Mr Whitford & The Miraculous Bench

Submitted into Contest #184 in response to: Write a story about a character who is experiencing glitches in their reality.... view prompt

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Fiction Friendship Fantasy

This story contains sensitive content

Content warning: themes of grief and bereavement


Mr Whitford & The Miraculous Bench


“You’ve got this, old boy,” Mr Whitford mumbled, as he hobbled down the street, avoiding any craters in the cobblestones with his walking stick. The midday sun beat down on his face and the distinctive whiff of the old village, an unusual cocktail of freshly cut grass and even fresher cooked pastries, wafted around him. The old man inhaled deeply. He forgot how much he enjoyed that scent.

He passed the florist, the greengrocers and the bakers, tipping his tweed cap through the open door and was met with a friendly welcome. 

“You’re looking well, Mr Whitford.”

“Glad to see you’re back up and about.”

“Long time no see, Conrad!”

It had been a long time, hadn’t it? Four months, to be exact. 

His ankles were stiff by the time he reached the local corner shop; a small store with the impressive quality of selling absolutely everything and nothing in particular all at once. The building was ancient, even older than Mr Whitford, and it relied on the butcher’s stable bricks next door to stay upright. Conrad looked down fondly at his trusty wooden stick. He knew how the poor building felt. 

The bell rang as he opened the door and static blasted his ears. Underneath the hiss was a musical hum, barely audible. 

“Mr Whitford!” The shop owner's daughter stood behind the till, tinkering with a radio. “You’re…” She trailed off before finishing her thought.

Mr Whitford removed his hat politely, exposing his balding head. “Yes, I’m alive and well, thank you, Jenny.”

“Thank Goodness! I must admit, I was fearing the worst. You know, there was a rumour at school that you had fallen over and froze to death overnight.”

Conrad chuckled at the imagination of the youth. So much creativity. So much life. “Yes, well, it did take me a while to defrost,” he added. 

The girl beamed. “Well, I’m just glad you're here. Sorry, I didn’t save you a newspaper each day like I promised, because, well, I thought…” 

Jenny had trouble completing her sentences. 

“Not to worry,” he replied. “Is that your dog?” Conrad gestured to a poster taped to the window. It had the word ‘missing’ typed at the top of the page, and a black pug with one eye gawked at them. It had as many wrinkles as Conrad. Perhaps even more.

Jenny’s face dropped. “That’s Snuggles. He went missing last weekend. When my mum’s back, I’m going out looking for him. Will you keep an eye out?”

The old man promised he would, although his sight wasn’t what it used to be.

With no newspaper to collect, he ventured to the sweet aisle and his gaze landed on a bar of hazelnut chocolate. His favourite. Their favourite. In bubble writing, the slogan read: Brand new recipe, unbelievably nutty! How could he resist? Out of habit, he picked up two but then put the second one back.

“Only one bar today, Mr Whitford?” Jenny asked as he returned to the till. 

But he heard the girl’s voice like she was underwater. Distant. Muffled. The crackling of the radio had dispersed and he could now decipher the song. And what a beautiful song it was.

Home is where the heart is,

“Mr Whitford?” 

And my heart is anywhere you are,

“Hello?”

Anywhere you are... is home.

Elvis. His favourite. Their favourite. 

“Sir, are you alright?” Jenny waved her hand in front of Conrad’s face, brows knitted with concern.

The old man cleared his throat and blinked repetitively to refocus the world. He took a deep breath - you’ve got this, old boy - and replied, “Yes, just one bar today, Jenny. Thank you.”


***


With the chocolate bar in his coat pocket, Mr Whitford crossed the road to his favourite park. No, their favourite park. It wasn’t large. Nor was it grand. And Conrad was relieved to find it mostly unchanged since his last visit four months ago. A lone oak tree towered in the middle of the common, its bark all knobbly, its leaves all bare. If his legs had been younger, he would have chosen to sit on the ground beneath it, just like old times, but now he feared he’d never get up again. 

