On a crisp midwinter morning, beneath a flawless blue sky, a man in a
fur lined parka and unpressed chinos sits hunched forward on a park
bench, waiting for a bout of coughing to subside. With each bark his
body jerks violently, as if he has been hit by a bullet. When the
coughing stops, he clears his throat noisily and releases a globule
of phlegm into the tissue he holds over his mouth. As usual, his
auto-curiosity gets the better of him and he pulls the tissue open
for inspection. The dark crimson specks are worse than they were a
month ago, but not so different from the day before so he balls up
the tissue in his fist and stuffs it into his jacket pocket. He
ignores the cold wetness seeping through his trousers from the bench
slats and leans back heavily on the bench like an exhausted lover.
He is young, not much more than thirty but his face cannot hide the
tell tale signs of a sustained emaciation; the collapsed cheeks and
sinkhole eyes, and the outline of the skull visible beneath the
sallow waxy skin. The whole is framed by lank strands of dark hair
that hang down to his jacket collar like seaweed.
The park is empty and there is still an hour to waste before his next
hospital appointment. He has been counting. This appointment will be
the twenty-third, and for each one, for each visit with all those
serious countenances and gloomy discussions, nothing had changed,
except the coughing had gradually worsened and his breathing was more
laboured. He considers going to the cafe by the little boating lake
on the far side of the park but the thought of the effort involved
puts him off. Anyway, he has only enough money for the bus fare home.
He resigns himself to sitting for a while longer, letting the damp
air tighten the invisible straps around his chest, bringing the next
coughing fit closer and closer.
While he sits, his eyes are drawn to the line of beech trees on the
far side of the park. There was a time, almost in another universe,
when their winter silhouettes would have reminded him of great dark
rivers spilling into an ocean sky but now they only remind him of
x-rayed lungs, festooned with ominous black clumps of empty nests.
There is an octagonal bandstand in the middle of the park and he
switches his attention to that. He knew it well. In another life, he
used to sit there, his back resting against the flaking iron pillars,
while he prepared lectures on Pythagoras, Fibonacci, and Fermat’s
last theorem. The copper sheathing on its cupola had been removed by thieves
years ago which meant it leaked when it rained but he liked the sound
the rain made when it bounced off the exposed wooden substructure.
As far as he knew, no band had ever played there, and no band ever
would. A barrier has been placed across the foot of the steps leading
up to its dais, with a sign saying danger, no entry, in large white
letters on a blood red background. Two faded notices are pasted
haphazardly to the sign. One, emblazoned with the local council’s
coat of arms, announces the structure has been condemned and is due
for demolition. The other, urgent and less formal, appeals for
volunteers to save the bandstand and calls for those interested to
meet at the Duke Street Library at 7.30 pm Friday. Light refreshments
would be available. The date for the meeting has long since past.
It is a sad state of affairs, he thinks, for an object never to
fulfil the purpose for which it was created. What was the point? What
was the purpose of a bandstand that would never be used? What of
those leather-aproned, heavy booted men who sweated in the fierce
heat and the deafening roar and chaos of the foundry floor; their
eyes ablaze from the molten iron that glowed brighter than the sun
and flowed like lava into the moulds for each of the eight fluted
columns. Surely they would have been better off forming the elaborate
framework for the grand roof of a railway terminus, or a bridge, or
even just a tower that did nothing but pierce the empty sky.
Something that would last. Something for which they could boast
across time: ‘We did this.’ Instead, their legacy is reduced to
an unused ruin, vandalised and ignored. The proud pillars they had
cast were weak with corrosion, and adorned with crudely sprayed
swastikas and scratched obscenities. There was no hope of redemption,
not even with a meeting in the local library and ten thousand
signatures. Its journey was surely done. The time had come to put it
out of its misery.
His own journey to this moment, to this park bench, with his ravaged
lungs and tainted blood, had taken less than three decades. He worked
the figures in his head, manipulating the numbers with a mathematical
ease and found that it had been precisely nine thousand eight hundred
and sixty-one days, threaded together from the bloodied ingot that
oozed steaming into the world, to the young mathematics graduate
bursting with academic ambition and a lust for life, and then to the
dessicated shell of a man who was slowly wheezing and coughing his
way out of it. A second salvo of coughing begins and his body begins
to jerk once more.
This time, when the bout is over, a movement beneath the beech trees
catches his eye. An early morning runner in a bright yellow vest is
jogging along the path that runs around the park. In a few minutes
the runner will reach the the bench where he is sitting. He tries to
imagine what it would be like to feel the strength return to his
body; to be able to walk and run almost without effort, to suck in
great gulps of air without the pain, without the uncontrollable
spasms and convulsions, to simply be well again. He knows these
things will never be.
He rises, takes the tissue from his pocket and drops it in the litter
bin that stands beside the bench. From the opposite pocket he pulls a
hospital appointment card. It is full of dates and times, an
itinerary of his final journey. He tears it in two and lets both
pieces flutter into the bin. Indeed, he thinks, why prolong the
misery in the face of the inevitable? He begins the long shuffle back
towards the park entrance. He would go home and maybe try some dry
toast and weak tea. Then he would sit in his tiny kitchen and listen
to the radio while he waited patiently for things to run their
course. He hoped the wait would not be long.