By Michael Logan
Published in Chapman Magazine
I smile as I round the corner and see that my bench is empty. It is old and tattered, like myself, and streaked with pigeon shit, but it is the only thing I can call my own. Tucked up against a knee-high wall that branches off into a quieter road, it is close enough for me to see the impatient faces of the office workers as they rush past, but not so close that I feel part of the throng. This bench is my only destination; sitting in the sun the only task I can trust myself with.
As I shuffle towards my spot, the sun bursts through the clouds, spearing a shaft of sunlight through a gap in the buildings to illuminate one side of the bench. The sunny seat is big enough for one person to bask in; I can almost feel the heat as I shamble towards it.
I stop ten feet away when a man drops out from the bustling crowd and sits in the sunspot. He leans over to open his briefcase, and then sits back up with a folder and a sandwich. The sun picks out the lines on his suit, and for a second it looks as though it were fashioned out of fine silk thread by a sartorial spider. He shifts position, and the lines extinguish, rendering him bland once more.
Through a constant flicker of passing faces I watch him adjust his red silk tie, open the folder and begin to read. He doesn’t look up when two scantily clad young women sashay past within feet of him, nor does he move as two pigeons flutter to the pavement in front of him. Even above the traffic noise, I hear the male coo as he spreads his tail feathers and follows the female on a winding dance through the man’s legs.
I narrow my eyes and stumble forward conspicuously, yet the businessman doesn’t notice my approach until my shadow slides over his folder and onto his face. Only then does he look up briefly, going back to his reading as I lower myself with a sigh. I stay silent for a while, gauging the situation. He seems unconcerned by my presence, but I know that this means nothing: I have spent most of the last five years being ignored, and I am sensitive to the signs of feigned indifference.
As I look at this man, though, he does seem unfazed: his breathing is normal and his eyes don’t squirm in my direction then away again, fearful that any eye contact will invite conversation. Most surprisingly, his nostrils don’t twitch and quiver. I take a deep whiff of my crusty jacket: the stench of sweat, booze and piss is still there, so acrid that I can only assume his sense of smell is impaired. I shuffle along until my hip touches the sandwich that forms a barrier between us. He pulls out a fountain pen and writes in the margin. As the pen returns to his inside pocket I catch a flash of gold on his wrist. I pretend to yawn, lifting my arms up to bring my pit within a foot of his face. He doesn’t seem to notice.
I lower my hand and look up to see another swathe of grey cloud seeping across the sky, shadowing the mass that has just released the sunshine from its bondage. Before long it will reach the sun and leach the heat from my rightful place.
Turning my body sideways, I pull a leg up onto the bench. My boot comes off easily: the laces are frayed away to ragged thread, and the leather is so misshapen that it would probably fit over a cow’s hoof with ease. Naked toes bristle through the threadbare sock, which I peel off with some difficulty and drop onto the bench. A nose-curdling stench of fungus and decay now joins the stench from the rest of my body.
I wiggle my digits, tapping yellow nails against the wrapping of his sandwich, then rub the sole of my foot: dead skin collects in a little pile near his lunch. Once I have flaked off all that I can, I look at him. He has stopped reading, but instead of shoving his things into the briefcase and stalking off, he pulls out a sandwich and takes a massive bite. He makes appreciative noises as he chews, regarding the little triangle of bread as though it is the most beautiful thing in the world.
I put my footwear back on and lower my leg to the pavement. I am at a loss until I scratch my head and a lump of dirt falls out. Inspired, I lean forward and fret at my scalp through sparse hair. Things that I cannot identify patter down amidst the rain of brittle grey hairs, bouncing onto his expensive trousers. He waits until I am finished before pulling out a monogrammed handkerchief and dabbing his thighs until they are free of contamination. He folds the cloth back up and returns it to his breast pocket, teasing the tip up to form a neat little cone.
I lean back and let my head fall between my shoulder blades. Up in the heavens, the sun shines on in face of the approaching cloud. The grey shutter has now been drawn across half the sky. I have only minutes left. Tensing my buttocks, I try to squeeze out some wind. I am in luck as a loud rasp punctuates the silence between us. The businessman draws in lungful of air, holds it, and breathes out a contented sigh. For the first time, he speaks: “Don’t you just love the smell of the summer air?”
I snap my head up to see him return to his notes. I am beginning to wonder if the man is simple. Nobody before him has ever lasted this long. Any sane, respectable citizen would have fled by now, and found somewhere to sit in peace.
Finding I have no more disgusting things left to do, I resort to irritation. I have a strong, loud voice, and I take a deep breath to maximise the volume before singing: “O Flooer o Scotland, when wull we shee…”
I deliberately slur the words as they come out, distorting them until they become but a murky outline of the song. Almost everyone nearby reacts: a group of young girls look over and giggle; a pair of old women tut loudly and shoot me identical withering looks; a passing shopper even throws fifty pence at my feet. Only my neighbour remains impassive as I belt out the song.
