Thoughts on a park bench

Time stopped for a moment as the old man watched the children playing their careless games around him. They were untroubled and free, and he remembered when that was him, running wild in crisp autumn light. And just like him, he knew these children would grow old and experience unspoken pains, loves and losses.

But there would always be more children to take their place. New faces playing old games – a reminder of life’s unending potential. And he promised himself that when time started again, as it always did, he’d walk gladly into it with new eyes and an open heart, wiser than before.

Glove

You’re watching your father’s car roll away from the drive through the slit in your bedroom curtains. He didn’t even know you were home. You’ve been hiding all afternoon. You draw in a determined breath as you clutch your slim wrists, hiding the mark. You’ve always been so slim, leaving you with that feeling of not yet being complete – a feeling you hid from all but me. Your physical awkwardness is charming to others, yet you’ve always seen it as a source of embarrassment.

The first day we met, I could see you sink into yourself almost immediately, protecting whatever it was that was inside. You spoke with such refined care, as if you were subconsciously spell-checking yourself at all times. I found out later that your politeness had been forced into you from an early age. Not just the ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’s’ that we’re each armed with from the moment language begins to form at our lip – yours was so intense that it became a shield to hide behind. Etiquette was etched into you so hard that today I can almost see the scars of it on your skin. You’re afraid of being found out, of having that paper-thin layer of poise peeled away that would inevitably reveal your true self. Your outer-strength is a white lie that hides your inner fragility. And that’s it. That’s your biggest flaw, that you hide that fragile perfection that makes you so beautiful.

I know you though, and I’m so grateful for the fact. I know that beyond the carefully constructed social life your family and peers create, beyond the politeness, the airs, the graces and the pristine house you live in, that deep down you celebrate the feral – the wild and the free. I know that this presents itself as a need to be outside at every opportunity and it was that need that brought us together.

His car is out of sight now. Quick, gather your things and get out. Grab that glove from your bed. When you find the other one you’re going to want to keep your hands away from the chill. Your heart will be cold enough on its own. That’s right, sneak out of the back door, just like you always have. The woods are only a short walk from that huge garden of yours, that great expanse of strategically placed flora and stone that I was never able to enter. I belonged in the wild, away from your life.

Oh, you’re running? Mind your step, the trees are growing thicker. You don’t want to fall. Surely this is the worst time to draw attention to yourself by doing that? I’m sure you’ll be fine though, this route must be second nature to you now. ‘Second Nature’. That term carries so much weight when linked with you.

Look, you’re nearly there, the river is getting much louder. It was so fast this morning, don’t you think? A bit too fast. You’ve always loved that river though, the way the flatness of the land around it causes it to spill over at the slightest increase in rainfall, turning the floor of the woods into a mirror that makes the trees infinite.  You’ve arrived at last, catching your breath as you tread carefully onto the small pier built for fishing, but that you’ve never seen used for purpose.

This is where we stood.

How many times have we met here, spending hours just talking and listening in turn? I think we both lost count at exactly the same moment – the day you opened up to me at last, tears streaming down your cheeks. I held you so tight and felt you relax in a way you’d never relaxed before. But we could only be friends, you made that so clear. Somebody like you just couldn’t be with somebody like me. You never said that exactly, but I knew that’s how you felt. Why did I accept that? Your family had status and that couldn’t be threatened. By letting yourself be your true self for once, you were risking your name, and what was more important than that?

Step just a little further, there’s your glove! It seems so strange now laying there at the edge of the pier, doesn’t it? A lifeless hand clutching onto an already forgotten memory, so close to joining the racing current below. It’s still dry though, at least. You can wear it, untainted. You’ve hidden the evidence by placing your hand through it. You’re safe now.

I’m watching you as you turn away from the river, I know you won’t look back. But is it fear that stops you or shame? Guilt perhaps – three very different things. Who would have thought that just three hours ago I was stood here with you, feeling your heart race as your breath warmed my neck. It was you that kissed first, don’t forget that. It was you that reached your hand under my coat to touch the skin on my back. I was just reciprocating. I could feel your desire. I know I took it too far, but you didn’t need to push me away. Especially here. You knew how fast the water was, how deep it had grown over the course of the winter. But you pushed. After all, pushing away from what you truly wanted had always been in your nature. Second nature? I’m not sure which came first.

