Our Bench by the Sea
The strains of the carousel punctured my thoughts and brought me back to the moment. Sitting here on the bench, lovingly donated to this public walkway overlooking the beautiful bay by the family of Joan Walker, who was sadly missed every day, apparently, the gentle warmth of the sun was making me sleepy.
Many years before, we had asked made our children promise, when the two of us had died, they would do the same for us. They would install a bench and lovingly add a plaque with our names on it, locating it somewhere near this bay, giving them, and anybody else, a place to rest while walking in the sun…or the rain…whatever took their fancy. A place for the children to remember us and for us to feel together for eternity.
My husband and I had agreed that if it were possible we would seek each other and meet here in the afterlife. It had long been our favourite place to walk, hand in hand, chatting about anything and everything, or watching and quietly criticising passers-by for not controlling their dogs, their children, the fumes from their cigarettes, anything that took our attention. We just loved watching people and making up stories about their lives and could often be seen giggling at some shared joke or cheeky comment. Obviously, nobody knew that we were talking about them, but it was ‘our thing’.
It is one of the things I really, truly missed about being with him. Our people watching walks together in the sunshine. Of course, I missed everything about being with him. We had enjoyed a wonderful life together. We knew what made each other tick, knew each other’s failings and had put them aside creating a perfect life for ourselves.
Behind me, the fenced-off green beside the old car park had recently undergone a transformation into what a huge sign promised ‘An Old-Fashioned Experience – The Thrills of a Child from Years Gone By.” A funfair at the beach for the duration of the summer. Squeals of delight could be heard from the children as they spun around in brightly coloured teacups which had goofy faces painted on the sides, looped the loop on the mini rollercoaster and circled the carousel, riding on exquisitely painted, galloping horses, their little arms folded tightly around equally beautiful twisted poles which shot unnaturally through the horses’ manes. It was many years since our own children had grown out of these family funfairs, preferring instead the fear and adrenalin of rides appropriately named ‘Queen of Speed’, ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Spin Ball Whizzer’. Rides, which were more likely to inflict a feeling of pure terror than mere butterflies in the tummy. They were welcome to those rides. When our children were at the age that they still needed accompanying to theme parks, it was scary enough just to be holding their coats and taking the photos. In fact, I argued that it was far scarier for the bystander than being on the actual ride itself. I had never been a fan of funfairs – the carousel was enough for my fragile stomach, thank you very much but, these days, the young children could keep it all.
Those days were long gone now. I was on my own and it was a comfort to come and sit here in the sunshine and remember those good times. My husband and I had enjoyed so much time here, but I had lost touch a little, over the years that had passed, and I was alarmed to see teenaged boys and girls hovering, yes, hovering, along the promenade below. What was I missing? They appeared to be unattached, nothing grounding them at all. My eyes were not what they used to be, I told myself I was just unable to see what was keeping them those few inches from them ground. Dogs no longer appeared to have leads to control them. Instead, when they strayed more than a few feet from their owners, they were pulled back by a seemingly invisible force. The dogs didn’t seem bothered by whatever was controlling them, they just knew that it meant they needed to stay close to their owners. Everyone seemed to be drifting or hovering around peacefully. The café along the promenade, hugely popular in our time, still drew lots of custom. It looked different from this angle but had probably changed a lot over the passing years.
Some movement along the pathway caught my attention. A truck was being driven scarily close to the edge, its reversing beep alerting all around to its presence. A couple of middle-aged people were walking directly towards the truck. Faces I recognised were starting to come into focus. Watching them closely, I realised they were fading out of focus because of my tears, my children. My so grown-up children! They were standing at a spot where it looked as though a new bench was about to be placed. My daughter was holding a plaque. They clearly had not spotted me or thought I would be late as usual so didn’t look around for me. I had planned to be here early just to spend some time alone with my thoughts. I slowly walked along to where the truck driver was depositing the new bench and I stood quietly beside them. They both knew that I had wanted to wait until my husband and I were both together in the afterlife and I am sure they sensed my disapproval, but they also wanted to pay their respects, so I had decided to stay out of it and ensured that I kept quiet.
“Oh, Mum’s here!” my daughter smiled tightly but turned her attention back to the bench and plaque and my son gave a nod in my general direction, clearly upset by the whole process. I smiled and held back to allow them to get the bench in place. It was no mean feat. The bench was going to be located on a slope so needed a permanent wedge in place. That done, they both stood back to admire their handiwork and looked extremely pleased with themselves. I gave my own nod of approval as I checked it out from a few feet behind them. My son, I could not remember him ever handling a screwdriver, let alone a drill, secured the plaque in place confidently and I swelled with pride. He was frowning and trying to work out if he had secured it completely level on the bench. My daughter tried to reassure him that it was fine and to remember that the bench was still on the slope and itself was not entirely straight.
It was then that I saw him for the first time since we had been parted from each other, and goodness knew I had tried! Walking, almost drifting, slowly towards me. Was he hovering too? Typical of him, the old show off! I smiled. I was not entirely sure how this worked. Would he be able to see me? I was not sure that my children could see him. They did not even acknowledge him, so I assumed not. Stupid, cancer! Stupid, bloody cancer! It was too soon for us to part, far too soon! As he got closer to where I was standing, I could see that his eyes were full of a desperate sadness. He ignored the children, probably didn’t see them, and knelt by the bench. Then the sobs began, wracking his whole body. I wanted to be able to comfort him, to tell him we would be together again soon, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t touch him.
“Mum is here,” my daughter whispered to him and he took a small step backwards, looking around him but his eyes never resting on mine. It was at that moment that I was able to read the inscription on the plaque.
“Judith. Loving mum and wife”. That was all it said. Simple. As if reading my mind, my daughter grabbed my husband by the arm and said, “I know we said we would do this for you both, but there is plenty of room to add you to the plaque one day, hopefully not too soon”. Mum understands and wants you to have somewhere to come and sit with her, whenever you want to.
He stood up and my son and daughter put their arms around him and hugged him tight. They were all crying now but they were all together, which was a great comfort to me.
They chatted, and he asked if they would mind leaving him here on his own, so my children headed off towards the other car park, hugging him tightly and arranging to see him soon. He sat down on the bench, our bench, and I sat myself down beside him. I placed my hand in his. He looked down at his fingers. I held onto his little finger in the way I’d always done, and he moved it. I knew he was able feel me there with him. I stroked the back of his head and let my hand linger on the nape of his neck. He tilted his head back in acknowledgement. It had worked, and we were back in contact with each other again!
“I miss you so much, Judith,” he murmured, his eyes slightly closed, “but I knew you would come.”