He was a regular sight in the mall.
He was an older, quite happy man. A bit slow it almost seemed, but maybe not. But he had a boyish quality about him, a light in his eyes you see in the young and the simple. His face was ageless, like Benny Hill, round and youthful, even though his greying hair betrayed his age. I had no idea how old he actually was.
I was wasting my 20s working in a suburban mall, in a bookstore in a run down and impoverished area of the city. Many of the city's old, handicapped, immigrant and simply chronically unemployed lived here, and it made for a colourful day to meet the various customers.
And he was the most cheeful man I had ever met, walking through the mall, saying hello, his unmistakable gait with hands behind his back, and always a nice thing to say about everyone.
One day, I was supposed to take some kind of break, and knowing full well he had very little money, asked him if he wanted a cup of tea. He accepted graciously. I wanted to know more about this cat - frankly, I was depressed and suicidal, and wanted to know the secret of his enlightenment.
As we sat down and he reached for his tea, I finally found out why he always kept his hands hidden.
His hands were missing pieces of his fingers. The amputations were not even - some of them diagonal, some fingers missing a tip, others almost three quarters. Only the little finger on the left hand was completely intact.
It shocked me into staring long enough for him to notice me staring, and to react.
"I'm sorry", I said, "I... um... it just..."
"It's okay", he said gently. Used to it.
"Frostbite?" I said, which I was convinced it must have been, trying to think of something to say.
"No..." he said, his face having suddenly drained of life and colour. "I was caught behind enemy lines, in France." At that point I saw the age creep in around his eyes and realised just how old this man must have been. And to my growing horror, how young he must have been back then. "I was captured, and we were beating them, we were pushing them back. They held me while they found an officer who spoke English. They were desperate to find out how many of us there were, and where we would attack from."
The man had changed completely. In the space of two minutes, he had become someone completely different.
"But I never told them."
A tear started to run from the corner of one eye.
"I never told them."
"I never told them. No matter what." I was losing him, losing him to a very dark and joyless memory. One that, evidenced by him saying "I never told them" over and over and the fact that he was shaking, was as vivid as ever.
I was at a complete loss for words, but I tried to fill the sudden void, the sudden gap, the sudden black loss of joy and happiness with something. We discussed the flower shop being broken into, the security guard's penchant for Star Wars novels, and the donut store changing management. He had some interesting gossip about all of the above, but trying as he was to pretend that didn't happen, there was a hollowness in his voice it took weeks for him to lose around me.