He walks around the Inner Circle, all day, every day. You must have seen him sometime, if you’ve spent some time in CP. But I wouldn’t count on you to have noticed him, or remembered him. Nobody does. Though I fail to see how it’s possible not to. He is old, walks with a slight hunch, wears thick, rectangular glasses. And he wears a pink, fluffy duck on his hand that squeaks every time he closes his fingers – much like a ventriloquist’s puppet. And he does it constantly, with both hands, all day long.
It’s a toy, of course, that he sells. He has a bag full of them on his shoulder. But I have never once seen anyone stop to buy it. Each time he sees a child, he bends and grins at him or her, the ducks out-squeaking each other furiously on both hands. The average child must find the experience fairly unnerving, I imagine. Although if you ask me, I find an old man in a red dress, with a beard big enough to hide a child in (and a big bag – with literally infinite capacity – just in case it doesn’t suffice), who is happiest when little children are sitting in his lap, just a wee bit more creepy. But that’s just me.
So. If you follow him – the squeaky-duck man, not the red-dress man – around for a while, you realize he never speaks. Not when asking for a cup of tea, not when greeting a similarly-aged cobbler. Most people seem to know him. He seems to have been around for a long time. From a time when the toys he sells may still have caught a childhood fancy. A time when people might not have been too busy, or too rich, to have noticed an uncle selling toys. Hell, they might even have smiled at him every now and then.
But soon you realize that he’s speaking constantly, through the ducks. He squeaks them gently when he’s walking around. But often, the pattern changes. Sometimes it’s a gradual increase in the frequency, like when he sees a gang of obnoxious boys blocking his path, yelling loudly at each other for no reason, blowing smoke at passersby. Sometimes, it’s a sudden, shocking flood of squeals, screeches, like when he sees an SUV with tinted glasses cut him off when he’s crossing the road, and speed away like it never saw him.
I imagine he has no family. It’s a presumption, yes. But you can see loneliness in some people’s eyes. Even the ones who think it’s so terribly old-fashioned and boring to have a family. Who think life is best lived on their own terms, without the shackles spouses and children inevitably introduce, denying them the reckless liberty of youth they are so desperate to hang on to. Even they can’t escape the lines that creep across your face when you’re not looking in the mirror, that betray the emptiness inside.
This man is different, of course. The lines on his face hide a story. His eyes, ready to pop out of the thick glasses, have seen life in ways you and I can hardly imagine. They’re waiting for someone to listen to it. And write a bestselling novel inspired by it, later to be turned in a major motion-picture premiered on a beach in Southern France, softly applauded by people careful not to spill wine from the glasses they’re holding, just the way they’re meant to be held. In the meanwhile, the ducks squeak on.