I Am Very Well, Thank You
I came to know David through my association with my local scout group. David, in his capacity of group leader, had placed a notice in the local paper inviting boys to become scouts. Having a seven year old son just itching to join something, and two younger sons eager to follow, I was immediately on the phone.
My first meeting with David was when I attended a parent’s meeting. There we were, all crowded into the scout den overflowing with
all sorts of scout gear, as this tall, chain smoking, pot- bellied man clad in kaki shorts, explained in a very polished English accent, his ambitions for the scout group. Being an avid none smoker, and an asthmatic to boot, I was not impressed. Later I became cognisant of the reason for David’s chain smoking. When it came to addressing parents he would have much preferred to man a gunboat anytime.
But he was an excellent leader of men and boys. So good in fact that the Qld scout association offered him a position in “Branch” and so, although he would always have a personal interest in the group’s activities, his actions would in future influence us from a distance.
Although over the years I become highly involved in the scout group, both as committee member and as a parent. I only heard David’s name mentioned in dispatches. I would, on rare occasions, see him in the local shopping centre where he would inquire as to my children’s welfare.
That was until the day a Cub Scout leader, Debbie, received a Volunteer Award at government house. She invited me and several friends to attend her celebration lunch and arranged for David to pick me up. On arriving at my house he alighted from his Holden and, reminiscent of a chauffeur, waited at the passenger side ready to open the door on my arrival. Farewelling my husband and children I dashed off, highly delighted by the unaccustomed chivalry, and accordingly sat beside him at the luncheon.
Making small talk, and hoping to impress him with my story of three weeks aboard the P.O. Canberra, I made the mistake of inquiring as to whether he had “ever been on board a
“Nothing quite as impressive as the Canberra”, he assured me in his refined English accent.
He then went on to tell me of his exploits in some remote part of the world, manning a gunboat as a gorilla soldier. I had visions of Humphrey Bogart aboard the old River Queen until I realized he was quite serious. He must have sensed my disapproval because he consequently commented that it was preferable to serving in Vietnam where he was required to shoot innocent people ‘for no valid reason.’
With no-one wishing to argue the virtues of the Vietnam War the conversation quickly turned to less controversial subjects and it soon became apparent David possessed a very shrewd sense of humour which took me quite by surprise. His recollections of his stint in the army when he was stationed in Darwin and took a bit of a tumble off a motor bike were most amusing. His friends couldn’t inquire about him whilst he was in the hospital as only relatives were ever given any information. But it appeared that he found a way to obtain all information he wanted regarding his mates, or anyone else for that matter.
At this stage he paused and drew long on a cigarette, making us wait in anticipation of what other devious activity he might have been involved in. He would, he said, telephone the hospital and inquire of a mate. After being given the usual negative response he would ask ever so politely: “Would you please be so kind as to tell him Father David called”
Sometimes there would an “Oh my God, it’s a priest” but always there was an immediate apology followed by all the information he required. He then had the effrontery to say “Bless you my child”
“It worked every time” he assured us. Debbie, who had obviously heard all this before, delighted in our obvious incredulity at his audacity.
But David could also be incredibly naïve too. When the conversation turned to sleeping habits, he inquired if I was one of those people who always fell asleep the minute they put their head on the pillow. “That just depends” I grinned “On what? He innocently asked. Maybe it was the wine but I just about fell about laughing and although the two ladies sitting opposite shared the joke, David remained completely baffled as to the reason for my laughter.
I arrived home having had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.
I didn’t see or hear much of David again for years after until Debbie rang to tell me David had cancer and the prognosis wasn’t good. She was trying to organize a support group for him. “Maybe half a dozen people who will ring and maybe visit him occasionally.” He had never married and had no family. It was David himself, she informed me, who had suggested she ask me. Me? I wasn’t even a special friend. I didn’t have any special qualifications. I really didn’t see how I could help. Truth was I really didn’t want to be involved. She suggested I might like to visit him in the local hospital.
Well, I supposed, I could at least visit him once in hospital. When I arrived he was fully dressed and sitting in a chair reading some book on foreign policies, or something equivalent. Seeing me he immediately jumped up, put the book down and insisted I take the chair.
“How are you?’ was all I could think of to say.
“As a matter of fact” he said, with an air of authority. “I’m very well, thank you.” In deed he looked well. .Surprisingly he looked little older then when I had last seen him yet I knew he must be in his late forties. Was Debbie being over dramatic? He had lost weight and he looked all the better for it. His brown hair, still without a single grey hair, looked thicker and more lustrous then I remembered. The new creases around his eyes only seemed to enhance his smile. Losing weight had certainly made a big difference.