Hold on - the old man scanned the common again - something was different. Along the pathway, there were two new wooden benches facing each other, freshly varnished and without a scratch. They looked quite appealing, the old man thought, and he had been on his feet all day, so he decided to rest his legs. It would have benefited from a cushion to soften the seat, but apart from that, the bench was perfectly comfortable.

Conrad rustled in his pocket for the chocolaty treat - well deserved after all that walking, don’t you think? - but his fingers gripped something hard, cold and distinctively, not chocolate.

In his hand was a glass bottle of nail varnish, the shade of blushing roses. 

The old man let out a whimper. “Oh, Edith..."


***


Sixty years ago, a stick-free Conrad took a stroll in the village park, as he did every weekend. The midday sun beat down on his face and the distinctive whiff of the old village, an unusual cocktail of freshly cut grass and even fresher cooked pastries, wafted around him. The young man inhaled deeply. Oh, how he enjoyed that scent. But his basking was rudely interrupted by a female voice cursing. 

“Blast this damn thing!” A young lady was sitting under the lone oak tree, fists pounding in the air.

“Miss, are you alright?” Conrad approached the distressed woman and saw she had pink all over her fingers.

“Yes, yes, I’m quite fine. Just having a spot of bother with my right hand.” 

A spot of bother, indeed. On the left, her fingernails were pristinely painted, but her other hand was a mess with streaks and blobs of polish.

Conrad cleared his throat. “May I assist?” 

The girl shuffled on her picnic blanket to make room for him. He took her hand in his, dipped the brush into the pigment, and delicately, he painted her nails, careful not to stain any more of her skin. 

“How’s that?” He asked when he was done. 

She surveyed his work thoroughly, checking each finger. “Not bad for a boy,” she giggled.

Conrad smiled and was about to stand up to leave, when a bar of chocolate landed on his lap, seemingly from nowhere. 

“Are you hungry?” She asked, unwrapping her own.

Hazelnuts. How could he resist?

“But before we make this first date official,” she continued, “I must know two things about you immediately.” 

This was a date? Conrad’s heart fluttered as the girl grinned at him, freckles bunching up on her nose.

“First, what's your name? And more importantly, do you like Elvis?”

Of course, Conrad liked Elvis. But he liked the girl even more. 


For six decades, every weekend, Conrad painted Edith’s right hand. On their wedding day he painted it ivory, on Christmas, fir-tree green, and when they found out Edith was pregnant, baby blue for their new little boy. Later, when his wife’s health declined and she became too fragile for the world, the old man played Elvis ballads on the record player and painted her left hand, too. Always the shade of blushing roses. 


***


“...Oh, Edith. How I miss you.”

Mr Whitford put the nail vanish back and pulled out the chocolate bar instead, but his appetite had withered. He sat there for a while, listening to the birds chirp from his and Edith’s tree when he noticed somebody perched on the bench opposite. 

“Excuse me, do you like hazelnuts?”

The person ignored him. How terribly rude. He tried again.

“I have a bar spare if you’d like.”

Again, nothing. The stranger remained silent, but their head lifted to face him. 

It was a lady with wiry salt and pepper hair, not much younger than Conrad. Large spectacles framed her eyes, and freckles speckled her nose.

Edith?

No, it was impossible. Crazy.

Conrad rubbed his eyes, hoping to wipe away the cruel hallucination, but when he opened them again, his wife was still there.

Could it be true?

He had dreamt of this day. The day in which he would see Edith again, healthy and well, but he had assumed it would be outside the white pearly gates, and not at the local park.

“My love?” He said out loud, voice quivering slightly. But Edith didn’t react. She seemed to be staring straight through him like he wasn’t there at all.

His knees cracked as he rose from the bench, surprising himself at how fast he could move. He couldn’t wait to touch her. To warm her cold hands. To plant a kiss on every freckle. But as he staggered towards her, Edith began to turn translucent, and then finally, she wasn’t there at all. 

