Hemi’s father died when Hemi was just 18 months old, and though it happened at an age before any conscious memories had developed, I don’t think Hemi ever really recovered. This event seemed to define him and set him apart from other kids, even from his own siblings, whom had experienced the same loss, though at an older age. Loneliness surrounded him, and in the absence of friendships, it filled a void, by giving him an identity: I am Hemi, I am the lonely one.
By the time Hemi reached school age, his loneliness had progressed to a point that it had shut down his cognitive functioning. He got placed in a remedial class for both maths and reading. Hemi later developed a story, that he had suffered brain damage as a baby from falling out of his cot and hitting his head on the concrete floor. This was his cover; it served as both an alibi and a coping mechanism, but I knew the truth – that it was his loneliness that stopped him from learning. As he saw his peers grow into understandings of the world and confidence, while he himself stagnated, he acquired a root of bitterness and a distrust of formal education that bordered on the paranoid. Later in life he got married, and gave birth to a daughter who was a child genius, and how it hurt him, looking at her success. He told her constantly as she grew up that she was no good, that she would never amount to anything. I’m not sure if he ever really realised that the things he was saying were a reflection of how he felt about himself.
He left school and got a job working in a flour mill, packing off sacks of flour. It was basic work, in austere conditions. Hemi would often tell me stories of when the belts got tangled inside the machines, and how the factory foreman would not let them turn the machines off to fix the problem. Hemi had come close to losing his arm and his fingers to the rotating blades of the machines on several occasions. Despite the conditions, Hemi was good at his job; he was a worker bee personality type, and eventually he was given increased levels of responsibility.
A few years into his working life, Hemi’s brother set him up on a blind date. He met Margaret and didn’t really like her, but she was similarly afflicted with loneliness, so they got married. Three weeks before the wedding they confirmed their union with intercourse, and it was such an awful experience they decided to never do it again. Nine months and two weeks later their child was born, at 12.34am at the local maternity ward. It was a full moon that night.
Hemi was a tall, thin, willowy man, but he wore his frame uncomfortably. His shoulders were always hunched forward, and his eyes, a sallow grey colour, seemed to recede into his skull, as though trying to escape the daylight. The combined effect of these features served to render him diminutive.
In contrast, Hemi’s daughter, though an extremely small and chubby baby, was radiant. Her face, though not especially beautiful, sparkled with joy. She was easy to care for – she never cried unless the light was turned off in her room, and she slept for hours soundly, her slumber uninterrupted, even during the great earthquake of ’87. Margaret would often get up in the middle of the night, just to check on the girl and make sure she was still alive. There must be something wrong with her, she would say to Hemi every morning at breakfast; it’s unnatural for a baby to be so silent and peaceful, yet withdrawn at the same time. “Hmmm,” Hemi would say, turning the page of the newspaper and shovelling another forkful of eggs into his mouth. Hemi could barely read but he liked holding the pages up in front of his face as a barricade between him and his wife. It comforted him in a way that only a very few things could.
One winter’s evening when Charlotte, his daughter, was four, Hemi ventured out into the light snowfall to go to the corner dairy and buy some milk. He didn’t return until early one morning four months later, when he reappeared as furtively and silently as he had slipped out, eyes wild and face overgrown with thick, coarse stubble. Charlotte woke up on this particular morning to the sound of her parents fighting in the next room. She pressed her ear against the rose-patterned wallpaper and heard the sounds of china smashing. Hemi was yelling something about how noone understands him, and how he had been in the woods “fighting the devil”. Charlotte had no idea what this meant. The next thing Charlotte remembered was watching her mother pack two suitcases, putting them on the veranda and then phoning a taxi. The three of them sat in interminable silence until the taxi pulled up, and then Charlotte and Margaret got into the taxi and drove to a strange part of town. That was the last time Hemi saw them.
Charlotte wrote to Hemi once a week for 12 years. She told him all about her new home, and school, and the friends she was making, and sports she was playing. She told him about her birthdays and Christmases, and wrote about current affairs and the things she was learning in school. Hemi read all her letters but he never responded. Then one day the letters stopped coming. After years of writing to the father who she didn’t understand, but loved anyway, and after the ensuing pain of checking the mailbox several times a day just in case Hemi had written back, Charlotte’s childhood optimism had been broken, like a reed snapped in two.
Hemi was finally alone in the world, but it didn’t give him the satisfaction he had thought it would. Charlotte’s presence in his life had been a tenderness that pierced through the hard protective shell of Hemi’s heart, into the fallow muscle. It was a tenderness that cut cleanly, and now that this thread of relationship had been rescinded, Hemi felt disembowelled and defeated, like a lion carcass baking on the desert floor and being attacked by flies.
Michelle is enjoying writing fiction at the moment, and exploring the darker side of life. This piece is dedicated to anyone out there who finds themselves “addicted to loneliness” or experiencing the isolation of mental illness.