A Strange Meeting On A Park Bench On My Birthday
It was a stunningly beautiful Autumn day, the azure blue sky acting like a blank canvas on which nature had decided to paint a masterpiece full of vibrant natural colours. A mosaic, leaf-confetti littered pathway led off to a vanishing point far off in the distance. On both sides, lines of skeleton trees, devoid of their summer foliage, stood like sentinels guarding the pathway to heaven. To each side mid-life evergreens acted as a natural bulwark to protect the open parkland behind.
An old man sat on a park bench just off to the right. He was dressed in a casual pair of trousers and a matching jacket, complete with a chequered cap and a pair of Autumn brown leather shoes. He seemed to be buried in deep thought. Almost asleep, by the look of it.
It was my birthday and I was out for my afternoon stroll to exercise my aching bones after spending days of exhausting tests at the local hospital. It had been quite some time since I had last walked this way.
The route took me off the highway and along some old country roads full of peanut and cabbage farms. Groups of young children wearing the same style of yellow hats cluttered the roadside on the way home from school. Their manners in public were impeccable as they all stepped to one side to let me pass.
In about an hour I had reached the park where I liked to stop for a rest. Only this time the old man was sat there. I was in two minds about whether to sit next to him or not, but in the end my tired muscles made the decision for me.
As I sat down the old man looked to the left and greeted me in a friendly tone. I returned the greeting in the same tone. As I did so, I couldn’t help but notice how well he looked for what I imagined his age to be. He looked about seventy years old, or thereabouts. Later on I was to learn to my utter shock that in fact he was 101 years old!
I inquired as to his presence in the park. “Enjoying an afternoon stroll, I see,” I said, almost with an Australian tilt up at the end of my sentence, like I was asking him a question. He certainly took it as a question.
“Yes,” he smiled, “...just out to take in a little fresh air and some warm Autumn sun. I don’t normally sit here, but today for some strange reason something told me I should, like I was supposed to meet somebody. I live on my own, and it’s sometimes nice to have a reason to be other than just to pass invisibly through this world all alone.”
The old man stared vacantly around the empty vicinity as he sighed a little in resignation at his loneliness.
“That’s what happens when you get old like me, you become invisible.You’re not a threat to anybody, nor a treat neither for that matter. There’s nobody to notice if I’m here or not. Everybody I ever knew has long since gone.”
I felt sorry for him and said, “Well I’m here sir.....” He cut across me, interjecting with.....
“My name’s William, please call me Bill, like we were old friends, if you don’t mind. That would be nice,” he said.
“Ok, Bill, well I’m Ryan,” I replied as we shook hands.
“Well Brian,” he said, clearly having mis-heard my name. “It’s very nice to meet you. Have you got family?” he inquired.
“Well, I did have many years ago, sadly like you I am on my own, Bill,” I replied. “And you, did you ever have family?” I asked.
At that moment a young jogger, sweating profusely, wearily strolled past and gave me a friendly nod. He didn’t seem to see the old man and I thought no more of it as he re-started jogging off down the lush green, gold and crimson Autumnal pathway.
“Yes, Brian, I had four children at one time. However, my vindictive ex-wife turned them against me. That was all such a long time ago now. I don’t think we would recognise each other if we met. It matters not now. I did for a long time hope to chance upon at least one of them before I passed away. Alas, it was not meant to be. Such is life and all its phases.....and then you die and go to blazes,” Bill said tiredly.
“That’s funny,” I said softly, that’s what my mother used to say in her old age.
“Now that is strange,” said Bill. “Would you like to take a short walk with me Brian?” Bill said. “Let’s just amble a little along this beautifully inviting Autumn pathway, along the Crimson Brick Road, almost, wouldn’t you say?”
And with that we both rose up off the bench and slowly stepped forward, in the direction of the bright light of the Autumn sun, singing that Elton John song, except when it came to the hook Bill and I sang in perfect harmony
“Along the Crimson Brick Road.....ahaa,ahaa,ahaaa,ahaaa.....”
“And what did you do with the rest of your life, Bill?” I asked.
“What, after the split? Well I did ok in business, quite the entrepreneur, you know. I got to hear that my ex-wife brought my four children up to believe I was a big time loser. I tried to contact them to offer them a helping hand in life, to finance their studies and set them up in business, even though I had already given my ex-wife a generous divorce settlement. I was told by my ex my money wasn’t wanted and that was the end of that. I have heard no more from the children ever since. I might be a grandad for all I know, maybe even a great grandad at my age. And you Brian, what are doing with your life, may I ask?”
