Simon queued behind the row of slowly shuffling arses. It certainly wasn't humanity’s most flattering angle. The twin spectrums from fit to fat and concealed to revealed, joined in combinations from impressive to stomach churning.
The wide flat bum of the lady in front shuffled aside revealing a bored Indian teenaged girl manning the till. Her lovely black hair was shoved back into an untidy pony tail under an elasticated sunshade in the colours of the fast food chain.
Why do they make kids wear those things indoors? Simon wondered.
The girl’s kohl rimmed eyes looked left and right. Then she looked down and spotted Simon. She startled slightly but covered it well. Simon rolled a bit closer and placed his order. She skipped the mandatory up-sizing spiel and took his money without comment moving with almost rude haste to the customer behind him.
I should consider it a blessing, he thought grimly. He had once begrudged the spinning out of a commercial transaction as a waste of his precious time. But that was before.
He backed his wheelchair up against the wall near the order collection point, making his profile as flat as possible. He didn't want to get in anyone’s way.
Simon gave a sigh and settled into vacant pensive waiting. Looking down at his useless legs he visualised the strap muscles in the small of his back that looped through the eye holes in the pelvis connecting his thigh muscles to his back muscles. As his physiotherapist had taught him, he drew a deep breath and tensed his abdomen. Simon glared at his left leg, willing it to kick, move, twitch … anything. There was a sharp stabbing pain up his spine as his brain’s command was returned to sender marked ‘Address Unknown’.
Simon let out the held breath in a slow stream, feeling the disappointment coalesce and join the stone of quiet despair centred in his guts. With a stab of jealousy, he threw his focus outwards at the shuffling crowd. They were all totally indifferent to their miraculous independent ambulation.
His pointless ruminations were interrupted by a lady parking her baby in a stroller next to him. He looked up at her and they shared a smile. The lady was lithe and elven with chestnut hair cut in a shoulder length bob. She wore fashionable black rimmed glasses and natural, comfortable looking clothes; quite unlike the baby in the stroller.
Simon had never been interested in infants. He had nodded and made noises of polite admiration over the offspring of others when required. But this one was an angel. She sat forward in her pram engrossed in the scene around her, gnawing on a rusk. Wide eyes, as blue as innocence, set in a chubby turnip shaped face with a dimple in one cheek under a mop of wild blond curls. The sort of infant who sent grandmothers into squeals of hand clasping ecstasy.
She met Simon’s gaze and offered to share the slobbery rusk. Simon politely refused.
Delighted to find a fellow baby of a similar intellectual level, she introduced herself in a string of nonsensical syllables that didn’t quite sound like proto-English then proceeded to describe their surroundings punctuating her monologue with wild gesticulations with her rusk.
Simon smiled at the thought of being mistaken for a giant infant and then shook his head at the ironic accuracy of the description. Robbed of his right to walk and his entitlement to independence, he keenly felt his demotion. He had tried very hard in the aftermath of the accident to feel grateful that he had retained control of his continence, unlike so many of his fellow paraplegics. Retaining that ever important distinction between adult and child was a mercy. But forced gratitude was a bitter coating for an even bitterer pill.
And yet here was a fresh new soul, delighted with the world and everything in it. She was similarly confined in a carriage of convenience and that was just fine with her. Totally innocent of the cruel indifference of Fate toward the hopes and dreams of Man, she kicked and rocked happily in her pram testing the strength of her legs.
Simon found himself responding to the baby’s merry ramblings. “Hello. Can you walk yet?” He was surprised at himself. Engaging in conversation with strangers was something he rarely did. Let alone a baby.
She reached toward him and grabbed the spokes of his wheelchair. He gently unhooked her little hand, fearing her fingers would be trapped. At this awkward moment, the mother returned holding her order in a brown paper bag.
Instead of reacting with horror at a stranger touching her baby, she smiled warmly at Simon and crouched in front of the baby in the stroller. She tickled the little girl’s tummy drawing a tinkling laugh fit to birth a fairy. The mother looked across to Simon taking in his muscular rugby players’ physique and handsome youthful face.
“You like the chair?” she asked her daughter whilst facing Simon. Her voice was quite deep for such a slender lady. He could not place her accent. The baby replied by placing her chubby hands on her mother’s cheeks and blowing a raspberry.
“Yes, it is a nice chair. Much bigger than yours.”
“Well, she can get up out of it whenever she likes.” Simon was ashamed of himself. Self-pity was not his style. But then again, neither was striking up a conversation with strangers.
The lady’s smile saddened and then turned to puzzlement as she noticed the tattoo encircling his bicep. It was a prayer of protection in a foreign language acquired on a drunken night out many years ago. Simon had been so proud of his biceps, lovingly sculpted by many gruelling workouts. Now they were losing the tautness of their definition. An irrelevant reminder popped into his mind that his gym membership would expire this week. He had only used four months of it before the accident.
“Pardon sir. Is it Sanskrit?”
Simon held out his elbow and looked down at the tattoo. “Yes. It was supposed to protect me.” Again, Simon was dismayed at the sound of his voice and his uncharacteristic urge to share.
She regarded the inscription gravely, as though she were reading it. She tucked a lock of chestnut hair under one arm of her glasses. “Sir, I do not wish to speak out of turn. I do not know the circumstances of your injury. Have you read ‘Sleeping Beauty’?”
The question was so odd it startled them both. She continued in formal, somewhat stilted English. Obviously it was not her first language, but she had been well schooled in it.
“This tale. I read it to my children. Last night. You know it?”
Simon was still trying to fathom what she could possibly be driving at. She took his expression of confused embarrassment as incomprehension.
“The Princess. She …” the lady groped for the word, rubbing her forefinger and thumb together “Poked her finger?”
