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.

“What?”

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.

‘Mummy!’

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.’

‘Hmm.’

‘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.’

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