Bernard’s Bench. That’s what everyone calls it. Everyone who was born in the town was brought up calling it Bernard’s Bench and newcomers soon get into the habit. There’s no plaque or little commemorative plate, or even any lettering carved into it. At least none to do with it being Bernard’s bench. It’s not an especially decorative one – its metal is rusty and its paint is flaking – and it’s not especially comfortable either. It comes so close to it – if the seat were just a little higher, if the slats on the back were just that little bit closer together. But they’re not.
It’s just there, on the market square, between the pharmacist and the pound shop. Bernard’s bench.
Bernard Ellery was my grandfather. I have fond enough memories of him, but not what you would call dramatically fond ones. He was a kind man, and never lost his patience or seemed to mind childish questions and chatter, but he wasn’t the kind of grandpa who was a mine of fascinating stories and who always had a twinkle in his eyes. Later on in life I understood what people meant when they said you could tell he was an insurance broker. With no disrespect to insurance brokers. The bench wasn’t even outside his old place of work. Well, it couldn’t be now, as that branch of it had closed, to be replaced by the pound shop, but it wasn’t there before either. It was over on the other side of the square, the one that was sometimes called the posh side though I could never make out much difference. It had been replaced by a charity shop. It’s visible from the upstairs of the office where I work.
I knew very little about his private life, and don’t know that much more now. I know he lost his wife, my Grandmother, who was called Alma, when my Mum, their only child, was still a little girl, and he never re-married. Mum said she’d had a happy childhood though, and looking at the photos, I believed her.
He died when I was only twelve, and I have to say, to be honest, I was sorry, but not grief-stricken.
The strange thing is, given that it’s relatively recent (though the way years turn into decades can be quite disturbing!) nobody seems quite sure if the bench were there in Bernard’s lifetime, or if it only appeared afterwards.
Given that there are only two benches on the square, it’s empty surprisingly often. Or perhaps not so surprisingly. Though there are still some quite characterful (as estate agents would say, and I should know, I work in one!) buildings on the square, a couple Victorian, a couple more early 20th century, it’s never going to win any prizes for the most beautiful town with the best preserved architectural heritage or anything like that, but there are a couple of rather nice cafes, and it’s far more pleasant to sit in them, not least as the local bird population frequently uses Bernard’s Bench to relieve themselves. As soon as it’s cleaned off, it seems to come back.
I could probably count on the fingers of one hand (okay, two, if you include family) the people who know that I’m connected to the Bernard of Bernard’s Bench. I don’t have the same surname. Not that many folk know the surname anyway. It’s just Bernard’s Bench, not Bernard Ellery’s bench, which is a little odd, as I gather in life he was quite a formal man, though he didn’t make an issue of it.
A couple of weeks back, as I was returning with a sandwich lunch for myself and a colleague at Drake and Dobson, I noticed that there was someone sitting on Bernard’s Bench. A woman, probably the same age as me or a big younger, mid-thirties, I’d have guessed, though I’m not much good at guessing ages. She was bundled up in a big raincoat that seemed loose on her, even though it was a warm and dry day, more like March than February, folk said, as if the difference between those two months was deeply symbolic. At her feet were one cloth shopping bag that had seen better days, and one with the yellow and green logo of the pound shop. She flexed her shoulders as if to ease some tension or ache in them, and couldn’t stifle a yawn. Something told me that this was not a bored yawn, or an affected yawn, or one she had “caught” off somebody else. She was yawning because she was tired. Deeply, intensely weary. Her entire body language seemed to scream out that just getting up and going on her way was an effort that didn’t seem worth it. She didn’t exactly look ill, but as if she couldn’t remember when she’d last had any energy. I was reminded of the phrase often used for comic effect my get up and go had got up and gone, and it applied to the woman on Bernard’s bench, but it wasn’t comical at all.
