Stories - London Series

London I: On that Bench in Hampstead Heath (A Story by Jan Decena)

It was rare for John Abel Wiśniewski to leave out of his office early in Canary Wharf, London. But there were too many shouting, too many reprimands, and too many weeping clients than he could deal with in a day-to-day basis. Therefore he left his work early, packed his briefcase, took the tube and bus, then off he went to Hampstead Heath.

John did not really think things through when he got there. When he first arrived, he just dropped his suit and briefcase onto the wet ground, and stared at the greenery. He shuffled in circles for a little bit, then picked up his things from the floor again and went through the woods. He still did not have any direction on where to go and he would admit that it was unwise for him to just amble about especially at night. But the drive to be somewhere else was too loud for him to be unnoticed. Thus, he walked on, carrying his briefcase and his suit slung onto his arm. Its arm was dragging along the ground but John thought it would be a good idea to send it to the dry-cleaner’s anyway.

John trudges further and further, through to more woods, passed by the ponds, and over some bridges. He then reached a field, its long grass yellowed by the autumn sun and the leaves of the sparse trees were also reaching its end. A lone bench overlooked the London city skyline. John went to the bench and sat down, sprawling his briefcase and suit by his side. He then stared onto the distance, more looking at the darkening sky above London rather than the city itself. A cold breeze passed by and he shuddered. However, he did not made a move to put on his suit on again. He feared that the numbness might melt and he would be able to think again. John was very tired of thinking for now. He pressed his palms over his eyes for a moment, before looking out again. When he did, he noticed at the corner of his eye that there was someone next to him.

It was a woman, neither too slender nor too thick. She wearing a pale yellow dress and a wide hat that covered half of her head at John’s angle. She was reading a paperback, fingers caressing the edge of its cover and her slightly chapped lips quirked into a small smile. It was a rather odd smile but pleasant in John’s opinion.

And it was an opinion that scared John suddenly.

Abruptly turning his gaze away from the woman, he tried to focus onto the London skyline in front of him again. John was painfully aware that he was not very good with women even at a very young age. At year 6, John still recalled first girl he fancied.  She almost always wear girl in  pigtails and sat in the middle table. He went up to her one day and called on her developing large spot at the tip of her nose. Needless to say, she did not like that very much at all and John ended up with a large bruise on his face and a detention with his least favourite teacher at the time. One would feel like an utter failure back then. John certainly did when he was soon scolded by his mother.

“Greet women with kindness,” his mama had told him, that one family meeting that had stuck in John’s mind for a long time. “Or if you can’t, don’t fall in love.”

However, John was the kind of person who fall in love at the first pleasantry that he see. Then, he would immediately break that spell under him by blurting out the most honest thing to the girl he liked. It was a series of disasters after that girl in Year 6. When he was in Year 11, he fancied a very smart girl. Then he called out her ridiculous hair. In a restaurant that he worked part time, his heart would always flutter towards the hard-working sous chef. At the second sentence, he called her food appalling. And when he could not take his eyes off a very nice lady with a very nice laugh on his first office job, he had told her that how come she was getting paid too much for the job that she do. John had winced, fumbled, and attempted to apologise; he admitted that that one had been very unnecessary and brutal. But the damage was done and she was able to move jobs. Somewhere in Scotland, he heard, where she could be as far away from him as possible. John had been so heartbroken with himself that he kept reminding himself not to go looking for the troubles at his own making.

Until now, where a stranger absorbed in his book caught his eye.

It was a good thing that she was a stranger this time. If John would accidentally blurt out, a stranger would only go so far a give him a very dirty look then move on. There would be no lingering guilt (although there would be some guilt in small parts) and no thoughts stewing on both of their parts.

The woman shifted in her seat, making herself comfortable resting her elbow onto the arm rest of the bench. She was facing John’s way, with her pleasant smile still bright upon her face. John could now see her face in the new angle and as predicted, her pleasant smile matched with her equally pleasant face. It made John skipped a heartbeat and he was pretty sure that if it skipped twice more, it would be over for him (that was a hyperbole, of course, however if you had been keeping tracks it might not be far from the truth). The woman continuously both reading the pages of her paperback then looking over to the horizon at a few times. Her eyes were almost black that matched her equally dark hair. But John was sure they twinkled against the small lights of the London skyline. It was a dark blue afternoon with no stars but she seemed to radiate with no trouble.

Sure enough, John’s heart skipped twice more.

It shocked him so that he wished he was back in his office in Canary Wharf, with his weeping and yelling clients and where everything was inevitable and predictable. He wished that he was on these years where he had felt disappointment before attempting victory. Then, he wished that he was confronted by his mama who told him to never fall in love. And here he was, did it again and wishing that he could crush the immature hope in his chest.

“Are you alright?” a voice called out to John. He whipped his head to his side, drawn to the soft voice. It was the woman, her radiant eyes crumpled into a look of concern and were slightly glistening. Her hair was dancing lightly against the wind and it made him want to gently tuck a stray strand behind her ear. Her lips were still chapped.

