Young Writers competition 2016

What would a park bench say if it could talk?, by Heather Pitchford (age 8)

In my life many people have come and sat on me,

Unfortunately I can’t talk,

But if I could I would say:

“Go on, go on,”

I would say to a nervous lover about to propose,

“Just ask her, ask her!”

“Don’t worry, I’m here,”

I would say to someone with nowhere to go,

“Just rest on me, I don’t mind.”

“Please don’t spill that drink on me,”

I would say to a business man on his lunch break,

“That looks like a nice sandwich.”

“Keep calm; you won’t forget your lines,”

I would say to someone about to go on stage at the Theatre Royal,

“Just go out there and perform.”

“It’s a nice spot you chose here,”

I would say to a family sightseeing,

“I would recommend Clifford’s Tower next.”

Or you could just stay a little longer!

Words from a bench February 2016

With a theme of ‘Midwinter’, we offer this range of new writing.

Aurora Borealis, by Ásdís Ingólfsdóttir

The blue lights from the ambulance light up the dark winter night as it rushes through the empty streets. The young couple inside look terrified. What they have been so excited about and awaiting for the last nine months, is happening now. The ambulance stops at the maternity ward and the young woman is brought on a gurney into the hospital. The young man runs aside the gurney like a dog trainer showing his labrador to the judges. The young woman moans as they enter the elevator and her pain is reflected in the face of the young man.

The room they are brought to is not big, but an effort has been made to make it look cosy, so that parents-to-be will relax and the birth will take place in a safe and nice atmosphere. The young woman is in no condition to realize those facts as she is already in labour and her pain is enormous. The young man does not know what to do; he is beside himself with worry and the helplessness is making him moan too while his fiancee moans in her birthpangs.

Outside, the dark night is lit up by snow that has fallen during the day-but now the sky is getting clearer and the frost sets in. Nobody inside the little room notices any of that and, when the doctor comes in, the mother-to-be looks at him with hope in her eyes. The young man asks if it will take long. The doctor does not stay for long and just says that all is normal. It does not calm them.

The midwife comes as the contractions get very close. She brings with her a soothing atmosphere and suddenly they are all in a bulb of labour;  the mother pushes, the father encourages her and the sweat seeps down their faces and necks unnoticed. Then the cry. A new born is put into the arms of the exhausted mother. The father cries and the midwife is busy with chores. She takes the newborn gently from the mother as the doctors arrive and afterwards brings the baby to the father.

As the green and purple northern lights display their dance across the dark winter sky, the father looks amazed at his daughter and brings the new born baby to the window at the maternity ward. He susses the baby and whispers, ‘Look. Look, the northern lights Aurora. Aurora, that will be your name, my northern light, my golden northern light.’

Aurora Borealis, whispers the tired mother as she looks out the window and smiles softly.

Winter Webs, by Sara Murphy

The walk to school in summer takes five minutes, but in the depths of midwinter, with just the right conditions, it could take an age. I knew it was cold when I woke up, the clue was seeing my breath in the bedroom. I jumped out of bed and scraped a porthole through the cat ice on the window, just big enough to peep through. We were expecting a frost, but was it the right kind?

Hoar frost was Jane’s favourite. A white feathery frost that turned the garden into a magical winter wonderland. Trees draped in white feather boas that shimmered, grass that bowed with the weight of glittering crystals that changed into silver witch footsteps when walked upon.  But I wasn’t looking for beauty.  A thick ground frost was what I was after, and there it was, with just the right amount of fog. Mam would call it ‘a mucky old day’, but to me it was perfect for my quest, collecting spider webs.

I poked Jane awake, and tried to get dressed quickly, which was no mean feat when having to wrestle chunky legs into thick tights, and fumble with cold fingers buttons on my home-knitted jumper that seemed too big for the holes. Due to my having a big head, Mam had to adapt each knitting pattern to accommodate a row of buttons across the shoulder.

Thinking I could get out early before breakfast, I got dressed as quickly as I could.  Stepping out onto the landing I heard tuneless whistling from the kitchen, meaning that Dad had got downstairs first. I’d taken too long to get ready what with the buttons and the tights.

Dad first down in winter meant a porridge morning. No chance of a quick get away. Dad was stirring the pan, and said that we had perfect timing, asking us to get out bowls, spoons, and cups. The big tea pot was on the table already. Being Scottish Dad liked his porridge thick with chewy lumps, which he sprinkled with salt before eating.

“That’ll stick to your ribs then”

We didn’t want rib-sticking porridge, and covered ours with brown sugar, and cream from the top of the milk to cool it down. The milk was delivered in all weathers, in glass bottles with foil tops. Sometimes, if it was really cold, the milk froze and expanded in the bottles, pushing the tops off.  Other times when cold but not freezing, the blue tits beat us to the cream and had their breakfast before us. They would peck through the foil, stand on the edge of the bottle, and pinch it. Not that we minded, they needed a drink. Dad said that in winter everyone thought about putting food out for the birds, but never anything to drink, which was just as important.

We drank a hot cup of tea before being bundled into coats, scarves, wellies and mittens. Hopping from one foot to the other with impatience and desperation to be out. We lived just a short distance from school, didn’t even have to cross a road. This meant that all the kids to the right of us would have to walk down the same stretch of road. I wanted to be the first this morning. I wanted the pick of the webs. Luckily, everyone on our street had huge privet hedges. They were evergreen, and provided colour in the winter, and nesting for birds in the spring. Mam said that you could tell a lot about a person by the state of their privet.

Finally me and Jane were ready to go, but also needed our Joey. This is because he had a pen knife, a Swiss Army Knife which boys his age always carried, not Stanley knives, only Dads were allowed those. In order to collect webs, we needed a loop made from a sprig, cut from the privet hedge. Joey was taking ages, because he waited for Mam to finish washing up before he’d come out. Not that he was helping, just wanted the rubber gloves to put on under his mittens. That way he could be warm and stay dry when polishing the ice slides. Everyone knew that the best ones were hand polished to get rid of any ice shavings coming from clumsy shoes.

At last we had a twig from the hedge. All we had to do now was strip the leaves off and make a loop. Joey was off, looking for his mates so that they could make a slide from our gate right up to the school. Me and Jane dawdled in comparison, first looking in our own hedge, and there they were. Bejewelled webs. The trick was getting your loop behind the web, so that when you pulled it torwards you, the web clung to the loop. We must have been the first ones out, as we had our pick of the really big ones. Me and our Jane could stand side by side and gather. We had to be a bit quicker with next door’s hedge, because they didn’t like kids, and, even though I don’t think either of them would want to go web collecting, they still wouldn’t want us to have theirs. Every so often our Joey would skid past us, followed by his mate, before zipping back to widen the slide. By the time we got to school, there would be a glass slide, half the width of the pavement. Mam, and other Mams said that it was OK for the lads to make a long slide, as long as it wasn’t on the gate side of the path, causing old folk to slip. Most people just left it, so we got home from school super quick as soon as the bell went. Although, there was usually a break in it where next door had been out and sprinkled it with salt.

Last week, Johnny Redhead had a loop with webs so thick, you could push your finger in it right up to the first knuckle, without it making a hole. That’s what I wanted. His teacher let him stand it in one of the empty milk bottles in the crate that was delivered to school every day. But, because the milk had started to freeze, the crate was brought in and put next to the radiator in the classroom. We drank our milk just before break, and by then, the webs had dried out, and Johnny was upset when he pushed his finger straight through it.

I wanted a stretchy web to show Mam, because she didn’t believe me when I said how far you could push your finger in it, plus Johnny Redhead was my best mate and I wanted to make him another one. Jane was a bit slower than me because she was afraid of spiders. Well, so was I but there never seemed to be any about when it was cold. They just disappeared. Birds nesting in the hedges gobbled them up in spring, and we pinched their homes in the winter. Spiders got a raw deal really.

We managed to get to school on time, both with a fantastic web loop. I said I would give mine to Johnny, and we could take Jane’s home to show Mam. Disaster. Just as we were due to go in, Jane was playing at being a dragon, breathing out vapour words pretending it was smoke. She was laughing so much, she let go of one of the loop ends, and the sprig tried to reform into its original shape leaving a slimy twig rather than a web loop. I’d just given mine to a delighted Johnny.

However, by the time the bell rung at the end of the day, the playground was covered in a blanket of snow. Johnny said that I could have the web back; he didn’t have time to come to my house, because he wanted to rush home to ask his Mam if he could play out. Most kids wanted to go to the Fifth Avenue Playing Field when it snowed, because we could snowball as much as we wanted without getting told off. I whizzed home thanks to the slide, and thrust the stretchy web in Mam’s face. She squealed, and told me to take it away, refusing to push her finger into it. This wasn’t the reaction I’d been hoping for. My disappointment was short-lived, on spotting a new pair of rubber gloves in the sink.

Mam said I could go back out, as long as I’d have a hot drink first. Hot chocolate, no problem. I was allowed to go to the playing fields as long as our Joey brought me back home before dark. We slid all the way there, knowing that we would be snowballing the other kids long after they stopped throwing them at us, due to their hands being wet and frozen, but ours dry. Because, no matter how good a friend I had, there was no way I’d let them into the secret of the rubber gloves. Not even Johnny Redhead.

Seeming to stand still, by Jane Poulton

still water

summer’s blue mirror

in which we swam as if it was eternity

and we were all that ever mattered

is ice

hard as bone

frost re-maps fell moor and harrowed field

to binary black and white or ghosts of themselves

rime blooms on the windward side of things

bole branch fallen seed anything evergreen or still

it burns to the touch and cleaving to it

cleaves bare earth

winds keen like jilted mistresses

roam roaring in leafless canopies

stalk in ginnels

harry tides and travellers

tease who and where they please

whisper vengeance through small hours


conjoined companions light and dark

their infinite journey bound by axis and degree

seem to pause as if uncertain of their course

and this strange lingering proves

more dazzling than their customary path

the world is unfamiliar to itself

sunbeams halt to cut through stone

we cease our tilting spin

and in a moment shorter than a blink

night becomes day

day becomes night

Tree dreams, by Martin Brown

Skirting the wood’s edge

I tread the same old path.

I enter the quiet darkness: the

Air inside is colder, damper.

My head is heavy with thoughts of her.

Recent snow smears the trees feet.

Above, the canopy is bright with last year’s growth.

Hopes remembered, new shoots still to come.

The pines are tall, straight;

Their trunks are sturdy and true.

I feel their strength. Despite the cold

I sense their wish for warm summer rain,

A fat summer moon to silver them with grace.

Laying palm to pine, I ask:

What do you dream of my friend?

To be the tallest, the strongest, the greenest?

Or have you some other end in mind?

Perhaps you’d welcome a saw, see it

As a beginning, not an end.

Freed from the earth, be reduced and shaped

By the hand of man.

A mast or deck plank, a captain’s table

Certainly seaborne, thrashing through the waves

Of southern seas, wild with excitement,

To have a future, not just a past.

This thought lifts me.

I search inside for my heart’s smile,

But still the tears come.

A sudden flavour stings my nose;

A salty sea breeze mixed with pine and winter spice.

Is there a saw that could free me for a new start?

I long to lose this earth’s grip, be free and silent in the deep;

Be another creature, swimming, not drowning.

Words from a bench 2015

We had a bumper crop of offerings for the Spring 2015 edition, with a theme of ‘Birds’. A small selection below…

Cockatoos, by Carole Bromley

Dusk and the bovver boys are back,

in twos and threes at first, or maybe just one

with his Mohican raised, grabbing

the tallest snow gum and screaming

come on then, come on what ya waitin’ for

chicken the lot of ya. Then a rival

choosing the edge of the storm drain

as his patch. Yah! Come on then, I dare ya

show me what yer made of, yer all talk

and, grumbling, heckling they beat it

or join the gang, raucous as ever,

Arrrrgh Arrrgh as if they’re on

the receiving end of a Chinese burn.

They have their favourite spots

for hanging out, or hanging upside down

from the ends of twigs, splatting contempt.

From sundown Telopea Park’s a no go,

they take over every tree, commandeer the grass,

try every nut and pebble, gob them out,

balance on one foot, preen their Elvis quiffs,

jockeying to be cock of the walk

jostling for the best position on a branch,

ganging up on passersby, warning off dogs,

other gangs, a flock of trilling carrawongs.

Then, as suddenly as they came, they’re off

winging it across the dark like vengeful ghosts.

Starlings from a train, by Michael Brown

First there is the tilt and curve

of hedgerow

land scratched from earth

then a colder language

scars December

offers us nothing

no sound

only the whirl of starlings

caught in a slab of open sky

wheeling, veering off

falling to ice —

to ground

Sovereigns of the Sky, by Jessica Steel

Cut the air

with a blade of feathers.

The arc of predatory bliss

converging on unsuspecting prey.

You are the swift dive.

You are the silent swoop.

You are the graceful skim.

Hooked beak,

dragon clawed

golden tipped.

Rising on pillars of air.

The sky is no bar to you

the clouds are plains,

the rainbow a bridge,

the mountains a home.

Roost on the roof of the world,

dive the depths,

climb the stairway of heaven.

Spread your wings, raise your crest.

The park, by Daniela Nunnari

We brought you here today,
even though it rained,
even though you didn’t sleep
and wouldn’t eat your lunch.

We brought you here,
to walk through willows with water hens,
to wave at dogs and dodge the duck poo,
to stamp your feet in muddy puddles
and hunt for gruffalo in the mini woods.

We pushed you on the swings
next to love struck teenagers and mums on mobiles.
We waited while you refused to come down the slide
and couldn’t help but laugh at your tired tantrums on the way out.

We rushed you past the
long necks of geese, hissing
as we neared their young.
Just more protective parents.

We met a squirrel named Nutkin
and picked some buttercups
while the bored ice cream man waited,
engine always running.

And then we saw two boys on the bridge,
arms outstretched, nervous laughs,
covered in milk white doves.
We stopped, to watch,
as they trusted each other just enough,
for a few moments of contact.
Your eyes widened, you smiled, and then you ran ahead,
distracted by leaves and sticks and fluffy ducklings.

We put you in the car, with dirty shoes
and sticky faces from 99s
and you said bye bye to the birdies
in the car park as we left.

The infinite Cycle, by Tyler Paige Leech

A forest of green, yellow and ember

Life surrounding, birds flying

Sounds, squirrels scurry, squeaks from a mouse

Silently, sleeping, hiding from the soft breeze.

Seeds blow, carried by most, travelling to nowhere.

To everywhere.

Birds and forest families searching.

Frozen melodies singing,

Footsteps, pitter-pattering on the forest floor.

Twigs broken, snap. Broken.

Feathers land, stolen by mother Badger, making a nest

Under the ash tree

Fulfilling her destiny

Blue outlines the green leafy tops of the trees

Light seeps through the gaps, enlightening

Beams of green, blue and brown in every direction

An escape for some, voices heard in the distance.

The orange light dimming,

Their home, from the nest to the burrow.

The tree tops to the moist dirt floor.

The infinite cycle, undisturbed.

Young Writers competition 2015

What would a park bench say if it could talk?, by Heather Pitchford

In my life many people have come and sat on me,

Unfortunately I can’t talk,

But if I could I would say:

“Go on, go on,”

I would say to a nervous lover about to propose,

“Just ask her, ask her!”

“Don’t worry, I’m here,”

I would say to someone with nowhere to go,

“Just rest on me, I don’t mind.”

