It was September when I first saw them in that little French park they called Les Jardins de l’Europe. I had been going there regularly back then, spending day after day watching the sun trace its path across the sky, wearing down the chipped paint on the wooden bench and breathing in the clear air. Each morning grew colder and colder and colder. And each evening the families would leave earlier and earlier. I was old then, though not as old as I am now, and I guess it gave me a sense of peace to see others living the kind of idyllic life I had never managed to achieve.
And one day, there they were. She was a girl with pink streaks in her hair and a laugh under her voice. She was walking her dog that day, a little dachshund always trying to run faster than its lead would let it. I never learned her name.
He was a man who slept on park benches and played the guitar, and he had been for as long as any of us had known him. We called him Le Oiseau Chanteur. The song bird. We all knew his watery eyes and his soft smile. We all knew the way his eyes lit up when he heard the clatter of coins in his guitar case, the way he gave away those coins, almost as soon as he earned them, to the children he shared these streets with. We all knew, too, the half-hearted guilt as we passed him each day without dropping any coins into the case. We always wished we could do more, and we never did.
And so, it was with the mild interest of a bystander that I watched him playing that morning, a fast flamenco song which seemed to need more than ten fingers to play. She was watching him too, though with far more interest than me, and she slowed as she neared him. And it was directly in front of him that she stopped. Her dog was pulling, pulling, pulling on his leash, trying to run faster and faster, but she stood stock still.
She stood like that all through that song and through the next. He didn’t seem to mind, though. He watched her carefully and just kept playing. At the end of the second song, she stepped forward and began to speak, but her words were tangled and seemed to stick in her throat and she soon turned and walked away.
I was not surprised, then, that she returned the next morning, this time with a coffee in her hand. I was sitting closer that day, and I saw her hand the coffee to him and gently take a seat next to him as he drank. And she was telling him something, her words floating across to me in bits and pieces.
‘My father used to . . . that song . . . guitar . . . so long . . . so beautiful . . . reminds me . . . ’
They spoke more softly after that, for hours and hours. And when the sunlight was just beginning to turn gold, she stood up, placed a handful of notes in his guitar case and left. She came to visit him more regularly after that, often bringing him coffee or cake, and they would talk as if they had known each other for years. Until one afternoon, she hugged him goodbye, and the next day they were both gone.
I did not see either of them for a long time after that, and for a while I worried that our Oiseau Chanteur had left us. But slowly rumours trickled through the streets of a wealthy young woman who had become attached to a homeless man, who said that he reminded her of her father. And they said she had set him up in a small apartment close to her. They spoke of the man who played every evening in the apartment lobby for no reason other than his love of his guitar, of his music.
It was a great surprise then, when I saw them again, years later, wandering the paths of Les Jardins de l’Europe. They looked happy, I thought. And I watched them one last time and was somehow glad that they had found each other, that out of everyone in this lonely world, they had somehow found company. And I, inevitably, wondered whether one day I would as well.