Fall 2017 (Volume 21, Issue I)
BN AND THE OLD MAN
A sunny morning by the sea. Calm waves lick the sand. A long-legged bird hunts for tiny silvery fish in the shallows. A lone man wearing a suit walks down the beach, his eyes on the horizon.
“Oh, sorry,” he says, nearly bumping into an old man performing a headstand. “Wait, no, it can’t be.” The suited man stoops to have a closer look at the upside-down face. “Yes, it is you!”
“But of course it is,” says the old man. “I can only be me.”
“What an honour,” breathes the suited man, whom we’d call BN.
“The honour is all mine,” replies the old man.
“Sir,” says BN, “do you know who I am?”
“A man needs to know himself regardless of what others might think of him,” the old man says.
BN nods. “True, true.” He then glances around. “I’m surprised to see you on your own. Is your wife not here?”
The old man grins. “What would we do without our faithful wives?” he asks with a wink.
BN blushes, issues a hesitant smile, and turns to look at the hunting bird chasing its prey, running across the wet sand, ignoring both men. A pleasant breeze rises and he’s thankful for the silence, though after a while he wonders what he should do. He knows the old man’s morning routine is near holy, but excited at the rare opportunity, he’s not ready to leave yet.
“Funny we meet,” he finally says, his voice cheerful. “Lately, everyone has been comparing us, but they fail to see how times have changed. All world leaders live in style. Could you imagine me living in a shed in the middle of nowhere? I’d be made fun of!”
“We certainly can’t have that,” confirms the old man.
BN grins. “I knew you’d understand.” He releases his tie a bit, saying, “It’s getting hot.”
“Why won’t you take your shoes off and dip your feet in the water?” offers the old man.
“Yes, I think I will,” says BN, does just that, then returns to the old man, and seats himself on the sand with his pants still rolled up, his socks neatly tucked inside the dress shoes.
The long-legged bird had flown away by now, and the glimmering sun keeps beaming in the pale summer sky.
“How long can you hold like this?” asks BN.
“For all eternity,” answers the old man.
The old man says, “I’d think you had more important things to do than keep me company.”
BN shakes his head. “I have some time before I’m expected in the office.” He then adds with a deep sigh, “I haven’t felt so relaxed in years.”
“Nothing like the sea,” agrees the old man. “It’s why I used to come here each morning.”
“I still can’t believe I bumped into you,” says BN. “So many things I want to ask you.”
“Go ahead. I’ve got all the time in the world.”
“I wish I knew beforehand, so I could better prepare. I seem to draw a blank now.”
The old man smiles. “A good handstand energises the brain.”
BN smiled thinly. “I carry so many responsibilities,” he moaned. “Nobody but my voters has any appreciation for me. Especially my cabinet members; they just want to gang up and throw me to the dogs.”
“I sure know how that feels,” the old man slices out through his teeth, and BN, though surprised by the bitter tone, exclaims: “Exactly! Like you, no one but me has the backbone to fulfil the country’s potential, the importance of our great nation.”
Releasing his tie a bit more, he carries on, “The politicians, on both sides of the isle, don’t get it, the media keeps trying to sabotage me, criticising my every move, making fun of me in every imaginable way, but luckily, this only strengthens both me and my loyal voters.” His head bobs slightly as he speaks, and the pink of his baldness glimpses through the silver bluish comb-over.
The tall bird returns to fish in the shallows; it reminds him of a stilted clown.
“See this one?” he asks, pointing his chin at the bird. “He’s like me, negotiating the treacherous waves to get what he wants. He’s focused, unrelenting, hardworking. That’s what strong leaders are made of. You were like that, and what tremendous challenges you faced!”
The old man slowly scissors his bent legs in the air, then brings them down one by one, and sits on the sand with his eyes on the sea.
“Toward the end I tried to imagine fifty years into the future,” he says. “I came up with various scenarios. I suppose a nation’s path is carved out by many factors, not only its leaders’ strengths and capabilities.”
“To be honest,” says BN, looking at his companion with glimmering eyes, “I see my work as a natural continuation of yours.”
