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The Boy on the Bicycle

That night I worked late. I was deeply immersed in the laborious task of checking through page after page of figures. The uncharacteristic silence was accentuated by the steady buzz of computer equipment and the occasional tapping of my fingers upon a keyboard. A sharp rapping at the window startled me. I jumped and my heartbeat quickened but when I looked up to see who had knocked I discovered with relief that it was only a small boy. The reflection of light upon the glass made it difficult for me to make out his features and so I stood up and impulsively opened the window, thinking, 'What on earth is a child doing here at this time of night?' As I squinted through the open window, I noticed that he was barefoot and wore shorts and a scruffy shirt. It struck me that he must be freezing. It was a bitterly cold night. I let him inside and was overcome with a pity on seeing the pathetic state of the poor child. His little hands and feet were literally blue with cold and the skin on his legs was mottled. His knees were encrusted with scabs. I noticed that he had large grey eyes and a spattering of freckles on his dirty face. I took my warm wool jacket off and draped it over his skinny shoulders and made him sit close to the radiator while I made hot tea. I watched while he sipped upon the steaming beverage until the shivers subsided before asking him what I could do to help. He looked at me with the pathetic look of a small puppy and replied, 'Thank you lady. I need a lift home. Please could you drive me? I've got my bicycle but it's too far and my mom is sick. She's going to be so worried." I asked him what he was doing out so late and he told me that he washed cars to make money to support his family. He had cycled far from home to reach a more affluent area where he was likely to make more money. He had tried to cycle home again but had got lost. I asked him what area he lived in and he told me that he lived in Newlands, an area on the rougher side of town crammed with ramshackle houses. I was stunned at how far such a small boy had cycled. When I asked him how old he was I was surprised to learn that he was eleven. I had guessed that he was around eight years of age based on his size. I promised him that I would drive him home and after packing up, we left the office together and walked to my car. Fortunately we were able to fit his small bicycle into the trunk.  On the long drive to his neighbourhood, I questioned him. He told me that he had a little sister who stayed home and took care of his ailing mother. Neither of the children went to school. I wondered if his mother was sick or if she was a drunk or worse. What caring mother would let her small child work to support her, especially dressed as he was. Finally we arrived in Newlands and the boy was able to direct me to his house. The dark streets, unlit by streetlights, turned shadows into imaginary or maybe not so imaginary threats. The houses, so dark and ominous, seemed to sit on their haunches like malevolent creatures. The bitterly cold wind buffeted my car and lifted bits of paper and plastic into the air in a desolate dance. Eventually he signalled for me to stop and I pulled over, my headlights illuminating a box-like structure that passed for a house. I helped him hoist his bicycle out of my trunk and gently but firmly insisted I go in with him. I wanted to meet his mother. Entering that house was quite a shock. It was dingy and the only form of lighting came from a paraffin lamp flickering on the kitchen table. I was moved with compassion and this emotion only intensified when a little girl that looked to be around six years of age rushed up to greet her brother. She was also barefoot and wore a small dress made of a flimsy material that had been darned in many places. I felt angry at the state of these two children and became determined to find out what was wrong with the neglectful mother. Quietly fuming, I asked the little girl where her mother was and she told me that she was sleeping. I asked to talk to her but both the children shook their heads vehemently and begged me to let her rest. I asked if I could at least see her and promised them I wouldn't wake her and they finally relented. I was sure I'd smell the stench of alcohol. I had convinced myself that their mother was either a drunk or a drug addict. I was unprepared for what I'd see in the tiny room I was led to. The woman was skeletal and hollow eyed. She lay on a dirty mattress with a single blanket wrapped around her bony frame. I did not smell alcohol but there was an unmistakable stench of decay in that room - a living death. I wondered for a moment if in fact she was dead but when I heard the rattling of her breath I realized that although she was critically ill and probably on death's door, she was still alive. "What is wrong with her?" I whispered. The boy looked at me with large sad eyes and said, "She's got AIDS" I gasped in shock at the revelation (even more so at his knowledge of it) and asked him why she was not in a hospital. He shared that she had been but that she had been sent home because the hospital couldn't help her. It seemed inconceivable to me that a woman who was clearly dying could be sent home to waste away in front of her two children. I learnt that their father had disappeared years before. They did not seem to have other relatives and neither of the two children knew where to turn to for help. They'd taken it upon themselves to care for their mother. The boy proudly showed me how much money he had made that day from his car washing and told me that he was saving up for a warm comforter for his mother. Both children slept on a mattress in the same room as their mother. I told the children that I'd come back the next morning to see them and made the boy promise he would not go anywhere until I returned. For a brief moment I considered taking them home with me but I knew that they'd refuse to leave their mother and I would not have known how to explain their presence to my cynical husband. On the long drive to my own home I wondered what I could have done. Could I have bundled their mother up in my car and taken her back to the hospital and insisted they help her? Thoughts milled through my mind as tears finally spilled from my eyes and poured unchecked down my cheeks. I spent a restless night tossing and turning in my warm comfortable bed, unable to sleep with disturbing images haunting my dreams. As the sun rose, I got up and dressed. I rifled through cupboards and pulled out blankets and towels. I found a bag of my children's old clothing, grateful I hadn't gotten round to giving them away. I packed all of these onto the back seat of my car and then filled the boot with groceries from my own cupboards and all my stock of candles. I collect candles and so had a formidable collection. There was a niggling thought that I should be reporting the state of these children to child welfare and getting them into foster care but I knew that they would not agree to leave their ailing mother and I determined to try to help them as best I could. I also made up my mind to get in touch with welfare organizations to see what help could be offered the poor woman. I drove back to Newlands but although I remembered the street I had driven to the night before, I could not for the life of me remember where the house was located.  I certainly would not have recognized it even if I saw it. There were no numbers on the houses and they all looked so similar. I cursed for not having paid closer attention to where I had driven when I saw the boy cycling down the road toward me. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled over as he cycled up to me.
