If you’ve been keeping up with me, you know that since moving to our own house I get to share my lengthier morning and evening commutes with Hawkeye to get him to creche before heading on to work and then picking him back up again. In the mornings, if I am not cycling, this happens by bus. And once you ride the same route over and over again you get used to some of the regular faces whether at your own stop or on the bus itself. There’s the trainee lawyer who lives down the street and works in one of the medium sized firms in the city. There’s the young ginger-haired guy whose work badge is often visible and identifies him as a staff member in one of the nearby employment tribunals with which I am intimately acquainted professionally. There’s the young-but-exhausted and careworn-looking thin mother with a 6 or 7 year old child who clearly presents with certain developmental difficulties and is always watching cartoons on her mother’s phone without headphones. People would be annoyed but they’ve seen what happens when her mom tries making her put on headphones, and trust me, listening to some Paw Patrol dialogue is infinitely preferable. She always looks like she’s given up and is just going through the motions at this stage. There are two friends who I think are nurses and who always sit together and chatter while drinking their coffee. A perfectly coiffed and made-up young professional woman often moves to a different seat whenever she sees me to free up a row that would let me sit with Hawkeye side by side.
There’s also a mother and her son, who is turning nine this week. The two of them get on the bus several stops before us and ride the bus all the way to the same stop as me and Hawkeye. And for whatever reason, we have gravitated toward each other from the beginning of my commuting adventure. Mostly our conversations have been polite chatter but they have been frequent and regular and when we get the chance to actually sit close together, we usually end up talking the whole ride.
Her son goes to national school in the same area where I work, and like us, they bought a house on the other side of the city but chose not to disturb their son’s school placement. Her son (I’ll call him S here) looks like a typical almost-nine-year-old. If you passed him on the street he would probably be completely unremarkable. He does not have an athletic build, and has a round, cheerful face topped with some non-descript brown hair. He always has his large school backpack and school uniform on, but as they’re merely sweats with the school crest on them they simply add to overall unmemorable impression. I’ve said hello to him and exchanged the odd pleasantry. He could easily come and go from my mind the way background noise fades away when you’re focused on something in front of you intensely. He would, that is, if I hadn’t learned one specific thing about him.
He is unfailingly polite and is genuinely kind and sincere.
I noticed early on that he is very well behaved and respectful on the bus. He chats with his mum if he’s not got his headphones on. He doesn’t whine at her. He doesn’t put his feet up on the seats. He smiles and says hello to people he notices and doesn’t put on that air of youthful boredom and disengagement from adults that you see sometimes. He’s not loud or boisterous. The few times his mum and I have discussed behaviour, and how each of us responds to situation with our children and other people’s children, I got the impression that she is not the lax and permissive kind that lets her kids run around like crazy.
But it wasn’t until last week that I really got the full measure of him. One day early last week we ended up sitting in the row in front of S and his mother, and when I turned around I noticed that he was had two large two action figures with him. Now, I’m not good with conversation topics with nine-year-olds, but this one I felt I could make small-talk about.
“Are those WWE figures you’ve got there?” Hawkeye got up on his knees and turned around to look over the back of our seat, his little face scrunched up in yearning. I could see the question forming on his lips. But S pre-empted him.
“Would you like to play with one of them?”
Hawkeye nodded so hard I thought his head was going to fall off. S passed over one of the two figures without hesitation. They were not new toys. They looked like they may have been around the block for a while. Hawkeye was enchanted, however, because they were different from his own toys.
S answered my question, confirming that they were in fact wrestlers. (Or, “wrestlers” depending on your attitude to this particular form of entertainment.) “This is John Cena,” he explained holding up the figure still in his hand. “And that’s Finn Balor.”
For once, all that frequent exposure to WWE playing in the background on The Mister’s computer screen in the evenings came in handy. This was a conversation in which I could participate! “Oooh I know these ones. John Cena is one of my favourites.” I put a closed fist on my heart. “He’s a Boston homie.” I took a closer look at the figure in Hawkeye’s hands, trying to dredge up half-heard pieces of information. “And this is the Irish wrestler, right?”
We proceeded to chat about Finn Balor and his recent fight against John Cena, S talking rapidly in excitement. For a boring non WWE-fan grownup, I acquitted myself fairly well, discussing with him The Undertaker’s sometimes on / sometimes off retirement and his signature finisher move, the Tombstone. We talked about his brother Kane, about The Rock (another favourite of mine), Rey Mysterio and his acrobatic fighting style, and so forth. S was at pains to empahsise that he knew the fighting was scripted and wasn’t real. I told him about Ronda Rousey and how she literally hoisted Triple H onto her shoulders during her debut match. Yes, the fighting itself is staged and the outcomes predetermined, but the physicality and raw power required are still very real. S’s mother watched on in amusement while Hawkeye continued to play with Finn Balor, turning his limbs and head this way and that.
