I was slumped on a bench in Vienna Stadtpark a couple of days ago, hungover, watching ducks in a pond. A black coot swam over to a drake and unprovoked, nipped it in the buttocks. The drake spun around to face his aggressor, then thought the better of it and glided away.
On the bench to my left, a girl was sitting alone, smiling to herself. She was waif-like and innocent-looking with long brown hair and large eyes. She seemed unusually still.
Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, two girls clutching tiny pads of paper approached her. They began very quietly, to question her. All the time the girl murmured her answers, she kept the little otherworldly smile on her lips. The others were noting down her answers and nodding sympathetically; their faces full of vivid reassurance. I couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying.
The air was cooler than it had been the last few days.
Suddenly a gust of wind snatched some sheets of paper from the girls’ grip. They flew up into the air and landed in the pond. The girls gasped, turned, stretched out their arms, laughed, then gave up and pointed helplessly at the white specks as they dispersed across the water.
I forgot about them for a while because I was distracted by a lady on the other side of me playing with her grandson. He was bouncing on her knee and laughing. I caught the lady’s eye and smiled. She had auburn hair and an elegant face. After a little while, her daughter came back. “Look,” she’s back, the older lady told the baby, turning him so that he faced his mother. He beamed and she sat down beside him and rubbed his nose.
I looked back at the three girls beside me. They had closed their eyes and were speaking to God. All I could hear was the address “Herr.” Soon it was over, and the two girls disappeared. The original one remained on the bench, sitting bolt upright, her expression and posture unchanged. Though it was pasted to her face, her smile had an ephemeral quality. She had been touched.
The grandmother and her daughter laid the baby between them and together changed his nappy. They couldn’t have looked any happier. The pleasure they took from the task was nourishing.
As I was leaving the park, I passed a man wearing a red plastic nose, a pair of plastic glasses and a floppy hat. He was dipping a folded piece of rope into a bucket of soapy water and blowing giant bubbles. A little girl was clapping her hands and chasing them before they disappeared into the gravel on the ground.
I wandered home and some of the guilty hollowness left by the hangover was gone.