Wednesday, 6 May 2015

642 Things - Park Bench

“Never underestimate the lives of old men sitting on park benches”

Old man sitting on a park bench
(source)
    Every day for the past seven months, I have walked the same route to and from work. I walk through the park, that little green haven in the middle of the chaos that is this city. I see joggers and cyclists, dog walkers and children in prams. It buzzes with life, and I rarely see the same face twice. But every day for the past two months, I have passed the same old man sitting on the same park bench.

    It could’ve been longer than two months of course. That’s only how long it’s been since I started noticing him. When everyone else is whizzing by, it’s the things that stay still you tend to notice. And once I noticed, I began to wonder. It can’t be coincidence that he chooses the same bench. And there’s a certain level of dedication required, to come there every single day. Whatever the weather, he has been there, with an old-fashioned tweed bonnet perched on his head, a thick coat for the chilly weather, and a walking stick clutched between his knees. I even walked by once at the weekend, and he was still there.

     Eventually, the curiosity got to me. I left for work a little earlier than usual, and plucked up the courage to talk to him. I wasn’t really sure what answer I was expecting - maybe he just liked the view form that particular bench? - but I had to know anyway. I considered spinning some story about why I was talking to a stranger, but in the end decided to just be honest. As I approached, I swallowed nervously, then plopped down next to him. He turned his head, looking a little surprised, which seemed like a natural reaction, to be honest.

    “Hello,” I began hesitantly, “I know this is going to sound a little odd, but I walk past you sitting here every day, and well, thing is, I was just wondering… why? I’m sorry if that’s rude, or too personal, and I’d understand if you don’t want to tell me, but I just had to ask, at the very least.”

     His wrinkled old face cracked into a smile, and he shook his head in wonder. “You know, it’s been almost three years that I’ve been coming here and not once has anyone ever asked me that. They all rush past, off to work, getting on with their lives, and every day I sit here watching them all, and not once has any of them ever taken any notice of me. I suppose I should be a bit flattered that you did,” he finished with a small chuckle.

     “Three years?” I repeated in amazement, “I haven’t been here that long, but I’m embarrassed I didn’t ask sooner now.”

     “Not to worry!” he replied heartily, “But you want to know why I come and sit on this exact bench, every single day?” I nodded eagerly. “Well, since you’re the only one to ask, I’ll tell you. See that bench across from us? That bench is where I met the love of my life.”

     I think my jaw actually dropped slightly, and he chuckled again at the sight.

     “Oh yes,” he continued, “My Betsy. It was many, many years ago now. I was sitting in the grass behind us, with all my buddies, and she was there, reading the newspaper, and my word, if she wasn’t the prettiest girl I had ever seen. Big blonde curls, rosy red lips, petite as you like. I wasn’t going to say anything, ’til one of the guys noticed me staring and dared me to go talk to her. So I did.”

     “And what happened? Did you get together?” I was getting rather invested in this old man’s tale now. I’m not the romantic type, but to still be visiting the same spot, what fifty years down the line? This had to be special.

     “Eventually,” he sighed, with a shake of his head, “She wasn’t too sure about me at first - I was a stranger, to be fair. But we sat there talking, for quite some time, and eventually I managed to persuade her to go out with me. And she did, and god, it was glorious. We talked and drank and danced, and I walked her home at the crack of dawn and kissed her in the street. Simply marvellous. I saw her almost every day for about a month after that night. And then I shipped out.”

     “Shipped out?” I repeated, aghast. It sounded like the plot of a film.

     “Yes sir. Off to the Continent. World War Two. Horrible times. Blood and dirt and death… Watched some of my best friends die.” His voice sounded clipped all of a sudden, as if the pain of the memories had come rushing back. “I’ve forgotten a lot of things over the years - I’m in my nineties you know! - but I’ll never forget the things I saw in that war. You never forget the moment when you realise your bullet just killed a man. I know he was the enemy of course, but that doesn’t make you feel any less sick about it.” His eyes glazed over for a moment, lost in the bloody battles and trenches of his youth. I didn’t say anything, didn’t know what to say.

    A few seconds later, he returned to himself, and continued his story. “Yes, terrible times. And one of the worst thoughts while I was over there, was imagining her off with some other guy. I didn’t expect her to wait for me of course. Never asked her to. Hell, I might not have come back at all! But she did. Best day of my life, stepping foot on home soil again, and seeing her face in the crowds.”

     I grinned in delight, both at the story, and the look of utter devotion on that elderly face, memories of war wiped away, as a light and a youthfulness returned to his eyes.

     “And that was us. Got married, got jobs, bought a house, had kids. I’ve got twelve grandkids you know, and three great-grandkids now. Beautiful bunch they are too, couldn’t be prouder. And everything was great. I’m not saying my life was perfect, but it did pretty well for me.

     “It’ll be the third anniversary in a few weeks. Three years of coming to this bench. Three years since she passed.”

     I had suspected as much, based on his story so far, but that did nothing to lessen the lump forming in my throat.

     “Sure I visit her grave too, leave flowers there, but that reminds me of the last days. I still loved her of course. Still do. Loved her every single second of every single day. But watching the woman you love wither away… well. That’s why I come here. To remember how we started. To remember the pretty girl on the park bench, and all the years stretching out before her. I sit on this side too, so I can still imagine watching her there. And sometimes I see other couples on that bench too. I’m a softie like that. It’s nice to see others experience young love, like we did.”

     The two of us sat in silence for a few moments. His story was clearly finished, but I didn’t know what to say. Even my stone cold heart had bene touched by it. I hadn’t known what to expect when I first sat down next to him, but it certainly wasn’t anything as special as this.

     “Well, does that answer your question?” he broke the silence.

     “Yes,” I breathed, “Thank you so much for sharing that with me. It sounds like you really had something wonderful with her. I hope I can find that one day.”

     He nodded and smiled at me. “I hope you do too.”

     I got to my feet hastily, suddenly realising I was sign to be late for work. Not that I cared that much. It was definitely worth being late to have hear that story. I thought it was the sort of thing you only see in movies. But until my last day, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. The pretty girl on the park bench, and the soldier who had to be dared to talk to her.

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2 comments:

  1. Ah this is so beautiful, brought tears to my eyes. I am sharing on Facebook ☺

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much! I always worry this one is a bit cheesy, but I'm glad someone enjoyed it :)

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