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  • Writer's pictureLaura Cooney

Benched

*Part written in lockdown, completed recently. I hope you enjoy this, the first short story I've ever written to see the light.

I'm not keen on the title- Suggestions on a Postcard please!

Here we go...



It’s been the warmest May on record since 1957. This is the headline in the newspaper that sits by his side on the bench overlooking the harbour.


May, he thinks. Summer season is almost upon them. He hates them; the tourists bastards that they are.


Other people come too, the ‘townies’. The ones who want to stay, they’re the worst of the lot. They move into their new homes with excitement and, to their credit, they last a while. At least until the shiny new sheen of the extended holiday wears off. As soon as they realise the commute is horrendous, that the tourists come and that they miss their trendy wine bars, Starbucks and Apple stores they are itching to leave and soon go back where they came from. The tranquility and the ‘new life’ they tried to create doesn’t exist anyway. Then what you’ve got left is another holiday home. Bastards, that’s what they are.


Here come a pair of them now, he thinks. They glance at him like they want a seat on the other side of the bench he’s sat on. He’s not budging to the side. This is his harbour, he’s not moving for no one. He sits in a way that expands his body to about twice its size. They glower as they move on. This warms him.


He watches a young mother come off the beach. She is carrying her young child; a toddler with chubby thighs. They both look exhausted. The child is almost sleeping in her arms, his head is nuzzled into her shoulder. The mother’s eyes are tired but there is a flash of contentment on her lips, she seems happy with the reassuring weight of her young on her hip. As she fishes in her back pocket for the keys. She curses slightly under her breath. His sound of annoyance causes her to utter another one and the status quo is restored. He is again, the asshole on the harbour-side.


He thinks of his own children after she is gone. His boys, the children he raised alone from when they were three and six years old.


But now, he can’t remember the last time he saw them, let alone spoke to them on the phone. Another couple of bastards. Neither of them willing to follow him onto the boat that now sat dilapidated on the edge of the wharf. Travel Writing for one, which was no bad thing and the other, a proper waste of space.


He wishes he’d had a daughter, a daughter would at least have visited. No-one would have expected her to join him on the lobster catch. But there would have been some loyalty. Something he’s never quite had within his grasp.


Also, he sometimes wishes he’d left this place. The place where he is now so ingrained in the fabric that every local knows his name and he seems as much part of the harbour as the ropes and the nets that adorn it. When he’s gone, they’ll miss him. They’ll curse him but they’ll miss him, they just don’t know it yet.

Most of them appreciate that he was made this way, after his wife:

“Upped. And left! Without one word and his boys only small!”


Not that he could’ve left even if he’d wanted to…the kids. He thinks of them now crying. They had no idea… No idea at all what kind of woman she was. He’d never told them. How could he?


After she’d left they’d all said what a lovely, caring man he was. He thinks about this for a moment and picks up his newspaper again.

His mouth twitches…


******


His wife, had packed her small suitcase and some knickknacks and that was the only evidence she’d left of her leaving. There was a bus driver that said he’d seen her at the ticket booth a few days before and people guessed this was when she’d bought her ticket to go. Her friend Marge had been sure she’s seen her in Brighton about a month later. 34 years ago, she left without a word. Most can remember a time when he would smile and had a kind heart on his sleeve. When he had friends he hadn’t wanted to leave. Before he pushed them all away.

He feels a familiar pang in his chest as he thinks back to that time, and he washes it away with a slug from his pocket flask.


*******


“Let’s hurry, daddy’s waiting.”

The baby gurgled and stretched awkwardly behind them as his mother tried to strap him into his car seat.

“I thought I’d brought my baby back to the car, who is this little octopus?” She smiled.

Finally, corralling his tentacles into the correct position and ensuring that she heard the reassuring clunk of the central lock she stroked his cheek just before closing his door. Taking a single breath she dashed to her seat before the wailing began.

“Mummy’s still here,” she said.

A further happy gurgle came the reply. Oh good, she thought. A pleasant drive home! Surely he was ready for a nap anyway!

She checked her mirrors. The man on the bench was still looking at them, disconcerting to say the least.

Her foot lowered on the clutch and she pressed the button to start the engine. Please start, she thought, please start. The car was one thing in a long list of things that weren’t going well lately.

She didn’t want to have to get back out and be anywhere near this disheveled and smelly looking old man. He was more like a crab than a human with his beady searching eyes and his hunched body couched in the brown oilskin he was wearing. He looked like he wanted to talk to her. Dear me, no! What could he possibly have to say that she might want to hear? He’s put the fear of god into her.


