There's a bench in the park that I never sit on. It sits tucked away, separate from the rest, coddled by the arms of a great old oak tree. Or beech. Or chestnut. Or something. Behind the tree curves the grey concrete of a 1970s flowerbed. Filled with the wax yellow and red of begonias in the summer, the flimsy flickers of pansies in the winter.
I come to the park every day. Sometimes I sit and eat my lunch, freed from the mire of the joyless office box I inhabit for 40 hours a week. Sometimes I walk around, following the tarmac tracks without thought or hope or desire.
Today is no special day. Its grey. One of those British days of murk. It could be April. It could be October. Hell, it could be August or Christmas Day. No rain, just incessant damp. Cloud that traps sound and light and smell and regurgitates it in great swathes of choking miasma. Walking, huddled but sweating inside my duffel coat, I find myself in front of that bench and I stop.
Without thinking I reach a hand out, start to twist, muscle memory telling me that a bench is for sitting so I must sit. I recall my hand. Straighten my spine. Here. This bench. This isn't for sitting. Shapes in the cloud. There's you. There's me. A bench is just a collection of wood, screws, paint and dried birdshit. Graffiti daubed in Tipp-Ex. Magic Markers. Scratched out by biros and compass points.
This bench has power over me. I let out a sigh, my breath gently misting as it escapes heavenward from my mouth. You still have power over me. This bench. The things you said when we would sit here. The things you did. The things I didn't say. The things I never stopped.
I will my fists to unclench, unaware that they turned to angry balls of flesh and bone. Thoughts of you …
I let out a small bark of laughter that dissolves into a giggle. It draws to a close as my lungs empty of oxygen and I suck air back in, my lips set in a lop-sided grin.
I close my eyes, spin my feet and bend my knees. I feel the wood meet my bottom and I open my eyes with a gasp. I'm sitting on the bench. The bench in the park. Our bench. The bench. I throw my eyes to the left, to the right. I can hear cars still driving on the road that's somewhere behind me, behind the tree, behind the flower bed, behind the bushes and behind the brick wall.
I breathe out. I wipe slick palms on the outside of my coat and watch as my fingers slide to the edge of the seat and grip the pitted wood. Out across the park, on the far side of the grassed heart of this space, I see a figure running. A man. Painted in shades of grey. I wonder about him. Has he noticed me, sitting here on the bench, or is he wrapped up in his selfish world of iPods, Running Trax and beats-per-minute?
He disappears behind a thick clump of bushes. Rhododendrons? In my head I draw a map of the park and place him in it, a mobile red pulse. I'm a steady green dot, sat here on the bench. I imagine his route as he paces past the old duck pond with its crumbling steps and boating pier.
You used to run. You tried to run at the end, too. Somehow there's some kind of poetry there. I met you as you were out on a run in this park. I was sitting here. I'd spotted you long before, although I wasn't going to give you the satisfaction of knowing that. Regardless, you knew what you were doing as you jogged past me, your body glimmering in the evening sunlight. You knew what you were doing when you stopped to ask me the time.
I was always so ashamed. I gushed at you, unable to control my tongue, my lips, my words. You took it all from me. You soaked it up. You deserved it. Demanded it. You allowed me peeks. Fed me crumbs. Kept me crawling, scrabbling.
I feel another laugh bubble through me and throw it up, forcing it out into the air. My jaw aches.
I used to wonder what you'd seen in me that day. You were like a Greek god. I'm the Gruffalo. Smooth. Furred. Golden. Grizzled. I started to see that my eyes, always far short of limpid pools of liquid delight, were flecked with amber, flashes of autumn leaves. I embraced myself wholly, believing that you did too, that you were there next to me. Dazzling the world.
Then I started to see more. Amazed that throughout I'd been following the light from a dead star.
A movement to the left. Red pulse.
I leave you for a moment, my eyes switching to the grey man. As he comes closer I notice that he's slowed to a walk. I also see that the tonelessness of him is not just the damp gloom. Grey woollen hat. Charcoal sleeveless t-shirt. Grey sweatpants. White Nikes. Everything is stuck to him. Sweat. Mist. Damp.
I can feel my chest start to heave and my mouth drop open.
The pulse in my head quickens.
He's a lot nearer to me now. I let out a silent gasp. He's you. You're him. I smother him with my eyes. I avert my gaze. Drop my head.
I feel the air move as he sweeps past. Involuntarily I lift my head, widen my nostrils and sniff, trying to catch a scent of you. Of him. A slight tang. Deodorant. Aftershave. Shower gel. Sweat. I open my eyes, hungry for a glimpse of you. Gone. Emptiness.
I remain perched on the edge, eyes closed once more.
I knew I shouldn't have come. I knew that I shouldn't have sat on this bench. Suddenly my head is filled with you. Snippets of your voice. Slices of memory. Merging. Flickering. Repeating. A zoetrope of you and me. My fingers push further into the old wood. I can feel the keratin bending upward as dead xylem pushes its way into my nailbeds.
After what seemed like hours I felt my eyes open. From black to white. My notice was caught by a rectangle of what looked like cardboard laying on the tarmac path in front of me. Its brightness seemed to fluoresce under the anaemic light in the park. I looked around. Nobody. Had it been there when I sat down on the bench?
I couldn't remember. But then I couldn't remember it not being there either. Again I scan the park around me. Nothing. A swirl of breeze rattles the branches above my head. Sends clumps of mist scudding across the lawns. Stillness returns.
For a moment I amuse myself. Pretending I'm the only person left in the world. The silence around me caressing my skin. Pulling the thoughts out of my brain. Leaving behind memories. Of you. The soundless air is cloying. Choking. I throw a hand to my throat. Clawing at the neck of my jumper. Heaving in gobs of oxygen.
The power of you still touches me. Infects my veins. I feel you pulse inside my chest. See you rear up in my mind. An iceberg in the mist.
The white card. I pick it up. Feel the sharp corners bite into my skin. I spin it idly. Notice that one side is printed. The other has grey scrawl. Two pencilled words. A question mark. A caricatured winking face.
I gasp and look up. The park remains empty. Silent.
I look back down at the words.
I feel a fire begin to be stoked somewhere deep in the pit of my soul. Chemicals swirl. Provide fuel. I know. I know what this is. I know whose it is. I know what it means.
The fire erupts into angry flames. Disbelief crumbles into ash.
In front of me stands grey. The red pulse returns.
He's smiling. You smile at me. Laughing. I shake myself. You aren't here. Only, of course, you truly are. I let out a return laugh of my own. You look startled.
Who do you take me for? Another stranger to debase.
I snicker. Shake my head. You begin to fade. Grey subsumed by the strengthening drizzle. Your red pulse recedes. Fade to black.
Again you spring forward. Unbidden. I chase you down. Silence you. Not for the first time. I find myself panting. I force myself to calm down. Allow myself to smile. Yes. Here on the bench.
At some point they'll find you. Some poor gardener, digging for a rogue weed, will snag your finger in a fork. I'm aware of this fact, but its a fact that remains as meaningless for me as the repeal of the Corn Laws. A distant flicker of knowledge.
I lean back into the bench, feeling the wood solid under my back, my legs. This bench.