The Bench, a short story by Echobunny at
Michael Fortsch

The Bench

The Bench

written by: Steve Dooré



He was cold. This wasn’t unusual – living outside means getting used to being cold. He lived in a semi–permanent cold state, one where you accepted that cold was the status quo. Any moments of warmth were treated as an unexpected treat.

Today though was a different type of cold. This was a cold that came from within, that could be measured not in degrees Celsius, but in the increase in empty retail units, the length of the food bank queues, the pools of congealed vomit in litter-strewn alleyways. He, like the town, was spiritually frozen. He didn’t know which he hated more – the town’s decline or his own. It was impossible to separate them, as though the two were linked by an invisible umbilical cord, desperately trying to ration out the last vestiges of humanity, leaving them both starved.

Phil had to remind himself that he hadn’t always lived on a bench, slept in doorways, and dined on the spare change of kind strangers. For a while, a young boy and his mum had come past every day with a banana for him, and grateful as he was, he wondered how much contentment that brought him compared to them. They would go home, knowing they’d done a good thing, and that glow, that sense of self-satisfaction at being fundamentally a good person, would last all night. By that point, Phil would be hungry and angry. Again.

He was about to get up and walk to get some blood pumping when a smartly dressed young man strode past, clearly on his way to somewhere more “important”. Phil imagined this guy – Sebastian perhaps – telling his mates later over bottled lager about the dump he had stopped in when his train terminated early. He imagined the complaints about striking drivers bringing the country to a standstill. The fact those people were striking because of the incessant profiteering of the rail bosses would neither occur nor matter to Seb. He was inconvenienced. Context is nothing. Self is everything. Seb had pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket, discarding a small leaflet on the floor in the process.

The leaflet was an invitation to a local hustings in one of the community centers that sometimes provided Phil with a hot but watery soup with some bread, and possessor of the comfiest doorway in all of town. Its long archway provided shelter, and the sloping floor gave a natural elevation to the head. Sometimes, if the center had had an event, the recycling bins would be chock full of useful items to try to support a good night’s sleep in a doorway. After one particularly lavish child’s birthday, half of a giant birthday cake was discarded. It was gone in seconds. Another time, another party, only this one came with a huge surfeit of bubble wrap, which served not only as a simple, childish reminder of happier times, but also as a fantastic pillow.

Phil read the flier. There was tea and biscuits and a chance to ask their prospective MPs questions. Phil wondered briefly whether it was worth going along to get warm. After five seconds he screwed up the leaflet and held the tip of his cigarette to the corner. He watched the leaflet shrivel to nothing and muttered “wankers” under his breath. The problem was not politics, he always reasoned. Politics is important. Politics is everything. The problem, as he always tried to explain to anyone who would listen, was those who go into politics. People with money. People whose parents had been in politics. People who had always been in environments where everybody had “enough.” When everyone has “enough” life becomes a competition of who can acquire the most. When nobody needs a safety net, the idea of actually providing one is lost. The need is invisible. But invisible does not mean non-existent.

Phil often wondered if selfishness was really the natural state for humans. How far does the survival instinct go? Is it a scientific explanation for greed? The dominant economic theory had clearly been the same through this living memory. Look after yourself, and the benefits trickle down. The problem with this is that those at the top are excellent plumbers – there are no trickles. The seals are tight and regularly maintained.

He must have dozed off. He knew he had because the sky was noticeably darker, rain had started to fall, he was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position and there was an extremely unbalanced woman trying to sit on his feet.

“Fuck off Jools” he mumbled. The woman either didn’t hear him or didn’t care about what he was saying, because she carried on trying and failing to grab hold of the arm of the bench.

“Jesus, Jools, what’s wrong with you?”

“Mmmng” was all Jools could manage, before collapsing on him. Phil knew what was wrong with her. She was in another world, transported by the legal highs that formed a large part of her daily diet. Phil had been sober for a number of months, and Jools was a reminder of what he had been. He was worried for her, but didn’t need her around. Self-control was hard enough. Jools-control was beyond his mental capacity.

Jools hadn’t always been this way either. Previously a mortgage holder and mother to twin girls, the beginning of her downward spiral was much easier to pinpoint than his. When her two girls were killed in an accident that also took the life of her ex-husband and the girls’ father, she had given up on life. A shell of a person, she now didn’t even remember her old address. She had asked for support a number of times through her GP service and had been referred to the Mental Health Crisis Team, but the referral process and waiting length meant that door felt effectively closed – far more closed than the alleyway behind the supermarket that sold a number of alternative remedies. Heroine hadn’t worked, but the legal high “Smirk” had done the job nicely. Why retain memories when they remind you of the catastrophe of the present?

