There’s no denying learning to be a teacher has somewhat squished my writing energies, so I am seizing the half term by the throat by writing this story.
Here is the first in what I envisage will become a 3-part tale, although – for now at least – I hope you enjoy it as a story in its own right.
Act 1 – Seedlings
It was a clear day, in a hazy way, when the park bench spotted two dots on the horizon.
The dots grew arms and legs, and soon turned into little boys. Each, the bench supposed, looked as much like the other as his self, except one’s hair was combed this way and the other’s, that way.
The boys walked in apparent harmony, but the bench had seen his fair share of folk. He knew if you had asked the correct child, they would have said the other was dragging his feet more than they would have liked.
Soon enough, the boys arrived, where—as is the polite thing to do when one stumbles upon a lone bench halfway between here and there—they laid their packs down.
One of the boys stood a little closer to the bench than the other, and it was he who rested a hand upon him, soothing his old splinters. How nice, thought the bench, and a long-forgotten warmth coursed through him. The boy inhaled deeply and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful here? Let’s stay a while.’
The other, who had already collected his belongings, turned to his companion, although his feet remained pointing onwards. ‘You know,’ he replied, ‘I really think we ought to hurry. We’ll miss the show.’
The first boy closed the debate by popping his bottom firmly onto the bench. The bench groaned. Little boys never did know how to sit without making a bump.
So together they sat, one swinging his legs, the other tapping his fingernails against the armrest. The latter annoyed the bench, but he had endured worse.
‘Well, this has been awfully nice,’ said the rap-tapper, with a hint of sour cabbage in his voice. ‘We must do it again. But I’m afraid if we don’t get a move on, we’ll never…’
…finish that sentence, thought the bench, as the other boy put a finger to his lips. The bench creaked in amusement.
‘Look,’ said the shusher.
With a clip and a trot, along came a horse pulling a wooden carriage. It was all bits and no bobs, but the horse didn’t seem to mind. The bench wondered what it would have been like, to have been a wheel and seen the world, but on reflection, this was as good a place as any. Apparently, the wheels had been contemplating the exact opposite, as they fell off.
Out from the carriage stepped a very small man—so small in fact, he had to step twice more to reach the floor—and he looked like a shrivelled olive. He plucked a paintbrush from thin air and from his waistcoat pulled a canvas that really shouldn’t have been able to fit in there.
The bench didn’t understand Spanish, but from the wavy-wavy, pointy-pointy performance of the small man, he could clearly see what was being said. So he braced himself for a third bump (as little boys rarely grew out of it).
‘Yes, yes,’ one boy said, pushing the canvas away. ‘That’s enough of that. We really don’t have time for silly drawings. No, no. We’ll help you fix your wheel, Sir, and then you can be off. And so can we!’
With that, he popped off the bench, nudging the man’s paintbrush as he went. He attempted to lift the wheel, but all he achieved was a red face. The horse glanced over his shoulder, snorted, and resumed chewing grass.
The olive man looked grief-stricken. His masterpiece ruined.
The other boy placed a warm hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘You can paint for me instead.’
The sun rose once more on the olive man’s face, and with a single brushstroke, he cleared the canvas anew.
The bench was beginning to enjoy this. It had been a while since he’d had company. He had begun to wonder if he was actually a footrest for puffed-out people with muddy boots. What strange folk they were, lunging at him from all angles. He never did know quite where to look.
Or maybe he was a crutch for the wobbly folk who came out at night. However, it always struck him that their vomit-infused displays of gratitude were somewhat unorthodox, and what with their unfavourable habits of swearing and farting and leaving by apparent means of payment, a crusty bogey or two; ultimately the whole thing lacked the sense of fulfilment he craved for.
Here, however, were two people who seemed happy to sit with him. And, nicely, they didn’t show any signs of hurrying off. Well, apart from the boy over there two jerks away from a hernia. He’d do well to learn to smile like his pal here. But all things aside, the bench was remembering what it was to be him again.
‘For me?’ said the boy on the bench.
The olive man nodded frantically. ‘Si! Si!’ he said, handing over the painting.
By the way the olive man beamed, and the look of wonder on the boy’s face, the bench couldn’t resist a peek. He wasn’t disappointed.
‘Oh my,’ said the boy. ‘This is… I mean… It’s truly… thank you mister. But I can’t accept it. I have nothing to give in return.’
