I loved a man I didn’t really know once. I didn’t know him because the hard life he had led caused him to build up such walls around himself that it wasn’t possible for anyone to break through. He was a homeless man. A tramp. A hobo. He was also a poet and an artist. I spoke to him every day for my last two years of University. He lived in the park nearby. There was madness in his eyes but also kindness. He was a sensitive man, a thinking man who had almost gone mad with grief. Grief at the way the world was. Grief at the way his life had turned out.
My friends thought I was putting myself in danger, that he would try to steal from me, would attack me. Sometimes they used to watch from behind the bushes by the Chinese Elm tree, but they had no need to worry. Donald was the gentlest of souls.
He liked a drink. That was part of the reason he was homeless, but he was never violent or obnoxious after a bottle of cheap sherry, merely contemplative. Donald drew with coloured pencils on discarded scraps of paper. People don’t throw away paints, he would say, but they do throw away packets of pencils. Most of the time only one pencil is missing – usually red. People are so frivolous with colour, so fickle. All the other colours are thrown away because red is missing. It’s a waste. It was something that bothered him a lot.
Donald drew a lot of nature scenes. He used a lot of green until the pencils were worn down to stubs. I used to raid the art rooms for old, slightly broken green pencils and pass them on.
Donald’s drawings were like paintings. I don’t know enough about drawing techniques to know how he achieved the look, but it was impressive given his limited materials.
His poems were even better. He taught me that you don’t need to be sitting in a gondola in Venice to see a poem in your world. Through him I developed an interest and a love for the beauty in everyday things.
Beauty in the little things. It’s what kept Donald alive. It’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings.
Someone asked me the other day how I learned to write about trees and birds and commonplace things. One of the people who taught me was Donald. He taught me how to see things. He taught me that a swirl on the pavement or a gnarled knot in a tree branch is a story.
One day after a long weekend I went to the park and Donald was gone. He was never not there, the park was his home. I asked a Council worker where he was and he told me Donald had died on the weekend. A heart attack. All of his stuff was gone. His drawings, his poetry. The Council worker thought it had probably been thrown away. I rang Head Office, desperate, pleading. They told me all of Donald’s stuff had been incinerated, that he had no next of kin to pass it on to anyway, and really, who in their right mind would want that stuff?
Sometimes when the grass is held in a certain light or the leaves on the brushbox tree touch one another in song, I think of Donald. I saw a piece of broken glass on the road today, edges smooth, forest green and I held it up to the light and looked through. It was a muted, magical world of wild grasses and shadowy woodland. It was subtly hued like a candlelit room.
That piece of glass made me realise how lucky I am. If not for Donald I might not be able to see the world through the glass at all.