The Bench by Denisa Petrilakova

One might have been or felt local at many places, in many cities, and towns.

Or everywhere, or nowhere.

Or, one might feel local on a bench.

1975 – 2002

The bench was made of wood and wood only. It was nothing fancy, nothing out of ordinary. Much less significant and much less attractive now than it was all those years ago. How I wanted to stop and sit on it then. Not because the walk up the hill would have been exhausting or too steep to handle. Not that. I wanted to sit on it the way you want to do something small and rebellious out of spite. And to prove all these village people who think you are such a well-mannered introverted little girl wrong. Something small out of spite that you stubbornly and persistently try and undertake as you know there will be bigger things to come when you accomplish this one. To sit on the bench. And to go to great lengths to escape the world around you that is making sure you don’t. Because it’s – for no apparent reason – just not the thing you do. Not when you are ten and walking up a hill on a Sunday morning to get to the church on time. Not when you aren’t all wrinkled and half-gone with your bones brittle and aged and your skin creating art forms on your forehead. Not when everyone knows you cannot be out of breath.

I have tried thousands of times to sneak in a sit. And sometimes I succeeded to nearly feel the stiff planks of the bench with coats of greyish paint either peeling off or about to dry or still wet from the storm or heated by the August sun on the back of my thighs. But never savouring the moment. There was always somebody to make sure the rules of the local world do not get broken. What if there were an elderly lady walking just behind me in an urgent need of rest? Not that all of the elderly ladies living in the village of about 150 people wouldn’t have walked to the church about an hour before the service. Long before I would drag my feet out of the house with a book of an utterly unacceptable title or content firmly stuck under my revoltingly pale blue dress.

There was always a “what if” or a “but” or a “not right now”. That was part of the game. My four bad things to do on Sundays out of spite. Chose a book not to be brought to church. Bring it to church. Make sure nobody finds out. Sit on the old wooden bench halfway up the hill on the way to the church. The one children are not supposed to sit on. Make sure to find a moment when nobody is looking. When dad is admiring the view or discussing the weather with the neighbour. When the cold is too biting for people to care. Sit on the bench for long enough for people to see you don’t care about the rules of the world. Feel proud and rebellious. Read the book in the church and make sure somebody sees you. Feel smart and different. Do not be afraid of God when the priest is telling you to. Do not be the quiet one. Just like that. Be the tiny little girl in a light blue dress who is a villain. Ignore the rules.

Move on. Read. Go to school and be the best. Cheer when your parents leave a village and buy a flat in a town. Make new friends. Listen to music. Leave the village out of your life, out of your dreams. Start smoking at the age of fourteen. Move even further away from the village. Cut your hair. Go back to the village to visit grandma and wear jeans.  Wear jeans to church. Annoy people by sitting on the bench only old people are allowed to sit on. Get a piercing and dye your hair green blue and purple. Read more. Have casual sex. Fall out with your mum and stop speaking to your dad. Drop out of school. Tell your cousin to fuck off when he tells you not to sit on that bench. Call him names, the “altar boy”  being the worst one. Continue hating all pretty light blue dresses. Move to even a bigger city. Buy books that are hard to come by or considered weird. Do not go to your grandmother’s funeral. Have sex with a woman. Do not buy a dog just to show you do not care. Say you are not a family type. Do not settle down when everyone around you starts to. Find more and more benches to sit on and ignore more and more people imposing the rules of the world. Move to a different country and speak a different language all the time. Treat the world as you did the village. Pretend you are not interested in politics. Do not vote. Be good at computers. Steal a book from a library. Do not go to church and more. Drink brandy from a bottle and make sure somebody sees it. Swear like a sailor and do not wear underwear. Make sure somebody sees it and tells the others. Do not get married and do not have children. Get a tattoo. Do not beat yourself up about living a perfect life. In fact, do not beat yourself up about living at all. Keep finding rules to ignore or break. Wonder why you do it. Let the time pass. But do not fret too much. And make sure the village does not even exist anymore.

2018

The bench hasn’t changed. In all those years. Do not think past tense. Do not think. Full-stop. You do not have a book to smuggle up the hill. You will carry whatever is left of your dad up the hill tomorrow. The urn is surprisingly light. You will get it out of the trunk of the car about half an hour before the service. Will take it to the church. Make sure to last through the service. Do not make faces. Do not think about the light blue dress. The priest who used to say you must fear God must have died ages ago. Stay until the final prayers. Take the urn and walk even higher up the hill all the way to the cemetery. Stop whenever you feel you should stop. Leave your dead at the place he would have wanted to. Or liked. Or chosen himself. Break rules if that is what it takes.

“Mum,” says the blond-haired, serious-looking, thoughtful teenager sitting next to you, “you must think about a place you would want to be laid to rest at. You know, someplace you feel at home. So that I know where to take you, you know, when the time comes. Don’t smirk, it’s relevant! Death is as important as life. It should be somewhere nice, you see, so that I would want to be coming back. And it could have a bench. To sit on and watch the world. Like this one, I think!  Are you listening to me, mum….?”

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