“Please don’t spill that drink on me,”

I would say to a business man on his lunch break,

“That looks like a nice sandwich.”

“Keep calm; you won’t forget your lines,”

I would say to someone about to go on stage at the Theatre Royal,

“Just go out there and perform.”

“It’s a nice spot you chose here,”

I would say to a family sightseeing,

“I would recommend Clifford’s Tower next.”

Or you could just stay a little longer!

Words from a Bench Winter 2014

Submissions for Words from a bench for the winter competition were on the theme of ‘Crossed paths’. The best seven entries are available to read below. Submissions for Words from a bench for the winter competition were on the theme of ‘Crossed paths’. The best seven entries are available to read below.

Although we typically encourage pieces about the out of doors and nature, for this round we deliberately left it ambiguous and received submissions which interpreted the theme literally and metaphorically. As a consequence, the chosen entries have a range in tone and content which is wider (and in some cases darker) than you would normally find on the site. A selection of the pieces featured are below:

Fox, Kathryn Clune

Ribbon of russet threading between the

Bare trees with a hunter’s sinuous stealth.

The frozen curds of twilight autumn sky

Disperse before your poised intent and a

Thrumming sense of peril pervades the copse,

Rousing drowsing birds; urging them to stir.

Crunching along the path, we catch a glimpse.

A flicker of movement. Sharp-featured face

Angled to breathe in our unfamiliar scent.

Softly burnished, muscled torso turning

Already in a fluent evasion.

Delicate plume of tail sweeping the damp

Leaf mould over tracks, masking any trace,

Until it seems we dreamed this crossing place.

The last good day, Bill Hodson

A rare day of November sunshine. The sun hanging low and the light so piercing that you have to screw up your eyes to take in the view. For weeks now you’ve been predicting that the good weather cannot last, but this year, summer seems reluctant to give way and, like the doctor said, it’s no use moping indoors. There is a gusty wind bending the tops of trees, sending flocks of brown-yellow leaves flying into the sky but perhaps this will be the last good day so you wander out and find a bench along the river towpath, squatting in shelter between two sets of bushes, and settle down to read the paper.

It is mid-morning. Most other people have somewhere to go – work or school – so you more or less have the place to yourself. A couple of cyclists, students probably, leave shreds of conversation as they whirr by.

“I can’t tell her that!”

“Well, you’re never going to know then are you?”

You strain to hear more, randy for some taste of other lives and their numberless possibilities, yours shrunken to a single channel, but they zip out of earshot and are lost.

A few minutes later you hear a jogger puffing in your direction. A woman, older than you and drainpipe thin. Black singlet and shorts, day-glo yellow trainers. She straightens up as she nears you, gives a thin smile and a sort of “this is good, you should try it.” look as she shuffles by. But you are not fooled. Running won’t make any difference.

You start to have that familiar sense of being observed, weighed up, judged. Like that time in the hospital. You turn round suddenly but only catch sight of a swirl of leaves as something scurries into the bushes. You can hear it rustling about in the dead undergrowth.

You decide to play it cool, put the newspaper down, cross your legs and lean back on the bench, head lolling upwards as you breathe in the rushing air. You close your eyes and see the orange glow on your eyelids, the sun’s warmth seeping into your head. It feels good.

After a while you hear scuffling by your feet but you stay still. With your head resting on the back of the bench you open one eye and squint downwards. A small, reddy-brown mongrel with floppy ears and black ankles, as if it had socks on, is staring at you from a few feet away. Its head twitches from side to side and every gust of wind causes a spasm in the legs. It looks behind to check there is no-one there and then straight back at you.

You open the other eye and slowly raise your head. The dog draws back a few paces. It looks ready to flee, fearing the worst, but is also expectant, hoping there will be something worth staying for.

“Hello there. What do you want?”

You speak to the dog like you did when Zoë was a baby. So many years ago. A kind of sing-song, your voice rising and falling in tune with the words, the tone more important than the sense. You want the dog to know that you are good. Kind. Worth meeting.

You notice it has a collar on.

“Are you lost?”

You let your arm droop by your side and wait until the dog sniffs the back of your hand and then retreats. You remember that you have some biscuits in your bag, a treat for later. The dog watches intently as you ease the top one out of the packet, break it into small pieces and let them fall to the ground. It inches forward and then, all in a rush, gobbles up the biscuit and steps back. Its ears are slightly pricked now.


You toss down some more pieces and this time the dog does not retreat after it hoovers them up. You reach out your hand and stroke the back of its head and feel the soft bones in its ears as they bend beneath your touch. The dog bows its head and lets you run your hand along its spine right down to the tail, which flicks up as you let it go. It pants and moves its head towards your hand again.

“Hey you! Grab hold of that dog.”

Instinctively you obey and grip the collar, something in that harsh voice making you clench your fingers round the strap. The dog goes stiff, braces its back and tries to pull away, straining against your hold. It starts to whimper.

A man is pounding down the footpath, pointing at you.

“Don’t let it go!”

You can see terror in the dog’s eyes when it hears that voice. It pees on the path as he approaches. About 50, unshaven, black greasy hair splattered with grey, heaving with the effort of running. He bends down and fastens a lead to the dog’s collar. You almost gag on the mixture of sweat and garlic as he pulls himself up. You let go your grip.

“Thanks. Been looking all bloody morning.”

He turns to set off back to town.

“Nice dog. What’s his name?”

“Bella. She’s a bitch. Like the one I bought her for.”

He leans down and slashes at Bella’s head with the end of the lead. She staggers and would fall but that he tugs hard and pulls her back upright.

“Wait till I get you home.”

Bella cowers and presses herself close to the ground. Then she stops resisting and trots away. As they leave the path, heading towards some houses, she stops and turns to look at you and then disappears behind a wall.

You hang on for a while, staring at the river, but it’s getting colder now so you decide to call it a day. The wind has picked up and you have to bow your head against it. You drop the remaining biscuits in a waste bin as you pass.

Possibilities, Steindór Haraldsson

It was his first time in Spain, and everyone kept telling him he wasn’t in Spain.

A twenty-six year old taking a year off university to… to something, he wasn’t quite sure what. The wirey young man was currently in a small village – a suburb,just outside Barcelona. He´d been to see a monastery a friend had told him was “magnificent”. The building had been a let-down and the admission price too high. But the beer was cheap – well, cheaper than he was used to, and cigarettes felt somehow more significant than back home, the smoke more vivid, the moisture in the air making them feel heavier in his hand than usual, and the taste more complex.

His shirt clung to his torso, his hair didn’t seem to untangle in the air, and he was sure his toes were developing an ecosystem of their own in his shoes, but he was somehow okay with it all. What got to him, though, was the August sun of Catalonia, not Spain, he reminded himself, seeing yet another red-and-yellow flag hanging from a balcony.

The sun gave him headaches.

With the sun blaring, the sounds of a town square, centuries old in the distance, and someone playing the piano marvellously by an open window nearby (Beethoven, he thought), as he walked down a narrow street in the medieval part of town… thunder, dark clouds and, wonder of wonders… HAIL! Bigger than he’d ever experienced in his life, here in the warmth of summer in northern Spain. Here in Catalonia.

He tried covering his head with the book he’d been reading, a frayed copy of Hemingway’s For whom the bell tolls (it felt appropriate); he’d found it at a used book stall at a local market the previous day. But to no avail; stinging-cold balls got down the neck of his shirt and tiny icicles shot down his sleeve. Taking refuge in a grotto in a wall enclosing what had once probably been a villa years ago but was now a husk, near ruin, a beautiful memory. He resigned himself to waiting it out.

Watching the waiter from the café across the street hurriedly putting away tables and chairs, he was unaware of someone joining him in the shelter. He pulled a cigarette from the crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights (registered trademark) in his breast pocket and fished out the lighter from his jeans.

“Ei! Pardonam. Tens un piti?” A soft, high female voice said – all he heard was “pity”. Turning, he saw that a short, lean, dark-haired girl, in her early twenties, had taken shelter alongside him. She looked fragile, in a sundress, with the backdrop of hail. She was the most gorgeous being he’d ever seen.

“Sorry, I don’t understand. ¿Habla inglés?”

“Oh, I am sorry, I did not realise,” she said, exaggerating her enunciation, her vowels long. “I asked if you have a cigarette to spare.” Her accent was somewhere between French and Spanish.

Flustered, he handed her one without a word, stretched out the lighter in his hand, turned the wheel and felt a spark of invigorating electricity race through his arm as her hand touched the back of his when she cupped it to prevent the tiny flame from being extinguished.

In what seemed to him a flash, the life he could have with her in a possible future whispered at him from a corner in his mind. Everything from the smell of her cooking, to the creaking of doors in a house on a hill and the laughter of boisterous children by the Mediterranean. He imagined her soft lips brushing his own, could’ve sworn he actually felt the way her hand squeezed his at an outdoor cinema. Sensed her warm body in bed. Then he felt the searing pain of the cigarette burning, forgotten in the mouth.

She looked at him funny, smiled the world’s prettiest smile, “Thank you,” she said – her vowels too long again, and on her way she went.

The storm had passed already.

Moral Dilemma – Litter, Anna Semlyen

To act or not to act?

That is the question
Underpinning civilisation
Omission is commission in some situations
Let me paint you a picture featuring litter
A kid drops a packet
Do you make a racket?
Or hope the council will fix it?
To me, that takes the biscuit
The do nothing option just leaves the problem
Would you walk on by? Walk on by

Evil flourishes when good men do nothing to stop it
Its better to pop it in a bin
But when do you begin?
Do you wait for the perpetrator to walk on by? Walk on by

Or do you draw attention?
Would you even mention the litter to the child?
Would you smile and ask them to do it?
The youngster that threw it?

Take responsibility, use your ability
It’s not being a busy body
It makes you somebody
To stand up for what’s right
Risk that verbal fight with the kid’s parents
About their common sense
Their sensibility for ecology, for civilised society

When litter is strewn I start to fume
Whose responsibility is that packaging?
That beer can ring that cuts the animals?
Is it theirs or is it yours?
Is it the manufacturer, the buyer, the packager?
Or the boy in the street kicking cans with his feet?
Would it be such a feat
To keep our world neat?
Or would you walk on by? Walk on by

Words from a bench August 2014

Our new poems and prose are on the theme ‘Midsummer’ and come from authors based in both York and Rejkyavik. Here are some of the highlights of the selection:

Forgetting to remember, by Chris Brunt

It’s important to bring a sandwich with you. A nice mug of tea wouldn’t go amiss either, though it never stays warm long enough and you’re bound to look like some sort of nutter sitting alone on a park bench drinking from an oversized Manchester City mug. I know what you’re thinking, but a full thermos flask would be wasted on someone like me.

“Why not fill it up half way?” you ask.

Well, I’ve had difficulty getting the balance right. It’s always too weak or too strong. Either way, it’s just no good. Besides, I couldn’t justify squandering three tea bags in one go, especially when it’s not me who pays for them. My bladder can’t carry more than one cup at a time. These days it bursts at the seams imagining the weight of three full cups of tea. At a push I could manage two, but who wants to take the risk? I certainly don’t. What would I do if I didn’t get back in time and ended up making a mess of myself? I wouldn’t live that one down. They barely trust me now, I dread to think what they’d say if I came back with a sodden trouser leg and an empty thermos.

“How do you explain this, Mr Waterton?” I wouldn’t know where to start. It’d only end in them locking me up and never letting me out again.

“He can’t go anywhere, not without supervision,” they’d say.

I won’t have them take this away from me, not after everything else I’ve lost. That’s what happens you know when you get old. You lose things. Your looks go first, they vanish all at once and there’s nothing but leathery creases sagging down against obsolete flaps of flesh where once a youthful masculine jawline stood. When I do deign to glance at myself in the mirror, I don’t see me anymore. I can’t see past those huge spotty ears and fluffy eyebrows crisscrossing an old man’s face.

“I don’t know you.” I like to protest. “I don’t care for the look of this fellow.” I laughed aloud, cajoling the nurses into sterile smirks. Deluded in their youth, none of them seem to realise what they’ve got, or what they’re bound to lose. We didn’t, so why should they be any different?

I don’t mind.  I dislike complainers and I don’t much like complaining myself. I do it sometimes just to wind them up. The truth is, I’ve had a good life, what I can remember of it anyway. Oh, I whine, I moan. I even fart aloud and snigger under my breath, watching as everyone backs away an inch or two. But that’s just the benefit of being old. That’s all part of the deal. I’m happy to embrace my role within the world. I’m now one of ‘those lot,’ the old buggers waiting for the bell to toll.

I come here most days. What I really mean is that they ‘allow’ me to come here most days. I won’t phrase it like that, though. Not today. Today I’m going be positive. Midsummer is the time to be optimistic. Today I’m going to be in a good mood. One of those where every breath you take tastes sweeter than the last. I feel it in the air, floating around hard against my cheeks. I suck it in and swallow it down, wincing at its cold freshness, revelling at the sensation as it slivers inside my throat, tingling and vaguely painful, until it reaches my lungs and quickens my innards. I may be old, but I am alive. My feet move with a virile laxity, bouncing upon the balls of my shoe soles. My free arm sways beside me, as if I were a gallant foot soldier in the King’s Army. My features warm up and twitch until they form a crude smile as I notice my bench sitting there obediently, unoccupied, waiting for my arrival: loyal and loving, my last companion.

Yes, that’s all very well, but, as I was saying, one must have the right sandwich. Forget the tea. Damn the tea. Dash the tea against the rocks. Nothing else matters if the sandwich is all wrong. I insist upon making it myself. The nurses object but I know they’re likely to relent if I just carry on without heeding them, throwing them defiant looks as if I were hinting at a hunger strike.

“Oh, that’s just Mr Waterton’s way. He’s like that. He prefers to make his own sandwiches.”

Yes, I do. They’d have a revolt on their hands otherwise.

These things have to be done properly. It’s a precise business we’re dealing with. Full-breasted white bread with thick springy crusts and a light layer of homemade jam, cut into triangular segments. That’s how I like it. It cannot be otherwise. It has to be thus. They know that now. I’ve told them several times.

You must hear me when I say this; what I meant by ‘homemade jam’ was most likely not what you envisaged. Yes, that’s right, I do not, in fact, cannot make my own jam. That is because they don’t allow me to make my own jam. Still, someone somewhere has to make the stuff before I buy it in the shop and so it is, at least in a fashion, homemade. That is what we old-timers call a fact.

Hear this too; you may have wondered, why I, of all people, omitted, or rather failed to mention butter. Ha! That’s where you’re wrong. I did not fail to mention any butter. The omission was nothing short of intentional. It was, and is, a simple and straightforward fact. One cannot apply butter to one’s sandwich without expecting the buttery-butterness of one’s butter to interfere with the delicate taste of one’s homemade jam. So, as you will observe, I had no intention of mentioning butter at all, and only mention it now as a way of declaring my strict aversion to the stuff. That is also a fact. A fact I have explained many a time to these nurses.

“Do they listen to you, Mr Waterton?” No, of course they don’t listen to me. Haven’t you been listening?

When I come to the park I like to bring a bit of light reading. Though, as you might imagine, I am as particular with this as I am with my sandwiches. When I say ‘light reading’ I don’t mean a three hundred page romance novel, written by some charlatan who has already written dozens of overpriced romance novels, each time with the intention of describing some vain theory surrounding their ideas of love, yet never quite managing it despite their numerous clumsy attempts.

No. I do not mean to say that I read romance novels.

