By James Vanselow
First published in the Box Hill Tafe anthology Inkshed
He was sitting in the shopping mall yesterday as I passed through the fading winter’s light on my way home from work. He was there again as I passed in the brighter light of early morning, and he is still there as I pass on my way home once more.
He is sitting on the bench seat in the same position, and the same upright posture, clutching a brown-paper bag with both hands in his lap. I think he may be suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s or just plain confused and lost as old people sometimes are. I turn back and sit on the same bench a few feet from his upright body. I see the collar of his dark-blue overcoat has been turned up against the cold as the warmth of the sun fails. I pretend to fumble in my briefcase, hoping that he may speak to me first if he needs help, but he remains silent, gazing straight ahead. I cough, and half turn toward him. ‘Do you have the time?’ I ask.
His head turns slowly until his eyes submerged in wrinkled flesh meet mine. His eyes narrow slightly under white eyebrows but do not avert their direct gaze. ‘Time? What is time?’ he asks in a soft toneless voice.
I didn’t expect my simple request to be answered with a philosophical question; in truth, it hadn’t been a genuine request at all, merely an invitation to engage in conversation. What do I tell him? That time is the counting off of the minutes, hours, days, months and years between birth and death. That time is the hours waiting in a hospital for your son to be born? That time is the frantic minutes speeding down the freeway to another hospital twenty-three years later? That time is the night and morning waiting for your son to be treated in a hospital emergency ward, waiting for brain X-rays to ascertain the effect of five kicks by a booted foot to his head? That time is the healer of all wounds, the unseen mist that fogs the memory so that the unbearable present becomes the bearable past? Do I tell this old man that time is responsible for the death of many of my older workmates, that time is the cause of removal of old friends from this mortal world? Do I say the grim reaper waits for all of us, and time is the unstoppable force that propels all of us in his direction?
I watch the long slanting shadows of lampposts weakening on the red brick paving, so like the lengthening and fading of life. I will not burden this old man with my thought that each passing second fades life’s mortal shadow.
‘I mean, is it before or after five o’clock?’
His eyes squint and the lines on his forehead deepen. ‘What is five o’clock?
I don’t know if he is being difficult or playing a game, so I decide to humour him.
‘It is a time on a watch or clock.’
His face relaxes, and he seems more at ease, his eyes dropping to his paper bag. He raises the index finger on his right hand. ‘I don’t know what time is. People tell me about it, but I don’t understand them at all. They say time is when the arrows on a watch move around in a circle, or numbers change. I think some watches look very nice, especially the gold ones, but the black ones are not at all attractive. People must like the look of them though, because they gaze at them often. Why the moving arrows and numbers are necessary, I don’t know.’
I decide to try another course. ‘Are you waiting for someone?’
‘Waiting? What is waiting?’ About now it dawns on me that he has forgotten the English language, or at least parts of it.
‘Waiting is where you remain in the same place expecting someone to come and speak to you,’ I say patiently.
‘I must have been waiting for you then, because you’re the only person who has spoken to me.’
I am exasperated by this sharp logic. ‘I mean someone you know.’
‘Ah! Then if I don’t know you then I can’t wait for you, yet you came anyway. How can that be?’
‘I didn’t intend to speak to you, and I didn’t come here to meet you. I was passing by and thought you may need help?’
‘Need help? No one is harming me. Why do you think I need help?’
‘Because you were here yesterday, and you are still here today.’
‘What is here?’
‘Here means where you are. If you go elsewhere, “here” is wherever you are at that time.’
‘I told you before, I don’t know what time is.’
‘Why are you sitting on this bench?’ (I avoid asking him why he is here.)
‘I come to this place every day. I sit on the bench and if birds appear at my feet, I give them the bread I bring in my brown-paper bag. When it gets dark and there are no more birds I go home. I see all these people go this way, that way, and wonder why. I sit and feed the birds.’
He lifts one hand from his brown-paper bag and rakes his fingers back through the strands of white hair that the wind had blown forward over one eye. “They are hungry, not crazy, not like people going this way, that way.’
He looks at me. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. Please sit with me and feed the birds.’ He offers me his brown-paper bag.
‘Thank you, but I haven’t …’
I sit with him until it gets dark.