"I thought I told you not to go anywhere." I chided with a smile.
"I've got to buy some bread and milk" he replied quickly and then smiled broadly when I told him that I had brought plenty of food with me.
"Gee thanks Lady."
"You're welcome. Now lead me back to your house will you?"
He nodded, turned his bicycle around and cycled furiously up the road until finally he pulled into the yard of the decrepit box of a house that was his home. I entered through the kitchen, carrying boxes of food and supplies. I was once again struck by the abject poverty of this family. I found the place depressing and an odious smell seemed to permeate throughout. The little girl had made some attempt to clean up with a dirty rag but without proper cleaning materials she was not able to make much of a difference. I made a mental note to bring further supplies at my next visit. Both children helped me unpack the groceries with such excitement it was as if I had brought them Christmas gifts. Their excitement and jubilation brought tears to my eyes again but I blinked them back. I didn't want them to know how deeply their plight touched me. These two children did not know what it was to have a normal childhood. They had no grassy lawn on which to play, no trees to climb and no toys. Other than the boy's old bicycle, there was not a single bit of evidence that children inhabited this place. After we had unpacked all of the supplies I asked if their mother was awake.
"She's still sleeping. Sshhh," said the little girl with a finger pressed to her lips.
"Are you sure? Would you mind if I checked?"
When I entered the room again I noticed that she was lying on her side and not on her back, as she had been when I first saw her. Her body barely made a dent on the bed it was so tiny – almost childlike. I tiptoed around the bed and then looked down at her face. Her hair was wispy and her cheekbones sharp. They looked almost as though they could pierce her skin, a skin that was surprisingly smooth but completely devoid of colour. There was a line of drool hanging from her mouth. I listened for the raspy sound of breath and when I heard none I gently touched her shoulder with my hand. She was rigidly cold to the touch. It dawned on me with ice shock that she was dead and had been so for hours (in all likelihood she had died just after I'd left the night before). My heart sunk in those seconds I stood with my hand upon her frail shoulder my mind spinning as I pondered what I would tell the children. It seemed to be more than a coincidence that the little boy had knocked on my window the night before. Was it providential that I had been around at the right time? I wondered about what would have happened had I not decided to work late that night or if the boy hadn't knocked on my window. Where would these children have turned when their mother died? All these questions whirled around in my mind but the most pressing one was how I was going to break the news to the two children. They were right at that moment excitedly making a meal for their beloved mother with the supplies I had brought them. I had never spoken to the woman and yet I felt an indescribable sadness at her death. I marvelled at the love and loyalty of her two children who had at great personal sacrifice taken care of her as best they could. After their mother's death, the children were placed in a children's home and I visited them regularly until they were placed into foster care. I was told at that point that it was best that I allow them to adapt to their new surroundings. It was suggested that my presence could be a distraction and although I didn't agree I acquiesced with reluctance. The last time I paid them a visit both children hugged me enthusiastically. They looked healthy and happy. The nightmare of that cold night seemed to have faded from their memories. Somehow the memory has taken longer to fade from mine. On cold nights I often find myself thinking about them and wondering where they are and how they're doing. Thinking about that night reminds me to be grateful.
Thinking about the love and loyalty of those two children still warms me....especially on a cold night like this. © Chanti 
 

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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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