Stranger in paradise wakens private fears

John Lapsley
Until this moment, it had been just another day in paradise, writes John Lapsley.

Enjoying a Queensland winter break, I swam in the Coral Sea before breakfast, golfed at the curiously named Yorkey’s Knob, then dined Italian by the beach.

It was approaching 11pm and couples no longer strolled the Palm Cove promenade. We’d closed the

holiday apartment’s balcony doors, but could hear the soft lapping of the waves. The Duchess sat opposite reading.I had a drink in my hand and my mind in a book, when I heard her gasp. I looked up. She was staring wide-eyed at the space behind me, gesturing. My head snapped around.

An intruder had stepped into the room.

The man stood eyeing us, wordless. He was barefoot, an older but fit looking type, wearing a white T shirt, and tight black shorts. I first felt a wave of shock, then rage at myself for having been so "small town" dumb, as to neglect to lock the front door.

God knows what this stupidity might now mean. I climbed from the chair, one half of my male genes thinking "Hell, I’ve got to deal with this bloke," the other reminding me I hadn’t been in a fight since my 20s. The intruder saved me from decisions.

"I’m lost," he said.

"I don’t know where I am."

Huh? I looked at the Duchess. Was the stranger harmless, or some nutter who might suddenly flip into a mad frenzy? He stood silent a few more moments, then he began to babble.

"I have friends. I think there’s a lady manager. Hang on, that’s not here, that’s in ... what I mean is ..."

He looked at his feet, shame-faced, then blurted a self-aware sanity that began to remove our fears.

"I’m sorry, I’m making a hash of this," he muttered.

"I must make no sense."

"Could I have a drink of water?" he pleaded.

Warily, we poured him a glass. Then he asked to use the bathroom. I wanted him where I could see him, and to my relief he didn’t try to close the toilet door as sighing, he drained himself. Actually, the man was quite short. He was grey-haired with a stubble beard, and he now looked older.

He came back into the living room, and we began trying to unravel his lostness.

"Do you know your name?"

"I’m Warren." 

(I won’t use his real name).

"Is your wife here with you?"

"I think so."

"What’s her name?"

He thought hard. "I can’t remember," he admitted.

Appalled at himself, he added: "This is so embarrassing."

"Have you been lost before?"

"I don’t think so."

We questioned him for clues to his identity, feeling like a Holmes and Watson double act.  I decided his clothes looked slept in. Maybe he’d got up to go to the bathroom, walked out the wrong door into a lobby, and become confused. I guided him downstairs to see if he recognised the building from outside. No dice. Next, I banged on every apartment door in the block, but only one was cautiously opened. 

There is no local police station, and I realised shamefully that part of me wanted to leave Warren and his dementia outside, until someone came searching for him. But I took him back upstairs, and we soldiered on, trying to find some clue to his identity.

"Can you remember how you got to Palm Cove?" I eventually asked.

"I think we came in a car. Yes, a red one."

I walked Warren down to the car park, and we got lucky. The only garage that was open housed a red car.

"That’s ours," he said excitedly.

But unfortunately the garage numbers differed from  the apartments. I tracked down the manager’s after-hours number, and after some confusion, he matched the garage with an apartment. Nobody answered my knocks, then my hammering, on its door. I tried the handle. It moved, and I burst into the unlit apartment, where an elderly woman stood in her nightgown. her eyes wide, her face frozen in fear.  Then she saw the man behind me, and her face collapsed.

"Warren, what are you doing out there?" she sobbed.

She hugged him, and he clung to her.

"What’s happened to you, dear?"

Back upstairs, I poured a drink, and sat with the Duchess.

"Turns out he’s 76, his wife’s called Sandra, and they’re Kiwis from the North," I told her.

"It’s the first time he’d gone walkabout.  I don’t think I’ve never seen a bloke so embarrassed with himself."

Dementia – dangerous, and also humiliating. We sat there, scared by our private thoughts.

- John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.


Good on you. Cool heads, no escalation and helping.

Short fused men go berserk in similar situations, because of 'territorial imperative'.

{Expression common to Kruger National Park}.