Afraid that his heart might skip three times more, John Abel Wiśniewski fled down Parliament Hill and, in an accident, left his suit.

~o~ On that Bench In Hampstead Heath ~o~

John Abel Wiśniewski was in a bar in an obligatory get-together with his old co-workers whom he barely spoke around five sentences a day to when they were working together. He refused to peg it on his lack of social skills but on his busy work schedule. Well, that was before they sat together in a pure social setting. And, most of the time, John was tongue-tied and sipping on his third gin and tonic. It was only quarter to seven in the afternoon.

John was determined to be included, though, as he strained his ears to listen to his co-workers speak over the loud jazz music in the bar. Apparently, one just had his wedding. His fiance was a childhood sweetheart and he was almost singing when he described how his bride was dressed in white, when the afternoon sun in Barcelona painted their wedding in gold, and when they all danced at the reception. The honeymoon in Tenerife had been the time of his life with yacht rides, champagne, and of course all the sex. Then, with a few more drinks, he managed to slip that he had more than a one night stand on his stag night.

Another one told of his kid’s birthday party. The kid just turned three and, according to John’s co-worker, he was given the most elaborate party. He then went on talking about the decor, with shiny antique plates and cutlery and how his kid was dressed up in a suit that he bought in an Prada shop in Champs-Élysées with a matching Armani shoes. Very important guests had arrived at the party, from his most famous clients to some politicians. John’s co-worker had argued that they were good friends. The just three-year-old was then gifted with the latest version of an iPad and paid thousands of pounds in his kid’s savings. John wondered if the kid would have wanted a cuddly toy instead. Or time with his parents for the day, playing in a park and getting muddy with the other kids.

The last co-worker had talked about his charity work in Peru, where he manage the building of orphanages and schools in the small villages. He had told them about the statistics, how he was proud that he had managed to build around seven small schools and two orphanages in just six months, and how he had gave himself a pat on his own back on raising around fifty thousand pounds on the month of December alone. He then thanked himself for the Christmas appeal that he alleged organised. Half-way through the conversation, John went to get his fourth gin and tonic.

“How about you, Johnny-boy?” was their immediate question when he went back to the table. John found out that he hated being called ‘Johnny-boy’. “Anything interesting happening?”

John was even more tongue-tied than earlier. He was not really sure if he could talk anything more than the time he saw a pleasant lady at the bench on Parliament Hill then ran, losing his suit in the process. It was something that he would rather not share to anyone. Therefore, he shook his head and took a sip of his drink.

It suited his co-workers just fine as they talked to each other about various things, whether business, their wives, or their planned trip to the casinos in Las Vegas. John rejected the offer to be included and told them that Vegas was not really his scene – that was apart from the Red Rock Canyon in which he explored thoroughly and carefully when he was on his year abroad in the US. John’s co-workers had expressed a disappointment that lasted shorter than John anticipated. He then pondered if he was really that awful on social situations.

On his seventh drink, something with vodka this time, John cursed mentioning that woman on Hampstead Heath even if it was only in his mind. Now, he was stuck with the way her fingers caressed the pages of the paperback and the way she smiled at what she was reading. He cursed himself even further on how he urged to know her name. It made him rip his hair out of his scalp.

When the get-together was over and when his co-workers had driven off in their gleaming cars, John took a cab. He was barely aware on how his head was thrumming and how everything was fuzzy. When his cab arrived, he managed to blurt out his destination. The rumble of the car did not do much to soothe John’s impending headache. It did not help much that the cabbie was the chatty sort, asking John how he was then blurting out on his long monologue on how his day went. With his hands pressed on his head, John could only make out vague recollections on what his cabbie said. He and his partner had adopted an abandoned baby girl just the day before. They both named her together – something like Joy or Joyce. He had been telling everyone he met on his cab journeys, how she was swaddled in a pale yellow blanket, how his partner glowed when the child was handed to him, and how he was afraid that he might not be a good father as he admitted that the baby girl was not much of a looker.

“I am sure you’ll be fine,” John told his cabbie, still massaging his temples.

“That’s what my husband had said to me, too,” the cabbie laughed. “Although he gave me a rather nasty slap across the head for thinking that.”

When the cab stopped, John handed two twenty pound notes and told his cabbie to keep the change. “Sir,” the cabbie started and John dread that he might go to another long monologue. But the cabbie’s eyes were a little teary and he was wearing the biggest smile that John saw.

“Thank you. For listening,” the cabbie said before driving off. It only took a few moments before John gave a smile on his own.

The cab took him to gates of Highgate Cemetery. John was not quite sure where he had requested for Highgate Cemetery but he stopped thinking too much over it when his headache spiked again. John looked around for a comfortable corner to settle, he did not feel like calling for another cab and mispronouncing his home address again. Then, something hit him. Hampstead Heath was only around ten minutes from where John was. With that thought and that John would rather not sleep on a concrete pavement, he trudged to the direction towards Hampstead Heath.

