The Yellow Bench


The Yellow Bench



It was facing entirely the wrong way. Anyone sitting on it was forced to look up the unspectacular road instead of towards the low rocky hills that caught the morning light; nor could they take in either the sunrise or the sunset, so obdurately off-center was the bench, in the midst of the low succulent verge garden. It was painted yellow, now worn and weathered by the sea air and alternate seasons of blistering summers and howling wet winters but standing in firm contrast amongst the greenery. The hissing thud of the sea, echoing off the hills, was a constant roar, now gentle, now angry, now obliterated by the low mindless rumble of the goods train of countless open trucks loaded with iron ore, heading for the ore ships waiting down the coast.

The bench stood, very visible on the wide verge of the house opposite mine, making a definite statement - one that defied understanding but invited speculation.

I speculated endlessly. What else did I have to do? I had come to stay in the brown house with the green tin roof to recover myself, find myself and to get rid of other parts of myself - to remake, re-decorate, from the inside out.

I stood each morning, dazed with sleeplessness, as I warmed my hands around my coffee and pondered why the yellow bench was angled so awkwardly, making its wordless statement. A gardener’s eye, an artist’s eye, an engineer’s eye would have felt the urge to shift it, so unsatisfyingly placed, as though for some definite purpose, but what?

The house was silent, shuttered and still – a weekend getaway maybe for someone who dreaded the pressure of the city and preferred, like me, to face the low-pressure systems of the regular trail of cold fronts that swept relentlessly across the west coast in winter, dragging clouds, slanting rain and icy air behind them.

I wanted – relished – the sharp chill of the nights and the sparse but welcome sunshine that periodically broke through the dull morning clouds – something to fight against, something to strive with, instead of the long, quiet helplessness of my loneliness.

Weaverbirds nested noisily in the low twisted tree in the garden opposite but no one ever came to look into the succulents’ fat hearts, to embrace the gradual opening of the bravest daisies to the icy, thin spring weather, or to sit on the yellow bench.

It was only the slow-dragging ore trains and I that moved in that place. Each day I trudged, battling Antarctic winds along the wide empty beach where I dodged putrid seal carcasses, mounds of rotting kelp and the perky but cautious oyster-catcher community that skittered up and down ahead of me, taunting me with their purpose and energy, until they took off in a clatter of black wings, to land further up the beach and taunt me again.

As I neared home, I contemplated the yellow bench yet again, squatting awkwardly among the weeds, and noticed a window in the house behind was open, the grey shutters pushed back. No other signs of occupation. Then, on my evening walk, I saw the shutter was closed once again. The only sign of life I’d seen in the weeks I’d been there.

After that I watched the house with a stalker’s intensity, deeply curious to know who had so deliberately placed the bench so that a seated person could only look down the bleak empty road, not to the hills, not the spectacular sunsets nor the heaving ocean.

One blustery day I saw them. An elderly couple. She was dumpy and short, dressed in layers of knits and a bobble hat; he was taller but as bent as she, in bulky jersey and boots. They were moving cautiously among the plants, with the determined fragility of old age, bending and poking about, grey herons around the yellow bench.

‘Hello’ I called out. ‘Good morning.’

They both lifted startled faces and two backs were carefully straightened. The woman unsmiling, turned and headed unsteadily down the gravel path and into the house but the man, grey moustache an old friend on his lined face, wispy hair a departing friend on his liver-spotted head, nodded.

We introduced ourselves. Then, because I had to, I asked: ‘Who placed the yellow bench there, just so?’

‘She put it here,’ he said. ‘Our son went away to find work in the city and she told him she’d look for him every evening, watch for his return, successful and with a wife and children – grandchildren for her to pet and spoil.’ He sighed and looked at the backs of his hands. ‘He never did come back.’

‘You hear from him though?’ I really wanted to hear a positive word from his mumbling mouth.

‘Sometimes, not often. But she still sits there when she feels well enough.’

‘When did he go?’ I asked faintly, not really wanting to hear the answer.