Crosswords are all well and good, but I find them too engrossing. What I seek is mere distraction. A light dunk of one’s hand into the warm pond of escapism. A slight momentary sojourn, while glancing up at the wonders of these beautiful Rowntree surroundings of ours. I don’t seek full-bodied immersion. Only a brisk cleanse.

I used to bring the TV Times with me. I had to stop that after a while as the old buggers back at the nursing home didn’t have a clue what was on the television. Added to that, there’s nothing stranger than seeing an old foolish man sitting alone in the middle of the day on a park bench, reading the TV Times, half a mug of cold tea beside him and a crust of homemade jam dangling from the corner of his lips.

It pays to remain inconspicuous.

A good leaflet will usually do the trick. One or two pages long, soft, laminated pages and often a couple of pictures on the cover and in the central fold. The National Trust is a reliable source for good leaflets.

“Visit Hadrian’s Wall!”

“Come and see Tintagel.”

Anywhere will do.

I like sitting here with my sandwich and a good leaflet. I know it’s not much. I know I used to have more, a lot more. But I’m not bitter about it. I was once an architect. A half decent one too. Back then I dreamt of being special, hoping to build something that would outlast me and several other generations of Watertons. I dreamt of becoming infamous, creating a legend for myself.

In the end I never married and consequently never played my part in the whelping of children.  You forget things when you’re old. It’s not very nice, though it is inevitable. I forget why I never had a family, I suspect it had something to do with my grand ambitions. For a time, I wouldn’t let anything get in the way of my work. My dream was to be remembered by everyone, not just my own children.

Joseph played the right game. Oh yes, Mr Rowntree knew what he was doing. I should have followed his lead. No one will ever forget his name, and rightfully so. I suppose that’s one of the few benefits of having children. At least they will live to remember you even if no one else does. Sometimes they even remember the things you happen to forget. When you become old like me, you’ll be thankful for that; my memory is dreadful these days.

I chose another path to the family life. I wanted to make a name for myself, make people remember me for what I’d created. Like the chap who built the Sistine Chapel. He was a visionary, a true original. None of that romance novel fluff. I admit, I would have liked to have known what it felt like to hold my child in my arms and to look into its little blubbery face and recognise something of myself in the sparkle of its eyes. In life we exchange one blessing for another. Perhaps if I had the chance to do it all again I’d choose differently. Maybe I would choose to be a father and a grandfather. Would I have been happy? That’s not the way things are in this world. We cannot go back in time, only forward. I picked one route and you most likely picked another. The trick is to elect a road and to never look back. Forget all the other roads, have no memory of what could have been, and know only what is.

What’s that you say? “All roads lead to the same place.” Damn right they do. Damn shame too, if you care to ask me.

The real tragedy is that I never did build my Sistine Chapel and will, therefore, never be remembered when I die. Sadly, I wasn’t good enough, and no one had the decency to inform me while I was still young. What’s more, I didn’t really commit as one should to such an undertaking. I’d dilly dallied too much too many times. Distracted by this and that, her and they. Too much tarrying for any one man to achieve a thing like that. Never mind.

As I sat on my bench, contemplating thus, brooding thus, I looked up and saw a boy staring at me. He was no more than seven or eight, perhaps nine years old. I can’t remember. I’ve no talent for gauging a child’s age. After all, why should I? There’s no money in it.

The sulking young brute had been playing football. He was a poor excuse for an athlete, though I hadn’t the heart to tell him. His tip-toeing and ineffectual fondlings with that ball of his hadn’t detracted from the serenity of my experience and so I’d kept my mouth shut. But now he just stood and stared at me. The ball sat lifeless by his feet. His dwarfish arms by his sides, his eyebrows cross with me for some unfathomable reason, and his bottom lip poked out as if he were ready to howl like some sort of brat. Still he stared. Pouting evermore. The deeply solemn solemnity of his little glare instantly besieging my tranquil frame of mind, throwing it into disarray, forcing me to discard my National Trust leaflet and cry out in protest.

“Well, what’s it all about?” I cawed after him, his glare remaining as stubborn as his defiant stance.

“What do you want?” I screeched.

He didn’t move. I had half a mind to run up to him and kick his ball into oblivion. Had I been thirty years younger I might have done. Instead, he continued to stare, unabashed and without explanation. I left soon afterwards, parting from my loyal sanctuary and hobbling back to the ninnies and nurses.

I returned the next day and discovered my peaceful sanctum ambushed once again. I strode around the corner, my eyes eager to catch sight of my bench sitting expectantly, waiting to receive me. Yet, as I did, I was confronted by that same boy. This time he was standing on top of the bench, his ungainly feet muddying the varnish and his crude expression harrying me with each step.

“What is he playing at?” I asked myself, certain this was all part of some deviant ploy of his, an underhand attack upon a poor senior citizen. My first thought was to alert the authorities. If he wouldn’t listen to reason then perhaps they would. I hadn’t seen any official signage in the park, but I was damn sure standing on benches with muddied feet was not in the least bit permissible. I didn’t know what to do and so left with my jam sandwich and what looked like a particularly intriguing leaflet about Stonehenge.

The next day I arrived at the park early, determined to avail myself of that fiendish child. Why wasn’t the little creep in school? What was his game? I didn’t care, as long as I got my bench back. As long as I could sit in peace and enjoy the beauty of the trees and squirrels, I wouldn’t have cared a jot for that boy.

When I arrived he wasn’t there. I breathed a sigh, happy in solitude. I sat down triumphantly and enjoyed my morning. When leaving I noted an abandoned football, seated amidst the expertly trimmed grass and delicately mounted hyacinths, (the custodians of the park were nothing if not fastidious in their gardening duties).

The ball belonged to the boy.

“The youth of today!” I scoffed, thinking how little appreciation they showed for their own material possessions. In a moment of excitement I took up the ball and carried it home with me, believing that, in doing so, I would be teaching the young fellow a thing or two about values.

In the nursing home I dodged the peculiar expressions thrown at me by the nurses.

“I found it,” I told them, referring to the football. “There’s no foul play here, I assure you.”

As I bustled through the corridor heading towards my room, passing the quarters of my elderly peers, I observed a small figure seated at the end of the hall. Its legs dangled limply, barely reaching the ground. I approached, straining my eyes and perking my ears as a means of detecting who it was. I soon realised this person was sitting outside my room. My room? A guest? A visitor?

“Who is that?” I uttered, incredulously, still clinging to the football I’d commandeered at the park.

“Well, why would it be…” My feet alighted the carpet, carrying me ever closer to this small being who sat huddled in the chair, its small legs inches from the ground.

“No…” I mocked myself. “Of course it isn’t.”

It was. It was he. Have you guessed yet? It was the small child, seated in a hard-backed plastic and steel chair, positioned outside my room. He was in tears, floods of the stuff. His miniature chest heaving enigmatically with each bitter breath he took.

He’d spotted me.

“Sh-she-sh-she’s gone!” He expelled, struggling to verbalise his sorrow.

“Sh-sh-she’s gone…”

Still I approached.

Seeing the child, his football still in my grasp, I swiftly jettisoned it, throwing it through an open door, gifting the aged occupant with the spherical trinket.

“She’s dead!” He persisted, looking at me expectantly, as if I had some part to play in his tale.

“Who’s dead?” I asked him when I reached the door of my room.

“Grandad, she’s dead!” He cried out at me.


He looked up at me, tears stinging his little eyeballs. “She’s dead, granddad.” He repeated, addressing me with this unfamiliar title.

Taking illness for a summer’s eve walk, by Karen Green

There it goes, like gas,

misting along the river,

menacing random joggers

but not quite catching up,

as they spool along the banks

in twos and threes.

Old ladies with

wiry dogs on retractable leads

zig zag the bridle-path

beneath a flurry of honking geese,

flip-flapping on the heavy summer air.

It keeps reaching, searching

for that slim crevice

where it can insinuate itself

and lodge in for a night.

Or a life.

It follows the tired cyclist,

with swaying toddler in grey plastic seat;

over the Millennium Bridge they go

and down the path to

unsuspecting Selby.

“Who is?”

He pointed an indignant finger, attached to an indignant arm, nudging it through the doorway of my room, his eyes never leaving mine.

“Grandma is dead.” He bemoaned, evoking something within me.

I turned and saw several nurses all hustled inside my room. I saw my empty single bed, just as I’d left it with the quilt neatly folded and tucked in under the mattress. I stepped forward and was astonished to find another single bed that had not been there that morning, or at least not to my recollection. It stood inches from the mine and was occupied by a stiff, shrunken figure, whose skin had turned pale and transparent. The woman was unmoving and almost certainly dead.

“Who is she?” I asked them, though none answered me.

“Granddad?” The boy shouted.

“What…” My mouth lolling.

“She’s dead, Granddad.” The child came into the room and slid his tiny dwarf’s hand into mine, rubbing his face with the other.

Then I remembered.

“It’s Grandma.” The boy reminded me, just as he did every day.

Aqua, by Æsa Strand Viðarsdóttir

It’s still raining. Outside, a million raindrops rush towards the glistening streets at a suicidal pace, slashing the grey morning air into ribbons. People don’t walk, they hurry. Skitter like rats from one building to another, seeking shelter from the cold pretence of summer. The sun is a distant memory, a fairytale told in the dark lonely nights as rain tap-dances endlessly upon the roof. It’s true, we saw it, we witnessed it, the glory of sunshine, so very, very long ago. Days, months, years … it doesn’t matter. In the cold wet rain it’s all the same.

At the corner, balancing on cobbled steps, out of the river of rainwater flushing the sidewalk, there stands a woman. Her face and torso are obscured by a big blue umbrella but the bottom of her dress is bright red and on her feet are green wellingtons, big enough to fit her father. Maybe it isn’t a woman after all. She – or he – has been standing there a while, sometimes shifting, sometimes shuffling, as far as the narrow steps will allow. Finally a taxi swings up to the curb, its wipers dancing back and forth, surfing the waves washing the windscreen. She makes a dash for it, splashing through an ocean of puddles, exposing herself briefly to the brutal onslaught from above as the umbrella is lowered and folded, then quickly jerked into the cab. The door closes, the taxi jumps forward, and, within seconds, it vanishes behind a curtain of downpour.

A small bird appears out of the grey nowhere and lands on the ledge outside my window. It shakes water off its back then ruffles its feathers into a fluffy ball of speckled brown. It closes its eyes, head burrowed into a downy pillow of its own making, and sleeps, patiently waiting for autumn to call it home to warmer regions.

The big oak tree across the street must be contemplating migration as well. Its leaves, burdened by the weight of water, offer no shelter anymore; the cigarette stubs littering the surrounding ground are sinking, soggy, into the wet earth. The roots must be itching to rip out of the concrete and crawl their way out of this depressing city and to a more quiet place, the kind told of in stories. A green park, with a pond playing home to lazy ducks and bad tempered swans. A red kite tangled in its limbs, a family of squirrels playing peek-a-boo among its leaves. And a girl, her back resting against the trunk, a book in her hands that curious birds can read discreetly over her shoulder, catching a glimpse of humans’ strange world of imagination.

Leaning against the bus stop, a blue bicycle, left there weeks ago by a drunken boy who has long since stopped looking for it, is rusting quietly in the rain. Surely it, too, dreams of brighter days. Of strong fingers gripping its handlebars, feet pedalling faster, faster, as it flew at neck-breaking speed along the streets in the warm breeze of last summer.

The last summer, or so it feels like. Maybe it was. Maybe this is the beginning of the end. The apocalypse, the cleansing of the Earth. Another flood sent to punish a few sinners along with the masses of innocents. All is fair in love and religion.

The shuffling sound of bare feet bursts my bubble of silence. He comes up behind me, his palms a warm shock to the cold skin on my stomach. They cover me like water, the heat spreading sluggishly to my limbs through half-frozen veins. His chest to my back, his chin on my shoulder. His soft front settling against the dip of my spine.

“It’s still raining,” he says.

I lean back and close my eyes. If I listen carefully I can hear the sun bouncing on the grey clouds, far above, fighting to break through. Like a girl in a bright yellow dress jumping on a dirty trampoline.

“Breakfast?” he asks.

I hum in agreement, and he turns me around, pushing me gently along, away from the grey, the wet and the depressing, and into the warm, cocooning smell of coffee and burnt toast.

Outside the rain keeps falling.

The importance of ice cream, by Ben Warden

It’s 26 degrees. Sat out in the park. I’m sticky, despite the loose dress and sun hat I found in the sale. There is a breeze that drifts off the pond and I can’t complain about the weather, not really. We’ve been waiting for it to turn nice for months. I’m trying to concentrate on my book; a gruesome murder mystery with a gruff detective, who I imagine looks like my nephew. Maybe because he’s sarcastic and awkward around women.

My skin prickles. It seems to be getting warmer. Jim sits next to me. Twenty-seven years we’ve been married. He’s making that throat clearing noise that makes my skin crawl and shuffling his Sunday paper. There’s a wave of sadness with the heat, and I realise that it’s not the sun that’s making me sticky. As if 26 degrees wasn’t enough, it seems I’m having another one of my ‘personal summers’. I rest my book on the arm of the bench. The sun flares at the edge of my glasses and I take my hat off to fan myself. I have a desperate desire to take all my clothes off, but I imagine the park authorities would have something to say about that. Not to mention the fact that it would give several people quite a scare. I smile to myself and keep flapping the hat; left to right, right to left.

By the gates there are four girls. Two around nine-years-old and two about five. The older ones are asking the younger ones to hold hands. I can hear them saying that the road is dangerous and Carol wanted them to hold hands. The younger ones are being awkward, as younger ones can be. I can’t help but smile at them. If we were closer, I’d be asking the little ones what’s wrong and winking at the older girls to let them know that they’re doing a great job. It’s nice to see children taking responsibility. Ever since the London riots, Jim has ranted about how kids know their rights but not their responsibilities. I think he’s got a point, but it gets old when he’s holding court over dinner for the third time that week.

I like the buzz in the park. There’s the coo of pigeons, honk of geese; there’s the echoed chatter of strangers and background purr of water. It’s a restful buzz. One that doesn’t interfere, but let’s you know there’s life everywhere. Jim puts his hand on my leg and I brush it away because I’m warm enough already.


My head swivels, an instinct caused by a child’s cry. It freezes me for a mere moment, like it used to. Across the park I see them. He’s maybe three. He’s fallen just a foot or two and there’s shock on his face, mixed with expectation. He won’t react until his Mum looks at him. Then he’ll read her face and cry, or laugh. It all depends on her.

‘Don’t you miss that, Jim?’

‘What, love?’

‘There’s a little boy over there. He wouldn’t have cried if she hadn’t pulled that face at him. Do you remember when ours used to look at us like that?’

‘Uh huh,’ he mumbles over the broadsheet.

‘I do miss it. It’s odd now Mel’s left.’

‘It’s quiet.’

‘Not just quiet, it’s still. It’s quiet here, but it’s not still.’

I look out across the lake and soak in all the bustle. Twenty-three years of having kids at home; all that energy gone in an instant.

‘It’s just funny to adjust.’

‘She’ll be back,’ he says, without raising his head.

‘I know, I know.’

I’m mostly trying to convince myself. I think she’s going to travel over the summer break, which would mean not seeing her until Christmas. I’ll miss her if she does, but it’s what I would have done at her age.