The old man stared at the empty bench.

You’re losing the plot, Conrad, he told himself. Just like the chocolate bar, you’re unbelievably nutty.

The world started to whirl, his legs clacked together, and he shuffled back to the safety of the seat. But as soon as his rear met the solid wood, there she was again, sitting on the bench opposite as if sculpted from fresh air. 

How could that be?

“Mr Whitford!” Jenny came bounding over the common, hugging a large pile of pug-faced posters to her chest. “Any sign of him?”

“Uh, no. Sorry, Jenny.” Conrad's attention flitted between the girl and his wife, not wanting to appear rude.

“Damn,” she slumped on Conrad’s bench, swinging her legs to and fro. “Hey, Mr Whitford, isn’t that your wife? Why are you sitting separately?”

The old man nearly wheezed. “You can see her, too?”

“Duh! Is she ignoring you or something?”

Was she? It certainly felt that way.

“None of this makes sense,” was all he could muster.

“Well, my Dad says that if you make a woman angry, it’s best to apologise, even if you’re unsure what the apology is for.”

It was good advice, just not in this instance. 

“No, no, no, my wife isn’t upset or angry with me. My wife is…” Conrad took a deep breath. You’ve got this, old boy. “My wife is dead, Jenny. She passed away four months ago”

The girl’s eyes widened. “Well, no wonder she’s peeved if you go around saying stuff like that! She looks perfectly fine to -” But the girl’s train of thought was disrupted when a black pug leapt onto Edith’s lap. 

“Snuggles!” Jenny jumped up from the bench and then suddenly froze.

“They’ve disappeared, haven’t they?” Conrad whispered. 

Stunned, the girl nodded and slowly sat back down. “Are we going mad, Mr Whitford?”

It was a strong possibility. 


Jenny bounced up and down on the seat, attempting to cheat the system.

“Visible, invisible, visible, invisible,” she repeated, until she was satisfied with her conclusion: “It must have something to do with these new benches, don’t you think?”

But Conrad was preoccupied, feeling envious of the little dog who was receiving a good old chin scratch from Edith. On closer inspection, something was different about the pup. Jenny beat him to it.

“Mr Whitford? Is it normal for a dog to grow back their eye?” 

Like all the questions Conrad faced today, he didn’t have an answer. But before he could shrug or even consider a reasonable explanation, Edith and the two-eyed pug had vanished.


***


The next morning, Conrad rose early, with the unsettling feeling that yesterday had been a very peculiar dream. 

As he ventured through the village, he tipped his hat to the florist, the greengrocers and the bakers, but his friendly welcome didn't arrive. Everybody seemed to be distracted, their nose buried in the local newspaper. How strange, thought the old man. But by now, ‘strange’ was starting to feel familiar. 

He entered the corner shop and Jenny almost jumped over the counter to greet him. “Mr Whitford, I’m in the papers!” She handed him the broadsheet and there, on the cover, was Jenny sitting on the park bench, wearing a huge grin. The headline read: Bench you won’t believe this! 

If Conrad wasn’t so captivated, he would have rolled his eyes.

He skimmed the article but none of it made sense. The Journalist used phrases such as ‘glitch in the matrix’, ‘portal to a parallel universe’, and, well, it all sounded quite fanciful to the old man. 

“It’s like a window to another world,” Jenny explained. “A place exactly like here, but where your wife is still living and Snuggles has two eyes. They’ve found similar portals elsewhere: ancient temples in Thailand, The Catacombs in Paris, even the Bermuda Triangle.”

And now a sleepy little village in the English countryside. Fancy that. 

“This other world… Can they see us, too?” Asked Conrad.

The girl downcast her gaze. “I’m sorry, Mr Whitford, the article says the window is one-way, and the curtains could close at any moment. ”

Conrad gulped. Well, he better hurry.


***


A large crowd had gathered on the common. Newscasters stationed themselves like a blockade across the park, jabbering in front of giant cameras about the new ‘miraculous bench.’ In the distance, a cluster of figures in white lab coats loitered around the chairs, occasionally swabbing the wood, and nodding at each other enthusiastically. 

