Friday, April 16, 2021

Happy to Chat by Elaine Peters

 It was just an ordinary wooden bench, the sort that’s often targeted by passing pigeons.  Eighty-year-old Sid always sat gingerly on the cleaner side for a few minutes before tackling the last lap on his way home carrying his string bag with one potato, one carrot, two pork sausages and a pint of milk.  The bag had belonged to his wife and had expanded hugely with her shopping.  Now it was his and the few items sagged in the bottom.

Sid approached ‘his’ bench, stick tapping on the path.  He stopped abruptly.  Something was different, and it wasn’t just that it looked shiny and clean.  He peered at the sign which had not been there the week before.  It declared that it was now a ‘Happy to Chat’ bench and challenged you to ‘sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello’.

Sid felt confused.  Every Thursday he took a breather on this bench and almost always had it to himself.  Occasionally someone else sat down, but there was never any conversation.  He didn’t want any do-gooder bothering him.  The thought made him feel quite anxious.  He wondered what Lucy would have thought about it.  She had been better at chatting with people, strangers even, than he was.

He felt even more anxious as he saw someone approaching.  Gathering up his bag and walking stick Sid got to his feet and shuffled off as fast as he could. 

Doris had seen the sign on the bench the day before, but so far she hadn’t seen anyone sitting there.  She was good at chatting, while waiting for the bus, or in the queue at the chemists, anywhere really.  But she felt the bench would be an especially good place as you could sit down while you were doing it - if only there was someone there to chat to.  The old man was hurrying away as if the demons were after him.  Doris sighed and sat down anyway.

A young pregnant girl came along and took a seat.  Doris smiled and said hello.  The girl nodded and smiled back but when Doris tried to embark on a conversation it was clear she didn’t speak any English.  Thwarted again, Doris fell silent.

The girl eventually managed ‘goodbye’ and waddled off. Doris stayed on the bench.  The weather was fine and although she hadn’t managed to have a happy chat it was nice to sit in the sunshine.  She could see all along the path towards the shops on one side and into the park on the other.  She was just drifting off into a doze when someone sat down heavily beside her. 

‘Hello,’ a gruff voice spoke, ‘Apparently we’ve got to chat.’  The speaker was a man of about her own age with a beard and heavy glasses.  The rest of him was heavy too.  In fact, Doris thought he looked scruffy, overweight and generally none too wholesome.

‘Oh,’ she replied primly.  ‘We don’t have to talk if we don’t want to.  It’s just an idea to help people break the ice.’

‘Well, do you want to or not?  I can’t sit around all day waiting to see if you’re going to chat.’

‘Really!  I don’t think that’s quite the attitude.  I’m not going to chat with you.’ Doris was flustered and stood up quickly.  ‘Thank you and goodbye.’

She tried to maintain a dignified straight back as she headed to the main road.  She could feel his eyes following her.

Over the next few weeks Doris managed to chat with a young mother who sat down to feed her baby.  She had just moved to the area and didn’t know many people.  Doris was happy to tell her about all the things she might like to do to make friends.  For instance, did she know there was a baby book club at the library?  Linda was very grateful and said she would look out for Doris when she was next in town.  Next time she saw Linda she was with another young woman with a pram and waved happily at Doris from across the street.

Then there was Marilyn whose husband had died suddenly eight months before and who just needed someone to talk to before going home to an empty house.  Doris was able to tell her from experience that time really does heal.  Or at least it makes life manageable.  After the next chance meeting on the bench, they discovered they both liked the cinema and agreed to go to a matinee together.

Even Sid resumed sitting on the bench on Thursdays and exchanged a few words with Doris.  He told her how he and his wife had always sat together on this very bench, although it didn’t look so new in those days, which was silly because of course then it had been newer.  Doris agreed that they had done a good job reviving it.  He confided that he was rather tired of sausages, which was all he could cook, and she advised him to think about investing in a microwave because there were so many ready-meals available and some of them were quite delicious.

After a while Doris forgot to keep a weather eye open for the unpleasant man with the beard.  Her heart sank when one day she had just closed her eyes for a moment when she heard Billy Goat Gruff, as she had nicknamed him to herself, saying something.

‘Sorry, what was that?’

‘I said I’m sorry about the other day.  I was rude.  Please forgive me.’  He held out his hand.  ‘My name is Will and I would love it if we could talk.’ 

Doris took another look at him.  His hair and beard were neat, he had on clean clothes and he had lost weight.   Handsome is as handsome does, Doris thought to herself as she shook his hand warily and introduced herself.  She’d reserve judgement – but he might have a nice line in chat.

© Elaine Peters

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