The wind is playing with the side of the sleeping bag. The rest of it is held in place by a rock, preventing it from blowing away down the river. The sleeping bag’s yellow neon catches my eyes as I make my way along the path. I am about to walk under the bridge, but for some reason, hesitate.
Looking around, I search for the sleeping bag’s owner, then decide to walk under the bridge anyway. What could happen? Just because a person is sleeping under a bridge doesn’t mean they are a criminal.
I feel like I am walking through someone’s private quarters and take care not to step on the bag. There’s not much room between it and the riverbank. It feels damp here. I can’t explain it but am sure there is a dog involved in these sleeping arrangements.
Once the stranger’s place is behind me, I turn around and snap a photo with my phone. It’s late afternoon. The sun is on my right shoulder. It touches the bag. This simple natural event, the sun reflecting in the river, gilding the bottom of the bridge. Intriguing. Somehow, the sleeping bag has awakened something in me I cannot yet grasp. Some sort of lost memory I can’t quite recollect.
A heavy truck drives over, and the riverbank shakes. For this person’s sake, I hope this doesn’t happen too often. Does the sleeping bag belong to a homeless person? Or someone who is really keen on the outdoors? A free-rider? People like to sleep rough in this country! When I first got here, it was hard to believe how many people like to go bush. No, no thank you. Not me! Give me a nice hotel any day, yes sir!
This suggestion of homelessness blindsides me, and my train of thoughts stops on its tracks, somewhere between an idea and a title. Yes, now I remember. Instead of writing about the best restaurants and wineries to visit in the region, the article should focus on the surf competition. I hope my readership doesn’t crucify me for it. But the ocean was flat today, so I decided to explore the trails by the river this town is named after.
Travel writing has become somewhat embarrassing to admit to doing in today’s world. We might be in a bubble here in Western Australia, but my brother has been out of work for almost a year in Brazil. And most of my mum’s neighbors have no idea where their food will come from. She sent me a WhatsApp this morning telling me that Seu Toni from the corner shop has died in hospital from Covid. ‘But he wasn’t careful,’ she pointed out.
And here I am, in trendy Margaret River, relaxed and complacent, if not a little guilty.
The sun is hiding behind the trees now, and I resume my walk. Following the trail somewhere. The river is on my right. There is no sound of water flowing. It seems to be waiting for something; then, after a few meters, I see that it is contained by a weir. It is waiting for rain, so it can stream and renew everything in its path.
The relationship between water and land is so different here. People say you can drink the tap water. I don’t risk it. Looks like suicide every time someone does it in front of me. In Brazil, the abundance made us cocky, but the tap water is not drinkable. The irony is not lost on me.
Turning around, I realize that I’ve taken an unmarked path. I can hear music in the distance – the sound of a single instrument. A flute. The melody guides me to a small bank by the river, where a natural pool is covered with fallen leaves and dust. They twirl together and dance in slow circles.
The musician is squatting by the bank, shoeless, playing away. He gives me a smile, unfazed by my presence, content. Before I can curb my thoughts, the word scruffy comes to mind. What a bitch!
Perhaps I am invading his space; he nods as I wave goodbye and walk back to the carpark.
After a satisfying meal at Settlers Tavern, I return to my hotel and try to sleep, but my night is as restless as the trees outside. Every time I close my eyes, the sleeping bag claims space on my mind. Growing up in Brazil, I saw homeless people everywhere. Some would sleep by our front gate. My mother would occasionally walk outside with a plate of food and a glass of water.
“God bless you, God bless,” they would say eagerly.
Still, it’s strange and confronting seeing a homeless person in Perth. I never truly understood why. Never thought hard enough about it until now, always thought it was their choice. But who would choose to live in such conditions?
I am naïve. I imagined that here, in this pristine region, it would be different. Everyone would have a place. Backpackers would gather in the pubs sharing stories of their travels; families would stick together in quiet neighborhoods, their kids running on the streets. Others would live in glorious yet unassuming properties.
Suddenly lifestyle writing seems so unnecessary, my approach to it undoubtedly vain, if not shallow. What am I trying to prove?
Today the surf is up, and my body is heavy. I get a strong coffee from Margaret River’s famous bakery and drive to Surfer’s Point.
The fine rain doesn’t deter the crowd that gathers in clusters, wearing Ugg boots and beanies. There is music and laughter, the energy of the people seeps through my skin, energizing me. The dark clouds from earlier dissipate.
My goal here is to interview a compatriot, anyone who is causing The Brazilian Storm, rather than report on the surf comp itself. That is what my readers want. I snap a few shots of the crowd, the beach, gorgeous coastline with its rolling waves and post them on my Insta Feed. #surf # justanotherdayinWA # lovinglife
What a load of shit.
A few minutes later, there are over a thousand likes. Life is gooood. Soon they will be expecting a post. I have been trying to learn observation, to truly look at people. Not in a judging sort of way, but in a “what sort of person are you?” kind of way. I try observing carefully now.
That’s when I spot him among the crowd. A faded headband loses its battle with his locks, as if they are too rebellious to conform. The musician is looking straight ahead. He gives the impression of not necessarily watching the surf but simply looking beyond it. His eyes seem to be floating in space. I don’t realize my urge to make conversation with him, until the fibers of his poncho are inches away from my hand. His blond beard is unkempt, but not in a fashionable way. To my shame, I am hesitant to take a deep breath, lest he stinks. Instead, my nose registers wood and ash. My smile is met with a simple nod. I should call him the Nod Musician. I would say something, but the surfer I want to interview is coming out of the beach.
