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Hans-Christian Oeser



The New Kid on the Block


A Story



He woke. A loud knock on the door. He rubbed his eyes and checked the time. Friday. One o’clock. A knock on the door? At one o’clock in the morning? Who could that be? A neighbour? The law? Or, God forbid, an irate ex-lover? Still dazed, he climbed out of bed. He was fully dressed. A dense smell of drink hung in the air. He staggered to the door and peered through the spyhole. No one to be seen. He was just about to turn away and crawl back into bed when there was another knock, this time more timid. Who the hell? He peeped again, and now he could make out a shock of blond hair. Just about.

  He opened the door. In front of him, cap in hand, face cast down, stood a small boy, maybe five years of age. This much he could see. Blue anorak, blue trousers, blue wellies. A picture of blueness. And wetness. Yes, it had been pouring all day and well into the night.

  ‘What is it?’ he asked.

  ‘You are my father,’ the boy replied.

  ‘I’m what?’

  ‘You are my father,’ the boy repeated. His cap was trembling slightly.

  ‘Sorry, kid, this is no time for jokes. Who sent you?’

  ‘My Mum. She says to tell you, you are my father.’

  ‘Surely not this time of night, she doesn’t? What’s her name?’


  He didn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused. It was wet and dark out there, and uncertain whether to let the boy in or send him away, he asked,

  ‘And what’s your name?’


  ‘Gabriel who?’

  ‘Just Gabriel?

  ‘Look, come on in. But just for a second. We have to sort this out.’

  Cautiously, the boy stepped into an untidy apartment. Things were strewn all over the place. Bottles, cans. Some white stuff. What happened last night? he asked himself. But that was for later. When he was clearer in his head. Right now it was aching.

  ‘Now, tell me, boy, where were you born?’

  ‘When Mum is mad with me, she says in a dustbin.’

  ‘In a dustbin, is it? I’d have thought in a rain barrel, by the looks of it. At least tell me where you live.’

  ‘Down the road.’

  ‘Down the road? No way. I would have seen you around. I am a man about town. How far down the road?’

  ‘I counted my steps. One thousand and … and three?’

  He had to smile in spite of himself. ‘Well, that’s some distance all right. Where’s your Mum right now?’

  ‘At the corner, waiting. We’ve been waiting for a while.’

  ‘Waiting? Lying in ambush, more likely. So you are the advance troops?’

  ‘Advance troops?’

  ‘The scout. To reconnoitre the terrain.’

  ‘To what?’

  ‘To pry on me. To spy on me.’

  ‘I’m not spying. I am only here to tell you that …’

  ‘I am your father. I know. The cheek of it! I have no children. None that I know of. Can you describe your mother to me? Is she broad-hipped? Has she got a nice bottom on her?’ His voice sounded gruff.


  He bit his lip. ‘Sorry. I meant is she blonde like you or what?’

  ‘She is very soft.’

  ‘Very soft? Outrageous she is. To falsely accuse me of fatherhood. And in the dead of night. Disturbing me in my well-deserved sleep. Sending a small boy out on a mission in the pitch-black dark. Has she no conscience?’

  ‘She used that word herself. She says you have no conscience.’

  ‘I have enough conscience for two. I won’t let myself be insulted by a young fellow like you, nor by his mother. That’s it. Be gone. Get out. We are done.’

  And he shoved the boy to the door, opened it and pushed him out. His eyes still bleary, his mind befuddled. A child? A boy? His? It couldn’t be. He had always been careful. With all of them. And there had been many. He was popular. Sought after, one might say. He prided himself on that. His good looks. Black hair, blue eyes. Broad shoulders, deep voice. A sense of humour. Easy to be with. A passable dancer, if only within his own four walls. And he was good with words. ‘You are so good with words, darling!’ That’s what they wanted. Or so they said. But he knew there was the bottle. Always the bottle. And if it wasn’t the bottle, it was the can.

  The boy turned around and said rather innocently,

  ‘But Mum is waiting for you.’

  ‘Tell her she can go to hell in a handcart.’

  At this the boy began to cry.

  ‘I don’t want her in hell. And she has no handcart. It’s just the two of us.’

  ‘Look, Gabriel. Gabriel is right, isn’t it? There is no need to cry. Or if there was, all of us would be crying. All the time. Love and life and all that, you know.’

  The boy shook his head. He didn’t know. But he gazed up at him. Beseechingly.

  ‘All right then. Let’s go and investigate.’


  ‘Let’s find out what all this is about. Wait.’

  He went to the hallstand and took his raincoat off the hook. Together they stepped down the stairs and onto the street. Still raining. Cold. Dark. A few yards away he could make out a figure huddled at the corner. When they approached, he saw that it was a woman. Unfamiliar. A blonde, to judge by the few strands of hair showing under her hood. No hips to speak of. But that might be due to her thick parka.

  ‘There you are, at last,’ she said, softly. Her face small, not unpretty. Little nose, curved lips, green eyes. In a different situation he might have been interested. Even though he was still a bit hungover.

  ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ he asked, trying to sound assertive.

  ‘It’s me, Emma,’ she said quietly. ‘Don’t you recognise me?’

  ‘I don’t know you from Eve. So how the hell could I recognise you? I wouldn’t know any Emmas in the first place. Emma! What a name! What is it you want?’

  The boy was listening intently. ‘Not hell again,’ he pleaded.

  ‘Has Gabriel not told you? You are his father. He is five now. And he has begun to ask for you. Little boys can be curious. So I thought the time had come to make contact.’

  ‘To make contact? In the middle of the night? By sending ahead this little fellow, wet as he is? Too cowardly yourself? What sort of mother are you?’

  ‘A good mother. His.’

  ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph! And the Holy Ghost is his father, eh?’

  ‘No. You are.’

  ‘Now listen to me. That’s a lie, a big fat lie. I have no children, not a single one. And I don’t want any, either. And if you won’t leave me in peace, I’ll call the Guards.’

