'The Bench' by Gary Tippings
It was the same wait every day. Arthur would arrive first, he liked to make sure he got his favoured side of the bench, and Tom would shuffle towards him after ten minutes or so. Lifting his stick as he entered the park to let Arthur know it was him, a semaphore signal of only their understanding.
And Arthur still liked to arrive early. If it wasn’t raining he’d be there. His newspaper served as a mat if the bench was still wet. It was only falling rain that kept them away. The bench was their social club, their doctor’s waiting room, their table in the restaurant, their bar without beer. It was about the right height and position for a view over the valley of Clackheaton. It took the sun at twelve and held it till three. It did the listening when one or the other nodded off and the story needed finishing.
Tom had been taking longer and longer to arrive once inside the park gate. Even the wave of the stick had begun to falter recently. He blamed his hip for his lack of speed, and his shoulder for the weak signalling, but he dreaded the idea of the ‘home’. ‘Rather keep going as long as you can’, he would say, ‘until time comes to lay down long’.
The weather had been good recently. Spring had eased the air and tidied the drabness. Tom hadn’t sat with Arthur for three weeks now. Today Arthur had brought the pork scratchings as he always did on a . This was the third occasion where he’d be struggling through the whole pack so as not to waste. He’d bought scratchings with his first pint every since he first was a young miner. Didn’t even wash the coal off his hands before picking up that first pint, he wasn’t going to waste his space at the bar to clean his fingers for the scratchings. It did you no harm, a bit of coal.
Tom had been a miner too, though they’d never met when working men. It was hard to know whose health was the worst. They took it in turns to complain about the lack of clean air they had to endure. All for profit, but long gone now. Almost thirty years since Tom’s pit closed. You’ll not see the like again.
And so Arthur sat there on the dry bench and wondered if there might be another old fella who’d like to sit and chat with him when it’s not raining, when there’s things to be said. And as he looked at the gate and thought for a moment how he might best find Tom’s resting place, who he might ask, how he might get there, the familiar walking stick appeared, followed by the old shuffling miner, walking slower than he’d ever done before, but walking nonetheless. Arthur picked up his newspaper from off the bench beside him, smiled broadly, and opened the packet of pork scratchings.