From the notebooks of Nicholas Faxton
Having determined to give up smoking, some instinct drove me to take long walks ; not so much to distract my body from cravings, which I hoped to keep at bay with the aid of various gums, lozenges and vapours, as to provide some occupation for my wandering mind. I also, perhaps, anticipated that I might enjoy the first benefits of my new regime, by being able to breathe more freely and deeply, or, with my senses newly cleansed, be pleasingly assailed by the scent of any late-flowering blooms I might encounter on my wanderings (I had begun my programme of abstinence in early October).
It was not the first time that I had walked the route I chose (in the days when I was fully occupied during the week, a truncated version of it had made for a pleasant early Sunday morning stroll to a breakfast in town), but, repeating it over the course of successive days, I noticed that a phenomenon which I had vaguely noted in passing, but had never thought to think about before, began to snag on my mind as I made my circuits.
At various points along the route I have often previously wished that there had been a bench. This is partly because, as I am no longer young, I would have welcomed the opportunity to rest, or to make adjustments to my clothing and equipment (re-tying a boot-lace, for instance, or laying down my coat to take off a now-superfluous cardigan), but I had felt this desire most keenly when it seemed to me that there was a view I should have liked to sit and contemplate (while smoking a reflective cigarette, or cigarillo), but no bench from which to contemplate it.
Conversely, however, I have sometimes noticed, along the same route, benches that seem to have been arbitrarily situated, in places that offered no view, and where it seemed unlikely that anyone would want to sit and rest (indeed, I had never noticed anyone sitting on any of them), and it was these that began to snag on me as I repeated my walks. They appeared neglected, sometimes lacking a slat, often furred up with lichen, occasionally graffitied with the names of teenagers whom, I imagined, might now be middle-aged (these were not benches of the type that you might see in a public park, where young people now congregate, being, as they all were, in full view of the road and overlooked by housing). One was all but enveloped by the foliage and ground-creepers of a hedge that must have been in its infancy when the bench was in its prime. It seemed not so much that anyone was consciously willing them to remain, as that, plumbed in with concrete as they were, it was no-one’s responsibility to remove them.
My fancy was that these benches, which no-one would now think to install, might be survivals from an earlier period when the landscape was significantly different, and were, mundanely, the equivalent of a village drowned by a reservoir, or evidence of dockyards in a town whose estuary had long since silted up. (I have often noticed, in a parallel case, grand Victorian villas, spaced out expansively along main roads leading out of towns, whose name-plates draw attention to the magnificent views which their original inhabitants would have enjoyed, but which have been blocked by later, inferior, buildings, as the intervals between them have been in-filled.)
As most of my benches offered only views of housing, or municipal buildings, I attempted, as I rested on them, to picture earlier landscapes free of excessive habitation, and to conjure up the ghostly figures in period costume (admittedly of a recent period), who had once enjoyed them, but those phantoms, to my annoyance, remained thinly fleshed and insubstantial creatures, unresponsive to my mind’s eye’s summons.
When I mentioned my interest in these benches to a practically minded friend, her response was that they might have originally been situated next to bus stops which had now been removed (I suppose, given that we share a preoccupation with the subject of declining rural transport provision, this could be termed the political analysis). This seemed to me plausible, but improbable. When bus stops fall into disuse the signs announcing their presence tend to be left as mocking reminders of what once was there, rather than removed (again, I suppose, because it is the responsibility of no-one in particular to undertake the effort and expense of uprooting them).
Even had this theory (or, I think, any other sensible explanation, of which there must be one) been correct, I suspect that I would have found it unsatisfactory. What frustrated me about these benches, I think, is that I felt them to have some symbolic significance, without my being able to think what that might be ; I wanted to force on to these humdrum objects a meaning, beyond simply being what they were (this is, no doubt, a failing of some kind in my temperament). However, they remained obstinately mute.
Had I been a visual artist, I could have left the matter there : it would have sufficed to have etched out enigmatic images that I could describe in my “artist’s statement” as “saying something about absence and erasure”, or suchlike, but, as a writer, I felt obliged to be a little more specific (thought not too explicit, of course) about what that “something” might be. The benches refused to communicate anything to me, and I could find nothing to say about them : I could, as the saying goes “connect nothing with nothing”.
As my frustration grew, I began to suspect that my failure to scratch up the significance of these recalcitrant objects was the result of renouncing cigarettes. In the past, I have always found that, when writing, my inspiration, my ability to make imaginative leaps and, unearth, subconsciously, connections between entities that have no obvious connection, runs down slowly between cigarettes (like the charge on my wretched “e-cig“, whose teat I suck now, babe-like, as I write), but could be reignited instantly by retreating to the garden and firing up a fag. (I picture this process, that little synaptic snap of connection, as being like the thrilling leap of blue electricity between two poles that I remember (along with little else about science) from some experiment we used to conduct at school.)
Nonetheless, concern for my health outweighed my anxiety about my inability to write ; I continued to make my solitary circuits, hoping, perhaps, that, as it had often done in the past, the process of walking would somehow provide a stimulus to write that might compensate for having been deprived of those thought-loosening jolts of nicotine and tar. However, although my walks seeded thought-formations, these proved as nebulous as clouds forming and reforming in the far distance, promising rain but not delivering it. My observations tantalised me with their promise of significance, but I felt myself quite impotent to shape them into significant forms.
But I am beginning to repeat myself, and arriving no nearer the point.
After some weeks, I grew to realise that the further I had walked, the more compulsively I circled, the harder I strained for significance, the more often I had found myself seated on one of my benches, some of which, at least, seemed to be positioned conveniently where I found I needed them to be (regardless of the mundanity of the view), when I was feeling a little short of breath, or aching in various places, and needed to rest. On one of my last walks (I desisted from this practice shortly afterwards), I took a short detour, and came across a previously undiscovered bench, rather newer than the rest, which had a brass plaque on it, revealing openly, with no prompting from me, the reason for its existence.
It read :
IN MEMORY OF
MR. E.W. PEAK
WHO WISHED THERE TO BE A SEAT SO
THAT THE OLD PEOPLE COULD REST