  And with that he span around on his heels and walked off. He was barely gone six yards, when her soft voice called after him.


  His name wasn’t Charlie, nor was it Charles. But he made all the women he had dealings with call him Charlie. It sounded more appropriate than his real name, Ignatius. Hardly a proper name for a successful seducer of women. And too churchly for a boozer. If only booze and women could be reconciled! On the other hand, maybe the booze called for more women, or the women called for more booze? He didn’t know which he loved more. Last night, for instance, they had been drinking heavily but still had a good time in bed, a very good time indeed. Ah, it all came back to him now. Moira, fiery redhaired Moira, had left him at the stroke of midnight, saying that she was expected back home. A proper Cinderella. ‘Love you, Charlie,’ she had whispered when she left the apartment, and blown him a kiss. He had gone straight to bed. But then, only an hour later, that rascal of a boy knocks at the door! An Emma’s rascal! When will a busy man find rest?

  Slowly he turned. ‘Charlie? What’s that supposed to mean? My name is Ignatius. A good Christian name. Jesuitical, in fact.’

  The woman said, ‘When we first met, you told me your name was Charlie, and when we were together and I spoke your name, you smiled and said, “Emma, I love you,” and smiled even more.’

  ‘We were never together, “Emma,” or who the hell you are,’ he said.

  The boy cocked his ears. ‘Not hell again,’ he reiterated.

  ‘Don’t you remember? Six years ago? How do you think I know your apartment? How do you think I knew where to send the boy? I came once a week and we had a good time, a very good time indeed. Don’t you remember? Whenever I left, I said how much I loved you. And you smiled and said, “Love you, too. You made my day. See you next week. Can’t wait. Never met a woman like you. You’re so wonderful. I would do anything for you. Without you I am nothing.” Don’t you remember?’

  ‘He says love makes him cry,’ the boy said. ‘Life, too.’

  ‘I’ve never met you in all my living days.’

  ‘Oh, how wrong you are. It might have been nights. But you said you wanted a child with me. You do have a child with me. Won’t you face up to it?’ For a moment, her voice sounded strident, not as gentle as before.

  Ignatius didn’t move. There was a silence. All three of them, the hooded woman, the booted boy and the man without recollection, stood there in the rain, frozen and tired.

  At that moment, another woman rounded the corner.

  ‘Hi, Charlie,’ she called to him, ‘how is she cuttin’?’

  ‘Like a knife,’ he murmured, mechanically.

  He could feel the knife inside him. Emma? Emma? He searched his memory. He usually went for the broad-hipped sort, with a nice bottom on them and something to hold on to up front.

  ‘He promised me a rose garden,’ Emma shouted after the woman, ‘and now look at us.’

  ‘Me, too,’ the woman replied over her shoulder. ‘That’s what he does. He’s a good-for-nothing. But he will dearly pay for it. And soon.’

  But hadn’t there been one specimen, a mere slip of a woman, almost boyish? Emma? Emma? Emma! The Thursday woman! Little nose, curved lips, green eyes. Pretty, and pretty good in bed. But hadn’t he told her that he needed some space for himself? In a very calm deep voice, ‘Emma, I’m truly sorry but we can’t see each other any more. I need some space for myself.’ She in tears. ‘But you do have so much space for yourself. From Fridays to Wednesdays – nothing but space. Am I making any demands on you?’ But what could he do? Moira had appeared on the scene, fiery redhaired Moira. And she had to be slotted in. She was the one to have brought the cocaine. A line and a lay per week. That liaison was bound to last. Much to his regret, Emma had to be unceremoniously discarded.

  ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ he declared in a solemn voice.

  ‘What’s he saying, Mum?’ the boy asked.

  ‘He means that he won’t acknowledge me, or you, or anyone or anything in this world. He is denying me, as Jesus was denying His Mother.’

  To Ignatius she said, ‘I was only ever wondering why it had to be Thursdays, and only Thursdays. Why we couldn’t meet, say, on a Tuesday or on a Sunday for a change.’

  ‘I am a busy man, a very busy man. Anyway, if we were together, could you explain to me why we are no longer together? Could you please explain to me why there should be a boy called Gabriel – Gabriel, isn’t it? – a boy I know nothing about?’

  ‘But don’t you remember how it all ended, six years ago? You had taken to drink. You had begun to neglect yourself. You looked disshevelled. We quarrelled a lot. And one day I said, “Look at the state of you. Your tongue heavy, your clothes bedraggled, your –” I won’t mention the unmentionable … “You have to make a choice, Charlie. It’s either the bottle or me – and whatever is inside me.”’

  ‘He has cans, too,’ the boy interjected.

  ‘Shh, Gabriel. And that threw you into an almighty rage. To be questioned by a woman. To be pressurised by a woman. To be threatened by a woman. “Don’t you tell me what I’ve got to do. I’m finished with you. That’s it. Be gone. Get out. We are done,” you shouted, and grabbed a bottle and hurled it at me, and it caught me on the chin – here, look,’ and she bent forward to show him the scar, ‘and me being with child, your child! And you didn’t even know! And wouldn’t have wanted to know! But what I will never forget – when you drunkenly hollered, “Without me you are nothing!”’

  ‘Do we have really have to discuss this in front of the child?’

  ‘He should listen carefully so he won’t repeat his father’s mistakes. If we can call them mistakes. You were so heartless, so reckless, so ruthless. What had happened to the man who could charm the panties off me with a few sweet nothings? Who was considerate, witty and caring?’

  ‘Your panties?’ the boy asked. ‘Mum! What did he need your panties for?’

  ‘Emma, please.’ Ignatius tried to soothe her.

  ‘So you know my name, after all? I was going to prove to you that I wasn’t nothing, that I was something, someone special, and so I walked out on you never to see you again. And the child was brought into this world and was reared and raised and fed and clothed all by myself.’

  He interrupted her. ‘But again, why now, in the middle of the night?’

