Sophie craned her neck trying to see over the prow of the hill but she wasn’t tall enough and the glare of the sun wasn’t helping. She stuck to the narrow path, avoiding the muddy grass either side, but the leather soles of her smart black boots offered little traction against the thick, slippery soil. She tried to quicken her pace, aware of how late this pit stop would make her this morning, imagining the strange looks the clerks would shoot in her direction as she collected her post from the tiny pigeonhole they’d allocated to her in their outer office.
Get her, she’d hear them say, not even waiting for her to pass out of earshot. What time does she call this? The disgraceful state of her footwear would be merely incidental, the leisurely start the more heinous crime, the sole preserve of heads of chambers or queens counsel, individuals who’d clambered up the greasy pole and paid their dues, and hefty sums to their clerks along the way. Who does she, junior barrister, oh so lucky to be awarded a tenancy, think she is?
She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh smell of moist rich earth. The autumn air was soft and surprisingly warm but still she trembled. She shook her head willing herself to manage expectations. It would be terrible if her first feelings on seeing it were disappointment—she’d been waiting too long for this moment.
The waiting list had been well over the initial two year estimate she’d been given and then she’d needed time over the inscription, wanting to get it just right. The decision where to site the bench had been tricky too, a delicate negotiation between her and English Heritage. The Kenwood Estate on Hampstead Heath wasn’t a municipal park, it was an ancient woodland, a nature reserve where the number of commemorative benches and their positioning were tightly regulated. But William had handled it well.
The two of them had walked the length of the Kenwood Estate; William pointing out the possibilities, she indicating her preferences. He’d offered her Beech Mount but she hadn’t liked it much, too enclosed, too ‘memorial garden’ in feel. She wanted open space, a vista of beautiful English countryside with no buildings in sight. She smiled thinking about the early morning text he’d sent her today. Lovely day for a walk to the West Meadow. You’ll find a sympathetic seat, William.
The West Meadow had been at the top of her list but William had told her it was unavailable for new memorial benches. She’d almost succeeded in convincing herself of the need to compromise when he’d emailed her one Saturday morning. A West Meadow space had become available; a donator wanted his existing bench relocated closer to Kenwood House. Her delight was swiftly doused by Russell’s bizarre reaction. How could a grown man be jealous of a bench?
She’d made the mistake of letting him see her pleasure on hearing the news. The sluice gates opened. The body of water which flooded through was appallingly rank. She’d no idea of the extent of Russell’s pent-up resentment against her parents, or her, it appeared. He’d never given voice to it during their lifetimes. One thing was clear. Their absence had not made Russell’s heart grow fonder.
There was a high-pitched call above her, a shrill ‘kee-kee-kee’ echoing in rapid bursts. She scanned the branches of the centuries-old oak tree towering over her. Her frequent weekend Heath walks had transformed her from city creature, born and bred, to a close observer of nature, a woman comfortably familiar with this habitat’s wildlife. She pinpointed the bird; a kestrel, improbably balanced, on the tip of a top branch.
Keeping her eyes on it, she pulled from her pocket the small binoculars she’d remembered to retrieve from her car’s boot. She adjusted the focus on the lenses and a yellow-rimmed black eye set in a blue-grey head stared back at her unblinkingly. Who was watching who? This falcon was male, much smaller than its female counterpart, although his reddish-brown barred chest feathers were plumped out as if he was drying himself. She lowered the binoculars. Sorry, Mr. Kestrel, she had no time to play today. She walked on, her binoculars still dangling from her wrist. She couldn’t keep her bench waiting.
The ground started to slope downwards and she caught her first glimpse. Set back from the path in the distance was a striking honey-coloured oak bench which looked almost golden in the strong sunlight. ‘My, my,’ she said aloud, ‘aren’t you fine and dandy.’ It was big, could seat four easily. Solid yet smart, it stood perkily upright and inviting. There was a small paved area set with flagstones in front of it, ideal for weary walkers to rest their feet, and meadow grass surrounding it. Three silver birches behind marked the boundary edge where the meadow ended and the woods began.
She broke into a run to close the distance, pumping her arms like an athlete in a race. ‘Whoa,’ she cried out as she skidded on the mud, stretching her arms out and leaning her weight back on her heels to recover her balance. At that moment a dog walker emerged onto the path by the West Gate. Eight large canines, off the leash, bounded in Sophie’s direction, barking excitedly. Sophie held her breath as they came between her and the bench, circling her. Portia, Tara, come,’, the dog walker called, before addressing Sophie. ‘They won’t hurt you.’ Two chocolate brown labradors veered off and the rest of the pack noisily chased after them, leapfrogging over each other, zig-zagging across the lush green meadow.
But Sophie’s attention was elsewhere. She was now close enough to read the hand-carved inscription which ran the full width of the scalloped horizontal main rail.
