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“Found a young man yet, miss?” he grinned as he said the same words every day to the pretty young girl who’d come and share the only bench in the park with him at exactly four in the afternoon.

“No! Don’t be silly, I don’t want a young man!” and she’d shrug as she harrumphed herself on the far end of the bench and look at the book she’d always bring to read. A few minutes would pass and then quietly, “You say that every time.” The exasperation had almost always left her voice by the time she said this.

“I know,” he replied cockily, “just wonderin’ an all.” That too was his stock reply and at this point he’d reach down and pull up a blade of grass to chew on.

After this odd greeting they’d usually just sit in silence, she with her book and he contemplating the sky, watching the geese as they flew north forming that beautiful cursive vee across the heavens.

Ah, spring! Beautiful. So much hope. The sky that special shade of blue. The clouds powder puff white. The sun, a promise behind the clouds. And the cherry trees with their buds straining at the sap.

Summer came and not much more was said. He still had his blade of grass and she her book. The cherry trees had long lost their blossoms and their branches were laden with fruit.

She always left first, at exactly five o’clock, looked at him and said, “Good evening then.” In the 1950s there wasn’t much else that a young woman said to a strange man whose name she didn’t know. And he’d raise his cap to her in silence.

The leaves on the trees changed. The geese could now be seen flying south. The sun was as fitful as a fever and the winds sent chill messages down his neck and up her skirt. It was half way through November and as in previous years she said her last “Good evening then.” And he raised his cap one last time before the next spring when this little silent communion would start again, he with his,  “Found a young man yet, miss?” and his grin, she with her “Don’t be silly,” and harrumphing as she sat on the bench.

She’d grown more slender and dressed more smartly. Sometimes she wore shoes with a slightly higher heel now and in the springtime she’d sported an elegant tan Macintosh with a bright red cap and matching lipstick. He was much the same. The reliably cocky grin. But the hand reaching for the grass now had sinews and was tanned. She glanced sideways at him, but still didn’t say anything and then there was that comfortable fifty minutes they spent not saying anything to each other at all. She with her book he with his blade of grass.

Summer. Autumn. And another spring. She came back. He waited for her now with a tightening in his stomach of anticipation. Afraid she may not come. A minute past four and she was there with her constant book and her equally reliable, “Don’t be silly, I don’t want a young man.” His relief. The blade of grass. The sky. The geese.  All was right with the world.

It was the middle of June; four on the clock plus forty seconds and her feet came tapping down the path to the bench. No book in her hand.

His stomach did a turn, but he continued as always, “Found a young man yet, miss?” only the grin didn’t come so easily and when he forced his mouth into a smile, it didn’t make it to his eyes.

She sat down on the park bench, no harrumphing, it was a smooth elegant movement, he’d never noticed that before. And she looked at him, “Yes,” she said as she searched his eyes. And he, clenching his teeth, bunching his fists. Long moments before he hoarsely whispered, “Why miss I wish you luck then and may you find happiness wherever you go.” The words almost caught in his throat and he couldn’t think why he had any right to anything more. But she’d come to tell him and that was enough. He could live on that.  When he looked up she was gone and there was nothing but a blade of grass on the bench in the space that had once been between them.

He picked up the grass and threw it. It blew away on the summer breeze. The sun mocked him and the cherry trees waved farewell. How dare the sky look so blue! He kicked the bench it skewed groaning to the side. He flung his cap. Then picked it up. Threw himself on the grass and allowed himself to weep. When he arose it was exactly five o’clock.

Summer passed. Autumn and another spring, so many springs. Why did he come back here every day after work at exactly four o’clock in the afternoon? Other people shared his bench, but it wasn’t the same.

The colours faded from the park around him. His eyes had grown dimmer. His cocky grin had disappeared only the blade of grass he always picked up and chewed. His nut-brown hair was streaked with silver and his memories strayed to other years. He was unaware of those around him and now even his coming to the park bench seemed pointless and yet he always returned.

“Silly ol’ man,” he could hear the children say as they walked past. And then one day late in November the sky had turned a steely grey, but the rain hadn’t started yet, when a lady from the city turned up and sat next to him. She had a book in her hand and wore those horn-rimmed glasses that all the fashionable ladies were wearing now in the late 1970s. Her dark hair was pulled into a bun and heavily streaked with silver. He peered at her cautiously then looked away. It couldn’t be, no, she was so slender and slight and this one, she was smart but a lot heavier.

Then she whispered, “Did you never find a young woman, then?”

And it was his turn to say, “Don’t be silly, I don’t want a young woman, I only ever wanted you.” And the park bench creaked as she bent down to pull up a blade of grass.

April 2012

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