The heat is subsiding now, but I can still feel my cheeks burning. I think about getting a drink, or an ice-cream. The last time I had an ice-cream I was sat on the Wolds with Jim, Mel, Andy and Sarah. I can’t remember if it was three or four years ago, it might have been longer.

‘When did we come here last?’ I ask.

‘I dunno.’

‘I think it might have been with the kids, when they were little. Maybe fifteen years. That’s mad. It’s funny how things change.’


‘I just mean—look at these Mums! Nurturing their kids, looking after each other, bringing life into the world. Endless energy. I just don’t have that anymore.’

I’m trying to find a way to explain it, but it’s not coming. I look around for inspiration.

‘It’s like the flowers, isn’t it? Everyone has their season. I suppose I have to realise that’s not who we are anymore.’

I take a breath. I can feel the anxiety, but my clammy skin reminds me it’s just a dip. I should probably get that drink, or that ice-cream.

‘Listen to me wittering on. ‘It’s like the flowers!’

I try to brush it off, but I can’t.

‘I mean they still need us. They ring and come home, but you become a support rather than—I don’t know. We’re not flowers now, we’re like bridges.’

I turn to him and he looks up from his paper.

‘What, love?’

He hasn’t listened to a word.

‘What are you on about? Bridges?’ He says, filling my silence.

‘Oh, Jim. I’m having a conversation with you!’

‘I’m reading.’

It’s then that the tears come. Just one or two. They’re not really mine, but it feels overwhelming.

‘Oh, Annie. You daft old bat. I’m sorry.’ He shoves the paper aside and looks straight at me. There’s a twinkle there. One that comes less often, but has never gone. ‘What is the matter with you at the moment?’

‘I’m sorry. It’s just this stupid change. I’m red hot and I can’t stop thinking about-‘

‘Come here,’ he says, giving me a hug. ‘Why don’t we get an ice-cream? When did we do that last, hey?’

I can’t help but smile at him.

‘I reckon it was probably sat on the Wolds with the kids. Gosh, that was a while ago.’

Words from a bench April 2014

The original idea for ‘Words from a Bench’ came from Iceland, a country with an intense interest and love for literature. In the capital, Reykjavik, a literary trail takes in local landmarks and offers poems through QR codes on city benches (and they love their parks too). We thought this was a great idea, and so our own writing project was created.

We’re thrilled that the April 2014 issue of ‘Words from a bench’ has pieces from both our local writers and a group of writers from Reykjavik, and we were delighted when Ásdís, one of the Icelandic authors, dropped by recently to see the QR codes on the Rowntree Park benches. The University of Iceland will also be giving our poems and prose an airing on some of their benches!

We hope that you enjoy a selection of the pieces, themed under ‘Spring Fever’.

How do you do? by Inga M Beck

Please join me. Sit. Enjoy your day.

I am glad you have come this way.

I hope you know what it means to me: your simple presence, your mere existence.

The world.

Who am I? I am an unknown face, a forgotten soul, a single grain in a beautiful field, a drop of rain, a ray of sunshine… I get lost in the masses, but I am always there.
Do not forget: your beautiful smile can be that curvy pink line between life and death.

There is no medicine stronger and more powerful for the heart than an unexpected kindness.

A smile on the road or a ‘How do you do?’ on a park bench can turn a dark winter to sunny spring.

This power rests on your lips.

And this?

This is my smile to you.

Summer’s prologue by Karen Green

When warm sweet showers of April do us soak

The drought of March is pierc’ed to its root,

And sounds of birth will echo small frog croak

As ink nights visit with their tawny hoot.

A ball of gold begins to splash the blue

And bathes dry leaf veins in her tepid tears.

Take comfort at the lack of wintry dew

And keenly throw off all ungodly fears.

The breath of spring is fast upon the earth

As tender crops unfold their bounteous caul.

No more to gather at the fireside hearth

In fields we’ll frolic now until leaf fall.

Above a swathe of wings makes melody

A ceiling to our labours on the land.

To till and plough the future’s remedy

Fits firm within the toil of brow and hand.

Do these small birds dream through the night, eyes shut?

In Chaucer’s time they slept with open lids.

Remain awake to keep outside the rut

For spring is come and we ought do her bid.

Spring fever by Lóa H Hjálmtýsdóttir

There’s an illness that runs in my family. It’s on my mother’s side and only affects the women. We’re not exactly sure if it’s a disease or a family curse but every year a few of us will get very sick. When winter packs its bags and spring arrives and refuses to go to sleep, some of us will fall madly and deeply in love with a random guy. They don’t have to be handsome, we don’t have to be available. A few of us act on it but the older women are better at dealing with this. It’s not very practical to ruin your life every spring.

A Walk in the Park by Kate Lock

The blue tits lured me
Further than I meant to walk
Following their dipping flight
And gossipy twitter
Through the spindly branches in the park.
Amid the wails of babes
And exhortations of tennis-court mums,
The whimpering of pups
And the roar of the park-keeper’s ride-on mower,
Beyond the clatter of kids on scooters,
The raucous crows
And squealing girls on swings,
A voice spoke. It said:
Here I put on a play about Alice.
Here I organised a regatta of junk boats made from egg boxes.
Here I planted trees, and here, bulbs.
Here I made a maze of children’s footprints.
Here I painted a wall with blue butterflies
And goggle-eyed frogs.
Here I hunted minibeasts and
Wanged wellies and
Held a May Day dance with
Morris dancers
And hid fairies in blossom-laden boughs for children to find.
Here I played the trombone in a booming brass band
And here was where we had
Bat hunting and fire juggling –
Yes, fire juggling! –
On one marvellous hot August night.
Here there was
Samba drumming,
Den-building and
A cello, playing
Peter and the Wolf
In the breezy pavilion.
Here is the path and the bridge
And the pond we put in,
And the mosaic map we all helped to create
Of the park we love.
Here is the Green Flag
Still earned annually
That we helped to hoist,
And the chessboard horse
We helped commission
When there was money.
And even if the pavilion with its
Painted bugs and bright handprints
Has been drowned too many times to save
And the bowlers have all gone
And the beech hedge is shabby
The children still skip and skate
And the blue tits bob
And there is cappuccino and a little library now and the cakes
Are homemade.
The geese still honk and crap too
But I found a snake’s head fritillary on this unexpected morning
Hiding its chequered head in the wild wood.
And I remember when we planted those rare flowers.
So it’s all good.

A Second Spring by Æsa Strand Viðarsdóttir

“And look!” he continues, pulling me along the gravel path. “See? The bench we used to sit on. Remember? In the shade. Because the sun burns your skin so easily.”

I nod, even if I don’t really remember. It feels familiar though, the whole park does, but in the way that everything feels like it’s on repeat; if not experienced in person, then from photographs or films. My body might recognise the bench as I sit down, but whether it is this particular one it remembers or just the shape of so many other benches used through its lifetime, I can’t tell. The fresh spring air is equally familiar, with the dull aching smell of winter just gone, and summer’s ripe sweetness waiting in the wings.  An echo of other springs I know I’ve lived, even if they’re forgotten.

He holds onto my hand, turning it over so that he can stroke the palm with his thumb. It tickles but I keep still, indulging him with a smile when he looks up, oh so hopeful. His eyes are grey with a touch of light blue, like the sky in the early morning before the sun has had time to bring all the colours to the surface. If he smiled, there would be crow’s feet by those eyes. I can tell by the shallow scratches in the pale skin that are still visible even now when he is so serious. He tells me he is thirty-five, but in this moment he looks so much younger. I, on the other hand, feel very old, despite my life having just started.

“You always joked about having a short lifeline,” he says with a hollow laugh. I have a feeling he used to laugh very differently, out loud and bright, with twinkling eyes and his face split by two rows of shiny white teeth. “Maybe this is what it meant. Not an early end but a late new beginning.”

“Maybe.” I look down at my hand, slack in his hand, his fingers slightly curled around my fingers. I wonder which line he is referring to.

“Can’t we just …” He sighs and looks away, his thumb still stroking my palm in tiny circles, round and round. The move seems practiced, a habit borne of days spent like this, holding hands in the sun while sharing thoughts I can no longer recall. “Can’t we just do that?” he finally continues. “Start over? Make our own new beginning?”

“I don’t even know you,” I remind him gently.

“But you will,” he insists. “We fell in love once. We will do it again. Just give it time.”

I look at him. He is handsome. And sweet. And so very patient. And I am …

Well, I don’t know. Pretty enough, I guess, until you notice the knotted line that runs along my scalp like a red snake.  I am shorter than I expected to be the first time I looked in the mirror. Thinner, as well. Bottom line, all I know about myself is what I see. What lies beneath the surface, trapped inside this skin, these bones, this confused heart and this broken head? What is my character? Who am I, not only to other people, but to me? And how can I love another person if I don’t know the person I am?

I have no other family. That is what they tell me. My parents died when I was very young. There was just me left; me and my grandmother. She is gone now, too. Sometimes I think I can feel a small hand in mine, like a ghost child walking beside me. Maybe I used to have a little brother or sister. Maybe I just helped a lost child find their way home. Maybe the child is me. I don’t know. I just know that if I leave him, I will be on my own. Still …

“I need to figure out who I am,” I tell him. “I don’t think I can do that with you.”

“Why not?” he asks. His thumb has gone still, his grip on my hand tight.

“Because you want me to see who I was,” I explain. “And I want to see who I am. To be able to do that I need a mirror, not a photograph.”

He lets go of me and pulls his hand to his lap. Angry. Hurt. “You say that like you’re two different people. They’re both you.”

I close my eyes for a second and breathe. When I open them again he is sitting hunched forward, elbows on knees, wringing his hands. I can feel him trembling, small shudders of laboured breath that play his tense body like a cello. His eyes are fixed on the ground.

“No,” I say, keeping my voice calm and gentle. After all, none of this is his fault. “One is your version of me. An imprint of who I was before. A memory of me as an adult; when really, I have just been born. We might bear the same genes, but I wasn’t moulded by that person’s experiences. And I never will be.”

He straightens up and turns to me, a frantic look in his eyes. “You don’t know –” he starts and I cut in.

“I have no idea who I will become. Or who I will love.” I pause, not wanting to be cruel, but he keeps gazing at me, waiting, hoping, and I realise there is no other way. “It might be you,” I say, “but it might just as well be someone else.”

He recoils, his eyes wrenching away from mine. He opens his mouth then closes it again, swallowing repeatedly. “This was supposed to be our summer,” he says finally, voice hoarse, and stands up. I watch him walk away, head bowed, hands thrust deep in his pockets.

I remain sitting, heart pounding with terror, excitement firing up my veins. This is it. I am on my own. I feel sorry for him, I do, but he is not my responsibility. Only I am. Maybe this was supposed to be our summer but now it is my spring.

Words from the bench February 2014

Dial S for Sunshine, by Adrian P Fayter

January isn’t exactly the greatest time of year for those of us who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  But one good thing about my job is being able to leave the office while there’s still a bit of lacklustre daylight on offer, and, assuming I can cut my house calls short, there’s a chance I can skive off and make a couple of circuits of the duck pond, smoke half a Gauloise and stave off my next panic attack for another twenty four hours.  SAD, by the way, in the unlikely case you haven’t heard of it, is not about being afraid of the dark.  It’s a condition where lack of serotonin causes psychological crises, or, to be more accurate, exacerbates any psychological crises which are already taking place.  It’s the reason there are more suicides per person in Tromsø and Upernavik than anywhere else on the globe.  And the reason why the suicide rate goes up in winter in almost every British city north of Milton Keynes.

Although this particular death could never, ever have been imagined to be suicide.

It was a Tuesday lunchtime and the park was deserted.  No surprise, really, since the sun, even at its very highest, was making no impact on the temperature, nor on the thick frost underfoot. Collar up and head down, I trudged past the beds of hard-pruned rose stumps, then took a shortcut through the topiary where the kids play hide-and-seek in summer.  I took a sharp right at the redbrick public conveniences and walked straight into a teenaged police constable and his thin yellow line of crime-scene tape. I dropped my half-smoked cigarette and stood on it. Twenty yards beyond, between the weeping willows at the pond’s edge, I could see one of those little police tents they use to protect the evidence from the weather, or from prying eyes.  There were a couple of flashy cars parked nearby, too.

‘Good afternoon, sir,’ said the officer.  ‘If you’d like to come this way, DI Wodehouse is waiting for you.’

I stared at him for a couple of seconds and then obediently followed him towards the tent.  Paul Wodehouse is an acquaintance – friend is too strong a word – from a long way back, but why did he want to see me, and how did he know I was in the park in the first place?   More to the point, how much time would this take?  I was freezing and I needed to get back into my car and turn up the heating.  Still, I thought it might be interesting to find out what had been going on here.

Paul was standing by the tent flaps with a slightly green look about his jowls. His expression was not improved by my appearance.

‘Larry?  What the hell?’ Then he turned to the young policeman.  ‘O’Brien, you really have surpassed yourself this time!  This is not Dr Cambridge, this is Larry Di Palma of the Benefits Agency Fraud Department.  He may be a skilled investigator, but he has no medical training of any sort whatsoever.  And if you ever, ever aspire to become a detective yourself, you should learn at least to verify the identity of people you allow onto the scene of the crime!’

PC O’Brien started to apologise, but Paul took me by the arm and led me back the way I had come.  ‘He thought you were the pathologist,’ he explained.  ‘You’re the same height and build. You’re wearing the same coat.  You’ve got the same bald patch and the same depressed expression. Come on, let’s get out before you end up contaminating the crime scene.  And you can give me one of your disgusting French fags while we’re about it, too.’

I stepped back over the tape and said, ‘After all the grief you’ve given everyone…  All the lectures, the sermons, the smug attitude…  and you’re smoking again?’

He stretched out his hand to me.  ‘I am now.’

I looked at him and the penny dropped.  ‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘Pathologist?  He thought I was the pathologist?   This is a murder, then, isn’t it?’

‘Bingo,’ said Detective Inspector Wodehouse, inhaling deeply.  ‘Took you long enough to work that one out.’


We chewed the fat for a bit while Paul smoked and rubbed his eyes, scratched his head and generally looked distracted.  I told him about my crush on the new girl at work and he told me about his new flat, car, promotion and pay rise.  I was all set to go off and warm up when PC O’Brien reappeared with a SOCO in paper overalls who had a little plastic bag of evidence in her hand.  O’Brien jumpily apologised for the interruption and explained what was going through his mind.

‘You see, sir, you said this gentleman was from the Benefits Agency.  And in the bag, this is an ES40 booklet, a benefit claim for someone seeking work. So I thought-’

‘This is the murder victim’s dole card?’ Paul snatched the bag and looked closely through the clear plastic.  ‘But there’s no name!  The name’s been washed off!’  Paul swore and stamped his foot like a child.  ‘First we find his wallet’s gone and it looks like there’s no ID at all.  Now we find something that should be worthwhile, but six hours in a duck pond has ruined it. All right, get it to the forensic graphologist straight away, will you?  There may be some indentations left where the ink has washed away.  Although I’m not holding out any hope…’

‘Let me have a look,’ I said, and, as I examined the document, I couldn’t help smiling.  ‘The date is still just about visible,’ I told them.  ‘You can make out the date that shows the first time he should come in to sign on.’

‘Yeah?  And how does that help?’

‘We just need to look at a calendar.’ I pulled out my pocket diary, the one where I note down all my home visits in case the boss wants to see what I’ve been doing all day. ‘This was a Thursday.  So he’s been signing on every fortnight since then.’

