It was on one of my post lock-down walks that I first met Reg. It was a lovely day and I fancied a quiet sit down but the only seat available was on a bench next to an old man. It was awkward at first, two strangers seeking solitude but obliged to engage out of politeness. I didn’t stay long but enjoyed our chat. I’ve been back every day since, and Reg is always sitting there in the same spot. Now we’re like old friends and chat for ages.
Reg is old school, ‘of a certain generation’ as my old man would have said. The ‘politically correct’ police would have a field day with him. But whilst some of the things he says make me cringe, he also makes me laugh and I haven’t done a lot of that lately. Nobody has.
I’m later to the park today, not that it matters – I’m pretty sure Reg spends most of his day sat there. He just says he’s waiting though he never says what for.
To my surprise, however, today he’s not there, somebody else is. I glance around but there’s no sign of him. I amble towards the bench – our bench – and see an old lady sat in his spot. She turns at the sound of my approach and smiles.
“Hi,” I reply. I’ve stopped and am inexplicably staring at her. It’s starting to get awkward. I hope she hasn’t got one of those personal alarms or she’s likely to use it.
“Would you like to sit down?”
“Out enjoying the sun?”
“Yes. And waiting.” That vague response works for Reg, so perhaps it will work for me and she’ll leave it at that.
“For your wife?” she asks glancing around.
Nope, didn’t work. Further explanation is required. I try to calculate how rude it would be for me to get up and walk away.
“I’ll have a long wait if I am – she ran off with my best friend. She even took the dog.”
Bet she wishes she never asked now.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her smile is warm and genuine, and I instantly regret my abrasive tone.
“It’s alright, I’m getting over it. I miss my dog though.”
“Sounds like you’re better off without her. Your wife, not your dog.”
“Maybe. What about you, I haven’t seen you here before – leastways not in the two weeks I’ve been coming?”
“Oh, I used to come here all the time with my husband. I’ve been poorly these last couple of weeks, so haven’t been out.”
“Oh dear, that’s not good,” I reply, hoping she doesn’t notice me surreptitiously inching away from her. I don’t do illness, especially not after the virus.
“Don’t worry, dear, I’m over it now and it was nothing contagious.”
She noticed. “Sorry! Old habits.”
She smiles, probably out of pity.
“It’s so peaceful here, I thought I’d come and talk to my Reggie. That’s my husband – he passed away three weeks ago. We came here every day. This was our bench. Being somewhere he loved brings me comfort.”
My head is spinning. Reggie? Surely, she can’t mean Reg? He looked pretty alive to me. “I’m sorry for your loss.” My words sound hollow.
Surely this is just a coincidence – but where is Reg?
She suddenly gets to her feet and smiles at a family walking down the path towards us. Probably her relatives. I turn to ask her, but she’s vanished. Literally. How is that possible for a lady aged somewhere north of eighty?
I glance at the bench and notice a shiny, brass plaque screwed into the backrest. I have never seen it before as Reg always sat there blocking it. Before I can read it, I realise that the family are standing next to me. The middle-aged couple feign smiles as the two teenaged children stare sullen faced in my direction.
In an afternoon of awkwardness, this reigns supreme. I notice the woman is clutching a bunch of lilies and surmise the plaque is in remembrance of somebody they loved, and they’ve come to lay the flowers.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m intruding. I’ll go,” I say, hoping to beat a hasty retreat.
“No, please stay, you’re not intruding at all. They’d be pleased something they cherished was getting used,” says the woman laying the flowers beneath the plaque.
“My parents. They loved it here. This was their bench.” She nods her head towards the plaque inviting me to read it. Trying to ignore what Stacy gets up to after school, according to the graffiti to the right of the plaque, I read:
‘In loving memory of my husband Reginald “Reggie” Palmer. Until we’re together again’.
“We had that plaque added after my father died a few weeks ago. Now we’re have to have one made for Mum.”
“Both your parents have passed away within a few weeks of each other?” I ask incredulously.
“Yes. My father died three weeks ago, and my mother was taken ill about a week after that. She passed away yesterday. We wanted to come somewhere today where we knew they’d been happy together. The doctors aren’t sure what she died of yet, but I am – it was a broken heart, pure and simple. At least now they’re together again.”
“I don’t suppose you have a photograph of them, do you?”
If it is an inappropriate request, they don’t seem offended. The woman fumbles around in her handbag before pulling out a much-cherished photograph and handing it to me.
My breath catches in my throat as I study the image. It is probably a few years old but there is no mistaking the couple smiling back at me – it is Reg and the old lady.
Fighting down the lump in my throat I hand the photo back and once again offer my sympathies. Then, without saying another word, I turn and head for home.
I guess Reg’s wait is over.
(c) Jeff Jones