‘Ten years ago.’

I said nothing.

The unusual sound of an ambulance siren woke me in the night. Why? I wondered, when there’s literally no traffic in this village. When morning came, I went over the road. I needed to know that all was well, though fear trailed its icy fingers on my skin.

He was on the verge, grey head bending over the yellow bench, stacking kindling and logs around the base. I called out against the wind but he didn’t even lift his head, so intent was he, gnarled hands working steadily, head and back creating a gently dipping question mark that exemplified all my thoughts but as usual gave no answers. Until I got closer.

He was going to set fire to the bench. She was gone, he told me simply. There was nothing to keep him here now. Urgently, impulsively I asked: ‘Can I have it instead? It is a symbol of hope.’

Dull-eyed, he nodded and turned away, the box of matches spilling among the pebbles like toothpicks, the white stick of fire-lighter abandoned in the gutter.

The old man was gone the next day and the house locked and bolted. I never saw him again.

Grunting but determined, I dragged the yellow bench from its home and placed it outside my own house but I angled it towards the sunset with its back to the empty road, the heedless railway line and the stumpy hills beyond. I drank my morning coffee there every day. I wasn’t looking for anyone or anything. Not yet. I was just allowing myself to recreate.

One morning a tall wiry man with brown hair that flopped in the wind, stopped his red car next to my yellow bench, got out and after greeting me, asked about the house opposite. I had little to offer so I invited him to sit beside me while he told me that the old man had gone into a care home after his wife died and now he’d come back from New Zealand specifically to find the house.

He looked pointedly from the opposite overgrown garden to my bench. ‘Is this the same bench that used to stand on the verge over there?’ he asked.

Reluctantly, feeling a little like a thief, I admitted that the old man had given it to me the day after the old lady had been taken away in an ambulance and I’d stopped him from setting fire to it.

He looked momentarily stricken. Discomforted, I offered to show him the place where the bench had stood. Pollen from the daisies scattered yellow powder on our shoes and insects hummed amongst the succulents.

I said: ‘It always looked like it was waiting for someone.’

‘I know.’ He spoke to the hills, the railway line, the sky, the road, anywhere but at the place the bench had stood. ‘I left it too long.’ He sounded regretful, saddened. ‘I’m the one she was waiting for.’

I said nothing.

He looked down at me. ‘I’d like to have the bench back. Would you part with it?’

‘No,’ I said abruptly, meaning it. ‘It’s my hope bench now. I sit here every day. I’m also waiting for someone.’

‘Don’t,’ he said, sadly. ‘I’m living proof that it doesn’t work.’

Months later, when the sun was much hotter, the daisies were gone and the wind came hurtling in from the south-east creating puffy white cloud formations on the hills, someone familiar came up my driveway and asked quietly if he could sit next to me on my yellow bench. We sat in silence while the ore train rumbled blindly past, the sea mumbled in counterpoint and I slowly finished my coffee. Then I stood and took his hand in mine. Hope and forgiveness have to go together.

As we walked toward my house, I saw my neighbor watching us from his garage. I gave a little wave. He smiled and lifted a thumb in mute acknowledgment that the yellow bench still had the power to draw loved ones back. It just took a little longer than expected.

Janice Gardiner-Atkinson

I’m a writer, an artist, a music-lover, a parent and grandparent – not necessarily in that order. And most important, I’m a woman in the most exciting and challenging century yet known to humankind.

I’ve spent years growing myself, my family, and my career in corporate human resources. Now I’m happily messing full time with words and emotions, rhymes and crimes, the whole mélange of all the rich experiences of my life so far which serve to underpin my stories.

I love short fiction; I’m also doing the long novel thing – love getting my hands on longer works, it’s like clay on a potter’s wheel – and I create poetry when the spirit moves me because I believe poetry comes in a direct line from the heart to the paper.

I live at the southern tip of Africa and I’ve been writing thoughtfully and diligently for the past decade. I came second in a national competition – big encouragement! – and have had stories published three times in two different South African magazines in the last few years.


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