  ‘We arrived at eight to confront you. But then I saw a woman ring your doorbell. We were waiting and waiting. And then some. In the rain. In the dark. It was midnight when she left the house. A proper Cinderella! We quickly sneaked in the hallway, and after a while I sent Gabriel up. A redhair now, is it? We didn’t want to disturb you in your antics.’


  ‘You know what I mean. I was part of them myself, once. All of six years ago. Every Thursday.’

  Ah, yes, his escapades. They kept flocking to him, a whole herd of them. How could he help it? He could help them. He had to keep a strict regiment, though – one a day, or should he say, one a night? The regulars. Moira, the new Thursday woman. Successor to. Sometimes he wondered how he managed, both physically and organisationally. But he knew a German song, Ob blond, ob schwarz, ob braun, ich liebe alle Frau’n. Mein Herz ist groß. Precisely that was his mantra. He couldn’t be any otherwise. His heart was simply too big. He was polyamorous, that was it. He loved them all. In a way. But he had always been careful. With all of them. He couldn’t afford any ties. He couldn’t afford any offspring. No kids to spring from his loins! He never promised a rose garden to any of the women. He only ever promised himself. And that seemed to be sufficient. They were widows, they were married, they were single, they were in relationships. But they all desired what he had to offer. He was without blame or blemish. That much was certain.

  ‘Charlie,’ said Emma, ‘can’t we go inside and talk this over? I want to come to some arrangement.’

  Oh no. Not arrangements. That sounded dire. Arrangements were almost like ties.

  But reluctantly he agreed, and so the three of them marched back to the house. When he opened the door to his apartment, Emma cried out, ‘Just look at this! What a mess! What filth! All these bottles! And what’s the white stuff? Are you baking these days?’

  Ignatius covered what was left of the cocaine with a pair of silk panties. Which were revealing in themselves. Sometimes he wondered why his women put up with all that huggermugger.

  ‘Take a seat,’ he said, and she and the boy obediently sat down on one of the grimy chairs. They didn’t even take off their raingear. Gabriel wriggled a little in her arms but she held on to him, not wanting him to explore the nooks and crannies of that squalid apartment. There was a sense of recognition in her eyes but also dismay at the chaos, the dirt and what had become of the man she had been in love with.

  ‘Want a beer?’ asked Ignatius and helped himself to a bottle.

  ‘No, thanks,’ she replied, ‘and you shouldn’t, either. We have to have a serious talk. I have come to ask you if you would be willing to help me out. Both with money and with your time. This boy needs to see his father but he also needs toys and new clothes, growing as he is. I am a working woman, and he has to be in day care while I’m out waiting. What little I earn isn’t enough to keep us going.’

  Oh my God, he thought, this was serious talk. Time and money. Which was worse? And us only having a bit of fun!

  ‘Look, I said that I do not acknowledge this boy as mine. You have come to the wrong address.’

  ‘This is the right address, and you are his father. Because there has only ever been you in my life. I’ve known no other man, and this was definitely no virgin birth. Don’t you remember? Our very first time? You were both excited and disgusted by what you had to perform on me but at least you were gentlemanly enough to brush it aside, and comforted me, and promised me more pleasure the next time round. And that next time round came, and the one after. And there was pleasure. For a full year. You were my one and all, my all in one. I was looking forward to every single Thursday. Until things started to go downhill, rapidly so. I can’t account for it. Anyhow, if you have doubts, if you have no recollection at all, you can do a paternity test.’

  Gabriel tried to absorb what he was hearing. Virgin birth. Paternity test. What was all that? Wasn’t Virgin an airline and a record shop? He knew what eternity was. Timeless time, his Mum had explained to him. Difficult enough to understand. And why were Thursdays so important? For him it was Sundays, when he could cuddle up to Mum in the morning.

  ‘Paternity test? You must be kidding,’ Ignatius said. But then something dawned on him. One Thursday night, Emma, with her sweet mouth, had said that she felt it had happened. He didn’t enquire what had happened – maybe it had been a particular bout of concupiscence – but he had a suspicion, and he, well, brushed it aside. Why did memories come back at such a snail’s pace? Why couldn’t one recall things at will? Why couldn’t one insert a stick to get all the information one needed, like one inserted a dick to get all the pleasure one needed?

  ‘Paternity test or not, I assure you that we are not going to leave this apartment unless and until you pledge on your word of honour that you will take at least some measure of responsibility by paying a sum of money for the boy’s upkeep and devoting some quality time to him. For a start, I suggest Thursday evenings when he could stay with you overnight.’

  Not Sundays! the boy thought. Thank you, Mum!

  Thursdays? the man thought. What about Moira? Fiery redhaired Moira? What about the white stuff? That arousing white stuff? Does this Emma woman want to take revenge on me? Does she want to continue her Thursday allotments? With a son and heir in her stead? The perversity of it! Clearly, it was a means to control him. To make him mend his ways. An idea occurred to him – as a way out, he would offer her Sundays. He was a busy man but like everyone else he had Sundays off. Sundays belonged to him and him alone, and not even the raunchiest of women could persuade him to desecrate the Sabbath. Normally, he would lie in bed a little longer, then sit at his desk as he did during the week. But he could stroll with this Gabriel through the parks all right, push him on swings, buy him ice creams and deliver him back to his unspeakable mother. He wouldn’t lose much, only some precious hours of sleep, which he normally used to fortify himself for the exploits of the week ahead.

  ‘I am not sure why I’m doing this, but as a token of good will I am prepared to look after this young man on a Sunday.’

   ‘On a Sunday?’ both mother and son exclaimed.

  ‘That’s when I am off work,’ Emma added.

  ‘That’s also when I am off work,’ Ignatius said. ‘This is only out of my own good heart,’ he continued, ‘and it does not mean that I accept responsibility for, or you might say authorship of, his existence.’

  ‘Are you an author?’ Gabriel asked. ‘I thought authors worked all week, and at night? Depending on their ideas, on their inspiration?’ He was very proud of that word, which he had learned only recently.

  ‘I’m not an author,’ Ignatius said with some regret, ‘it’s only a figure of speech.’

