Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Bench

The following piece was written as part of a recent university course.  (2011-2012)  The object of the exam was to produce a life-writing (biographical or auto-biographical) piece of work.  I decided to cover a traumatic time from 2009, yet use a sense of humour to balance the structure.
As my preface suggests, I don't do 'bleak'.  
I've not been to Blogger for a little while and everything seems to have changed.  Why this post should be dark font on white background, when all my other posts are the opposite, is well beyond my current technological understanding.  I'm a writer, not an engineer.  If I can find a way to change it back then I surely will.

The photograph is also mine - taken 2012 at the spot where I received the inspiration for this piece of writing, Dursley Cemetery, Gloucestershire.

The Bench

I've never been one for sad stories. As a kid I was always drawn towards movies that opened with the main character(s) in the absolute worst of dire straits, yet culminated with happy, smiling faces, preferably accompanied by cheery songs and a multitude of cheesy dancing. If my parents had consented, corners of my bedroom would have likely held shrines to both Walt Disney and Dick Van Dyke.
    To this end, I'll begin with what is commonly referred to as a low point in life or, to use my own personal phraseology, 'being at the very bottom of the well.'

August 1st, 2009.
    'He's not looking too good, Bob.'
    'You're right, Tom...he  hasn't been the same since that vicious uppercut...'
    I am seated upon a plain, wooden bench in Dursley , surrounded by an abundance of brightly-coloured flowers and the delicious aroma of freshly-cut grass. While my eyes take in luscious, green shades within the rolling hills before me, my head and stomach appear obsessively dedicated towards destructive, alternative agendas. The weather over the small, Gloucestershire town has decided to match my internal mood by adopting a dark and menacing outlook. In the past hour we have also perfected an electric, bristling air. Momentarily, I ponder that if this were a game of emotional poker then the weather and I would be holding very similar cards. For someone who delights in disciplined self-control, this is a time of major concern.
    'In 46 years, I've never seen Milsom quite so ragged, Bob...'
    'Well, with all his experience, I was expecting a lot more 'bob' and 'weave', Tom...his legs have totally gone...'
     I could never be described as a hurtful man. However, it's two weeks since my mother died and I am becoming extremely weary of the well-meant, awkward collection of facial expressions and accompanying phrases aimed in my direction .
    'Well, at least she's out of pain'...
    'She had a good innings'....
    'It's probably a blessing'...
    'You'll feel better after a good cry'...
    Naturally, there are no rule books for observing a treasured soul disintegrate on a daily basis; not a single master class. While watching the constant onset of Mum‘s physical failings, promptly followed by harsh, emotional whiplashes and the ultimate breakdown of her cognitive faculties, my resourceful side had quickly developed a stout defence system.  As usual, when personally confronted with negative life forces, my armour has been skilfully forged from the finest humour . For five hurtful years, myself and currently exhausted family have relied upon a battle-balancing arsenal of surrealism, jokes, puns, limericks and silly impressions; each worthy enough for the entire Monty Python team break out in admiring whistles. I've watched my mother use humour in exactly the same way; even in her most fragile of moments. If it's good enough for her then it'll do me fine.
    Within unfamiliar and uncertain darkness, finding slivers of comedy gold has long been my salvation. However, for the last few months, troop numbers within my 'Comedy Defence Force' have dwindled alarmingly. With Mum‘s passing, all humour has deserted the ranks. A row of outsized, steel toe-capped clown boots lay unoccupied. Military-issue custard pies go stale .
    It's a half-hour drive but this is the one place where no-one can find me. Throughout the bewildering numbness that has clung to me like morning fog for the previous fortnight, I have planned such a healing time as this. To sit in peace. To gather my thoughts. It's exactly what I need. I'm about to discover some alarming errors in my thinking.
    'The referee's looking very concerned, Bob.'
    'Milsom's got to cover up, Tom...where the hell's his defence?'
    A fair question, Tom. Currently, my boxing gloves hang limply by my side. It would make astronomical sense for them to be tight around my ears, be perfectly honest...I'm well past caring. All attempts to 'gather my thoughts' have merely allowed the quick parting of internal doors. Each door, holding specific memories, has been purposely locked, bolted and barred at some stage over the last five years. By myself. For my own protection.
    'I'm not sure I can watch, Bob.'
    A gruesome, gut-wrenching collection of twisted imagery, depicting my mother throughout her weakest and most vulnerable states of frightened fragility, viciously pummels my ribs.  However, the one punch which has truly staggered me involves a sudden granite 'uppercut of realisation'; namely, I've spent a large portion of life devoted to - and reliant upon - someone who no longer exists. Not a single atom of space upon this Earth. Not anywhere. The thought sets firmly in my head like concrete, unleashing a further torrent of painful blows.
