BY Dan Seavers
IT was the 23rd when I first met John. The month, I’m not so sure, but the 23rd for certain. Probably February, maybe March. Whatever. But the 23rd for definite. You’ll see why in a moment.
It was one of those bleak winter days. Not the white crispiness that you see in movies. The cold blizzardy ones that spill slush onto the streets and blow hard grits of sleet into your face, making your cheeks sharp. That kind of day. Which was why watching John was so strange.
I caught him first out the corner of my eye, as I wiped down a table. The pavements were pretty empty, just the odd shopper fighting their umbrella as they dashed to the next store. The rest huddled inside dry doorways, or wandered into my coffee shop to avoid the worst.
And yet John was just sat there on the bench outside. His coat pulled high up on his neck, flat cap sat low, so only a few tufts of grey hair were visible beneath. And he barely moved. Just sat facing the blue clock that hung off the town hall.
I originally thought the worst. That this poor man had had a stroke or something, and was now suffering in silence, ignored by those passing by. So I slipped on my coat and walked out to join him.
He didn’t budge. Maybe a bit deaf or something. I sat down.
“You okay? You need any help?” He turned, blinked a little and nodded at me.
“I’m fine,” he said. He spoke slowly, but with authority. He must have been a teacher in an early life. Or military maybe. “I’m just waiting.”
“There’s no buses come along here anymore.”
“Then what’re you waiting for?”
He nodded at the blue clock.
“Wouldn’t you be happier waiting inside?”
“Nope. Only here. That was my promise.”
And that’s when he told me. His wife had passed the previous month. Cancer, the bastard. But before she went, she’d made him make a promise. He wasn’t to mourn her heavily. She didn’t want his life to end with hers. Just take the time once a month to remember the good times, and once the year had passed, move on.
The bench was where they’d first met.
The date, their anniversary.
And he chose two o’clock for the time they wed.
He’d set the routine up a few months prior. I wish now I could remember exactly when he said she’d died, but at the time it seemed inconsequential. And afterwards, too rude to ask.
He told me this without shedding a tear, like it was it someone else’s story, not his own. He was keeping his word not to mourn her too hard. He shivered a little as he watched the clock approach two, so I popped back inside and grabbed him a coffee. We chatted briefly, he reminded me of my grandpa a little, and then just before two, I left him alone.
It was hard to watch him. I felt bad interrupting his moment, but I couldn’t help sneaking a look over, in-between serving customers. And each time I did, it was heart wrenching. His world was broken and tears spilt over from wherever he’d bottled them.
I so wanted to go out and offer him a hug. But who was I to interrupt?
And then, slowly, the clock turned to three. And he recovered himself. He brushed himself down and stood up. I caught his eye, and he nodded at me, then he turned and went on his way. Only a single red carnation sat on the bench remained where he’d sat. Bright and warm against the gloom.
I didn’t think much about that day until the following month. The weather had improved, so there wasn’t the ice in the air, even if the cold wind remained. And there was John, sat on his bench again. I poured him a coffee and took it straight out.
“You married?” He asked as I sat down.
“I don’t know. It seems too early yet. I have plenty of time.”
He laughed, though without any humour.
“That’s the last thing any of us have. Time. We think we have it all. But no. It drags us into old age and tosses us away. It holds us. Never think you can control it. I can’t. I hope for just one more day with her. Any day. Good. Bad. Terrible. It doesn’t matter. Just one day. But time just ignores me.”
He moved the conversation on. He asked about the shop, and I asked about his family. He didn’t have any. His one stupid regret. And then two o’clock rolled around, and I let him be.
Once again, he sat through an hour of emotion and then left. His single red carnation remaining at the end.
“I met someone,” I told him, the following month. It must have been spring by then. There were daffodils in the hanging baskets, and life seemed to be in the air.
“That the name of a bar?”
“Er…yeah.” I didn’t know how to explain. I messaged her one night, and we stayed up chatting. Not about anything, just everything. How we both liked coffee. And zombie movies. And hated peaches. The skins too fluffy. And she had a smile that I couldn’t forget. Emily.
“She sounds nice,” he said. “Rose had stunning eyes.”
I hadn’t heard him say her name before.
“I noticed them the first time we met. God, we were both shy. I’d borrow a suit from my father, and we’d gone dancing. It was so awkward. I couldn’t find my feet, as other couples whirled around us. But she led the way, pulling me up for yet another dance, another dance. And how could I refuse, as her eyes sparkled each time the lights caught them. I knew I’d marry her there and then.”
“She sounds amazing,”
When I left him at two, he didn’t seem quite as sad.
This carried on for several months. I’d keep an eye out for him, take out a coffee, and we’d chat for a while. Sometimes about Rose. Sometimes Emily. He didn’t seem too shocked when I said she’d moved in with me. And each month, his hour seemed less intense. Less raw. Less important.
One time, I can’t remember which, he told me about Llandudno pier.
“We’d taken a weekend away. Which was a bit frowned upon then. Her without a chaperone. But we didn’t care. We knew we were meant to be together, and I’d saved a few pounds, so we took the chance whilst we could.
I remember, we’d found a dance hall, and we’d danced for hours. I’d got quite good by then. Then we headed out into the night. It was one of those balmy summer evenings, so we just took a walk along the pier, admiring in the stars. And then I realised, that that was the night. I hadn’t even thought about it before, but at that very moment, every part of me wanted to be with her forever. So I proposed, right there and then.
I didn’t even have a ring. It was another six months ‘til I could afford that. But she understood.”
He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a yellowing handkerchief. Inside, was a gold engagement ring with a small diamond set in the middle.
“Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Take it.”
“What am I going to do with it? I’ve had my moment. Now it’s time for yours.”
I was going to object, but then I saw the time. Two o’clock. And I had to leave.
Then came October the 23rd. It wasn’t even a shift day, but I’d hung around there all morning waiting for John to arrive. I wanted to say thank you for the ring.
And to tell him the news. I’d found my moment too. And Emily had said yes.
Yet he never showed. Two o’clock came and went without him. I double checked the calendar to make sure I hadn’t mixed my dates up. I paced the floor, distracted, peeking through the window every few minutes, expecting to see him on the bench. But he never came.
At three, I took a seat inside and accepted he wasn’t coming. There were reasons that stood out in my mind. Either, I hadn’t counted properly and the year was up. His mourning was over and he’d moved on. Though I’d have hoped he would have said something previously.
Or he’d finally, gone on to be with his Rose. It was hard thinking like that, but he wasn’t young. Maybe something had happened. And I’d never got to say goodbye.
Though there was something I could do. I popped out, to the florist across the street, and bought a whole bunch of red carnations to leave on the bench. My way of saying, I’ll remember you. I guess.
Then I messaged Emily. And invited her for a weekend in Llandudno.
I think it’s what he would have wanted.
© Dan Seavers 2016