He sits in the park, slumped against a tree with a half-empty cask of wine in his lap. There’s a cigarette stained with hair gel behind his ear. The warm afternoon sun makes him sleepy. He picks up the wine, brings the plastic nozzle to his lips and guzzles down several mouthfuls. People start to walk faster when they pass him.
They think he doesn’t notice, but he does.
He’s thirteen, not stupid.
As all the clean-cut men and women hurry by, their eyes locked firmly on the footpath ahead, he makes a point of leering at them. It’s fun to watch them squirm. Sometimes he’ll call them names and swear at the top of his lungs. And other times he’ll cry out random stupid things, like ‘Where’s my baby?’ and ‘The stock market crashed, so here I am!’
You know, just for fun.
It’s all just dumb fun.
He leans his head back against the tree and thinks of his friends, stuck at school in a stuffy classroom while their teacher, Mr Dawson, drones on and on about some boring crap that happened a million years ago. Poor bastards, he thinks. He has lots of friends; all the kids like him, it’s the teachers who don’t.
He lifts the squishy metallic bag of wine to his lips and wrings out the last few mouthfuls. It trickles down his throat, warm and sweet. When he’s done he wipes a sleeve across his mouth, scrunches up the empty wine bag into a tight ball and chucks it onto the footpath, right in the path of some middle-aged suit with shiny shoes and a briefcase.
The man stops to stare at him. He grins back mockingly, daring the suit to do something about it, but the man just stares, refusing to look away. Maybe he’s a pervert, he thinks. Maybe he’s one of those sickos that likes little boys. He glances around. The world sways around him as he does. Other than some wrinkled old geezer expiring on a park bench across the way, there’s no one else about.
Where did all the people go?
‘What’s your name, son?’ the man asks, frowning.
‘None of your goddamn business.’
The man’s frown deepens. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’
‘Shouldn’t you shut the hell up?’ He tries to sound tough, but he can feel his voice shaking.
The man takes a step forward, but whatever he was going to do, he seems to reconsider it. He watches the suit and feels suddenly sick as the ground swims before his eyes. His heart pounds in his ears. Something bitter is rising from the pit of his stomach. The man smiles.
‘Alright, son. Listen, and listen closely. Get up. Brush yourself off and go home. Call your mum. She’s at work and pretty soon the school is going to call her to ask where the hell you are. She’ll be worried sick. She’ll be driving around trying to find you,’ the man locks his eyes on the boy’s, refusing to let him off, ‘and she’ll drive right into the path of a speeding bus.’
His body floods with terror. His hands are shaking as he leaps to his feet, turns around and runs as fast as he can, away from the man with his shoes and his suit and his briefcase.
He’s running late. One moron who doesn’t know how to merge onto the freeway, and now he’s late. He can’t be late today – any other day would be fine, but not today. He has a deadline. His client will be waiting, constantly checking that Rolex strapped to his hairy wrist. His boss will be watching, and so will everyone else at the office; all of them anticipating a blunder.
Hoping for the worst.
The entire office feels like a nest of vipers. Their excitement is thick in the air as they wait for some poor unfortunate fool to stumble straight into their nest. They want to chew him up and spit him out. But he’s not stupid. He’s not some naive intern with warmth and innocence still shining from his eyes.
He’s walking at full speed now, the office building rising up into view, when a shiny, scrunched-up ball rolls out in front of him. He looks around. Slumped against a nearby tree is a boy, his eyes unfocused and a stupid grin plastered across his drunken face. The kid glares mockingly. He can’t help but stare back at him; there’s something familiar about the boy. After a moment of confusion, realisation hits him like a speeding bullet.
That boy was him. Is him.
The kid is wearing the same Ripcurl hoodie he’d loved so much – the one his dad bought him before running off with that dental hygienist. The kid is even wearing his old converse runners. The red ones that used to be his brother’s.
All he can do is stare. He fights the urge to grab the boy’s sleeve, pull it up and check for the scar from the surgery he needed on his broken arm when he was nine. The boy is clearly uncomfortable. Even scared. His cheeks turn red as his eyes dart around.
‘What’s your name, son?’ he asks.
‘None of your goddamn business.’
‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’ he tries again, frustrated.
‘Shouldn’t you shut the hell up?’ the boy snarls back.
That’s what triggered it. Suddenly he remembers. He remembers wasting his time at the park drinking while his friends stayed in school. He knows it’s the same day that his mum had her accident, the one that left her in a wheelchair until she died three years later from “unforeseen complications”.
He feels the anger rise in his belly. He wants to grab the kid and slam his bony little body against the tree. But then he gets a better idea. If this really is him, then he has the power to change things. And if it isn’t, then at the very least he can scare this stupid brat into staying in school.
The words rush out like water from a burst dam. ‘Alright, son. Listen, and listen closely-’
When he’s done, the boy springs to his feet and flees. The motion reminds him of a frightened rabbit. He shakes his head and smiles before turning to leave, but an old man is blocking his path, his walking stick set firmly in his way.
‘Think you’re so clever, don’t you?’ The old man’s tone is the sort you’d use with a naughty child.
‘You’re not so perfect either, with your overpriced suit, and your important meetings. You can’t even see what you’re turning into.’
He stares at the old man, thunderstruck.
‘Listen, and listen well, son. We all become what we pretend to be, and if you continue to blend in with those snakes at the firm, that’s exactly what you’ll become. Take the morning off. Go to that café on the river with the little red boat on the roof, and when Cindy comes over to take your order, actually look at her. Listen to her. Talk to her. Before she finds someone else and you end up old and alone, without a soul to cry for you at your funeral.’
He doesn’t know how to respond to the old man. Instead he turns back the way he’d come and heads for the café, his heart racing and his head swimming.
He loves to sit in the park and watch the people pass by. It makes him feel at peace. That is until he sees everything he’s seen before happening all over again, only this time he sees it from a park bench beneath a withered oak tree. He rubs a hand over his large shining bald spot. He thinks that his hair was much too long when he was thirteen, and it was cropped far too short when he was thirty-two.
He watches himself as a boy, cocky and stupid. Restless and full of energy. He sees himself as a man in his prime, ambitious yet completely lost.
At first he thought he was imagining things. It’s so easy to get lost in other people’s lives when you watch them for long enough. But then it all came screaming back at him. He nearly missed it on the first occasion when time and space had somehow gotten tangled and put two different versions of himself in the same place, but it would take a complete fool to miss it again.
After a short interval of reflection, he gets up onto his aching feet, his cane in hand, and walks straight across the park until he’s directly in the path of himself.
‘Think you’re so clever, don’t you?’
‘You’re not so perfect either-’
The old man says everything he needs to say – everything he remembers himself saying forty years ago. He doesn’t fear anything anymore. There’s no time for fear when you reach such an age. He knows how it will end; he’ll find a new job, a better one. One where he helps people instead of cheating them. He knows Cindy will say yes when he proposes eight months later, and that over the years she will bless him with three precious daughters.
When he’s done, he watches his suited back disappear around the bend. The sun shines more brightly. The air smells sweeter. He wanders back to the park bench and sits down. A great big smile bursts on his face as he spots his youngest daughter, Emily, walking towards him with her new-born son, Matthew, sleeping in the stroller.
His name, and now his grandson’s.
Tears well in his eyes as she comes to him and wraps her arms around his hunched shoulders in a tight hug.
‘What were you thinking about? You had that funny look in your eyes again.’
‘Nothing, my dear. Nothing at all.’