‘So what?’

‘Well, we just work out the actual day he’s next due to come into the Jobcentre to sign on.  It’s either this week or next week.  And then anyone who fails to sign…  Anyone who doesn’t turn up on the right day…  That could be the identity of your victim.’

‘Larry, you genius, we’ve got him!’

‘Well, bear in mind that on any particular day, between five and fifteen claimants usually fail to sign.  Late, ill, forgot…  Sometimes they’ve even got a job.  But it does narrow it down a bit, you have to admit.  See this stamp here?  It is definitely our local Jobcentre.  He’s one of ours.  Was one of ours…’

A thin man in a coat just like mine was walking quickly along the path by the topiary.  ‘Is this really a murder?’  I asked Paul.  ‘How did he die?’  Wodehouse nodded towards the approaching newcomer, and told me that Dr Cambridge would give a professional opinion.  ‘Although,’ Paul added quietly, ‘I don’t think our pathologist will contradict me if I say that the victim spent several hours under water, where he was thrown after having been impaled on the spike of a small sundial.’

I winced.  ‘Any jokes about time of death being particularly unwelcome.’

‘Of course, idiot.  Sundials don’t work at night.’


And so, two days later, instead of my usual round of home visits and phone calls to local businesses, instead of catching up with all the referral forms from the national fraud hotline, and instead of doing a performance review with our attractive new trainee investigator…  Well, you get the picture. Instead of all that I spent the day showing Detective Constable Milligan what happens on signing day down at the Jobcentre.  To make it more fun, I told the clerks he was a Quality Award Assessor from London, so they were all on their best behaviour, hoping they might get National Employee of the Month and win a high street shopping voucher.  We weren’t short of offers of tea and coffee all day, that was for sure.

But in the event, it was all very quiet.  Uncharacteristically quiet.  No-one turned up drunk or stoned for once; no-one’s money had been stopped in error; no-one came in and found their ex-husband in front of them in the queue.  None of the clerks lost their tempers, and there wasn’t even the usual mix-up over the three different individuals who all choose to sign on under the name Elvis Presley.  It was the sort of day that could give a casual observer totally the wrong impression of how it is to be a public sector employee in twenty-first century Britain.  There were only two little problems all day long:  firstly, only three failures to sign, all of them female, and therefore no help in identifying the unknown corpse from the park.  Secondly, Mr Mark Halliday, who came in three hours late, just as we were closing. He had mislaid all his paperwork, which meant he had no evidence of applying for any jobs in the last two weeks.  Strictly speaking, we could suspend his payments for this, but I’d been enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, so I asked the clerk if I could speak to him instead.

‘Hello, Mr Halliday.’ I gave him a cheery smile.  ‘Just need to get your record on screen. I don’t suppose you know your National Insurance Number, do you?’

‘Yeah.  I do, actually.’

I typed in the letters and numbers and leaned back in the chair.  ‘You’re looking well.  Nice colour in your cheeks for such a cold day.  Quite a suntan, really.’

DC Milligan gave me an odd look, but I suppose the police don’t often trouble with the niceties of conversation in this way.  They probably don’t have to pay as much attention to their Customer Care Charter as we do.

Mr Halliday gave an embarrassed cough.  ‘There was a discount at the tanning salon,’ he explained.  ‘Twenty per cent off for OAPs and the unemployed.’

‘Ah.  Good value.  Now, perhaps I should issue you with a new Jobseekers Folder and signing-on booklet.’

‘It’s all probably at home somewhere, but maybe it’s best-’

‘Of course.  After all, it says on-screen that last fortnight you forgot your Folder.  And the time before that, too.’

‘Oh.  Well-’

‘We wouldn’t want you risking having your payments stopped, Mr Halliday.  And we wouldn’t want you to miss out on more discount suntans by not being able to prove you are unemployed.’

‘That’s, er, very thoughtful.’

‘If you would just like to wait a few minutes, while I sort things out with my colleague here?’

I looked across the office and checked that Jean had put up the ‘closed’ sign and locked the doors.  Then I took DC Milligan into one of the private interview rooms at the back.  ‘Well,’ I asked him, ‘what do you think?  Does Mark Halliday look like a murderer to you?’


 Of course, he wasn’t the murderer – it could never have been that easy – and I was being  facetious to suggest it.  But Halliday was the first, indeed the only link to the dead man, and once that connection had been made, the murder investigation could begin in earnest.  The police could really start to address the question of who killed Colin Antony Swann.

Now, I’ll be modest and say that I’m sure the police would have identified the body eventually, one way or another.  I’m not claiming my input did anything more than speed up the case a tiny bit.  Although Paul Wodehouse was nice enough to disagree with me about this.  He was clearly pleased because he started slapping me on the back and calling me his ‘dole queue expert witness.’

‘Colin Swann was a loner,’ he told me over a late-afternoon pint in the Dark Horse pub.  ‘Lived on his own, survived on casual agency work, had lost contact with his family.  Didn’t know any of his neighbours except for Mark Halliday, two floors down the block. Think about it:  it’s hard enough tracing missing people who are still alive.  Dead bodies have to be claimed by someone.’

‘Really?  So unless Halliday had been prepared to come forward unprompted to say that his neighbour had gone missing..?’

‘Exactly.  Who knows how long it would have taken?’ Paul sighed and took a pull at the last of his pint.  ‘In the old days, someone would have noticed the banana yoghurts building up on his doorstep or something, but no-one has a milkman now.’

‘It must have been easier being a cop back then.’

Wodehouse gave me a scowl.  ‘I’m not saying you didn’t get lucky, mind.  I mean, what sort of evidence did you have?  Someone comes in to sign on with a suntan and you immediately assume he’s been off on a month’s holiday without permission?  You must be suspicious beggars down at the Jobcentre.’

‘We are.  It’s in the training.  Come in sometime and see what happens when a clerk notices someone with paint on his hands or brick dust in his hair.  Especially if there’s some new building work going on nearby.’

‘You’re kidding!  If we pulled people in on that sort of basis we’d be sued for harassment.’

‘Anyway,’ I continued, ‘it wasn’t just the suntan, was it?  He’d lost all his paperwork. His job application record and his signing on booklet.  There were no fail-to-signs of any use on the day.  That’s unusual, and a lucky coincidence, but he was the only male with a missing booklet.

I pushed aside my own empty pint glass and continued.  ‘The computer notes for the previous two fortnights showed he had brought in nothing to prove that he was looking for work.  It’s easy to give your mate your booklet and get him to go in and sign a slip in your place, but anything more than that is pushing your luck.  Colin wouldn’t be confident carrying through the act while being questioned about a lot of job adverts or about what was on Halliday’s CV.  And he was hardly going to apply for any jobs on his behalf while the guy was sunning himself on the beach in Tunisia.’

‘Poor sod.  His only friend in the world is a guy who goes off for a lovely holiday in the sunshine, and persuades him to tramp down to the Jobcentre in the freezing cold, so that the money keeps on coming through.  With friends like that, who needs enemies?’

‘Enemies…  How long d’you reckon, Paul, before you get the answer to the most important question in all this?’

DI Paul Wodehouse finished his pint and began to put on his coat.  ‘Who knows, Larry?  Who knows?  Halliday may know nothing of any help at all.  Colin Swann could have been killed by a bunch of junkies trying to mug him for drug money, or a bunch of thugs who did it for kicks.  Or this could be the start of something much, much bigger.  Who can tell?  The only certainty is that he didn’t kill himself.  Dr Cambridge made it clear that you couldn’t walk to the water’s edge with a stab wound like that.’

‘I imagine they’ll get rid of the sundial now.  Health and Safety…  You don’t want any copycat crimes on your patch, do you?’

‘Catch up with me in a month or two and I’ll let you know how it’s going,’ Paul offered, which was surprisingly generous of him. As long as you promise to keep it to yourself.  I’m prejudicing the investigation just by talking to you about it, really.’

‘I’m the soul of discretion!’ I protested.

‘Maybe.  But I know you, Larry.  You’ll be having a smoke in the park with your new trainee investigator, and she’ll say, “Didn’t there used to be a sundial over there?” and you’ll want to impress her, so you’ll say, “Let’s sit on this bench and I can tell you a story about it.”’

‘I don’t know if I can wait a month or two,’ I said, joking but half serious, too.  ‘I don’t think I can stand the suspense.’ But DI Wodehouse was already at the pub door, on his way to see other witnesses, whether ‘expert’ or otherwise.  What new clues and answers were to be discovered, only time would tell.  But not for the first time, I could take satisfaction in my small contribution towards solving a serious crime.  It felt almost as good as a half hour walk in the sunshine.

Conjuring with ghosts, by Martyn Clayton

Listen. Can you hear it ? It’s low and hidden but it’s there. Stand still for a moment. No, not the silent poetic sound of the leaves falling somewhere in the back of your mind. Ignore the voices of the children in the playground and the postcard chuckle of the ducks. The birdsong’s nice but it won’t offer any answers. The distant buzz of the city beyond is something you should try to forget. Bore down further still.

There. You hear it now? It’s low and barely audible and if you tried to tell people about it they’d probably think you mad. They might be right. If you remember rightly it was a day like today when you witnessed the fall. He had a face as sad and long as an Easter Island statue. He wore a heavy coat and a tweed cap from beneath which looked like a pair of Armistice eyes. Nothing special about him. The world’s full of sad old men isn’t it?  He was standing looking confused and a little lost. Welcome to the club my friend.

No, but he really was and that was the thing. You wondered if he needed help. You saw his step was unsteady as he walked down through the middle of the naked rose beds towards the fountain, then seemed to hesitate, then turn, then look to the sky.  It was obvious he wasn’t quite right, but what do you do ?

Here in the fabled North we should surely know the answer. Where we talk to strangers, and milkmen (if they still existed) would whistle as they dropped off your silver top. Busty bustling women make earthy jokes in the company of handsome young men, scruffy kids are full of precocious wisdom, the clatter of trolley buses, clogs on cobbles, heart warming stories of endless  smiles in the face of adversity with two lovely black eyes for your trouble, the confused elderly never left to suffer alone like the lonely commercial travellers on The Great North Road.

Except sometimes they are. Or at least he was.

His legs buckled, his whole body swayed and, before you knew it, he was in a crumpled mass on the concrete. There was no one else here. Not that you could see. Maybe there were one or two taking tea, or more likely lattes, in the café. Perhaps people with fat arthritic dogs were skirting the boundaries, but there was no one here in the orbit of this fallen man. Except you.

You stood frozen some metres away staring at him, eyes invariably transfixed, confusion obviously growing. Aren’t times like this meant to produce clarity? Isn’t that what the ordinary heroes say on early evening TV when they’re being applauded by presenters with regional faces. You’re meant to shrug and say ‘I only did what anyone would have done’ as the drowning boy and his mum look up at you adoringly from the lime green sofa. But it’s not true.

It’s not what everyone would do is it?

The question before us now is when did his heart stop beating? If we’re being honest, it’s the question that won’t leave us alone. Was it immediately? Perhaps when he hit the deck, or maybe he only fell because he had already given up the ghost. Ghost. Now there’s a word to conjure with. There’s that noise again. Did you hear it?

The thought that’s brought you here is the possibility that he was still alive when you decided to calmly walk away.  Over the bridge across the pond, up the steps, beyond the gates and into the streets. It’s hard to remember what you thought as you found a window seat on an earlier than planned train home. You thought about him there and knew it wouldn’t be long before someone found him. It just wasn’t going to be you.

Funerals always bring out the kindest words. ‘So glad you came,’ they said. ‘It was a tragedy what happened between you. He wanted to make amends,’ they said. ‘Changed man he was. He was going to get in touch and arrange for you to meet up,’ they said. ‘All he talked about was how proud of you he was, how sorry he was for walking out on you and all those years he lost to the drink.’ All those friends with jaundiced faces set with heavy sentimental eyes, camaraderie born from the bottom of the bottle and the shared self-reproach of  the AA meeting; another funeral fixture to tick off in the programme. ‘Terrible what it does to you,’ said his brother. ‘Tragic that it ended like it did.’ To Be A Pilgrim. Jerusalem. I Vow To Thee My Country.  But what exactly did you vow?

‘He was going to feed the ducks,’ they said. ‘Did it every day. He’d step out of his flat on the other side of the river, cross the bridge, find a bench and throw stale clumps of white Aldi bread in the direction of the pond. He’d built these little routines and finally found some peace,’ they said. ‘Honestly, he wanted to see you. He wanted to put things right.’

You put the word ‘flaneur’ (or it could be flaneuse) on your Twitter Bio because you like walking alone in parks and sometimes take photographs of shadows. There are no shadows today because it’s January grey (battleship surely?) and the sun can’t get through.

He’s not here now. The spot where he fell isn’t marked. There’s no blue plaque or commemorative bench. There’re just the voices of the children in the playground and the postcard chuckle of the ducks. The birdsong’s nice and the buzz of the distant city is difficult to forget. Then there’s that noise; it’s low and barely audible. Listen. Can you hear it ?

Four Years Old, by Lucy Marsh

“Look!” he says, hopping

from foot to foot like the bird

who left secret footprints

in the snow last night.

Frozen spider webs

strung with pearls of frost,

twinkle in the sunlight.

He crunches in green wellies

and falls onto his back,

starfish limbs making snow bats.

Twirling flakes melt on his dark lashes

and he giggles, his smile as wide

as his powdery wings.

The world is white, untrodden.

Remember, by Laura Munteanu

The gardener trims the weeds

from the winding paths

behind the ornamental gates

raised by men they called cowards.


The green space full of

trees and planted flowers,

the mirror pond reflecting

the bright blue sky, full

of passenger planes

flying east and west.

Should this green grass be

dug for trenches,

the dovecote repurposed

with sniper holes,

the rockery bed sawn

with mines and barbed wire,

the flowerbeds wrecked with an

artillery bombard twice a day,

the air poisoned with mustard gas?

Would we remember better

these benches, empty for

old soldiers to warm their

stiffening bones in a waking

wonder world of gentle peace?

Wikipedia says that

thirty seven million people died,

soldiers and civilians.

This park was made so that

we remember that,

which is too easy to forget.


The gardener trims the weeds

from the winding paths

behind the ornamental gates

raised by men they called cowards.

Whose war was fought harder?

The fight not to fight

is the fight worth winning!

There aren’t enough flowers in winter, by Christopher Brunt

I particularly like the big leaves. It doesn’t matter what colour they are. Red, yellow, green, I even like the grey ones. I always try to find the biggest ones, not those tiny little shrivelled things that barely weigh anything when you hold them in your hand. You can tell if it’s the type you’re looking for by the way they fall through the air and land on the ground. You see them when they’re still attached, one minute wafting in the wind, then all of a sudden they let go and begin to glide away from their branch. They spread themselves out at full length, like they’ve got wings to stop them from falling at full speed. That way they don’t fall at all, not at first anyway; instead they float like feathers.

I’ve noticed that. For them, the fun isn’t when they hit the ground or when they’re stuck up in the trees. Their favourite part is when they begin to glide through the air. They like to savour the moment and enjoy it for as long as they can, swaying from side to side, gently bouncing between invisible clouds, lying flat on their bellies, wide and strong. When it’s windy it can take up to a minute for them to land while they’re tossed from one tree to another, like pole-vaulters. Just when you think they’re ready to land, another gust pushes them up and shoots them into the sky, giving them one more ride. Finally, gravity defeats them and they hit the ground. Everyone has to hit the ground eventually.