It looked like a crime scene.

But the only victim was Mr Whitford, whose heart was breaking. 

With such a fuss, it was impossible to return to the bench, or the window, or whatever it was, and it hadn’t occurred to Conrad he could lose his wife for a second time. 

“Well that’s that, then, Edith,” he said sadly. “I’m afraid our little secret is no more.”

But the old man wasn’t ready to leave. The lone oak beckoned him and tentatively, he hobbled away from the crowd, towards it.

When he reached the tree, he placed his hand on the knobbly bark and something came over him. Something fiery and bold and not very Mr Whitford-like at all. He didn’t care if he couldn’t get up. Even if it resulted in Jenny’s school rumour becoming a prophecy, he was going to sit on the grass. Right here, under the oak tree, in his favourite spot. Their favourite spot. 

He threw his walking stick to the side, and with a huff and a wheeze, he lowered himself to the ground.

And there was Edith, sitting right beside him, as though she had been waiting patiently all this time.

Conrad had found another window.

He trembled as he reached out to touch her, but his hand passed through her like a waft of smoke. He couldn’t hold her. He couldn't speak to her. But at the very least, he hoped the window was poorly fitted, so Edith could feel his love like a draft on a blustery day. 

Conrad sniffed as he pulled the hazelnut treat from his pocket, which was now slightly melted. “Are you hungry?” 

Of course, he wasn’t expecting an answer. Yet, happy to play pretend, Conrad placed the chocolate by her hand which was palm down on the grass.

Wait.

Something was different about his wife. Conrad looked closer. Something minute, that only he would ever spot.

Her fingernails on the left hand were perfectly painted, but her right was bare.  

Jenny’s voice drifted to his mind: "It’s like a window to another world. A world exactly like ours, but your wife is still living..."

… And a world which I’m not.

He lingered on that thought for a while, unsure how to feel, but then he had an idea.

“It looks like you’re having a spot of bother with your nails, Edith. May I assist?”

Conrad unscrewed the polish lid, and carefully, he began to varnish her right hand. The old man was conscious he was merely painting the air. Regardless of the number of coats, her nails remained plain, but he imagined her fingers growing pinker and pinker until they were the shade of blushing roses.  

When he was done, he admired his work. “Not bad for an old boy -”

A small shadow leapt onto Mr Whitford, nearly knocking him sideward. A face peered up at him, and below a wrinkly forehead, a singular eye blinked. 

Snuggles.

Conrad gave the dog a pat on the head. “I know a girl that will be excited to see you." 

The pug wiggled his tail and gave the man’s knee a loving lick.

Conrad swallowed past the lump in his throat and turned to his wife. It was time to say goodbye.

“I’ll see you soon, my love. I promise.”

Mr Whitford didn’t mean at the bench or beneath their tree. It was inevitable that soon this window would be discovered, too. Their special spot would be swarmed by tourists, newscasters and scientists, belonging to everyone but them.

No, the next time he saw Edith, she would see him, too.

He took a last look at his wife's face, memorising how many freckles she had and how her hair reminded him of both the moon and the midnight sky. And slowly, using his stick as a crutch, he hauled himself from the ground. By the time he had steadied his footing, it was just him and a one-eyed pug beneath the lone oak tree.

“Come on, Snuggles,” said Conrad, wiping the wetness from his cheeks. “It’s time to go home.”

Yes, home.

Home is where the heart is,

And my heart is anywhere you are,

Anywhere you are... is home.

February 10, 2023 14:53

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4 comments

Marty B
23:46 Feb 15, 2023

Great story, I liked the connections between reality and the other dimension.

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L Key
15:31 Feb 16, 2023

Thanks so much

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Amanda Fox
16:58 Feb 15, 2023

This is absolutely beautiful!

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L Key
17:19 Feb 15, 2023

Thanks so much, Amanda!

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