I’m gone now though. They’ll find my body eventually. You were too scared to jump in after me and certainly too scared to cry for help. Both gloves are on your hands now, you’re protected again. Nobody will ever know it was you. I just disappeared. You’ll be fine without me. Rebuild that paper-thin shield and move on. Go back to pretending that you’re somebody else. The garden is safer than the wild, after all.

Something we hadn’t forgotten

For weeks the heat has built, with the sky a permanent pale wash of blue. It’s as if the earth is storing all of its energy and taking in one long, deep breath before it rages. Today this long summer seems to rest on the edge of a precipice and, as the sun crawls lethargically across the sky, the trees begin to stir faster and the wind pulls and pushes the cooling air. There is an energy that can almost be grasped. The storm is coming.

I step outside, breathing in the moment. I’ve always loved days like these. Memories of running barefoot into the street, arms aloft under heavy August showers. Spinning wildly, becoming increasingly dizzy with ecstasy as soaking clothes cling to my skin.  Before I had even begun understand it, this summer rain had always held a promise of new possibilities. Today is no exception.

I turn a corner and stand still, breathing in deep. The street I stare down is such a familiar sight to me yet in this moment, it seems to take on a new life, a new meaning transcendent to anything else. The road is a dead end adorned by a wire fence that holds behind it endless miles of corn field, country paths and hours of memories. What is it about being home? After several sporadic visits to the place I’d grown up, I had expected the constant nostalgia to end, yet it returns with the same intensity with each and every visit. Am I the only one that experiences this with such force? Perhaps I’ve just been wired in such a way that my memory is inclined to constantly recount the endless halcyon days of youth. I’m addicted to the melancholia of it all.

Reaching the end of the street I press down on the barbed wire, strategically placing my fingers between the barbs before swinging each leg over in turn. This ‘leap’ into the field was once so much more of an effort during countless days spent bounding over into the long grass below. I would spend hours here with my childhood friend, Sarah, diving into the thick mass with green-stained knees, drunk on its unique earthy scent. Even now I can feel her soft breath on my cheek as we lay in hiding and that electric sensation between our hands as they rest just beyond touching – the air thick with possibility.

Almost two decades since, I look out onto anaemic, arid earth. Stepping into the field, the brittle needles scratch at my bare ankles before snapping under my weight. A shadow edges its way across the field. I look up to see a light wisp of cloud beginning to form above. A breeze rattles through the field before falling silent again. Those days in the lush field suddenly seem long ago. As I look down at the barren dirt, the present becomes a graveyard to the past – longing for what has been and dreading what is to come.

I carry on.  The field is wrapped over a gentle slope that creeps down to a narrow footpath. I would walk here so often with Sarah as we grew older into our late teens. It became synonymous with the evenings and weekends we’d spend together. I could’ve walked this path a thousand times with her and it wouldn’t have been enough. When nothing stands in the way of perfection, its fragility remains protected and those wrapped up in it remain blind to its ability to crack. Everything was somehow more real in those days. We still had the ability to be profoundly affected by something that today we seem to have inevitably become desensitised to. We withdraw further into ourselves and leave the paradise of teenage years behind for adult life.

As we grew older, we stayed together. She seemed to flourish with each year as she devoured opportunity and savoured the possibilities of life. I was exactly the opposite. By my late twenties, I had fallen into a state of depression, leaving me bitter without reason and ruthlessly anti-social. I was dragging her down with me before she even realised it. We were married. What choice did she have?  She stood as a testament to that often forgotten vow, made one day in a haze of ecstasy. While her family had long turned against me, she couldn’t give up. She couldn’t let go of the memory of love. Maybe once I had helped her forget the world, but soon it became clear the world had forgotten us both.

I reach the end of the path and turn back to look down it. The sky is heavy to the point of bursting now and the trees begin to moan under its weight. I realise that the last good thing I did for her was leave her.  She bore my burden for too long. So I find myself here, remembering her as a series of summers. In front of me is a wooden gate that opens onto a small bridge, beyond which stands a lone oak tree.  I can just make out it’s highest branches from here; still as green and majestic as I remember.

Walking over the bridge, I notice that the water running beneath me has almost completely disappeared after months of ceaseless heat. The drop to the bottom isn’t too far but we would often dare each other to jump in when the river was full. She would always jump first: I never quite trusted my own ability to swim back to the surface. The tree ahead draws closer and rises majestically above the rest. Not even a summer of drought has paled it’s vivid leaves. It stands patiently, trusting in the rain that is about to come. Whatever the years throw at it, it continues to reach up.

