Moments of regret

HE was a slight boy, hunched in the way people who suffer chronic asthma are hunched, and I’d pass him most mornings 45 years ago as he struggled up the slope to our high school in a Newcastle suburb. I didn’t know him, and I’m not sure why I knew his name, Garry Nugent, or why I remember it. I don’t know if he was in the same year as me but I’d guess we were about the same age, perhaps 14.

Most mornings he’d stop once or twice, occasionally more often, heaving for breath, and he walked alone up the rise because he walked slowly and much too slowly for teenage boys. Once I offered to carry his port, and he declined with a breathless ‘‘no, thanks’’, so thereafter I’d say ‘‘g’day Garry’’ as I passed him. That was, I think, the only time we spoke. One day that year we were told at assembly that Garry had died the night before as a result of an asthma attack. He was in god’s care and all that sort of guff, which was as convincing then as it is now.

Four years later I woke in a boarding house bedroom in western NSW with my first and only asthma attack, a frightening experience, and I was struck that this was the struggle for breath the boy who struggled up the school hill had endured every day and night. I remember being a little puzzled that my mind would go to this young fellow, because I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me.

A couple of nights ago his struggle and his death came to my mind again. I don’t know why – perhaps there was an unfairness about it, an unfairness that he was so stricken when the boys around him were hale and hearty, but long ago I’ve accepted that there is no fairness or unfairness in health and death. And as a former smoker there was certainly no unfairness about my contracting cancer eight years ago. Maybe I am haunted by guilt that I could have done more, that I could have walked with him, but there are a great many cases where I could have helped or done more to help and didn’t. And I doubt that he’d have wanted me to walk with him anyway.

Another sad case that pops into my mind for reasons unexplained occurred even earlier, in primary school in a northern NSW town. I was nine or 10 and I made a great fuss when I found that a boy in my class had stolen my lunch from my bag, from which day my mother packed a lunch for him as well. We were never friends but from time to time I wonder how he got on in life. I’m puzzled that I think of him at all. The early lesson was to look behind the crime, although it was not a lesson well learnt. I might even, in rare moments, regret my physical response to thieves I’ve apprehended.

Even in my uncommon acts of kindness I find regrets that recur when they should have been long forgotten. Take the night 35 years ago I raced into the carpark here at the Herald when I was told someone was breaking into my old Austin A40 to find a 50-year-old tramp asleep in the back of it. The tailgate was unlocked, he told me, and he’d needed somewhere to sleep and he thought the owner of such an old car wouldn’t mind. So he stayed curled up in the back and at about midnight I took him with me to my digs at Merewether, a house I shared with the entertainer Su Cruickshank, and set him up for the night on the lounge. As flexible a soul as she was, Su was not thrilled the next morning.

I found him interesting – he’d been living on the street since a family break-up a few years earlier, wandering in both directions between Brisbane and Sydney, and he seemed a decent sort of fellow. Well, decent until I found my prized watch was missing from my bedside table. So despite his protests I searched him, thoroughly because I was convinced he had it, and when I didn’t find it I drove him into the city and saw him off less generously than I would have. A year later when I left the house I found the watch under the mattress, where I’d hidden it in case the tramp tried to steal it.

Am I heading for an old age haunted by regrets?

Do you have moments of regret that haunt you? When could you have been just a little kinder?

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