  A figure of speech, the boy thought. A brandnew expression. Maybe I can learn a few more useful words from this stranger? And maybe, after a few weeks, he won’t be a stranger? Who could tell?

  And so, after some heated exchanges and tough negotiations, the boy listening with wide eyes, it was agreed that Ignatius would dutifully fetch Gabriel every Sunday morning at eleven o’clock at his mother’s down the road, that he would entertain and instruct him, show him the world, introduce him to a badly needed male perspective (Ignatius had insisted on that), and hand him back unharmed at 7pm. Moneywise, he would pay Emma, whose curved lips had inexplicably begun to appeal to him, the handsome sum of two hundred euro a week. Both components of their hard-won accord to commence on Sunday next.

  After the third Sunday, buxom Sheila, the Monday woman, noted some change in her lover. ‘You are so – I don’t know – so childlike. What’s wrong with you? Where is my hard-wired hunk? Are you becoming a pussycat? A metro man?’

  On Thursday, Moira arrived with a fresh supply of the white stuff and a new pair of flimsies. ‘I can detect a certain absent-mindedness in you,’ she declared. ‘What’s wrong? Am I not sexy enough? Are you not high enough? Get a life, man!’ And when she left, she didn’t blow him a kiss, and her farewell greeting was less than enamoured.

  Ignatius, the man about town, became a man about parks as well, if only in a part-time capacity. His Sundays were as strictly reglemented as his weekdays, only on a different level. Swings, see-saws and merry-go-rounds, ice cream parlours, burger joints and pizza huts, the zoo, the museum and the wax figure cabinet, but also some deep conversations about the ways of living organisms, the mysteries of the universe and the dinosaurs of aeons gone by.

  ‘Aeons gone by?’ the boy asked.

  ‘A long, long time ago, almost a timeless time ago,’ Ignatius explained.

  But in spite of having to clock more hours, he still managed to be both: a ladies’ man and, more grudgingly, a son’s adoptive father, as he put it. Emma no longer pestered him with questions about the distant past, she didn’t harass him with high-flung notions about biological fatherhood, she seemed to be happy enough to see him get on with Gabriel, who no longer thought of him as a stranger. In fact, there was hardly any communication with her at all.

  Some weeks passed. Then, one sunny day, while man and boy were sitting on a bench in a nearby park, licking their ice creams and exchanging profound observations about space, they heard a wolf-whistle and turned their heads. A redhaired woman of some beauty was walking towards them, a broad grin of stunned amazement on her face.

  ‘Charlie,’ she shouted. ‘Is it you? How is it hangin’?’

  ‘He isn’t called Charlie,’ the boy corrected her. ‘His name is Ignatius. And we were just discussing the ongoing expansion of the universe.’

  ‘Ignatius? Nonsense! That’s Charlie to a tee. Charlie in the flesh. Don’t I know that flesh all too well? Well, well, well, Charlie, I never! You seem to have expanded your universe! And I saw you only three days ago. Not a word from your lips. Only kisses. Nice ones, though. Who might this young fellow be? And may I add, whose?’

  Ignatius reddened. This was what he had feared most. Not that he wouldn’t be up to the task of guiding a young boy through a Sunday, come rain or shine, not that he had to sacrifice his weekly sabbatical for the sake of care and custody but that a close encounter of this kind might happen. This kind was the embarrassing kind, the sinister kind, the kind that necessitated explanations, flashes of wit or – how had the boy expressed it? – inspiration.

  ‘Oh, Moira, and how I liked your kisses!’ he said fairly convincingly. ‘This is my neighbour’s son. His name is Thomas. My neighbour has fallen ill and asked me to mind him for her. My services were enlisted only this morning. I’m on ice cream duty.’

  ‘The name is Gabriel,’ Gabriel insisted.

  ‘And where does this Ignatius bit come from?’ Moira inquired. But she did give her lover a rather intimate kiss. This time Gabriel blushed.

  ‘It’s a game. A name game. A blame game. A shame game.’

  Gabriel looked confused.

  ‘Anyway, I have to be off. See you next Thursday, darling. As lively as ever! None of your absent-mindedness! I have some nice surprise for you. Some saucy dessous, freshly ordered from France! Enjoy your day out with your new “Dad,” Thomas.’

  ‘The name is Gabriel,’ Gabriel averred for the second time. ‘And what’s that dessert? Does it come with a sauce? Will you have a surprise for me, too?’

  ‘Another time,’ Moira called to him cheerfully, and was gone.

  Thanks be to the Most Merciful, Ignatius thought. Apparently, she was satisfied with his lame explanation. She had even blown him a farewell kiss and given Thomas, or rather Gabriel, a kindly wave. The thought occurred to him that he was leading a double life. Weekdays. Sundays. But if he was really honest with himself, he was leading a septuble life. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays.

  ‘Septuble?’ Gabriel asked.

  He must have been thinking aloud.

  ‘Sevenfold,’ he answered distractedly.

  Now, there was some order in that multiple life. But that order could easily be blown away any day of the week. He had to be more careful. What was the slogan of the hour? Mindfulness. Every other book in the window displays dealt with that topic. But the other magic word was diversity, wasn’t it? He went on thinking. A cat was rumoured to have nine lives. He, a veritable tom-cat, had only seven. If the week were comprised of nine days, he certainly would have nine lives. But stop, wasn’t it said that people in certain regions of Spain believed cats to have only seven lives? After all, he was the bearer of a Spaniard’s name. Ignatius, originally Íñigo, founder of the venerable religious order called the Society of Jesus. How inappropriate!

  ‘Charlie,’ an incredulous Thomas cried, ‘that woman called you my Dad! So maybe Mum is right?’

