I would like to tell you of something quite strange that happened last weekend but first I should tell you I am twelve and a half years old and I am a girl. My mother is thirty-eight and people say we look very much alike except for our hair. Mother’s is curly and light brown whilst mine is black and straight, like Father’s. Although I’m only twelve-and-a-half, I’m already a whole quarter of an inch taller than Mother, and Grandma says I will grow to be as tall as Father, who is one of the tallest people I know.
We’d been shopping on the High Street and carried four large shopping bags toward our house when Mother suggested we sit down in Cissaro’s, a fancy cafe that sells delicious French pastries. Mother had a cappuccino. I had a milkshake and a chocolate eclair, which Mother tried to nibble at when she thought I wasn’t looking. We were seated outside, watching people walking by on a busy Saturday morning in the spring.
This is one of my favourite pastimes. “People Theatre,” as Mother describes it. And she often talks of it with her friends.
Today the people theatre was busier than ever. A removal lorry was parked close by the café and busy burly men carried chairs and desks to and from an office. They forced pedestrians through a thin barricade that funnelled them like a drainpipe to a section of footpath close by. Amid the bustle an old gentleman with white hair and whiskers walked slowly along the footpath. He grasped a piece of paper in his hands, which he pressed to his chest as he continued his slow priestly walk. Occassionally he talked, addressing nobody particular except perhaps a vacant space some four inches in front of his face.
I noticed him especially because he walked very slowly, causing something of a jam about him on the footpath. Pedestrians pushed at him, sidestepping or elbowing him, when he failed to change direction. I pointed him out to Mother. “Silly old fool!” she scoffed. Mother can be very harsh. I felt instant sympathy for the old man. He reminded me of my Grandpa, who died when I was ten.
“He’s not a fool,” I said. “He’s a gentleman!”
“And how do you know he’s a gentleman?” Mother asked, throwing me one of her hardest stares – the one that always makes Father all quiet, like a mouse.
“He’s a gentleman!” I insisted. “In fact I’m certain he’s a Professor or even a Doctor.”
To me he seemed distinguished: eccentric in a cultured way that one normally associates with a country gentleman or a university don.
His hair was wild and white. It ran thickly past his cheeks into mutton-chop sideburns that joined into a thin white moustache. He wore a three-piece-tweed suit and a fob watch with a chain that glistened in the sun. I imagined he would smell of roast dinner and was the type of man who would tell amusing stories around warm fires at gentlemen’s clubs that allowed grandchildren to visit their dining room at the weekend – like my Grandpa.
“In fact I’m certain he’s a Lord or at least a Sir,” I continued.
“Rubbish!” Mother protested as she turned her head to stare toward the strange man who continued walking along the street, blissfully unaware of the mayhem that he’s caused.
“Look at him!” said Mother as she rolled her eyes. “I expect he’s drunk!”
His walk was erratic. It followed little shifting movements so that his whole body tilted with each stride. From time to time he would stop, read from the paper then hold it to his chest. He’d silently motion a sentence whilst staring at the sky.
“He’s drunk!” said Mother, shaking her head.
“No,” I responded…
I studied his movement. It occurred to me that he might be learning lines.
“Oh no, he’s not. He’s an actor like Sir John Gielgaud or Sir Lawrence Olivier – learning his lines. I expect he’s walking toward the West End where he will star in a Shakespeare play like the one you made me watch last summer.”
Mother stared down her nose & shook her head. She looked at me with that secret stare that told me to be quiet. She gives it whenever she wants to tell me to shut up, but doesn’t wish to make a scene in public.
The man walked slowly, approaching the removal men who stopped to allow his passage through their work site.
It was as though he thought it was a zebra crossing!
Mother pressed her finger to her lips then stared at the old man as he passed.
“Shhh,” she said, pointing her ears toward the man, like a cat hunting for prey.
“A…W…Z…O…L…P…U…T,” the man said to himself, oblivious to his new found audience.
Mother and I looked at each other with amazement as he paused less than six feet from our table. He gave a little jump then he gave a skip as he held the papert to his chest. He smiled blissfully as he shook his head. Mother looked toward me, raising her finger to her lips.
