On the Bench

Tommy waits for the referee to blow his whistle for the penalty, a car drives past beeping its’ horn, Tommy yells ‘Gerroff the pitch!’ The driver gives him a thumbs up and the crowd chants, ‘Eez-y! Ee-zy!’ ‘Ee-zy!’ Tommy can’t see the ref or his team mates and it’s all gone wrong again, his belly lurches, he breaks out in a sweat, he’s wheezing, he’s done too much running for that lazy sod on the left wing that’s what it is. His tongue feels like wash leather, he tries to swallow and coughs, sweat stings his eyes and dribbles down to his chin, he’s leaking all over. He wipes his face with his arm and that’s wrong as well, he’s wearing a jacket instead of his strip, a brown jacket and trousers and black shoes; his head goes ‘boom’ like an explosion – boom! – he’s lost his footie boots and his mam will have a blue duck-fit and he’ll never play again. He shoves his hands in his pockets, the toilet roll is still there, so that’s something anyway. He listens to the silence, to the quiet that seeps across the pitch before a penalty is kicked. He hitches up his trousers, his belt hangs undone in front of his flies, he fingers the buckle’s sharp tip.

 ‘Now then, Tommy!’  A bloke on a bike waves and wobbles past on a bike.

 Tommy shouts, ‘Gerroff the pitch!’ The bloke laughs.  A buzzing starts up in Tommy’s ears and grows to a hum; it gets louder until it reaches the ringing he knows, the ringing will stay in his head for some time if he listens for it. He shakes his head and covers his ears. He feels as if he’s being fried. He waits. He can’t see the goalie, he squints against the glare and shades his eyes, he makes out the long low building with blind windows crouching like a panther. Shirley said that one of those windows was his, she said that’s your window and this is your home, this is where you live now. He’d looked at the mole on her cheek and the single black hair sprouting out the middle, and thought she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, his house is in a street facing another one just like it over the road, it backs on to a lane where he plays marbles with Jack Mercer when they’re not kicking a football about.

 ‘ A pokey two up two down affair.’ his mam said. 

‘ As if it wasn’t good enough for her,’ his dad said, ‘but then nothing ever is, not even you our Tommy.’ but then he winked, so Tommy knew he was kidding. His dad is in the stands, Tommy can see his blue and white scarf from here, he’ll be boiling in that today.  He feels a bubble of wind rising up in his throat and opens his mouth to let out a belch, there’s a fart trying to escape as well and he waits until it releases itself, which it does with a hot muffled puff. His mam used to pinch her nose and say, ‘Who’s trumped?’

 He walks away from the smell; he might as well sit on the bench and wait for the second half.  There’s a woman sitting there, he’ll have to tell her the bench belongs to the subs, there’s usually four of them, legs smeared with wintergreen. She’ll have to shove up and make room when they get here, she’ll have to move then. He shuffles over. 

  She knows Tommy’s there but hasn’t taken him in, she sits holding a crocodile handbag on her lap incapable of movement, she’s not even swallowing, she discovers this lapse when her mouth fills with saliva and begins to seep out the corner, she sucks it back in and looks around to see if anybody’s noticed, she doesn’t count old Tommy. There’s nobody about, the care home is gloomy in shadow, shuttered against the heat, the bike shed across the drive is deserted apart from a green plastic table and two chairs, it doubles as a smoking den, she can just see the ashtray jam-packed with fag butts. A slight waft of air on her bare ankle makes her look down, there’s a butterfly on the path, it fans its wings, Margaret can’t remember what sort it is, what it’s called, she keeps thinking of Pink Lady but that’s not it… it will come back to her. She watches the butterfly’s delicate performance at her feet, until it flies off and settles on the lavender. 

 She must have walked from her mother’s room to this bench but she can’t remember doing it, she still feels as if she’s sitting next to the bed wondering how soon she can leave. Linda, her thin face kind, had put a hand on Margaret’s arm and told her to take as long as she liked, the door closed with a respectful click in keeping with the hush of death in the room. Margaret, still sitting in the chair she’d occupied since dawn, rocked slightly from side to side to ease the pressure on her bum. Her mother’s face was white on the white pillow, her lips tinged blue, the shape of her skull was showing a pale pink under a thin covering of silver hair. Her mother was there, but not there.  At least her teeth were in. Margaret hadn’t noticed Linda doing that, she must have slipped them in when she’d closed her mother’s eyes. Her mother would be pleased, she always liked to look her best. Margaret spent a long time staring at the slight swell of her mother’s body under the bedclothes trying to detect any movement, but her mother was as still as stone. She tried to remember Our Father, but the words kept getting mixed up with Gentle Jesus, so she recited that one, ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon a little child, pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee.’  They used to say it when they were little, her and Janet, every night kneeling by the bed. Margaret pictured Janet now, lying on a beach in Florida where she’d gone with Maurice, the new boy-friend. She’d phoned her, and Janet said, ‘I can’t just dash back can I? But I promise to be at the funeral.’ Margaret had pushed herself out of the chair, her back stiff, her skirt stuck to the back of her sweaty legs, and after one last look, she left.

