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What I learned from a stranger
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I'm reading
What I learned from a stranger
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I'm reading
What I learned from a stranger
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Articles
19 January 2016

What I learned from a stranger

As I stood alone in the home of a stranger, I realised that I would be the last person to know this man.

Written by Michael Dockery

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Last year, I entered the unit of an old man named Colin. His home was sparse, but looked lived in. The ruby red carpet in the living room was worn down to the thread at the entrance of the hall and kitchen, the indentations of the furniture were long-lasting and defined. Above his television were two Star Trek posters and a framed videocassette sleeve of a documentary about ancient Egypt. A delicate film of dust covered everything in sight, including the exposed floorboards where carpet had been removed in front of the couch. It was there that Colin had died six months earlier.

I had been hired as a removalist by Colin’s landlord to clear out his things so his unit could be repaired and re-sold. It was my job to sort through Colin’s possessions to decide what was junk and what might be considered sentimental for his family to collect—not a single item was to be left unevaluated. As I stood alone in the home of a stranger, I realised that I would be the last person to know this man.

A picture of Colin began to form in my head as I examined his things. The magnets on his fridge, his pile of worn science fiction novels by the couch, his record and tape collection—each room was a different indication of the ways in which Colin was not taking care of himself. The bathroom and toilet seemed to have never been properly cleaned. The framed pictures of lingerie models that had been torn from catalogues and hung around the house were an indication that Colin wouldn’t have expected many guests. In his bedroom closet I also found photography equipment spanning decades, lying beneath his war uniform that appeared—as with everything else in the house—frozen in time. As the front room began to fill with things I thought would be sentimental, I was informed that Colin’s family was only really interested in swinging by to look through his DVDs. I never found a photograph of a relative.

As the day went on, I began to mourn. I thought about the loneliness he must have felt, and I wondered if Colin saw his home as I did: still, quiet, stopped.

Colin’s daughter arrived in a taxi with two of her neighbours, and carried an empty cardboard box to the house. His daughter was in her early thirties, and though she spoke softly, there was a nervous energy in her voice. They looked through what I had put aside and left with nothing but Colin’s DVDs and plans to collect his fridge later on. She told me that Colin left her when she was only a baby, and her mother had moved away. She had only visited twice since meeting him for the first time in her twenties.

After they left, I found Colin’s poetry. His poems had been written on a typewriter, and hidden folded within the pages of his books. Love, sex and heartache had been sporadically punched into paper. It was impossible to determine when they were written, but Colin’s most honest thoughts were there.

I knew the poems weren’t meant for me, but I read them, and started to understand how Colin saw himself, in his own words. In that moment, he showed me that to experience life fully, and to find joy, you have to connect with your community.

I have since wondered if, in the end, I knew Colin better than anyone. I saw his influences, read his deepest thoughts and stood where he died. I understood the effect loneliness had on his life. Just as he hid his poems, Colin hid himself inside his four walls, and became as still and quiet as they were when I stood within them.

In the exciting swell of my youth I fancied myself able to slice through adversity with my own craftiness, intelligence and passion, but what Colin taught me was that we only really prosper when we’re fastened to others.

Michael Dockery

Michael Dockery is an illustrator and writer for children’s television from Melbourne.

Feature image by Michael Dockery

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