The Good Bench

January 30, 2014

Written for headstuff.org

“This bench meant the world to old Paul. Every day for nearly twenty years, without fail, he would sit here and watch the world go by. There isn’t a regular of the park, who didn’t know Paul. Whether we knew him merely to nod to and exchange a quick ‘good morning’ with, or to sit alongside and pass countless minutes chatting about the big match. Everyone knew Paul. Sometimes it was hard to know where Paul ended and the bench began.” The assembled dozen or so people chuckled and nodded.

“But seriously though, we all adored Paul. Didn’t we? He was a constant source of cheerful banter and always happy to lend an ear if you had a problem. And as much as we loved Paul, he loved his bench. Nineteen years. Every. Single. Day. Can you believe that?” Everyone shook their heads. A little overzealously perhaps, as if it were a competition to prove just how incredulous they were?

“I’m sure there’s a bench just like this in heaven with his name on it. And now, forever, there’ll always be one down here with his name on it too.” The Park Ranger pulled away what looked like a velvet dishcloth, to reveal the gleaming golden plaque that had been screwed into the back of the bench. It read: ‘IN MEMORY OF PAUL SHERIDAN, WHO SAT ON THIS BENCH FOR NEARLY TWENTY YEARS. WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU.’ A short period of squinting, fawning and clapping followed.

But soon, a slow, sarcastic clap emerged from the din. As it became louder and more pronounced, the earnest applause fell away as the gathered few turned to see where this cynicism was coming from. It was coming from Terry.

“In memory of Paul Sheridan” the old man sneered. “Who HOGGED this bench for nearly twenty years!”

The crowd parted as Terry approached the bench.  He was a spindly, scruffy looking ninety something year old – raggedly dressed with the kind of scowl that could ruin your day.

“Ah, hello Sir. Is everything OK?” The Ranger nervously stepped forward, but quickly retreated as Terry waved his knobbly walking cane threateningly.

“How many of you… sycophants… know who I am?” Terry sat down on the bench. One or two people limply, uncomfortably raised their hands,. “Hah? One? Two of ye? Yeah? Thought so.”

Terry surveyed the gathered dozen and shook his head disdainfully.  “Twenty one years. That’s how long I’ve been coming to this park. Nineteen? Pfft! No. Twenty-one. Every. Single. Day. For two years I sat right here. On the good bench. Having the chats with the people that passed. Smiling and being all those disgustingly lovely things you said about Paul. But then this… blow-in… arrived.” Terry awkwardly dragged one leg over the other so that they were crossed and started filling his pipe with tobacco.

“He always seemed to get here first in the morning. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. He’d always beat me here. For a few days we sat together. I told him how I’d been coming here… sitting right here… for two years… on the good bench. I joked that perhaps one day, after I’m gone, they’ll put my name on it.” Terry produced a Zippo lighter and ignited the pipe. “I could see his ears prick at that alright. That’s when he changed.” He inhaled deeply.

The Ranger stepped forward again. “OK sir, well we better…” but Terry raised his cane again and continued.

“Intimidation. Sometimes it got physical. Your… gentle genial saint… had an edge, let me tell ya. Oh yes. A ruthless edge.” Terry stiffly shifted. “This was his bench now. And under no circumstances was I to come near. I was banished from the good bench. All that was left was that one over there.” The gathered dozen or so turned to where Terry pointed. But they couldn’t see anything. “You won’t see it from here” he puffed. “It’s too overgrown and secluded down there. It’s mossy and damp and removed from all footfall and traffic. If I wanted to exchange a cheerful ‘good morning’ or talk about the football, I’d have to make do with the earwigs and the snails… over on the shit bench.”

The unease around the bench was palpable. Some cleared their throats awkwardly and shuffled their feet in the grass.

“That’s where I’ve been. For nineteen years. Every. Single. Day. Waiting for the good bench to free up. Nineteen years. Biding my time. And now that he’s finally gone, you’re telling me I have to sit next to this.” Terry eyed the plaque, shook his head mournfully and sighed. “He’s even hogging it from beyond the grave.”

The Ranger’s polite smile had all but faded. A dour cloud now hung over the assembled dozen or so. A deflated silence followed, only broken by Terry’s abrupt slapping of his knees with his palms. He rose to his feet.

“But life’s too short for such ill feeling. Right? For nineteen years, I thought I wanted the good bench more than anything. But now that I’m here, I dunno. I think I prefer the shit bench.” Terry smiled for the first time. A wave of relief washed over the gathered dozen or so. This unfortunate episode was almost over, it seemed.

Terry strolled away and down the hill, towards the hidden ‘shit bench’. They all watched him go. Then he stopped and turned. He was still smiling, but it was a different kind of smile. He suddenly had a hipflask in his hand and he raised it aloft.

“To Paul.” The dozen few nodded and smiled politely. Then there were a few sniffs.

“What’s that smell?” someone asked. Then they heard the crackling sound. Then they felt the growing heat. They turned just in time to see the bench really catch fire. It went up in seconds.

They screamed, fled and dithered. Sheer chaos. Terry couldn’t see the ensuing pandemonium from his place back on the shit bench. But he could hear it fine. He chuckled heartily and raised another toast with the earwigs. 

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