Stefan didn’t think it would make any difference, seeing his mother dead. She had been ill for almost a whole year and everyone knew this day would come. But suddenly, everything had been switched off to mute inside his head. It was a deafening silence. The kind of silence people always find terrifying; it happens when the aircraft takes off or descends from the sky to land; we blow the pressure out to get rid of this temporary discomfort and be able to hear again.
It is rather simple. We all know.
His mother had been alive only two hours prior to Stefan collecting her things from the reception desk. She had been able to speak and had frequently reminded him to stay good. This was something she had always told him and his brothers and something which had never made much sense to anyone in the family except to her. It was understood, nonetheless, this was something she needed to get off her chest. Like a tickling sensation at the tip of her tongue; she would always say it during goodbyes.
It had been his turn to sit with her today. They had made up something of a schedule for who was to sit by their mother’s side on certain days during the week. He hadn’t made this schedule of course; it had been made by his older brother Martin. He believed in schedules and putting together tables - it was Martin’s thing. Anyhow, Stefan was allotted Tuesdays. Who would have known, back when they were kids, that Mommy would die on a Tuesday afternoon, in late March? Would it have made any difference, whatsoever, had they known about it then? Perhaps there would be a slight displeasure in glancing over at the calendar on Tuesdays, had one accidentally done so, and a change of subject in case someone happened to mention this day during dinner, when she was there.
Stefan was given a box, the same size as a regular shoebox, in which the nurse had put a couple of things; her notebook (the one with horses on it, too girly for a woman her age), lipstick (seemingly unnecessary but it was Mom after all), a pair of outworn flip flops (this seemed almost offending to Stefan to be collecting from them, why not just throw the junk away and give him the essential things?), a watch (gold) and her glasses. These were her belongings at the hospice. He took it with him, carried the box under his arm and went to the park. He searched the greenery and found an empty bench, sat down and lit a cigarette. He thought of his brothers and how he would have to be the one to let them know she was gone. He thought of Martin; how he would happily deal with all the funeral arrangements, throwing himself into the task without any apparent sign of grief.
Everything made sense, somehow; his mother passing away, his brothers absent while he walked up to the reception desk to collect her shoebox worth of things. It had made sense for her to say “Stay good” right before he walked out to get a coffee earlier and then, when he came back in, it had made perfect sense for her to be gone already. It had, in a way, made sense for her to slowly vanish right there on his watch, while he stroked her thin hand and held it in his own.
Stefan was so lost in these thoughts; he almost didn’t notice the little girl in front of him waving at him with a stick.
“This is my bench,” she told him.
“This is my bench that you are sitting on.”
Because of Stefan’s slow reaction, or perhaps because of his sad and curiously detached eyes, the little girl with a pink hat on top of her head gave him a friendly smile and shook her head at him.
“It’s okay, you can sit on it.”
Stefan didn’t move. The little girl watched his cigarette and then looked straight into his eyes. Stefan still didn’t fully comprehend what it was that had been said and he certainly didn’t understand what the little girl was doing there, talking to a stranger. A man smoking a cigarette on a park bench, that must be the first thing parents warn their kids about, he thought to himself and took a deep drag on his cigarette. The girl watched him still. He looked away, gazed at the trees and searched the park; her mother had to be around here somewhere, he thought. She was too young to be out on her own. It was best to just ignore her stare instead of talking to her, otherwise she would never leave. Kids are like that. (Stefan had nephews.)
“What’s in that box?” she asked him.
He decided not to answer. It would seem strange, anyway, for a man to be talking to little girls in a park known for its rapists and gang-related crimes. Besides, the little girl’s mother was bound to be here any minute now and he didn’t want to deal with her concerned look. It would mean he would have to be friendly to let her know he wasn’t a pervert, which seemed too much of an effort today. So he wouldn’t speak to the little kid, at all, he decided.
“Can I open it?” she asked him. “Can I see what’s inside of it?”
“Curiosity’s a bad thing, didn’t they ever teach you that?” he finally told her.
The girl grew impatient and walked up to Stefan to reach after the box. He put his hand on top of it, demonstratively, and took another drag of his cigarette, blew out the smoke way above the little girl, as if to keep it from getting into her lungs. She might grow up to be something, who knows, he thought to himself and felt suddenly humble. Awkwardly humble.
“Smoking is bad,” the little girl said.
She threw her stick away. It seemed worthless to her now but had seemed peculiarly important to her only a while ago. Stefan lost whatever humbleness he had felt earlier and frowned briefly before taking another long drag of his cigarette and tossing it on the armrest of the bench. He assumed this, too, would be commented on by the little girl, but she was focused on the box.
“Do you keep rats in there?” she asked.
“No, I don’t. Where’s your Mommy?”
“It just looks stupid,” she continued. “To be carrying around a box like that.”
Stefan considered telling her about his mother, because that would surely shut her up, but kept himself from doing so. It just seemed very inappropriate. In fact, this entire conversation taking place between him and the little girl seemed highly inappropriate. But he needed to sit down for a while. He couldn’t go back home just yet. He wanted to postpone the phone calls to his brothers for as long as possible.
She should be the one to leave him alone. He was here first.
“… or if there’s something inside of it which is important, then it’s not so stupid.” She said, accidentally stroking his knee with her hand as she reached out once again to see if perhaps this time she would be allowed to see what was inside the box. But Stefan didn’t remove his hand from it. He was a little uncomfortable now that she had come so close and he kept looking around to see if he could find her parents or a grandmother or a babysitter – he wasn’t particularly fond of kids; he imagined them to have hands full of bacteria. Also, they had a way of telling stories without any sense of focus and this really bothered Stefan. Most of his nephews really seemed stupid.
“Is there?” she asked.
“Is there anything really important in that box?”
Stefan looked at her for a while, thinking about his mother. He glanced at his hand, on guard, resting on top of the box and, defeated, almost let on a smile as he sighed and removed it. The little girl moved one step closer to the box, looked at Stefan and then back at the box.
“You can open it,” he told her.
She opened it, removed the top lid and put it aside. Stefan then watched the girl as she brought out each of his dead mother’s belongings, one by one, studying them closely. It seemed to Stefan these seemingly worthless things somehow appeared to be full of life and, he came to think of the word ‘hope’, in the hands of the little girl. She never opened the notebook but stared at its cover for a long time. Stefan thought this a strange thing to do, or was it that she was actually being polite? She removed the book and discovered the gold watch and looked at it and felt its weight in her hand. Then she removed that too and went on to the worn out flip flops. She took them out of the box and put each one of them onto her hands. She pretended to be walking in the air with them and giggled. Stefan smiled and when their eyes met, the little girl handed him back the flip flops.
“You try it,” she said. “Put them on your hands like I just did.”
He did exactly what the girl told him to do and made a few silly movements with his hands as though they were dancing. The little girl laughed. She brought out the pair of glasses from the box and put them on; they made her eyes look enormous. She made a funny face and Stefan chuckled at the sight of it.
Someone called out for a certain Fiona, and the little girl suddenly removed the glasses from the tip of her nose, carefully put them back into the box and then hurried away. Stefan was left with the rest of the things spread out on the bench, and the box. He looked up at the sky and felt the sun warm his face. He recollected the things, put them back into the box and got up on his feet. He walked towards the high street and as he passed a recycling station on his way, he emptied the box, putting each item into the right recycling container and then held it like that for a while; feeling the empty box light in his hand.
Then, he let go of that too.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF MARCUS COOPER.