Forever won 1st prize in a competition run by Alfie Dog Fiction in 2015, and was published as a single story ebook. It was also published in an anthology by The Write Well Award in 2016.
Somebody is sitting on my bench.
As soon as the words formed in Arthur’s mind he corrected them. The bench was not his. It belonged to the council or some such faceless body. It was just one of a number of identical wooden benches spaced alongside the path that meandered round the edge of the park. Sheltered by rhododendrons, and away from the children’s playground and the open area where people exercised their dogs, it had become a stable landmark in an uncertain world. But the fact that Arthur liked to sit on that particular bench for ten minutes a day didn’t give him ownership rights.
Even so, when he saw the bench was already occupied, the steady rhythm of his walk slowed while he considered the situation. It was only a small disruption to his routine. The solution was simple. He would continue along the path until he found a vacant seat.
It was important to have a routine, important to keep mind and body active. Without a timetable and a list of things to do, life could too easily slide into chaos. That was why he left the house shortly after nine each morning, bought a newspaper and any groceries he needed at the corner shop, and then crossed the road to the park. There, he walked as briskly as he could to his chosen bench, sat down and read the newspaper, or held it as though reading while his thoughts wandered elsewhere. When the clock on St Mary’s church struck the half-hour he resumed his walk and arrived home just before Sarah’s carer left.
As he drew nearer the bench, Arthur saw there were two people on it; two youths wearing jeans and grey, hooded tops that hid their faces. They were both slumped forward, forearms resting on knees, heads close together as though deep in conversation.
Sit up straight, boy!
How many times had he barked out that order in the classroom? Arthur pulled back his own shoulders and lifted his chin. Sit up! Fold your arms! Pay attention!
No discipline these days. Parents allowed their children to run wild, schools and police were powerless to punish the little darlings, and society threw up its hands in helpless horror. Why weren’t these two in school? A holiday? Playing truant more likely.
One boy got to his feet and stood looking down at his companion. He tossed something back and forth, from one hand to the other. A glint of metal. A knife?
Arthur stopped. His imagination threw up a dozen different scenarios in quick succession. Was this a bully tormenting his victim? Two hooligans preparing for a gang fight? Or were they plotting their next crime? Only last week an old lady had been robbed and assaulted in the town centre by a couple of fourteen-year-olds.
Arthur looked around. There was nobody else in sight. He tightened his grip on the shopping bag and wished he’d brought the walking stick that his daughter had insisted on giving him when he hurt his ankle last year.
Never let them see you’re afraid. It was advice that had served him well in the past. But it wasn’t fear for his own safety that made him hesitate now. If anything should happen to delay his return home …. He saw Sarah sitting all alone, not knowing where he was.
He weighed up his options. Would it be foolhardy to walk on, ignore the youths and hope they’d ignore him? Or should he leave the path and skirt around them over the grass? That might only signal his apprehension and make him a more tempting target. Perhaps it would be safer to turn round and walk back the way he’d come, although Arthur realised that would prevent him seeing what was going on behind him. Suppose they saw him retreating and followed?
A ripple of high-pitched laughter dispelled the nightmarish pictures in an instant. The seated figure lifted its head and the hood fell back to reveal a tumble of dark curls. A girl. A very pretty young girl, Arthur noted as she stood up and looked directly at him.
The boy followed the girl’s gaze for a moment. He, too, was smiling with no hint of malice in his expression. He slipped whatever he had in his hand into his pocket. Then he draped one arm around the girl’s shoulders, she kissed him playfully on the cheek, and they walked away.
Arthur took a slow, deep breath to calm his still-racing heart. He needed to sit down.
The pale gashes stood out clean and bright against the dark brown of the bench seat.Vandals! But it wouldn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to identify the perpetrators. They’d left their initials for all to see, and Arthur would be able to give a good description of them. But, on second thoughts, he realised there was not much point in reporting the crime.
Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir. We’ll make a note of it, Sir. And that’s as far as it would go.
Arthur sat down and ran his fingers over the newly carved letters.
4 E V A
JS loves MB presumably. But what did the last bit mean? Four – a date? No. Four? For? For Eva? Was this a message for Eva? Who was she? JS’s previous girlfriend perhaps? Did he want to make her jealous? How cruel.
The church clock struck its single note. Arthur left the bench but continued to puzzle over the graffiti. The answer came to him when he reached the park gates. Tears filled his eyes.