As I reach the tree, I notice a bench sitting by it. I sit and look across at the valley straight ahead of me. A cricket squeaks its welcome. A sudden sense of arrival sweeps over me – I’m here. Even the far-off sounds of planes and roads console me; their distance is a comfort. Everything is still yet thrives with life. We share the same contentment, quiet: peace.

I close my eyes and for the first time in years, I think of nothing, and it is bliss. In somewhere so unchanging, I feel so far from myself. I touch the soil, the bark and the grass to remind myself of something I hadn’t forgotten, just to check.

As I breathe in the sweet, pungent smell in the air, a large splash of water bounces from my cheek, soon followed by another down my neck. I reach out my hands as more rain follows. A streak of lighting tears the horizon in two and becomes suspended in that moment. I look up to the sheet of grey above me and smile. Standing up, with my clothes now clinging to me in the mid-summer storm, I reach upwards like the child I once was and begin to spin.

 

A Journey to the Circus

Elek allowed the low rumbling of the boat to ease him into a serene daze, savouring the gentle familiarity as it rocked. Not quite closing his eyes, he enjoyed the blurred patterns being painted into his vision by the shimmering fairy lights of the cabin.

‘Here they come’, a gruff voice grumbled in broad Hungarian.

Snapped out of his daydream by his father’s statement, Elek lifted his body to look out of the cabin window. Excitable tourists were flooding onto the boat and voices and accents from countries he hadn’t even heard of began to flood his ears. He turned excitedly to his father, who merely shook his head and looked back to the small television screen in front of him, more interested in the ongoing football match than yet another stream of what he would call ‘rowdy’ tourists.

But the young boy wasn’t interested in whatever match his father was watching tonight. As always, he stared out onto the deck of the boat as it filled up. There were boys and girls his age, tugging eagerly at their mother’s coats and pointing out down the river Danube. Lovers were wrapped in each other’s arms, swooning at Elek’s hometown, Budapest and seeing it in ways he couldn’t imagine.

As the last of the tourists filed on, the old boat’s engine began to pick up and its regular thump gathered speed. Elek’s father casually turned the wheel and eased the boat out onto the open waters of the wide river.

This was Elek’s favourite time of year. It was mid-august and the nights were warm, that was one reason, but what he really loved was that the circus was in town. Every year, the travelling circus would arrive and set up on Margaret Island, sandwiched between the city’s two banks of Buda and Pest. His father would clean down the old family boat and transport streams of tourists to and from the island. Elek had never actually been to the circus himself but he had always been promised a visit ‘one day.’

‘Apu, Apu, can I go stand with the people?’ Begged Elek, his face light with excitement.

‘Stay on the upper deck, though, so I can see you.’

His father’s reply was always the same and Elek was only too happy to obey – the top deck gave him the best view of the city after all.

Elek squeezed through the long legs of the crowd and worked his way to the railings. He loved looking at the reactions on all of the faces as they peered out in awe at the seemingly infinite number of landmarks the city had to offer. He followed their line of site to the great statue of the Citadella, towering over the city on Gelert Hill. He always thought the statue looked a bit like an angel at this time of night, watching over them all as they passed by on their little boat. Next was the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Castle hill. This was his favourite of all, and he imagined it as a palace in a fantasy land, where he was the king and every day was spent journeying to the circus with his father. But in his world, they were the guests.

Elek looked back into the cabin, wishing that his father would look up from that wheel or the television screen for just a moment. He had once told Elek that ‘only tourists get excited about this city’, but it just wasn’t true. Elek loved watching the passengers get excited by it all. They reminded him that everything was new and exciting if you only looked at it through the right eyes. He vowed never to forget the Angel at the Citedella or the fantasy castle of the Fisherman’s Bastion. He swore to himself, that when he got old like his father, he would always smile when he drove that boat up the river and see the world just like these happy tourists.

Suddenly, the boat gave one last big sputtering thud and a slight jolt. Everyone laughed as they tried to keep their balance. They had arrived at the island. Elek ran to the front of the boat, right in front of his father’s cabin. He could already hear the familiar music bounce around the island, and just make out the great red tent. It was strange to love something he had never seen, but this circus was his favourite thing in the world. Elek turned to his father, expectantly, and he smiled back at him, mouthing those familiar words.

‘One day, son. One day.’