When I finish, he is still ignoring me, so I go back and start all over again. My heart quickens as he sighs and puts the folder down. He clears his throat and turns toward me. I can’t believe my ears as he puts his hand over his heart and joins in: “…and stood against him, proud Edward’s army, and sent him homeward, tae think again.”
I trail off in the face of his booming and melodic refrain. He continues without me, drawing even more curious stares from the people on the street, stopping some in their tracks. He continues to the end of the song, all the while keeping his eyes on me. When he falls silent there is applause from the onlookers. He bows and sweeps his hand to the floor, then turns back to me. His voice is soft and insistent: “It won’t work, you know.”
I have now recovered from my shock, and find that I am embarrassed. The audience remains, and I know they are watching to see how I shall react. I drop my eyelids until I am looking through slits and let saliva bubble over my lips. “Whassat, pal? D’ye want a kick in the baws?” I mumble.
He shakes his head and smiles. “Look, my friend, you can drop the act. If you want to sit here, you’re going to have to persuade me that you deserve it.” The slobber runs down my chin and falls to the seat with a plop. “Well?” he asks.
I know that I will not get this man off the bench by intimidation or irritation, and I doubt I am capable of a physical solution. Without looking at the sky I know the cloud is still bearing down on the sun: I can almost feel the shadow skulking through the back roads towards us. I have no choice but to talk to him.
“Do you always torture homeless people on your lunch break?” I ask, grimacing at the unusual feel of the correctly pronounced words upon my tongue. He makes no reply, instead looking steadily at me until I begin to speak again. “You’re not enjoying sitting there. You’re reading this…” I flick his documentation, “…rubbish, not even noticing the sun.”
He shakes his head. “On the contrary, I sat here because of the sunshine. Do you think I’m immune to the pleasures of a warm shaft of light because I’m reading? Would you have said anything if I had a novel in my hand? No, you would have thought I was relaxing. Why should it be any different because I’m reading insurance documents?”
“It’s the way you’re reading. You don’t look at anything else. I mean, two young lassies walked past with legs up to their necks, and you didn’t even lift your head.”
He slaps his thigh and exhales sharply. “What, you mean the two teenagers, one in a red mini skirt and the other one in blue hot pants? I’m just good at hiding it when I look at women. I was married for thirty years. Besides, how did you know I wasn’t homosexual?”
He looks at me with raised eyebrows, but I don’t acknowledge his point. “You still didn’t look happy. Anyone else would have stretched, maybe rubbed their eyes and looked up at the sun or something. You just sat down and started reading. I want to sit there because it’s sunny. You don’t even care. You only sat down to read your bumph.”
He sighs and looks down at his papers for a second. His voice is quieter when he speaks. “Yes, you’re right. I could have read this anywhere. I could have stayed in my office, with its artificial light and stale air, buried my head in these notes and stayed there until cobwebs grew on me. I didn’t. I chose to come out for my lunch; my whole reason for coming here was to catch some sun on my break. My reading is secondary to that.”
I grit my teeth, now feeling that I have little chance of moving this man by arguing. I was foolish to think that I could. After all, he is a businessman. No doubt he spends all of his time debating, bullying and chiding. Most of the time I am alone with my thoughts and dreams. I am a master of the monologue – a man with so much solitude can be nothing else – but this does me no good now.
Perhaps I could tell him the tragic story of my fall from grace, how one tired night I made a mistake that cost someone their life and me my career, but no amount of sunshine would be able to dispel the blackness the memories would bring on. Even now I feel them sneaking forward, eager for the slightest opportunity to seep through and torment me. I push them back and try to find the words to dislodge this man. “Fine. You came here to sit in the sun, but that doesn’t mean you deserve it more than I do. Look at us both.” I pause to let him inspect me. He runs his eyes up and down my body, stopping to note the dirt under my fingernails, the holes in my jacket and the stains on my shirt before settling back on my face. He doesn’t say anything. “I have to beg for food, I don’t have anywhere to stay, and I can’t afford a watch like that.” I jab at his wrist. “Sitting in the sunshine on my bench is the only pleasure I have left.”
When I pause, I feel the ire that the vocalisation of my condition has brought threshing around in my head, muddling the few coherent thoughts I can muster. Trying to find some focus, I begin again, this time with more venom. “I’ll bet you’ve got a full stomach, plenty of money, a big house, a garden, a wife, kids, friends, everything I don’t have. Are you really telling me that you would deny an old man one of the few enjoyable things left in his life?”
By the time I finish, the anger – too powerful for me to contain – has burst out: my lungs are heaving, and blood charges around the veins of my face in an aimless frenzy, while saliva from my thrashing jaw has spattered my face. I feel my fists bunch up, begging to be launched into his face. I am edging closer when he offers me his handkerchief. This white flag derails me from my course of action, and I gawk at him for several seconds before snatching the cloth and wiping my chin. The material is softer than anything I have felt in years: softer than the blankets in the hostel, softer than the old clothes that stick to my body, softer than the sheets in the many hospitals I worked in.
