Gerard F. Kennedy Writer

short story / 2013

Pathétique

The day before yesterday someone stopped to say hello.  It was a shock, and completely unexpected.  It wasn’t that there was a shortage of people; quite the opposite.

The place where I spend my wakeful hours is part of a popular thoroughfare.  Being by the Thames adds to its attraction.

When I was gainfully employed I used to spend most of my evenings here; mainly in the concert hall listening to orchestras from around the world.  It is still a venue for the music lover.

My particular spot is special to me.  I chose it carefully, for its associations and for the bust of Nelson Mandela.  Each morning when I arrive I pause to read the inscription ‘The Struggle is My Life.’  I read it again in the evenings before I leave.  His words touch my soul even though I have long since given up ‘the struggle’.  I couldn’t take it.  I suppose to some this makes me a coward.  But I know that I am no such thing; my struggle is private and personal.  And it is my choice that I have stopped expecting anything.   I have realised; expecting too much twists the mind and hurts the heart.

This is why when she crouched down, it took me by surprise.  I had no idea how to respond.  My immediate response was an uncertain smile.  Instantly I began to feel sorry for the pretty face that had to tolerate my ugly visage.  Instinctively I held out my hand.  She caressed it warmly.  The contrast startled me.  I had forgotten completely the feel of soft, young almost perfect skin.  Grubby brown enveloped by innocent pink.

Her hand was the most beautiful thing I had seen in a very long time.  It reminded me of the translucency of the young Jesus’s hand in a painting that I’d seen in the Louvre.  The image of that single point of light will stay with me forever.  And it was the sight of her unblemished skin that had, in an instant, brought it all back.  It is highly unlikely that I will ever see the real thing again; the painting I mean.  If I remember correctly it was by Georges de la Tour and depicted Joseph bent over an auger.

She held my hand for a long time.  Her touch felt refreshing and reassuring.   It is almost impossible to put into words; words could be misconstrued.  If I were a poet I could portray a beautiful picture of the moonlight hugging still water or of snowflakes falling on ice.  Maybe even desert sand stretching to infinity under an orange tinted sky.  But I have a simple mind, not one given to metaphor.

I kept looking at her face.  Her beauty made me self-conscious.  Strangely I didn’t feel intimidated or frightened.  Despite my lack of response she appeared to be genuinely interested and concerned.  I became so transfixed that when she spoke I couldn’t hear her words.  I could only see her lips move.  At one point she smiled warmly.  I began to relax and to concentrate more on the music.  But I had become distracted; it took me a while to recognise what I was hearing.  It was familiar so I kept listening, hoping for a clue.  While I waited I began to hum.  Then I mentioned Tchaikovsky and her face beamed radiantly.  Her lips moved and she caressed the side of my face with her other hand.  It felt warm against my damp, rough skin. I leant into her caress desperate to intensify the feeling.  Then she whispered something and gently moved her hand away.  My skin tingled with the sense of her breath.  I was convinced that I could detect her sweet scent.  However I know l have lost my sense of smell.

I felt that she was about to leave.  I began to panic and reached out.  Her soft hand guided mine back to its resting place on my heart.

“Will you stay a while?”  I asked wistfully.  Her reply wasn’t a surprise; I already knew that she couldn’t.  But, sometimes, optimism tends to get the better of me.

Her lips moved.  I watched intently and read her words.  My puzzled expression made her repeat the question.  I felt too embarrassed to say anything.  Then she smiled and I sighed deeply.  I could feel tears welling up.   She touched my eyes and pressed my hand firmly.  With my eyes closed I couldn’t see her words anymore.  It forced me to listen attentively.  And the Tchaikovsky became quieter until there was only silence.

She began to move her hand; maybe believing that I was resting.  However even her slight movement alerted me to change.  When I opened my eyes she was still watching.  I felt relieved even though I knew it was time for her to go.  Despite my bleariness I could see the bright light in her eyes.  I tried to touch her face, but the distance was greater than I’d expected.  Nevertheless I held my hand up somewhere in front of her face.  It was then that she took it and placed it against her heart.  I attempted to resist not wishing to mark the pure white of her top.  But her strength easily overcame by feeble pull.

“Why are you wasting your time?”

She didn’t answer.  She closed her eyes and bowed her head.

“Please don’t upset yourself.  It isn’t your fault.  Now you should go; I am grateful.  Your compassion has comforted me.”

Slowly she raised her head.  The smile returned to her face. Her grip loosened.  Reluctantly I withdrew my hand.  There was a slight handprint.  But there was nothing I could do.  She looked down.  I followed her gaze; I couldn’t help my quiet laugh.  She asked me what was so amusing.

“It’s your Turin Shroud.”

It was obvious that she didn’t share my amusement.

She reached for her handbag on the pavement beside her.  I tried to adjust my position so that my back was supported by the wall.

