The Empty Seat

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Names on benches, people who walked here, maybe walked alone. None of them alive now.

Imagine. Who was she? What did she think of as she walked through the trees?

A noise, a footfall …

This is not the wilderness of Dartmoor but I wouldn’t want Miss Tregarthur creeping up behind me.

Makes me think of murder. Makes me want write of murder:

Bench Mark (A draft story)

 

‘Sarah’s up by the waterfall.’

Fragments of conversation from two elderly women with wooly hats, snippets, as I sit and read. I found the book on mum’s shelves, not a great choice – ‘On The beach’ by Neville Shute – everybody dies and that really is everyone. Not great if I should be grieving, but I’m not. Mum died but she was eighty-five. Life had moved past her, too many different things were too difficult: energy suppliers, she didn’t want to change anything just keep warm.

They came round and called me ‘Angela,’ she’d tell me when I phoned. Mum had called herself Mary forever. ‘I’m no bloody angel,’ she’d say. ‘Much more of a martyr.’

I should have been up here to see her more often. ‘Why?’ she’d shout. ‘What do you want to come up here for? To see some decrepit old woman staggering around?’

And she meant it, the staggering particularly. She did get out to stagger, here, to this park with its duck pond, man-made waterfall and flowers when the time was flowers. Most days she’s stagger out. One of her neighbours phoned me about the empty bottles, but no-one was going to stop mum taking her ‘medicine’. In the end they said it was food poisoning. I suppose elderly care is not what it used to be.

Dad long gone before.

I’m up here clearing things out. Mum’s flat, ground floor, warden possibly but I’ve not found him, house long gone. There’s not much, except for bottles. Photographs of my life, our two kids growing up. They’d been to see her often until they left the country in search of jobs. More life passing away from her.

I’m sitting reading but not really reading. She isn’t the only one staggering out here. It is a place of extremes even if it is a man-made park. Old people, women mostly, edging walking frames along the muddy paths, while joggers mutter dimly to overtake. The ancient on mobility cars, youngsters on scooters. No middle aged apart from joggers. Not in the right place for workers to eat their sandwiches. I watch and listen to the snippets. It’s not the person Sarah who is up by the waterfall, it’s her bench, newish.

I hear from the elderly pair she was one of the staggering women, had been coming here for years. I have to go and see, up is a very generous term for the barely noticeable slope that leads up to a not very convincing waterfall. Green slimy looking stones sit in the water, but it’s where the ducks get fed. Everyone except the joggers fed the ducks.

“In Memory of Sarah aged 92 who took her time on this path.”

That doesn’t seem right. Sarah who? Don’t they usually cite the date of death and ‘took her time’ is not exactly a eulogy.

‘Stupid old bat always used to get in the way,’ says Wooly Hat number one who has crept (staggered) up behind me with her Zimmer.

‘Like me.’ And I’m sure she just moved her frame deliberately in the way.

‘Go home and die,’ Lycra clad earnest jogging man says loud enough for us to hear.

‘He’s the worst,’ Wooly tells me confidentially. ‘We have a plan to trip them up.’ She snorts a laugh. And I imagine a covert operation. Old ladies against the joggers. I imagine them meeting at the bandstand – further on away from the water on a patch of grass, no band – they’d meet and plan.

‘Did you know Mary?’ I ask.

‘You her boy?’

I nod.

‘Worst of the lot that man.’ A cackle escapes and she calls for wooly two. ‘It’s her boy, wants to know what drunken Mary used to get up to.’ She stops. Hand to her mouth. ‘Sorry, shouldn’t have mentioned the drink.’

Now I laugh.

‘He knew, everybody knew about Mary,’ the second lady has joined us.

We talk. I learn more about mum. The jogger goes by again; it is a circular route. He gives us a dirty look when the ladies wave their frames at him and almost giggle.

There’s a hoot from the road. It’s the ‘dial a ride’ come to take these two back to their houses of Autumn Sunset. I sit on Sarah. The jogger stops to drink.

‘Stupid old women,’ he snarls. ‘Shouldn’t let them in here, get in the way. Only good for one thing.’ He leaves before I can ask what thing, but I guess his meaning.

I walk the circular route and don’t trip anyone. There are a lot of elderly. If I was a runner it would be easy to want them out of the way.

I sit on another bench.

“In memory of Agnes, aged 87, always a place for her to stop.”

I frown. Not quite what I’d like. It does make me wonder if I should get a bench for mum. I check for inspiration. The older seats are more traditional: ‘Cynthia’s second Garden’; ‘Joan loved to smell the roses’. A few men: ‘Peter walked this path in all weathers’; ‘Paul gardened all his life.’ Only the newer ones became less reverent: ‘This place kept her off the roads’; ‘She a real hipster – double replacement hipster’; ‘She walked this way until the end …’.

What would I write for mum? About the booze? About the onslaught against joggers?

I have walked to the gate. It’s time to leave. I see the snarling jogger. He’s pulling off his trainers as he gets into his van: “A Wood, Specialist Joiner.” He sits in the driving seat, not moving. His eyes follow one of the last Zimmer walkers and he plods so horribly slowly along the road towards a crossing.

‘Patrick, hold on,’ the man calls.

A Wood gets out and is chatting to Patrick. Sits him in the van. He has a flask. Offers it to Patrick. He would give him a lift but a career appears and shepherds Patrick away. They are heading over to “The Evening Quiet” home from home. Old softy, MR Wood, I think and maybe his face always looks like that – snarling.

I walk on with more of mum’s life to sort.

****

I’m back to hand over the keys to mum’s flat. A couple of months later and it is the time for flowers. I have an hour to waste so I head for the park. I walk passed Sarah and past Agnes. The wooly hat ladies are not there. There are fewer old people and more joggers and more benches. Place looks like a gym turnout zone. I halt near the bandstand. Another new bench.

‘Patrick, aged 82. His Last Stop.’

I don’t stay. I still think of a bench for mum. Just don’t see what to write. On the way back to the flat I take the crossing that must have been a near last stop for Patrick. I meet a care worker coming from “The Evening Quiet”.

‘So Patrick died?’ I sort of question.

She frowns with English not being her usual language. She thinks. ‘Patrick dead. Yes.’

‘How?’

She is worried. ‘Maybe heart attack.’ But mutters something else.

‘I saw his bench,’ I say waiting for the light to change even though there is no traffic.

‘Ah Bench, yes, that Mr Wood, he make it.’ She looks into my eyes. ‘He make all benches when they die.’

‘A lot of benches,’ I try to sound light.

‘A lot of heart attacks,’ she takes a hurried step but turns back. ‘Don’t drink his tea.’ Then she’s gone at speed.

I gawp a lot. I hand over the keys to the flat. That is my last tie with this northern town, with my mum, my family. Perhaps I should do more but I am a coward. I buy a bench in a big chain shop and a pot of red paint. I go early into the park, no joggers, no Zimmer’s.

I place the bench facing the gate. And daub:

“In memory of Mary. Quite old, unsteady and mischievous. Ask Mr A Wood how they died.”

I run for the train home. Perhaps elderly care is exactly how it used to be.

 

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