7. Prompts that lead to counterintuition

There’s an occasional habit I haven’t told you about that slowly developed over many years, without Benny really noticing that he was doing it. But then again I suppose that’s how habits form — we just do the same thing in the same way often enough for it to become customary. It was an action he tended to fall into whenever his attention was not drawn to something else, and that he started to toy with quite a few years after he finally lost track of that little jar of coins he had collected as a kid. Again small change was involved, but in a very subtle manner when a coin or two happened to be in his hand, like when he was getting change at a shop, or feeding coins into a vending machine.

Physically, all that was involved was a glance to his hand, with maybe the added effort of flipping a coin over first. What Benny casually looked for was the year stamped on the heads side — at first mostly done just out of interest, to see how old that money was. Once a coin turned up in his palm that was dated 1968, and it was good to see it still in circulation and doing what it was intended to do. He kept that coin for a while with some other change, but it was only 10c, which he thought was a denomination that was not really needed all that much — until he was exactly that much short at the sandwich shop a few days later. So the 10c coin from 1968 left his pocket and kept circulating its way across the population, just like it had been doing for all those years.

But as well as the mild interest that came from some of the older dated money, there were also occasions when Benny discovered significant years displayed on these coins; significant to his personal history anyway. “I remember what happened that year. Poor old Milo. I always thought my parents named our dog after the drink, and he was that same darker shade of brown too, but some time later dad said that he liked the name from a book he remembered reading once, and as a puppy Milo was always picking up things that were lying around and taking them to his basket — anything… socks, pencils, a roll of bandage — so dad said the name made sense with the book’s character, apparently.

“When he got to about 10 years old, Milo developed a lump under his throat which got bigger and harder over a long time, maybe a year. I was already in college, in my first year and I had moved out of home, and I know I was probably distracted with all that life too. Anyway, I remember getting a call from mum one day telling me that they had to take Milo to the vet as he was really sick and nearly couldn’t eat, and that he had been put down that morning.

“I felt really bad, really sad about it, for days. I remember the year clearly, as it was the first year of a new decade plus was an exciting time for me, but I don’t really know the date or even the month that this happened. Poor old Milo. I hadn’t forgotten him. But I had become sort of uninvolved I guess. But yeah, the year on this coin — I remember one thing that happened that year.”

This was a stirred-up memory that Benny didn’t want to hang on to, and the 20c with that year stamped on it was left in a tips bowl at the next café he strolled into. But it intrigued him too that the sadness of losing his pet dog could be buried and forgotten like that, and then uncovered many years later by a simple glance at a coin.

So you can see that it was from this year-on-the-coin association with remembered moments from his life that cemented Benny’s inclination, in a casual sort of way, to take up the occasional habit of observing the heads-side of various coins that came along — not with an aim to chase after melancholy memories, but just to see if something gelled with his remembrance or prompted a random reflection. Half the time this was not even a conscious action, so that he found himself more often than not looking for the heads side of a coin without really intending to, or at least not overtly searching.

And not every year made an obvious connection. In fact, Benny would often have to think of another year that was close to the one on a coin he had, and that did mean something, and then in his memory work forward or backwards in time until he could work out what took place over that year — just one thing that he remembered from it. And it was not like he was obsessed and gazed at every single coin. It was just an occasional thing.

There was one lucky find Benny had one day (of sorts, because it wasn’t a big one), which was a shiny dollar lying under a shopping trolley in the supermarket car park. The year proved to be the current one, so this dollar also tied in with his boyhood habit of keeping at least one present-year coin — and the prompted recollection from it was his boyhood coin collection in that little jar, by then long disappeared. He didn’t really feel compelled to keep this one though, so it just went in with the other change in his car’s coin tray. But finding that dollar definitely had the flavour of being a good sign.

Another recollection, brought to mind because of another coin snatched from a busy road, was when Michael disappeared. An added coincidence, which Benny realised when the year revealed its connection to this memory, was the abnormally huge break in the traffic at that usually swarming intersection that gave him the time and opportunity to dash out the metre or so needed to pick up the 50c he’d seen lying there.

