This story is by Derek Mccracken and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Joanna looked into the eyes of the old man and saw a warmth that she had never witnessed before. He smiled as he bent down to gather the fruit that had spilled when they collided. The smell of the fresh oranges filled the cold air and it almost seemed as if he picked them up slowly so the scent would linger.
‘Thank-you,’ Joanna whispered awkwardly as she gathered the fruit from the old man and quickly started down the path. She couldn’t help but notice the colour and condition of his hands. They were badly calloused and a blue, black colour.
She had never been that close to a tramp before and this unintentional engagement really unsettled her. Then again she had never taken a walk alone in the park until this morning as that was frowned upon by her parents.
‘You don’t know what kind of creature you would meet in there,’ they lamented.
As much as she tried, Joanna couldn’t get the old man’s eyes out of her head, replaying the incident over and over in her head. There was just something different about him, she thought.
‘How could an old man with so little, convey such warmth?’ she reflected.
‘Surely there must be something missing,’ she thought.
Kind of wishing she could relieve the moment, Joanna continued around the tree-lined pathway and then she saw him. The old man was sitting on a park bench. What would she do? She was now a few feet away from the cause of this fascination, but would she stop? Should she stop? Would she be wiser to walk on past?
She knew what her parents would do as they were people of means who didn’t associate with such low members of society.
Before she could finally decide, the old man looked up and smiled at Joanna with the same warm eyes she had seen earlier. Unable to stop herself she sat down beside the stranger without speaking. Now she felt awkward again not knowing what to say or do.
‘Would you like an orange?’ she asked reaching into her bag.
‘That would be very kind of you,’ replied the old man, delighted that the young girl had sat down beside him.
As she stretched across she noticed the smelly old sleeping bag under the bench. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘My name’s Albert’ the old man replied with a hint of sorrow in his voice.
‘What’s your name young lady?’ enquired Albert.
‘Joanna is my name, Joanna Parson of well er, it doesn’t matter’ she replied, aware that most people associated her with the family business Parson and Parsons.
‘Ah, your one of the Parson’s then?’ Albert continued. ‘You know of them?’ said Joanna surprised. ‘Yes, they’re well known around these parts.’ Albert replied.
Joanna was taken aback that this kind old man knew about Parson’s yet he was living rough. What should she say next?
‘That’s a lovely orange Joanna and very kind of you to give me it’ Albert smiled again.
‘What is it about his smile?’ thought Joanna again.
After what seemed like a long silence, Joanna not quite sure what to do found her self asking a very bold and forward question, ‘What happened Albert?’ ‘I mean what happened that you are living outside?’
Albert sat, his eyes loosing some of their shine and a tear forming. He turned again to look at Joanna and said,
‘You’re the first person I’ve met who has asked me that,’ he whispered.
‘You really are a lovely young lady, Joanna,’ he continued.
‘There aren’t many people who would take the time to ask that question these days, particularly to someone like me.’ He went on.
‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ said Joanna, ‘I mean anything at all.’
‘You know what I would like more than anything,’ Albert said straightening up.
‘What?’ whispered Joanna.
‘Would you walk with me through the park’ Albert asked with a searching look.
‘Why yes I would love to,’ said Joanna now really taken by Albert’s genuine request.
They both stood up and Albert pushed the sleeping bag neatly underneath the bench. ‘Come on then,’ Joanna said quietly reaching out her hand.
Albert appeared shaken that this young lady whom he had just met would walk through the park with him. Joanna glanced around aware that this was pushing new boundaries in her world, and hoping that no one would recognise her and report back to her parents.
As they began to walk slowly Albert’s smile broadened as Joanna hooked her arm in his. ‘What a joy this is Joanna, you have no idea what this means to me,’ Albert said quietly.
They continued around the corner of the tree-lined pathway into the busy main stretch between the gates. Joanna although very aware of the staring, disapproving scowls, turned to Albert and whispered ‘This is really nice.’
By now people had stopped and were watching this unlikely couple walking slowly through the busy Sunday meeting place.
‘You know Joanna, most people who are rich don’t take time to do what really matters,’ Albert said with a sad voice.
‘What do you mean?’ Joanna answered.
‘Well, people are so caught up with themselves that they don’t think about anybody else.’
Joanna glanced at Albert with a guilty look thinking he was referring to her.
‘I’m sorry Albert,’ she muttered, her lip quivering a bit.
“Oh no, I’m not talking about you Joanna, you have done today something that money can never buy.’
‘Joanna.’ Came the shout from the gate of the park. ‘Joanna, what are you doing?’ ‘Has he hurt you?’ It was her mother who had wondered what had kept her.
By now a crowd had gathered sensing danger. ‘Mother I am fine, this is my new friend Albert, ‘ Joanna offered. ‘Friend!’ ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘Come on, quick now let’s get you to the safety of the home,’ her mother snapped.
‘I promised Albert that we would walk through the park,’ Joanna said defiantly. ‘Are you out of your mind girl?’ ‘Let’s see what your father has to say about that.’
‘Mother, my mind is working perfectly and I will be across the road when I am finished walking with Albert.’ Joanna’s mother was speechless; what was going on in the head of her child, walking with a man over 70 years of age dressed like a rag and smelling of rubbish.
‘I will wait at the gate for you and you will have your father to deal with when we go to the residence,’ her mother fumed with a long sigh.
‘Come on Albert, let’s continue back to the bench, we can go the long way if you want,’ Joanna said staring at her mother who was now beyond words.
Beginning along the path again, Albert turned and looked compassionately at Joanna’s mother with watered eyes trying to work out how widely apart their two lives were and why it should be this way.
As they approached the park bench again both walked quietly, realising that this unique encounter was nearing an end. Albert broke the silence, ‘Joanna this has been a very special time for me and I want to thank you very much,’ he whispered quietly.
Turning to look directly at the old man Joanna said, ‘I feel as if I have known you a long time Albert.’
The old man smiled by way of acknowledgement.
‘You need to go to your mother now, she’s worried about you.’
‘I know,’ Joanna sighed knowing what was ahead.
She reached out her arms and threw them around a startled Albert and hugged him tightly for a long time; then she turned and started down the path from where the adventure had begun.
She turned quickly to wave at Albert, but he was gone.