We chatted about my boys, who were now grown young men, the scouts and the weather. I left promising to call on him again some time. He thanked me politely, leaving me feeling somewhat ashamed that I had only come to quash my guilt.
I rang him occasionally at home and inquired of his health to which he would always reply “I am very well, thank you”.
Some weeks later I happened to be driving pass his street and on impulse turned in. Stopping in front of his house, I hesitated. Too late, he had seen my car and was standing on the balcony of his modest chamfer board house directing me where to park.
He ushered me inside to a seat beside his kitchen table which was covered with colourful maps and brochures. “I’m planning to visit England.” he explained. He told me how before becoming ill he had planned to take his long service leave from the engineering company where he worked and visit England where he had lived as a boy before migrating to Australia. “I have relatives there I don’t remember. I’m feeling quite well now so I have decided to ahead with my plans”
I thought it sounded like a great idea. I told him he did in deed look well. After browsing over the colourful brochures with him, he took me on a tour of his garden whilst telling me how he began dieting some months ago and had lost weight. But when he stopped dieting he had continued to lose weight. But, he said enthusiastically, he had put some back on again. ‘And,’ he informed me,” you’ll be pleased to know I’ve given up smoking.”
I may have blushed as I hadn’t realized he was aware of my feelings regarding smoking.
I was quite surprised by how conversant he was with plants. Being a non gardener myself, I applauded him on his knowledge. When it came time to for me to leave, he once again thanked me most politely for coming. I promised to ring him soon.
Once home demands of husband and family took over and a whole two weeks passed before I realized I hadn’t rang.
“I am very well, thank you”
I heaved a sigh of relief as I relinquished my sense of guilt.” That’s great news. Have you booked your ticket? When are you leaving?”
‘I’m afraid there’s has been a slight delay in my plans, nothing major.” He assured me “I just need to have some more tests done first”
The next day I hurriedly did my errands but instead of going home headed to David’s house instead.
I immediately noticed his stomach was slightly swollen and his skin had taken on a slight yellow tinge. The cheerful brochures featuring Big Ben and red double Decker buses were gone.
“I’ve decided to go and live in
Maleny with some friends” he explained. “We’ll plant vegetables and such. Live of the land. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do” I agreed
Maleny in the Hinterland of South East Qld was a lovely part of the world to live.
Then he invited me to stay for lunch. ‘It won’t be anything fancy” he grinned. I accepted. And it wasn’t. We sat on the balcony on two of Kmart’s plastic chairs just as it began to rain, each with a cheese sandwich the size of a brick and a mug of milky tea to wash it down.
“I love a rainy day”, David mused,
“Gives everything such a splendid new look. Look there’s a rainbow” he indicated in the distance where all the colours had arched across the grey sky. Then he sat back taking in the view as if on the deck of some luxury yacht, and bit into the fresh chunky bread. We must have sat for a half an hour, him inquiring about my boys and me happy to share my pride. I couldn’t remember when a cheese sandwich had tasted so good.
I arrived home an hour later then I had planned.
“You’re back”, was my husband’s response to my arrival. “You’ve been a long time. I’ve been busy while you’ve been out. I would have to mowed the lawn but for the rotten weather. Why does it have to rain every time I want to do something? I hate this kind of weather.”
Each week I rang David and each time I received the same response. “I’m very well, thank you”
About a month later I was on my way home from visiting my sister when I decided to call on David again. His once thick brown hair had now thinned out to mere wisps, devoid of any sign of life. His stomach protruded even further, made more noticeable by his emaciated legs. I couldn’t help but notice the packets of drugs multiplying on the small table beside his lounge chair.
But the kitchen table once again displayed brochures, this time of 4 wheel drives. “I’ve decided not to go to
Maleny after all” he informed me. “I’m going to get myself a 4 wheel drive and ride into the bush beside the house.” There was a huge bush area adjacent to David’s house where trail bikes were often ridden. “The hospital reports are not what I was hoping for” his tone of voice signifying his disappointment. “So I have decided that I might as well be an idiot on one of these” He gave a sigh of acquiescence. Then he grinned. “I did consider a motor bike but I’ve already done that one”
But I assured him I thought a 4 wheel drive sounded like a lot of fun. We sat talking about worldly events. Or rather he did. When he got onto world politics I was quite relieved when a neighbour called in giving me the excuse to leave.
A week later, I rang David and of course received the usual reply. I decided enough was enough. “Yes I know, but how are you really?” I demanded to know. “And I want a proper answer” He told me things were not good. The doctors have all been wonderful but there was nothing more they could do. I immediately went round to see him.