I began to feel embarrassed.  Normally I am grateful for the coins that people drop into my cap; although I seldom get the opportunity to tell them.  Usually it is only their feet that I see.  And the money sometimes is enough to help me escape from my cardboard servitude.  But this was different.  Being so close to her beautiful complexion made the occasion much more personal.  I was about to say, “Please, you mustn’t.  You’ve done enough already.” But I hesitated.  She handed me a photograph.  I took it, expecting an explanation.  Instead she stood up and smoothed her skirt.  Her height created an uncomfortable distance.  She looked down at the handprint on her top; playfully she tried to fit her hand into it.  Her smile reassured me that she wasn’t annoyed.  Before she turned to leave she whispered something.  But I was too concerned about the sudden pull of loneliness to hear what it was.

I followed her progress towards the bridge.  Very quickly everything became blurred.  I fumbled for the piece of rag that I use as a handkerchief and dabbed my eyes.

Slowly the image in the photograph came into focus.  It was a sculpture, possibly in bronze.  A bust mounted on a stone plinth flanked by two angels.  One of them was standing behind the bust holding a tall cross.  The other was in front, seated on a large stone calmly reading from a book that she held in her hands.  Someone had left a single red rose across the angel’s arms.  I looked at the bust but the face was unfamiliar.  There was an inscription that I couldn’t make out.  I struggled to understand.

The sound of footsteps and coins provided a welcome distraction.  When I looked at my cap I was pleasantly surprised.  Carefully I propped the photograph against the wall.  As I turned to remove some of the coins the music began to play in my head.  It was then that I began to wonder about the photograph and the music.

Tchaikovsky’s music plays in my head constantly.  But it is his sixth symphony that provides the greatest comfort.  And people smile at me as they pass by.  Some of them look at me with a puzzled expression.  I can tell what they are thinking, ‘How can a tramp be so content?’  They probably wonder if they could swap places.  It is obvious from their expressions that some of them would like to.  However they wouldn’t survive for very long.  They are too attached to life’s shallow comforts.  Occasionally someone will stop to talk.  I know that they are desperate to ask; but they never do.

I spent the rest of the day humming and smiling; thinking and waiting; and hoping that she might return.  Several times I was convinced that I saw her.   Several times I stared at the photograph. “If I had a magnifying glass, like the one I used to use to study old maps, I would be able to read the inscription.”  It bothered me that I didn’t know.  Obviously I was supposed to.

It isn’t often that I am challenged these days.  Since I left my academic post I have been free to think and decide without the restriction of reason.   This is the main reason I have chosen to live the way I do.  It is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Sometimes there isn’t even a cup of tea.  But there is more to life than tea.

As I was about to put the photograph into my inside pocket I hesitated.  I had been so focused on the identity of the bust that I had overlooked the setting.  It was a cemetery.  Therefore the sculpture was marking a grave, “Monsieur Poirot, but of course!”  But I refused to fall into the trap of conjecture.  A guy carrying a violin case gave me a strange look; I gestured for his attention.

“Sorry chum I don’t have any change.”  I think he thought that I was trying to sell him the photograph.

I found it difficult to stop looking at the image.  The expression on the bust held a mysterious attraction.  It began to feel familiar; as if my memory was slowly trawling through dust.  My memory wasn’t in any rush and I couldn’t convince it otherwise.  The word ‘synchronicity’ kept repeating itself.  However I wouldn’t accept that the photograph and the music was just a coincidence.

Big Ben chimed.  I listened to the sequence.  At least I knew that it was half-past.  I guessed five because people were moving in the direction of Waterloo Station.  And coins were being dropped into my cap; but no smiles; perhaps in preparation for their homeward journey.  To me they appeared to be dreading going home; all of that perceived comfort and security going to waste.

Surely death would be preferable.”  I whispered to myself, “The great escape.”

The music began to play inside my head; my whispers resonated through it.  Suddenly my eyes widened.  I could see her approaching.  Then I knew.  But I remained silent until her hand gently touched my cheek.  She asked if I’d been agonising and apologised softly. Her eyes questioned mine.  I stuttered.

“Tchaikovsky?”

Her touch was heaven.  I tried to absorb its reassurance.  Then she let go.  There was sadness in her eyes.  She stood up and quickly walked away.

As I scribble, the candle beside me is flickering gently.  The light is casting a transient sheen over the remembrance; still fresh, not yet tainted.  My trip to St. Petersburg all those years ago was dominated by the day we spent together at the monastery.  My other students weren’t that keen on visiting Tchaikovsky’s grave.  Their interests were much more avant-garde.

Now there is only the music inside my head.  I don’t want it to stop, but the adagio is beginning to fade now.  And so is the light.  Still, I am hopeful, but not expectant.  Maybe now that she has found me she will visit more often.