Peter from Copenhagen … a short story

The Brisbane River

When you’re flying over south-east Queensland and below you are the unmistakable, sinuous curves of the Brisbane River, you know you’re home. The river is why our city is here. Its waters carved the landscape out of ancient rock and laid down fertile flood plains.

It’s a highway and an obstacle to passage. Even in modern times, there are Brisbanites who rarely venture across the river to suburbs on the other side.

A source of food and water, transport, communication and recreation over millennia; life-giving, life-taking. The Brisbane River has many stories. This is one of them…. 

Before South Bank, before Expo 88, and after the ramshackle rows of warehouses were razed to the ground, a wide expanse of grass-covered the banks of the Brisbane River’s south reach, opposite the city – waiting for ministerial decisions on its future.

Along Stanley Street, the bordellos and bars had gone by the early eighties and small business ruled the roost – like the Brett’s Timber and Hardware office where I worked ….

One lunch hour, I escape the drudgery of keying data into a computer and take my sandwiches down to the river’s edge. Stunted trees offer little shade, but anywhere is good to escape an air-conditioned office.

A man stumbles along the grassy embankment towards me. He clutches an open bottle by its neck, the contents hidden in the paper bag; his hair is close-cropped and grey; his clothes crumpled and his face is blank.

There’s no escape route and I’m alone in the park. In the end I don’t run away – that’d be a cowardly thing to do. He’s only a harmless, old derelict.

He stands for a moment and focuses on me. I nod a greeting and look away, hoping to discourage him from coming closer.

The man weaves down to the riverbank and gazes across the water for several moments before dropping the bottle. He unbuttons his shirt, unzips his trousers, staggers and hops as a pants’ leg gets tangled in his shoe. He topples like a felled tree.

After a moment or two, the man sits up and shakes his head. He removes his shoes and socks, then tugs the trousers from around his ankles and pushes himself to his feet.

What is it with humans? The brain registers imminent disaster, the heart speeds up, but the body is frozen. As the man heads for the river’s edge, I say nothing. Not even a warning.

Nobody swims in the Brisbane River – not even by choice, not in that reach of its serpentine length. Wide, tidal, silent, a habitat for bull sharks – its strong flow evident by eddies swirling along the surface.

The man climbs down the barrier of large, jagged rocks and lower himself into the water. It’s cold, but he keeps going and pushes away from the edge. In seconds the river catches him. He tries to turn back, but it’s too late. The current pulls him out into deeper water. Only his head is visible as it bobs along in the current, like a tennis ball thrown in a flooded creek.

I run along the bank, trying to keep him in sight, but the river is faster than me.

Then he’s gone.

Later, a laid-back cop from the Gabba police station records a witness statement – I’m a perfect witness; every detail etched in my memory. I ask questions. With a grin he says, ‘Lots of derros go swimming in the river and don’t live to regret it’. I persist with my questions.

Who was the man? Why did he do it? The cop relents, or maybe he wants to get rid of a young female witness before she turns into a blubbering mess.

They retrieve his clothes from the grass. In his trouser pocket, they find fifty-five cents and a passport.

‘He’s a Peter something-or-other, can’t pronounce his name,  from Copenhagen,’ says the cop.

Peter from Copenhagen also owned a Commonwealth Bank passbook with the total of $12.54.

That’s all they know about him. That’s all they need to know.

Back at work, I get into trouble for taking a three-hour lunch break.

I say nothing. It doesn’t seem right to blame it on Peter from Copenhagen.

© Sheryl Gwyther 2011

(First published in Ripples & Reflections – an anthology about the Brisbane River ISBN 9781921555046)

The Kangaroo Point Cliffs reach of the Brisbane River - image courtesy of Radio FM88


8 thoughts on “Peter from Copenhagen … a short story

  1. It is amazing what our memories hold. How can someone’s being be reduced to so little when they live in the margins of life! A well written short story Sheryl that touches the heart.


  2. Sheryl, this is an amazing piece of writing. So beautiful in both its quiet observation and sharp detail. Really moving. I can see you as a young woman sitting there (it is you, yes? It reads so real, as a memory would). Capturing a life on paper you wont let be just forgotten x


  3. A simple, endearing story. A memory that has obviously stayed with you throughout the years. Peter from Copenhagen might have been in the midst of a lost life…cherished by no-one…mourned by no-one…distinguished only by a few dollars and his clothes left behind on the bank…and yet he lives on in the mind not only of the girl who last saw him, not only the woman who now writes and remembers, but in the mind’s eye of each of us who read his story and feel touched by his sad anonymity.
    RIP Peter from Copenhagen.


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