It had started to drizzle and the bus was still not coming. The cars passing by shone their white lights on my face and I could feel my blood rushing in my ears. I was never going to make it to our meeting point in time. “Never mind” I thought, “I might as well walk”.
The pavement was in a bad state and full of puddles; I had to watch where I put my feet. The rain was coming down quicker now and my turned up collar could barely keep the drops out of my neck, let alone of my face. I hadn’t planned for rain, nor for the bus to never come. But there was still time, enough time…yes, I’d be there before him.
Fifteen minutes later and completely drenched, I finally reached the park’s entrance. It was an old door in the wall on the left hand side of the Chaussée de Wavre. It appeared just when the street started going up towards a huge crossroad called “La Chasse”. I never really understood why they called certain streets the way they did but this one made sense; that crossroad was so full of aggressiveness and mayhem, it made you feel like you were in the middle of a hunting game when you tried to cross it!
Once in the park, the difference with the street was breath taking. It was a green and peaceful bubble, protected from the outside noise by walls and trees. Different pathways lead you through the grounds, taking you on a romantic and nostalgic trip through time. Here and there, benches allowed you to sit and enjoy the peaceful view. On their backrest, slim metal-plates were marked with the names of persons who were gone but still lovingly remembered. For eternity, these seats were invitations to unite with the deceased and connect with them beyond the grave through a precious pause in time. How incredible it must be to be loved in such a way I told myself…The last time I was here, we were sitting on Julia’s bench. It gave directly onto a “parterre” of Lilies of the Valley; probably her favourites. I’d come here to meet Matt who had a proposition for me. From the day we arrived we were both here illegally and had been going through hell at all levels since then. No money, no legal status, no jobs, no family…the list was endless. “This country will never give us our chance” he said, “we should leave it”.
We’d met in a bar three years ago. Going through the same kind of difficulties, we got talking over cheap wine about getting fake papers, making some money and finding a safe place to sleep. We’d become good friends right away. When one of us got lucky, the other one got a share of it. We were “partners in dime” he always said. We ended up moving in together in the basement of an old house in a poor part of town. It had no water nor heating but the owner, a guy I’d met through one of my jobs, asked nearly nothing for it. The heating pipes coming from the apartments above kept us decently warm and dry. What more could we ask for?
But good times can change and last winter I got sick with pneumonia which kept me out of the work cycle. Matt was left on his own to go out and try and make a living. While doing so he met a group of guys who had just arrived from somewhere in the south of Europe. They were a whole community, with wives and children, and Matt took a shine to them immediately. From what he told me about them, they sounded quite loud and arrogant but he was nevertheless impressed. He started spending most of his evenings out with them so we saw each other less and less. It’s not that I couldn’t join them; it was just that I could no longer work on a construction site. So I was never around for the bonding bit at the end of their day of work. Pneumonia had left me in a severely weakened condition worsened by years of malnourishment. I could no longer work for long hours outside so I tried to keep a scarce income by helping our next-door neighbour, an Indian shopkeeper, to unload his van when he stocked up for groceries. It was barely enough to keep me going financially.
One late September afternoon, Matt sent me a text message, asking me to meet up with him in this park. It took me a while to get here but after taking one wrong bus, I finally made it. He was waiting for me on this very same bench when I arrived. “Sit down” he said, “I’ve got a proposition for you”. “I want to get out of here. I’m sick of Belgium; there is no future for us here. The guys I’ve been hanging out with keep all the good jobs for their families. I’m only picking up the crumbs behind them so I never get a full day’s work anymore. I’m sick of it. I say we leave, go east. I hear there are good jobs to be found out there in factories. This would be great for you too as you wouldn’t have to work outside in the cold. What do you say?” I was euphoric. It felt like a ray of sunshine had just fallen upon the path in front of me, a golden door opening on hope, on a brand new future. Where a few hours ago it seemed like another lonely and depressing winter was on its way, a whole new set of opportunities now unfolded in front of me! “Hell yes! I’m definitely coming with you. I’m sick of this place too.” I sat down next to him and went through a brief coughing fit. When I caught my breath again he carried on: “I met this guy a few weeks ago. Says his brother in law has a truck in which he carries illegal workers across the borders. You just need to be quiet and mind your own business. They take care of getting you there. It’s 350 euros a head and you need some kind of identification paper – a good fake one can do – so they can pretend they didn’t know we were illegal if we get controlled. Play stupid you know?”
