The pain jolted through his brain like a bolt of lightning and roused him to consciousness. Or semi-consciousness. Roger was aware only of a dull grey fog and a familiar throbbing in his head. But it was the ache of the bone-chilling dampness that brought him fully awake.
Gingerly lifting his hand to his eyes, Roger scratched away the eye secretions of the night. His left arm felt swollen, unnatural. He peered at the red brick wall looming over his head.
It came back to him. It was January 12th. Yesterday was his 49th birthday. With some satisfaction at having formulated a coherent thought, he lay for a minute to see if the throbbing in his head would dull. The chill in his joints reminded him that sometime during the night, he had rolled off the warm smelly grate that had lulled him to sleep.
Roger had not made it back to the hotel this time. He had indulged himself with a little celebration at a local pub; an act of irony to celebrate the first of many birthdays to be spent alone. With effort, he conjured up a memory of the group of men who had retired to this alley after closing time. Searching further through his mind's fog, he remembered sitting alone, after all the men had left; alone with his bottle. He patted his coat pocket to assure himself that his beloved bottle was with him still. The comforting bulge calmed his momentary panic.
Roger rolled over and slowly rose to his feet. He steadied himself against the wall, until by sheer will power, he could cope with the pounding in his head. There was only one cure for this pain. He lifted the bottle from his pocket and took a quick gulp. The fire in his throat diverted his mind from the pain in his head and he staggered down the alley and onto Hastings Street.
He had choices. Many of the men here did not. He could return to the efficiency room in the rundown hotel that he now called home. Since he had left Marla some three months ago that simple room in a squalid hotel had been his only refuge from the kind of night he had just spent. It was also his ticket to carry on his life in a way that he knew – that they all knew – was not fit. He had been offered many choices in life. There were still more choices to make. Only now the choices were much simpler.
With what remained of his functioning brain cells, Roger noted that his left arm continued to feel swollen and numb. He reflected on the fact that no one would know and no one would care that he had spent the past evening enjoying his beauty sleep in an alley off Hastings Street, in east Vancouver. He was content with that. There was no one to judge. There was no one expecting him to appear at an office, be home at a certain hour, or be present at a child's Christmas concert. There was no one to disappoint. He needed no excuses, no stories, no lies. His life was now a metaphor for his soul. His honesty was absolute.
The practice of law had been a difficult and demanding assignment. Marriage to Marla had been more difficult yet. And when Marla gave birth to the twins, it was simply more than he could bear. A human being's capacity to fail, to deceive, to continually disappoint was, he had discovered, almost limitless.
No more. There was no office to go to and no permission to return home. There were no further expectations. He revelled in his freedom, dulling the memory of the pain he had caused through the one commitment he had lovingly maintained.
Again, Roger patted his pocket as he turned from Hastings and headed toward the water. He hoped the brisk, wet air might revive him. After some minutes of disjointed movement towards his destination, Roger found a bench overlooking the inlet. Dropping his head to his chest, he closed his eyes to rest from the exertion of his walk.
Although resting, Roger did not fall back to sleep and eventually became aware of another presence. It had to be very early morning on this chilly day. Hastings had been deserted. When he had sat down, there had been no sign of life in either direction along the waterfront. But the sense of another presence was strong, so he opened his eyes. A young boy stood some distance away but directly in front of him. Roger gazed at this apparition with some irritation.
The boy – who looked to be about six or seven – had his back to Roger, looking towards the water. He wore a thin blue jacket and, amazingly, a red scarf and blue cap. Blond curls escaped from his cap and hung haphazardly to his shoulders. Roger was not so far removed from the society of children that he did not recognize that no self-respecting young Vancouver boy would be wearing a red scarf or a cap of any description. His irritation turned to curiosity. He became aware of some deep emotional response welling up from the abyss of his psyche. It felt akin to the protective love he had felt, from time to time, towards his own boys. Roger pulled out his bottle and stilled this bubble of feeling with some of his helpful anesthetic.
The boy suddenly turned and gazed solemnly back at Roger. Without fully understanding why, Roger gestured for the boy to come and sit with him, fully expecting the boy to run in terror from the sight of a smelly old drunk. Strangely, the boy approached and sat some distance from Roger on the bench. The two stared silently at the foaming, frothing water.
"I'm on my way to school," the boy said eventually. "But it’s too early. My mom wanted me to go anyway," he added.
Roger nodded, and took another drink. He noticed that the boy's clothes had holes and the thin jacket afforded little protection from the chill January sea breeze.
"Do you believe in Santa?" asked the boy.
This question startled Roger. He had not been confronted with this question since his own childhood. His own boys had been too young or too self-interested to care whether Santa existed. Roger could only look at the boy.
"I asked Santa for a piano this year. But it was too big for him to carry. So he brought me this instead." The boy pulled a white recorder from his pocket. "I have music today at school, and I’m going to play my recorder. Would you like to hear me play?"
Roger thought for a moment. He was a bit worried that someone might come looking for the boy and some frantic, hysterical parent would accuse him of some loathsome act. Jail was not yet an experience that Roger coveted.
Roger shifted to the far end of the bench and looked back at the boy. "Sure," he said, "Why not?"
The boy began to play. To Roger's complete astonishment, the sound was clear, the notes played cleanly, the music soft and beautiful. The tune was vaguely familiar. Gradually it came to Roger that he had played the same song on the piano when he was a boy. He had loved the song. It spoke of dreams and feelings and flying to a place where troubles melted away. He had been looking for just such a place all his life. And he had loved the piano. He had been good enough and there had been ample opportunity to explore this passion further, but when his father pressed him to give up on such a trivial, unprofitable pursuit, Roger had made the sensible choice.
The boy continued to play. Roger closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest, listening. For the second time that day, a wave of feeling rose up from the pit of his stomach and trickled through his empty spaces. Though hard to identify, it occurred to him that he was feeling joy.
Roger smiled. His mind emptied and he drifted with the cadence of the song. The sound slowly transformed into the silver trill of a songbird. As he watched the bird in his mind's eye, warmth enveloped him, pushing out the hurt and pain that had been his companions for as long as he could remember. The boy played on.
When Marla got the call, they advised her that it had been a massive heart attack. But it had not been in a gutter in the East End as Marla had always feared. They had found him on a bench, by the water, lying down. Strangely, he had a smile on his face. More strangely still, he clutched a white child's recorder in his hands.
Susan Rogers is a lawyer based in Mississauga, who has been practicing for more than 30 years and thus has been writing all her life. She is currently exploring her passion for writing fiction. She is happily married and has two children, who she believes are wildly successful, having overcome considerable handicaps early in life in the form of their parents.
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