This Great Society - Nonfiction Contents

 

Illustration: Kristin Fryer


Kristin Fryer: The Tourist
Illustration: Kristin Fryer

It’s September. Not high season, as far as tourism goes, but she can see from a distance that Charles Bridge is crowded. It’s a sunny day, maybe about 17 degrees or so. Taking pictures is difficult. It’s hard to get the lighting right.

Another tourist shop. Prague is littered with them. She watches her mother go in and sighs, following reluctantly.

“Haven’t we been to enough of these shops?” Her mother ignores her question and continues browsing.

“They all have the same stuff.” Prague bags, Prague shirts, Prague shot glasses, Prague magnets.

“It’s so hard to find anything that isn’t tacky,” she adds, examining a row of Prague mugs. One souvenir per city. Five cities in two weeks.

She briefly contemplates a Kafka shirt before giving up. “I’ll wait outside.”

They are spending two nights in Prague, but today is their only full day and the list of things to see is long.

She waits. If she had a watch she would be checking it. No watch, no cell phone. Everything left behind in Canada.

Finally, her mother emerges, bag in hand.

“Okay, no more tourist shops—at least not until we get to the Old Town Square.” She’s walking towards the bridge, pauses, waits for her mother to catch up. “We’ve still got Charles Bridge, the Square, King Wenceslas Square … I don’t think we’re going to have enough time for the Kafka Museum.”

They pass under the tower, through the arched entryway. The bridge, about 500 metres long and 10 metres wide, is crowded, full of tourists and street artists selling paintings, jewellery. She hears music playing, faintly.

The bridge is lined with statues depicting various saints. She pulls out the camera and slips into photo-mode. Point, shoot, check. Repeat.

When she looks up again, her mother is gone. Probably buying more souvenirs, she thinks. She hesitates, scans the crowd. No sign of her.

She almost feels relieved. Alone.

The first week of a major trip is probably the worst. Prague is nine hours ahead of Vancouver. Neither of them has adjusted properly yet. She is hardly sleeping and it is wearing on her.

They are still trying to find a good rhythm, a comfortable balance between activity and rest. Today feels like a grind. Sights must be seen, boxes checked off.

She continues down the bridge.

She’s gone ahead, or maybe she’s fallen behind. Scan. No sign.

She passes through the tower at the other side of the bridge. Scan. No sign.

I’ll just wait for her here. She finds a stone ledge to sit on at the entrance to the bridge. The tourists form a steady stream through the arched entryway. Two black men dressed as sailors offer flyers to the passersby. Other tourists are waiting at the entrance, just as she is. Have they lost someone too?

Time passes. The first few minutes are fairly calm. She puts the camera in play mode and flips through the photos she has taken today. The Bridge. St. Nicholas Cathedral. Strahov Monastery. Prague Castle.

She is feeling uneasy. She moves to a ledge on the other side of the bridge. Maybe I’ll get a better view from here.

It has been at least twenty minutes now. What could be keeping her? Has she gone back to the other side of the bridge to look for me? What if she is waiting on the other side? She pictures this, the two of them like mirror-images on opposite sides of the bridge, under the shadow of the two towers, alone.

She realizes with frustration that she never developed any kind of “lost” plan. Months I spent planning this trip and never did I say, “If we lose each other, then ___.” The idea hadn’t even occurred to her.

More time passes. It is becoming harder and harder for her to think rationally about the situation. What if something has happened to her? She doesn’t speak the language. She’s not very good with maps. Would she know how to get back to the hotel?

She looks into the crowd again, commanding her eyes to see. No sign.

I didn’t stay close to her. I wandered off.

She is crying.

*              *              *

Three months later, Christmas Day, she is sitting in front of her laptop when she receives the news from her brother.

“She didn’t want to tell you until they were certain,” he is saying, “but it doesn’t look good.” The dimly lit face on her computer screen looks away, letting his words sink in.

“They still have more tests to do,” he adds. “We should know more in about a week.”

The headache is instant but she feels numb. Her mother is too young. Their trip to Europe was a treat for her 50th birthday.

The next day she is on the computer researching. Causes. Symptoms. Treatments. Mortality rates.

She is living in England, her mother in Canada.

Is she alone right now? Is she afraid?

Thousands of miles separate them.

I wish I could be there.

She just talked to her on the phone, but she didn’t say a thing.

She can’t remember the last thing she said to her mother, but she hopes it was “I love you.”


*              *              *

I can’t wait here anymore.

She wipes her cheeks with her hands and stands up. Taking one last look at the crowd at the entrance to the bridge, she walks back through the archway, slowly.

Short woman. Brown hair. Brown sweater. No sign.

What if I can’t find her?

Better not to think about that. Stay focused.

Halfway across the bridge. Still nothing.

She keeps walking, looking, hoping.

And then she sees her.

*              *              *

Ten days later, an email from her mother appears in her inbox.

It’s not cancer. Not quite, anyways. Pre-cancerous cells have been found. She will have surgery and tissue will be removed.

Relief takes the place of grief.

*              *              *

Twenty feet away. She weaves through the crowd as quickly as she can, almost breathless by the time she reaches her. New tears start to form.

“Mum!”

A head turns and a pink smile appears.

“Kristin! Hi!”

She touches her shoulder affectionately.

“I was waiting for you at the other side of the bridge. I thought … I didn’t know … ” She trails off. “Well, I found you. That’s all that matters.”

She looks surprised – surprised that her daughter could have been so worried. “I’m glad you found me.”

“What have you been up to, anyways?”

“I’ve just been hanging out here.” Her mother gestures towards the four-piece jazz band playing nearby. “It’s nice music.”

She doesn’t recognize the tune, but it is nice.

“Want to stay here and listen for a while longer?”

“Sure,” her mother smiles. “I’d love to.”


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