I see him sometimes in the park. He’s generally sitting on a bench, sometimes feeding the pigeons with stale bread. They greedily devour these offerings with no more thought to their benefactor than a cornucopia, an outwelling of food. They don’t really see him as a fellow creature. He has a dreamy, faraway expression on his face, never seeming to focus upon this world at all. His mouth is set in a gentle smile, never altering, irrespective of the situation.
I come here every day to eat my lunch and relax from the office awhile. In the midst of this bustling city the dull grey is chased back by verdant green, a haven of peace, a sanctuary from the bottom line.
I hear the talk, though, the gossip, the seemingly benevolent words that are in reality mocking. I hate it when people do that. They say he’s simple. Slow. Dim-witted. Non compos-mentis, said as often in pity as in derision. Sometimes I wonder whether pity is a form of derision.
But the kids can be crueler:
“Big stupid head!”
(This last one always strikes me as the most undignified.)
Thankfully, they are only here during the summer break. Otherwise they would make his life hell all year round. He just takes the abuse, smiling all the while. I guess it really is a case of no sense, no feeling. I suppose in yesteryear he would have been considered the village idiot, but we no longer have any villages. Perhaps he should more accurately be called a city idiot, maybe a neighbourhood idiot? However, neither term seems to fit.
I always feel a little guilty whenever it happens. I know that the kids’ behaviour is wrong, but I can’t bring myself to intervene, to get involved. I guess I just don’t have the courage to affect someone’s life, even in such a minor way.
This summer though, someone picked up the gauntlet. A black suited executive type, power tie and all the mover-and-shaker paraphernalia strode purposefully into the park.
OK, I’ve got some of the company “uniform” on, but nothing like this guy. Definitely fast-track, high-flyer, corporate wolf in wolf’s clothing. He looked unbelievably out of place here, it seemed he should have had wandering flunkeys and yes-men clustering around him in droves, arcanely chanting meaningless management buzzwords like “proactive” and “paradigm”. I could see him carefully doling out pearls of company career wisdom, casting down phrases before the swine, like “Work Smarter, Not Harder.” and “Less Is More.” Eagerly snapped up by ambitious up-and-comers, whose eyes are definitely on the prize.
Seeing the small tormentors assault the idiot, this newcomer unleashed a cold, corporate stare, one look and the jackals fled the park in fear. He cut such a strong, imperious figure in the bright sunlight, a paladin reborn into tres chic, designer label three-piece suit.
I was no medieval maiden to toss a dainty garland or fine silk handkerchief to her knight in shining armour. I did not have the courage to applaud him openly for his noble deeds, but within the labyrinth of my heart I admired his valour. Defeating the demons of fear and social propriety and doing what needed to be done, something I lacked the courage to do.
What brought this champion within these alien demesnes? The idiot. He approached the inanely smiling man sitting on his bench and talked earnestly and rapidly to him. I just watched, I could not hear the monologue from where I sat, and I thought it would be impolite to get closer and eavesdrop.
A change crept over the defender of justice. As his words spilled forth, his noble, upright posture drooped, crumpled; knight changing into beggar before my very eyes. He now was almost prostrated before the idiot, a humble petitioner before his king. I could hear the sobbing, I could see the tears. This monarch and subject, in this strange tableau, fixed in place like resident statues of the park. The regent put his hands upon the shoulders of the supplicant, looked deep within his eyes and embraced him warmly, inane smile never-changing.
I was touched to witness this tender moment, although I didn’t really understand it. I think I had a unique perspective – anyone else entering the park right then would just have seen two men embracing, the better dressed one crying profusely upon the other one’s shoulder.
Eventually they broke apart, the beggar became the knight once again, donning his visor; his mirrorshades and going forth back to his kingdom of steel and glass, but I still could see the tears in his eyes. I knew they were still there. He couldn’t fool me. I had seen the truth. My eyes were open.
Nor could I leave such a mystery unsolved. I just had to see what secret had changed prince to pauper. I approached the idiot carefully. He was feeding the pigeons again. I thought through what I should say and how I would say it. I was procrastinating. I am very good at it, you know.
Give yourself up to the moment. The time is now.
Taking a deep breath I asked him slowly “What happened with the other man?” His gentle eyes focussed upon me, pondering my question. The inane smile never shifted. “We went to school together. He used to tease me like those kids did. But he once was reduced to a position in which he was considered stupid and useless. He then knew the pain that such a state brings. He wished to pay the ghosts, make amends with the past. I hope he feels better now.”
No rancour spoiled his words. He really did mean it. He held nothing against his former tormentor. Another thing struck me. He was remarkably erudite for an idiot.
I just couldn’t help blinking at this.
“OK … all well and good. He does you wrong, and he feels remorse and you forgive him. But you are obviously intelligent. Why do you put up with the abuse? People think you are an idiot” (I winced inwardly, even I had done so …) “but you aren’t.”
He put his finger to his lips in a hushing motion: “Shh! It’s a secret.” He smiled broadly at this, a hint of mischief in his otherwise placid eyes. He sighed somewhat theatrically. “Well, first thing, everyone thought that to start. And another, everyone picked on me because of it. That was the main reason.”
I was pretty damned confused. “What, are you some sort of masochist? You WANTED to be picked on?”
“Yes! I could take it. While they were busy taunting me, they let off the other kids. They were spared that fate. Who knows how they would have coped, being outcast? They joined in the taunting, accepted through a common enemy; the drooling idiot.”
Something twinged within me to hear this man denigrate himself.
“But you are NOT an idiot! You were NEVER an idiot! But you’ve kept the stigma of idiocy, totally undeserved!”
He quietly made a point: “The torments thrown at me would be unfair even if I was an idiot. They shouldn’t have been done in the first place. But they wanted something to attack. They would have just found someone else to lash out at. Even if I was an idiot, it would have been wrong.”
“You are right, though. OK, I’m no rocket scientist, but I’m not an idiot. And I always knew that. I knew they were wrong. There were more of them, but majority never rules justly, only through tyranny. I knew the truth.”
He looked at me earnestly, smile gone. “You always hear how the truth will set you free. The real secret is that it keeps you free too. They tried to warp my perceptions of myself, but I saw they were lies, and lies only have power if you accept them as truths. I did not. I never truly suffered. I knew the truth, and it didn’t matter who else did, as long as I knew.”
He was right.
How had I consigned this beautiful person to a mere label, “idiot”? I apologized, he knew why and accepted it easily. There was an understanding between us, a connection.
We left it at that, I got myself back to work and marched the treadmill.
But I still go to the park at lunch, and we chat. We have to do it secretly, he says, so I always have this “patient-person-talking-to-the-moron” face on. We chat about philosophy, what’s happening in our lives and I don’t know … stuff?
We’re great friends now. It’s nice.
I see the face of the idiot every day. I raise a hand to touch it, but the mirror’s glass always gets in the way.