The Pensioner and the Mission
It is Christmas dinner at the City Mission. The old man sits at a table, along with other guests. There is a hubbub of voices, mixed with carols and other background music.
The old man is dressed in the manner of a person who once knew good times, and still does his best to disguise that he has little money. He has pride, and memories. Always memories. He talks sporadically to the people on either side of him - a bag woman on his right, and an alcoholic on his left. From time to time the bag woman tries to offer him a parcel containing some mysterious object - probably fished from a rubbish bin in the Square - from her bag. The old man does his best to put her off without offending her. The alcoholic reeks of liquor, and the old man finds it hard not to turn away when the fumes waft over him. But he knows what it is to be lonely, and he cannot refuse to give company to a fellow human being.
Staff and volunteers of the Mission come frequently to the table, handing out the various courses, offering drinks. A little girl cautiously offers him a flower, which he takes and with elaborate care places in his button hole. He hopes for a hug from the girl, too, but she hurries on to the next recipient.
The old man smiles at each person as they come and go. He has a nice smile, but it barely covers the sadness that lies behind it. And it continually fades as he turns back to his meal, and he remembers some more.
He remembers happier times, when he had a wife, and children. He remembers the early Christmases of their marriage, when his daughter was a baby, and his son not much more than a toddler. There was great excitement in unwrapping the presents around the Christmas tree, and teaching the new generation the traditions that had been so much a part of his own boyhood. Making the Christmas pudding and the fruit mince pies. Buying and decorating the tree. Setting up the manger scene in the living room. The neighbourhood carol singing on Christmas Eve, the walk to church on Christmas morning. And the love that surrounded it all. The love that gave it all meaning.
That is what he misses so much now. His wife died eight years ago, and the ache is still strong within him. His daughter married and moved with her husband to Queensland. He doesn't blame her, but he wishes she would write more. There are grandchildren he has never seen, and he suspects never will.
And his son. That hurts almost as much as the loss of his wife. They had an argument. A bitter argument, over a very silly matter. It should have been patched up quickly, but they were both proud, and would not give in. So it festered, and eventually the silence grew too big to be closed by a simple gesture. Who was to make that first move, anyway? He would now. No pride is worth the pain. But it's too late. The son also moved away, and he's not even sure where. The old man tried this year to build a bridge. He hunted all the shops until he found a card that he could afford and that let out something of the crying within him for reconciliation. He wrote some careful words, and posted the card to his son's last known address, hoping it might at least be forwarded. Then he waited every day for the postman to bring a reply....a reply that never came.
So the old man plays out the Christmas game at the Mission. He doesn't really enjoy this charade, but to be on his own would be even worse. He comes with a half-hope, that perhaps he might find someone who can talk beyond the trivial, even beyond the dinner. But he knows the reality is that where two walls of pain meet, they don't break down, they merely reinforce each other. He appreciates the staff and the volunteers who try so hard to make a day to remember for the guests. But they are too busy 'twixt kitchen and tables to spend time with any one guest, and afterwards will be anxious to get back to their own families.
All too quickly the dinner comes to an end. Santa has been and gone, handing out small parcels of sweets, and ho-ho-hoing around the tables. It is barely two o'clock, but already the staff are clearing the tables, and assembling pottles of leftovers at the door that the guests can take home with them. Any minute now they will begin gently ushering the guests out, so the cleaners can do their part. The old man prefers to leave before it comes to that - it feels too much like another rejection. He pushes back his chair, says goodbye to the bag lady and the alcoholic, and begins to make his way out.
As he does so, a newcomer enters the hall. The old man stops. It looks so much like his son, that for a moment tears cloud his eyes. He shakes his head, then continues on his way. A voice calls his name, and he stops again. A hand holds out a card to him - the same one he posted all those weeks ago. The writing is smudged with tears, and now his own tears are blurring it even further. Then the two men can hold back no longer, and father and son hug and kiss.
The music fades, the tables are put away. The cleaning staff move in, but with softened hearts at the sight of the pair continuing to cling to each other, work around them. The dinner is over, but the meal has just begun.
(c) Copyright John McNeil, all rights reserved. Apart from the purposes of fair review, this work may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, physical or electronic, without the express permission in writing of the author. He may be contacted at jandhmcneil<a>paradise.net.nz