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.

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