The traffic was similarly busy, and also similarly interspersed with helpful gaps, on the day of the dash to Michael’s dad’s house to tell him the news, that empty upwards-palm gestured news Benny and his friends had for him that day — nothing known for sure, but that his son was somewhere unexpected, and then he wasn’t.

Driving on that day, sliding from lane to lane, across and in front of cars that glided clear and out of the way at the right time, braking into gaps that widened helpfully at right or left, then sliding up to find yet another widening escape forward, the speedy drive on the road full of football fans after a big match was like a practiced level of a familiar game. One car companion sat white-knuckled on the passenger side, but another gave an impressed ‘yeah’ from the back seat.

Michael had been hospitalised after a breakdown, had taken up smoking because of it (Benny had the impression that it was encouraged) along with a pill habit, and a practised ability to stare. It wasn’t long, about two of Benny’s visits later and probably just enough time to get through the expected processes – induction, settling in, routine – that Michael made a break for it.

No one knew for ages. There was a party on that night, and the day was filled with its expectation, so it was at the coming-together end of that Saturday that Michael’s whereabouts, or not-whereabouts, triggered Benny’s race to the dad’s place.

Michael had turned up at her flat, completely out of the blue, and had just left when a car-load of them turned up to give her a lift. He wasn’t right. Unbalanced, chased inside – pursued invisibly. And it was too much. Later, when the suicide was indelible, there was the inevitable coulda-shoulda rewinding the day and the recent weeks and even years to try to see why everyone missed what must have been all the big clues, why everyone was so thick.

So this coin had meaning, and brought back into focus a weighty time and mixed feelings for Benny — and for this witness of his. Should we have known? What could have been done to help? What would we do differently — all of us?

That 50c jangled in his coat pocket all the way into the city, because he kept it loose in there, not in the change pocket of his jeans, which is where he’d usually put a coin. So his hand felt it every time he hung his fists in his coat pockets, or he might grip the 50c piece idly, or play with it hidden in his coat as he played with hidden thoughts about Michael and his mental state and what had happened.

“I’d just jumped off the bus and crossed the road when this guy asks me for some money to buy food. There seem to be more and more people asking for handouts on the city streets, or maybe they were always there and I just hadn’t noticed so much lately. I’m usually wary of anyone like this, especially if they add in a story, like they had their bag stolen, or have to buy a train ticket, or need petrol to get their kids home. This guy said he was hungry and nearly had enough to get some lunch, and if I had any spare change… But I kind of believed him. He looked a bit down and out, and hungry, and he didn’t actually come up to me, but sort of half-turned when I stepped up to the footpath, like I’d just entered the space around him where he notices things. I also had the impression that he was sort of disturbed a little too, in a small way, a bit off-centre — just the way he spoke, and the way he held his hands.

“There was also that coin in my jacket… and memories of that day back then, when we were helpless. So now I could do something. I could help a little — for all of us. This guy obviously had some issues, which I didn’t really know, but the least of them seemed to be that he wanted something to eat. I grabbed the 50c and handed it over… and was kind of glad to see him walk into the shop we were in front of and buy a takeaway container of fried rice. Hmm… so he really was hungry.”

And it was okay, it was good. Benny felt he’d really helped someone in a real way. It was only 50c and that guy actually needed it. But also there was the added secret significance of a connection to a past aberration that seemed to be made a little lighter from that small act of giving. Of course Benny realised that this wouldn’t have really made any difference at all to those events of long ago, but maybe now, he thought, maybe this time, an effort could be made towards a positive outcome — no matter how small that might be. I knew Benny would not really be able to verbalise his wanting to put right a past situation, but his actions this day and his frame of mind said much.