The olive man shook his head, saying, ‘De nada.’ Then, as was his way, he leapt off the bench. As he passed the other boy, he said something to him which the bench couldn’t understand, but sounded like tears. The boy, however, was too bent on lifting the wheel to notice. The olive man sighed and untied his horse.
It wasn’t until the sound of clippedy-clip, clippedy-clop did the boy on the bench realise the man was leaving, for he had been too entranced by the painting. ‘But your carriage, mister!’ he shouted, now on his feet.
The olive man turned his horse not quite halfway around and met the boy’s eyes. Then a shocked expression befell his face and he pointed at the boy whilst tapping his ear.
‘What? Is it a wasp?’ The boy flapped around trying to swat whatever it was the olive man had seen, and when he found it, his jaw hit the ground. From behind his ear, he pulled out the olive man’s paintbrush! How the old goat had managed such a trick was a mystery, but the bench knew better than to ask about this sort of thing.
And what a brush it was. Carved into its handle were people, creatures and things, all telling their own, very different stories yet somehow, together, made heart-crunching sense (well, that’s what the bench thought, anyway).
Whilst the boy ogled at the brush, the bench caught the olive man smiling fondly at him. And a sheen covered his eyes, although the bench knew he would have dismissed it as old age, cataracts or something.
With a blink, the sheen vanished, and the olive man reared his horse for one last blast to the end of the field.
‘But…’ the boy said, watching the dust cloud tail away. When it was no more than a wisp, a neigh from a faraway land shook the sky—the bench literally trembled—and the horse and the olive man were no more. ‘…I don’t know how to paint.’
For a moment, maybe a minute, maybe a thousand years, time stopped. The wind held its breath, the squirrels stayed in their nests, until…
‘Gyah, a little help wouldn’t go amiss! Hey, where’d Old Wrinkly go?’
The boy with the brush looked at his companion as if he’d just offered him a slice of dog-poo pie. ‘How could you not notice?’ he shook his head. ‘Never mind, look, he left us this.’
‘Pfah! A manky clump of hair on the end of a stick! And, what’s this—a poor excuse for a painting of, what, a pickled onion next to a lump of coal? Yes, very arty that, I‘m sure.’
The first boy snatched it back. ‘They’re seeds, actually. And look, they move.’
He wasn’t lying. When he rotated the canvas, the seeds bounced around the edges. And when he tilted it they rolled into the distance and back again.
‘Hmm, I’ll admit, that is pretty clever. Trick of the eye, I’m sure. Or a hidden mirror. You can put them anywhere these days. But still, pretty pointless if you ask me, and a complete waste of our time, which, if I might add,’ he said, as he thrusted his new-fangled wrist-sundial into his friend’s face, ‘is fast running out. We’ve already missed the start of the show, and I haven’t paid good money stand around one hunk of wood whilst sitting on another…’
Charming, thought the bench.
The noise continued, ‘…good quality leather, that’s the stuff! And heated rooms with lowly folk waiting on us hand and foot, yes that’s the life. It’s all here in the brochure.’
‘Shut up for a second. Haven’t you ever stopped to think maybe we can make our own show?’
A blank expression of cogs whirring was all the boy got for that one.
He tried again, ‘Look, can’t you see? This painting, it was made for us. All we could ever want or wish for. Our dreams, our hopes, it’s all here.’
There are no prizes for guessing which of the boys was now steaming from his spout, and it was he who grabbed the painting and threw it to the ground. And so began his rant.
‘Dreams and hopes? Pfah! Dreams and hopes are for people who can’t afford jam in their rice pudding! Dreams and hopes are what dim-witted half-breeds work their behinds off chasing, so they can make money for people like us. Dreams and hopes are silly little things we simply don’t need, not when we’ve got ivory tusks and red carpets and oak wall panels wherever we walk. Now come on, let’s go!’
Hmm, a wall panel, considered the bench. Much the same as being a bench really, except without the view, or the breeze, or the company for that matter.
‘I won’t go. You go if you must, but all I know is that I, no—we have been given a gift here. I don’t know much about a lot, but I do know this sort of thing doesn’t come around very often. And I‘m darned well staying here to do the best I can with what little I have.’