The old man glimpses him. “You don’t need my approval,” he utters with a shake of the head, grains of sand fly out of his white hair, and BN thinks he would never have allowed his own hair to look like two fluffs of candy cotton sticking from each side of the head.
“Would you have voted for me?” he asks, wondering what flavour the old man’s hair might have been, had it been made of … vanilla, he decides. French vanilla. Or maybe coconut?
The old man chortles, and BN winces, fearing his friend might have guessed his contemplations.
“Doesn’t look like you need my vote, either,” says the old man when his laugh subsides.
BN swallows hard. “It would be good to have it, nevertheless.”
But the old man doesn’t seem to be listening. His eyes linger on the far horizon, his mind drifting.
BN decides to be patient and quietly looks at the sea as well.
“I thought by now we’d have a peace agreement of some sort,” the old man finally says, and BN thinks he can hear some sadness in his voice. “But that might be just an old man’s sentimentality.”
“We have come a long way since our early days,” BN says, his doughy face clouds in thoughtfulness. “But in some ways, nothing has changed; our enemies still connive to obliterate us.”
The old man nods, saying, “And still no borders …”
“Like the Americans when they got their independence,” says BN with a smirk. “But sir,” he carries on, and his expression turns serious, “as you correctly said long ago, they do not exist as a nation, and therefore the land is—always has been—ours to take.”
The old man looks at BN with surprise. “I said it was ours, all of it?”
BN flushes, replying,” Well, not exactly, but from what you have said, on many occasions, it would be only logical to conclude—”
“Logic, schmogic,” says the old man with a dismissive wave of the hand, and rises to his feet. “You really need to try headstands; it’ll help you see the world from a fresh angle.”
And with that, he leans forward, and soon he is upside down again, his cotton candy hair in the wet sand.
At that moment, a small band of youngsters in bathing suits walks by, and one of them, a tall guy in orange surfing shorts, points toward the older gentlemen, calling, “Hey, look!” which startles the bird away.
The group quickly envelopes the men, yammering, “Oh, wow,” and, “How cool is that?” and a tanned woman pulls out a Smartphone from her bikini bra, announcing, “Photo!”
BN, though reluctant to share his friend with strangers, is nonetheless beaming at them, proud to be found beside a historical figure of such calibre.
“Hey grandpa,” asks the guy in the orange shorts, crouching beside the old man. “Could you take a picture of us with the PM?”
No reply. The old man seems to be in deep meditation.
“Oh, leave him alone,” reproached a curly girl. “Can’t you see he’s dead?”
Alarmed, BN jumps to his feet, crying, “Don’t you know who this is?” But they don’t seem to have heard him, and the tanned woman gathers everyone round BN for a few selfies, then shows them to her friends, who quack and giggle, urging her to post them on social media, which she does.
BN, all the while, lectures them about the old man’s epic achievements—his voice deep, brow creased—taken aback only when his palms don’t meet the solid surface of the podium behind which he imagined himself standing. When he looks up he is astonished to see a hasty swarm of people approaching them. Time to leave, he muses, and starts inching away, barefoot.
“It’s true,” yells someone in the nearing crowd. “He is here!” And with that, the cheering throng blocks BN’s escape route, and he surrenders to the hands that want to shake his, the showered hugs, more selfies. But no, he did not forget his friend, who has remained in his upturned position.
“Sir,” he calls to the old man, “do I have your vote?”
“What does it matter?” replies the old man. “Like the girl said, I’m already dead.”
“But would you support me?” BN’s plea hovers in the air as the enthusiastic band of fans carries him away. He tries to break free, but the strong youngsters hold him tight, his protest drowned by their calls, “Long live the king, long live the king!”
The long-legged bird returns to the beach after the mob has vanished. The old man then slowly moves his bent legs in the air and brings them down one by one. He sits on the sand, his eyes on the horizon.
BN’s shoes, scattered by the trampling feet, lie orphaned. This morning’s polished leather now muddied and somewhat cracked.
The water rocks a lone sock hither and thither; its mate is nowhere in sight.