Home! To her nice fresh white stonewashed new home and Anthony; who was waiting. Hopefully with the builders who had failed to turn up yesterday and the day before.


Just before she drove off she heard “Ullon Yaw” yelled from the man’s direction. What could he mean? She failed to check her mirrors for a second time as she sped out of the space, her heart pounding in her chest.


******


Damn her! If she really lived here she’d have known he’d just shouted on her to wait. Silly bitch! Now she’s gone off and left her sons little elephant on the pavement. As he bent to pick it up, that familiar stabbing in his stomach returned. Another slug of the booze stemmed the tide.

This was a strangely heavy little soft toy. Beans inside was it? His son had had one of these when we was a tot. Cried when he lost it, difficult to replace back then. Amazon should sort it now though. Fleetingly he thought about leaving it on his bench so that it could be seen when they invariably returned for it. But he smiled when it landed with a satisfying plop into the sea when he threw it over the railings into the incoming tide. He sat back down again and once more picked up the paper. The one that wasn’t even his.


*****

“Anthony!”

No reply.

“Just pop you down there,” she said to Finn who’d not long wakened up and was still clingy and bleary eyed.

“Where’s Ellie?” she rooted about in the nappy bag while kicking off her shoes.

“Anthony,” a bit louder.

“Oh damn it, where’s that elephant?” Her son was beginning to whimper, a sign he wanted another cuddle after his nap. With the elephant AWOL, there was no choice but to lift him back up. And she needed a pee.

“Anthony!” even louder this time. Where the hell was he?

She began to climb the uncarpeted stairs. Carrying Finn and looking out for stray carpet tacks was verging on becoming her new hobby around here. She literally couldn’t wait until the building and painting was done and they could finally get the carpets put down. Things seemed to be taking an unnecessarily long time and she had begun to wonder if she should have used a more local builder. The supply chain seemed to have a blockage in it somewhere, things and people seemed to be taking an age to show up, if they did at all. But the blokes who had done her sisters loft in Knightsbridge had come so highly recommended that she couldn’t pass them by. The best of the best they’d said. And did she not deserve the best of the best? So what if they were travelling out from London a five hour drive twice a week and staying in the old cottage up the hill the rest of the week? They were being paid weren’t they?


When she came back downstairs there was still no sign of Anthony. Then she heard an unfamiliar scratching underneath the floorboards. Rats was the first thing that sprang to mind. She was perplexed and relieved in equal measure when she saw the shoe cupboard under the stairs open and an extremely grimy and disgusting Anthony emerge before her. He was wearing a pair of faded blue, now brown jeans, she didn’t even know he owned and his oversized university sweater. Head to foot in, was that mud?

The Shawshank Redemption! Before she could ask where his rock hammer was he had begun to speak.

“Hi, how was the beach”

Alice looked at him aghast, the beach?

“The beach Anthony?” she spluttered.

“The beach was fine, what in the hell have you been up to Tony?”

“Ah ha, this,” he gestured up and down his body.

“Well. It’s a slightly long story. The electrician can’t do anything else down there because of a spot of flooding” He stopped, choosing his next words.

“Well more than a spot, I’ve been to take a look and the place is swimming, but don’t worry it’s sorted. We need to get a man in and drain it. The electrician is setting it up. I’m going to get changed.”

“Shoes!” Lexi was incredulous.

“Oh yeah” said Anthony. “I just thought with no carpet?” Lexi just shook her head.

“What next Finn, what next?” She said to the child, who was still writhing uneasily.


Days passed and turned into a fortnight. Progress was slow and there wasn’t much to show for all the time spent.

There was a guy coming on Wednesday to take a look at the sodden crawlspace under the house and then the electricians were booked for the week after. Until the rewiring could be done there was nothing else to do. No point in painting when there was going to be so much dust.

Lexi had devoted some time to her work at the magazine and was spending more time in the garden. Painting the shed and fence in white and blue stripes, now it looked very satisfying like the beach huts dotted along the coast.

She adorned the garden in sea themed trinkets that she would call kitsch and that Tony would call crapsh and felt vaguely useful, revelling in the idea that there was at least one decorative and finished useable area “in” the house besides the kitchen and bathroom.

She liked to keep busy. She needed to keep busy. Her mother had always said,

“Alexandra, you have an over active imagination,” in that scornful tone that only a mother can produce.

Nevertheless and despite her mother’s protestations on the matter her mind kept being drawn to the day at the beach and that strange old man.