In winter when all the leaves abandon their branches, I gather up the biggest ones and the trees just stand there naked against the breeze, waiting for spring to come. You’d think they need their leaves the most when it gets cold, like a warm jumper, but they don’t seem to mind as much as we do. I ignore the smaller ones, those that look like dead spiders that have curled their legs up into a ball. I only take the strongest and the smoothest, those with a bit of life left in their veins.

When the leaves land they die and begin to shrivel while their moisture evaporates from their veins. It happens in the same way as it does with people, only a lot quicker. I like to lay the biggest ones over the palm of my hand and feel their weight. Their spines rub against my skin, their skeletons mingling together with the lines of my fingertips.

“That’s what makes you special.” Mum used to say. “Everyone’s fingertips are different.”

I don’t notice anything special about my fingertips, but dad says it’s true so it must be.

I sometimes wonder if my fingers will go hard and curl backwards like the leaves do. That’s what makes it harder for me you know. That’s the trouble when you’re trying to find the bigger ones. If you’re lucky they don’t shrink too much when they’re still on their branch. They all get smaller when they’ve fallen. Dad says I’m getting smaller too. He tells me I spend too much time out here in the park.

“All those coats and scarves you wear are shrinking you to the size of a mouse.” He can be funny like that. That’s why I have to find the biggest ones; there’s no use looking for the tiny leaves, they couldn’t keep anyone warm.

I’ve been searching for months now, almost every day; it’s all I can remember doing, like each day has moulded into one long, very long day. I’m searching for a leaf that’s the right size, looking for the perfect one. Between you and me, I want one that will fit over my entire hand, like a thick glove. One that will fit me perfectly, just as it used to fit perfectly to its tree. I don’t expect it to be the same shape as my hand, that would be silly. No leaf is ever going to look exactly like my hand; I’ll be happy just as long as it fits over my fingers. I want it to hide me. I don’t want to be seen by anyone. I want to use it as a blanket and learn to keep warm out here, so that I can stay outside and sleep peacefully.

I know I won’t find one big enough for my whole body, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to find one the size of my hand. There have been a couple that came close, but there was something not quite right about them. They weren’t what I was looking for. I don’t know how to describe it to you, but I know what I mean. And I will know exactly what I mean when I find what I’m looking for, then I’ll be able to show you.

It’s frustrating sometimes trying to find the right one. Often, I think I see it on a branch, but I can’t just take it. I have to wait for it to come down to me. I don’t hurt the trees, some people do, but I don’t like it. I hate seeing people yanking leaves off branches, or climbing and shaking them, tearing them off before they’ve had their chance to fly. I used to climb the trees to get the ones I wanted but Mum didn’t like that. She said I was cheating. I think she was just saying that so I didn’t go up there anymore. She’d tell me off if she caught me climbing and then shout at Dad for letting me do it. Then I would feel guilty for upsetting them.

My teacher once asked me to write a story about why I liked trees so much. I wrote about the bond between the leaf and the branch, the link between the branch and the tree, the tree and its roots, and the roots and the ground. They all live together like a happy family should do. Every part of the tree survives because of another part, until, finally, one day they all let go. First the leaves let go, then the branches and then the tree trunk decides to fall. They loosen their grip all of a sudden, as if they’ve been thinking about it for days and have finally made up their minds. They just fall. They just fall to the ground and stay still forever. Quiet and still. I sometimes think about falling with them, floating through the air, my arms held out wide, my fingers trying to grab hold of the space around me, hoping to slow down the fall so I can enjoy it more, like the leaves do.

The truth is, I can’t fall, I’m too scared to fall. My fingers cling tight to the bark and I stare down at the ground, refusing to let go. I can still see the red marks in my hands and fingers where I clung too hard. That’s why I need gloves; I need them so people won’t see what I’ve been up to. They won’t see that I was too scared to let go.

Dad once said, “If you love someone you have to let them go.” I know Mum isn’t like that. She’s never let go. He doesn’t say it, but I know it’s true; Mum still hasn’t forgiven him for letting me climb like I used to. I know it was wrong, that’s why I don’t do it anymore. I still have the scars on my knees to show for it. Instead, I like to sit under the trees, waiting until the leaves are ready to fly.

I look up and wait for the last leaf to fall. It’s usually the most frightened one, those that are scared about what will happen if they loosen their grip. I want to reassure them and tell them that I understand. When they do land I’m there to greet them. If I could find enough daisies I’d make daisy chains and greet them all as if they’d stepped off a plane, by draping the flowers around their necks.

“Welcome.” I’d say, grinning with a huge smile so they knew it was all right. I don’t have time to care for all of them, so I just stick to the big ones, my favourites. There isn’t enough time and there aren’t enough daisies. There aren’t enough flowers in winter.

The park is near Dad’s house and he lets me play for as long as I like. Sometimes he leaves me to sleep outside, but I’m not ready for that yet – it’s still too cold and I can’t let go. I always dream that I’m falling, falling too fast to enjoy it. Falling too fast for any of them to catch me, so that when I do land and hit the ground, there’s no one there to greet me; I just lay flat like the leaves do. Quiet and still.

Today the park was really busy, there was something special happening in town, which meant that lots of people came walking around, kicking and treading on the leaves, making it even harder for me to collect them. It almost felt like they were doing it on purpose. I got so cross with them that I just sat down on the wet grass and didn’t move at all, I was protesting but I didn’t feel like crying, even though I was so cross that I could have done.

I saw a man sitting by himself on a bench. He was old and grey, his skin was white and his fingers looked blue. Out of everyone he was the only person looking at me, the only one that seemed to notice me as I sat with my arms folded and my face all cross.

When he spoke I was surprised to hear him, as he was still quite far away.

“You’re sulking are you?” His voice wafted over to me on the wind.

“That’s a fine game,” he sniffed. “Not that it’ll do you much good.”

He shook his head at me. “Not with this lot around, they won’t pay you the least bit of attention.”

I got up and walked over to him. I stood a few steps away from the bench and stared at him, I didn’t know what to say, he looked at me and then pointed to the seat next to him.

I sat down.

“With all that sulking you’ve gone and got yourself a wet bottom.” He shook his head.

“Truth being told, I need the company. It’s a long time since someone noticed me out here.”

He bent forward.

“Though, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to take liberties; any fluid -especially rainwater- is likely to take the varnish clean off the wood. Then where would I be? No one else is likely to paint her…” The old man glanced at the bench and began sliding his hand down it, just like I used to stroke my cat, Alfie.

“I’m the only one willing to look after this bench these days. What’s more, it’s my responsibility, after all -I own the bugger.”

He whispered into my ear. “This bench belongs to me, you know.”

“It’s yours?” I asked him, not really believing it.

I’d never seen him here before and I wondered why anyone would want to buy a bench.

His face tightened.

“Yes I do, young boy, my name is Raymond Prestonon (Ray for short), and this bench is mine, mine alone. I’ve even had my name enamelled into the inscription.” He said, pointing his thumb at the shiny plaque fixed behind him.

“Can I see it?” I asked, only able to make out the corner of the writing.

He sat up and looked at me as if I’d done something bad.

“No you may not!” He shouted, moving back quickly before I had a chance to read it.

He didn’t say anything for a bit and just looked cross with me.

After a while the old man smiled at me, though I wished he hadn’t because all the inside of his mouth was black and rotten. He didn’t have a single tooth.

“I’ve seen you before, oh yes, you don’t think that I have, but I have.” He reached up to scratch his nose and I saw his blue fingertips up close, all swollen and cracked.

“Playing about with your trees I see, yes, I’ve seen you.” I didn’t want to look at his face, there was something about his pale, grey skin that scared me.

“I saw you and I began asking myself a great deal of questions,” he said. “Firstly, it occurred to me that little boys like you should be with their parents, not alone in the outdoors.”

I looked up at him angrily.

“I’m a girl.” I told him.

He laughed at that. He laughed so hard that he started to cough like grandma used to.

He didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes and I sat there staring at all the other people walking around in their thick coats and woolly hats.

“You’d better be careful you know.” He warned me. “It’s mightily cold these days, and you don’t want to be running around too much.”

“Why not? Why shouldn’t I?” I said, still angry with him for calling me a boy.

“Firstly, if you do too much running around you’re likely to trip over something and hurt yourself. Then you’ll be in a sticky bit of bother won’t you? Yes…carry on that way and you might as well save your leaves to make yourself a nice little tomb. Secondly, if you exercise too much you’ll lose weight, and folk shouldn’t lose weight, not in the winter. They should be putting weight on to keep them warm. It’s too cold to be a skinny little girl like you.” He said, shaking a blue finger at me. “Why else do you think the squirrels eat up all their nuts and make themselves fat?” He asked me.

“Squirrels don’t get fat during winter, they hibernate and hide their food away until they get hungry.”

“Ah ha – ha,” he laughed at me. “Yes, yes you’re right I suppose, a clever one aren’t you.”

“And I’m not skinny.” I told him, puffing out my chest trying to convince him I was normal.

“Too much reading has made your brain skinny.” He said. “Not me, no I have the sense to stay fat during the winter months. No exercise for old Raymond, not a bit. I sit right here all day and I don’t lose a single pound.”

“How do you know that,” I challenged him. “You don’t have any weighing scales?”

“True, true, too true.” He nodded. “But you’re not the only one with a clever brain around here, skinny girl.”

I felt like shouting and arguing with him, but I didn’t say anything.

“I record everything I eat in this little blue book of mine.”

He pulled out a small writing pad from his jacket.

“Every last morsel that passes through these lips is written down and recorded, recorded and accounted, just as it should be. When my body requires me to expel its excess, I simply go to the toilet. Then I come back here and sit quietly on my bench. You see, I’ve trained my body like one trains a wrist watch.” He began tapping his wrist but there was no watch.

“I have an ingenious system based on what I consume, how much exercise I do, what I expel and how much talking I do. I can tell you, or anyone for that matter, what my exact weight is at any given time. It hasn’t failed me yet.”

He sat back. I saw him glancing at me from the corner of my eye, I knew he wanted me to ask him, so I did.

“How much do you weigh now?”

He suddenly shot forward and stood up in front of me, fingering the paper of his little book.

“Now, you ask?” He concentrated and scanned the pages.

“Well, let me see…” He looked towards the sky, concentrating.

“We’ve been talking for a good five minutes I would say, more so than usual, hum…”

While he was distracted I looked over and read the plaque.

Here he sat, our beloved Ray Preston, from 1912 to 2004.

The old man suddenly yelled and I looked away, frightened he’d seen me reading.

“Ah ha! I weigh exactly eight stone, three pounds and five point two ounces,” he said, sitting back down, very happy with himself and putting the book inside his jacket.

“Well?” He was grinning now.

“Well what?” I asked.

“Aren’t you impressed?”

“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” I said. “How do you know it’s true?”

“Because I have it all right here little boy, right here in this book of mine. What else do I need?”

I still didn’t believe him.

“You don’t believe me do you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“I don’t have to justify myself to a scrawny little wet-bottomed boy, like you.” He screeched, pushing me off the bench.

I still see him on his bench, he’s there every day, even at night. He won’t leave it, not even for a second. I think he’s afraid someone else might sit down. He hasn’t spoken to me since. He doesn’t notice me anymore, no one does. I don’t mind that, I prefer the quiet. The best thing about the park is the quiet, especially in winter. I sometimes feel sorry for everyone else. I always think they talk too loud to hear it. They might come here to relax away from the noise, that’s what they always pretend, but usually they just talk over the quiet, like they do any other time. They have to learn to let go. I know they won’t, it’s always the same, no one ever does.

The Last Snowfall, by Thaís Frasca Bueno Alvesh

It is the last snowfall Horace will ever see, even though he thinks that every year. He sits in his rickety chair, looking out the window with eyes too tired to see past the dim light of the candle he insists on lighting at Christmas.

Another holiday alone in his small smelly room. Everybody related to him, apart from his dear old mother, God rest her soul, is gathered in his son’s living room, laughing and singing drunken Christmas carols. The grandchildren are all grown up with their partners, and to be honest, two of them would be better off dead. People tell Horace times have changed and it is not ok to be racist. Horace is not racist, not at all. He just doesn’t want that kind of behaviour going round his family.

Across the room, his bed has been unmade since last month, when his son changed his sheets. Horace longs to stretch his legs and his poor old skeleton, but it is hard to get up from that chair — his knees almost gave out last time. So he sits in his rickety chair for a little bit more.

Piano notes invade the room. Must be Charles. You can’t even tell it is his granddaughter’s fiancé playing with his quick fingers getting every note right. Not that Horace knows how to play himself, or understands anything about music, but songs just sound right whenever Charles plays. As if it isn’t him. Julia, that’s his youngest granddaughter, met him on the streets, of all places! He was busking, so he had heard, and she fell in love right then and there. He should have been at church, like him, and his father before him.

Horace gives the old knees another try, and is able to stand up. Without his cane, a mere prop for sympathy, he walks towards his bed and lays down with his feet up. He contemplates the ceiling and the bit of paint that is falling off from around the lamp. The room could do with a once over, but he can’t afford it. All of his pension money goes to his son, to pay for his insurance, medicine and house expenses. That was the agreement; if Horace wants to live there, he needs to contribute. So, dutifully, Horace pays for the electricity, water, heating and telephone — it doesn’t matter that he hasn’t made a phone call in fifteen years. Who is he going to telephone anyway?

Growing old makes you tired, sick and depressed. Horace is basically just waiting to die. Little by little, his life trickles out of his body and he can feel it. Nothing to complain about, though, that’s how things are supposed to be. When you’re young, you enjoy your youth and you work hard. Nobody wants you when you’re old and messing yourself. Nobody wants you when you need them. You can see your relatives fighting around you, as if you can’t hear or understand. Horace knows it is because of him. He knows his daughter-in-law can’t take any more of him living there; she wants him out. Frances doesn’t even look at him; it is as if he didn’t exist. Not that he misses her.

The carolling goes on and Horace remembers the tasty dinners his other daughter-in-law, Joanne, used to make. He couldn’t stand the woman but man, can she cook! Whenever Horace used to visit Peter, Joanne would cook delicious meals; things that Frances or his son Theodore would never dream of doing at home.  They were clearly jealous of Joanne’s talents; Frances was jealous of how successful life seemed to be for Joanne and Peter, and Theodore was jealous of his brother for marrying such a wonderful woman.

Theodore didn’t care about his father; Horace knew that pretty well. The relationship was slightly better before Horace turned into a smelly invalid, when he could go out for his walks without fear of falling and breaking his shoulder (as he did two years ago). Horace hasn’t gone for a walk in eighteen months and seven days. He hasn’t left the house in eight months and twenty-seven days. The outside world is one dangerous and scary place.

Peter would sometimes ask his father about his health and that sort of thing, but they were not close after Peter moved away to University and never came back. Now Horace couldn’t care less if Peter was concerned or genuinely interested; all Horace wants is some money to help cover extra expenses, like food. Frances never cooks and is always on a diet. Because Theodore works long hours, the two row every night, hungrily, about how Frances has to cook his dinners for him after he slaves away all day at the factory. Horace can hear everything; their bedroom is next to his. Frances is small, with the most annoying ant-sounding voice; she squeaks about her diet and not wanting to cook for Theodore’s sick father, as it is, after all, his responsibility.