She remembered the dark corridors and the dazzle and then nothing until Tommy and the butterfly. It was peaceful sitting here in this little garden, she’d often brought her mother here to sit on the bench and look at the flowers. Margaret  sighs and swallows, she realises that the handbag she holds is not hers but her mother’s. She thinks, ‘My mother’s dead, but I feel nothing.’  

  Tommy leans forward,  ‘This is the subs’ bench,’ he says, ‘but you’re all right for a bit.’ He sits down next to Margaret who notices that his flies are undone. 

Tommy and Margaret sit in the heat as if welded to the bench. The butterfly flits to the buddleia, Roselea Residential Care Home sprawls in the shade, dozing.  

 The deep-throated engine of a motorbike intrudes, Tommy and Margaret look up. it growls at the entrance gates, roars down the drive and stops at the bike shed. The rider lifts off a black helmet and shakes out long blonde hair, she takes off her leather jacket and puts it in the luggage box with her gloves and helmet. She locks it, lights a fag and leans against the bike to smoke. Tommy wonders if he’s got time for a Park Drive, he looks at his wrist but his watch isn’t there, Margaret watches the vertical line of smoke snake up in the air and longs for a cigarette, just one.  A man walks up to the girl, they say something, she flicks away her fag and puts her arms round his neck, he pulls her body into his and they kiss. Memory jolts Tommy and forces out a snort. Margaret watches the girl’s hands stroke the man’s back then travel up to his neck and clutch his hair, mouth on mouth, tongue on tongue; Margaret shifts her position and crosses her legs. The couple stroll away, glued together.

  Margaret opens her mother’s handbag. Tommy watches, his mam had one like that with a metal clip to open and shut it. Margaret peers inside, it smells of Coty face powder, she clicks open the gold compact and lifts the powder puff, under the rim is a thin beige circle of powder. There’s a red purse, a bingo pen, and a postcard from Bournemouth from her mother’s friend, Doreen.  Margaret dips two fingers into the side pocket and takes out a comb. she unzips the other pocket, inside is an old photo, it’s creased and torn, it’s of a young man in uniform, she can’t see his face properly. Margaret clicks the bag shut. Tommy’s mam told him that one minute the crocodile was minding its own business swimming in the Amazon, and next he was in a shop being sold as a handbag, she’d snap the fastener and say, ‘and that’s its’ teeth so don’t go putting your hand in.’ 

Tommy knows it’s nearly time, the woman ought to get off the bench but she sits there holding a comb. Tommy thinks he can wait a bit until the whistle goes. Margaret pulls a silver hair from the comb and winds it round her little finger, it’s strong and tight, the tip of her finger turns white. Her mother would brush their long brown hair every night, a hundred strokes, she and Janet had to count, one, two, three ….. tears run down her nose and cheeks, she rubs at them with her fist. Tommy’s elbow digs into her arm, he’s got his hand in his trouser pocket and he leans back with his leg stuck straight out rummaging around. Margaret tries to sniff the tears away and moves further along the bench. Tommy manages to get the toilet roll out from his pocket, Margaret watches as he  pulls out out three pieces of toilet paper, he tears them off them one by one, and just as his mam always told him, he folds the pieces over until they make one strong sheet, he wags it in front of Margaret’s face. She takes it and wipes her eyes, her nose. ‘Thank you, Tommy,’ she says.

The buzzing starts in Tommy’s head, he gets off the bench, the buzz turns into a hum, he knows what’s coming next, he’s got to be ready, he’s got to do it, the ringing begins, he shakes his head, covers his ears. Margaret scrapes a fingernail down the teeth of her mother’s comb again and again, the noise grates in the stifling heat, like a cricket, she thinks, in the jungle. She stares at the comb and smiles. She shows Tommy. ’It’s tortoiseshell! The comb! Just like the butterfly!’ Tommy yells at her over the roaring in his head, ‘You’ve  got to go! Now! The whistle’s gone!’