Saturday, 28 April 2018

Little Boy Lost - a short story

                                                       "Blue eyes,,,blue like the sea..."
You know what they say about the sea‑front at Tel Aviv.  Walk along it often enough, and you're bound to meet everyone you've ever known.
On a July afternoon in the mid‑1960s the beaches running south from Kikkar Atarim were packed.  Children were scampering up and down to the sea over the blistering sand and mothers were screaming at them.  The ice‑cream sellers and the life‑guards were doing a roaring trade.  The scene was vivid in the brilliant sunshine – coloured umbrellas, red‑and‑yellow sun shelters, striped deck chairs.  In the midst of it all a woman, not young not old, in a long‑sleeved blue dress with polka dots and a little white collar and cuffs, was gazing to left and right. 
"My God, what am I going to do?  What can I do?"
She spoke to herself, for there was no one with her, but it chanced that the words were overheard by a fair‑haired young man in his twenties carrying a towel, who had just stepped on to the sands.
"In some sort of trouble?" he said, for he had a kind heart.  "Perhaps I can help."
"I don't know."
She looked distractedly from side to side.
"Why don't you tell me about it?" said the young man.  "What's happened?"
The woman clutched at his arm.
"It's terrible, terrible.  My little boy ‑ Danny ‑ he seems to have wandered off."
"Wandered off?  You mean, he's lost?"
The woman nodded, and pressed both hands to her cheeks. 
"What am I to do?  Tell me what I can do."
The young man kept his cool. 
"He can't have gone far.  When did you last see him?"
The woman was vague.                                       
"I don't quite know.  I was just sitting here.  Then I looked up, and he wasn't there."
Seized by a sudden spasm of energy, she called down the beach towards the sea, her voice mingling with the cries of the children and the portable radios:
"Danny!  Danny!  Where are you'?"
"Come on," said the young man, abandoning thoughts of stripping to the bathing trunks he wore beneath his slacks and snoozing in the sun.  "I'll help you look for him.  What does he look like, Mrs ...  ?"
He glanced at her enquiringly.
"Weiss," she said.  "My name is Weiss.  Oh, he's a most beautiful child.  Soft, fair hair.  Blue eyes – blue like the sea.  Blue, just like yours.”
"And how old?"
"Four," said Mrs Weiss.  "He's four years old."
"That's very young.  We must find him quickly."
She seemed disturbed by his reaction, and her hand flew to her mouth as a new thought suddenly struck her. 
"The sea!  Could he have wandered into the sea?  Oh, my God!"
The young man kept his head. 
"Was he wearing a bathing costume?"
"No!  No, he wasn't.  See – I have it here."
She scrabbled in a beach bag that was lying at her feet, and stood up triumphantly, holding a small pair of trunks.
"Then he can't have gone into the sea," said the young man.  "Someone's sure to have seen a little boy fully clothed going into the water."
The thought calmed her. 
"No, you're right.  Thank heaven.  But where can he be?  My little baby all on his own, wandering about, lost.  I can't bear to think of it."
Her eyes roamed the crowded, animated scene.  Another possibility presented itself and she turned back to him. 
"But perhaps he isn't on his own?  Perhaps someone has taken him.  Some woman baby‑snatcher.  You read of things like that.  Or worse ‑ some man.  Dear heaven, what shall I do?"
And again she called down the beach:  "Danny!  Danny!"
"Keep calm, Mrs Weiss" said the young man.  "We'll walk together along the sands, and if we don't find him we'll ask the lifeguard to make an announcement.  But we'll find him, Mrs Weiss, never fear."
The woman seemed comforted.  She looked up as if seeing him for the first time.
"You're so kind, Mr… There, I don't even know your name."
“I'm Uri Segal," said the young man.  "Call me Uri.  Now let's get started.  I'll look to the left, you look to the right."
Side by side the two of them ploughed their way through the sand, the woman calling "Danny! Danny!" from time to time; the young man concentrating on isolating a tiny sole figure from among the hundreds all around. 
By three o'clock they had scoured the beach, the lifeguard had made a fruitless announcement, and the two of them were back close to their point of departure.
"I'm not sure there's much more I can do, Mrs Weiss," said Uri.  "Shouldn't we contact your husband?"
The woman looked at him vaguely. 
"My husband?"
"Danny's father," said Uri.  "Where is he?"
"Oh, I'm quite alone," said Mrs Weiss.  "There's only me and Danny.  You're not going to leave me now, are you, Uri?  What shall I do?"
"There's only one thing left," said Uri.  "We'll have to contact the police.  Someone could have found Danny and taken him to a police station."
“Yes, yes.”  She grasped at the idea.  “He may be waiting for me now, waiting for his Mummy to come and find him – his wicked, wicked Mummy, who let him wander off on his own.  How could I have done it?  How?"
She was overcome with a fit of weeping as together they made their way to a street telephone.  Mrs Weiss, a folorn figure, stood clutching her beach bag as Uri contacted the central police station at the far end of Dizengoff street in the city centre.
"I've got a distraught mother at my side.  Her little boy has disappeared somewhere on the beach.  We've searched as best we can; the lifeguard has broadcast an appeal.  Nothing.  Have you any news of a little boy being found?"
"You aren't the boy's father, I take it," said the desk sergeant.
"No, I simply offered to help.”
"And what is the child's name?  And the mother’s?  And yours?"
Increasingly impatient with the calmly methodical policeman, Uri supplied the necessary information.  The desk sergeant thought it advisable for them to come down to the station. 
"In the meantime I'll be making a few enquiries – hospitals and so on.  Get over here as soon as you can.”
Uri hailed a taxi, and the woman allowed him to usher her into the rear seat.  As the car pulled away from the kerb, however, a sudden change of mood seemed to affect her.  The apathy that had succeeded her previous bursts of hysteria fell away.  In its place she became voluble, as if she felt an urgent need to explain herself precisely to the young man who had befriended her.
