“Brussels is not as beautiful as Paris in the autumn” Samuel always says. You need old steel and stone to bring out autumn’s magic with its brown leaves and particular light.
“Samuel always has the perfect words to describe how he feels doesn’t he…” Jane thought. She was walking along one of the Cinquantenaire Park’s alleyways. By her side, her daughter Pauline was trotting as fast as her little legs would allow her. Further ahead, the Great Mosque of Brussels emerged from the trees and the growing sight of it got the child more and more excited with each step they took.
“And he always makes me feel like such a dumb mute when we go out with friends” she concluded silently. Barely paying attention to Pauline‘s incessant babbling, she was mentally going over last evening’s outing. She felt ashamed as always and tired of being constantly conscious of her intellectual limits.
— “Come on Mummy, I can see it from here”
What Pauline was talking about was a large sandy playground in the middle of which sat a climbing structure covered in a web of ropes. Built at the foot of the Mosque, the place was one of the best spots for children to play and the fact that they lived so close to it was really convenient. Their apartment was too small for Pauline to exert all her physical energy and Jane just wanted to sit down and ask the world to entertain her daughter for a while.
Once they had arrived, Jane walked with Pauline at the edge of the sandbox and kneeled down at her level:
— “Stay on the this side of the sandbox ok? You know what I want right?”
— Pauline recited monotonously: “whatever happens, you always need to be able to see me.”
Jane looked around, looking for a place to sit but the playground was popular on Saturday afternoons and all the benches were taken. She spotted one on the far left that only had one woman sitting on it. She seemed completely hypnotised by her phone, oblivious to the screaming kids around her. “Good” Jane thought, “like this I won’t need to make conversation.”
— “Ok I’ll be on that last bench over there“ she said pointing at it. “Can you see it?”
Pauline rapidly scanned the benches and fixed her eyes on it.
— “The one with the lady with the blue coat?”
— “Yes that one”
— “You see it?”
— “Yes mum, now can I go?”
And she was off. Jane walked herself over to the bench and stood in front of the woman, waiting for her to lift up her eyes from her phone so she could ask her if the place was taken. But she didn’t react so Jane cleared her throat, hoping to get her attention. The woman didn’t even blink… Whatever was happening on her phone seemed to mesmerize her. Jane then decided to sit down. “If I’m taking someone’s place, she’ll make sure to tell me,” she alleged. Now that she was closer to her, Jane saw some headphones coming out of her scarf and plugged into her ears. “She just needs a gag on her mouth” Jane thought “and then all her senses will be totally obliterated”.
She turned her attention away from the woman and started scanning the playground methodically, looking for Pauline. She spotted her quite quickly, playing in the sand with a little boy not far away from her. As if sensing her mother’s searching gaze, Pauline looked up and waved to her with a wide smile. Jane waved back and observed her a little longer until her attention was drawn to a sparrow that was coming towards her very slowly. It was after an ice cream cone splattered on the ground a few centimeters in front of the bench. On her left, the other woman had also noticed it and had straightened up, pulling her feet under the bench, as if to welcome it closer. The sparrow skipped forward towards the crumbs that lay around the cone and started to peck.
The woman grabbed a piece of a waffle that rested in a torn plastic wrap on her lap. She crumbled it between her fingers and threw it at an even point between where she was sitting and the ice cream cone. The bird looked at it but didn’t fly away.
She emitted a light chuckle and turned towards Jane. Even though she was smiling, Jane realized that her eyes were red and that she had probably been crying. Their stared at each other then the woman took off her earphones and spoke.
— “Do you want it?” she said, handing the waffle to her as she said so.
— “Mmmh, no, no thank you.”
— “I shouldn’t have it really,” she said, tapping her stomach. “But then again, it’s not this waffle that’s going to make a difference. “
She could loose a little weight Jane remarked to herself. But because her mother had taught her not to say anything if you couldn’t say something nice, she didn’t answer. She waited a minute then tried to change the subject.
— “Are you also here with your child?” she asked.
— “No with my niece. She’s the one with the pigtails and the yellow jacket there. Which one is yours?”
— “She’s…” Jane turned her eyes towards the playground, scanning it in search of Pauline’s red coat. But there were too many children and she couldn’t focus. A wave of panic swept through her. She got up at once and ran hurriedly towards the climbing structure at the center. Standing at the foot of it she anxiously called Pauline’s name over the buzz of screaming voices. Green coats, brown hair, pink sweaters, golden locks… but no red coat. The anxiety was so suffocating she did not feel the gentle pull on the sleeve of her coat. It was Pauline’s voice that brought her back to her senses.
— “Mum? Mum? Look at me I can turn cartwheels! Will you look?”
— Jane dropped to her knees and pulled her daughter to her “Oh my God Pauline, don’t ever do that to me again you hear me?”
Pauline let her mother hold her tight, waiting for her frantic grasp to loosen. It always did after a while. She was used to these panic attacks by now. She’d disappeared in a supermarket a few years ago and since then her mother regularly freaked out like this. Pauline always made sure to stay close when she played but her mother remained impossible to reassure no matter what.
— “Right, we are going home”
— “Oh no please, can we just stay a little longer? I just want you to look at my cartwheels”
— “Ok one cartwheel and we are off”
Pauline took a leap and accomplished something that looked more like a clumsy forward roll than a cartwheel. Another little girl playing not far away came closer to Pauline and showed off her personal version of a cartwheel. They then both looked at each other and smiled. Pauline turned her eyes to her mother pleadingly.
— “Mum can we stay a little more?”
— “No I said one cartwheel. We’re going now.”
She hated to do this to her daughter but once the fear was in, she had to go. The last time she’d had a panic attack, she’d barely been able to get the both of them home. Tears filled Pauline’s eyes.
— “Can I just stay here while you go and get your bags on the bench then?”
In her frenzy Jane had left everything on the bench. She turned around, hoping it was still there.
— “Ok but don’t move from this spot. I’m going to get them and we’re leaving. Ok?”
She made her way quickly back to the bench. The other woman was still there, looking at her telephone again. This time she turned around when Jane reached the bench and she saw that she was actually crying. Lost for words, Jane stood there awkwardly for a few seconds then reached for her shopping bags, unable to say anything. But something at the corner of her eye caught her attention, giving her the impression of being watched. At a very close distance from her now stood the sparrow they’d observed a while ago. It was no longer picking at the ice cream cone but was looking curiously at her. Standing perfectly still, it moved its head as if studying her. Jane just stood there staring back at it.
— “I have never seen a bird so inquisitive,” said the woman on the bench. “While you were gone it actually came on the bench near me. First I thought it wanted what was left of my waffle but it stayed on, even when I finished the last bit of it.”
Jane breathed deeply. The bird was so close she could have touched it. For a minute she was a child again, remembering how blessed you felt when you came across an animal out of sheer luck. The woman kept on talking, staring at the bird as she did so.
— “Do you think it’s a male or a female?” she asked.
— “It’s a female, male have a black bib” Jane answered, surprised by her own knowledge.
The sparrow skipped backwards, still keeping its eyes on Jane. It turned its head and then it flew way.
She looked at it go, flapping its tiny wings. She had never seen anything as free she thought as she gathered her shopping bags.