There is a man in my home town, (I say ‘home town’ but increasingly I am beginning to believe that my time there is counting down to another move away from bitter memories and toward a fresh start) that collects spiders and moths in jars from around the town centre. A tall, dark, chiselled jawed and once handsome fella, he is now just a shadow of his former self. I first met Willmijn back in about 2010 when I noticed him slowly making his way through the small brick built shopping centre that adorns the town centre. A man of at least 6 feet 3 with long dark straight hair, I can imagine he was once a man to charm the ladies and make other men jealous. Even at the age of 60+, his hair is as dark, thick, long, slick and styled now as it was when I first met him.
Willmijn is from South Africa originally and has a deep, broad, strong Afrikaans accent which matches the stature he once would have held. I say would have held because although he is plus of 6 feet tall, he is hunched over and has to drag half of his now painfully thin body along with the help of a cane and his exceptional balance. Willmijn was paralysed down his entire left hand side due to a stroke many years ago and now resides in permanent care only minutes (seconds for us that are fully mobile) from the place I first met him. He has no feeling whatsoever on the left hand side of his body, no sight in his left eye and very little control over the position of either of his left limbs. “Where they are is where they’re staying ehh”, he once said to me.
Over the years I have met this man in passing just about twice a day, almost every day. Like my mum before me, I still say hello to strangers and saying hello to Willmijn while hiding from the rain in my cafe one day around 2010 was no different. We would nod in that most Manly of ways, the nod turning into small words and pleasantries over time.. “Morning mate”, “Hiya buddy”, that sort of thing. Over the years the pleasantries grew and turned into light conversation and the light conversation turned into 20 or 30 minute chats about religion, the state of politics in both our home countries, drugs, work, the police, the NHS and obviously women. He was one of the very first people to ask me, just some months ago here in 2017, why he hadn’t seen my (ex) “Mrs” sitting with me at ‘my’ table in a while. A very astute man.
Since returning from the USA in March of 2017, I have spent a lot of time walking and running and have seen Willmijn many times late at night making his way painfully slowly around the town centre in the dark. Normally I would see him during the day, shuffling backward and forward between his monitored accommodation and the small supermarket where he would buy his scratch cards in the vain hope that he could repatriate himself back to South Africa on the winnings, before his time runs out. The first time I saw him at night was a stinking, black, windy night that was pouring with sideways rain. He was dressed exactly the same as every day I had seen him previously, dressed just like me as a pre and early teenager. Wearing a navy blue, snorkel parka with large buttons, and grey fur encompassing the hood edging. The inner lining and inner pockets of the parka in their signature orange glow reminded me of not only my jacket (probably a few of them over those school years), but also reminded me of my mum – as she was the one who purchased them for me and for my brother from the school clothing shop, in the line of shops only 10 minutes walk from the house where we were both born and grew up in.
“Willmijn, what are you doing out on a night like this?” “Alright Rhys,” he replied slowly and slightly slurred from deep within the zipped up hood. “Why have you got shorts on, at least I have a hood, ehh boy?” I laughed as to be fair, I was the one in the pouring rain in a T shirt and shorts. We hid under the shelter of a large oak tree in an alleyway that connects the rear of the shopping centre to a through road to the flat where I once lived. In his pockets were two large old fashioned Nescafe coffee jars, the ones you just don’t see anymore due to plastic packaging. “I’m collecting spiders and moths for my flat”. For a few seconds I genuinely thought he was blind drunk, but he wasn’t. Over the talks that we’d had spanning back almost 7 years now, I knew Willmijn didn’t drink alcohol anymore, and I also knew why. His preferred vice was a marijuana smoke most nights to help relieve the pain and to help him sleep. So why the hell was he collecting spiders and moths on a night that can only be described as utterly dreadful? “Those flats are all air-conditioned and central heated, I can’t turn the bloody things off or down”, he began. “Trouble is Rhys, with the heating on I have to keep the windows open ehh, but that means the bloody flies and mosquitoes from the (nearby) river come in and it pisses me off”; his thick South African accent pronouncing the final word like ‘orph’. “The spiders take care of that problem for me, but I want them big and strong, so I feed them the moths every now and again”. The huge square, low-level, loading bay lights surrounding the rear of the supermarket gave him all the massive spiders and chunky moths he needed.
I was stood in the dark, in an alleyway, pouring with rain with a man that used to be a drug smuggler for the cartels, had crashed in a drug running aeroplane in Turkey and had escaped and evaded the authorities into Greece, experienced the most decedent side of alcohol, drugs and prostitutes, had served time behind bars in a South American prison – and survived, and who at the prime of his life was a millionaire with homes in three countries on three different continents. I was stood in that same dark, wet and dismal alleyway with the same man who since suffering a stroke, had lost half his sight, most of his mobility, 30% of his speech capability, all his money, his wife of 23 years, his child, all of his dignity, the capability to retain his own saliva and now lives in a room where it is necessary to populate it with massive arachnids to keep the fly population at bay due to ‘Regulation’ heating requirements.
I waved him goodbye as I ran off into the rain which was smashing against my face, thinking of ‘her’ once again.
I saw him last on Friday as I am away from where I am living at the moment, but I am sure I will see him again later this week when I take my seat and watch the world go by for half an hour with a ‘Monkey’ tea. I’ll see him at least two minutes before he arrives and he’ll shuffle slowly up to the table, turn his head and body around so he can see me with his only good eye and balance on his only good leg, He will say hello and I’ll ask him to tell me another amazing story of his once colourful life.
I have a recurring dream that I will win the lottery, I have had it for years. Lets hope it’s enough to get Willmijn a one way ticket and a place in a care home in South Africa, near his child where he belongs. I’d also have to buy him a new identity and passport too, as he’s banned from entering his home country due to multiple counts of drug smuggling related activity as well as, I’m sure, a few other things.
I have nothing to complain about.