“Pricked her finger.” Simon softened the correction with a smile.
“Yes! Pricked her finger. You know this tale.” The baby clapped her hands spotting the food. Her mother took one chip from the brown paper bag and blew on it in an exaggerated fashion.
“Hot, sweetling. Hot.” She then repeated the phrase in another language. The baby blew furiously at the chip. For a moment she belonged in the corner of an ancient seafarers map. A cherub blowing an auspicious wind to an unlucky sailor.
“The Princess. Her mother, the Queen offends a …” she groped again for a word.
“Fairy.” said Simon.
“Yes, yes. A fairy. Not a nice Disney fairy. No. Your peoples’ fairies are not kind shepherds of children.”
“So the upset fairy. Her sisters. Many sisters, yes?”
“Yes. I think there were twelve.”
“Twelve sisters.” She pronounced the word with exaggerated care. “What a house! Their poor Mama.”
The baby grabbed the cooled chip and gummed furiously on it, growling with gusto. The two adults shared a grin, all embarrassment forgotten.
“So yes, the sisters of the upset fairy are at the baby Princess’ … Chris … Christa” she mimed holding an infant along her left arm and poured an imaginary stream of water from her cupped right hand over the phantom baby’s head.
“Yes yes. This is a hard word. How do you spell it?”
Simon was quite engaged by this lady and her obliviousness to the inappropriate nature of such a conversation with a stranger. He thought perhaps she was lonely too. A new mother, living away from home, in a foreign country.
“Yes,” Simon agreed, “It is a difficult word. It is spelt C.h.r.i.s.t.”
“Yes, for our Lord and Saviour.”
“And then you add e.n. to the end making it a verb. To Christen is to claim a soul for Christ.”
“Yes. This one,” she crooked a finger under the infant’s smiling chin. “We will christen her,” she pronounced the word carefully. “Next month. Yes, next month. And the ing?”
Simon took a moment to catch on. “Oh yes. Christen is the verb and Christening is the ceremony of Baptism itself.”
“Baptism?” she frowned, worried that she had missed something.
“Oh, Baptism is just a different word for Christening.”
“Oh good.” She returned to the mysterious point she was trying to make.
“Yes, the angry fairy.” She suddenly collapsed in a fit of giggles. The baby joined in, jigging up and down in her push chair and straining at the straps for another chip.
“That is silly, yes? Angry fairy. It sounds funny. The twelve sisters of the angry fairy. They are good fairies. They give …” she groped again for a translation, “Spells?”
“Ah … blessings, I suppose.”
“Yes, they give blessings to the baby Princess. Good health, good luck, good looks and good teeth!” Simon smiled again. Ordinarily he would be a bit alarmed at a rather religious foreigner attempting to engage him in conversation, but today, he didn’t mind.
“And then the angry fairy, she crashes into the Christ-en-ing. She is very sad, no, she is more than sad, what is this word?”
Simon floundered, spoilt for options. “Furious?”
“Yes, she is furious! She has not been invited. What sort of Queen would invite only twelve fairies and not thirteen? This is inviting trouble. I think her twelve sisters were naughty and did not tell the other fairy. They left her at home sweeping out the chimney like the other story …”
“Cinderella?” Simon asked.
Simon was a little worried that this lady seemed to be holding fairy tales from her adopted culture as highly as morality tales from the Scriptures.
“So this angry fairy. She crashes into the Christ-en-ing and says a dreadful thing.”
“Yes, she casts a curse on the Princess. On her fifteenth birthday, the Princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall down dead.”
The lady nodded solemnly. She appeared quite unsettled at the very thought of wishing an infant dead. Simon looked at her lovely daughter and, as a childless man, appreciated for the first time how deep a fear this must be.
“But. The last good fairy. The twelve fairy.” She looked at Simon for correction.
“Twelfth.” He pondered on how difficult a word that was to pronounce. The F and TH sounds side by side. Phonics often confused for one another.
“Twel.f.th. Yes, she steps forward and says ‘I have not given my blessing’. She says her magic is not strong enough to …” she made a gesture like breaking a stick.
“Break the curse.”
“Yes, the Curse.” She pronounced the word with care, as if it were dangerous. “She cannot break the Curse, but she can …?” She gestured down and out with open hands as though smoothing wrinkles from a cloth.
“Soften the blow.” Simon finished thoughtfully. The penny dropped.
“Yes sir. Soften the blow. So this …” she touched his bicep lightly tracing the pattern of the inscription foreign to them both. “This spell. This charm. This blessing. I think it did protect you. It softened a Killing blow into a Crippling blow.”
Simon took a deep shuddering breath. His insides felt liquid and the shell of his body so thin and frail. All that protected his soul against the further slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As he let the breath out slowly, he felt the stone in his guts rising like an elevator in a shaft. His liquefied innards flowed around its dissolving edges filling his torso with a warm sensation. Into the vacuum left behind by this unburdening seeped hope and the seeds of gratitude.
He took another deep breath and looked up at the lady. He saw no pity in her eyes; only kindness, warmth and a quiet loneliness.
“You will come?”
Simon looked puzzled.
“Annabelle’s Christ.en.ing. Next month. Sunday the twel.f.th. At St Martin’s Church. Eleven o’clock.”
She smiled in parting, kicked the brake off the pram, and set off. Annabelle hooked her little body around the edge of the pram opening and closing her chubby little fist with an angelic smile.
Simon heard a number repeated firmly in his direction. He snapped back to the present moment and took his order from another bored teenager thanking him with a genuine smile. As Simon rolled toward the door he discreetly dropped the uneaten order in the bin and made a resolution to renew his gym membership.