a little place in Western Australia said. ‘Well, I had trouble back home. When you got trouble the best thing you can do is get out right away. That’s what I did. I got out right away. Best thing to do when there’s trouble.’
‘Trouble follows you,’ the man who’d heard of it replied.
‘You know you Brits don’t see things right. My advice is just do it. Follow your dreams. Yes. Like the man said. That’s what I did. I’ve never felt better. Plenty of money. Plenty of time. I’m like a free man released from jail. You know that? That’s how it was. Well, I took the money and got myself a ticket. Here I am, talking to you on this beautiful island.’
The caterpillar was no longer visible. It had found the refuge of anonymity in the long grass. If we could not see it we were going to forget it was there. Perhaps it was observing us from its bolt hole. If it could hear our voices – and surely it could –what did it make of the sounds we were making. Not much we said or did made any sense to a caterpillar. It was far better to ignore us. Like the clouds and the trees we were there. We were part of the landscape. Every caterpillar knew that.
‘You’ll have to go back, won’t you?’ replied the man who had heard of it.
‘Go back? Not necessarily. When the money runs out I can work. Or there’s some rich woman visiting the island. These islands are full of them.’
He was a long way from Perfect, and the unreality of his situation was bending his perception. He had walked, as we had, from the town to this place. In the heat haze the narrow, lonely road could work strangely on a tired, hungry mind. I pictured the man on an even lonelier and much longer road. He had seen stumps of trees turn into beautiful women. He had seen pools of water on dry rocks. He had seen armies that so easily might have been mistaken for children.
He seemed a stranger on the run. He had come close to confessing it. He wanted to tell the world what he had done. He was proud of what he had done, although his pride depended on not being caught. We supposed he had committed some audacious and clever fraud. He had embezzled a hated brother-in-law. Or he had cheated the company he worked for out of the money he felt those rich employers owed him. The company could afford the loss. They deserved to lose. It was the little guys who deserved to win. He’d won. And here he was to prove it.
‘Rich, beautiful women,’ the man from a little place in Western Australia repeated dreamily.
A cloud passed over the sun. Somewhere in Europe there was rain. This whisper of cloud was the hint that on the mainland, north in the mountains there were chill winds and storms.
‘Not that you can trust any of ’em. Women, I mean. Don’t trust the ladies. Never. You can’t trust nobody. They cheat, they lie and they rob you left and right.’ He no longer spoke dreamily. A bitter edge, never far away, so it seemed, had crept in again.
He reminded me of the caterpillar. There he was crawling along, imagining himself the butterfly he was never going to be. People are divided into those who crawl and those who fly. He had taken flight, only to land on this small island where nothing happened. His life now was going to be nothing happening. There was nothing except to watch caterpillars while dreaming of air and beauty that was never going to be his.
He drank too much. He talked too much. He was confessing more than he knew. He hadn’t escaped. Like the caterpillar crawling he might be caught so easily at any moment.
We could have warned him, but he didn’t seem a man who took advice. He might never have left the little place in Western Australia had he listened to advice. He might never have taken the money with him on the flight to Europe. He surely should not be here on the island had he listened to anything beyond the impulse.
There was something admirable in its way about that impulse. Here was someone who took a chance against all advice. Do any of us listen to advice? Sometimes, rarely, there comes the suggestion that really does make a difference. ‘Take that train. Take it now.’ And you take the train, and you leave, never to return, and it’s a better place that you find. You remember for ever the figure at the station, watching as the train departs. You remember the loss that she is going to feel. You remember the selfless sacrifice made for your sake. If you had had a moment to consider this you’d never have boarded the train. But there was no time to think as you hurried to buy a ticket. There was time only to say thanks before you were through the barriers. That was how it was. You took the chance.
He took the chance, and ran. He was never going back. He would rather throw himself onto the rocks beneath the sea cliffs than be taken back. He was going to leap and fly like a butterfly into the haze. All his life he had crawled. And then he learned that he, too, could fly.
‘Rich, beautiful women,’ he murmured, dreaming again as the afternoon sun cast shadows across the lawn where the caterpillar crawled.