Even though my colleague was waiting for her lunch, and I was pretty peckish myself, and though I’ve never claimed to be one of life’s Good Samaritans, something made me sit down beside her – cautiously, as I was wearing light-coloured trousers! – and ask if she were okay. Her expression was like none I had seen before, and it set a swirl of emotions off in my own mind. There was a sudden light in her eyes – rather nice dark grey-blue eyes, though with dark shadows beneath them – as if she couldn’t believe anyone was actually asking how she was, and yes, she was blinking tears away. Yet there was also an innate dignity, a quiet stoicism to her, that meant that though it was only human decency to have sympathy for her, she would never be an object of pity.
“If there’s anything I can do…?” I asked. I know it makes me sound awful, but that’s the kind of question I don’t generally ask, because people might just tell you. But though I’m not claiming any kind of Road to Damascus moment, I genuinely thought that (within reason) I would be willing to do anything I could to help her.
“You’re very kind but – no, that’s fine.”
“What kept you?” my colleague Lesley asked, amiably enough.
“Just – having a word with a lady who was on the bench.”
“Oh – right.” Was there a strange odd note in her voice? But she didn’t take the matter any further, and enjoyed her tuna and mayonnaise roll as I tucked into my cheese and pickle one. My conscience pricked me as I wondered if I should have taken the woman on the bench a sandwich, or at least offered to do so, but I had the sudden thought that though she did, in a way, undeniably look hungry, it was not a look of physical hunger. Instinct, and it was an instinct I was inclined to trust, told me that despite the raincoat that was too big for her making her probably look more skinny that, though she might not dine on the best of food, she was not going hungry. Not physically hungry.
There was nothing I could really put my finger on, but over the next couple of days, I had the sense that Lesley, and Jason (who was technically our boss, but most of the time you wouldn’t have known it, because he wore his authority very lightly, but, if needs must, effectively) were treating me ever so slightly oddly. There were the most trivial things – it seemed to me that, “You okay, Sheena?” wasn’t just some polite, form enquiry, and that they were shielding me from dealing with the more awkward clients and the more problematic properties. It was, frankly, a bit unnerving! I wondered if I looked unwell, but a glance in the mirror assured me I didn’t, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t come out with any silly or incomprehensible remarks. Finally, I told myself I was imagining things, the way you always do when you’re pretty sure you’re not imagining things.
I couldn’t help thinking about the woman in the oversized raincoat on Bernard’s Bench, and kept looking for her – surreptitiously from the upstairs office window, more blatantly when passing by. A few days later, I did see her again, and was relieved that she seemed to be in better spirits. We had a little conversation that was a bit stilted, but still left me thinking that I hoped I would see her again, and would like to get to know her better.
I was spending that weekend with my Mum and my stepfather James. After they’d got married, a couple of years back, they’d moved into a little cottage in a village about 30 miles away. I’d be lying if I said I’d never had any doubts whatsoever about James, but that was behind us now, and we were good friends.
It was something I generally looked forward to, in a quiet way. Every time I was there, looking out at wheatfields and knowing I was within a few minutes’ walk of a wood, I decided that I would love to move to the country one day, but inside I suspected that it might well stay within the realms of some day. They had made the cottage cosy, or perhaps more to the point, restored its cosiness, but not gone to extremes. There were not horse brasses (that had never been near a horse) nor corn dollies (that had never been near a cornfield) on every appropriate or inappropriate surface, and not every fabric was gingham or floral. I always found it rather touching that though I had never lived there on a permanent basis, the spare bedroom was referred to as your room or Sheena’s room.
I hadn’t given any especial thought to either mentioning or not mentioning the woman on Bernard’s bench, but in the end I got round to it, and it slotted sensibly enough into a conversation about plans for a bench outside the village hall. If memory serves, Mum just said something along the lines of, “I hope she’ll be fine,” or “Glad to see someone getting some use out of it.”
But the next day she asked me if I’d like to come for a walk in the woods with her. James had retired by now, but volunteered as a legal adviser to the local Citizens’ Advice bureau, and for once they’d asked him if he could come in on a Saturday as they had quite an urgent case.
