The Occupant of Bench 24 by Tony Billinghurst

Autumn is my favourite season since the bomb test. I love watching the golden leaves turn purple as they fall from the trees; they look so pretty on the pink frost and, on a good day, you can hear them fizzle.

A lot of strange things have happened since the bomb was tested in Shetland; it was experimental and supposed to make local people vanish, but something went wrong and instead it scrambled time and worked in reverse. Even though the effects were beginning to wear off, it was still a pain having the seasons shuffled. To make matters worse, I’d been hitting the bottle and a few days after the test, I got breathalysed. The magistrate said that alcohol would be the ruin of me, and took my license away. I guess I had been overdoing it a bit, so I’d been trying to give it up.

I cycle to work through Victoria Park. The avenue has a bench under every tree. They used to bear memorial plaques, but the Council replaced the plates with numbers. Beside the road are manicured lawns, colour coordinated flower beds and clipped trees. It’s the pinnacle of municipal gardening and man’s attempt to control nature. Nature’s simple response in autumn is to bury man’s attempts under an untidy duvet of leaves.

It was late autumn when I first saw him and I paid little attention, but after I’d passed him a few times I began to take more notice. Every morning he was lying on bench number 24 and in the afternoon, he’d gone.

The town was a magnet for rough sleepers and buskers, some had talent; most didn’t. Although the tramp on bench 24 was one amongst many, there was something about him which troubled me. As the nights grew colder, I became increasingly concerned and I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He even invaded my dreams and stared at me, rubbing his eye with the back of his hand, just like I do and each night he grew older and more haggard; then I’d wake up in a cold sweat.  The more I thought of him, the more strung out I became. There was something weird and exasperating about him; it was like we’d met, which we hadn’t, or he was some sort of relation, but I haven’t any male relations. Whoever he was, he’d become the finger nail on my chalkboard. Screwed up seasons, a lack of sleep, a rough sleeper squatting in my head all got at me and before I was forced to drown them all out, on one particularly bad night, I decided to act.

The following morning on my way to work, I stopped off and bought a coffee to go with three of those pathetic paper twists of sugar. I cycled into the park with my heart racing. He was there again, lying on bench 24, asleep. He wore ex-army clothes and was covered with a sheet of polythene. He was surrounded by carrier bags, one was his pillow. A seagull pecked through his scattered rubbish. I figured that if I spoke to him and maybe slipped him a few quid, at the very least he’d get out of my head and let me sleep. I lent my bike against a lamp post and crossed the avenue.

“Hello.” I said and waited as he turned around. When he’d focused his bloodshot eyes on me, he gasped and sat back with a jolt. “I bought you a coffee,” I said, handing it to him. After a while, he took it from me and with a slow, theatrical sweep of his hand, dropped it into the rubbish bin next to the bench and then waived his dirt engraved finger at me.

“You – you get away from me,” he rasped in a hoarse voice, then vigorously rubbed his eye. You can’t haunt me – you can’t haunt anyone, I aint dead yet.” I span around thinking he was talking to someone behind me, but there was no one there. “Bugger off, I don’t want nothin’ from you – no sermons, nothin’.”  His aggression took me off guard.

“I thought I’d say hello – cold isn’t it?”

“Did you now? he slurred, then belched and waived his hand at me again, “so you thought you’d wake a law abiding citizen to tell ‘em what they already know.”

He pulled a half empty bottle of cider from his coat pocket, drained it, then dropped it over the back of the bench. “Got any fags?” And before I could reply, he continued in a mocking voice. “Oh, don’t tell me, you’ve given it up again.” He was right, I had given up again; I was horrified. How on earth did he know?

As he spoke, I noticed his centre tooth was crooked like mine, and I was about to say what a coincidence when I thought better of it.  Instead, ignoring his gut wrenching stench, I held my breath and lent closer to take a better look at him. His face was weathered and furrowed; life had been savage with him. Meeting him was beginning to look like a mistake, but for sanity’s sake, I had to make sure he was ok.

“Have you got somewhere to sleep at night?”

“Hostel – they chuck you out in the morning.” I was desperate to know why he thought he knew me, but thought better of it. “If you haven’t any fags, don’t just stand there, clear off,” he said, waiving me away. He pulled his coat collar higher, his hat lower, then laid down, turned around and went back to sleep. As I gazed at him, I began to realise what had troubled me. My heart hammered as the horrifying truth sank in. I now knew who I was looking at and I needed a drink like never before.

Tony Billinghurst lives in the West of England and is partial to smooth jazz, impressionist art, old buildings and the countryside. He has recently been published in The London Journal of Fiction, Fiction on the Web and The Ham Free Press.





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