You know more than you think, little one.The boy who enjoyed the sound of his own voice went for the paintbrush next, except his companion held on. What ensued was a tug-o-war battle the likes of which the bench hadn’t seen since Princess Olga beat that donkey-faced Sir Charles Wimpsykins for the last slice of Edam. Ah, picnics, those were the days.
‘Let go this instant! We don’t need this rubbish!’
‘Rubbish? How can you say that, are you blind?’
‘It’s a pickled onion and a lump – of – coal!’
‘They’re seeds, idiot!’
‘Seeds. Onions. What’s the difference?’
‘You fool, it makes all the difference. Now give – it – back!’
…And so on, until certain laws of physics decided that none should have the brush. It arced through the air, creating a rainbow—literally—and landed in the middle of the fallen wheel, where, at its touch, a single bluebell sprouted, beaming like a proud child.
‘See?’ said one boy, triumphantly.
‘The flower was there already,’ dismissed the other. ‘We just didn’t notice it, is all.’
‘And the rainbow? I don’t see any rain around here, do you?’
‘It’s clearly a trick of the light. The brush must have thrown up some fine mist. Yes, that’s it. Mist. Now, we’ve had enough whimsy for one morning. We really must be off.’
His companion ignored him, instead went to collect the brush. On his way, he ran his fingers through the rainbow (because you would, wouldn’t you?), and as he did, each band of colour burst to life in an explosion of butterflies.
The butterflies danced a flutter, just for show, before settling upon the bench. At first, it tickled as they covered his splintered wounds with their wings, but then a warm healing power rushed through his old joints. And the butterflies were no more. For a second, he wondered where they had gone, but then he realised and he cried inside, for they had given their lives that he may have colour. Thank you, little butterflies.
One of the boys looked bewildered, whilst the other wore the grin of a thousand possibilities, and it was he who picked up the canvas, he who turned it face down to make the two seeds drop onto the grass, and he who raised the paintbrush into the air and said ‘What if?’
But it was the other who snatched the brush, and said, ‘I’ll show you what if. Here, watch this!’ And with a bellow, he cast the brush toward his seed of choice, the lump of coal.
The bench, being of wooden persuasion, felt for the poor brush—it wasn’t so much being handled back and forth, but getting thrown about was no way to be treated, no, no.
On contact, the lump of coal cracked, and a fetid root emerged. It sniffed the air before snaking its way towards the wheel, where it crept to the centre, carouselled up the bluebell’s stem, and with a sharp snap, killed it dead.
‘Well, what do you know,’ said the boy who had thrown the brush, ‘that was fun!’
The other boy’s face looked how the bench felt. His fists clenched and his jaw grinded and the bench thought he was going to do something regrettable, but then he mouthed something to himself, and his expression changed. Softened. And the brush throwing boy retained his good looks, for now.
Instead of retaliating with violence, he collected the brush and held it to his chest. He closed his eyes and sang softly to it and when he had finished, dabbed the air just once. A tiny cloud appeared. The boy blew gently, and the cloud became a raindrop and fell onto the pickled onion-looking seed.
At this, the seed sprouted a stem of its own. It yawned, stretched and sought out the fallen bluebell, touching it with the tip of its nose. By this gentle contact, the stem gave all its green to the bluebell, and it burst back to life, sprouting flower, after flower, after flower. Before long, a mini forest of bluebells bloomed, and suddenly the wheel didn’t seem so old or rickety anymore. This made the bench very happy.
And then something even more magical happened. Just when it seemed there was no more room for bluebells, the petals of the last to blossom peeled and drifted into the air, where they transformed into a cloud of butterflies, each an impossible, breathtaking shade of blue.
The butterflies headed to the carriage, where, as their cousins had done with the bench, they melded into the woodwork, infusing it with colour. And this time little leaves sprouted from their remains. The leaves grew into twigs, twigs into branches, branches into limbs, and before the bench knew it, a tree, a proper, full-on tree grew from the carriage.
The boy stared at the brush in disbelief. He was shaking.
‘Well played!’ declared his companion, with a hollow clap. ‘Still, all in all, a completely pointless exercise if you ask me.’
‘Well, what now then? Is this our lot?’
‘This,’ replied the boy with the brush, ‘is more than many are ever privileged enough to have, and certainly more than we deserve. Now, my friend, we stay and cherish every moment.’