We continue, from the time when Chad’s just heard an awful news on the radio and dashes off…
A MILLION SMILES FOR JUNE
5. A Forgotten Man
The entire way to the park, to that old bench where it all started, Chad couldn’t help but think again and again that the man on the news was Bax. Even though he’d promised June he’d leave them be, he had made no such promise to Bax. One way or the other, he needed to know. The hour it took him to emerge from St James station and step onto Hyde Park, he couldn’t help but feel panicked. Like suddenly all the oxygen in the world wasn’t enough. He wondered whether he was going to end up at an empty bench, or whether he’d see a friendly face or two. He was hoping for the latter.
Chad saw a figure hunched over on the bench from meters away. It was June. That bode ill, and for a brief moment he stopped approaching her. Those remaining few meters to her felt charged somewhat, and he glanced back at Elizabeth Street, and to the traffic that flowed without a hint of that morning’s tragedy. It was almost lunch time, and the park was getting crowded with dotting of people taking their lunch on the greens.
He had to weave his way through several lunching on the lawn before he reached June with her head in her palms. He came to a complete stop in front of her, suddenly feeling several pairs of eyes watching him as he approached the homeless girl. “June…” he called. She looked up with red and swollen eyes. It almost took his breath away, the grief visible on her face. “So that was him?” She nodded, dropping her gaze at his shoes till Chad sat down next to her.
“I was trying to stop him…” she shook her head vigorously, staring across the park towards the main road. “Stop him from going there to ask about…”
Chad followed her gaze and eyed Tyler’s Café.
“He missed you…” she finally managed before sobs quietly took over her once more. Chad moved closer, taking her by the shoulders, and felt her body tremble at his touch. “I’m so sorry. So sorry!…None of this would have happened but for me.”
Chad took her in his arms. “It was an accident, June.” But June’s sobs got the better of her, causing several people eating their lunch to turn to the two with disdain. Someone even called out ‘Get a room!’ which made Chad loose his cool. The next person walking past them and glaring, he yelled at. “What are you staring at?!”
June suddenly shot up straighter, pushing herself away from him. “You came.”
“I had to.”
She wiped tears from her tender eyes and edged a little further, aware of the stares. She felt very awkward, very exposed, and suddenly, all she wanted to do was turn off the Sun and dive behind, under the bush and hide for all eternity. What was she doing waiting in the park for the man she’d told to leave them alone? What was she doing bearing her soul in front of all those people? People who stared at Chad as if he’d lost all his senses hanging out with her, the homeless girl who’d just lost the one person close to a family.
“They all seem so angry…” she sighed heavily, looking at the people around them, rather than focusing on Chad.
He didn’t care for the change of subject. “Let them stare if they must.” He rose, all his attention on her. “Let’s get you out of here.”
She stared at him, taken aback. “And go where? Where will you take me?” There was a hint of panic and accusation in her tone. “I don’t need you to take care of me. That’s not why I was waiting.” She almost yelled. “I lost someone I cared about today…” she said the words with much struggle.
Chad stepped just a little closer. His voice tender, “I know.”
She looked on at him, and couldn’t fight the tears once more. “I just needed to not feel alone for a moment at least, you know…”
Chad blinked his own eyes dry, determined not to cry in public. “Like I said, let us get you out of here. Will you come with me, June?”
She shook her head, shying away from passersby that gave her the dirty look. She wiped the moisture from her cheeks. “And where do we go?”
“Grab your bags,” he said, and she obliged, even letting him carry one of her belongings. Chad started walking ahead of her, towards the closest station, and she followed close behind, feeling very vulnerable walking past strangers who gawked like they were seeing the unthinkable. Ahead of her, Chad barked at the nearest huddle of people on the grass.
“Anyone ever tell you staring is rude?!” causing people to turn away and mind their own business, or at least until the two had passed them by. June just wished wherever it was that Chad was taking her had better be people-free, but it wasn’t to be. Chad, few steps ahead was quietly heading into the train station, down a set of stairs and into a tunnel beneath the park. Finally, when they’d entered the tunnel where the concentration of people lessened significantly, June felt safe enough to talk.
“Can you tell me where we’re going, please?”
Chad turned, allowing people behind them to walk on ahead. “I’m taking you home.”
June stood almost losing the grasp on her bag. She tightened her grip before the bag hit the floor. “I can’t.”
“I can’t,” she said again, taking a small step back from him. “I can’t ask that of you.” She couldn’t very well tell him she had little trust in men, especially having had to fend for herself sleeping rough on the streets.
Chad was baffled. “You’d much rather stay up there? On the streets by yourself?”
She didn’t answer for a long time. “It wouldn’t be right.”
Chad suddenly took a step in her direction, making her more nervous than he’d realise. “June, I’m not leaving you out there alone.”
“Because, it’s the right thing.”
“You don’t even know me…”
“No, but I’d like to.”
She shook her head. “I’m not that kind of a girl.”
Chad laughed, his laughter echoing down the tunnel, causing people to look back at them. “I’m not that kind either.” He dropped her bag on the ground and gently took her by her shoulders. “I’ve just come out of a very long relationship, and I’m still getting my head around it.”
June just blinked at him causing him to crack a smile. “I’m just asking for companionship, that’s all. The house gets awful quiet, and I can’t concentrate on my work when I feel like I’m the last man alive.” When June remained quiet, he went on, “You need a space that’s safe and warm, and I need someone I can say hello to when I bump into you in the morning for breakfast.”
