More than mere existence
Arthur Wentworth II looked at his reflection in the mirror as he was ready to leave. He was well aware that his daddy would have never approved and that’s why it had taken him 83 years to fulfil his dream. But now, he was exactly where he always wanted to be. Ever since his granddad had told him exciting stories about his journeys to the African continent, Arthur had this strange feeling that it was his calling to go there. His granddad had always urged him to follow his dreams, advising him that ‘Life begins when it becomes more than mere existence.’ His daddy, however, had other plans and Arthur had always sought to make his daddy happy. Now it was time to make himself happy and nobody else.
Arthur made his way to the hotel lobby. Downstairs the concierge smiled a big friendly African smile but Arthur just nodded, keeping his distance to the locals as usual. Another thing he had blindly followed as his daddy had told him so.
When Arthur left the hotel, he enjoyed the Ugandan sun on his face. Kampala was already busy at this time of the day and he found comfort in the busyness around him. It took his mind off the fact that he was the only one left.
As Arthur did not have an heir, he had to sell the company to a consortium when he retired. Though his granddad had founded the company, it had been his father who had ruled it for 50 years with an iron fist. Although Arthur always wanted to become a famous actor, his daddy had snubbed these plans as dreams and forced him to start working in the construction company when Arthur was just 14. Now, only a member of the board, he had finally found the strength to ignore his father’s strict orders. Finally, he could leave bricks and concrete, heavy machines and hard work behind. He had always despised the line of work his father had admired so much. And though his granddad had always told Arthur to follow his dreams, he had never done so. But finally, at his 83rd birthday, he had booked the tickets and had made his way to the country his granddad had told him so much about.
Arthur walked through Kampala’s city centre, a busy and vibrant place. As always, he also passed the big tree in the middle of the junction. He kept his gaze straight ahead and ignored what was going on in the tree. He could hear them, like every day and as always, he would ignore their pleads. “Please Mister, one dollar. For food. Please Mister.” one boy said. Another one, not daring to look Arthur in the eyes, kept quiet but his little hands put together left no doubt what he was pleading for. But Arthur stayed strong. He didn’t care how many of them used the tree to spend the days there, safer being in a group. Too poor to go to school, too poor to have clean clothes, often too poor to have food for the day. Their mothers either left them there to fend for themselves or had to go to places far away to make a living.
But Arthur remained untouched by their big eyes full of hope that the white American would share some of his fortunate so they could survive another day. His daddy had never given in to any pleads from the community in New Orleans and so had he done after Katrina. Why would he care about them, if nobody cared about him?
And then Arthur saw him again. He was different from the other boys. Smaller, almost tiny. He never said a word, he was just there, sitting a little further apart from the others as if he didn’t belong to them. Probably waiting for his mother to come back, the sun was shining down on him and little drops of sweat were on his forehead. His clothes were in astonishingly good condition, though he was a little bit dirty from the dust on Kampala’s streets. Arthur had to ignore him as he was the only one who could make him feel unsettled. He didn’t know why but he was different from the others.
The weeks passed by and Arthur kept ignoring them when he was on his way to his favourite restaurant. Then one day, he dropped a dollar note accidentally right next to the tree of children. His old body wasn’t as quick as it used to be and before he could pick it up, wind and dust blew it closer to the tree. The boys were quick on their feet, running after the piece of paper that could bring them so much. The wind picked it up from the dusty floor, blew it high in the air and straight to the tiny boy’s feet. Arthur watched him carefully and the boys’ eyes were glued on the note. The boy picked up the note and looked at it for a while. Then he looked straight into Arthur’s eyes. Arthur was sure that the boy would keep the note and was therefore more than surprised when the boy walked over to him and his little arm stretched out to give him back the money.
Arthur was so taken aback by this behaviour that he just mumbled “No, you keep it.” and walked away. His old feet dragged him up the street when he heard the kids screaming and shouting behind him. He turned around and saw the whole gang surrounding the little boy, starting to push and beat the boy until they finally managed to grab the dollar note from his little fists. Some strange feeling kicked in. As fast as Arthur could, he rushed back, his walking stick in the air as a threat and shouting at the gang of boys. “Leave him alone. How dare you turn against the weakest!” He was surprised by his own words, when he picked up the boy from the floor. As fast as they could, they were gone, with them the money.
The poor child was bleeding and had scratches all over his hands where the boys had tried to grab the money. “Come, get up boy.” Arthur said. Although the boy must have been in pain, he didn’t cry. “Where do you live?” Arthur asked. The boy just kept looking at him with big eyes full of soulfulness. “Mother? Father?” The boy still remained silent. “Granddad?”
He took Arthur’s hand and they started to walk. Three blocks down the road, they had left the shiny city centre behind and entered a different territory. The roads were covered in torn plastic bags, old bottles and the sewers around the shanty town were full of rubbish and worse. Arthur saw the little houses with metal sheets as roofs and simple wooden doors and felt uneasy. Still, somehow he knew he had to take care of the boy. The boy, still holding Arthur’s hand, led him into one of the little houses. The room was tiny and humble. There were two beds, two chairs and a small table. The windows were covered with a white crocheted curtain and Arthur could only wonder about the kitchen and bathroom. A second later the thought was forgotten when he realised that they were not alone. The boy led him to one of the beds and Arthur realised that an old man, probably his own age, was lying in it. Still clutching on to Arthur’s hand, the boy just pointed at the man in the bed. “Granddad?” Arthur asked. The boy didn’t say anything and also the man in the bed remained silent.
A minute later, they heard a woman in wailing voice outside. The boy ran to the door and opened it and the woman, probably in her late sixties, took him in her arms obviously relieved to see him. “Where have you been, Anthony? I was worried sick when I did not see you at the tree. I thought something bad had happened!” Suddenly, she realised Arthur’s presence and being startled at first, she asked with a firm voice, “What has he done?”
“Nothing, Ma’am. Some kids were mean to him, so I took him home. I hope that’s alright.”
“Thank you. I sometimes leave him at the tree while I work in a restaurant. His grandfather is blind and deaf, he can’t take care of the boy. I know the boys there are no good but I can’t leave him on his own. Let me cook you a meal, to say Thank You for protecting my grandson.” Arthur wanted to protest, seeing how little they had. But the woman was not having any of it. While she prepared the food on a little stove outside, she told Arthur that Anthony’s parents had both died of Aids which only left her to earn money for the little family. As often as she could, she would send Anthony to school but they could not always afford it.
Arthur was touched by the story and the surroundings he found himself in where people survived without electricity, running water or sanitary facilities. ‘Mere existence’ sprung to his mind. Again, he had to remember his granddad’s words, ‘Life begins when it is more than mere existence’. This evening, when a family who had to survive so many obstacles, shared the little they had with him, he knew what to do.
The very next day, he did not only set up a fund for Anthony to send him to school. His experience in the construction business finally made sense as he invested all his money to give the people of this shanty town, proper houses, electricity, water and so much more than mere existence.
And finally, Arthur realised that his own life had begun when he was able to make other people happy and by doing so, he had made himself happy. Finally, life begins…