I once knew a man of means, who lost it. It wasn’t sudden. I witnessed him diminish over many years.

I ran behind, so he always got to spend at least 20 minutes with my receptionists chatting. You know, the weather, rising petrol prices and the like. He liked women. He felt better by the time he got to my consulting room. Which was a relief. Even then I had to work to keep my heart un-sunk, so to speak.

He sort of slouched, a great mass of humanity. It felt bad but I had little to offer.

It wasn’t so much him, as the relentlessness of his losses. He lost his business, his family, his home, and finally his mind. In the end, after many years of takeaways he was left with only his car. So he slept in it.

At that point, I did wonder about who was out there to help. It was a fleeting thought. After all, I wasn’t inviting him to stay on my floor; I wasn’t taking the shirt off my back. Of course, I was somewhat protected, being a doctor and all. My only obligation was during the appointments, which were frequent and onerous. Outside of that I was free to go about my business, and if he was sleeping in his car … well, whose business was that? Not mine. Some social service, I suppose.

Well soon he parked his car outside the medical centre and slept there. He started planting silverbeet along the edges of our sandpit. And he struck up a friendship with our elderly neighbour, who lent him garden tools. It was a mutually satisfactory arrangement as she was in need of friendship, but not a gardener. She didn’t go so far as to invite him in. So he stayed where he was, in our parking lot.

(Many years later my receptionist confessed she had once given him $10 for a cup of tea.)

Still, it was disconcerting. Him being there and all. Especially after hours.

Mind you, he was clean, taking advantage of the garden sprinklers on timer, and friendly. We were in a nice part of town. The other patients responded to his greetings, but seemed unsure what to make of him. He was at a disadvantage because at that time silverbeet was a somewhat unfashionable vegetable. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. And we could hardly ask him to leave, park elsewhere. So we let him in to use the loo at his convenience.

Despite the conveniences he still slouched miserably and I was getting somewhat low on energy myself.

So I told him I was sorry.

Sorry about his mother, who had died when he was born. Sorry about his father, who had lived on, drunk. Sorry about the violations and the voices.

Sorry about the pain of his gout. Sorry there was nothing I could give him for it due to his allergies and dyspepsia.

And sorry about the bill. He was, after all, no longer a man of means. He said he was happy to pay. Things were looking up.

I had come across him, leaving, at the end of a long day. He was bent over a small patch of dirt between the ‘doctor only’ car park and the fence that hid the crushed cartons, medicinal waste and empty oxygen cylinders. He was planting a row of brussel sprouts. A great autumn crop, he said, catching my eye.

He sent me home with a bundle of silverbeet. Actually, it was rather good.

– Lucy O’Hagan

General Practitioner and Medical Educator