He moved from the perimeter of the crowd and stood next to the fire blazing away on the sand in the ring of stones and stared at the flames with wide wet eyes. Around him were seated parents with young families on wooden cubes in a rough circle,eyes wincing at the swirling smoke and some shielding their faces from the searing heat as the chill wind picked up the flames. Around us the weihnachtsmarkt was in full swing.
We’d noticed him earlier in the supermarket buying batteries which were obviously for a camera that he was now holding half in and half out his pocket as if he wasn’t sure to take a photograph of the fire or not. He’d apologised to the cashier as he had broken the seal on a multi pack as he didn’t want them all and was embarrassed when he realised that he shouldn’t have done that. At first I’d thought he was drunk but then realised he was slightly mentally handicapped and was struggling to understand what was going on and what to do. The manageress was a bit annoyed but was sympathetic and put him at ease, she knew him.I watched him slowly shuffle out the supermarket clutching his small bag of loose batteries.He looked lost.
And then here he was again, standing close to the fire, on his own in the circle, staring at the crackling flames with wide wet eyes under his military cap, hands fumbling at the small red camera. He stared at the families and the young children and I felt an overwhelming urge to tell him everything was ok as he evoked a deep sadness and loneliness in his face. Nobody else seemed to notice him as he stood there and I wondered if I was seeing a ghost. A young man, mid twenties,medium height, a drab green jacket and jeans and that lost look, it was if he wasn’t there for anyone but me to see. I turned to Simone who was drinking her gluhwein and talking to friends behind me and I mentioned that it was the guy we had seen in the supermarket.She too identified him and before I could say anything else I turned around and he was gone. I don’t know what it was but I felt I had to talk to him. I left my honey wine and set off into the crowd to find him.
The soft thud of arrows into straw filled targets at the archery range drew me but there was no sign of him in the queues of young children and teenagers waiting their turn to try their luck and impress their friends. The racks of longbows in the stall nearby a lure for adventure seekers with large wallets.
A hand turned carousel with small children in wooden swings at the end of ever tightening ropes screaming “schneller, schneller”, the spinning circle going ever higher as the lean faced, sharp nosed large elf with pointed hat and sewn on pointed ears did their bidding and turned the wheel with all his might. The smoke and dancing sparks from the nearby braziers added a demonic feel to the scene. My sad friend was nowhere to be found.
I came back to the fire and sat down next to Simone to nurse another honey wine, my feet warming in the sand by the glowing embers. I was disappointed I hadn’t met him and couldn’t quite explain why. The carousel was turning again with a new batch of children hurtling in the darkness their screams and laughter echoing under the old castle walls. We decided to head home.
We stopped by the open air stage to catch a number from the suitably medieval costumed 3 piece band. The fiddle player announced their next song as ” Jacobite by Name”. Perhaps historically inaccurate for the period but an old Scottish song never the same and the coincidence couldn’t be ignored.The passion was maybe not quite there in the singing and slightly lost in translation but I still had some goosebumps hearing that song in this place. At the end I took off my hat, waved it in the air and gave them a big cheer which I think surprised them as I was the only one in the crowd that did so. Others in the audience smiled but were obviously bemused at my reaction. The band waved back also unsure of why I was so animated!
And then we met Gunther.
He was standing directly behind us.
I shook his hand and introduced myself and Simone and asked him in German if he was ok as he looked so sad and lost.
It turned out he’d just recently got out of hospital after being badly mauled by his neighbour’s bull mastiff. He told us he was glad because he could have had his little neice with him at the time and if so she could have been killed. It transpired he was trying to move house to get away from this neighbour and the dog as the police had done nothing. The story unravelled and I think he was just glad someone had talked to him. He was a lovely harmless guy and after a few minutes a smile appeared on his face and he was obviously happy. He said he was having a great night and enjoying himself for the first time in a while. We all shook hands again said our farewells, wished each other a happy Christmas and disappeared into our nights. I still don’t know why I felt this urge to contact but after talking to him it just felt the right thing to do.
Sometimes this carousel of a world we live in spins so fast we stop noticing things that are maybe sometimes important to us and others or maybe just beautiful moments to be shared with perfect strangers that we just don’t recognise in the blur of it all. I like when it all slows down and you can start to make sense of yourself and your surroundings and get the perspective back on where you are and where you should be going. The carousel is an exciting ride for a while but it has to stop eventually and there is something reassuring about having your feet back on the ground again.
I could still smell the woodsmoke in Simone’s hair as we walked through the empty streets by the Basel Tor and past the old cemetery, the honey wine glowing in my head. The shadows were still dancing under the ancient parapets of the castle.