She’d gone back to the spot where she’d parked and had a look for the lost toy and she saw him again, staring in the same way he had before. It had left her quite chilled and for the last fortnight she felt like she was being watched. She didn’t like to stand in the kitchen at night with the curtain up and the light on. Seeing her fazed reflection in the glass sent a chill up her. She kept seeing other faces in the glass. Crazy, she knew. But there it was. The number of times shed dashed from the kitchen and back to the sitting room scared like a child was insane. She just needed to keep busy and to stop looking over her shoulder all the time.

Hence beginning the project which involved designing, painting and adding fripperies to the garden. Tony indulged this but you could tell he was annoyed at the rising credit cards costs of all this… Her dream.

It was, to be fair to him, turning into a bit of a nightmare. He was having some difficulties in his new offices in Truro, finding everything a bit more provincial than he was used to. The working from home aspect of his new role wasn’t as plain sailing as they’d both hoped and so he was in the office more and more, while the house loomed over her.

When would it end? Hopefully on Wednesday they’d get an answer to that. She was uncomfortable with the slight strain that this seemed to be putting on them, everyone’s favourite couple. Known for their even tempers and utterly equal relationship, never even had an argument. The people that scoffed at this were only jealous. What was a little tiff now and then? Not to achieve such perfection in a home and in a ‘life’ the one they both, she was sure, wanted to create here. ]

No, they would be ok. All would be well.


After Wednesday…


******


Old Daniel. Some of the names they already call him; mad old Daniel, smelly old Daniel, angry old bastard. What would they make of this and what would they call him now? Creepy old Daniel? The Weirdo? Whatever, he thinks, they wouldn’t really be wrong. He knows that what he’s doing is over the line, hanging about in a stranger’s garden. But in a strange way they don’t feel like strangers, or certainly this place doesn’t feel strange to him. This is his garden. Or was his garden. He’d been the first to live here, had the building built to spec in the 1950’s and they are the second set of people to live behind inside its walls. Walls he painted.


He’d felt that same pang of a gut wrench and had needed to see who they were and what exactly they were up to. They would be changing his old homestead? And if so, how? He needed to know. He noticed they’d put in better heating. There had been nothing substantial for a long time when he lived there, electric heaters mainly. Since he’d moved to the boat shed 5 years ago he’d been wondering how long it would take people to move in. He wondered what it looked like inside now. Nosy old bastard, more like.


******


When the last of the workmen had left Lexi poured herself a glass of Chablis from the wine fridge, so what if it was only 2pm. The kitchen had been completed last week, and was the pinnacle of style. Definitely her favourite space in the house, once three rooms, now one. Pristine as you could imagine, marble, slate smoky grey cabinets with every imaginable cupboard layout expensive, tastefully elegant, more than a kitchen.

Wrapped in cashmere Lexi padded to the large French window. Though she should have been warm, she felt a familiar chill. A constant flicker int he corner of her eye and the unshakable feeling that she was being watched never really left her. She shuddered. What was wrong with her? Why wasn’t she happy, such perfection all around, and yet, a shadow was cast over her. Constantly.

“Jesus Christ Lexi!”


Anthony brushed past her and opened the door to the garden. Stunned she looked at him, as if through frosted glass. Was he really here?


“What are you doing? Where is Finn?”

He was outside, looking.


Where was Finn?

WHERE WAS FINN?

The pristine kitchen completed a full revolution.


“Tony?”

As she spoke his name with a voice as thin as water he came back into the kitchen.


“WHAT?” Sharp as a knife.


Weakly, she spoke. “He’s napping, I remember, in the lemon room.”


She heard his footsteps on the stairs. What was wrong with him? She didn’t feel so well.


******


In the weeks that followed Lexi tried to be more present in the renovations and positive about the move, but the feeling of dread surrounding the house was doing her head in.

Anthony was completing the jobs to her specification but his patience was getting shorter and shorter and he was spending more time away from home and at the office.

The stage dampness under the house had come back and they were experiencing new problems with the largest chimney.


It was meant to be a 20 minute job to clear it for the new stove liner but it was turning into another three day catastrophe. A malady had settled on the ideal life they had landed, not that anyone would know that. What went on behind closed doors was uncomfortable but Lexi believed that appearance counted and the one she showed the world was one of perfect smiles and delight. No way could she admit that they were regretting this whole thing. No way!


And so tomorrow, the chimney sweeps were coming back, and if she had to she’d bloody brush that chimney herself if it meant the job would get done. Once the problems stopped, things could only get better.