Staring at his battered wardrobe, Horace remembers all the bumps it got from moving from house to house through the years. He giggles quietly, thinking about how he played hide and seek with his sister, and the time he hid in it for two hours, making his mother cry desperately because she couldn’t find him. There was never a dull time at the farm. So much to do; like feed the chickens and pigs, milk the cows and help his father look after the crops.

Life on the farm was humble, simple, and yet, so fulfilling. Butter needed churning, meat needed curing and everywhere invited you to run and play. All seven siblings got along well and each had their job at the farm, contributing to the household as best they could. They didn’t go to school; life was the teacher of all things until it was time to join the military. That’s what you did in times of war, only hoping that you didn’t get called up for duty.

Horace’s television is on all the time and it flickers shadows on his face. Every night he takes pictures out of his wallet and looks through them in the dull light of the TV. Baby pictures of his grandchildren, pictures of his two sons and the only picture he has left of his late wife, Gerry. With a dry thumb, he caresses the picture and replays in his head the first time they met.

It was a sunny, blistering hot Sunday.  Horace woke up early, gave himself a clean-cut shave and went to church as he always did. He sat at the back, as usual, because he liked to be able to see the church and everybody there as best he could. It was supposed to be another ordinary Sunday, except it wasn’t. The choir, he noticed, had a new singer, a young, plump girl, with dark curls and a big smile. It was all he could see for the rest of not, only that service, but every service after that.

The following Sunday, Horace sat on the first bench, directly in front of Gerry. She was even prettier up close. He arranged with the choir leader to be introduced. She seemed a shy and gentle girl with a light handshake.

Their courtship was brief and followed the formalities of the time. Within a year they were married and soon after, Gerry was pregnant with Peter. The birth nearly killed baby and mother. After five years Theodore came along but that birth was perfectly safe.

His eyes are focusing on the actors on the television – some generic old western film. The snow is falling heavily outside and now there are no noises coming from the other rooms. But Horace isn’t aware of the things around him as his thoughts are engulfed by everything he has ever experienced in life: all the births and deaths, friendships and fights. Another Christmas comes and goes without really making any difference.

This year is no different than the year before or the year before that. Life is this room, his old tattered books and the lives on the TV. It doesn’t matter if it is Christmas or New Year’s Eve or his birthday. Everyday is the same day. Is it worth it?

The candle goes out.

Canning the uncanny, by Karen Hill-Green

A curtain of icy needles hit the windscreen. Stewart hunched over the steering wheel and craned forward to see through the fogged-up glass. The heater was out again. Hard to make out the road ahead, marbled with hail, leaves and broken branches. He wiped the window with the back of his glove but the polar fleece did not absorb the wet and made the single patch he was looking through blurry. Not much point in driving like this.

He pulled over to the curb and cautiously brought the car to a stop. Grabbing his heavy wool coat from the back seat, he opened the door and got out. Temperature had really dropped. Quickly he buttoned the coat, pulled the collar up and sunk his face into his tartan scarf.

There were no lamp posts this far out of town and his only point of focus in the inky night was a house a couple of hundred metres ahead. He clapped his gloves together and gingerly made his way forward on the icy tarmac. Trudging on the hail felt crunchy but the sound was barely audible above the trees thrashing overhead in the wind.

Stewart’s eyes flitted up and down the road. Alone out here and the phone not picking up a signal. Should be able to use the landline in the house. Margie would be wondering where he was. Slamming out of the house on a night like this was childish. He’d have to apologise, however much she provoked him. Still, it was good to just hit the road and go.

He approached the house as the rain started to ease up. The gate had tired, peeling paint and the latch was stiff, as if it hadn’t been used in years. He fiddled with it and then forced it open. As he went up the path to the front door, the gate banged behind him and set off a dog inside. It had a low deep bark; probably large. Then it stopped. Stewart rapped the knocker. It was grimy to the touch. He stamped his feet and wiped his upper lip off on his sleeve as he waited. Nothing. Maybe they couldn’t hear with the gusts in the trees. He knocked again, though more decidedly. Still nothing.

‘Hello. Anybody home?’ he called out. Odd that the dog did not respond to his voice.

He leant his head back, looking for movement in the upstairs windows. Lacy cobwebs clung to corners and they sheathed sections of wall; no sign of life. There was a chill in the air and he could feel it biting the back of his neck.

‘Hello. Hello,’ he shouted. No telling how far to the next house and he needed to call Margie. She’d be worrying.

He turned the door-knob and poked his head inside.

‘Hi. Is there anybody here?’ Smelt musty. Light on in the kitchen. Maybe the person who lived here was deaf.

The furniture was draped with sheets. Place seemed deserted and as if it had been for a while. Stepping into the kitchen he half expected to see someone but there was no one about; just a country table covered with canning jars and lids. It didn’t add up; an unlocked front door, light left on and a fleeting barking dog. Someone must have left in a hurry.

It had been an emotional day already and now this.

Suddenly the back door flew open and a shaft of bitter cold brought winter fully inside. Stewart wheeled about, ‘What the…’ he said under his breath.

Nobody there.

He looked out to the garden, a tangled mess of weeds and brush shimmying in the wind. There was a rushing from the sycamores battling each other at the far side of the distant field. He shuddered, stepped back into the house and closed the door. Alongside him on the wall were faded sepia-toned photographs. Almost all of them were written on in the corners in scratchy white ink and appeared to be of a Mrs Blakeley-Hall presiding over what looked like jam-making contests. Apparently, she was a judge at the county fair, year after year. Her face radiated from the dull pictures and Stewart followed the photo parade from the scullery to the kitchen until he reached the last photograph. From the date, it had been taken more than fifty years before and Mrs Blakeley-Hall appeared to be well into her 80s at that time. She was obviously long gone.

Something metal clattered against the fence. As he looked up, Stewart’s eye caught steam rising from a stainless steel pot on the hob. He walked over to it and saw immediately that it held a red mixture. The luscious smell of currants and berries wafted towards him. There was a wooden ladle on the counter next to the pot and there were tiny bubbles on it where the jam had recently been skimmed off. He felt the side of the pan and it was hot.

Where was the person making this jam?

Suddenly, it was no longer important to call Margie. He just wanted to get out and back on the road. As he ran for the front door, he heard a click from the kitchen and looked behind. The light had gone out. He fumbled with the door-knob and was shaking as he pulled at it. It was sticking; must have swollen with the rain. He pulled hard and it shuddered open.  Dashing down the path, he grabbed roughly at the gate latch, flew through and slammed the gate shut. That set the dog off again. He turned around and backed away from the dark house, noticing a worn-out sign in the front garden which said, ‘Bank repossession. Property auction. February 1, 1978.’ That was almost forty years ago. The wind was picking up again and it battered the sign.

Stewart ran to the car. At least the rain and hail had stopped. He was panting as he threw himself into the driver’s seat and locked the doors. Without thinking, he started the ignition and tore off at speed, stones spitting up from the tyres. It was eerily quiet even though the stormy night raged outside. He pressed the radio button and the Bee Gees filled the air.

At the junction he slowed down to make the turn. Standing by the roadside was a bent old woman, no coat, no bag and barely visible in the darkness. She was in her slippers and wearing an apron smeared with red. He recognised the face, radiant in the cold night.

Footsteps in the snow, by Ben Warden

She remembered when the snow had come down in her youth. Her father would stand at the door and walk backwards into the centre of the garden; then he’d carefully tiptoe back in his own footprints, take off his shoes and call her downstairs.

‘Look, Abigail, the footprints just start in the middle of the garden. I think an alien must have beamed down in the night and come into the house.’

‘An Alien, Daddy. Don’t be silly,’ she’d say.

‘Well, who else’s footprints could start in the middle of the grass?’ She’d stare out into the garden with a racing heart. ‘And I think he must still be here because there are no footprints going back out!’

She could remember the grin on his face, which meant he was lying and the nervous thrill in her stomach. It was like watching a magician smile at you; torn between truth and astonishment. Dad had loved to tease her.

Now hers were the only footprints in the snow. They told the story of where she’d come from, but they didn’t show where she was going. Through watering eyes she could just make out the way ahead; a greyscale world, blurred at the edges.

We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. His voice filled her head.

She could hear him singing the melody clear as day. She’d have to ask Mark what the song was; he’d know for sure. It would mean singing it to him. The embarrassment would be worth it; the difficult part would be remembering it by the time she got home.

The frosty air was starting to whip now. Ten minutes in the swirling white outdoors and she could feel the cold saturating her body. She couldn’t tell if the numb feeling was the weather, or the situation that had crashed down on her. It seemed funny that it had taken her by surprise, even though it was expected. To some, the weather would be a beautiful scene behind frostbitten windows, to her, it was just another challenge. The first hurdle had been the lulling draw of her warm bed; then the cat, who wouldn’t let her leave without feeding and fussing; then some salesman on the phone. She’d decided long ago that the hardest part of life was making time for the important things. He’d been amazing at making time, especially for her.

She turned in through the gate. The trees, which had been so green in the summer, stood dark and skeletal. The path that had been an orange leafed carpet only a month before, was now a dark tunnel that ran on further than she could see. No birds called, nothing moved. She pulled her coat tighter around her and dug her toes into the snow.

On the distant hill the headstones stood black against the horizon, like the abandoned tower blocks of a forgotten city. She knew how exposed it would be at the top and gritted her teeth in anticipation.

Mark had said, ‘you’re mad. Wait a few days, it won’t make any difference.’ But she knew it would make a difference to her.

It had already been far too long since she’d last gone and it was important to get into the routine. She knew Mark was just trying to look after her, but he didn’t understand. After all, he still had both his parents. When she’d looked out that morning she’d decided there was no way she could leave it. It wasn’t fair to leave him alone again. Usually there’d be things to see and people around, but on a day like this company would be noticed.

Leaning against the wind, she came over the brow of the hill and into the quiet chaos. Through the swirl of snow she lost her bearings and spent a moment berating herself at the thought of not being able to find him. Then she recognised the spot. Letting her relief slow her heart and the wind dry her budding tears, she bent down next to him and whispered ‘hello.’ The words caught in her throat. She lay the flowers and looked around for signs of life. She didn’t think the daffodils she’d brought would last long out here; not that it mattered; it was the gesture that was important. For a second, it felt like she did it for herself rather than him and that put a chill through her twice as fast as the weather. The feeling under the numbness bubbled.

‘Hi Dad, it’s Abigail. How are you? I thought I’d say hello. The weather’s filthy here. I hope it’s better with you.’ She grinned. This was how every phone conversation had gone and she was sticking to the tradition. ‘Things are pretty good with us. I’m glad to be the other side of Christmas, if I’m honest. It’s always a stress and Mark’s mum was unbearable this year.’ She knew he’d tell her off for that comment so she apologised under her breath and carried on. ‘I’m back at work. It’s okay but it’s all change again. The boss is going and we’ve got some young bloke stepping in. We’ll see how that goes!’

The cold was cutting at her knees, so she stood. She wanted to say more but couldn’t think of anything to say.

‘You know these conversations seem to get increasingly one-sided, Dad.’ She said it with a giggle that slipped a little. ‘Oh, Dad, I miss you.’

She looked up across the scene. She loved the spot. Often there were only a few people around and the view was beautiful. It was why they’d chosen it; for the view and the peace and quiet. It had been an odd day; coming with him to pick a spot, though it had turned out rather well. They’d sat and admired the view and he’d seemed happy and then, holding hands, he’d taken her for coffee and cake and they’d laughed about pretty much everything. It was her one striking memory of him. Not the hospital bed, not helping him to the loo; just her smiling dad, drinking a latte.

She let the memory linger, then blew him a kiss and was about to step away when something in the snow caught her eye. Five footprints lay ahead of her. No start and no end, just an enduring impression. At first she thought she was seeing things. Footprints wouldn’t last ten seconds in this weather; but there they were, clear as day. She moved towards them, knelt and stared out across the snow-flecked hillside. The swirling white static and the numbness was broken by the vivid image of her dad’s knowing smile. She pulled off her glove and ran her finger along the crisp edge of the nearest print.

‘Aliens,’ she whispered.

Words from the bench 2013

My spot by Adrian Paul Fayter

Early-autumn afternoons are the best times here.  This warm, copper-coloured sunshine comes straight through the gap in the beech trees and lights up my spot like a halo; then it spreads along the path as the sun moves down to the west.  Warm on your face, warming your heart.  Good for the rheumatism, too…

Summer can sometimes be as good, but not when the kids are out of school:  you can’t commune with your friends with skateboards clattering an inch or two from your toes; it spoils the atmosphere.  If you want a quiet seat in mid-summer, the churchyard is your best bet.  The fragrance of fresh flowers, close to the cleanest headstones; there are new friends to be made where the turf has recently turned.  Where a sympathetic ear can help a lost soul make a new beginning.  Summer in the churchyard…  But in autumn, the park benches are the best.  There’s a row of four just here, so there’s never a problem getting a seat.  Even when the park is busy, there’s always space made for me when I come to sit down.

Little Hayley laughs when her mum says I’m going to see my friends in the park.  ‘Are you going on the swings today, Nanna?’ she asks me.  And then she goes all serious.  ‘But how do you know who’s there?’ Her mum indignantly tells her that Nanna’s not gone blind just yet, even if she does carry a white walking stick.  I say, ‘I’ll always know my friends, Hayley.  No matter what happens, I’ll always hear their voices.’

I make friends easily, I’d say; I always have done.  I’ve got the gift for it.  But of course you need the time, too.  It’s hard for the younger people:  life can be so frenetic.  Very often they don’t even know their next door neighbours, so how would you expect them to be open to those from further afield?  When I lived alone, I had visitors most days, but now I’m staying with the family I don’t lead the same sort of life.   I don’t want to cause disruption or inconvenience.  I don’t want them to be disturbed even by a knock or two.  And I have contact with my friends, right here.

Now, don’t get me wrong; it can be a lonely time here in the park.  Sometimes I can sit for ages and nobody comes over, but then other days two or three come at once.  We’re not all elderly, though, in our little park bench set.  Yes, there’s Doreen, she’d be – what? – almost a hundred by now, you know.  But then there’s Carl, who was only born in 1994, if memory serves. (He’s a joker.  He tells Doreen she’s wearing well, doesn’t look a day over ninety.  ‘And how are you, young man?’ she asks him. ‘Oh, I’m feeling a bit run down.’)  Roddy, who always loved this spot, well, he’s my age, I suppose, but we also have Charmian.  The youngest.  Pretty, too, I imagine all her friends would say.  Young and pretty enough that people still bring flowers to the bench for her, on her anniversary.

Yes, early-autumn afternoons are when it is best here.  If you time it right, you can sit in the sun for ages, though you may have to move from seat to seat to get out of the shade.  If you’ve had a difficult day, you can relax here with whichever friends have managed to get across to find you.  Much nicer than sitting in a dull or darkened room.  Nicer than holding hands at the table.

I like to stay independent, and to give Hayley and her mum a bit of a break.  I’m sure they think I go on a bit, talking about what my friends have said to me or wondering aloud what it must be like for them, where they all have ended up.  I hope I can carry on for as long as possible, staying active, getting out and about, hearing those stories from beyond the park.  I suppose it won’t be exactly like this forever, but, you know, the most comforting thing of all is that in the space where the autumn sunshine reaches, there is still – just about – room for one more bench.  Something nice and new, graffiti-free, and the envy of my park-bench friends.  And perhaps in the future, when Hayley’s kids are rushing off to the swings, she’ll be the one who comes to talk to me in that very spot.

