Fiction

Three takes

Juggling

The child is juggling in the streets. His parents have dressed him in his best, but even these clothes have seen better days. His act is better suited to a circus than the city square, but for each day he comes here, he leaves at the end with his pockets filled with coins.

I feel the need to say straight out that I don’t support this child-juggling, that to give him money is to encourage others to do the same. This is a child and he belongs in a school and if his parents need money, there are programs run by the state. It is deliberate, these clothes they dress him in, knowing he’ll make more money while they quietly watch from the sides.

We watch. It’s hard to miss the act that stops the city, that makes people stop to chat, but it just goes to show that people don’t have much happening in their heads these days. What really does it for me is when he drops the ball, and he makes the same mistake every day, but people go on clapping him anyway.

 

The Proper Place

The homeless man is a local and chances are you’ve seen him around the place. There are many stories about his origins, but no matter how far back your memory goes, you cannot remember him having a house. Some days he sleeps in the alley behind the shops or on a bench in the park, and you make a point of handing over your loose change because, remember, you have more than enough.

You could say you were friendly until you were not, and you have your reasons and you say them anyway, whether the other person is listening or not.

It was the school, wasn’t it, that tipped you over the edge? It’s one thing this friendliness on the streets, him hidden out of sight, and another him taking up a permanent post on the school grounds. It is public space, yes, you acknowledge that, but do the children have to see the homeless man in their environment every time they are outside? He frightens them because he smells and he carries diseases, much like the pigeons and the rats, and the garbage accumulates around him, while the children are used to nothing but cleanliness in their surrounds.

You took up the petition, actually you started the whole thing. You dressed up your arguments in terms of safety – stranger danger! – because us citizens have the right not to have  intrusions like this coming into our lives.

You cautioned the children about their generosity. You reminded them to stay away just in case. You stopped your smiles and nods, your occasional coins, because you know he has overstepped the mark. When you realised you could not move him on, you decided to fence off the school to ensure that it remains a protected place. His things were moved gently and he collected his scraps and you were happy to see him off, looking for a new space to occupy.

You sense now a return – everyone and everything back in its place – and so you relax, you smile, the coins are back out, but notice that once upon a time he met your eyes, yet these days he makes a point of looking the other way.

 

The Friends

for Gabrielle

Once upon a time, there lived a man in a government flat. He has lived alone for many years – if he thinks 20, 30 years, he admits finally it’s even longer than that. It is a comfortable flat but it is small. It was given to him freely and he tries to remember that whenever he begins to complain.

Sometimes he is woken by his bird friends. They are at his window every morning even before the sun arrives. He knows these birds, their families and their names, and if he did not have to clean up after them, he would even let them into his home.

He once did let them in but that is a story for another day. Let us say that he did it once and never again, and there is a reason the trial ended at that.

When he can afford it, he buys them food and he feeds them carefully, telling himself he’ll only put out this cup, but one cup becomes another cup, and it makes him so happy to see these birds he knows, and that they’ve brought with them some of their friends.

They make a racket on his balcony and he knows there are complaints from his neighbours overhead. He has tried to shoosh them but they are birds and they will do whatever is in their heads and so he no longer even tries.

It occurs to him that this bag he feeds them may well be the last. The last time he went in, they questioned his spending, saying that from now on there will be tokens to ensure he only uses the government purse to feed himself and no one else. And it was mentioned then quietly – you do not need to be ashamed – but we know you have been feeding the birds, and maybe it is your illness but, either way, it is not for the state to provide the funds for that.

He dreams of the bag of bird food, calculating how many days he has left. Perhaps it lasts the week, perhaps it does not, but soon he will have tokens to spend in the supermarket to make sure the state money does not go to waste.

And just before he falls asleep, he has a clear moment and it makes him smile in the dark. He will buy more human food to share with his friends, and that way, he will be fed and also his colourful friends will not be left to starve.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Three takes".

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Yumna Kassab is a writer based in Sydney. Her novel Australiana (Ultimo Press) is out this month.

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