At some point I sent a photo of Hawkeye and the toy to The Mister, knowing he would definitely recognise the figure. The reply was instant.
Hawkeye doesn’t know it yet, but I’m about 90% certain we will look back on this past week as the time when he got hooked on WWE as an inevitable boy obsession.
As we approached our bus stop, I began preparing Hawkeye to give back the toy, reminding him that it wasn’t his and that we should thank S for letting him play with it.
“Next time I’ll bring a different one for you!” S replied when Hawkeye surrendered Finn Balor to him, thankfully without a lot of fuss. I thanked him solemnly and told him that if we weren’t cycling the next time I know Hawkeye was looking forward to it.
As it happens we weren’t cycling the next day. However seats were scarce and it was several stops before Hawkeye and I were able to ascend to the upper deck of the bus and find a pair of seats in the way back. About two thirds of the way down the bus aisle we passed S and his mum. He already had a figure ready and waiting for Hawkeye to grab as we moved past him.
We were not at all sure of the identity of this figure. The Mister replied to my photo query as it possibly being Edge or Jericho. Eventually, half way through the commute, enough seats freed up that we were able to move up and sit close to S and his mother. And Hawkeye, who is going through another one of those clingy phases and prefers to be latched on to me like a barnacle, shuffled quickly to grab a seat next to S, leaving us mammies to set in front of them them.
So there they stayed for at least fifteen minutes, a nine year old (almost) and a four year old, playing quietly with each other and completely absorbed in whatever make believe world they had created. I heard snatches of conversation which made me stifle my laughter but it was a warm, bubbly sort of amusement. S, it turns out, is not only genuinely kind, but he’s great with younger kids. He didn’t show an iota of impatience with Hawkeye and didn’t talk down to him. You would not think that a developmental chasm ran between them given the age discrepancy.
And that’s just the way S is, apparently, his mum confided to me. At the start of the school year he brings pens and pencils and has given half of them away by the end of the first day. He is ecstatic about the recent birth of a cousin in his family, excited to no longer be the youngest, and the opportunity to play with the baby. His face reflects that honest, open, friendship which, coupled with his overall stereotypical appearance, gives the impression of a soft child, exposed to being bullied by more aggressive kids. And yet, I said to his mother, I would prefer this kind of personality any day for my own kid. I gazed at Hawkeye wistfully. She should be very proud, I continued saying to her. I would feel lucky if Hawkeye grew up with a similar sort of mindset.
Incidentally, this same past week saw another moment of kindness, reminding me that despite all the ugly out there, people can be, on the whole, pretty decent folk. On a cold and miserable wet morning, a new addition to the bus appeared, striding across the street purposefully less than two minutes before the bus was due to arrive. It was a young man, in his late twenties maybe. And unlike my initial characterisation of S, he was hard to forget. Close cropped half-shaved haircut, designer stubble, very sharply dressed with a high-end bag on this shoulder. Different from the sort of folks I normally see at the bus stop in this area. He was looking through his wallet cursing under his breath before zipping it all back up.
Turns out the guy had a suspicion that his leap card was devoid of credit and the amount of change he had rustled up wasn’t enough to pay the cash fare. He turned around, preparing to get off the bus when I stepped up with my own leap card and said that I’d pay for his fare. I have no idea why, it was a whim. I’ve done the whole random acts of kindness thing before and gotten burned so I was a bit surprised by my own move.
The young guy threw a grateful smile over his shoulder and said that he’d get me back tomorrow. Honestly? I wasn’t really expecting him to pay back the money. Perhaps I wanted to shield myself from what I thought would be the inevitable disappointment in humanity if I worked myself up to feeling hopeful.
The next day we waited again at the bus stop and I was grimly acknowledging to myself how correct I was not to expect repayment, when the same young man appeared from around the corner, once again striding confidently across the street, hand in his pocket, literally thirty seconds ahead of the bus.
It was just long enough, however, for him to put a hand into his pocket and instantly retrieve a collection of coins which he held out for me to take. He did not need to count them or feel around in his pocket, meaning that this was money he had specifically put there before leaving his house with the express purpose of paying me back. He thanked me again and I smiled, my outlook for the day suddenly vastly improved.
Kind and sincere boys grow up to be kind and sincere men. Parenting challenge accepted.