Wandering into the garden she looked at the shed she’d painted weeks ago, she was glad she’d bought that expensive paint. It was looking lovely. Pouring herself a small glass of wine from the bottle she kept there she couldn’t help but wonder where the little bell she’d hung from the door handle had gone. She looked not he grass under foot but could find nothing.

******


Daniel, the thief, sat on the bench where he spent most of his days and looked off to sea. He rolled the little bell from one hand to the other. He’d taken it on a whim one afternoon on one of the last days he’d snuck about in the garden. In the small shopping bag at his feet he had a gnome, a small green glazed terracotta plant pot, a conch shell and a bit of an old padlock. To the bag, he added the bell. He didn’t like that snooty cow, or her husband. He was as browbeaten as they came and she was sneaking drinks in the afternoon, lying about her life to the world from her lofty ad superior position above them all. The day they thought the child was missing, he’d wondered about taking it. To save it from being another spoiled little arsehole. But, he shrugged now, he wasn’t anyone who could save a child. Some things were a foregone conclusion.


He smirked at how bad the renovations to the house were going. But he knew it wouldn’t be long now. Until they were done. It definitely wouldn’t be long now.


He sipped the cold cup of tea Andrea, from the fish van, had brought him and continued to look out to sea.


******


“Shouldn’t be long now” The sitting room covered from top to bottom in white sheets. Three men to take turns clearing the flue and more heavy duty black bin bags than the last time.

Lexi was assured that this job would be done TODAY. She really hoped so. Tony had begun to ask if they needed the stove, but it was essential to her vision and the stove was going in. It was definately going in. And if these guys were right it would happen by the end of the week.

******


Daniel thought of the last day he saw his wife. She’d smacked him over the head with the back of her hand again, though it was a vivid scene he struggled to remember why it was this time.

The boys were in bed, of that he was certain.

He was worried her screaming would wake them.

Was it because he’d seen the bus ticket in her pocket? Had he asked about it? He really couldn’t recall. She had been ironing her emerald green ‘best’ dress and was now wearing it. He also remembered that. He remembered that, but not what he’d take a slap? So strange how the brain works.

******


“What in the hell is going on with this bleddy chimney Mark?”

The three chimney sweeps have stopped for a rest. They are perplexed, and so they should be, they’ve been in this business for 15 years and this is the hardest job they’ve ever had. In a minute they are going to send little Ross up to the roof to try working the blockage from the top. It’s getting slightly late in the day. The woman paying them will definitely lose her mind if they don’t get this done, a bit of nest material has dropped, but nothing like as much as they’d be wanting to assure her it will be done. She’s halfway unhinged as it is. Her husband

looks about ready to strangle her as he dishes them out tea and biscuits. Good of him. Time presses on. They get back to it.


****


She’s screaming, he’s cowering. She’s slapping, he’s holding his head. Daniel remembers the scene. He remembers the scream. The one she emits when he lands his first blow on her temple. He hears his fathers voice, an echo, from childhood. “It’s not acceptable to hit a woman.” The hell it isn’t. It’s the next part that he remembers through smoke. She rebounds, wailing, back for another parry. He snatches her by the throat and shoves her over towards the sideboard. She gropes frantically for anything… finds the letter opener. It’s in her hand, he remembers the glint of metal by his left eye. There is a tussle, a struggle, a blur of limbs as he shoves her to one side and grabs the iron from the side. Now there is no screaming but a thump and a dull crack as he brings the heavy metal down onto her skull. There is more blood than he’s ever seen and he’s not sure what that is on his shoe, but it’s clear she’s dead. It’s not clear exactly who she is anymore, but she’s definitely dead. He hardens instantly. He’s not one bit sorry. Guilt…in that moment, he can’t find it. He goes upstairs to pack a small case for the sea. He doesn’t know it yet, but the shock of what he’s done will never truly hit him. Not, at least, until a warm day at the start of June where he is interrupted on his bench by two police officers. Maybe, though, it won’t ever hit him, not even then. She was a bitch remember.

​They aren’t sure what the worst part is at first. Is it the fact that Ross is up on the roof shouting that he thinks he’s broken a £3000 piece of machinery. Or is it the fact that that mad woman is screaming? Why is she screaming? In the moments it takes them to get back inside and survey the scene it feels like 20 years have passed. There is much confusion. No-one can figure what it is they are seeing. What is that? It’s the biggest ball of nest material they’ve ever seen. But what is that, tangled among it? Fabric? For sure, Emerald green in colour to be exact. It is then that the scream and the scene crash together. It’s a dead woman, and there’s not one bit if skin left on the bones that jut from the pile. No cardigan in the world will warm Lexi up after this particular discovery.













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