  But Ignatius wasn’t paying attention. How many steps had Gabriel counted when they first met? One thousand and three, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that the exact number of Don Giovanni’s conquests in Spain? Wasn’t that what Leporello famously sang of in his fabulous catalogue aria? And what was that Belgian writer’s name? Ah, yes, Georges Simenon. Hadn’t he boasted of countless affairs? Estimates fluctuated between 1200 and 10 000 – the latter, if one included visits to prostitutes. Simenon had fucked more women than he had written pages! And he had written thousands of those. An author’s debaucheries! He himself was no way near those figures. He was far more modest. Over the years just a few dozen regulars. Steadies, he’d call them. He didn’t have to rely on prostitutes or brothels. The supply was endless. He was a regular guy, a solid fellow, a man with a firm structure to his life. But those philanderers – they were the real collectors. Collectors of women. Show-offs. Setters and breakers of records. Maybe that was what drove them. The sheer number. Pearls on a string. To them women were pearls, polished and pulchritudinous. Ah, wasn’t he good with words! ‘You are so good with words, darling!’ Words! Women! He couldn’t do without them. He couldn’t get enough of them.

  But then there arose an irritation. Did they ever discuss the universe with him? No, they didn’t. The child at his side did. Was it their fault, or was it his? In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become a living spirit that resembles you males. So by their very nature there were incapable of spirituality. But he, Ignatius, had always found that women were the true living spirits precisely by being female, by not resembling males. Weren’t they, most of the time, more intelligent, sometimes even more rational than men? More talkative anyhow, more sensitive? Only, he didn’t allow them to be true living spirits because he was only interested in their flesh. He split them in the middle, so to speak, broke them in half. And so their other kind of beauty couldn’t shine through. The sensuous surface that so ravished him concealed their inner depth, their carnal cravings the richness of their souls. So it was his fault.

  ‘Dad?’ The boy’s voice disrupted his flow of thought. ‘She called you my Dad.’

  And, in truth, wasn’t his apartment more like a lair? And he a liar, a duplicitous separator of women and worlds? In his universe no one must meet one another. Names had to be altered at the blink of an eye. An Ignatius had to become a Charlie, a real Charlie at that, and a Gabriel had to be renamed Thomas. He tended to consider himself a kind of avenger of widows (and orphans) and, as a matter of fact, he had done those widows rather good. Or so they said. And yet …

  ‘Dad!!’ The boy grew impatient.

  … and yet did he really love them, love any one of them? Oh yes, he was lusting after them, after every single one of them. Mulierositas! In their variety – or was it diversity? – they represented womanhood as a whole. All of them mythical Eves. But when he made love to them, wasn’t it more like drinking a glass of water to quench his ever-burning thirst? Wasn’t it a mere pastime, just like hunting? The chase and the prey. How readily he was willing to discard some of those whom he had thought indispensable when a body more fetching, more beguiling, more desirable came along! And was he really as satisfied as he made himself out to be? What about the bottles, the cans, what about the coke? Where did that come from? That constant drunkenness, that perpetual need for stimulation? Only his Sundays were sober.

  ‘Can’t you hear me?’ Gabriel asked. ‘Can’t you speak to me?’

  He turned around and looked at Gabriel. Studied him. His blond hair was, of course, his mother’s. But there was a certain similarity. The child’s blues eyes. Almost slits. Just like his own. His resolute chin. He could recognise himself all right. He didn’t need a paternity test for that. Gabriel’s early interest in complicated words. His inquisitiveness. His attentiveness. Were mental traits just as easily hereditable as physical features? And the kid was good company. Easy to be with. Stimulating in his own way. He felt at peace with him. Everything flowing naturally.

  ‘What are you saying, son? What do you want?’

  ‘You called me son, just then,’ the boy said.

  ‘That’s just the way young boys are addressed in this country,’ he replied.

  He looked around the park. The sun was shining, the sky a radiant blue. Nearby, there was a rose garden in full bloom. A feast for the eyes. Oh no, it couldn’t be! Another woman was hurrying towards them, face beaming.

  ‘Charlie? Charlie!’ she exclaimed. ‘What a surprise! You out in a park? That must be a rarity! And who is this young gentleman?’

  It was Sheila, the Monday woman. Not a bad one. Black ringlets. Big charlies. He was quite fond of her. Even though she had questioned his credentials. But what a coincidence! Two of them in a row. On the same day! Within half an hour!

  ‘Hello, my dear. What a surprise indeed! He is the son of a friend. His name is Gabriel. My friend has fallen ill and asked me to mind him for her. My services were enlisted only his morning. I’m on playground duty.’

  Another version, but nearer the truth.

  ‘How sweet of you,’ Sheila said. ‘Never thought you had it in you!’

  ‘Yes, my name is Gabriel,’ Gabriel confirmed, glad that the earlier misinformation had been rectified. His Mum was a friend now, not a neighbour. And he was Gabriel, not Thomas. Some improvement. And to top it all, he had been called ‘son.’ Maybe he could get Ignatius to say, ‘my son.’

  ‘Good for you, Gabriel,’ Sheila said. Then she looked up. Two small birds flew by. Male and female? Man, boy and woman watched them whirl through the air. Quite a spectacle. Endless fluttering, circling and swooping. ‘Chase’ and ‘prey.’ Seeking and finding. Those two birds were clearly having fun.

  ‘What are they called?’ Gabriel asked.

  ‘Tits. Great tits,’ Ignatius explained, throwing a side glance at Sheila.

  ‘So will you be around tomorrow night?’ she asked.

  ‘Of course I will, Sheila. Always true. Forever yours.’

  ‘See you tomorrow then, darling.’

  How many darlings did his father have? Gabriel wondered. There had only been two tits, not three or four or five. It sounded nice, though, ‘darling.’ But shouldn’t it really be ‘dearling?’

