Home > The Bench

The Bench
Author: Saskia Sarginson

PROLOGUE

 


Hampstead Heath, 2004


Panting a little from the climb, she reaches the bench and drops onto the wooden slats. She sits with her knees together, back straight, hands linked in her lap. Only her thumbs, moving restlessly across each other, betray her nerves. She closes her eyes, shutting out the view of scrub-covered hills, woods of ancient oaks, ponds filled with the dark waters of the Fleet.

Is he here already? Walking one of the paths, passing joggers and dog-walkers, mothers pushing prams. If she had superpowers, could she discern the scrape of his feet against the gritty surface, dislodging tiny stones? A football match is in mid flow on one of the pitches at the foot of Parliament Hill, and she hears their shouting, and the yell of distant sirens.

She opens her eyes, scared that she might somehow miss him, and runs her hands along the engraved letters on the back of the seat. A long time ago, Cat read the inscription aloud to him, and then each of them made up their own versions, like spells, making the other laugh. But the last time they met on the bench was the last time they saw each other, and by then words had become powerless. Instead, they squeezed as close as they could, his fingers holding her face, silently wiping away tears, salty thumbs grazing her cheeks. Ten years ago.

She places her hand on the wood, almost as if she expects the warmth of his body to have lingered in the grain. Countless people will have found refuge here, eating a sandwich perhaps, reading a newspaper, pleased with themselves to have found such a good spot, alone or in company, holding a child on their lap or stroking a dog at their knee, looking down into the valley.

Will he come? Fear tightens her throat. Maybe he’s forgotten. Maybe he’s found someone else. She spots a man making his way towards her. He’s doll-sized at the moment; as he approaches, she strains to make out details. Even from this distance and angle, she’s sure he’s the right height and build. Wait. No. This man’s hair is grey. But he’s nearly fifty, she reminds herself. He’s coming closer across the meadow. Is it him? She frowns and uses her palm to shield her gaze. Then she sees the child traipsing behind, sees him running to catch the man’s hand. They have a kite, a red triangle of plastic with a fluttering tail. They are laughing, this stranger and his grandson. Disappointment stings her eyes.

She tries to steady herself, thinking of the diary, how it was all written down; the story of them, from the very beginning.

The first time Cat and Sam sat on this bench, they couldn’t stop talking, there was so much to tell each other. The second time she was angry with him. Very angry. The third time they met here, life was a muddle, but not impossible, and the sheer joy of being together eclipsed the rest.

‘A hundred years ago,’ he told her, ‘there would have been cattle grazing here, locals coming to dig up sand, collect wood for their fires. Just think, we could have been a couple with a smoky cottage to go back to, standing out here, feeling the sun on our faces, the scent of the new ponds in the air. Me reaching for your hand, kissing you, your hair, your mouth, and not caring who saw.’

She stayed quiet, imagining them in rustic clothes, living a simple life, no lies or deceit or thoughts of betrayal, just the pure comfort of each other, cows grazing around them, swaying slow and sure. Cat loved the poetry in Sam, how it came out in the lyrics he wrote, the sentences he spoke. How everything became a story, a song. With gleaming eyes, he explained that Guy Fawkes and his gang had planned to watch Parliament blow up from this vantage point; that there was a myth that Boudicca was buried here.

‘Boudicca! Are you making this up?’

He showed her a battered book in his coat pocket. Hampstead Heath: The Walker’s Guide.

‘Very sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,’ she teased.

He made a lunge then, and Cat slipped out of his grasp to run down the hill, stumbling over tussocks, feet slurping in and out of mud pools, arms flailing for balance, longing for him to catch her, anticipating the first thud of his body against hers, the judder of rib bone against spine, one heart behind the other.

It is his shadow that touches her first, lassoing her inside its darkness, making her look up. He’s breathing heavily. He must have taken the steep slope at a run, sprinted up it like a young man to find her.

His hair is not grey. It’s thick and black, with paler streaks at his temples. He runs a trembling hand through its damp strands, pushing it back. They stare without speaking. She has so much to tell him, but the words have caught in her throat.

He does not look away or even blink. His stare holds her at its centre. Feelings flash across his features, one after the other, like a pack of cards falling from an opened hand. And despite everything, the last one that settles on his long mouth and around the creases on his forehead and inside his black eyes is hope.

 

 

Part One

 

 

ONE

 


Cat, March 1983


To Mom’s eternal disappointment, all the men I meet are dead. But that’s what happens when you work in a funeral home. Even the guys I spot on my days off strolling the boardwalk in their flared pants and open-necked shirts, smirking at girls and eating handfuls of salt-water taffy, look hardly alive. Of course, to be fair, they’re tourists, here for the gambling and the fun of the arcade. They’re in Atlantic City to escape reality.

There are never any tourists around when I get up and head for the beach. It’s not just the early hour, the sky pink with dawn light, it’s because our neighbourhood’s considered out of bounds. Don’t go more than one block from the beach, is the general recommendation. ‘Heavens to Betsy,’ the old ladies in their plaid pants tell each other, ‘be sure not to stray too far.’

But once I’ve crossed the wide strip of Atlantic Avenue, the clapboard houses and vacant lots fall away, and I’m in the area people think of as Atlantic City: big casinos and towering hotels, doormen in uniforms yawning on their patch of red carpet. By now I can smell the briny tang of the ocean, and soon I’m on the long line of the boardwalk itself, the sea murmuring beside me. The weak spring sunshine doesn’t take the chill out of the air, so no one else is fool enough to think of swimming. As I pass shops with Closed signs on the doors, chained-up surfboards rattling in the breeze, it’s just me and the night cleaners, and a few stray cats.

Green wooden benches are positioned all along the front, facing the ocean. Every morning, I stop beside the exact same one, resting my hand on its curved back, touching its little bronze plaque. And down by the shoreline, the sea waits: the comforting hush, hush of the waves, the never-ending stretch of blue on blue. I hold my breath, because I’m hoping for a sight of fins, and I gasp as I spot them: three dolphins ducking in and out of the waves. I know I won’t be able to get close, but the joy of seeing them propels me down the steps and onto the sand. At the surf’s edge, I strip down to the swimsuit I’m wearing underneath my jeans and sweatshirt, and before I can gauge the exact level of biting cold, I plunge straight in.

Nothing else exists except green-blue water and mind-numbing cold. I swim fast, my arms carving a path through the low waves, keeping the shore in sight, counting the empty lifeguard stations in order to know when to turn and swim back. By the time I’m out and towel-dried, clothes pulled on over skin tacky with salt, the early crowds are gathering. I hear the familiar chink and clatter of the arcades opening for business, awnings being winched over shopfronts, racks of postcards and novelty souvenirs wheeled onto the wooden boards.

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