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
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