  Sheila faithfully departed. Phew, yet another narrow escape, Ignatius thought. But it had gone quite amicably, hadn’t it? No suspicions, no querying, no quarelling. He was well able to talk his way out of a conundrum. But what next! He scarcely believed his eyes. A third woman was approaching them, this one at a more tentative pace. It was as though he had landed himself in a fairy tale. Three ordeals. How did the saying go? All bad things come in threes. One’s apartment was a safe place, a haven of discretion. A public park, no. It must be a twist of fate. As if all his chicks had come to roost. This one was the woman who six weeks ago had denounced him in front of Emma, denounced him as a habitual breaker of promises. He had just about enough time to brace himself. He straightened, ready for the fight. Because that lady was one tough customer. Very early on, she had levelled accusations against him. His moral conduct, his loose living, his very seediness. Seediness? He glimpsed at Gabriel.

  The woman stopped in front of them. What was her name again? Not an inkling. But she wasn’t Irish, that much he remembered. One day she had left him, without a warning and without a trace. Actually, the only one ever to have done so. Apart from Emma, that is.

  ‘Well, look what the cat dragged in! My good old friend Ignatius aka Charlie! The seedsman himself!’ She glowered down at him. ‘And, are you still at it?’

  At what? the boy asked himself.

  ‘You aren’t a reformed man, are you? A reconstructed male? My, sitting with a boy on a park bench! The very picture of peace and propriety! How are you these days, anyway?’

  A reconstructed male? Propriety? The words grew ever bigger, Gabriel thought. Very puzzling.

  ‘Good afternoon, eh ... I am, eh, good, thank you. And how are you, eh, keeping yourself? Haven’t seen you in a while. This is, eh, my son. His name is Gabriel. I mind him of a Sunday. My services were enlisted, eh, only some weeks ago. I’m on park duty.’

  My son! The very words. Gabriel was jubilant. Only six weeks, and the stranger had become his Dad!

  ‘Your son? You can’t be serious. You a father? I’d have thought it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a Charlie to enter into the kingdom of fatherhood.’

  ‘Well, it’s not a kingdom, not really. It’s more like a petty fiefdom.’

  Thiefdom? Why was he talking about a thief? He hadn’t stolen him, had he? Gabriel was bewildered.

  ‘Gabriel is on loan, so to speak. I borrow him once a week to relieve his mother and to help him develop a different outlook on life.’

  ‘And who is the happy mother, if I may ask? Is it Sheila? Is it Moira? Because don’t you doubt me, I have sussed you out. I know almost every name on your list. I’ve carried out rigorous research. Meeting some of those unfortunates and putting them through the mill, on the understanding that they wouldn’t give you the low-down. The only thing I had to do was to take up my post at your house entrance and question them whenever they walked in or came out, admittedly with a glow on their face. Most were quite willing to talk. From what I heard, one could form an entire MeToo movement focussing on one man only – you!’

  ‘Well, why don’t you? Gather my dozen, beat the drum, lead the way and champion the cause. I never forced anyone, I never harmed anyone, I never touched anyone who didn’t want to be touched. There was always mutual consent. And therefore I fear no one.’

  ‘Oh yes, you harmed me. You hurt me. You treated me as a toy. I was a mere thing for you to play with as you pleased.’

  He knew that kind of line. Et j’étais une chose à toi. Bizet’s Carmen. But that was sung by a man, by Don José! And it meant, And I was yours!

  A toy? Were women toys? Was his Mum a toy? Gabriel asked himself. Once she had mentioned a toyboy. So men could also be toys?

  ‘Every time I asked for more commitment, for more time, for more future, for a long-term perspective, you just laughed at me and said, “Be glad with what you’ve got.” You know what you are? A miserable pick-up artist.’

  A pick-up artist? First there was talk of his Dad being an author, now he was an artist. An artist with a pick-up? Although. One time, his mother had sung him a German song and translated the words for him. He could still remember them: Hab mein Wagen voll geladen, voll mit jungen Mädchen. A pick-up truck full of young girls. Gabriel was out of his depth.

  ‘It’s not me that does the picking up. There is no need for that. They come up out of their own free will.’

  ‘Oh, you conceited piece of shit. You unrepentent, unregenerate deceiver. You mendacious exploiter of women. Just you wait. You will get your comeuppance and go to hell. Watch this space. Something is going to happen very, very soon.’ And off she went, without nod, wink or wave.

  Normally he couldn’t resist those who resisted him but her tongue was vile, and he was glad to see the back of that nameless woman.

  Why did adults always speak of hell? Gabriel wondered. And he wasn’t allowed to say ‘shit.’ But otherwise, that angry lady wasn’t bad with words, either. Unregenerate. Mendacious. He wasn’t quite sure what they meant but wasn’t the English language a rich language? All those foreign-sounding words. His Dad had once used the word ‘pulchritudinous.’ One had to savour that word slowly, bit by bit. Pul-chri-tu-di-nous. A flavour almost like ice cream.

  Don Giovanni was carried to hell by a chorus of demons, Ignatius pondered. Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life. Would she dare to summon his women and turn them into demons?

  He and Gabriel contemplated at each other in silence.

  Good Lord above, he thought with a deep sigh, this sunny afternoon on a park bench felt like a whole lifetime. He glanced at his watch. Only an hour had passed since they had sat down. But it felt like an eternity. Timeless time. Anyway, now they could relax again and continue their man to man chat. The riddles of the universe. After all, the enigma of woman was only a tiny part of those.

  Suddenly, he felt two hands pressing on his eyes from behind. He shrieked with terror, such was his nervousness.


  ‘Mum!” Gabriel sprang to his feet.

  It was Emma. Ignatius hadn’t seen her in weeks, other than to collect and deliver the boy. That really was an ambush. She walked around the park bench and stood squarely in front of him. A mere slip of a woman. Little nose, curved lips, green eyes. This time unhooded. The brilliant sunshine allowed for that. Quite a good looker, really. Ruby red lipstick for the occasion. But rather unwelcome right now.

  ‘I’ve been watching you for a while. Very strange goings-on. I thought you were taking our son out to look after him for me. Instead, it’s like Clapham Junction. Who were all those women?’

  ‘Have you been checking on me? Talk of trust! Those ladies? They just wanted to know who this lovely boy is I’m out with. You know childless women. How they take a weird interest in kids and cats and dogs.’

