The queue started to move and James got his coffee and a bottle of water. No place to sit he went outside and found a park bench with only one occupant and staring into space he started to sip. There was something about coffee that just tasted brown. His was bitter and it perked his eyes up, if it did deaden his taste buds.
Old men and women walked past him as he sat. The older they were, the slower they seemed to go. Each wore a sandwich board on his or her back. Some were quite blank, as if all hope had been rubbed from them, as if they had nothing to give, or at least felt they no longer contributed. Some had just a few words. One old man walked past, quite upright, his board said; “I’ve killed people for my country”, another was attached to a very small old woman, “Five children, nine grandchildren, two great grandchildren” some of the boards were covered with text. A man stopped to cross the street in front of James. His board was heavy and cut into his back, blood ran across his coat, it said.
‘My name is unimportant but my sin is too great to bear. In 1962 I married a woman I was not in love with for the sake of a child I did not want. In the course of my loveless marriage I made her life a living hell. I slept with other women, I had children by them, I flaunted my disregard for my wife and I held her in contempt.
In 1982 after twenty years of marriage she left me for another man. They are still together and are happy. I have not spoken to her since that day and neither she, nor my daughter have ever tried to contact me. I have not been held in a loving embrace since that day she left and this is my punishment.’
The man turned and looked both ways before crossing. His face was gaunt, almost hollow and where there should have been eyes there was nothing. Not sockets and that which sits behind the eyes, there was an absence, a nothingness that chilled James heart.
“Poor bastard” the man sitting on the end of the bench said.
“Excuse me?” James replied.
“Him, the guy who can’t get laid”
“Eh?” James said, “You mean you can see that too?”
“Well of course I can,” he paused and looked at James, whose hope that he was starting to regain some sense of reality plummeted from the shallow heights he had raised them to when he saw the man’s face, “I’m dead.” He paused, “he’s not though, I think that makes it even worse.”
The man on the end of the bench at first glance looked like any other businessman; he was smartly attired, if a little too trapped in the eighties. The double breasted suit and thin tie was a dead giveaway to the decade of decadence and Thatcherism.
“Ok” James said, “fair enough” he looked at the man more closely. There was something about the manner of his stare that could only come with knowing more than a living soul should had the right to know about the world and life. The eyes were the giveaway. Rather than telling everything about a person they were eyes that hid the truth that they knew for those who were not ready to receive that truth just yet. Of course the grey skin and cadaverous appearance gave the game a way a little also.
“I’m James” he reached over and offered his hand.
“Sorry James,” the man said, “I would love to shake your hand, but as you can see, I’m a little inert. My name is David, David Wilson.”
The man’s hand was trapped. James saw that not only were his palms were pressed to the wood of the bench, but they actually melted, ever so slightly into it. The man’s suit also slipped into the wood rather than rest atop it.
“Kind of my punishment” he said, “sandwich boards are harsh, I grant, but there are some really awful things that can happen.”
“Why the hell are you glued to a bench?” James exclaimed loudly.
“I’m a suicide” David said gaily.
“You killed yourself?”
“Well in a manner of speaking” the cadaver continued, “I sort of gave up living life and lived an existence instead”
“That clears a lot up” James tried not to roll his eyes.
“No need to be like that with me young man, I’ll explain if you like” he turned his head and James heard the cracks and creaks of a neck that was long past its sell by date.
“Sorry” James apologised.
“Quite all right James” the corpse continued, “I was a quite successful man and I, rather than look after what was, or should have been most important to me, I looked after my business and made money. I was a lawyer with a thriving practice and despite the best efforts of my family I turned over all my energies to that rather than to my wife and kids. They suffered most of all” He sighed.
“Oh” James didn’t know what to say, he watched the face of the former man and hoped he would continue.
“That’s it really” he said, “I didn’t blow my brains out or anything like that, I died on a golf course during a corporate even at the age of sixty two. It wasn’t my life that I wilfully destroyed, it was the potential life with my wife and kids that I wrecked, and so now, I sit here, on a bench erected in my honour.” He tried to lean a little closer to James, but failed.
“Take my advice kid” he rasped, “Don’t ever let them build you a bench, especially not outside your son’s house.”
The words hung on the air. Across the street a door to the tenement flats above the shops opened and from it stepped a tall man in his twenties carrying a child in a papoose. If tears could have come from David they would have done and in his anguish he vanished from sight, leaving nothing but a brass plaque where he had sat.
“In memoriam, David Wilson, Lawyer”
James stood, binned his half full coffee cup and decided to go for a walk.