I am sure there are those out there who can best me at this but I reckon I have seen pretty much the extremes of human decency and evil. I have seen the kindness that tireless nuns provide the orphans in their care, others who risk their lives on a daily basis in the service of others. Sadly I have also seen those for whom the sanctity of human life has no meaning and its awful result. The booby trapped mass graves in Bosnia which, once I had cleared and opened up to UN inspection, left me with the recurring nightmare of fathers cradling their young sons in death. The sight of women and children, frozen in the agony of fires of hell, who had been herded together in an Angolan cellar, had petrol poured over them and then been set fire to. The senseless slaughter from which politicians distance themselves but soldiers are only a bayonet thrust away. The deep personal tragedy of having to fly back to UK and help my youngest brother bury his two year old son who drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool.
So why has this recent incident affected me so deeply? Is it because I thought I had retired to some sort of Nirvana, at least as close to it as I would ever get? Is it because I am surrounded by nature so beautiful even the most cynical might begin to believe in a Great Architect of the Universe? Is it because having buried everything so deep I felt I would never have to face the darker side of the human psyche again? Or is it because that with hindsight, I realize I should have done more?
We were sitting outside the shop on the concrete stoop, me and a few clients. It was a Saturday afternoon and, as usual, the churchy religious types were in abundance. I am a Catholic but as far as I am concerned, the Catholic Church is just as bad as any of those sects run by deeply sincere preachers who shag the younger, evidently more desirable members of their flock while fleecing them all.
Since the weirder religions have taken over much of the beach front, the left footers now use a stretch of river bank up river from my place so to get there, they have to walk by my place and at weekends, they do so by their hundreds. Not with children, though, and not this early in the afternoon. This did cross my mind but, and this is a big but, I said nothing. The little boy, about the same size and age as little Alex was holding a 200 ml plastic bottle of mineral water in his right hand. He was dressed in little green shorts and a T-shirt with a Spiderman logo over a pale blue washed out background with the seam of his right shoulder coming undone revealing his small bony shoulder. I noticed that because Alex is nuts about Spiderman. His left hand was held by presumably his mother and he was walking along in his flip flops while looking up at her and chatting away like any four year old does when out for a walk. They did not stop at the shop. Had they done so, I would have given the kid a lollipop or maybe a sticky bun. Marcia says she hates it when I do that. She says I am giving away her profits but I know deep down she really doesn’t mind.
A little while later I saw the same woman coming back. At least I thought it was her but she was alone so I couldn’t be sure. I would be a miserable witness in court. I would give evidence for the prosecution and then the defence would rise and ask me to confirm exactly how many units of alcohol I consume daily. So I nudged the guy next to me and asked him if that wasn’t the same woman who shortly before had been leading an angelic little boy by the hand. He, then Marcia, confirmed it was.
‘Well, where is the little boy then?’
One of the lads leapt off the empty beer crate he was using as a chair, caught up with her and asked her. ‘She says her husband came along in his car and took the boy home as she will be staying for the night service’, he said when he came back. Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? And it did to us. The Catholics have their Mass every Saturday night at midnight so maybe, this still being the afternoon, she was just looking after the boy until her husband pitched up and took him home so she could enjoy a night of reckless religious abandon. None of us were paying any attention to the cars that occasionally swept by.
Marcia wasn’t satisfied. ‘Get out there and look for him’, she ordered.
It is only five hundred metres to the end of the road beyond which is only river and jungle. We searched down the river bank on the way back but there was no sign of him. Marcia sent one of the lads after the woman but she had disappeared. So we all went back to our beers.
Early Sunday morning the battered body of a little boy, estimated age four years, washed up on the bank of the river.
While history has demonstrated that Africans are not averse to creating them, they seem desperately squeamish about handling dead bodies so no-one was willing to fetch the poor little innocent sod out of the river. Marcia, who can’t swim, asked me to.
A few months ago, a fisherman fell over board and drowned and I fetched his body out with no problem. I lie. Of course I felt sorry for him. Compassion, a regret for the grief and uncertain future his family faced. But please, Marcia, I beg you, don’t make me stare at another dead child. Not one that has been so brutally murdered.
What possible motive could there be for taking the life of a child? What could a four year old have done in his pathetically short life to earn such terrible retribution? Would his countenance be the one of someone finally at peace? Or would it bear testimony to the terror of his last few moments on earth? Would his eyes bear witness to that ultimate betrayal of trust?
‘Marcia, I am sorry, I can’t do it’, I sobbed. ‘I will if there is no-one else!’ I called after her retreating back. After all these years, I finally chickened out. I could not face it anymore. I can't. What a fucking waster.
Marcia called Luisa from the lodge next door. She was once a nurse in a trauma unit in Jo’burg. She waded in and fetched the little tyke out.
They came back. ‘His head has been bashed in at the back’ Marcia said.
‘Marcia, for God’s sake please!’ I begged.
At this point, seeing my discomfort, and I know she did, Luisa could have quickly changed the subject but what alternative topic could have sprung to mind faced with such a senseless and brutal death of a child?
I knew it was a bit odd to see a woman in church rig leading a child down a dead end, for it is a road that leads to nowhere. Yet I did nothing. We more or less accepted her explanation so the search Marcia insisted we conducted was very cursory.
Perhaps what I was really too cowardly to face was looking down at the battered earthly remains of the sweet boy I had last seen clutching his little bottle of water trusting in an adult, as all kids must, knowing that I was suspicious of that adult yet did NOTHING. And then, then I did not even have the balls to get in the river and recover his poor little body,
God Curse Me to Fucking Hell. But, sweet little boy, I am so terribly sorry. I really am. If only I had jumped off my beer crate when I first got nervous. And then I didn’t have the courage to pull you from the river so I could cradle you in my arms and tell you how sorry I was but I am sure God will. I can’t hold you because the Police have taken you away but I am very, very sorry.
I am so ashamed. When I saw you being towed along past my shop, I was curious. If only I had been arsed to put down my beer to satisfy that curiosity.
I now know that it wasn’t your Mum leading you with your little bottle of water down my road so I feel even worse. It will be no consolation to you dear little boy but we found the lady who took you away and she won’t do it again. Trust me, we will find your Mum and she will hold you just once more like I should have done and am so desperately sorry I didn't.
You poor little bugger. I am not sure God will value my prayers but I have prayed for you every night since. Poor little boy in your flippy floppy flip flops and Spiderman T-shirt. I only saw you so briefly but you looked like an angel. I really hope you are one now.
Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum,
eaque detestor, quia peccando,
non solum poenas a te iuste statutas promeritus sum,
sed praesertim quia offendi te,
summum bonum, ac dignum qui super omnia diligaris.
Ideo firmiter propono,
adiuvante gratia tua,
de cetero me non peccatorum peccandique occasiones proximas fugiturum.
I just hope God believes me this time. Like I said, damn ME to hell but may He please look after this little boy whose soul, through what I failed to do, I can now only offer into His Gracious care.
Dear God, he passed within three feet of me. Five minutes later he was beaten to death.
Dear God, he passed within three feet of me. Five minutes later he was beaten to death.