Phil and Jools were friends. They had known each other in their previous lives, where conversation would have been had over a pleasant dinner and a glass or three of Pinot, and the current conversational context and location would have been unthinkable. That had been less than three years ago. The great divide between a boringly comfortable existence and life on the streets may seem like light years, but can actually be closed with a couple of bad decisions and a slice of bad luck.

Phil looked at his friend. He thought of Seb, and how the real root of his resentment towards the man he didn’t know was really that fact that it could have been him not so long ago, and thought “sod it, I’ll go. At least it’ll be warm.”

Three hours later Phil was self-consciously sitting in the community center waiting to watch two politicians try and win over the 70 or so people it would need to swing the seat in the forthcoming general election. This was a marginal seat, the second closest contest in the last general election, with the Tories just holding on having launched a scathing and at points homophobic attack on the Labour candidate, who had responded with his own toff-bashing brand of personality politics. Both were equally odious.

This time around, despite his homelessness and apparent resignation to a life lived without hope, Phil still felt that this should be his comfort zone – he still couldn’t let go of the idea that, contrary to appearances and the belief of the rest of the town, his opinion still mattered. However, he had been feeling unsettled since arriving, in part due to being asked by one of the organisers “Are you in the right place, love?” It was one of those enquiries that meant well on the surface, but really was designed to ensure he knew that he wasn’t. Phil had, to his own surprise, been strong enough to say “Yes, thanks. Is there tea and coffee?” Now though, sitting holding his scalding hot coffee more for warmth than sustenance, he wasn’t sure he should have bothered. He could feel the eyes of the well-laundered, recently showered majority burning into him. In that room, at that moment, he felt like the embodiment of the problems that politics is meant to try and solve, and felt the guilt and shame that comes with that.

He hadn’t meant to ask a question. His intention had been to sit, to listen, probably to sigh, but to accept that really the problems being faced by so many were so big, so structurally driven, so “macro” and beyond the grasp or influence of anybody in that room, and to join the masses in a collective shrug that said “what can you do?”

Once the debate began, however, Phil sensed a shift in atmosphere from the previous political debates and conversations he had been once party to, and sometimes part of. He remembered the theory of the Overton Window, which describes the way the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream at any one time. He listened with increasing horror as he realised how far this seemed to have shifted to the right. He was equally shocked to see that those around him – who showed all the hallmarks of your moderate floating voter – didn’t seem at all appalled by this, or indeed seem to notice at all.

He noticed this first during debates about freedoms, and of course this in the context of Brexit. One of the candidates – he knew who was who, but such was the nature of the discourse that the colour of the rosettes seemed almost immaterial – had put forward the view that human rights legislation provided a barrier to progress. Progress to what he didn’t say. His opponent essentially agreed. When she stood up to speak, she also outlined a plan to review “the efficacy of the current protections afforded and a reigning in of the scope of the legislative influence over decisions.”

This kind of thinly veiled borderline fascist rhetoric continued into other debates. On the economy – one proposed “freeing business from regulations that stifle innovation” which turned out to mean scrapping laws that protect people from being forced to work too many hours, and an extension of the rights of companies to use zero-hour contracts. On foreign affairs, the other suggested “a revision of budgetary decisions that affect our place in the global playground” turned out to mean buying some supersized helicopters with money saved from rolling back financial support to deprived areas.

Phil had expected some of this. He wasn’t naive. But he hadn’t been prepared for how what amounted to, in his eyes, a far-right agenda masquerading as centrist policy – found an audience with those around him. Each of these wildly dangerous suggestions, which felt more at home in 1930s Munich than 21st-century Basingstoke, was treated with nods of heads and respectful rounds of applause.