Tel Aviv taxi
"How we yearned for that child.  He was a long time in coming, you see, and we got frightened that there was something wrong – with one or other of us.  You understand?"
She peered round into his face.  Uri nodded.
"You can only comprehend the agony of yearning for a child if you have lived through it.  Month after month, the prayers, the hopes, the disappointment.  Month after month.  The doctors, the prescriptions, the suggestions.  Month after month.  But when the months turn into years, and hope continues to turn into despair – then come the recriminations.  Which one of us is being punished?  And why?  What have I done? What have you done?  Month after month, year after year.  Imagine what that does to a human being.  And then – picture it, Uri.  The same faint glimmer of hope as last month, as the month before – but this time the glimmer is not extinguished like a spark in the dying embers of a fire.  This time the glimmer remains, grows stronger.  You dare not let yourself believe it.  You present yourself to your doctor in fear, in trembling.  You take the tests.  You wait for the verdict.  Uri, can you possibly begin to understand what such a woman feels when she learns that the everyday miracle, so commonplace for so many, has at last occurred for her?  And can you understand with what love, what adoration, that child is received?"
Suddenly, as if the release of words marked also the release of pent‑up emotion, she burst again into a fit of crying.  
"Oh my darling, darling baby.  Where are you?"
The main Tel Aviv police station was comparatively calm for a July afternoon.  The desk sergeant looked up as they approached,
An Israeli policeman
"Ah yes, the missing child.  You'll be Mrs Weiss."
"Have you any news?" she said.
“We've had a phone call," said the sergeant.
Mrs Weiss clasped her hands.
"Thank God.  Thank God."
“…but I'm afraid," he went on, "there's nothing very definite."
"Not definite?" said Uri.  "What do you mean?"
"A man rang just after I finished speaking to you."
"A man?"  Uri was puzzled.  "Did he say who he was?"
The policeman shook his head.
"Well, what did he say?  Is it a kidnap? Will there be a demand for ransom?"
"All he said," said the desk sergeant, a man of unshakeable imperturbability, "was: 'Have you had a report of a missing child?' When I said: 'Yes, the mother's just on her way to the station, ' he rang off.” 
"That's very strange," said Uri.
A man approached them from behind and stood in front of the desk.  Uri glanced at him.  Cool grey suit, neat beard.  Mrs Weiss caught sight of him.  Her face lit up.
“Dr Tannenbaum!  What on earth are you doing here?"
"Hullo, Mrs Weiss," said the newcomer.  “I was worried about you.  You know I worry about you a lot."
Mrs Weiss's face was suffused with a great smile. 
"Dear Dr Tannenbaum.  You are so good to me."
The desk sergeant laid down his pen. 
"I take it you know this lady, sir."
“Mrs Weiss and I are very well acquainted, sergeant," said Dr Tannenbaum.
He drew a paper out of his pocket and presented it across the desk. 
"If you glance through this document, you'll see it certifies that Mrs Esther Weiss is a long‑stay patient in the Eshkol Psychiatric Hospital, to which I have the honour to be consultant psychiatrist."
The policeman studied the paper carefully, before folding it and returning it.
"Yes, this seems in order."
"Poor Mrs Weiss does have a tendency to wander, from time to time," said Dr Tannenbaum.
"Well, doctor," said the desk sergeant, "and what am I to enter on this report?  I take it there is no little boy?"
"Oh, there was," said the doctor, "twenty years ago.  At the very end of the war, in Europe.  Mrs Weiss was in one of the concentration camps with her son.  They were picked up in '42, but she managed to keep her little boy with her.  Then, with only a few weeks to liberation, they were separated.  She was force‑marched to somewhere further inside Germany; the child was kept in the original camp.  She never saw her son again.  After the end of the war she eventually found her way to Israel, but the shock of it all had unhinged her mind.  For twenty years she has been searching for the son she so yearned for, and who was snatched away from her.  Sometimes she prowls round the grounds of the hospital at night carrying a child's coat and calling for him; sometimes she goes to the nearest town and walks the streets.  On occasion she gets further afield – like today."
"Poor woman," murmured Uri, for he had a very kind heart.
The doctor took her gently by the arm. 
"Such beautiful blue eyes," said Mrs Weiss. 
As he led her away, she looked Uri full in the face. 
"Just like yours."
Uri was taken up with the woman's sad story. 
"Still looking for her lost child," he said to the policeman.  "After all that time."
"You still here?” said the sergeant.  "What are you waiting for?"
"A happy ending?" said Uri.  "Please – take a look at those particulars you took down so carefully.  See what you have about me."
“Uri Segal," read out the sergeant.  "Aged 24.  That's right, isn't it?"
"As far as it goes," said Uri.  "Yes, I'm 24, more or less.  And yes, I'm known as Uri Segal.  But there's more to it.  You see, I came to Israel as a very young boy in a group of orphan children, and I grew up in a children's village.  They told me that I came without papers or belongings of any sort.  I didn't say a word for nearly six months.  So they made up a name for me – it's as good as any other – and they guessed my age.  So yes, for all practical purposes I'm Uri Segal, aged 24.  But – and this is the incredible, the fantastic possibility – couldn't I just as well be Danny Weiss, little Danny lost at the age of four in 1945, sought for ever since and, by a chance in a million, found twenty years later by his own mother on the beach at Tel Aviv?"
You know what they say about the sea‑front at Tel Aviv.  Walk along it often enough, and you're bound to meet everyone you've ever known.


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