THE THING ON THE BENCH

It was a grey autumn day; the trees were whispering restlessly in the feverish wind, and the leaves danced across the street with a dry rustle. The bus-shelter for which I was headed looked deserted; and then I saw a figure sitting on the bench; its head, wearing a black hat, was bowed; its gloved hands were folded and its legs crossed at the ankles. I sat down, and gathered my muffler close around me, for it seemed colder than ever as the wind confided its chill incomprehensible secrets to the world in all directions. I found myself strangely intrigued by the solemn person sharing the bench with me. I could not say whether it was a woman or a man; the collar of the black coat was pulled up high enough to conceal what the shapeless flat hat revealed of the face. I glanced at my watch; it told me that the bus would come in seven minutes. I did not have a book or magazine to read; I decided to start a conversation with my shrouded companion.

"It is cold today, isn't it?" I remarked.

The person gave no sign of having heard me. I shrugged mentally in resignation and gazed at the traffic purring up and down, and at the pedestrians rushing past. And in the grey sky above, the clouds were moving quickly, weeping.

"Yes, it is cold."

I started; I stared at the shape next to me, from whom the answer had issued. But she or he was not looking at me. The head remained bowed; the hands did not alter their folded position, and the feet, shod in flat black boots, were still crossed at the ankles.

And the voice which had replied was hollow and sexless, and there was something in its timbre that made me shudder.

"So you are also waiting for the bus?" I inquired.

"No."

"Oh."

Silence. A car tooted impatiently because the car in front of it was refusing to move although the traffic lights signalled green.

"I often come and sit here. I watch time fly past and the world crumble."

I frowned.

"It sounds rather pessimistic."

"That the world crumbles?" A mirthless, empty laugh without emotion, and cold as the wind which was now so chill that I found myself longing for a pair of gloves.

"It is inevitable that the world crumbles, with or without the aid of human beings destroying it."

This person was definitely optimistic, all right.

"You have a rather harsh attitude towards life," I said in a bored tone.

"I am the scapegoat of society; I am the incorporation of all things which are forbidden but nevertheless executed with each passing second; I am scum and vermin; I make everyone shudder with disgust and yet I fester in their souls. I was shaped by all of you, and condemned to be ostracized."

I could not help feeling insulted by this speech which sounded accusatory in spite of the expressionless tone in which it was pronounced. I said stiffly:

"Maybe you had better go and see a counsellor."

Another hollow laugh from the creature which refused to even turn its head in my direction; a laugh tinted with the slightest shade of mockery. My hands were numb with the cold the wind and this singuliar talker spread.

"Still, I owe you my life, my existence. I wish to extend my deepest gratitude towards all of you. You created me, an object of horror. And once I become visible to each one of you, I will destroy you. Some of you can already see me. It will take a long while until the whole world can see me. But I have time. A lot of time. All the time I can wish for. Your bus is coming."

"Who are you?" I asked, and my voice trembled. I was feeling so cold that I thought my teeth would chatter.

"But haven't you listened to me?"

And now, slowly, very slowly, the head began to turn towards me. I clutched at the arm of the bench with one hand; and I perceived that the face, and even the eyes, were masked; I thought I could discern a protrusion where the nose was. A slender gloved hand rose and gently pushed down the collar of the coat. The lower part of the individual's countenance was exposed. The mouth was beautiful and luscious; it was red, as if coated with fresh blood, and it looked mobile and seductive. It curved into a smile, revealing lovely white teeth. The owner of this sensual androgynous mouth reached behind its head with both hands as if to undo the mask. Suddenly the bus drew up at the curb, splashing through a puddle; drops of rainwater fled; and without delay, the thing on the bench disappeared. Where it had sat was nothing except the mask, a black, shapeless object; I extended my hand to touch it, perhaps to pick it up, but it disintegrated beneath my fingers. I noticed that I was feeling warmer. I turned towards the bus.

I never sat on that bench again.