I learned recently that one of my oldest friends has passed from our world.
In my childhood the bus that did a lap of our suburb and took us to primary school was known as “The Chugabomb”, and even by the vintage standards of the late 1960’s it was ancient, and slow. The Chugabomb predated flashing indicator lights, it even predated brake lights! Instead the driver operated a mechanical hand which could point it’s fingers skyward to show that the bus was slowing to a stop (as against just slowing, which was it’s habitual condition), or the fingers could point to the right to indicate an imminent right turn. Left turns were benign affairs in the olden days that offended no one and required no warning. The hand’s brass operating mechanism was intricately made, worn bright from endless use, and I can still hear the clatter it made as it rattled in and out, deftly flicking it’s fingers one way or the other.
On The Chugabomb there was often a boy a few years older than I, who was as different to me as the bus was to other busses. Stephen – although his name was not known to me for several more years – was a very short fellow with an unusual face, a broad smile, and an even more unusual voice. Stephen was disabled, although to my lasting shame there were other words that schoolboys chose for him. During my childhood residential homes for children with disabilities were still entirely normal, and so there were far fewer boys like Stephen out and about. We (why do I say we? Do I need supporters for what I will say next?) we were afraid of Stephen and his startling voice. The smile which I would later recognise as warm and bright was to us (us! I’m still claiming popular opinion here, without any basis whatever) just part of his rather different face. In our curiosity and fear we stared. Well, I know I did.
Years later when I became an active part of our Church’s youth I began to meet Stephen at all sorts of Christian events. Wherever I went, it seemed, so did he. By then I had begun to grow into my adult height of 6’7”, and Stephen was not much more than half that. He would stand frighteningly close to me, poke me in the stomach with a short finger and ask, “And how has it been going with you?” His words always started at a very high pitch, and cascaded downwards with each poke of his stubby finger. I can hear it now as clearly as I remember the Chugabomb’s clattering hand.
When I left home for University we began to correspond. For the next 40 years and more we exchanged a letter every few weeks, and through all those years there has usually been a letter from Stephen lying open on my desk, waiting for my reply. My letters were rather longer than Stephen’s. I shared the evolving story of my working life, and later on my growing family in our various homes. In contrast Stephen’s letters were a model of brevity, indeed they were virtually identical. Every letter I have ever received has been on a lined page, torn in half horizontally, and in a child like script they read:
Small variations on this theme occurred: a different job at work, or a different book in the Bible. But that was all, every one of several hundred letters was much the same. After many years I wrote to his mother at his address; it was quite speculative: not actually knowing if he had family, only that I had been writing to him at one address for so many years. Her reply was astonishing; she told me that Stephen had a deep and abiding interest in the history of Sydney, and had read every book on the subject that the Public Library could provide; she also said that he had a wide knowledge of the classical cannon of music. I have never heard any mention of these things from Stephen himself.
On one very particular day, about thirty years into our correspondence, I received a dramatically different letter from Stephen; one with perfect pitch and astonishing spiritual vision. It ran like this:
Dear Rod Allen,
How has it been going with you?
From my window where I live I can see the Opera House, and Luna Park, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Yours in Christ
I opened Stephen’s signal letter on May 20th, 2009; the day I returned from an appointment with a Neurologist who told me that my slowing walk was probably caused by Motor Neurone Disease. That’s a challenging day. While the doctor had offered his diagnosis, Stephen’s words could not have been more starkly different, or more prescient and true. Just as he had written, I was suddenly staring at a very different view, but one that would prove to be, over time, so very good. It was pure, life-giving prophecy. There were so many thoughts and emotions on that day, but it is Stephen’s written words that I remember most clearly. I came to understand them more as the months past, but on that dark day they were a ray of immediate hope.
Stephen broke with tradition last year and rang me up, twice. The high pitched, falling cadence: “And how has it been going with you?” was immediately recognisable after so many years. Then a few months ago I found myself in Sydney with a little time to spare, and so I sought out my oldest friend. I knew his voice was unchanged, but how would we look to each other after 40 years? But I was too late, my old friend had gone. I was not entirely surprised: two of my letters had arrived back, “Return to Sender”. Deep inside I had a sense which I dared not give words to of where my search for Stephen would end. The first person I spoke with at Stephen’s aged care home was new, and had never met Stephen. But she found someone who knew him, and I was taken to meet Stephen’s mother, now in her late 90s. Sadly she was no longer very present, but I was glad to have met her at last.
I went from there on a long uphill push, in the rain, to find Stephen’s beloved church, St. Thomas in North Sydney. There I found one of the pastors who had conducted the funeral service for Stephen some months earlier, and who knew him well. It was a delight to talk with good humour and in depth about my dear friend.
Stephen, perhaps my oldest friend, was a friend like no other. He said less to me, and yet so much more, than any one else. Beyond Stephen’s two talking points, and a letter from his mother, I knew nothing of the details of his life; and yet in one brief, handwritten note on a torn piece of lined paper this unheralded prophet somehow perceived and described my life. The world is full of wonder.
I’d be glad to hear from you: