Two little girls and a monster

Last Saturday evening I was walking down the creepy stretch that leads from the train station to my flat when I was accosted by two little girls in distress.

“Have you seen our Kater?” the older asked.

“Your Kater?

“Yes!”

“Kater” means male cat. I hadn’t seen one.

The little girl bit her lip. “I am in so much trouble. So much trouble.”

“What does it look like?”

“Like any Kater!” she snapped.

It was a quarter to nine. The girls had big brown eyes and dark hair. The older one was about seven and the younger one no more than four.

“It’s all my sister’s fault,” the older one blurted out. “She started messing and ran away.” She smacked her little sister over the head. “It’s all your fault!”

“Hey!” I said. “Don’t do that! You are NOT allowed to hit.”

The younger sister didn’t flinch but stared ahead with her big brown eyes.

“Look,” I said. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“We went to the shop to buy the Kater,” the older girl said, fighting back tears. “And then my little sister started messing and I went after her and now the Kater is gone.”

I got the impression she was not taking about a cat.

In fact, she was talking about a “Karte,” which means “card.”

“Did you mum or dad send you out to buy the Karte?”

“Yes!” she cried, more hysterical. “Our mum did. I can’t go home. You’ve no idea the trouble I’ll be in.”

“What kind of card is it?” I asked. “What is it for?”

“For a mobile phone!”

The little girls had lost a top-up voucher.

“Did you buy it in the shop at the station?” I asked.

“Yes!”

“And have you checked the pavement?”

“We can’t find it. Please help us. I’m in so much trouble.”

“Okay,” I said. “Have you already looked across the road, just outside the station?”

“No, it’s too dark, we’re scared.”

It is dark and scary there. It’s dimly-lit and there are bushes. Once my heart almost stopped when a man emerged suddenly from urinating in the hedge.

We crossed over and began to scour the pavement. It was full of cards advertising taxi companies.

Suddenly the younger one pointed at something that looked like a receipt and picked it up.

“Is this it?” I asked.

The older girl snatched it and said. “I can’t see. I need to find some light.”

We moved under the dull glow of an orange street lamp.

It was a top-up card. For €10.

“Brilliant! Well done!” I said to the littler girl.

They were not as relieved as I’d expected them to be.

“Where do you live?” the older girl asked.

I told her I lived at the end of the road.

“Can I take your hand?” the little one asked.

I paused for about half a second.

“Sure,” I said and she clutched it.

I was trying to weigh up my chances of defence against a kidnapping charge. Circumstantial evidence was not in my favour.

“Will you take us up the steps?” the older girl asked.

“What?”

“PLEASE.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand you. What steps?”

“In our house.

In your house?”

“Yes. Please, please, please. I’m so scared. The monster has already killed the lady.”

“What lady?”

“The lady who used to live there. She’s dead because of the monster.”

“There are no such things as monsters.”

“Yes there are!” the two girls shouted, infuriated.

“No they’re not,” I said. “They are only in stories. So they can be in your head, but not in real life.”

“The worst monsters are in Romania,” said the younger girl.

“I’ve seen the monster,” said the older one.

“Oh really?” I asked. “What did it look like?”

“Big.”

“What was its hair like?”

She moved her hands apart as if she were making clouds in the air. “Like this.”

“And what colour eyes did it have?”

She faltered.

“You see,” I said. “Sometimes people just tell you stories to frighten you. It doesn’t mean they’re real.”

She was unconvinced.

“Please come in with us.”

“I can’t come into your house,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“PLEASE” they both cried.

They came to a stop outside an apartment block.

“Is this where you live?”

“Yes,” they said. “Please, please, please don’t go.”

They clung to me.

Suddenly a woman’s face popped out of the window.

She had a pony-tail and she was staring at us.

“Is that your mum?” I asked them.

They nodded.

“Look,” I said loudly, pointing up at their mother. “There’s mum, everything is okay. There’s no need to be frightened””

The woman continued to watch us.

“Look,” I said, even more loudly. “Hallo mama!” I waved stupidly.

She didn’t budge.

Neither did they.

“You have to go inside now,” I told them.

“You have to come with us. PLEASE.”

“I can’t,” I said. “Look, your mum is right up there. You’re safe now!”

They held onto me.

Their mother was still at the window.

We were in a stand-off.

“Okay fine,” I said.

They pushed open the door.

Inside the entrance hall was a concrete staircase. A few steps led downwards to an open cellar, which appeared like a gaping hole.

I could imagine a monster there.

Their mother came to the door. I turned as fast as I could, pushing the two little girls gently in front.

“Bye!”

“Thanks,” the woman with the pony-tail called after me.

I rushed out of the building and when I got home, I thought about whom they had got their stories about monsters from. And why the woman with the pony tail had not budged from the window. And about what my curfew was when I was seven. And about what will happen the next time they cling to a stranger on the street.

