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The Old Man and the Boy

The shortsightedness of youth. The folly of old age. The treasure of a mariage turned to friendship. These are some of the issues dealt with in this story.


Wess Greenleaf

While his wife had lived it was ever her complaint that he never bought her flowers, so, when she died he was prompted, belatedly, by guilt, to rectify the situation.
Every Sunday afternoon when he entered the graveyard to talk to his wife and leave her a few fresh flowers the old man passed a shabby, dusty beggar-boy sitting by the gate. As beggars go, he was a healthy, intelligent boy: he never propositioned people on the way in to the cemetery when they probably felt bad, but always on the way out, when their guilt or fear was dissipated and were reminded that it was good to be alive. “Good morning, Sir. Please spare five centimos for some bread. ”Never overly demanding: always five. And always polite.
“I’m sorry, my boy. I’m not a rich man. The money I have spare I use to buy flowers for my wife. ”With a slow movement of his tired and rounded shoulders he indicated the grave he’d just left. “When I visit the shrine of Santa Sophia, I will pray for you,” he called back.
“Thank you, Sir.” The boy had already turned his eyes away.
While the old man walked slowly home he reflected on the pathos in the boy’s voice.
As he drew closer to his village he paused to drop last Sunday’s flowers into the rubbish beside the road. The wilted, faded petals were like himself: he walked with a stoop, his face was pleasant but wrinkled. Soon, he would sleep with his wife again. And she would say, “So, there you are, you old goat! Where have you been? Watching the young girls in their little dresses. Oh, yes, you brought me flowers every Sunday – but what were you doing all the other days? Sitting in the sun, wishing like a panting dog.” How well she knew him. But then, what more pleasant occupation was there for an old man? He could pinch those deliciously firm buttocks but was it worth it? Most of the girls became angry with him. And even if they didn’t, there was nothing he could do about it. For some illogical reason, he became angry with his dead wife.
Once again the young beggar boy came to his mind. What would the future be for this child? The world had changed. The old man remembered his own childhood: there were about twenty boys in the village. He knew their names. That is to say, he knew them all, seventy years ago. They could wander into the forest and pick fruit or nuts, berries. The older ones had revealed secrets about roots and fungi which could be sold when the priest was somewhere else. Now the forest was a hundred miles away and there were so many beggars the police shot them for something to do when they grew bored or cold on night shift.
The flowers cost him two centimos, but his old woman never thanked him for them. Come to that, she never even thanked him for coming to see her to keep her grave tidy and wipe the dust from her picture.
Then, the wonderful thought came to him; if he gave the two centimos to the young boy, he could buy bread for several days. It would be stale bread of course but he would not have to beg. And even if he continued to beg, the money could be saved to buy an education.
The old man sat at his table. He took a pencil, licked the lead and, not having any paper in the house, began to mark the tabletop. His figures were right: if the boy saved the money in one year he would have more than one hundred centimos: enough to learn to read and write. Always when the bosses had work to offer, they asked, “Can you read? Can you write your name?” If the answer was no, you were the first to be sent away. Those who could read and write did not starve.
On his way to the cemetery the following Sunday, the old man was feeling particularly cheerful. As he wandered through the streets the young girls looked wonderfully lithe and vivacious. Their eyes were bright and their thighs splendidly dark.
Although he was early, the boy greeted him amiably as usual: “Sir?”
“Good morning, young man.”
“You have forgotten your flowers, Sir.”
“No, boy. I did not forget.” He was scarcely able to keep the smile from his face as he moved slowly to his wife’s grave-side. For the first time, he was eager to return and speak of his plans to the boy; he muttered two ‘Our Fathers’ and three ‘Hail Marys’ before hauling himself up from his knees. The old man made the sign of the cross, and shuffled back to the gate.
The boy was still there. “Good morning, Sir. Please, could you spare five centimos for some bread?”
“Young man, there is something I wish to say to you. Here are two centimos. If you are here every. . .” The old man’s words were stilled as he watched the boy’s expression change.
“Two! Two centimos!” The boy jumped to his feet. “What can I do with two centimos?” he demanded scornfully. “You miserable old fart! Why, I could . . .” Too shocked to be frightened, the old man turned hastily away as the boy bent to the earth, reaching into the dust for a stone. “Here’s a gift from me!”
There was an instant during which, through the pain of lightning in his head, he realized the boy had thrown a rock at him, and a moment of anger while he was still standing. The fall to the ground knocked all breath from his fragile lungs. Darkness followed; he was blind. A chill sweat drenched his body as he lay in the afternoon sun and his head swam drunkenly as the boy stood over him.
“You stupid old bastard! You rich people are all the same. Now . . .” the boy looked around but there was no-one in sight, “I will have all your money and tell them you fell and cracked your head on the roadside.”
He felt rough hands thrusting into his near-empty pockets. All the boy found were the two centimos.
The old man closed his eyes. His head fell to one side and he saw his wife marching towards him, her black skirts flapping briskly under her crisp white apron, her finger raised, waving some reprimand at him.
The beggar-boy was puzzled and then annoyed by the smile on the wrinkled old face. Fear prompted him to make the sign of the cross to ward off evil.
The old man sighed his last breath on earth. But he was still smiling.


© Arty Scott
Nottingham NG2 5GW
Great Britain
Kick and Fail
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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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