    'For God's sake...get off the ropes!'
    I tell Tom precisely where to stick his microphone and continue to absorb punches. With ghoulish images pounding away like a demented jack-hammer, somewhere within my crumbling senses I realise that I am beginning to accept the blows as a normal part of life. In time, I'll even grow to like them;  admire and respect them.
    Reaching inside my jacket, my fingers fold around a plain, brown envelope which soon emerges into the dull, grey afternoon. For a few seconds, my eyes simply scan my printed name and address, before retrieving the letter within and reading it for the countless time. From half a decade previous, my mother's agitated voice swims into range.
    'Are you sure you can afford this? Houses aren't cheap these days...'
My confident reply could have emanated from the lips of a method actor at the absolute peak of his technical craft .
    'It'll be fine, Mum. We'll just work together and get through whatever comes up. It's what we always do.' In a classic Dick Van Dyke movie, this would have been the cue for a heart-warming song about overcoming impossible odds and always chasing life's most optimistic rainbows.
    I read through the letter again, before firmly closing my eyes and pondering precisely what goes through the mind of people who can produce printed phrases such as, 'failure to pay', house possession' and 'with immediate effect'. If ever careers were designed purely for emotionless robots, then producing these types of letters must surely rank highly . Of all the words before me, the hardest to accept is 'failure'. Losing my mother and house inside twenty-four hours of each other isn't just careless. It's plain irresponsible. I am aware of my right hand gripping the Dursley bench with a force that threatens to physically separate my knuckles. I've never felt so hollow.
    'Open your eyes.'
    That doesn't sound like Bob. Nor Tom, unless he's taken my explicit instructions regarding his microphone.
    'Open your eyes.'
Obediently, I comply. There, in my immediate line of sight and dark-shaded by regular Cotswold rain, is a wooden knot on the seat of my bench. For a split-second, the knot becomes my entire universe. Memories of former sun-splashed, days burst into my view. Running with childhood friends.  Countless hours engaged in the wonderful art of cloud-watching; laying on lush grass alongside animated friends at Bristol's Brandon Hill, or up at the sprawling Clifton Downs. Whoever made the loudest, laughter-inducing images became the 'King of Cloud Weaving'. In truth, the crown was rarely from my daft head.
    Back in Dursley, to my visually-ravenous brain, the knot immediately reminds me of Chewbacca from 'Star Wars', smoking a cigar. It's very silly...but just enough to form the briefest of smiles upon my lips. All that I require. Images of Chewbacca wandering around the 'Death Star', while smoking a cigar in true, clowning Groucho Marx-style, have already started to infiltrate my imagination.
    'Bob...are you watching this?'
    Somewhere in my mind, a curtain opens before a large screen. Chewbacca, complete with ridiculous spectacles, false eyebrows and moustache, is walking towards Darth Vader with a cheeky grin; cigar waggling in his furry fingers.
    'I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception!' he says, with exquisite 'Groucho' timing.
    I feel myself grinning. That'll do nicely. For the first time in months I duck as a menacing glove whistles over my head.
    'Fight back!'
    I recognise the voice as my own. The mental image replays, this time with more eyebrow wiggling. Hearing my chuckle, I draw in welcome breath.
    'Look him in the eye. Make sure he sees it. There...'
    The punch begins somewhere down by my right ankle as my body twists up into a graceful arch with the astonishing speed of Superman on ice; a purposeful glove connecting squarely with my opponent's  jaw, to send him reeling. As it connects, the empty hollow feeling in my stomach finally begins to subside.
    'Where the FU...'
    I ignore Bob and add a quick, hard jab to make sure he knows I mean business. A bell sounds...I'm tired, but more importantly, I'm back in the game. The canvas looked so soft and inviting.  One simple count of ten and the fight was over.
    Glancing down to the small rectangle of earth, beneath which the physical remains of my mother reside, I say a silent prayer and think about returning home. There's a lot to sort out and my immediate family have no further requirements for a sullen, humourless individual within their ranks.  Truly, tomorrow can be another day.
    In a final move, the Dursley weather raises the stakes as an artillery of heavy thunderclouds release torrents of rain upon the town. Defiantly, I throw in my poker hand and hang up my boxing gloves.  I'm all done with crying.


  1. Aww that was just beautiful. Your writing is so wonderful that it takes just a split second to see it 'appear' in images in your mind as you read on. Bravo Kev!

  2. I sincerely appreciate the feedback. Many thanks, Sal. :)