Your daughter phoned,” the carer told him. “She said she’s got the day off work so she’ll come over to see you later on.”
Arthur thanked her for the message. He didn’t need to ask why Dawn hadn’t phoned the previous evening. She knew what time Arthur went for his walk. He could imagine only too well the conversation she’d had with the carer in his absence.
“I’ve put the washing in the machine,” the carer said as she pulled on her coat. “Shall I set the tumble dryer for you? It’s much easier than …”
“No, thank you,” Arthur interrupted. He had explained this before. “My wife likes the clothes to dry outside in the fresh air. She only uses the dryer if it’s raining. I’ll hang them out. I can manage.”
“I’ll be off then.” The carer looked into the front room. “Bye, bye, Sarah. I’ll see you this evening.”
Sarah was in her armchair, her hair neatly combed, her hands folded in her lap. Arthur patted her shoulder to let her know he was there. The television was on. A group of people were all talking excitedly at each other without saying anything of the slightest interest. Arthur switched it off. Sarah didn’t seem to notice the sudden silence.
“Dawn’s coming today,” Arthur said. “You know Dawn? Our daughter?” He took a framed photograph off the mantelpiece and held it in front of Sarah. It had been taken on Dawn’s fifth birthday. “Here’s Dawn. See?”
Sarah’s lips moved.
“That’s right. Dawn.” Arthur prompted. “Of course you know her. You couldn’t forget your own daughter. You remember lots of things, don’t you?”
He took her hands in his. “I remembered something just now. Something I hadn’t thought about for years. Something that happened a long time ago. Remember when we were courting? Remember those long, summer evenings when I’d come to your house to call for you and we’d walk up through Shepherd’s Wood? Remember our special place at the top of the hill where we sat under that big beech tree, and looked out over the world, and made all our plans? I wonder if it’s still there – our tree? We talked and talked about anything and everything, didn’t we? And then we had to run all the way back because your father would be waiting on the doorstep, tapping his pocket watch. What time d’you call this? You’re late, my girl!”
Arthur gently turned over Sarah’s right hand so the palm faced upwards. “Here’s something else I remembered today.”
Dawn brought homemade meals labelled with heating instructions and put them in the freezer. She asked after Sarah and Arthur’s health and didn’t seem to believe the answers. It wasn’t long before she brought up the subject Arthur did not want to discuss.
“I’ve found a lovely place, a real home from home, and it’s not too far away,” she said. She took a large, brown envelope from her bag. “Look, here’s a brochure and all the details. I thought we could take Mum for a visit. Perhaps one day next week? You won’t have to decide anything straight away, but it wouldn’t hurt just to find out about it, would it? You’ll both be able to have a look round, meet the staff, and …”
“She doesn’t like going out,” Arthur said.
“I’ve found a taxi firm that has one of those special cars for wheelchairs,” Dawn said. “Much easier than trying to get Mum in and out of my car. That’s what upsets her. I’ll book this taxi and we’ll be able to wheel her straight in and out. No lifting. No fuss.”
“But we’re all right here,” Arthur said, aware that he was running out of objections.
“At the moment,” Dawn agreed. “But we both know it’s not going to get any easier. It’s you I’m worried about, Dad. And what will happen to Mum if you make yourself ill looking after her?”
Arthur didn’t trust himself to answer.
“I’ll go and make us some tea,” Dawn said.
When she returned, she pretended not to notice Arthur had been looking at the care home literature.
“I’ve had an idea,” he said.
“This taxi. I’ll pay for it, but I want to take your mother somewhere else first. Before we go to that – place.”
“Somewhere she remembers. Somewhere we’ve been talking about. Look, I’ll show you.” He turned to Sarah. “Remember our special tree? What did I carve on it for you?”
He traced the letters on her palm with his forefinger as he said them. “A W L S M. Arthur White loves Sarah MacDonald.”
Dawn caught her breath. She was sure her mother’s smile was genuine, not merely an involuntary twitching of the muscles.
Arthur repeated the exercise. “A W L S M. Arthur loves Sarah – and what was that other word?”
“Forever,” Sarah said.
About The Author
Linda Daunter is now making writing her main occupation after many years of scribbling stories in snatched moments between ‘proper’ jobs. She has had flash fiction, short stories and articles published in print and online magazines, and is currently working on two novels – one for adults, one for children. Her first collection of short stories ‘Fashion Circles’ has been published in paperback and ebook formats by Alfie Dog Fiction (https://alfiedog.com)
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