Autumn at lunchtime bench by Karen Hill-Green

Autumn at a lunchtime bench

Wind pushes up against me.

It whispers ‘get back to work.’

A minute more.


I close my eyes.

Beauty Helleborus trills

its muffled song

from marbled mounds;

when winter knocks,

the purple stems

and white teardrops

will fade to green.


Scent of faint Rosa Kent

wafts on the breeze;

cinnamon sweet and scarce,

she clings to bark

and nestles underleaf.


Ahead a pigeon,

back and forth and back,

eyes on black alert.

Its white cousins flap

to the burbling dove-cote.

One lands, one flies

over the green-skinned pond

where rings erupt by

leathery lily pads;

the silent promise of life below.


Down the path

silver threads of snails,

doggedly on

to somewhere else

as trees drip drip drip

their dying green.


Zigzagging flies tango

on bench slats,

the tiny backpacking lives

bizz buzzing with purpose.

Snippets of a Cycle by Laura Hyde

Day 2                                                                                                                        

First light,

On to the path,                                                                                            

Puppy and tree shake snow


Day 128

Blackened trowel works soil.

And dozing in my lavender

Next door’s cat.


Day 25

Not my blonde hairs,

Blamed our Labrador,

And yet…


Day 358

Christmas Eve, church bells

A drifter hangs wet stockings

From a naked branch.


Day 300

Power cut,

Dust from my computer screen



Day 47

In funeral cars

White lilies lie

Who mourns the flowers

When they die?

Love in the park by Lucy Marsh

Love is the old man offering his arm

to his wife of 60 years

as she stumbles on the gravel path.

He balances on his rubber-tipped stick,

still neat in his collar and tie

as she smiles up at him.


Love is the young mother

with dark eyes creased from broken nights,

giving her last sandwich to her two-year-old son

so he can feed the ducks quacking on the pond.

She grabs his hood as he teeters on the edge.


Love is the teenager lying on the grass

texting her boyfriend in the sun.

She plucks a blade of grass

with her idle hand,

sending him a 🙂 xx.


Love is the golden Labrador

bounding after his tennis ball.

Leaping into the afternoon air,

he snatches it with eager teeth

so he can race back to his owner.


Love is this bench

with its brass plaque

engraved for the one

who often sat and gazed

here – and loved this park.

Park by Laura Alexandra Munteanu

They say behind some bush some story creeps,

High in each tree hides, some well crafted verse

Deep in each flow, some small magic sleeps

For our imagination to rehearse.

The winter-time, a stark and naked frame

In the springtime, her gay costume is spread

In summertime she spreads her fingers wide

In autumn she wears yellow, gold and red.

How did this escape the factory’s breath,

The advance of industry’s bold dreaming?

The car-park’s necessity, tar-mac death

Where no birds sing, but wake each day screaming.

The wall that was built, that kept the grass green

Kept safe this space, so that dreamers yet dream.


Nothing stays the same in time’s rich jig

We make both rich gains and count heavy losses,

Be we stalk a fine marshland winter pig

Or we raise carved stone Holy crosses.

Spite the battles fought, the flooded river

The cannon ball scream, the wall that withstood

The martyrs hope the Queen would forgive her

The citizens dead, in a river of blood.

The stories written, the children play here

The ships that sail the broad pond with the ducks

The bowling green’s grass and the rockery’s cheer

The rich-grey mud, whose embrace our feet sucks.

Every moment that ever made this place

Let us learn, how so special is this space.


Who knows then what secrets might yet sleep still

Beneath the green sward , tree, building and road

Beneath these trees, might we find time to kill,

So that a secret truth might yet be told.

Should we be here to hear and capture it

Though the words we cannot their meaning catch

The secret tongue of nature’s savage wit

Whose likeness, we cannot yet truly match.

Change is inevitable, they tell me

But I say all change is what we make it

It could be better for all, green, and free

Or we could forever, for all time break it.

Not concentrating by Ben Warden

I’m sat here, not concentrating. The park is a good place to do it; to drift away in your thoughts. I’ve walked from the house, or rather I walked out of the house. I never pictured storming out of our home. We were so proud when we moved in. We’d lived with her parents for months and worked two jobs each to save for it. But recently we’ve been getting under each other’s feet. I’m having a bad time at work. Three of us built the company from the ground up but lately I’m always feeling on the bottom rung. She’s struggling to balance work and our daughter, who’s being awkward. They say it’s the terrible twos. She’s worried we’re not spending enough time with her. I know I should help out more but, if the business fails, that home won’t be ours much longer. The long nights away are for them except she can’t see it. Not this week anyway.  I know I shouldn’t storm out. I know it just gives her more cause to feel abandoned, but I need the space. The last month or two I do keep leaving and I do keep coming here. It’s funny how I have a routine. I always want to sit at this bench, just because it’s the one I sat at first. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m sitting here, not concentrating. Thinking about her cursing me; about my little girl wailing; about how ten minutes in the fresh air is all I need. Probably all she needs too.

I start to wonder about myself. The only reason I want to sit here is because I’ve sat here before, and that experience wasn’t disappointing. I could sit on another bench but there’s a chance that wouldn’t go so well. Maybe I’d end up near a bin, or in a busier part of the park. So I come straight here, every time. Is that sad? Does it just highlight what a sad little man I am? I never take any risks. Is it worrying that I just walked out and that this isn’t the first time? It’s the lack of risk taking that’s causing me trouble at work. I’ve always been the one that kept things anchored. If it wasn’t for me, god only knows how it would have gone for them. Maybe I should take more chances.

Then he sits next to me. Just some old guy. It snaps me back for a moment and I see the grass and the trees, but only long enough to budge along the bench politely. I’m really just taking back some space. He smiles and sits quietly enough, at least at first.

‘Makes you consider life and death, doesn’t it?’

‘Great.’ I think. ‘A nut.’ But still I politely ask the question. ‘What, sorry?’

‘The park, it does me anyway. I come sit on this bench every day. Haven’t seen you around before, but you’ve been here a few times this week. I thought I’d join you. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt.  I can move if you’d like?’ I don’t really want to, but it’s polite to offer.

‘No, no. Just another one of those things. I saw you here and I thought, gosh I sit there every day. How set in my ways! You know, it’s a trait of old age.’

‘That’s not true.’ I say, thinking how strange it is that his thoughts are the same. ‘It’s human nature. You come back to what you know.’

‘True, true. So what brings you back here?’

‘Life. Work.’

‘Ha. I know that, too well.’

I smile at him. He’s been where I am. He’s one of those guys who’s old enough to know most things. I think he could probably relate to anyone. No matter if you’re an adrenaline-fuelled, extreme sport junky, or just a man on a bench.

‘So what brings you out here every day?’ I ask.

‘Just this,’ he says, simply, waving his hand out in front of him; taking in the whole park. ‘It keeps me current. Let’s me think about what’s important.’

I don’t answer; I’m not sure how. I want to say something old and wise. I want to be on his level but all I can think about is my lovely wife at home, alone. After a while he fills the silence for me.

‘Did you know Namibia became one of the world’s first nations to write environmental protection into their constitution?’

Now I know he’s seen it all.

‘1990, I think it was,’ he continues. ‘It’s taken us some time to catch up. But some of the early philanthropists had it right. They knew the importance of a place to think.’

‘Well, it does help.’

‘Apparently, Joseph Rowntree used to walk on Scarborough Beach. That was his place to be away from life and work.’


He’s losing me now. I don’t want a history lesson. I just want to sit in peace.

‘It makes me consider life and death.’ He says again. ‘You get to see the important things first hand.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘You see the little girl over there?’

I stare past the tip of his finger. She can only be six or seven; on her hands and knees, peering into the grass. She looks like my Jenny. Little black wellies sticking out from an autumn-red duffle coat; one that will fit her better in a few months.

‘I don’t know her name, I can’t hear too well these days, but she looks after bugs. A proper little conservationist. Rehabilitating orphaned and injured wildlife on a daily basis.’

I watch her foraging in the grass.

‘And a good job she seems to make of it too. She operates a catch and release policy, of which I am most in favour.’ He says it with a smile. ‘She came with a young man once.’ He pauses again. ‘He didn’t do so well. He just pulled a wing off a daddy longlegs so they had something to nurse. Boys! They have no patience. She was very upset.’

I pull at my tie and shift my weight.

‘I just like sitting here,’ he says, still answering my earlier question. ‘The lush grass, the bare trees; bugs, birds, children, the OAPs like me.’ He chuckles and pulls himself to his feet. ‘The place is full of striking contradictions. It can keep a man steady.’

With that, he tips his hat with his leather glove and sets off down the path. I watch him leave. Then I get up and make the journey home, as quickly as I can.

In 1943 I used to drink tea by Christopher Brunt

He proposed to me the day before he left England. He told me all his friends were doing it, and so he thought it would look strange if he failed to perform some sort of romantic gesture. George has always been a romantic. I said yes and left it at that. I knew quite rightly that he wasn’t the type who subscribed to needless sentimentality. I didn’t need him to fall to one knee and recite poetry. I know he loves me, and he knows that I am his.

He left England to join the army. Back then, they were all joining.

“Better to volunteer than get the call.” He’d explained, threading his fingers through mine, glancing towards the families picnicking, all of them smiling and laughing in the grass, on what was a wonderfully sunny August afternoon.

“I don’t want you to leave.” I mentioned, turning with him to stare out at our favourite spot in the Rowntree Park, the flush trees standing behind us, swaying rhythmically against a coaxing breeze.

We sat on our bench every Sunday afternoon, only for an hour or so. Sometimes just to get out of the house. We never bothered to bring a picnic with us, not that I minded, I would have done anything George wanted us to do. He told me he felt exposed sitting on the grass eating sandwiches in the open, and so we always ate in the privacy of our home.

“I hate the thought of people watching me.” He’d told me, forever self-conscious. He wouldn’t like me saying that but it was true. He always felt nervous around other people, so in defiance we would sit on our bench and watch them while they ate their sandwiches, making them feel uncomfortable.

He turned and looked at me. He was about to say something, but didn’t speak. Earlier that morning he’d proposed while we ate breakfast at the flat, we’d been renting for the past year. I could tell it had taken a lot out of him, he was never comfortable expressing his feelings like that. We used to joke that I expressed enough feeling for the two of us.

The people living in our building assumed we were already married. I knew better than to correct them and so went along with it, sometimes lying and being forced to weave elaborate stories about our imaginary lives together as husband and wife. George would have died if he knew people were talking about us. I didn’t mention it to him.

“You know I hate it when you cry.” He finally said, squeezing my hand, his eyes darting around at the picnickers.

“Do you have to join the army?” I asked him, pulling his hand towards me, anchoring myself to him.

He gave me one of those disapproving looks of his and turned back to the picnickers, reclaiming his hand and reaching inside his jacket for his tobacco tin.

“If I didn’t join now what would they think, what would they say about me?” He blinked. “It’d look like cowardice…”

He left the next day. A letter arrived months later saying he’d been killed.

I’ve cried once or twice since then, though not at the funeral, or at the reception. He wouldn’t have approved of me ‘wailing’ in public. I did cry that afternoon when I returned to the privacy of what was meant to be our home. Afterwards I felt ashamed and just sat there alone, my hands folded inside my black dress, staring distastefully at the teapot in front of me on the table, realising I’d never need to boil an entire pot again. I never really liked tea anyway, it was George who insisted upon it.

“Everyone drinks tea.” Is what he told me.

I still wear the engagement ring. I like the way it looks on my hand. I doubt I’ll ever take it off. It wouldn’t be right, not fair to George. I sometimes think if I learn to become the woman he wanted me to be, behave properly, then he’ll reward me and come back.

He had such high standards.

“This is our special bench.” He’d said, gracing me with one of those big smiles of his, the one that always made my hands shake and my knees quiver like a giddy schoolgirl, both excited and terrified…I shouldn’t have said that. Forget I mentioned it. It’s not lady-like.

“A lady shouldn’t tell tales about her emotions.”

Well, I can’t take it back now, it’s too late. No doubt you’ve formed an opinion of me already.

I can still hear his voice, domineering as ever, frightening at times, but forever musical.

“I want you to marry me.”

As we sat on the bench I let him take hold of my arm. The fingers of my free hand curled around the frame of the wooden bench, clenching and contracting, digging in, clawing and piercing the twine, splinters slowly sliding underneath my nails.

That was the last time we sat together on this bench. I still recall his expression as he saw my eyes watering. According to George, I – like most girls – was ready to cry at a moment’s notice. It was true. I couldn’t help it. I’ve since learnt to behave correctly, when in public. George would be proud of me. Back then I was always embarrassing him, sometimes without even knowing it. He would inform me when we came back to the quiet of our flat. He wouldn’t have dreamt of making a scene by saying something in the park.

“While I’m away,” he said, patting me, “I want you to come here every day. Sit right there.” He instructed. “That’s your place.” He pointed a finger at my position on the bench. “I promise I’ll come back to you. I won’t be gone long, so don’t get yourself into any mischief. I always keep my promises, don’t I?”

I nodded. It’s true he always did keep his promises.

“While I’m away you will come here and I’ll be right here with you.” He smiled at me in that wonderful way of his. “I want you to remember something, Edith.” My face was bright red as he stared at me, his expression formed in that peculiar way, as it usually did when he wanted me to listen carefully.

“You will visit this bench every day. You will sit right there in your spot and I’ll sit over here, besides you. I’ll always find my way back to you, back to this bench.”

His eyes scrutinised me, conveying more in one glance than most people could with a thousand words.

“Promise me you’ll keep it company.” He said. “Every day.”

I do come here every day, to our bench. I’m an old lady now but I still miss him. Each day I look out at the trees. They are old, older than I am, but to me they’re the same as they always were. I’ve changed and they have stayed the same. From my seat I still watch those picnicking and laughing faces, eating their sandwiches, kicking their balls, flying their kites.

I still feel like crying. I know I shouldn’t, yet I can’t help it. Pressure swells at my cheeks, they don’t turn bright red as they once did and now they’re covered with lines and wrinkles. I have to breathe in to hold it all back. Whenever I feel like crying I always manage to stop myself just in time, right before it becomes unbearable. I try to behave as George would have wanted me to.

I sit to one side of the bench while he remains on the other side, resting his elbow on the wooden frame, the weight of his head leant against his chin, staring across the park, looking at everyone. Occasionally he’ll glance at me and my knees will begin to shiver in excitement as they once did, though my hands no longer shake. I know he isn’t really there. You mustn’t misunderstand me; I realise he isn’t really there.

When I sit here I like to pretend George is with me. No one can tell when I do it, they might see me but they don’t know what I’m thinking; me on my side of the bench, him on the other.

A woman and her child passed by and saw me while I was giggling to myself – I couldn’t help it. Her face was so cross with me, so disapproving. They’re all so very disapproving. I’m sure she must have thought me mad, even though she hadn’t the slightest idea what I was thinking. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

“You’re a silly woman.” She would have said to me, if she’d been alone. It’s not done to speak rudely of strangers in front of a child.

I’ve done more than enough to embarrass myself in George’s absence; it’s been a long time. It’s too late to redeem myself. No doubt talking like this hasn’t helped the situation. What must you think of me… Though I do enjoy speaking to such lovely people. I don’t mind by the way, you might think that I would, but really it’s fine, I understand, please do sit down, take a minute to relax. Enjoy the park. Why not have a seat?

It would be better if you sat on my side of the bench though. Not George’s. He wouldn’t approve of that.