  ‘He claimed that I was called Thomas,’ the boy said.

  ‘Did you? Denying your son yet again? Lying even about his name?’

  ‘He lied about his own, too. All of them called him Charlie, and he didn’t even say once that he was Ignatius,’ Gabriel reported.

  ‘It beggars belief. Denial and self-denial!’

  ‘But then,’ Gabriel added proudly, ‘he called me his son!’

  ‘Did he now? May I?’ She pointed at the bench and was, after some hesitation, invited to sit down next to Gabriel. Hadn’t she always believed that the boy would work wonders? she thought.

  ‘I must say one thing in your favour, though. You do stick to our agreement. Regular time with the boy, and regular payments to me. Much appreciated. And now, apparently, yet some more progress. But I was wondering – even six years ago I was wondering – what you actually work as, to be able to afford those alimonies? How do you earn your living?’

  Alimonies? Sometimes the world seemed to consist only of words, the boy thought. What if only the words were real, and not the world? What if there was no universe but only a term for it? What if the people around him were actually mere shadows?

  ‘It’s complicated. A bit of this and a bit of that. Well, I would call myself a small-time speculator. It’s a desk job. Working from home. Myself and the screen. Nothing else. At the moment, it’s Bitcoins.’

  ‘Bits of coins? Sounds just like me. That’s what I have to live on. So both of us are waiting?’

  Ignatius looked perplexed.

  ‘I’m waiting on tables, and you are waiting for the ups and downs of the marketplace. And when you have been waiting long enough, you pounce.’

  ‘He what?’ Gabriel asked.

  ‘He pounces, like a cat pounces on a mouse. Judging by those passers-by, that’s your way with women, too.’

  ‘If anything, it’s the mice pouncing on the cat,’ Ignatius retorted with a smirk.

  ‘Dad,’ Gabriel asked out of the blue, ‘are you a mere shadow?”

  ‘Certainly a shadow of his former self,’ Emma said.

  ‘No, son, I am for real,’ Ignatius said and got on his feet. ‘Look, this is me,’ he pointed at himself, ‘and that down there is my shadow, caused by the sun. When the sun is shining, everything and everyone casts a shadow. Except those that sell their shadow to the devil, like Peter Schlemihl did in order to obtain a bottomless bag of gold. And when I move, my shadow moves with me. See?’ He took a few steps. To show the boy, he even danced a little, wildly gesticulating and throwing his legs.

  Emma, still sitting on the bench, was observing him. He wasn’t the worst, was he now? He had a certain way about him. Ah, if only things could be put right.

  ‘Dance a bit more,’ Gabriel shouted, ‘you look very funny.’

  So Ignatius danced a bit more, but all of a sudden he bounced towards the bench, pulled Emma up and whirled her around as if they were a couple. Gabriel was agog.

  He was a good lover, Ignatius thought, at least in the physical sense. His array of women were living proof of that. But could he also be loving? Had he got it ‘in him’ to be a good father, beyond the few hours of Sunday outings? His own parents had brought him up a good Catholic boy, and he had enjoyed a good Jesuitical education. His name had been programme. But at one point, it must have been in his early twenties, he began to fiercely rebel against it. He felt that all this religious mumbo jumbo stunted his growth. He no longer needed the progresse of the soule. He needed the progress of the body! And fast! And so he consciously embarked on a career of fornication and, with time, became what he was. But maybe he had thrown the baby out with the bath water? All these thoughts shot through his head while he was holding Emma. Emma. The name did have a certain ring to it. When had he last held her? Six weeks ago? Nonsense. They hadn’t touched even once. Six years ago! It felt good. She felt good. No weight at all. Easy to handle, easy to steer. Clasping her right hand with his left, he noticed that she had also painted her fingernails red.

  The two of them span around and around, moving further and further away from the bench. She wanted to be touched, he could sense that. A handful of people had gathered to watch. The dance became a waltz, and the pair waltzed towards the rose garden. There he stopped and let go. Emma was out of breath but smiling. Her inviting ruby red lips. Next to them the small scar. He bent down, plucked a rose, bowed and handed it to her. The group of onlookers clapped and cheered. The sentimentality of it! What was happening to him? he thought. It wasn’t like him to indulge in empty romantic gestures. To be a chevalier à la rose. He was a ballsy guy! He went red in the face, almost matching the colour of the flower. Maybe it was just about the reconquest of a woman of the past, a woman that had wantonly abandoned him?

  ‘Mum! Dad!’ shouted the boy, still sitting on the bench. ‘Come back! I can see that you are no shadows! You don’t have to prove it to me!’

  They walked back towards him, singly, their shadows following them. Even the rose cast a slender shadow.

  Emma turned to Ignatius. ‘Shouldn’t we give it another try?’ she asked.

  ‘Give what another try?’


  ‘I could certainly see you more often.’

  ‘But not just on Thursdays.’

  ‘It’s difficult for me to arrange. As I told you all those years ago, I need a lot of space for myself. Almost boundless space. I was discussing that with Gabriel. Space is ever-expanding. Has to do with that Big Bang, you know.’

  ‘I know all about that big bang.’

  Ignatius smiled. ‘Yes, that was a cosmic event.’

  He kissed her on her forehead, then on her cheeks and at last on those enticing lips. ‘I will try my best but my best might not be good enough for you. The French say, petit à petit.’

  How embarrassing to witness yet another kiss, Gabriel thought. And how long this kiss lasted! Different from that other woman’s kiss.

  ‘Get up, kiddie,’ Ignatius said. ‘I’ll march you back to the house. Your Mum is joining us.’

  Hand in hand, they walked to his apartment, man, woman and child. And immediately Ignatius started to have misgivings. The holy family. Was that supposed to be the spice of life? A tedious triad? Forever more? Didn’t it mean permanent confinement? Or could it be true fulfilment? A fulfilment of emotional needs that had remained hidden to him?

