Okay as a bit of flash fiction but the ending is a bit glib/easy. Hoping it could be part of something longer. Some cameos of characters populating a small town?
His usual spot is in the doorway of the chemist halfway down the high street. It’s a good pitch in that it is on the pedestrian route between the railway station and what could be referred to as the culture quarter of this small provincial town, and where the cinema, art gallery and library are located. And although it mean less footfall, he particularly likes this spot because the patrons of the three town centre pubs and the two night clubs are located on streets right next to the station which means they don’t walk down as far as the chemist’s and so he isn’t required to participate in some of the less sophisticated repartee that fills the air just before the last trains pull out of the station. And if any of those patrons do walk the extra one hundred yards to where he sits, and go over to where he sits, it would be with the anticipation of a pleasure not to be found in a bottle or in the company of those who have spent the last hour or so exploring the pleasures of the bottle; it would be with the anticipation of something far more precious.
And the fact that his doorway faced the setting sun means that the pavement is warmer than it would otherwise be.
He’s been there for years now. He’s a fixture, a local treasure. Everyone knows him. All the dogs and cats know him. Everyone calls him the Wordman, although it’s rumoured that his name is actually Douglas. Any local who owns a camera has a picture of him, sitting there, half in, half out of his sleeping bag, woolly hat over his ears, hands in cut-off-fingers gloves. Next to him will be bottles of water and a food parcel or two, complements of the local citizenry, and, of course, his dictionaries and reference books.
So, he’s a beggar, asks the visitor.
No, you reply, he’s not. He never asks for anything. We give, but it’s a two-way thing. We give, he gives. He takes, we take.
The visitor raises its eyebrows. In question.
You struggle for words. It’s a trade, you say. You think back to the debate you and the others were having about Casablanca and exactly what it was that Bogart had said when she walked into his bar. What exactly were the words he used? Doug knew the answer. And confirmed it by finding the quote in one of his books. We all laughed. We thanked him. For the words. He had enriched our evening. And we parted with some of our riches. He said thank you, gravely. It was kind of us, he said; there was no need; he just likes to share the knowledge, the words.
And it is words he shares. If you approach him on your way to wherever it is you are going, he will give you a word. The word of the day. The Word of the Day. He will say to you, Today’s word is… and then tell you a word. And you will take the word and form it in your mouth, twirl it around with your tongue, let it bang against your teeth, close your eyes and see it in your mind, taste it, smell it, and smile. You will store it in your memory, possibly write it down in a small notebook you carry specifically for the purpose, or tap it out on the keyboard of your iPhone or your iPad and press save. And if you happen to speak to someone else on the street or at the cinema, you will both smile and repeat the word and even if the other person was someone who you usually find annoying and they usually find you exasperating, there will be a warmth between you as you share that single beautifully formed word gifted to you by someone whose name you don’t really know.
And everyday it’s a new word. Sometimes it’s esoteric, other times unexceptionally common. Sometimes it makes you laugh out aloud, other times you feel sad. But never angry, never disappointed, never hurt. His words don’t do that. His words give you good emotions, and you always smile, albeit a sad smile at times. It’s strange, but you can ask anyone from around here how precious these words are to us and how they help bind us together as a community. They are words to share, words we use to heal each other whenever a minor slight is perceived; all it requires is, “Did you hear yesterday’s/today’s word?” and any anger or aggression simply slips under the door, out of the room and down the street to who knows where.
He is celebrated, you know. This year the town choir have put together some lyrics using only Douglas’ words from the past two years – the music teacher from the high school has written the score; the junior school always has the previous day’s word on a board at the entrance to the school hall every morning in term time; every new mayor will pay Douglas a visit the evening of the inauguration and ask for the word of the day and will have the word engraved on one of the links on the mayoral chain; the local press do a feature on him every year or so and once we had a national broadsheet come down for a story but they didn’t really “get it” and so went back to London with no words to write about our word. Funny that! You’d think the big wordsmiths from t’Big Smoke would have some innate empathy for what was happening here.
He seems to keep himself in good health and I suspect he has enough to ensure he feeds himself well. He occasionally goes missing for a few weeks at a time, usually in the winter and comes back with a decent Mediterranean tan. Nobody resents this. We are all just delighted to see him again.
This year seems to be slightly different. He’s been away for six weeks now, much longer than usual, and he never goes away at this time of the year. He just loves these long warm evenings. We are all hoping he’ll be back soon.
The last word he gave us was unusual for him. It was unexpected and none of us smiled. It’s a bummer of a word. Not the most pleasant. “Cancer.” Strange. Not like him.