I had a fake ID; I’d bought it before the summer from a guy near the canal in the north of Brussels. It had cost me all of my savings at the time but at least I felt less “naked” now when I walked around, mainly on public transports. But the 350 euros were going to be something else. I didn’t say anything about it to Matt that afternoon as I didn’t want him to leave without me. We’d agreed that he would let the guy know we’d be on board on the scheduled date. It was in two weeks, that wasn’t going to give me much time to find the money.
The precise night had arrived… The truck was supposed to leave in the early hours of the morning from “La Chasse”. Matt had given me a meeting point in this park, saying it was safer than waiting on the side of the road. I’d barely seen him since our last conversation here. He’d been working a lot again, coming in later and later. Even though the days were shortening with autumn settling in, his mood kept improving. I thought it must be the promise of our future escape. No more gloomy Belgium, we were starting off again somewhere new, as the team we used to be. As the team we still were.
My trail of thoughts was all of a sudden interrupted. I hadn’t noticed but the rain was coming down heavy now. I had to find a shelter. A little deeper in the park I knew there was a gazebo but I couldn’t see it from here because of the dark. I started running as quickly as I could, its green roof slowly appearing through the drops. I threw myself inside and took off my backpack. It was soaked and most of my stuff inside was probably damp by now but I didn’t care, at least I was out of the rain. I looked at my phone, Matt should be coming now, it was precisely 5:30. We still had a 15 minutes’ walk and the truck was leaving in half an hour. He’d left me a note on the table five days ago, confirming the meeting time. Not to worry, he would arrive.
The gazebo had a few broken windows so a draft made it uncomfortable. Through the broken glass you could barely make out a small pond on the right hand side. The sun wasn’t up yet but the falling rain had a different sound when it hit its surface. I put my backpack on the ground to sit on it and avoid getting any colder. My cough was breaking up in regular fits now and I was afraid the cold would make it so bad that I would still be coughing in the truck. Being quiet might then be a problem.
Minutes came and minutes went but Matt never came. 5:45, then 6:03…No Matt in view and his phone was switched off…The truck must have left without us by now, it was 6:18 and I was alone with the falling rain. I had given him my fake-ID so he could show it to the guy and get us a place in the truck. He hadn’t given it back to me. I didn’t know where the leaving point was exactly and it seemed anyway impossible for me to go without him. How could I start a new life on my own? What was the point? I wasn’t enough of an incentive for myself; my whole mind was focused on “waiting for Matt”. When the sun came out around 7:30, I had been waiting for more than two hours now. He was not going to come. I’d heard from the Indian shopkeeper a few days ago that he’d been seeing the sister of one of these southern European workers for a few months now. She had left him at one stage and Matt had seemed devastated he said. But she’d come back to him less than a week ago. Matt seemed so happy again he noticed.
He wasn’t coming. And I had nowhere to go. I’d robbed my employer, that sweet Indian man, to get the 350 euros I needed to get a place in the truck. His daughter had seen me take it in the cash register so I couldn’t go back. And I had no papers on me. With this dreadful cough, there was little chance I’d get anywhere anyway. And was the point really? When we were going to start over together, I could see the sense. But just me? On my own? Matt was the strong one. I needed him to know where to go. He had it made now. He belonged somewhere at last. I was no more than an inconvenient link to the past. One you can forget in a park…
The pond seemed appealing in the blank morning light. The rain had grown thin again and the park had a surreal blank look to it. I slowly picked up my backpack, slipped it on and went towards it. I couldn’t swim so it wouldn’t take long…
There is a park in Brussels where you can sit on benches with ghosts and share a view and a moment with a peaceful eternity.
There is a park in Brussels where, some early autumn mornings, you can see a frail ghost running towards the gazebo, full of hope. They say his wraith belongs to a young man who once drowned in the park’s pond. His body was never identified so he is the only soul in the park who has no bench with a metal name-plate…