This is a fictional short story, in 1280 words.
It was prompted by this photo, taken by Sue Judd. https://suejudd.com/
Felipe was setting up the tables outside the cafe, as he had done every morning for the last six years. He could see that he was there again, the old man huddled on the steps beneath the tiled wall. The first time, Felipe had approached him, asked if he was unwell, offered him a coffee, or a glass of water. But the sad eyes looked up, and a heavily-veined hand had just waved him away without a word of reply.
Asking around some of the customers, he learned that he had sat there every day, for as long as everyone could remember. But even in a community rife with gossip and idle chatter, nobody knew anything about him. Or if they did, they were not saying. When tourists arrived, bursting like bubbles from the doors of coaches, they flocked to take photos of the famous tiles. But every one of those photos would also include the crestfallen old man, as he always declined to move away.
Occasionally they actually pulled at his hands, trying to get him to move. Some even offered him small bribes, so he wouldn’t be in their souvenir photo. But he never moved, and waved away their objections as he returned to his characteristic slump beneath the tiles. Felipe had never seen him eat or drink. He sat in the spot from first light until dark, not even leaving to use a toilet, apparently. It didn’t seem possible that this elderly man could survive all day without so much as a drop of water, especially in the summer months. But he did, that was undeniable.
Over the years, Felipe found his curiosity getting the better of him. How could he sit there like that, in all weathers? How did it not make him ill? Surely it must be boring in the extreme too? But most of all, why? Why would someone spend their daily life sitting aimlessly in one spot, with no good reason for doing so? That morning, once the tables were arranged, and the umbrellas raised, the young waiter resolved to try again, to find out all he could about the old man, and his reason for sitting there.
But the day was unusually busy. Felipe was run off his feet, with Gaspar the owner in a bad mood, and customers complaining about the delays in getting their food. Tips were scarce, and when Felipe finally got a break, he sat outside the back door, smoking a cigarette and enjoying the kick of caffeine from a very strong coffee. But it wasn’t long before Gaspar was harassing him to get back to his work, and clear away the outside tables at the front on the square.
As he piled cups and glasses onto a large tray, Felipe glanced across to the tiled wall. The old man was gone. For the first time in all those years, his spot on the stairs was empty during daylight hours. He checked his watch, not even three in the afternoon. Far too early for him to have left already. He spotted the road-sweeper, standing out in his bright orange overalls. Walking across to him , he spoke politely. “Excuse me sir, did you see the old man leave? You know the one, he sits on the steps under the tiles?” The sweeper raised his eyebrows, ash falling from the hand-rolled cigarette between his lips as he replied. “Oh him, yeah. An ambulance took him away about fifteen minutes ago. He wasn’t moving much, and they had him on a stretcher.” Felipe was shocked at the news. “Do you happen to know where they took him, sir?” With a shrug, the sweeper replied. “They didn’t say, but I suppose it would be the nearest hospital. That would be the São José Hospital, do you know it? Filipe nodded, adding “Thank you sir”, as he turned back to the cafe.
Gaspar was less than pleased when his waiter told him he was taking some time owed to him, and leaving early. Filipe got a tram to a stop close to the hospital, and walked the short distance to the Emergency Department. At the reception desk, it suddenly occurred to him that he knew no details about the old man, and as the receptionist looked up, he wondered what to say. “I have come to ask about one of my friends, a regular customer. I don’t know his name, but he is old, with lots of white hair. He was dressed all in black, but there was a grey and red pattern on the top he was wearing. An ambulance took him away from the square, close to the famous tiled wall”. The lady eyed him suspiciously for a moment, not taken in by his white lie. “Take a seat young man, and I will get a nurse to speak to you.” Felipe nodded, and walked over to stand in the corner. He wanted her to be able to see him, so she didn’t forget.
Almost thirty minutes later, a nurse appeared. She looked impatient as she scanned around the waiting room. A young woman with a lot to do, who didn’t need such interruptions. The receptionist nodded at him, and she walked over. Her tone was not unfriendly, just professional. “You were asking about Mister Cubas? Follow me, and I will take you to him”. She seemed unconcerned that Felipe wasn’t a relative, and he followed as she walked very quickly along a corridor to a small room with an open door. She pointed into the room, where the old man was lying still, under a sheet. “I must ask you to be quiet, and not agitate him. He has had a massive stroke, and we fear he may not last the night”. Felipe nodded. “Thank you miss, but tell me, how did you know his name?” As she hurried off to her next task, she spoke without turning. “From the letter in his pocket”.
It seemed to him that the nurse had been right. The old man looked gravely ill. His face was grey in colour, and the oxygen hissing through the mask seemed to be doing little to help him. On a small unit next to the bed was a crumpled letter. The envelope had a just a name on it, written in tiny neat handwriting. There was no address or stamp, suggesting it had been hand delivered. ‘Raul Cubas’. So that was his name. Felipe looked across at the man again. His eyes were shut tight, his breathing sounding little more than a faint rasp. Feeling guilty, he opened the envelope and removed the single sheet of paper. As he read, he felt he was intruding, but the need to know overwhelmed his manners.
‘My darling Raul. It is as we feared. I am with child, and cannot possibly tell my parents.
We must leave the city, as you suggested, and start a new life far away.
I will come to you tomorrow morning, and meet you by the tiled wall, where we first kissed.
Then we will turn our backs on this district, and be together always.
If I am late, I beg you to wait for me, my dearest, as you know I would always wait for you.
My love forever, your Serafina’.
At the top of the letter was the date. The 12th of October, 1966.
Felipe returned the letter to its envelope, and left the room quietly, a lump building in his throat. Now he knew what the old man had been doing for the last fifty-three years.
He had been waiting for Serafina.