June shook her head in disbelief.
“And I really wouldn’t forgive myself if something were to happen to you too,” he trailed off.
“You can’t just take all homeless people home,” she said in a small voice.
“I’m not.” He picked up her bag again. “I’m taking home a friend.” He started walking further into the station. “You coming then?”
“I won’t sleep with you, you know!” she called to him, following him despite all her apprehension still standing. After all, what could be worse than being completely alone on the streets, vulnerable to all elements.
Chad laughed ahead. “Good! I don’t have to say no then. I don’t like hurting people’s feelings otherwise.”
June couldn’t help but smile. She couldn’t help spare a thought for Bax as she watched Chad buy tickets for wherever he lived from the ticket machine. She couldn’t imagine whether she’d have ever seen Chad again if it hadn’t been for Bax’s accident. For some reason, Chad felt like an angle in disguise to her, and so did Bax.
“What?” he asked, catching her lost in thoughts.
She shook her head, taking the ticket he offered. “I don’t know how to thank you. For today, or the last month…” Chad shrugged, but June wasn’t done. “Thank you, for giving Bax something to look forward to all those days.”
Chad nodded briskly, for he didn’t want to have that conversation just yet. He turned to the electronic gates and felt tears prick his eyes.
“Chad…” June called, but he walked on ahead. “I shouldn’t have taken that away from him,” she followed him through the gates and onto the platform, which was sprinkled with few people. “I shouldn’t have asked you to stay away,” she finally managed as a train pulled up alongside the platform, almost drowning her out.
Chad stepped into the carriage and headed for the upstairs section with June close by. The ride to his station was short, and in that time June was distracted by the sights. It had been a while since her last train ride. When the train started pulling into their station, Chad rose. “This is us.”
June followed him out, and as they approached the gates, she was stopped by a ticket officer wanting to see her valid ticket. The man eyed her from head to toe, and she couldn’t really imagine what a sight she’d be since she’d avoided her own reflection like the plague for quite some time now. She held her ticket to the man and had him scrutinise it a while till Chad came back.
“Is there a problem?”
The officer shook his head and walked away, leaving June feeling relieved.
“Come on, let’s go.” He said, escorting her towards the gates, waiting for her to be through the gates first, before following. Once outside, he turned sharply to her, “I’m sorry about that. Are you okay?”
“Not the first time, Chad.” June laughed.
He nodded. “Right. Follow me then.” He turned down the street, his walk fairly brisk, and June had to almost shuffle along to stay at pace with him. “It’s a ten minute walk.” He was saying.
When they happened upon his front door, June was quite taken aback at the quaint centennial house. She wasn’t expecting it, not for Chad anyway, and watched the façade in awe, at the two storey house, ones she’d always wondered about in terms of what they’d be like inside. “It’s cute,” she cried, gazing up at the small terrace.
“Wait till you see the inside!” he laughed, turning the key.
What June entered into was nothing more than a smallish lounge room with a dusty grey two-sitter sofa and the blandest of bland coffee table. “Did you get robbed?” she asked timidly stepping into the room, afraid to potentially disturb any forensic evidence the police might need.
She looked around. “It’s practically empty!”
Chad laughed again, a hearty laugh as he shut the door. “This is all I have.”
June smiled wearily, “Why?”
“It’s a long story, but like I said, it gets very lonely wandering around the house alone.”
June smiled. “Now you have someone to say hello to.”
He nodded, throwing his keys on the coffee table. The two stood there awkwardly. Chad hadn’t exactly planned to bring June home. In fact, there had been no sane thought in his head all morning till that moment he’d seen her absolutely devastated on the bench, and he couldn’t just walk away this time.
June bit her lip. “Can I use your bathroom to clean up?” It was such a hard question for her to ask, but in the super sterile room Chad called a lounge, she felt for the first time, very filthy. Like if she were to take another step into the room, she’d contaminate it and they’d have to burn the house down and everything in it.
“Yeah, sure.” He placed her bag by the sofa’s foot and walked off, up the narrow stairs to show her where the bathroom was. “Do you have anything clean to wear?”
June felt embarrassed, stopping on the top of the stairs. Her cheeks flushed red.
“I didn’t mean it that way!” Chad quickly recovered. “Just that, I’m sure you’d feel better in fresh clothes and I wasn’t sure whether you’d had a chance to clean your clothes out there.”
June’s jaw slowly dropped with every word.
Chad swore. “That totally came out wrong, didn’t it?” June nodded with a shrug. “All I meant was that, I could give you something in the meantime… that doesn’t help either huh?” he stepped aside from the bathroom door.
While June shut herself in the very clean bathroom, washing her face and brushing her teeth, Chad simply knocked lightly on the closed door. When she opened it, he was gone, but he’d left a small pile of folded towel, trackies, t-shirt and a jumper. June smiled shyly, picked up the offering and closed the door again.
Downstairs, in the kitchen, Chad wanted to bury his head in sand. For all his writing skills, he really lacked in the social front. Regardless, now wasn’t the time for sand diving. He needed to recover from his lack of empathy, so he set about making fresh coffee for them, and saw the stack of dishes days old. He pushed up his sleeve and dug into them while the sound of a shower turning on upstairs filtered down.