PAN: a short story
The Old Man was sitting on the bench in front of the little park across from Mr. Johnson’s shoe store. He always sat there, or so it seemed. If you asked anyone passing by who had passed by ten years ago, they would simply tell you that there was never a time when he had not sat there. No one knew his name, or even if he had a home. He was known to Londoners as the Old Man, and such that is all we need to know.
On this particular Thursday it was rather wet and foggy, often as London is in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The Old Man was sitting on his bench, watching holiday shoppers and pigeons strut by. He held a worn black umbrella in one knobbly hand. An equally ratty top hat sat perched on his head, covering the few gray strands that resided there. The Old Man’s eyes were the only thing about him that did not appear to be fatigued by time: brilliant blue, like fiery ice, with an intensity that made one feel as though being X-rayed when fixated by their stare. They were kind to the point of ferocity, cradled by soft laugh lines.
The Old Man watched with his usual benign intensity at a little boy standing in front of Mr. Johnson’s. Through the film of mist – which steadily turned into rain – he could see that the boy was alone, but not afraid as most boys are when unexpectedly separated from their mother. The boy caught him watching and waved. The Old Man beckoned him with a finger.
The boy scampered across the street. His round cheeks were flushed and his nostrils flared.
“Do you like smell of rain?” the Old Man asked.
The boy smiled, surprised. “Yes, sir. It makes everything smell new.”
Patting the spot next to him, the Old Man said, “Come sit with me, Peter.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Oh, one learns a great many things from watching and listening,” said the Old Man. His eyes twinkled. “For example, your mother will not be very pleased when she discovers that you left Mr. Johnson’s.”
Peter’s head snapped towards him. “You won’t tell her, will you, sir?”
“Of course not. I can hardly blame you for sneaking away on such a lovely evening.” The Old Man gestured to the darkening gray sky. Peter blushed.
The pair sat for a while in companionable silence. Darkness quickly crept upon them, and Peter wondered if his mother noticed his absence yet. His gaze wandered across the sky and found a patch which was remarkably free of rain clouds. Two large stars twinkled down at him like a set of eyes.
“Ah, yes,” said the Old Man, “second star to the right and straight on till morning.”
Peter later swore that one of the two winking lights – the second one to the right – flared brighter in response to the words.
“Have you seen Peter Pan?” the Old Man asked. He closed up his umbrella; the drizzle had stopped.
“Yes, sir. My uncle took me to see it awhile ago.”
“And did you like it?”
The boy nodded enthusiastically, forgetting for a moment what his cousin Bill would have thought of this childish conversation. “I loved it, sir!”
The old man chucked. “I thought you would. Now, tell me, Peter, what do you know of Peter Pan?”
“It was written by J.M. Barrie” –
“No, no!” The Old Man sounded impatient for the first time. “What do you know of him?”
“Sir, I’ve never met him.”
The man’s eyes brightened until they glowed. Peter jumped and squinted.
“Are you sure you’ve never met him, Peter?”
“Sir?” Peter was suddenly thinking it was time to return to his mother.
The Old Man relaxed back into bench, rubbing his arms with his hands. “I apologize, Peter. Will you forgive me?”
Peter was feeling very bad for the Old Man. “Of course, sir.” He looked up at the stars again. “Sir?”
He flushed red and averted his eyes to the gentleman climbing up a ladder to light the lamp posts. A small golden halo shimmered around the glass case. The lamp-lighter moved on to the next post, and Peter knew the whole street would soon be aglow. He was about to ask his question when his gaze was drawn to the shadows at his feet.
Two shadows – one in the shape of a boy, the other of man in a top hat – were pointing and laughing at each other. Then the boy-shadow seemed to look at Peter and nudged the man-shadow. It turned to him and then both shadows began shaking with even more violent laughter than before.
A small squeaking noise escaped Peter’s throat. He pulled on the Old Man’s sleeve.
A deep chuckle rumbled from the Old Man. He swung his legs above the cobblestones and the shadow-man gave a huge lurch. It shook a fist in anger. “You see,” said the Old Man, “I sewed him on. He hasn’t forgiven me yet, but I think he’s coming around.” The shadow made a rude hand gesture. “Oh now, not in front of Peter!”
Peter shot a glance back down at the boy-shadow; his own shadow, he realised. It wiggled its fingers at him. Suddenly Peter was afraid it would try to run away.
“You needn’t worry about him,” said the Old Man. “He can’t go anywhere right now. Later, maybe, but not now.” The man-shadow had taken its hat off and began twirling it around.
“Sir? Are you Peter Pan?” Peter bit his tongue, but his shadow cocked its head to the side as if it would like to know, too.
The Old Man peered at the boy for a moment before speaking. “Pan is a title, not a name, boy. Peter was the name of the most famous Pan, but there are many others, many others.”
“But what does a Pan do?”
“What do you think a Pan does? He fights pirates and tells stories and flies oh, so high! He swims with mermaids and dances with Indians and feasts with fairies on a mid-summer’s eve. He travels to our world and perches on the windowsills of children’s nurseries and learns new stories to tell the Lost Boys. He is the voice in the back of our minds that is constantly whispering, ‘you never want to grow up.’ He is a child, and is the very embodiment of childhood.” A single tear trickled down the Old Man’s cheek, tracing the wrinkled contours of his face.
Peter never looked away from the Old Man, not even when his shadow tried doing a handstand. He had never heard anything so mesmerizing. “But, sir, what about Tinkerbelle? Is she real?”
The Old Man leaned in very close to Peter. “Tinkerbelle,” he said, “is as real as the very bench we sit on. Each Pan has his own fairy, but I’ve heard some wild things about that particular pixie!”
“So, you are a Pan!” Peter exclaimed.
“I was, a very long time ago.”
“What your fairy’s name?”
“Oh, I shan’t repeat it to you, Peter; else you might make an old man cry. But I will tell you that the love between a Pan and his fairy is something sacred, nearly as sacred as a mother’s love.” The Old Man looked away while Peter kicked at his dancing shadow. “Speaking of mothers…”
Peter’s mother ran, clackedy-clack-clack, across the street, clutching brown shopping bags. “Peter!” she cried. “Where have you been? Mr. Johnson said you’d just vanished from his store!” She held her son’s head to her coat and turned to the Old Man. “Thank you for keeping him safe,” she said. “Thank you.”
With a firm grasp on Peter’s hand, she began to walk away. Peter looked back in time to see the Old Man’s shadow waving, and the Old Man smiling sadly to himself. When he spoke, it was so quiet that only the stars could hear.
“You are quite welcome, Wendy.”
**This was written for a friend’s birthday in December 2011. I did not intend to infringe the copyrights of Peter Pan, Tinkerbelle, Neverland, or any other trademarks of J.M. Barrie and Disney. Consider it a fanfiction, even though I loathe the word. However, this is my writing, and you are not to reproduce it in any form. If you wish to share it, send the link or hit the ‘Share’ button below. Critiques are welcome. ~Libby**