He hasn’t taken his eyes off me all the while. His voice is as calm as mine was strident when he replies. “I’ve looked at you, and I can see that you’re poor, but have you looked at me? You’ve seen the fancy clothes and the gold watch, but have you seen the person behind them? Take a good look at me now.”
He leans towards me, bringing his face so close that I have no choice but to look. My eyes widen, and the handkerchief slips from my fingers, as I take in his true appearance. His skin is the same washed-out grey as his hair, save for dark circles that smudge both eyes. Deep lines encircle all of his features, but they aren’t the kind of marks left by happiness. Each groove traces out a component part of an expression gnarled with pain. His warm eyes look out of place, like two pearls shining from a stagnant pool. Now that I look at his suit again, I see it is hanging off him, as though all that supports the jacket is a wire coat hanger. The gold watch dangles around his wrist, only the thickening of the hand preventing it from sliding off completely. I don’t need to ask him what is wrong: I have diagnosed enough people with the same illness over the years. “Cancer,” I whisper.
He nods as I edge backwards in an attempt to escape the ravaged face that fills my vision. How could I not have noticed this before? Ah, but I know the answer to that. All I saw was the suit, the watch and the money. I didn’t look beyond to the man at all.
“I’ll be dead in two months, maybe three,” he whispers, leaning in closer and forcing me to look at him.
“I’m reading on my lunch break because I have to sort out my affairs. I want to leave my business in a fit state for my son to take over.” He spits out a small, bitter chuckle. “I suppose the only good thing about this disease is that when it’s had its way I can be with my wife again.” He stops again, and the lines on his face sense his vulnerability, taking their opportunity to spring into focus, creating an expression of such sorrow that I wince. He shakes his head, and the grimace falls away. “The only pleasure I have on a day like this, when I can feel the disease gorging itself on my flesh, is to sit in the sun and feel the warmth seep through to my bones.”
I shift on my seat and look down at my lap. All of my anger at him has evaporated, leaving in its wake a draining pity for us both: the man he is, and the man I once was. He reaches out and places his hand on my knee. I flinch, but he doesn’t pull away. “I’m not telling you this to make you feel guilty. I just want you to know that I’m not sitting here to spite you.” He laughs, and for a moment his face looks as alive as his eyes. “It’s funny, but despite our different backgrounds, we seem to have something in common. We’re just two old men who need to warm our hides in the sun.”
His hand still heats my knee through the thin cloth, and I reach out with the intention of removing it; instead I find myself giving it a gentle pat. He smiles at me, and for the first time in years, I feel my humanity resurface. His hand tightens on my leg. “Anyway, you didn’t know. And I know this is your bench, and that you come here every day. I’ve seen you sitting here often enough when I popped out to the shops for cigarettes.”
I am startled into speech. “You knew I’d be coming and you still sat here? Even though you knew I would try and get rid of you?”
He shrugs. “It’s the closest bench to my work, and the sun came out just as I reached it. I couldn’t really walk much further anyway.” He stops to pluck his handkerchief from the bench, twirling it one bony hand before looking into my face. “So, do you think I deserve the seat?” I nod my head and prepare to stand up, but he raises his hand to bar my way. “Not so fast. There is a way we can both sit in the sun.” He kicks the leg of the bench with his heel and it shifts a fraction. “This thing isn’t bolted down. I’m sure two strong men like us could move it along a few feet.”
I look over his shoulder, and realise that the sunshine extends well beyond the end of the bench. I meet his eyes once more, and I see in them a kindness that I know has been missing from mine for a long time. If I still knew how to cry, tears would be in my eyes. Instead all I feel is a tight knot of frustration pulsing in my chest, and the sudden desire to vomit.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks, “The sun will be gone soon.” Light bathes his face as he smiles, and as the death mask melts away, so does the blockage in my chest.
I nod, and we clamber off the bench to grab an end each. I can feel eyes upon us: two old men, one as ragged as the other is elegant, puffing and panting as they shove a bench into the sunlight. I laugh, and it feels good in my throat. He looks up at me, his face red with effort. “I’m surprised an old codger like you has the breath to laugh.” This sets me off, and he joins in. We have to stop, both of us wheezing like punctured accordions. When we have sufficient air, we make a final effort to push the seat wholly into the sunshine.
We sit back down, and once again he offers me the hankie. I wipe my brow and give it back to him. “My name is James,” he says.
I reach out and clasp the offered hand. “I’m Ian.”
His fingers linger on my palm before he withdraws his arm and lets out a contented sigh. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
I nod my head and lean back. The sun is hot on my forehead, and I close my eyes to gaze upon a pattern of scarlet veins on the inside of my eyelids. We sit together, James and I, and although I know the shade is coming, it no longer matters.