  As fate willed, a tall brunette came towards them, startling him from his musings. The supply was endless, indeed. But why in the park? Why in the street? What had happened to the famous structure in his life, to his careful compartmentalisation? Everything was collapsing all around him. He wanted to be a mouse hiding away in its hole.

  ‘Charlie? Charlie!’ she exlaimed. ‘Oh Charlie, I’ve so –’

  He lowered his gaze, not responding. Instead, he squeezed Emma’s hand.

  ‘Ignatius,’ Emma said in a voice loud enough for the woman to hear, ‘isn’t it wonderful to take a stroll in this bright sunshine, just the three of us? A proper little family.’ He cringed at the very notion. But he nodded.

  The woman looked baffled. ‘Ignatius? Family? What’s going on? I always thought you were promised to me?’

  Ignatius remained silent. His customary eloquence had deserted him.

  They left the woman standing and continued. But there were more baneful things to come. When they approached his building, they saw about a dozen females thronging around the entrance, shouting and wielding placards. The law in the shape of a lone Bangharda tried to keep some order. Quite shapely, the law, Ignatius thought to himself. In different circumstances he might have been interested. He could decipher some of the inscriptions. ‘Skirt chaser,’ ‘Philanderer,’ ‘Would-be Don Juan,’ and similar insults.

  ‘Philanderer! Ha!’ he muttered. He was no Don Juan. He was Don Ignatius. Far more modest. And if he was a philanderer, they were nymphomaniacs. So that was what the nameless woman had hinted at – his very own chorus of demons. Who the fuck was she? He racked his brains. Then it came back to him. The only Greek in his assortment. What was she called? Ah, yes, Themis.

  ‘What’s a philanderer, Dad?’ Gabriel asked.

  ‘Someone who is very kind to women,’ Ignatius replied. Emma eyed him as if she didn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused by his wilful translation. He didn’t add that the Greek word originally denoted a man who loved men, or a husband-loving woman. Neither did he explain that a nymph called Akakallis, having been impregnated by the God Apollo, gave birth to a son named Philandros, who was suckled by a goat. Suckled by a goat! In the face of the madding crowd he didn’t have the time to elaborate.

  When they reached the entrance, the women, mostly figures from years gone by, a few of them more recent acquisitions, reluctantly made way for them, as instructed by the Bangharda. Faces that had once smiled at him were taut with fury, voices that had once cooed at him, were shrill with rage, hands that had once caressed him were clenched to angry fists. Luckily, there was no Sheila to be seen and no Moira. Even Themis was absent. Well, it would have been all too obvious, had the organiser of the protest shown herself. His nemesis.

  ‘We hate you, Ignatius, you are so mendacious,’ the chorus of demons yelled. One time, every last one of them had whispered, ‘Love you, Charlie.’ He felt like the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, hounded by the bloodthirsty Erinyes who were hellbent on taking vengeance on a mere man. He could feel Gabriel tremble slightly.

  ‘Don’t worry, kid. Nothing will happen to you. Or to your Mum.’

  Gabriel wasn’t quite convinced. There was that word again that the woman in the park had used. It rhymed with his Dad’s real name. Maybe there were all poets? Poets used rhymes, he knew that. Like ‘art’ and ‘fart,’ or ‘stick’ and ‘dick.’ He chuckled to himself.

  One of the women stepped forward and hissed at Ignatius, ‘You cheated on me. You cheated on all of us. You abused us. You abused your position. A position of power.’

  Him, in a position of power? Ignatius wondered. Apollo, the God, was in a position of power! But before he could riposte, the irate ex-lover spat at him. The spittle ran down his face. Having been a good Christian, he wanted to turn the other cheek and say something conciliatory but the curvaceous law had already intervened. The perpetrator was led away, having been arrested for assault and battery and for disturbance of the peace. Ah, peace was what he needed. Peace and quiet. When will a busy man find rest? This day of rest had been completely wasted. First the childminding, then the encounter with the three fairies, one of them no doubt the wicked one, after that the half-hearted reunion with Emma, and now a public rally, a rally directed at him. At him, a most private person! How did they dare? Frailty, thy name is woman? Oh, how wrong Hamlet was. William Congreve, who grew up and studied in Ireland, knew far better than that. Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d. But he hadn’t scorned them, had he? Two or three of them, at the most. Emma, for instance. He had welcomed them with open arms, hadn’t he? They had thrown themselves at him quite voluntarily, hadn’t they?

  Now that the mob was unsupervised, the three of them had to fight their way though the door. He pushed it shut, and they climbed the four flights of stairs. They knew what to expect after the pandemonium outside – mayhem inside.

  ‘Let’s start with some belated spring cleaning,’ Emma, who seemed to be unperturbed by the clamour outside, suggested as soon as they had entered the apartment. And so they began tidying the place. They? Emma did, assisted by Gabriel. Ignatius took a bottle out of the fridge, cracked it open with his teeth, planted himself on one of the grimy chairs and looked on.

  ‘I thought Sundays were alcohol-free,’ Emma remarked.

  ‘And I thought there was cause for celebration,’ he said after a swig.

  ‘It will take quite a while to cleanse the apartment – not to mention your bad self.’

  ‘If you like, you can stay for the night when you are done,’ Ignatius proposed, ogling her, his mind already racing on account of having to reschedule his appointments in order to avoid any further clashes.

  ‘That’s fine by me. Thanks for the invitation. And thanks for your great help. But no hanky-panky.’

  ‘I’ve never engaged in monkey business.’

  ‘You know what?’ Gabriel announced in the middle of clearing away some cans. ‘When I’m big, I want to be a cosmologist. Or a palaeontologist.’

  ‘My God, those are big word,’ Emma said.

  ‘Big words for big things,’ Gabriel explained. ‘Space and time. Very big things.’ He sounded quite self-assured. The shouts in the street had subsided.

  ‘And how do you feel about the here and now, my son?’ Ignatius asked him.

  ‘I feel amazing. Up here, I feel safe. I feel like I’m in heaven.’

  Safe he was, the new kid on the block, Ignatius thought. But in heaven?

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