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Reflections On A Winter Wonderland

I trod upon this Winter Wonderland two nights ago; perhaps you can see my footprints in the snow. This is my mother’s hometown of Regensburg, Bavaria and I am seeing it for the first time in the winter. I know it from the summers of childhood and adolescence as the place where first I splashed my toes into cool drinking-water fountains and then wandered moodily into the branches of H & M and Müller in the hope of diversion from the obligations of ‘extended family’ holidays.

The German side of my family is enormous – my mother is the fourth child of nine and at last count my cousins tallied close to thirty. My memories of the summers between about 1995 and 2007 are rooted in a certain self – consciousness about the German I spoke, which I perceived as stilted in comparison to the Bavarian twang and slang with which my relatives conversed. Aware and anxious from a young age that I had but a single afternoon to persuade each branch of the German relatives of my lively personality and engaging wit, I presented invariably an image of dullness and excessive politeness which they perceived (with accuracy) as shyness and awkward sensitivity. I had an awful lot of fun in Regensburg too though – I was particularly fond of the twisty yellow waterslide at the local pool and the vast availability of playmobil and wooden dolls’ house accessories in the toy -shops. When my Grandmother moved out of the family home and into a flat nearby, she dedicated her biggest free space to a playroom for her grandchildren. There she set up a shop (or ‘Kaufladen’) which she supplied with a wooden till and weighing scales, dried apples from the garden, miniature packets of raisins and cinnamon-topped marzipan balls; all of which could be purchased in tiny cone-shaped paper bags, which she provided for her customers. It was marvellous.

Such feelings return to me as I sit on a Regensburg and Grandmother-bound train with my boyfriend, who is not a part of these memories but who has the most incredible ability to absorb and to understand information and to remain quite silent as he does so; only to amaze me with evidence of his awesome memory at appropriate points in the future.  For instance, he has recited in order the names of my mother’s brothers and sisters without ever having been formally taught, recalled anecdotes about my relatives that I don’t even remember fabricating and has learned (albeit not with great accuracy) the lyrics of the family song (yes, there is one) which is performed at the approximately bi-annual family gathering.

I would forgive you for accusing me of having notions of one day appearing on one of those ancestry-tracing television shows like ‘Who do you think you are?’ . To practise for such an occasion, I ask Andrew to take a picture of me on arrival at Regensburg train station.  I attempt to look restrained and dignified, humbled and delighted (as those minor celebrities do at important and scripted moments in the discovery of their past) but it is too much for me and I end up pointing with mock excitement at the sign above my head.

The journey begins and we battle through a blizzard along the Danube on the way to my Grandmother’s flat. We are startled by a baby rat as it darts for cover under the inches-deep layers of snow by the riverbank. When we arrive, we are heaped with white powder. I am nervous as I ring the bell – it has been three and a half years since I last saw my Grandmother and at that time I was not romantically attached. She opens the door and pops her head out. She motions us in as if we were meals on wheels. It is wonderfully reassuring. She brews a herbal tea and we sip it as the blizzard outside continues. She tells me that she misses packing Christmas parcels for her Grandchildren; it is beyond her competencies now, she tells me, as the children are looking for gadgets and games she doesn’t understand. I tell her how I loved playing shop in the playroom and how I remember her paper bags and dried apples. She smiles and tells me she has found old letters that her children wrote to the Christkind (the German equivalent of Santa Clause). I ask her eagerly if I may see them. I may. She gets up to fetch them, and I whisper a few words to Andrew, who has remained mute at the head of the table (Andrew speaks no German and my Oma no English). I leaf through the letters of my youngest aunts: they have asked for an anorak and an extendable pencil and have promised the Christkind that they have been brave Kinder all year.

Outside my Oma's flat

After an hour and a quarter, we shake hands goodbye and venture back out. We are station-bound again but have decided to check out the Christmas market by the Castle before we leave. We are ankle deep in glistening snow. Burning torches light our way to the courtyard, where stalls of mulled wine and gingerbread lure us through the cold. Four men play Christmas carols on old-fashioned horns. Beyond the glistening snowflakes and torch flames, the castle gleams. I buy Andrew a baked potato and he buys me a woolly hat. We leave our footprints in the snow. We miss our train and spend all evening in a Winter Wonderland I feel is part my own.

 

The Wrong Track

He was between ten and three quarters and eleven and a half years old; tall enough, round-faced, sandy-haired with pale pink skin. He had this gentle, good-natured look about him but as I was watching him buy his luas ticket from the machine at Dundrum I noticed a numb intensity in how he stared straight ahead while pressing frantically the buttons on the screen. Then he picked up his ticket, turned away and began to cry. The tears came in a flood and he had to gasp for breath. His friends; four or five boys in the same age bracket looked sadly on but said nothing. There was another six minute wait. 

It proved too hard a thing for my mother and me to watch. We approached quietly and asked him was he alright. His friends moved in around us and began to talk. “We got punched just now”, said one. “..just outside the two euro shop”, said another. “By whom?”, we asked. “lads, our age”, they said. “… we were waiting for Emmet”, said one “and these guys saw us and were waiting for us to pass and when we did they punched us and got him in the back of the head.”

Nobody saw, but “they were wearing Adidas tracksuits” and there were “four of them”, the boy, who was still crying told us. I looked at him: he was the biggest. He had all the strength and none of the instinct of a fighter and those boys had smelt it out in an instant.

