The breather

Before sitting down, they read the two plaques on the bench; one saying it was made from recycled plastic and the other that Dorothy had always loved sitting here admiring the view.

‘I wonder who Dorothy was,’ said Alan, as he sank onto the bench, grateful to have somewhere to rest his aching legs.

‘Someone with an odd taste in views,’ answered Brian, wriggling his shoulders to encourage his rucksack to slide down his arms.  He lowered it to the ground between his muddy walking boots.  The two friends sat contemplating the view dominated by a power station with four giant cooling towers.  They fell silent, watching he steam drifting from the towers as it was caught by the gentle breeze.  It was impossible for them to imagine the scene without the huge concrete structure.

‘Perhaps,’ said Alan, polishing his spectacles with his handkerchief, ‘she enjoyed watching the escaping steam.  It’s mesmerising.’

‘How amazing,’ said Brian, ‘they can make sturdy benches out of recycled plastic.’

‘Yes, I read somewhere or other that more than two thousand plastic bottles are used to make one bench.’

Brian nodded.  ‘Better than them finishing up in landfill or being washed up on beaches.’  He took a swing from a plastic water bottle he had tucked in a pocket on the side of his rucksack.  He looked at the bottle.  ‘I wonder where this one will finish up?’

‘Did I ever tell you,’ asked Alan, replacing his spectacles, ‘about the guy who phoned me with what he described as a ‘’mutually advantageous business opportunity’’?’

‘Sounds dodgy.  No, I don’t think so.’

‘Well, it was years ago now.  I didn’t know him, and I’m not sure how he got my number, but he phoned and kept on saying he could only explain the opportunity if we met.’

‘A cold call, eh?  So he wouldn’t tell you what the offer was over the phone?’

‘No, just kept saying that he knew I’d be interested and harping on about how I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I turned down the opportunity.’

‘Intriguing,’ said Brian, putting the cap back on his water bottle.  ‘Did you ever find out what it was about?’

‘Oh yes, I relented and agreed to meet him.’

‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh?’

‘I was curious.  He came to my house.  A dapper young man, in a dark suit, carrying a brief case.’

A security guard emerged from a hut inside the perimeter fence of the power station.  He stretched and yawned as if rousing himself after a nap.  He fumbled in his pocket and lit a cigarette. 

‘Poor man,’ said Brian. ‘Bored out of his mind.  So, what happened?  What was the unmissable opportunity?’

Before Alan could answer, an old man appeared with a small dog on a lead.  He had an unruly grey beard and was wearing a flat cap.  He was carrying a plastic bag with flowers peeping out of the top.  He stopped by the bench and Brian stood up and moved his rucksack.  ‘Would you like to sit down?’

‘Thank you,’ said the newcomer.  ‘There’s room for three if you squeeze up a bit.’

The three men sat quietly, lost in their own thoughts, gazing at the power station. The security guard had disappeared, presumably patrolling the premises before returning to his hut. 

The silence was broken by Brian who turned to the old man and asked, ‘Do you come here often?’  Brian smiled to himself as he thought of many previous occasions when, lost for something more original to ask, he’d used the same corny question with mixed results.

‘Oh yes, every week unless the weather’s too bad for me to get up the hill.  There’s no shelter and it can get a bit draughty up here.’  He looked around as if expecting to notice something he hadn’t spotted before.  ‘How about you two?’

‘No,’ said Brian, ‘we’re on a hike and just sat down to take a breather.’

‘Nice,’ said the old man.  ‘I love it up here.  The power station is due to close soon.  It’s going to be demolished.’

‘Really?’ said Alan, leaning forward slightly to catch sight of the old man sitting on the bench beyond Brian.  ‘That’ll take some doing.’

‘Yes.  Lots of concrete, lots of lorries.  They blow up the towers with dynamite you know.  I shall come and watch if we’re allowed up here.  They collapse like jelly.’

‘You’ll have a grandstand view.  Bet there’ll be quite a crowd.’

The three men lapsed back into silence as they gazed at the vast bulk of the silent power station buildings, trying to imagine the chaos of their destruction.  The old man let his dog off the lead and it ran around enthusiastically, sniffing the ground, following invisible trails.

Brian stirred himself.  ‘We were wondering about Dorothy.  We read the plaque.  Do you know who she was?’

The old man sighed. 

‘These flowers are for her.  It’s the anniversary.  I always leave some flowers on the day it happened.’

‘Oh lord, I’m sorry.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked.  Did you know her well?’

‘She didn’t deserve it.  They said it was a freak accident.  No,’ he shook his head as if still struggling to process the dreadful news, ‘she didn’t deserve it.’

Brian and Alan sat there digesting these words, not at all sure what to say next.  After a short while, unprompted, the old man spoke again. 

‘You see, it was an iron bench then.  After the accident I paid to have it replaced with this one.  Dorothy could never have imagined she was in danger sitting here.’

‘If,’ said Alan, ‘it’s not too upsetting, could you tell us what accident befell Dorothy.’

‘Lightning, she was stuck by lightning.  It was an iron bench then you see.’

‘Blimey, that’s bizarre!  What are the chances of that happening?’  Brian looked up at the sky where clouds were gathering.  ‘Just sitting here and struck by lightning,’ he repeated needlessly.  ‘And you say this is the anniversary?’

‘Yes, three years ago now.  It was in the papers.  She didn’t deserve it.’  The old man shook his head again. ‘Well, I’ll leave these flowers here.  Nice talking to you.’  He stood up, took the flowers out of the plastic bag, and placed them on the bench where he’d been sitting.  They were a bunch of untidy wild flowers with the stems wrapped in silver aluminium foil.  Brian and Alan spang up, and stood awkwardly, still unsure sure of what to say.

‘Nice talking to you,’ the old man repeated, touching his cap and whistling at his dog who trotted up obediently.

‘Likewise,’ said Alan. ‘We’re so sorry to hear about the accident.’

‘These things happen,’ he replied, shaking his head again.  ‘But she certainly didn’t deserve it.’

After he’d gone, Brian and Alan sat down again.  ‘I didn’t like to pry any further,’ said Brian.

‘No, he obviously wasn’t expecting to find anyone here.  I wonder who Dorothy was.  His wife?  His daughter?  His sister perhaps?’

‘We’ll never know unless we track the story down.  He said it was reported in the papers.’

‘One thing’s for sure,’ said Alan, imitating the old man, ‘she didn’t deserve it.’

Brian smiled. ‘By the way, what was the unmissable opportunity you were telling me about before we were interrupted?’

‘Water, bottled water.’

‘So, did you invest?’

‘Lord, no.  I laughed and told him water came out of taps.  Why would anyone be daft enough to pay for water in plastic bottles?’

The security guard reappeared and paused.  He seemed to be looking straight at them through the mesh fence.  Alan tried a speculative wave and the guard waved back before disappearing into his hut.

‘There,’ said Brian, ‘you’ve made his day.  Perhaps Dorothy used to wave at him.’

Beyond the power station, storm clouds gathered and thunder rumbled ominously.

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