There are twelve steps leading down to our bench. Joe would count them often. He would take my arm and gently guide me through crunched leaves and spots of sunshine, then away from unfavourable youths and long since littered gum. He’d get to the final step and pretend to trip to make me laugh. I’d try desperately hard to hold the corners of my mouth shut each time he did so, though never successfully.
I always sat on the left, for Joe always preferred the other side. No, ‘preferred’ isn’t right. He made me sit on the left, for the right had an obscene word scrawled in spray paint or marker or something. I told him it made no difference: the graffiti was dry; there was no danger of it marking my coat. But Joe always insisted. He carried the bread too, as if the stale loaf would somehow weigh me down and be a burden in my hands.
Lily and George (after our own two babies, who, as they often remark, are now far too old to be labelled as such) would swim over immediately from the dense overgrowth on the opposing bank, through the darkness underneath the bridge on Mill Lane towards the smell of yesterdays unwanted wholemeal. Joe would insist on placing the bread straight into their beaks, saying that he didn’t have much faith for the purity of the thick green river. A soft whistle would escape his lips as he fed them, the same nameless tune he would sing to me as we cared for our garden, or hum gently into my neck after making love.
I often try to turn the clock back by the river. Attempt to shut out the student flats, the pubs with flashing signs and the endless stream of engine, horn and siren. I go back to our favourite time – a river not filled with cigarette butts or takeaway wrappings, but busy with the endless flow of barge and boat. A time when Joe and I would walk the cobbled lane through Castle Yard to work, (Joe would walk, I would stumble on the uneven slabs of stone – Joe was no better than me at restraining the corners of his mouth) and tease one another with stories telling of St Mary de Castro’s many lovers or the tiny priest who had the good fortune of his own custom-made entrance at the back of the church.
We’d bickered playfully about maintaining our weekend ritual of walking to our bench that Sunday, for the wind was high and a fierce storm on the horizon, Joe argued. I countered with the presentation of waterproof jackets, his golfing umbrella and a toothy smile – the latter resulting in his surrender, as always.
The rain began to fall as we began to descend twelve familiar steps and was thundering by the time we stepped off the final riser. The droplets hammered into the river causing the Soar to spray upward, passers-by started running for cover underneath the abandoned bus-stop on Western Boulevard as cars crawled by at a cautious speed. I finally admitted defeat when I saw the seat of our bench already immersed.
Turning to leave, my left hand searched for Joe’s right only to find nothing but air. I twisted back to find him still staring at our saturated bench, his head lolled forward, his hand grasping his left arm as if he were embracing himself. He drew a deep breath and then the world came to a stop as he began to fall.
I was suddenly unable to hear the howling wind; the rain seemed to slow down, the drops looking like diamonds, feeling like bricks. A shopping bag descended to the ground, a thin loaf escaped from the plastic and rolled into the Soar. The ripples spreading out into the river like passengers fleeing a sinking ship.