Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Gate

There is a little girl just over the fence, sitting alone on the grass. She is playing with blocks, making a careful study of each one as though it were the key to a riddle, or the answer to a mystery that might announce itself if she turned it the right way in the sunshine. The fence is not a particularly imposing barrier, white picketed of the sort found in old stories of quaint, by gone times. Close to the girl is a gate on three hinges with a sign reading "Welcome," hung up on a nail. It is closed with a latch on her side.

A boy is playing on the sidewalk with toy cars, treating each groove in the pavement as a river or set of train tracks or occasionally a crack in the world that falls through to Australia, and then he would find things to drive his cars upside down on for a while before getting tired of the facade and returning each toy to its proper country.

At the moment his vehicles are in Australia, and he is driving them (a blue sedan of some kind, and a red one with up-lights and an edge) along a highway made of the underside of his arm. The sound effects alternate between revving engines, squealing brakes and little boy giggles as he reaches a straight part, a corner and a ticklish bit in turn. He sees the girl through the slim slats in the fence and walks over to the gate.

"Can I come and play building-things with you?" he asks, loud enough to get her attention but gently enough that she isn't startled. She sets down the blocks and gets up to her feet but holds to her place on the lawn.

"I'm not building," she says simply.

"But they're blocks," says the boy, perturbed. "What else are they good for?"

"I don't know yet," she says with a sigh. "I'm trying to figure that out."

The boy considers her reply a moment while his cars idle, Down Under. "I could show you how to play building-things, if you want. I like it, lots and lots. It's fun! And you could still think, if you want, while we play."

The girl tips her head to one side and then the other, surveying the boy with the same vague and curious intensity that had been applied to the pieces of wood at her feet. Hesitant but obliging, she agrees. "You can come in, as long as you promise to be careful."

"I promise," he promises.

They face each other over top of the fence which comes up to both of their noses. "You'll have to open the gate," says the boy. She looks at the latch.

"It's locked," reports the little girl, already defeated.

"Can you try and unlock it?"

"Maybe," she whispers, "but I don't know how it works. It could take a long time... I've never really let anyone in before. Not by the gate."

The girl is both keen and nervous. Perceptive for someone his age, the boy decides not to push her any further. Instead, he smiles and makes his next move slowly. Fixing his eyes on the little girl he reaches one hand over the fence and holds out the red car, inviting her to trust him in the same way a child might try to tempt a rabbit closer with a leafy bit of celery. "We can just play here for a while, if you want," he suggests, "and worry about the lock later." She nods and takes the toy out of his hand. She smiles.

The clouds on her side of the fence change shape and colour far more than the sky above the boy. One minute they grow thick and dark with threat of rain, clearing again in the blink of an eye to fine wisps of pink and purple, billowing high into the atmosphere, covering the whole of the sky, then shrinking down to nothing and revealing only the great blue beyond. They move swiftly, the clouds, in stride with her countenance. He watches the weather and he watches the girl. She watches him back. And they play.

Time, in the liquid present, moves like the clouds: one moment in a hurry, the next standing still. Children very rarely stand still, but it would be impossible to say how long this boy and this girl stand playing at the gate before the stillness of time is interrupted by another person. But that person is now coming, and will inevitably, eventually reach their place. It is a stranger, an Adult, who has opened locked gates before and will teach the little girl what to do. The latch will be mastered, the playmate invited to cross an uncrossed line, and the mysterious bricks once studied will be marveled at once more, this time in the company of a Friend.

But for now, they just play.