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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

The Bench

"I'll see you down later, on the bench, alright?

Where else? It was always on the bench, by the bench; we'd stop by the bench first and see what was happening and then go on to see a film, into town or straight home, or just go, with no particular aim.

The bench wasn't an unusual one. Hundreds of the same model were installed all around the country. All the same, it was The Bench - something we never questioned, a stable object in the swirling emotional sea that our lives were then. Only now, from the distance of the years, the magical properties can be applied. Only now the chain of separate events seems to exist as a cohesive narrative in my mind with the bench as its centre.

Then it was different. We went to the bench without thinking about it too much. We lived around it, because it was there and so were we, and in those days we weren't very bothered about whether things had a second or a third meaning beyond their appearances. Not that everything was simple then. No, we had our difficulties and our uncertainties even then, but the bench was never one of them.

The bench. At first, when the local council left it there, amongst the tall buildings, by the lawn, it was green and shinning. Maybe not, maybe it had never been green and shinning and new, I wasn't there, I only arrived after it had been there for some time. I'd like to think that at first the bench was only fulfilling its function as a resting place with no special connotations attached. It wasn't the only bench in the neighborhood, but it was the only one that was used frequently by us. The other ones only received our attention when The Bench was occupied, and we had to look for another place where we could be together.

We didn't want to go back to our homes, not because they were unpleasant or filled with menacing parents, but because we had just left them and anyway, the outside seemed a better place to be. There was more space for our habitual activities there. You could walk about, jump up and down on the bench, rest your feet on the hedge, spit on the floor. We used the other benches reluctantly, only when we had no other choice, because they weren't ours in the same way that The Bench was. Not enough things had happened around them. From the beginning we concentrated on the one and the memories that were littered around it couldn't be moved to another place. We had always felt on foreign territory when we had to settle ourselves on other benches.

Even then, we would choose a bench from where we could keep an eye on our bench, waiting for the moment when it wasn't taken by others and then return quickly to it. The atmosphere would immediately improve, we would be on our home territory. In twos, in threes, in fours, fives and sixes, we would be there after school, nothing in particular to do, We enjoyed each other's company, but even when we didn't we'd still be there, because it had become a habit. You couldn't be absent for more than a day or so, because then the others would come around and seek you out, and if you weren't feeling like going down and being with them, simply being without doing anything, you'd be rejecting them, you'd be breaking the circle, you'd be letting them down.

Once on the bench, you were alright sitting on the edge and not saying much, just listening with half an ear to what they had to say. But you had to be there, without you they'd feel lonely, even if at times they had made you feel you weren't wanted. But try to get up and leave before the night came to its end, and you'd feel the resentment building up, the silent questioning, the accusations. You'd have to make up excuses and know that they weren't accepted, that everybody thought you were just chickening out because the conversation had then touched on themes you felt embarrassed with. It was a tight rope sometimes, because once you'd admitted, with a careless word or movement, that you didn't feel comfortable, they'd be on the top of you, and then you couldn't leave anymore, because turning your back on them would be turning your back on yourself. After all, at other times, you were the one that had stayed behind when someone had up and left and you had also taken part in the meaning conversation that had torn that person to pieces, renounced him, struck him out just because of one moment's weakness.

But even if you made the mistake of becoming sore and wanting to be on your won and really wanting to leave because it had all become too much, and then realised that leaving would be even more unbearable than staying, you had to be very careful if you wanted to be allowed to stay. No, no violence was needed, the right kind of silence would do. A silence that would be followed by meaningful exchanges of glances between them, and then, a roaring laughter that would pierce the air and your heart would sink faster than lead and you wouldn't even know how to prove yourself again because the indiscretion would still be hanging in the air half an hour later and you'd feel that nothing could restore their confidence, and you'd feel more miserable than ever, but you'd stay, because they were your friends, the only ones you had, and it was your bench as well, and who the hell were they to tell you when to go and when to stay! That didn't happen very often. And when it did, it only happened when there were just the three of us, the masculine nucleus of the bench.

Most of the time it was not difficult at all. Most of the time you'd feel you were at home with your two other selves outside yourself. Although we liked the bench we used to do quite nasty things to it. We always carried our penknives with us, or if not penknives any other kind of knife. Knives were very useful for cutting things, or for playing games with. The best one was where you drew a big square on the ground and, standing back, threw your knife into the area the square bordered. If the knife landed inside, you drew a partitioning line inside the square and the next person had to aim the knife into the smaller area. you could carry on till the remaining space would be so small you couldn't even put your finger in it

The bench didn't mind us doing that with our knives. But now I think it did mind us curving into its green plastic flesh. It started with just initials but soon expanded into more abstract forms. Making dents,lines or any odd shape that the knives were capable of drawing. And all those groves and holes were slowly filled with dust and dirt till they had become black scars in the tissue of the bench. Grotesquely spotted, the bench was, but we didn't think it mattered. We did it, I suppose,because we had to do something with our hands when someone told a long tale or when we got so carried away with an argument that we had to keep our hands busy, otherwise they might have got up to something more personal. We were too young to control that erratic hand movement with cigarettes, so we had knives as an extension instead. It was also a way of making the bench even more ours. We were leaving our marks upon it, we made it impossible for it to forget us or to pretend that it could really serve anyone else. And if a passing adult would dare to say anything about respect towards the council's property, we'd answer back boldly that it was our bench and it was nobody's business what we did to it. We weren't fierce or intimidating but who cared to get into an argument with three little brats who were evidently too far gone and what a shame, just think about their parents! Afterwards we might feel ashamed a bit, after all the bench was a friend, and so we wouldn't wound it for a while, but at the end we had to do something with our hands and what the fuck, it was our bench after all!