With the interview done, the material for the blog is coming together nicely. Yet, that nagging feeling tells me to do more. What?
The surf competition wraps up for the day, and I take the shuttle back to the carpark, admiring the river still contained by the sandbank. That’s when I spot him again, this time walking along the path. Would he be walking all the way to town? It seems an insane distance to walk, and I am lazy. People hike, I run marathons on the streaming channel.
A minute later, I hit the brake and veer to the left. After waiting for a few minutes by the side of the road, just as I begin to have second thoughts, his figure emerges in my rear-view mirror.
‘Hi there!’ I call, startling him. ‘Sorry. Are… are you walking to town?’
‘Yeah,’ he says, sending a flickering smile.
‘Hop in,’ I say before I can regret it, ‘I am going that way.’ I grab my bag from the front seat and throw it in the back. His gaze strangely follows this gesture, his eyebrows shoot up, and a smirk blooms at the corner of his mouth.
It never crossed my mind that the guy might like the walk. He might be used to it. I simply assumed he had no other choice, but there is no hesitation on his part as he jumps onto the passenger seat.
Why do I feel like a creep? There is an awkward silence in the car. He hums something under his breath. Then, small talk.
Did you enjoy the comp?
Do you surf?
No, but I enjoy watching. I hike.
No, I am not sporty.
‘Where do you want me to drop you off?’
He says anywhere, but if I don’t mind, the library would be awesome. Thanks.
The library is the loveliest place in this town, welcoming, friendly and modern. No wonder everyone lands in there, kids playing with puppets, parents on their phones, seniors on the computers. After dropping off the Nod Musician, I decide to have lunch and come back to write on my blog.
The booths are full, I should have come here before 3 p.m. Looking for a place where I can plug my laptop, I spot him by the newspaper corner. It seems like he is doing crosswords. The chair next to him is vacant, and I sit there turning on my computer, dropping my bag on the ground. Needless to say, that was a no-no in Brazil.
He barely notices someone is next to him.
‘Can you please describe him again?’
‘Yeah, well, hum… he has honey-colored hair, bound in dreadlocks, he is probably as tall as you.’
As the police take my statement, I worry it could be a terrible mistake, yet, all signs indicate it was him, so that’s my conclusion.
‘5’8”,’ the policeman says, taking note. ‘When was the last place you saw him?’
‘At the library, I sat next to him and was very engrossed in my work. My mind was preoccupied with my blog post when I left the library, but he wasn’t there anymore.’
‘When did you notice you didn’t have your bag?’
‘All my shopping on that day, I paid on my phone. But at a shop that took cash only, I realized my bag was gone.’
I remember tracing my steps all the way back to the Surfer’s Point. Chucking the bag on the back seat is the last memory I have, right when he came into my car. Then lunch, then library, where I wrote like the person on the strictest deadline in history, leaving the library in sort of a haze hours later. But the policeman didn’t need to know that.
‘We checked with the library, and nothing has been handed over, and the cleaner didn’t find anything.’
In a burst of madness, I blurt out, ‘I think he lives under the bridge.’
‘It is illegal to live under the bridge,’ the policeman says.
After my statement, my chest keeps sending signals to my brain, indicating something I didn’t want to recognize. Disappointment. Disappointment in the human race. How clichéd.
Instinctively, I walk to the bridge, looking at the river that barely flows, imagining him sitting under it, going through the contents of my bag, discarding what has no monetary value. Without thinking, I walk to the end of the bridge and down the battered path. What can I possibly do? Confront him? We don’t do that. We don’t confront criminals. What if he has a knife? Well, he is definitely stronger, he could easily overpower me. On second thoughts, I stomp ahead, determined to face him.
‘Ah-ha!… I knew it, I knew it was you! The police already know it.’
‘What the fuc…’ he says, getting up from his makeshift home.
‘Where is my bag, you scum?’ I bet he doesn’t even pay taxes.
‘What?’ His eyes bulge in their sockets. ‘How did you know?’ He looks around himself.
I keep a safe distance in case I need to run. The traffic above muffles my indignation. ‘How did I know what? That you squat illegally under a bridge? Or that you took my bag?’
‘What makes you think that?’ His indignation is palpable, and my convictions suddenly in doubt.
‘Look around you.’ Justifying my accusation, my eyes scan the area looking for my bag… for a dog, but there is only him.
I am the criminal here. Accusing a man just because he lives simply, by choice or not, doesn’t make him a threat to society.
He puffs, picks up his meagre belongings and walks past me like I am an annoying fly.
The next morning, the police contacts me saying that the bag had been handed over at the library. It turned out that I had left it by the armchair. An elderly man noticed it a while later and tried to catch up with me. He said he called out but I kept on walking. My ear pods had been blaring my favorite Brazilian band, their music a protest against social injustice.
On my way back to Perth, I stop by the old settlement by the bridge before leaving town, intending to apologize, intending to atone. But there is nothing under the bridge, not even a ray of sunshine reflecting in the water. As I turn to leave, I notice something scribbled on the dirty wall that wasn’t there before. Just a question:
Who do you think you are?
Photo by kylie De Guia on Unsplash