It was the sort of café one ends up in. A place that no one would choose, where time is wasted before something better happens. They were sitting at a table, four Europeans, with unloved luggage left carelessly on the forlorn terrace.
Smoking heavily, they must have been travellers on their way to the next awesome experience. Shorts that mismatched t shirts hinted at uniformly alternative new age leanings Long gaps in their millennial conversation were adequately plugged by the WiFi that comes free with the mediocre coffee.
It was fifteen minutes before I noticed her. A girl of no more than five years, who must have spent more moments than just these unwanted. She came from nowhere and talked to the group but no one seemed able to look up from the internet to respond. One or more of these slightly grubby people must have been her parent. A small blonde girl with blue eyes was bored in Asia and no one seemed concerned. So conspicuous and yet unacknowledged by those who have a duty of care.
Cigarettes were finished and butts were squashed underfoot. Backpacks were swung into position and the four travellers were ready to depart. The girl’s hand was taken wordlessly as if she were just excess baggage and off they set, towards the next adventure.
What untold want do you have, little voyager, whose parents have set sail to seek and find? What memories of childhood will you create? How must it feel to be incarcerated on the backpack trail of someone else’s escape?
I am a brother. It is something that does not take up much time, yet my brother is often in my thoughts. As children, our age shaped the roles we were given and seems to have shaped the men we have become.
He is older than me, and when I was young, he seemed so grown up. I looked to him for guidance and advice. Our home situation was somewhat less than conventional, so an unfair burden was placed on him that I never carried. He was expected to take care of me whereas I was just expected to be younger. He shouldered responsibility at an early age while I skipped through life, almost oblivious to the world around me.
My brother is fifty five years old now, and he has taken care of his wife and their sons. His family has grown up in a safe and loving environment that did not mirror our childhood existence. A stable home, where promises were kept and boundaries were maintained, has produced two happy confident young men. They have a home which is solid, built on love, respect and hard work.
I don't have a home and I have never really settled. I roam about the world, restlessly seeking things I'll probably never find. I would like to know how it feels to share my home and my life with someone. I am fifty and have never lived with a partner. I can only imagine the joys and woes of parenthood and have resigned myself to my solitary life. I have shirked life's responsibilities and I am still skipping. I never have everything I need and yet, thanks to the kindness of people around me, my scrapes are survived. I am still that boy who never has a clean tissue and always has untied laces.
On one level I have always wanted to be like my brother, but I am not. I am the younger son, and I was only ever expected to need looking after. He grew up to be a caretaker and I, perhaps not yet grown up, still take care when it is offered
They sit together barely communicating with one another but restless thumbs scroll on screens. I suppose being familiar can be the quietest of contempt. She, fat and forty, exhales a thick cigarette fog over her companions who seem immune or perhaps resigned. She stubs out one and moves to light another. A barely discernible nod from her right indicates this vice is shared with him, a decade older but equally overfed.
How many evenings have they silently coexisted. Three plump islands in life’s slipstream, tightly knit and yet removed from one another by the sound of silence. Two smokers and the third, passively sitting in the smoky, silent spaces left by her elders.
It’s her I feel for. This odd third wheel who, unspeaking and unspoken to, lives on mute. She is not yet ten. Her smoky childhood, a paradise lost, has been sacrificed for forbidden fruit.
This is no modern tragedy. This is just a familiar, familial scene updated for the electronic age.