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The pale figure sits alone. His face drawn, he hunches from the cold, yet remains staring blankly into the distance. The bench is on the north bank of the lake, facing the bitter December wind. As it always does at this time of day, accumulated mist trails closer and closer to the figure, hovering a mere foot above the surface of the water, threatening to envelop him.
He comes here every day, without fail. Deviating from this habit is unthinkable, for the loss of order in his daily life would be one loss too many. She used to come here in the autumn, to paint. The otherworldly colours inspired her to capture them every year. He knows the well-worn path that leads him here, the outline of each starkly bare tree visible from the bench, the smell of fallen leaves on the frosty grass. He knows this place so well, yet feels it so little.
The pale figure sits alone. His features impassive, he waits.
The figure starts, and looks down. The child looking up at him expectantly is dressed in a bright yellow coat, her wispy hair framing cheeks red as beetroot.
“Can I sit down?”
Bemused, the pale figure moves his walking stick to allow the child room. She clambers up, and once seated promptly starts swinging her tiny legs back and forth, softly singing. The pale figure recognises the tune from somewhere, sometime long ago – its hits him like a warm shard in his heart.
“What is it you are singing, child?”
Her face scrunches up in an effort to remember.
“I don’t know…”
She sounds so upset, the pale figure pats her shoulder.
“Don’t worry, you’ll hear it again.”
His voice is hollow from misuse; he coughs quietly to clear his throat.
They sit in silence awhile, she still humming the familiar tune, he wondering where her parents might be and why she chose to sit next to him. Suddenly she turns to him, her eyes bright.
“What do you want for Christmas?”
“Well now, there’s a question. Let me think awhile…”
The pale figure puts his fingers to his temples, winking at the child before closing his eyes in mock concentration. The girl giggles.
“It would have to be a batch of my wife’s mince pies: there are none that even come close to hers. And what would you like for Christmas, my dear?”
The child speaks over him, blurting out
“A pony, a puppy and a rabbit!”
Now it is the pale figure’s turn to smile.
“And where would all these animals live, I wonder?”
“In my room.”
Her deadpan expression brings another smile to the pale figure’s lips. The child’s face suddenly lights up at the sight of a swan gliding into view. She scrambles off the bench and runs to the edge.
The pale figure rises unsteadily from the bench, a strange feeling in his chest.
“Don’t lean over, child, you will fall!”
The girl pays him no heed, her hand stretched out to touch the elegant creature. Then her foot slips on the wet grass, her hand flails a moment in the air, and a splash breaks the tranquil silence as the coloured figure disappears from view.
There is no thought, no time. The figure forgets the stiffness of his joints, the typical slowness his age allows him. In an instant the freezing water forces the breath from his lungs – he plunges over to where the child is struggling to keep her head above the surface. With a strength he didn’t know he had, the pale figure scoops her up, holding her tiny form tightly to his chest. He is dimly aware of people shouting, more colourful figures hurrying towards the pair of them. Someone takes the girl from his arms, and the absence she leaves is almost unbearable… The pale figure realises two things at once: he can’t seem to get enough air into his lungs and his surroundings have begun to spin. His strength drains away, taken by the icy water. In his mind’s eye he sees his wife’s warm and smiling face, almost beckoning – he crumples to the ground and feels no more.
… Someone singing. Humming, a strangely familiar tune. The figure opens his eyes to a bright white room. He feels very warm. His vision focuses on a man sitting by his bedside, his chin resting on his folded hands. Seeing that the figure is awake, the man stands up, his eyes warm and fragile. “You saved my daughter. I owe you everything, if you hadn’t been there…” His voice breaks. The old man reaches out for the younger man’s hand, smiles, and closes his eyes. He knows he has spared this man the pain no one had been able to spare him. This knowledge warms him to his very core. His cheeks are not pale anymore. They glow.