We’d been to concert at the Town Hall. It was a Saturday night and still early for a Saturday Night Out. So many people on the streets. The girls barely dressed, the boys bouncing around in t-shirts. Older people threaded along the pavements walking purposefully, but ‘properly’ dressed, and now making their way, as we were, for the station.
I know He noticed her because He stopped, momentarily. We were holding hands. He loves to hold my hand. That evening I remember squeezing his hand firmly as if to say how pleased I was He was here and I was not walking to the station alone. I have done this, walking to the station alone, so often. It is good to have someone close at such times, someone to talk to about the performance, the music, what is going on around us. We walked right past them.
I noticed the man first and then the child. He was very tall, very dark, wearing a black leather jacket I think. He was not scruffy so much as untidy, dark and untidy, with curly hair that did not know a comb. He was busking. He sang an incomprehensible song in a language I didn’t recognize, playing an electric guitar plugged into a small amplifier by his feat. He turned from side to side as he sang as though looking for an audience. I remember his trainers and the soft guitar case open on the pavement with a smattering of coins. Then, this child.
Over the last two days I’ve examined the scene in my memory. I’ve sought to recall as much as I can about this little girl. She was not that little I think for her age, perhaps seven or eight. Stocky. Thick golden brown hair. A sensible skirt covering her knees, a fawn jumper with some sparkly decoration. Tights or long socks perhaps. Proper shoes. I keep examining my mind’s photo. What I recall most vividly was her large smiling eyes and her expression. This is my daddy, it said. He’s singing and I’m here looking after him. I’m his smiley girl here on the city street. It’s late. Other children back home would be in bed, but I’m here smiling at the people passing.
Yesterday we talked about this couple, the little girl mostly. He brought the subject up. He’d been thinking about her too. He’d been puzzling over the two of them. As a pair they seemed so physically different, hardly father and daughter. It was the (possible) daughter’s gaze, her twinkling eyes that had spoken to him - as they had spoken to me. This is my daddy, those eyes and that smiley face had said. And she was holding a bear.
Why did I not mention the bear until now? Of course, she was holding her bear. She had both arms around her bear. She was hugging her bear to herself. It was a mild evening for March – she wore no coat. He looked a good bear, not too old or small, not the kind of bear she’d been given in infancy, perhaps recently acquired but well-loved, well-hugged. A bear that seemed entirely right for her age, for her slightly old fashioned clothes. The sort of clothes I might have worn as a child. I think of a photo of me at that age dressed in a Cloth-Kits dress, with an Alice band, with glasses and lots of curly hair.
He said ‘I’ve been wondering about the two of them. Did they have a home? Where would they go to when it became late?’ Was there a mother? Was she working somewhere on that Saturday night and the father had to take the girl. Was she wearing her best clothes? She looked OK. A glowing, healthy face, a face that reflected the bright, coloured lights of the city street.’
Suddenly, I realised there were tears in his eyes. I thought, He is imagining a story. He is imagining a story of this seven year old who should have been tucked up in bed with her bear, like my little boy with his blue blanket. He was imagining her life., her past in some Eastern European town, where she went to school, where she had friends and relatives, where she had been born and brought up, and been loved. And now the girl was here in this not so distant city. Perhaps illegally, without the papers, smuggled in as so many are. Her father, swarthy, even a tinge of the Roma perhaps, but she so different. It was the golden brown hair. Thick hair, a ribbon tied in it. A pink ribbon.
He had thought of his little girl, now fifteen, only when she was that age, seven. Oddly similar in some ways, the thick hair, the smiley face, a different but ever present bear, an infant’s bear, not a bear she’d take with her except in a bag. A bear not to be seen with at seven, but loved.
‘I’ll call her Katya,’ He said. The girl, not the bear.
And later He did. Every few days He would mention her – just in passing. ‘Do you think Katya’s at school today?’ ‘I was in the city this afternoon, but I didn’t see Katya.’
He wrote about her and her father. A little story. I haven’t read it. He just told me He’d written it; He’d thought of following them in his imagination. He was a little embarrassed telling me this, and He didn’t offer to show me the story, which is unusual because when He mentions He’s written something He usually does. And so I wonder. I wonder how long this memory will stay with him and whether He will follow this couple (and her bear) into the future, create a story for them to live in.
Perhaps it will bring him the peace He does not have. The peace I try to give him when He is with me at home and we sit in my little house, at my table eating toast with Marmite after I’ve been out late whilst He’s sat on my settee and read – in peace at being in my home. I know He feels cast adrift from his family and He can’t be part of mine, yet a while. Perhaps it’s like being in another country. Perhaps He thinks, at least that busker had his child with him, his shining star, his ever-smiley girl.
Yet He is thinking of his smiley girl, smiley still at fifteen, still loving her dad despite what He’s done, despite the fact that she sees him so seldom. Despite the fact that He is only occasionally with her, and she knowing I, his lover, his young woman, his companion and friend, has captured his heart and thoughts.
I think of Katya too. I think of my older girl, so loved and circled about with love and admiration by her respective families and our friends. She is so special and so beautiful, as I was special at eleven, as I think I was beautiful at eleven, just on the brink of that transformation that will take her towards becoming a teenager – and the rest.
We were lying in bed the Saturday morning before seeing Katya and I was telling him about my childhood. He’d asked me about zebra finches. Walking in his nearby park He had admired their bright red beaks in the park’s newly-restored aviary. I told him about a parrot in a park close to my childhood home, a parrot I passed as I went to school. I described for him my walk to school, meeting up with my friends, passing the parrot. I know how happy it made him to hear me talk about such things. He said so later, embracing me in the kitchen. ’I so love to hear you talk about your childhood.’ I could feel he was moved to say this. It was important. I realised then just how deeply he loved me. That it was important. That he imagined me as a child. That He wanted to know that part of me. He’s rarely asked about the stuff in between. Of my former lovers I’ve said a little. He has said a little about his past liaisons and affaires, but knows I am uncomfortable when he does. So we leave this. But childhood, That’s so different, because it is that precious, precious time of shelter and care: when we begin to discover who we are and who and what we love.
Where is Katya now? In a messy room she shares with her parents in a house shared with economic migrants, where she has a few belongings in three plastic bags. In one, her best clothes she wears to stand on the city street on a Saturday night with her daddy. In another a jumble of not so clean clothes she rotates each day. She has her sleeping bag, her bear, her warm coat and gloves. There’s a few magazines she’s found about the house. English is puzzling. She learnt a little at school back home, and from the TV of course, those American soaps. If she was here in my house I would stand her in the shower, wash her thick hair, put her clothes in the machine, sit her on my bed in my daughter’s clothes with some picture books, introduce her to my cats, we would bake some buns. I would give her a small gift of my love to take away with her and she would look on me with her smiley face, her sparkling eyes and let me hold her bear.
And later when I saw him I would tell him that Katya had been with me for a little, and tears would fall, mine and his, knowing that only in our dreams could we make this so.