“A…W…Z…O…L…P…U…T,” the man repeated.
He stared blindly into space as he walked past our table. Then he paused like a palace guard changing direction… Directly in front of us he gave a little jump. He seemed to giggle as he set off for a little skip. But he did not see our shopping bags that poked from beneath the table and they caught his finely polished boot.
He crashed down before us and lay there wriggling lay like a dying fly upon the footpath.
Mother was upon him like a shot.
“You silly old man” she said firmly as she snatched the paper from his hand and helped him to his feet.
The old man looked dazed and confused as though he’d been wakened from a trance.
Mother took her chance & read the page, tilting it toward me with a look of self-righteous glee.
“Hardly a script,” Mother whispered to me as I read the page.
It was covered in neat copper plate writing, just like my Grandpa used to write, but it was most strange as it repeated the strange letters, over and over.
Mother and I exchanged curious glances as the removal men helped him to his feet and brushed down his suit.
“Oh, I am a silly old man,” he said to Mother before be looked at me with the kindest eyes and the warmest smile I have ever seen.
“Indeed you are,” Mother replied.
I looked toward her with razor eyes. I could not believe she could be so nasty to this lovely old gentleman who reminded me of Grandpa!
“I get so caught up with what I am doing that I forget everything that is going on about me. Please forgive a foolish old man this indiscretion,” he said with innocent eyes that blinked from behind wire glasses so thick that it made his pupils appear like saucers.
He saw the paper in mother’s hand. “Ah, thank you so much” he said as he reached to take the page. Mother pulled it closely to her chest. She eyed him suspiciously. “What is this?” she asked, giving him her schoolmistresses glare so cruelly that I wanted to shout out, Stop it Mother. You’re being cruel to the old gentleman!”
He retained his composure.
“Madam, it is merely to help a dithering old man remember something quite simple but private to my own affairs,” he said with solemnity. “I pray you shall never have to rely upon such a device when you reach my age.”
“Mother, give it back to him!” I said.
He looked down at me with a broad smile and a wink as he patted my head.
“Just be more careful in future,” said Mother sternly as she handed over the paper.
He tipped his forehead toward us, wishing us good day.
“I told you he was a gentleman,” I said to Mother. “You were so nasty and he was so lovely!”
But Mother wasn’t listening. Her mind was ticking as she stood there on the footpath. Thinking, thinking, thinking. “He’s up to something, she said after a long pause.
“Mother you’re terrible!”
She grabbed my hand and before I knew it we were following the old man down the street, ducking from doorway to doorway, staying a sufficient distance so he would not notice our pursuit. “Mother!” I cried again in protest. However I knew my protests were in vain for she had that look in her eyes that told me she was not going to listen to anything, the one that knits her eyebrows into a neat V and places stern lines into her brow.
To pay Mother her dues, she has a sixth sense when it comes to sensing trouble.Whenever I think to do anything at all she will appear unexpectedly, giving me that look that says, “don’t even think about it!”
“Look,” she said pointing down the road. “He’s gone into that shop.”
We could see him from the shopfront as we pressed our noses against the glass.He was in a large line waiting before a bureaucratic desk where a fat lady with thick glasses processed each applicant with the cold air of public service. He approached the desk and Mother and I slipped inside, moving to the front so we could witness the scene as he sat down before the woman who looked at him over half moon spectacles. “Papers?” she said hurriedly.
He pulled a pile of papers from beneath his jacket, which she examined, holding each two inches from her nose before stamping it loudly and laying it to rest into a deep drawer that sat to her right. Next, they rose from the desk and moved to a cubicle at the side. “Finally please begin the chart at the bottom left hand corner and read upward,” she said.
“A…W…Z…O…L…P…U…T,” said the old man’s voice.
Mother and I looked at each other with knowing smiles as the woman stamped a final form, passing it to the old man, who seemed to burst with happiness.
“Congratulations Mr. Throckmorton. You’ve passed your license test,” said the lady with a thin-lipped smile.
“I told you he was up to something. Mother’s know these things, just you remember that,” Mother said as she grabbed my hand and walked proudly, like a Siamese cat, toward the lady at the counter.