I’m wandering my own mind for a while, as I often do. Right now it’s a particularly rough ride for my brain. Floating in cerebral seas of predators (dad’s apparently hastening decline; another Christmas separated by circumstance of family, when it might be the last when some remember who was there), as some sort of coping mechanism – for dealing with matters of the mind alone – I confronted the seed of all my problems.
My depression and other mental health labels may well have been dormant, undiganosed by a previous generation, but it was a knife-point robbery in 2011 which earned me my first PTSD tag. After that, drinking numbed things until it all fell apart. And now, I have a lump in my throat as a permanent scar from that bench, now removed from a park in Lewisham.
Just a couple of tricks of life can find a human with a park bench for shelter. It can happen to anyone, just like it did on that bench…
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EIGHT AND A HALF LIVES
If he wasn’t there every day, he could be anyone. You could walk past the same bench each day and not notice anyone sitting there, unless it was the same person every day.
Jim put it another way: If it wasn’t him there every day, it would be someone else. Or maybe no-one else would be on that bench. It was Jim who gave that seat stories to tell, if not by him then by those who listened to him.
These are the things Jim talked about, as he told his own stories on that bench in Mountsfield Park, talking about himself, and the Catford cat just beyond the trees, which he said watched over him at night.
“She doesn’t have long here,” Jim explained, “there’s only so much time she can be here. Because she has so many people to watch over as they pass beneath her on the high street. As long as somone’s looking at her, the cat can’t move, because she has to watch them, you see? She only comes down after the last kebab shop has closed, and before the milk is delivered, and then only sometimes.
“I wonder how many people have driven through Catford at three in the morning and thought to look up to check the cat is actually there? Most people who drive through Catford at that time just assume the cat’s there, watching over them as they pass through, when actually, she might be off feeding on life stories. A bit like me on this bench. They can’t see me either. And that’s just the way life passes, see?”
“I lay here at night, and I see people walk past, oblivious to my presence. The darkness makes them blind, like the cat does. If you’re here in the park, you probably won’t see her stalking in the bushes. But she’s there, because you’re not in Catford High Street to check she’s above the shopping centre, where she can’t catch your gaze. Because if you catch her, she loses a life.
“Perhaps people assume I’m asleep and they don’t want to disturb me. I suppose that’s a logical assumption to make at 3am. But what if I was a life lost?
“See, I’m not. I’m watching them, through one closed eye. Watching out for myself, I guess. That’s why I’m always grateful when the cat’s here, because I can sleep for just a little while. No-one pays me attention when there’s a twenty-foot cat prowling around the edge of the park, see?”
It was Jim who scratched his name on that bench.
If you didn’t know it was there, if you didn’t know where to look among all the other hearts and initials, you’d never know Jim was among all those people.
But if you sit there at three in the morning, and if you listen to the wind in the trees, you might just hear the cat.