And he felt better for having made the connection — it ‘worked’. Benny found a sort of ‘satisfaction-factor’, if he were to label the result he felt from this coming together of circumstances and thoughts. There was definitely a very slight re-balancing on the plus side that came from the way this all unfolded… and Benny realised it was an attitude worth repeating. Because it was just that, an attitude, more than a simple string of happenings. Yes, this whole moment was carried along on actions and context, but Benny felt (and I knew) that the outcome he just realised had more to do with the view he took than the physical circumstances that surrounded it.

Later, on the way home, Benny reviewed the coincidences of the day, as we saw them, and the resolution he was able to arrive at because of them. In a way, looking at the significances that unfolded, it all seemed to tie in so neatly — finding that 50c, the recollection of some hard times and the awkwardness of dealing ineptly with a friend in unfamiliar trouble, then the guy with a need and then the means, through our hand, of fixing that need. Finding all the correlations between these seemingly separate but meaningfully interconnected elements to this day was in one way very unsettling, and shook his mind like a snow dome. But the shaking in itself meant that a settling would follow, and so the metaphorical snow flakes settled, slowly resting, and Benny realised that the upshot was positive for him, both in the giving out (the coin, the association with a past coming-to-grips) and the taking in (the hungry guy’s off-centred ways, the attempt to make a correction).

He was on the bus on the way home when he had the vague idea that the coming together of everything, both the giving out and the taking in, were amazingly coalesced through the same set of circumstances, but these thoughts were barely focused when Benny also realised that he would have a hard time explaining any of this to another person. That’s why I’m here, I thought quietly. You don’t have to explain anything. “Just a minute. Settle down. Keep it real.”

The bus then came to a standstill. Not at a bus stop, but just where it was, behind the lanes full of cars in front of it. Up ahead we could see that a truck loaded with long orange PVC pipes had been reversing out of a building site when the chains around the tray full of pipes somehow unhooked and the whole truck load had rolled on to the roadway, right across both lanes, and blocked all the traffic on one side, us included. Workers from the building site soon sized up the situation, and had the now almost empty truck and its flustered driver drive back in through the open gates, and rushed out to start carrying the orange piping off the road and out of the way. The clearly not-very-heavy piping was being carried in and thrown into a heap next to the truck. Out of the general kerfuffle ahead it became obvious that their plan was to clear the road first and re-load the truck later — but there was going to be a wait for the road to clear.

Passengers were all looking ahead or standing to look out of windows to see, or craning to see past the driver, who had stood up and leaned out the door to get a better view. The spill would be cleared eventually and nothing could be done until then. The driver even faced the crowded bus load and shrugged his shoulders before ambling back to his seat — and all silently seemed to agree with the shrug assessment.

Everyone on that bus felt frustrated, but they were all in the same boat, as it were, and there was nothing to be done about it but wait for the road to be cleared. Benny took a long deep breath and gave a big loud sigh – but it was a bigger and louder sigh than he realised, and made in a bus full of people who were still just quietly sharing the wait. He got an amused murmur and a few looks in return, and felt a little embarrassed as he smiled and looked around, but it also seemed obvious that he had just verbalised, more or less, everyone’s feelings about the shared annoyance.

Then people went back to talking to each other, or making phone calls or reading — back to being a typical bus load of ordinary people. And in here it seemed natural, because of where Benny’s mind had been, to view the big in-breath as a gathering together of mutual frustration, and the long sigh out that followed as sharing a resolution to be patient. It seemed a natural conclusion — to breath in the circumstances, realise the shared meaning, and then breath out that realisation, for everyone. But also it seemed to be a view couched from a base of collegial sensibility.

And this became another realisation… he couldn’t always find the same or similar circumstances that he found himself experiencing over this very interesting day, and there are not always opportunities to resolve or relieve, even in such a minor way, some long-time thorn in the side of one’s remembrances. But breathing in and out always happened, it was always there. If Benny wanted to, and he concentrated, he could always try to find that satisfaction-factor again, even if it was more-or-less imagined — just by taking it all in, and then letting it all go.

Of course he also didn’t want to take any imaginings too far. That would be crazy.

< Chapter 6 Chapter 8 >

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