“Yeah, of course,” I replied. “Like yourself I’ve had a bit of a rough time women wise. I have two sons by separate mothers. I haven’t heard from them in ten years. One of them was quite the athlete Bill. He was in the Great Britain athletics team. I also have two daughters, one of whom got married, but I didn’t get invited. That hurt, but hey, that’s life, like you say Bill.”
We ambled along the pathway some more in silence. It was heavenly. For some reason I felt a strange affinity with Bill, we had a lot in common, similar life experiences you might say. At one point I wondered if I was strolling along with my older-self, come back from the other side of the future to connect with a younger me perhaps. But that was a madness I didn’t want to give too much thought to.
“Hey Bill,” I said a little excitedly as I gently tugged his arm. “Tell me, when is your birthday?”
At that point I could see the jogger coming back running towards us. There was something about the way that he was looking at me as he jogged, like he knew me or something.
As I heard Bill say January the thirteenth 1919, my head turned to follow the noise of some yellow hatted children on the nearby park playground. By the time I turned my head back to face forward, Bill was gone.
My jaw dropped. Not only was Bill gone, but his birthday was the same as my father’s. But that would be impossible, my father died forty one years ago. My mind was spinning with all sorts of strange thoughts. I thought...
“Yeah, but what if.....”
Within thirty seconds the jogger passed me by, still staring at me. I ran after him, back towards the park bench. I couldn’t help but notice this time that the waist band on his running shorts was coloured in the red, white and blue of Great Britain, with GB Athletics printed across it.
“Excuse me.....” I shouted, “....did you see which way the old man went?” The jogger stopped a little to turn back and reply to my question.
“What old man? Are you crazy or what? You’re alone, loser.” And with that he was gone.
I turned back again, to the direction Bill and I had been walking less than a minute ago. Back where we had been stood I saw something on the ground. I slowly walked towards whatever it was. As I got nearer, I could see that it was what looked like a man’s wallet.
I bent to pick the wallet up and looked furtively around, in case anybody saw what I was up to and thought ill of me. Gingerly, I opened up the wallet. As I started to flick through the contents I was totally shocked to see some very faded photographs, unmistakeable photographs, of........
At that point I felt a hand touch me on the shoulder. I turned to see who it was. It was the jogger, back again.
“Do we know each other?” the jogger asked.
“I don’t know, I mean, you know, maybe.....what’s your mother’s name?” I asked.
The guy just stared at me eye to eye. After what seemed like an eternity he said “You know what, forget it, I thought you might be....yeah, you’re crazy alright, just a crazy, sad old loser huh.”
I could have swore I heard him say under his breath, “Just like mom said.” And with that he turned and ran off faster than I could run to catch up with him.
I slowly went back to the park bench and sat down right where I had sat with the old man. I leaned back and closed my eyes, trying to make sense of it all.
Far off in the distance I could hear that Elton John song coming from some kids’ radio...
“....I finally decided my future lies
Beyond the Yellow Brick Road....ahaaa,ahaaa,ahaaa,ahaaa,ahaaa...”
By the time I opened my eyes again, I discovered that the wallet had mysteriously vanished into thin air. Looking around my eyes alighted upon an athlete’s wrist sweatband, coloured red, white and blue. As I reached down to pick it up off the pathway to heaven, I suddenly caught sight of a square piece of paper. I looked back down to where the sweatband had been and it wasn’t there.
I looked back up to see the square piece of paper fluttering by on the soft Autumn breeze. One side was a faded old photograph of a middle aged couple with a spindly young boy who I recognised.
On the back of the print I could see a barely visible hand written lines ‘Ryan aged ten,1964. Happy Birthday Son. Love Mum and Dad.’ I reached out to grab the old sepia print and suddenly a strong gust caught hold of it and it went sailing down the path towards the blue tinted brightness on the horizon.
I felt a deep and overwhelming sense of loss for all the years that had passed as tears rolled down my cheeks. Life. In all too brief a bitter-sweet moment, it went from feelings of discovery and loss, of joy and celebration, to an overwhelming sadness. It was gone, all gone, gone, go.., g..., ....
And yet, there is that brilliant blue hued brightness all around the gardens of heaven. And maybe one day, that young ex-Great Britain athlete will stroll into the park on his birthday and sit down on this same bench to chat awhile with a 101 year old me. I live in hope.