His stomach had swollen to that of a nine month pregnant women. There was very little of that lovely brown hair left. He cracked jokes about him now having an excuse to buy new clothes.
“I want to show you something” he said. I followed him to a spare bedroom where he had laid out about a dozen service medals on the bed. “What would you think if I were to have some of these medals on my coffin? Would it be too pretentious of me?
It was a serious question and asked without any sign of morbidity. He could have, to all intents and prepossess, been asking my opinion as to what colour to paint the room. But I felt like he’s just punched me in the stomach. This was the first time he had actually vocalized his impending death and I was totally unprepared.
Mustering my self together as quickly as I could, I asked why only some of the medals. “I’m not very proud of some of them. He sighed “That’s why I became a scout leader. I wanted to try to make up for some of the things I’ve done which I’m not proud off. I hope I succeeded”
My thoughts went back to the day of the luncheon many years ago, and to Vietnam.
He then went on to tell me of the agreements he had made for his funeral. He had drawn up a list of things to do. The minister was coming that afternoon to talk over the final arrangements. He had already chosen a favourite hymn. And hopefully” he grinned, perhaps only half jokingly “Somebody will have a least a few nice words to say about me” Debbie had been a wonderful friend, he said, and as she was going to take care of things at the end he wanted to make it as easy as possible for her. I tried to converse casually, as if we were once again talking about his holiday plans. My throat became parched dry.
He then put the kettle on. Whilst we sipped tea he went on tell me of some of his other exploits overseas: He was with another gorilla group in some distant country when they ran out of ammunition. The enemy was only metres away hiding in a trench.
Desperate to chase the enemy away they conceived an ingenious plan. Every man was directed to use any suitable vessel he could locate and fill it with his own excrement.
“There were men everywhere doing their very best to oblige” he chuckled. The containers were then left out in the sun until nightfall while their contents putrefied and occasionally received a top up. When darkness came the men crept upon the unsuspecting enemy, spilling the contents over them. “Turds flew everywhere” David laughed. The enemy never fought back and he proposed they too had also run out of ammunition and were equally glad to get away.
Whether this story was really true I’ll never be absolutely sure, but knowing the gentleman he always was I’m inclined to think it was. I think David was much too gracious to have spoken on such a topic unless it was true. But either way, I went home realizing I had not laughed so much in a long time. But this was one story too bizarre to repeat.
A week later I again visited David. It was evident to anyone that he was a very sick man yet I found him in a state of enthusiasm. The 4 wheel drive was now out of the question he admitted. He had now decided he would give a dog a new home. Not just any dog but an old dog. “Nobody wants an old dog but a puppy would out live me. So I’ve applied to the RSPCA to take one whose owner has died. I’ve never had a dog before.”
He never did get the dog. A short time later, David requested to be admitted to
hospital. He continued to receive phone calls and as usual gave me the same reply. “I’m very well thank you”
I advised my eldest son who was the only one who remembered David’s days at the scout den, that if he wanted to see David before it was too late then he had better go soon. I also told him to be prepared for a shock.
We arrived at the hospital to find Debbie there too. My son managed to hide any feeling of shock he might have felt at seeing his old scout leader who now wore a beanie instead of a scout hat and had very little resemblance to the robust man he remembered. As usual David joked as if he were there for nothing more then an appendix operation.
Turning to Debbie, he said, “I want you to give my golf clubs to Andrew.”
“Andrew” he announced “I bought those golf clubs many years ago and never got around to using them. Work always got in the way. Now I’m giving them to you. Don’t do what I did.”
Soon after that David was transferred to a palliative care hospital. I went to visit him knowing it would be the last time I would see him. “David, I always wanted to ask you something.
Why did you want me on your support team?”
“I’ve watched you from a distance since I first meet you in the scout den at that parents’ meeting. You cared about people. I knew you would care about me”
“I’m very tired now” he sighed “I need to sleep”
“Close your eyes” I told him “Listen to the rain falling? There’s a beautiful rainbow in the sky and all the colours are stretched across the sky. Can you see them? Can you hear the rain?
David died the next day, and my heart broke.
David’s funeral took place at Mt Cotton on the out skirts of Brisbane, shortly before David’s 50th birthday. The chapel was filled to capacity. When the minister asked, “Is there anyone here who remembers David from his scouting days”
I along with a two hundred others arose from my seat and clapped.
Norman Rockwell - A Scout is Helpful
Buy at AllPosters.com
the first to review this article - click here.