MALCOLM AND ROSEMARY MARCHANT (1945-2008)
WHO LIVED TOGETHER IN LOVE FOREVER
She stared. A slow smile broke out and wouldn’t stop. Her pleasure grew and grew. The bench was perfect in every way. William had seen to it. He had not let her down. He’d even delivered the bench to her on her parents’ wedding anniversary. The serendipity was no surprise. There was something about William, some instinctive emotional intelligence, which probably accounted for why he was the Kenwood ranger in charge of such matters.
Russell, on the other hand… She cringed, remembering his words. ‘Is it really necessary to buy them a bench? It’s not just about the money. It’s mawkish, over the top. Can’t you see that?’
No, it wasn’t necessary to buy them a bench, but then it wasn’t a question of necessity. Nor was it about the money. As for mawkish, why didn’t he get it? She wanted, needed, some tangible tribute to her parents nearby. Her parents’ graves in the family plot were an ocean away. As an only child, where was the comfort to them and her in that?
‘It’s not as if they lived here or were particularly partial to the place.’
But they’d been a close family and her parents visited her often, despite the long trip across the Atlantic, until old age and health problems intervened. They’d enjoyed their visits to the Heath, especially in the spring when the rhododendrons and azaleas were in full bloom.
Yet Russell’s objections hadn’t ended there. ‘Liked The Spaniards Inn, you mean. Why didn’t you get them a bench there?’
With its dark oak paneling, roaring logfires in original hearths, good drink, grub and company to go with it, the pub became a favourite with her parents for Sunday lunch, particularly her father. He was at home there, a home far away from home. She pictured him nestled in a cloistered corner, Mom beside him, tucking into a plate of bangers and mash and chasing them down with a half-pint.
It struck her then. Russell was restless—he never stopped. He was always thinking about the next deal, the next fat fee, the current deal almost an afterthought. No time to savour the sweet taste of success, he would barely pause to sip the investment bank’s oily vintage bubbles, risking rudeness by leaving completion meetings well before his clients. No time to rest on my laurels, he would say. Onwards and upwards, he would say. And he pushed her in the same way. No time for a baby, Sophie, not now. No time to take time out or backpedal for a while. Her developing chancery practice came first despite her growing desire for a child, a desire which intensified with every argument between them on the subject.
‘A career break now would be professional suicide. Why lose everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve? You can’t risk your chambers tenancy, your clerks’ confidence, your growing reputation with your clients.’
There was a time when she’d agreed with him, when her ambitions fully matched his. But since her parents’ deaths, she’d changed. She thought more about her mother, wondering how she’d felt after reconciling herself to being childless, having tried so long for a baby without success. And then her unexpected conception and her parents’ joy. But what if she had problems conceiving too? How would she know until she tried? By then it might be too late.
Stepping forward, she trailed her fingers over the bench’s sculpted thick oak, tracing the beautifully engraved letters, the satisfying curve of the armrests, the unusual cross-grained effect of the main rail. She walked around it spotting some thin stalks of long grass poking through the individual seat slats, a strange sight given the methodically shorn surrounding grass. Their bucolic charm won her over but how long would they last? Was she becoming as insubstantial as those delicate green strays?
She hoped her bench would find a following among Heath walkers—there was no question of its popularity with this particular walker. She slid onto the seat and thrust her legs out in front of her, throwing her arms wide across the main rail, leaning her head back and enjoying the comfort of the solid wood warm against the nape of her neck.
Her mobile rang and her pulse quickened. Shit. She was sure her client conference wasn’t scheduled until eleven. Her relief to find it wasn’t chambers ringing was short-lived. She deliberated whether to answer it. She let the call divert onto voicemail.
She closed her eyes enjoying the restored peace of the West Path surroundings and the backdrop of birdcall. Her mobile phone rang again. The mood was broken. She answered it.
‘Where are you? I tried you at your office. Are you sick?’
Sick of you, Russell, she nearly said. She explained where she was. There was a long pause.
‘But why didn’t you let me know? I’d have come with you.’
Would he? ‘I didn’t get William’s text until after you’d left.’
Another silence. ‘What’s it like? The bench, I mean.’
‘It’s good, just what we wanted,’ she said, keeping her voice flat.
‘I’m pleased, really pleased for you.’
‘It’s for both of us, Russell, not just for me.’
‘Yes, but it’s more important for you than me.’
‘I’d better go. I’m late as it is.’
‘Take a picture for me.’
‘Tomorrow’s the weekend. You can see it then.’
‘Speak later? Love you.’ She didn’t reply. ‘Sophie?’
She snapped the phone’s cover shut and stood up, allowing herself another look at her parents’ inscription, before leaving.
Based on a few lines from their favourite opera, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Act III, final scene, Papagano, reunited with Papagana, asks her, ‘shall we live in love together?’ ‘We shall live in love forever,’ she replies.
Some people had all the luck.