Friday, 25 July 2014

Made of Stone

The Forgotten One

Nicholas knows they can smell him before they can see him. What is he supposed to do? He can’t go back; there is no place to go home to and there is no place for him to go forward to. So he spends his life huddling into the spaces that others ignore. There is the corner of the bus stop where he can rest his head against dirty Plexiglas. Then there is the corner opposite the Indian restaurant where he can smell the coriander, the turmeric and the cumin combining with a hint of cinnamon, maybe some garlic and a handful of chili peppers to create their garam masala. Or on warm summer nights he can hide away from prying eyes behind the arches of the old rum storage hall near the harbour.

He does not grow embarrassed anymore. Now he simply exists as he is, waiting for a future that brings him no hope. What do they see as they walk quickly past him, fearful of him extending his empty coffee cup in that tell-tale way of the beggar? But he does not beg, even though his condition would be best suited to it. His wheelchair is a good start, but it is the burns on his face and upper body that could really make the people empty their wallets. The stench and the rags are just a bonus, something to add to his look of callous wretchedness.

Nicholas knows he scares them. He knows what he looks like. His once blue eyes have submitted to a greyish colourlessness and the right one has a droopy lower lid. He has no eyebrows left, his right cheek is torn apart by disfiguring burns. The right wing of his nose is missing completely, making him appear more skull-like than human-like. The scars on the top of his head he hides underneath an old beanie, but the ones extending down his chest and torso he wears as a shield of armour. Thick worms of badly healed skin crisscross down his torso like veins and arteries that have inverted their place in the body.

His looks he accepts, it is just one of those things. But the loss of his life he did not consent to. And now they walk past him, daily, the ones who loved him most also most afraid of him. He struggles to push his chair up the slight angle of the hill of the main shopping street. Cobblestones be damned. The plastic bags hanging from his chair’s handles sway-swish-swish as he tries to move forward. They contain all of his belongings, which does not amount to much: some ratty clothes, a pair of black boots for the winter, a towel and a bottle of wine. He is not really going anywhere, but the holidays have started and the city is inundated by them so he had to get away. He is advancing slowly, creeping up the hill, but no one offers to help. They part in front of him like the Red Sea.

He escapes and hides in the corner behind the church. No one goes to church any more, he knows he is safe from the hordes. The steeple casts a long shadow. It is 18:00. The bells start ringing all over town. Nicholas carefully fishes a paper cup from one of the bags and wipes it down with a serviette. The wine is pink and girlish but it was the cheapest he could find. He pours himself a glass and takes a big sip. But he does not gulp it down, no, he swirls it from one side of his mouth to the other, savouring the berry-like sweetness before he swallows soundlessly. The contents of the bottle disappear slowly; his head falls to his shoulder as he drifts into an uneasy sleep.

Only in this drunken stupor does he relive the horror of that night. The most joyous of them all, the night they had prepared for during the past 364 days. The day that ruined him.

All the preparations had been in order, his team had done a wonderful job and thought of everything. The first half of the night passed eventlessly, but then he slid down the chimney that would disfigure him forever. Nicholas had seen no smoke, felt no heat and smelt no soot so he felt safe. But when he reached the bottom he was engulfed by flames. The plastic imitation leather he was wearing because his workers no longer advocated the use of animal products singed and clung to his skin. It seared him, a fat steak on a griddle pan.

The children heard him scream. They came running but there was nothing they could do. Their parents appeared, tried to extinguish the man on fire in their living room. ‘How had he broken in? What was he there to steal?’ - they wondered. Good thing they let the fire burn. The parents phoned the ambulance and the police. Nicholas was rushed to hospital, but because he had no identification and kept mumbling that the children could not see him like this he was treated like a criminal, a pervert even. They barely patched him up, thinking him strange and scary and thus undeserving of proper care. Then they stuck him in a wheelchair and rolled him out of the front door. He had fallen through the bureaucratic cracks, no one cared what he did from that point onward.

Nicholas tried getting in touch with his office, after all he had worked there all his life and practically been the boss. But they only sent him a note: “Regret this happened to you, but we can no longer employ you. We hope you understand. Kind regards, Fir Tree Management”. He did not blame them, really, accepting that his looks made him ineligible to be the main guy any longer. But could they not have found alternate employment for him? Could his loyalty to the company for the past centuries not have been rewarded by something other than a letter of dismissal?

He started existing on the streets as he discovered the hidden nooks and crannies where he could breathe in peace. Worse than the betrayal by his employers and friends however was the way the children now looked at him. They retreated in disgust and avoided him at all cost. Nicholas had spent his life trying to bring them whatever they most desired, and this was the way they repaid him. He knew is anger was unfounded, knew that he should not blame them. How could the children recognize him like this? To them he was a crippled hobo surrounded by the stench of the streets, a urine-soaked figure of filth and human indifference. To them another Santa would be coming to town.

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