I don’t remember when he first came to town, maybe no-one does. There was a time when the women who ran the soup-kitchen talked about a man, so very thin and limping, a bandage around his head. He would assist the mothers with children, the elderly and only after them would he approach the table and ask if there was any left. My mother said after a while she used to make sure there was a portion kept aside for him. “After all” she would say, “if someone first helps others, then surely they too deserve help.”
Dr Watson told me years later that the man had had half of his head sliced open, and he guessed some of the bone in his leg was permanently shattered. Yet he recovered, slowly at first, then later he was suddenly walking almost normally. His hair grew out, obviously his scalp had been shaved at some time. His hair was a sandy-reddish colour, His eyes were also a bit odd, sometimes they seemed muddy-green, other times grey, and on rare occasions they seemed to be bright blue. His skin seemed to change all over with the seasons, in winter he was very white, yet in summer he was dark.
He never told anyone I knew where he had been so damaged.
He started out doing small odd-jobs. The women who ran the soup kitchen were the first he approached, offering to help in the garden. They all swore when he had been helping them they had bigger flowers, better fruit and the vegetables, oh my – they were exceptional. The soup kitchen flourished from the ladies gardens.
Then he finally had a bag, it seemed weighty, but not too much so. By then he was wearing a hat usually and his limp had almost gone, so that no-one worried over him carrying anything. Then he would offer to fix a gate, a shutter, a window frame.
Everything he fixed stayed fixed. People were happy to pay him, once word of this got around. For the local orphanage that took in children from all round, not just our town he fixed everything, and would never charge. When he needed wood, bricks or other materials he would tell the ladies at the soup kitchen, starting out usually with “I was over to visit the kiddies…” and explaining what needed doing, and what it would take. The ladies would tell their husbands, together they would work out a plan, sometimes a cake sale, several times a ‘games evening’ and the money would be raised. Everyone felt happy to know they were helping those less fortunate than themselves.
I wondered where he lived. One holiday I was helping my mother at the soup kitchen and asked him. He smiled at me and said, “Usually I just live where the space appears, but these days I have a room out back at the kiddies place. I like it there.”
I was with my mother one day when she took out socks the woman’s league had knitted for the orphans, each pair with a pretty pattern, and the sizes correct, each labelled for the child concerned. She told me the man had explained carefully each child’s age, name and what they liked most. The ladies had taken it as a challenge and now there were these amazing socks. I wanted to ask my mother why I only had plain boring socks. Looking at these, they were the most desirable socks, only I imagined mine in green, with white and pink daisies around the tops.
My mother and the woman in charge who she called Martha sat together over a cup of tea looking at the socks and they gave them out to the children and exclaiming over how each pair was unique. Martha said, “Poor little mites, they have mostly never had something special of their own. I wonder how he knew what each child wants?”
Then one day the man approached my mother as he collected his soup and asked her what she would charge him for a cake. Amazed that someone eating from the soup kitchen had the money to think of cake she asked him why. He explained one of the girls at the orphanage had read about a birthday party and a cake and had asked him if he had ever had one. She was about to turn 13 and had never had a party, in fact she had never had any celebration for her birthday. My mother told him not to worry and that afternoon phoned her friend Martha.
A few days later there was a party at the orphanage, the first that wasn’t a Christmas party. The girl, Pat, received a new dress one of the ladies had made for her, there were other presents, hair ribbons, a small mirror with a brush and comb to match. Pat smiled and smiled all afternoon. A few weeks later my mother and father sat me down to tell me I was no longer going to be an only child. They had arranged to adopt Pat. That was how I got my sister, my friend for life.
Slowly as each child had their birthday the old man would approach the ladies and organise a party. And strangely after each party, there was a family who found that the child was just what their family needed to be complete. After the last party and the last child left, Martha came to visit, telling my mother she now had the time and money to go and study to be a nurse, as she had always wanted.
The strange man seemed to have also disappeared,
I had forgotten all about him, until last month I went to visit my daughter and her family for a few weeks, to celebrate a birthday. I went for a walk one afternoon, and discovered an orphanage nearby. Walking past the fence, watching the children playing in the yard I saw a man sitting under a tree, fixing a chair seat. He seemed somehow familiar.
I walked in and went over to him. He smiled at me and realised I recognised him. He hadn’t changed at all, seemingly unaffected by the years.
“Who are you?’ I asked, wondering if my memory was playing tricks on me.
“They call me Rainbow”, he said in the voice I so remembered.