I needed no second asking. It was that time of year when each day seems to be a transition, and I knew that the wild crocuses would already be showing their multi-coloured heads, and all around them and above them things would be in bud. It was still very mild, and a repeat of the infamous blizzards and sub-zero temperatures of the Beast from the East that had been the sting in the tail of winter and the unseasonal start to spring a few years ago seemed exceedingly unlikely.
“I hoped you would see the woman on the bench,” Mum said, simply, and I noticed she did not say “someone on the bench”. We knew each other well enough to recognise those little quirks of each others’ speech patterns, and I knew she had more to say. “Do you know why Dad – why Bernard – wanted that bench to be there?”
“Well – so folk had somewhere to sit,” I said.
“True enough. But there’s more to it than that.” I noticed that she had paused by a bench, by one of those rustic ones that sometimes seem to grow in woodlands as organically as the trees around them, though of course that can’t really be so. We did a quick “stain check” and then sat down side by side on it. “It’s time you knew,” she said, “And feel free to dismiss it as just one of those family old wives’ tales. He first met my mother – Alma, the grandmother you never knew, when she was laden down with shopping in town.”
She went on to say that Bernard, who was a keenly perceptive man, and a deeply compassionate one, behind his rather taciturn exterior, had noticed that the woman in the raincoat that looked too big for her was obviously careworn and laden down with her shopping. And that’s when he decided that the town, that the market square, needed a bench for people to sit down and rest. He helped the woman with her shopping, and, as folk say, one thing led to another. When she wasn’t careworn and tired, she had sparkling bright blue grey eyes and a mischievous sense of humour. People where he worked weren’t quite ready to write him off as a bachelor for life, but had decided there wouldn’t be a whip-round for wedding presence any time soon. But they were wrong, and within a few months he was engaged to Alma.
I had been about, theatrical-fashion, to exclaim, “Alma!” but then realised it was not a surprise at all. His own happiness didn’t make him forget what he’d thought about the bench, and Alma most certainly didn’t either. As she said, she had just been tired and having a bad sort of day, but there would be people who needed it far more
“I only had vague memories of her myself,” Mum said, sadly. “I think Dad got it just right. He never had shrines to her or anything like that, but made sure I knew about her. And then I saw her on the bench! I only realised that later, of course. But what I do know is that not long after I met your Dad. No, that’s not technically speaking true – I did know him a bit, he was a customer in the bank where I was working, but we realised that there was a definite spark.” She smiled now, but sadly. “We had 15 wonderful years together, and though we had meant to have more than one child, it didn’t work out that way, and you were our most precious gift and blessing. Then another five years later, I saw her on the bench again, and a couple of days later I did meet James. Make of it what you will, Sheena. I’ve always tended to see ghost stories just as entertaining books and TV, but – well, my mind is more open than it used to be.”
I didn’t honestly know if I were glad she had told me or not, and certainly tried to put it out of my mind when I went back into town. But a question was still fluttering around my mind like an irritating moth, and in the end I had to ask it. “Lesley, tell me the truth,” I said, “Last week when I talked about the woman on the bench, did you see her?”
“Well, no,” she admitted, “But I could have just not been looking at the right time. I see that now. Jason and I have talked about it since – hope it didn’t look like going behind your back! – and said we were too keen to jump to conclusions about – well, about ….”
“If I was what tends to be called under a certain amount of stress,” I completed the sentence.
You can draw your own conclusions. You can say – and I wouldn’t necessarily contradict you – that what Mum called the spark was there with Jason and me anyway. Both of us were an odd mixture of appearing to be extrovert, heart on the sleeve sort of people, but not necessarily finding it easy to admit to our feelings.
But this much I do know. Now we have both seen the woman on the bench, and she looks so much happier. I have thought of calling out “Alma!” or “Grandma!” but I have not.
But we’re going to see to it that the bench gets a make-over, or as Jason puts it, more to the point, a make-back, so it is not chipped and rusted and sad-looking.
That’s the least we can do.