I don’t care if the kids in tracksuits come from backgrounds of low socio economic status. It is an insult to the impoverished to associate them, by way of a knowing nod, with mindful aggresion and malicious instincts.

If I were Minister Whatshisface, I would encourage Gardaí time and resources to be allocated to tackling, with conscientiousness the culture of cruelty in children which, unaddressed, leads to the reality of brutal relationships, violent attacks and ruthless behaviour in adulthood. The brain is a plastic organ: these boys need not be destined to enjoy the suffering of others. 

I want to see the four boys in Adidas tracksuits separated. I want to see them in a uniform of somebody else’s design, picking up litter by themselves for thirty minutes each day for a month in a sealed off area of, let’s say –  the Dundrum shopping centre. I want them not to be punished for grievous bodily harm in the future, but now for taking pleasure out of somebody else’s terrified eyes and breathless crying. I want them to receive a small, tokenistic reward at the end of their month-long endevours. They should feel the humiliation that they have inflicted and in turn reap the rewards of a job well done.          

Each one of the boys thanked us as they alighted in Cowper. Safe home, we wished them.

The Two-Taled Tea Test

So there I was browsing in the Palais de thé of Wicklow Street wearing a chequered brown dress and carrying a bag made of recycled Rittersport chocolate wrappers (This to become important later). I was leaning over a pot to smell a blend of rooibis tea when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to face a girl: blonde, bright-eyed, curly-haired, affable, tall.  

‘HIIIII!! how ARE you? … good to see you!!’ she cried ,smiling effusively at me. I looked briefly, and with great intensity into her face. No, I did not know this girl.

I responded with alacrity, matching with exactitude her smile and demeanour: ’Hi there!! I’m doing well thanks!! how about yourself? I’m just browsing for tea – it’s a lovely shop here isn’t it?’

‘Oh, it’s gorgeous’ she said – ‘here, smell this one, it’s the most popular blend’.

‘Oh, that’s lovely actually’, I said, ‘though I really think I’m most tempted by the rooibus blend’

‘I love that one too’, she admitted, before asking ‘.. so what are you up to now?’

I paused. She’d hit upon a toughie. It all depended on from what context she knew, or thought she knew me.

I eliminated school, former workplaces, friend-of-a-friend and distant relative. I was left with college and in a flash there came an hypothesis. Could she be a version of a Mary Claire, who studied psychology with me in first year? She had had dark skin and brown hair then and we had barely spoken but there was a certain je ne sais quoi (quite literally) about her that seemed familiar.

Yes, I thought. This is Marie Claire. I sighed with relief as she prompted, ‘You must be finished now..?’

‘Yeah’, I agreed, ‘all done and out in the real world..’ sigh ‘What are you up to yourself?’

She was telling me all about her pastry internship when along trotted a shop assistant. He had an asymetrical haircut and selection of piercings. ‘I spotted you from afar’, he said to me. ‘I knew from your outfit when you came in that I wanted to talk to you’.

He continued, looking at my acquinatance ‘You know that I sing opera to Mary Claire  morning and night’.

The name was music to my ears. Suspending bewilderment, I pondered to him that Marie Claire was a lucky girl..

‘And she doesn’t know it’, he said wistfully before gliding away.

I recovered my equanimity. ‘Do you know him?’ I asked.

She laughed ‘Oh yeah, I used to work here’, I just came in for a chat today as I was passing.’

‘I see!’ And I did. She was, beyond all reasonable doubt, Mary Claire of first year of college who had since worked as tea mistress and pastry artist. She was the same Mary Claire who had been friends with a friend from college with whom I’m in regular contact.

Smug in my superior knowledge I asked ‘Do you see much of Alex still?’

Her face went blank. ‘Alex?….. em?’

I faltered a little. ‘Alex.. yeah he was in psychology with us..’ (you were considerably more acquainted with him than you have ever been with me, I thought)

‘hmmm, I’m sure he’ll come back to me’, she said cheerfully.

‘Oh, yeah he will, I’m sure. He’s actually written the first draft of a novel’, I added.

‘wow, impressive!’ she said. ‘I’m sure I’d know him to see’

A good fifteen minutes had passed and as well as being confused afresh, I was fearful I would be late for a coffee date.

I made my way to the till to pay for my rooibus tea. Asymetrical haircut guy threw in a dozen free tea bags and winked as he undercharged me.

I thanked him very much.

‘Don’t thank me; thank her’, he said, pointing at Mary Claire.

I flashed her a sheepish smile. ’Thanks Mary Claire’, I said as I rushed out to the sober, reassuringly familiar buzz of Wicklow Street. I vow to return, incognito in the same outfit, swinging by my side the recycled Rittersport wrapper bag.

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 (Paul Grice does a great job of explaining why most people don’t just blurt out: ‘I don’t know you’ and Stephen Pinker’s idea of ‘plausible deniability’ explains away my reluctance to use Mary Claire’s name before Asymetrical guy had confirmed my hunch)