Father, father, where are you going
O do not walk so fast.
Speak father, speak to your little boy
or else I shall be lost,
the night was dark no father was there
the child was wet with dew.
The mire was deep, & the child did weep
and away the vapour flew.
– William Blake, 1789
On the terrace of the smallest bar, in the buzziest street of the little student town, John took his seat. He placed the small wooden box he had just collected in the middle of the table and greeted the waiter kindly, requesting his usual glass of red. The mundane midday crowd, he thought as he watched the passers-by. Students and sun-screened tourists scurried along, cars and delivery bikes like flies came and went. And then, of course, the vagrants. Always the fucking vagrants.
His bout of irritation was interrupted by the waiter’s words: “Here you go.” John thanked him. Once the waiter was out of sight, he placed his index finger and thumb on either side of the stem and twirled the glass slightly over the wooden surface of the table, creating tiny crimson ripples in the body of the wine. This simple act and accompanying thought were only a few of the many private pleasures that John afforded himself. He tilted the glass in the direction of the box and then lifted it to his mouth. As the wine touched his lips, he heard the voice of a boy:
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where my parents are?”
John would never allow anything to interrupt his sacred ritual, especially not today. Thus he continued to take the first sip anyway before responding: “Fuck if I know,” before having a proper look at the child. Lo and behold, he thought, it is not a beggar after all. The boy could not have been more than ten years old. An umber mop grazed the straps of the backpack on his shoulders and in his hand he held a half-eaten Tinkie. His eyes seemed awfully trusting for a boy that was seemingly lost, even if it was in the better part of town. He reminded John of the skinny kid whose name he had long since forgotten – Timmy or Tommy – who lived next door to them during the time his father’s diplomatic duties anchored them in France.
“Where do you live?” he asked the boy.
“I don’t know where my home is.”
“So, you’re like a bird, then?”
“No, sir, I am a boy,” the child, with a stern frown across his brow, replied. “Where do you live?”
“Not too far from here,” came the fair answer. The loft apartment he was renting for his current stint in town was, in fact, merely three blocks away, near the rumble of the town’s distractions. Not that he spent a lot of time there – he found the families around him loud and inconsiderate, letting their children bawl and screech unceasingly. And the view of the mountain too vividly recalled the only memory he had of his grandfather. The day they were to leave the country for good, the old man simply kept on gazing out the window at the ridges in the distance, as if unaware that his daughter and only grandchild were about to embark on a meandering journey of discovery of the great abroad.
John took another sip of wine; the boy another bite of his snack while looking up, and then down the street. He did not seem bewildered by the continuous flux of faces and cars, but rather intrigued. After a few moments of silent observation, he asked John if his house was big. All grown-ups, after all, lived in big houses. Not quite the same size of the one they lived in in Argentina, John wanted to say, but quickly saw the meaninglessness of the elaboration. Yet, he had to think it. His current apartment, with all the luxury the estate agent attached to it, could not quite compare with the spacious rooms and bosky garden that once harboured his childhood secrets for almost two years in a time when he was not much older than the boy standing in front of him.
“Well, it’s not so much a house as an apartment,” John explained. “But it’s still pretty big, especially for a place in this part of town. The apartments were built long ago, you see, in a different time when we looked at space in other ways than we do today. But that doesn’t mean much to you, does it?” he added, noticing the boy’s attention wandering. Before he could ask him about the house he lived in, the waiter reappeared next to him: “I see you have a guest,” he said smiling at the boy. “Shall I bring the young gentleman a drink? A juice, maybe?”
“Of course,” John said, before addressing the boy: “What’s your name?”
“Would you like a drink, Benjamin?”
“What kind of drink would you like?”
“A Coke float, please.” Before John could respond, the waiter assured Ben that his order was on its way.
“Make that two,” John, spurred on by an unusual impulsiveness, added just before the waiter disappeared into the quiet shadows of the bar. In the few seconds, after the words left his lips, his brain tried to place the last time he had this particular beverage. Although he was unable to recall the specific time, faint memories of his parents sitting across from him at a restaurant table flashed through his mind. Were they laughing or simply discussing some or other matter? John couldn’t say. He often found it hard to remember the image of his father other than that of him in the intensive care unit of St Thomas’ Hospital shortly before he and his mother had to return to what they considered their homeland.