“You sir, with the brown jumper.” It took Phil a moment to realise that his hand was in the air, and that they were inviting him to ask his question. “Yes, er, thanks.” He hesitated, and then a small surge of the old him, the pre-homelessness Phil, the before-the-allegations Phil, raised its head. He felt warm inside, not with coffee, but with anger, and with fight. It was familiar, and in that second he felt like he’d been resurrected. “A question for both candidates. Are you aware of how terrible you sound? How close you sound to extremism? How your answers seem like barely disguised racism, victim blaming, wealth wealth-protecting bile? And those around me, can’t you see it?” He turned and stared at those in the row behind. “Can’t you see it? Or do you all agree? We’ve got energy companies making record profits while your neighbours can’t afford heat. We’ve got company shares at record highs while shop’ shelves are empty and people drown in dinghies trying to seek refuge. We got rockets shooting to the moon as a billionaire’s plaything while other planes take off deporting people who came here asking for help having fleed for their lives. You’ve got people like me – I made mistakes, in fact, I made hundreds of them – but I don’t think any were so bad as to be punished with a lifetime of cold and hunger on the streets. The only reference to homelessness tonight has been that it risks a lowering of the value of your homes. It’s all greed. Pure and simple. I’ve always wanted to believe that people are inherently good, but they’re not. We are all survivalists, out for ourselves. And I’m sick of it”. He picked up his jacket – the one with the holes in the back – and out fell his last roll-up cigarette. He thought about leaving it behind, as to stop would take away from the momentum of the movement towards the door, but he doubled back to get it, the last remaining sure comfort in his world. “Shame on the lot of you,” he said, as he turned once more and headed to the door.

Later that evening, back on the bench, a woman in a severely ironed and brightly coloured suit sat down next to him. He didn’t recognise her. She started speaking to him without introduction. “You were right, you know.” “What?” he said.

“In the meeting. What you said about selfishness and greed. You were right. I hadn’t noticed – I go to every political meeting I can, I spend all my spare time on Twitter tweeting and retweeting, feeling like I’m informed and making a difference. But I hadn’t noticed how far the conversation had moved. It was like I was hearing it, but not hearing it. One moment I’m nodding about the sense of the deportation plan, the next I’m listening to you and it was like a horror show. You were describing me. So, I ask you now: what can we do differently? What can I, as one of those “survivalists” I think you called us, do to make a genuine difference, to change the course of history?”

Phil looked at her. He was surprised to see she had tears in her eyes. Middle-class guilt or genuine care? He gave her the benefit of the doubt and erred towards the latter. “I don’t think it’s specific,” he said finally. I think it’s about ourselves… It’s about stepping back from the detail and complexity, the dross and the muck, and asking who we are and what we stand for. Rather than talking about the “country” being successful, ask ourselves what is a country anyway? The UK is just a big floating rock that some people live on. Does being born on that piece of rock give you more say over the lives of others who choose to live there? Do you own it any more than anyone else because your parents happened to be here when you were conceived? What does ownership really mean? Is it really that hard to divide resources in a way that nobody goes hungry? What do we really need to be happy? I reckon you are happier than me. Maybe not now – here, have a tissue – but generally. I’m also willing to bet that, if I just had a roof and some food to eat, we wouldn’t be that far apart, happiness-wise. Yet I’m also guessing you have two cars, some spare bedrooms, and a lot of gadgets you don’t really understand?” She said nothing, but the increase in tears flowing down her face told him all he needed to know.

“Look, I’m not having a go at you. A couple of different turns in life, a couple of reversed decisions, and I could be you. Without the lipstick and the heels maybe.” He smiled, to show her this was meant in friendly jest, and was pleased to see she smiled back. “It’s just, we’re trained to see our lot in life as not enough, we lose the ability to embrace its “enoughness.” We get addicted to need. We lose the ability to be happy, and we look for someone to blame.” He stopped there, almost embarrassed at this outburst.

“OK, I’ll make a deal with you,” she said. “I’ll try harder. I’ll speak up. I’ll question more. I’ll do anything… For your part, will you meet with me again, at my house over a cup of tea, to talk? Just tea, possibly a digestive or two, maybe even a chocolate hobnob. Keep me on track.”

“Sure,” he said, “if you think it would help.” She smiled again. “It really will. I want to be a good person. I think I’ve lost sight of how”.

After she’d left him with her address and a date in two weeks’ time for their little tea party, he thought about what a bizarre day it had been. It had started like any other. He’d then gone to the meeting and lost complete faith in humanity. He’d then met the woman – amazingly he had forgotten to ask her name – and seen a glimpse of humanity returning. All in one day. He ended the day feeling hopeful once again. Maybe. Maybe.

Two weeks later he knocked in vain on the big blue door of the family home. He noticed there were no cars in the drive, nor lights on in the house. She wasn’t there… Disappointed but not surprised, he returned to the bench. He studied his oldest possession – a cutting from a local newspaper, and read the headline for the millionth time. “MP quits over allegations of affair with another man.” He looked at the photo accompanying the story and wondered how someone can age so much. He cried for the person he was, the person he still felt like.

He was cold.

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