I saw him every day. The old man sat on the same park bench, overlooking the empty duck-pond. Throughout the year, whatever the weather, he would be there – morning through to evening. There were days when I saw him feeding ducks that weren’t there, and others when I could hear him blowing melodiously into an old harmonica as I cycled past on my way to and from the hell I call work. He paid no mind to me and seldom, it seemed, to others. He had a face of leather – never smiling – creased from years of existence, framing a pair of sharp eyes. He didn’t wear glasses. His ears, large and hairy, seemed perfectly tuned to his surroundings. Whenever I came close, it looked like his ears twitched, like a feral creature detecting an unbidden presence. He always wore a tweed jacket that looked old and yet well cared for. His head was crowned with a brown trilby that I dearly coveted. I wanted to know more about him and, at the same time, I wished he wasn’t always there.
He was always sat on the bench. He was unmoved when two young lovers kissed with unapologetic passion beside him; he wouldn’t move for the local drunk who hectored him over the unfairness of the world and he’d stay when an old widow, shopping trolley in tow, joined him in the hope of familiar conversation to which he seemed – if somewhat putout – always obliging.
The park was small, unloved. Menacing youths congregated, heckling passers-by. Bottles littered walkways along with crisp packets, needles and things even worse. Graffiti covered bins, swings and benches – except his. His was pristine: the only seat left. Everything else seemed broken or dead: daffodils stood decapitated in their beds. It was a sad, strange place made stranger by the ubiquitous presence of the old man on his spotless bench.
One morning, I left for work earlier than usual. I decided I would say hello to him. I thought about him a lot. He was a perpetual distraction from the dourness of things I knew too well. I saw that my bike had a punctured tyre – probably one of those satanic needles. I would have to walk in. I’d still have time to say hello. I approached the bench and saw that he was entertaining. A woman with her toddler sat with him. The child bounced on his knee. Unbelievably I saw he was smiling. I started to feel indignant. How dare he? This was the morning I was supposed to open up to him, and there he is, playing the benign old gent.
“Not got your bike today?” the old man said as I walked past.
I almost tripped over upon hearing his voice. I did not answer, nor did I look back. I walked at a greater pace with my heart beating faster, my face reddened and lined with perspiration. Why are people so odd? I walked the rest of the way to work with my mind wracked in thought over what they were saying about me. Were they laughing at me? Did they think me rude for not answering? These thoughts dominated my day. My job is dull. In fact, it’s depressing: rather like having to bathe one’s soul in a vat of acid for eight hours a day. I hope he is not there when I walk home tonight.
Of course, he is there. I walk past him.
“What happened to your bike?”
I walk a few more paces before stopping. I turn to see him; he looks toward the pond. I let a silence linger over us for a moment until, realising he won’t repeat himself, I answer.
“It has a puncture.”
“Oh. Very well, then,” he says still not looking toward me.
I thought about leaving but decided to stay.
“Would you mind if I sat down?”
“Be my guest.”
I sat beside the old man.
“I hope you don’t think that I’m being rude, but has anyone ever told you that you’re odd?”
“Many times,” he said.
“I see you here every day, but I don’t know anything about you. Don’t you have anywhere else to go?”
“We all have our daily routine,” the old man said. “By the look of your face when I see you ride through here of an evening, I would say mine is more satisfactory to me than yours is to you.”
“But don’t you get bored? I mean, it’s hardly Hampstead Heath, is it?”
“This was a very special place. It still is, to me.”
“I guessed that much.”
“You like my hat?”
This was out of the blue. The times out of count that I had passed him, I found it hard not to cast envious glances at it. He must have noticed.
“My wife gave me this. It, too, is very dear to me. I can tell when someone wants something they don’t or can’t have. It’s rather like this bench.” On saying this he nodded in the direction of a gang hooded youngsters on the other side of the park. They were getting drunk and smashing bottles.
“You keep it looking this clean?”
“It’s all I can manage now; my wife and I opened this park some fifty years ago. When she died, the council gave me this.”
He shifted over to reveal a small brass plaque on top of the backrest. It read: IN THE MEMORY OF DOROTHY MILLER.
“After she died, I didn’t come here for a very long time. When I came back I was horrified with what I saw. The only thing left unspoiled was this bench. I resolved to keep it that way. Luckily, I find it each morning, still here, still standing. But it won’t last, I fear. The covetous always get their quarry, or do harm in trying.”
“I’m surprised you let others sit on it.”
“There was a time when I wouldn’t. But who am I to stop them?”
“You can’t enjoy kids making out right next to you.”
The old man chuckled as he passed his hand over his face.
“I was like that once. I see a piece of myself in each person who sits here: a lover, a father, a widow or widower. But it gets tiring; holding on is very tiring.”
“What do you see of me in you?” I asked with a tone that verged on imploring.
He looked at me directly and smiled.
“Like me, I see someone who is tired and wants to let go. We share the same need but for different reasons, I think. You come to realise that everything must change. Even doing something you hate doing – it cannot last forever. I just wish it were easier doing something new.”
“Me too,” I said nodding.
Suddenly, he rose to his feet.
“Let us make a deal,” said the old man looking down at me. “You quit doing whatever it is making you tired and I’ll do the same.”
He removed the trilby from his head and held it toward me.
“Think of this as me purchasing a little bit of happiness for you; your face can be awfully sullen, you know?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t try. I will lose two things that dear to me today. I am pleased to say that I gave one away without a heavy heart,” he then turned to leave. “Do what you have to,” he said, raising his hand as he walked out of the park and out of my life.
For the next few weeks I walked through the park, expecting to see him. He was never there. I found myself doffing his hat – my hat – in the direction of the bench each time I walked past. Foolish but obligatory, I thought.
Soon after, I found myself a new job. It took me down different roads, away from the park and to a place of greater contentment. It was many weeks before I returned, hoping to see him. It was early on a Friday evening, the sun was setting. He was not there, but the bench was: turned upside down and thrown into the duck-pond. The last seat in Miller’s park was gone.