“What about this establishment? Do you think it is big?” John asked, gesturing behind him to the two windows framing the single entrance to the bar.
Benjamin considered the façade. He squinted as he focused on the dark doorway. “Yes, it is big. My parents would like it very much,” came the assured verdict.
John suddenly became aware of the absurdity of the situation. Instead of eagerly trying to help the boy locate his parents, he was ordering him a Coke float and discussing fucking architecture. He had always known that he wasn’t meant to be a parent – a journey he believed doomed for all who embarked on it. But even he suspected that this was not the way to go about helping the child.
“Did you lose them somewhere in the streets? Your parents. Or perhaps in one of the boutiques?” he asked. “They can’t be too far.”
“They are at work,” the boy responded.
“Do you know where they work?”
“They work on computers.” Fair enough, the boy did not strike John as the son of a plumber. But he kept his thoughts to himself.
Instead, he asked: “Won’t they be upset that you’re lost?”
“Here you go, gentlemen,” the waiter’s voice interrupted. He placed two beverage spoons and two milkshake glasses, foaming to the brim from the dollop of ice cream surrounded by a frenzy of fizzling bubbles, on the table between them.
John thanked him and invited Benjamin to help himself. “A soldier always fights better on a full stomach,” he quoted from a movie his mother used to love and took a gulp of his wine. The boy stepped closer, picked up the spoon nearest to him and dug in. John contemplated the boy while the waiter stood in the doorway, doing the same.
“In my country, we also eat this,” he said to John. Without saying a word, John gently pushed the untouched milkshake glass in front of him closer to the edge of the table.
“Please, take a trip down memory lane. I don’t know why I ordered an extra one; I am certainly not going to have it.” The waiter hesitated, unaccustomed to clients offering their orders to him. Then again, he knew John was not a regular regular.
“Please, I insist,” John reassured him. The waiter picked up the spoon and scooped up some of the ice cream, brought it to his mouth and took the first bite.
Benjamin’s remaining ice cream was already turning the contents of the glass, of which he took a long sip, a cloudy colour. He placed the glass back on the table and asked the waiter where he was from, the latter’s earlier comment clearly not lost on him. But before he could receive an answer, while the waiter was cleaning the ice cream of his own spoon through pursed lips, a female voice burst through the buzz of the surroundings. John could not make out what she was saying, or if she was in fact saying anything at all, as he watched her trying to jog in their direction with an arm waving in the air and sweat glistening on her forehead.
“Please, I am very sorry,” she panted upon reaching the strange trio, placing one hand on the table for support and wiping her face with the back of the other. “He always goes in his own directions,” she tried to explain.
“He was no bother,” John said. “We were trying to figure out where his parents might be.”
“I was lost,” the boy added matter-of-factly. “I could not see you anymore.”
“Come, we have to go now. Your parents will be home soon,” the lady said. Without waiting for a response, her hand firmly enveloped the boy’s wrist as she started to pull him away in the direction she had come from. “Sorry about this,” she mumbled over her shoulder as they started moving away.
“Bye, Benjamin,” John said before they were out of earshot. The boy looked back and waved his free hand in the sky. A few steps further they disappeared around the corner.
“That one looks strict!” the waiter laughed and picked up the glass Benjamin had left behind, neatly slotting it between his fingers next to the empty glass already wedged there. “To be so carefree and trusting!”
“Yes, those were more familiar times,” John said absentmindedly, his gaze still fixed on the corner where moments ago the little lost boy was seen heading home.
“Shall I get you another?” the waiter asked.
“No, thank you, Moses,” John replied. He drained the remaining wine and placed a note on the table. “We have to get home.” He got up, took the wooden box carefully in both hands and, as usual, dissolved amongst the bodies coming from the places they’d been, on their way to the places they were meant to be.
Feature image by Cristina Kirstein