It was always there, the bench, and for whatever purpose we wanted to use it. Although sometimes it was crowded and we had to go into exile, most of the time we could do whatever we wanted. If the three of us weren't there, if only one of us wanted to bring a girl and have a quiet evening, almost by miracle the bench would be empty and you could pass a couple of hours with the girl who you were in love with.

It was nice because you were a bit nervous with a girl but being with her on the bench wasn't so bad because you felt at home. It was her who was the guest and so she was a bit nervous too, and neither felt superior or in the lead. It was even OK to hold hands for the first time on the bench or to kiss for the first time. More than that, you felt you owed it to the bench, who mostly saw you with your mates, to kiss on it, so that it could partake in more gentle and heart warming activities. It wasn't always the knives and the hostilities.

Although the bench was surrounded by buildings and lots of windows through which your mates could be watching you holding hands with the girl whom you had said you didn't really care for only the previous night , and who only hustled you with her meaningful looks at school; even if the bench was exposed to scrutiny, you still felt safe somehow, as if it offered invisible but sheltering protection by its silent recognition of your familiar bum warming its seat. Even if they did actually see you, it didn't matter, because they wouldn't say anything nasty to you afterwards, maybe just a quick grin and a knowing and understanding look. After all, didn't they do the same with other girls when you weren't there? And hadn't you, more than once, on the way to the bench, noticed an unfamiliar shadow resting on the shoulder of one of the friends, and then turned back because you knew you shouldn't be looking? You went to another bench, one that wasn't in the range of sight, and waited till the sound had changed ( as if it was only the sound, it was but also something else, the air would be less charged once the bench only held on bum on it), and even then you only walked towards the bench very carefully, ready to retreat if the coast wasn't clear yet. You had never had to wait very long and when you got there, there was no need for words, her presence was still in the air, and for a few minutes everything would be subdued and calm, till he'd break the spell by being obscene about her or something else, and you could laugh and know they'd do the same for you, they'd keep their distance if the shoulder upon which the unfamiliar head lay happened to be yours.

What an impression the bench must have gained about human relationships, of human eccentricities and little rituals. When we weren't feeling angry about something that had happened to one of us, when we weren't talking and dreaming aloud about the future, about growing up and the pain it involved, at times when there wasn't much to say but we still wanted to stay together because it was safer that way, gentle webs of the never ending bond would build nets around us, binding us together with not much more than a smile or a silent laugh, or the first words of a joke that had been told millions of times but still made us kill ourselves laughing, at those times when nothing much happened apart from the movement of time, we felt so good, we were so happy just sitting there on the bench, the good old bench, that stupid green structure that had become such an institution in our lives. No, those weren't the good old days, they were just the days when we enjoyed friendship because we believed there wasn't anything else worth enjoying. But here I go again, being nostalgic about a bench that wasn't really on our minds at all as more than a gathering place!

It lasted for quite a long while, anyway, although I suppose that two years aren't that long. Nothing really happened to separate us from the bench. Nothing different from what separated us from each other anyway. We didn't exactly drift apart, and the bench wasn't dismantled either, although we were quite near demolishing it altogether one night when our hands weren't happy just holding the knives anymore.

It wasn't a drift apart because we still saw each other but not on the bench anymore. Maybe we grew too fast and the bench became too small for our lengthening bodies. We started doing other things. We started doing more things on our own and less with one another. Going to high school was in the way of the bench too, I suppose. We'd still pass it every now and then and remember with sadness that we hadn't met the guys for quite a while and wanted to do something about it, but the feeling was never strong enough to make us go and ring the door-bell, maybe because we felt he'd be out and we'd have to talk to his mother and tell her what we'd been doing lately and why we hadn't shown ourselves for so long. Gradually we just forgot, and then moved out and the bench changed hands, or rather bums, and it was no longer ours, and it was already in the past, a part of the age we felt a bit awkward about because we'd done so many unexplained things then, things we couldn't relate to ourselves anymore. Forgetting the bench was like forgetting those embarrassing memories, the friendship that wasn't really deep enough but had been then.

I've heard that the bench has been repaired and that it was white now. I suppose someone from the council decided that the scarred green was simply disgraceful in such a respectable neighborhood. It doesn't matter. Let them paint it silver if they want. It's not ours anymore. I wonder if other kids use it in different ways that we did. Or maybe in the same old ways. Maybe the bench, even if it's white and clean now, has formed a new group around it. Do benches have memories, do you think?

Might a bench miss someone who hadn't treated it so very well?

November 1985

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