Only armed with his lit phone, it surprised John a little on how easy it was for him to manoeuvre around the woods and fields of the park. The walk had been rather soothing as well as John listened to the rustling winds whenever the evening wind came by. He inhaled the smell of damp bark, wet from the rain this afternoon. And he reveled in the way the long grass brushed along his hand when he passed a field. Soon enough, he reached Parliament Hill and his senses did not care for the rest anymore but to the bench overlooking London. His head was still throbbing and his mind was still a little jumbled. But there was a particular fuzzy thought that kept on niggling him.

When he took a seat on the bench, he immediately looked through the contacts on his phone. He fumbled when he almost dropped his phone and he had to squint his eyes. But he had found his contact in the end. His thumb hovered over the name, he took a deep breath, and pressed. The fingers on his other hand drummed against the wood and his foot tapped the ground.

“I am sorry. The phone number that you called is unavailable right now.”

With a wave of disappointment, John ended the call. Pressing the phone upon his forehead, he licked his lips and shut his eyes tight. It should have been obvious that that person would be unavailable at this time of hour. He should have known that she would not turn on her phone at the middle of the night.

Inhaling deep, he leaned back onto the bench as his gaze fell on the other end. It seemed so lonely now that the woman in the pale yellow dress did not occupy it. However, thanks to the haziness, his thoughts of her were not clear enough to occupy his mind. John still could not comprehend how she lingered.

Tired and drained, John laid down on the bench and imagined that his head was upon the woman’s lap. Her fingers would be stroking his hair and she would whisper a lullaby in his ear. And there would be many times where she would be laying her head upon his lap and he could tell all the bad jokes he knew. He could be as immature and naive as he liked because there would be no illusions between them.

As John Abel Wiśniewski closed his eyes and tried to dream of sweet dreams of the long dark hair swaying into the wind, he could not help but to feel the irony. He was making illusions of his own. He fell asleep trying to curb the stinging in his eyes.

~o~ On that Bench In Hampstead Heath ~o~

On a stormy Thursday evening, John Abel Wiśniewski was sitting on the cold floor of his kitchen and nursing his whisky. He lost counted on how many he drank. John did not care because at the moment, he was the worst possible human being in the entire world. Just a week ago, he had just won a case that he hoped luck would struck and make him lose. He could do damage control when someone had thrown it on his way. But when it was him that did the damage, it became unmanageable and ugly that he would rather throw himself off a cliff.

A father just lost the custody of a child and taken into full custody by the mother who did not even know how to love. John watched as the father fell into such a shock that he feared that he might go into a heart attack. Luckily, his own lawyer managed to catch him when he did finally topple and sobbed into his robe. John managed to catch hie eyes and even though he wanted to look away from the accusation and the despair, he did not dare to. John deserved to earn this man’s anger and if this was the only thing he could give, then he would gladly offer.

It did not help at all. The father was gently led out of the court and John turned to the solicitor that partnered with him. They shook hands, they exchanged contacts, and they even planned a possible formal dinner. All the time that the solicitor had been beaming ear to ear, John had wanted to punch the lights out of him. When he was finally all alone in the courtroom, he then wondered what made him stop. The paycheck that finally came was an unwelcome sight to see in his bank account. After that, he had been raiding his whisky stock more often than usual. He let himself to have a little break, even that meant sprawled all over his kitchen floor with a glass or even the bottle in his hand.

When John had stayed long enough on the floor, the niggling feeling came back all of the sudden. It was much stronger this time that John dropped his whisky and dived into his destroyed bedroom to look for his phone. In a panic and huffing, John threw everything in his way in a determination that he never felt before. Determination? John briefly wondered if desperation was more of a right word. He did not want to think of that further.

The phone was now in John’s hands. He huffed as he unlocked it and scrolled through his contacts. She should be awake in this hour and her phone should be ready by her side at any moment. She had to be so John dialled.

He needed to know it. He needed to know that it did not matter that he had only stared blankly at that father in the courtroom, that he had only brushed off that cabbie, that he still had dinners with people who used other happiness for their own, and that he had only been thinking of himself when he was approaching all those women. He needed to know that he was still capable of love. That there were no illusions. That that feeling that he had for that woman in pale yellow dress was real.

“I am sorry. The phone number that you called is unavailable right now.”

Before he could roar and hurl the phone towards his wall, John heard the jiggling of the letter plate on his front door. Distracted, he set his phone down on his bed and went through his hallway. He was not too sure why it distracted him and why he continued to ignore that niggling feeling that was only getting more and more prominent. The envelope was yellowed and stained. His address was written in a hand that John imagined shook too much. Inside was a letter and an old photograph of him and his mother, him in a bowl cut and colourful clothes and her with her hair in a braid that rested on one shoulder and in a golden dress that John knew she loved so much. The photograph was taken by his father, who had framed it upon their living room. Until now when it was sent to John.

However the nostalgia faded and it was replaced by something ugly when John unfolded the letter. The niggling feeling stopped but his heart plummeted in return.

“I am sorry. The phone number that you called is unavailable right now.”

Dear Mr Wiśniewski,

I am writing to you to sadly inform you about the death of your wife, Mrs Anastazja Ramona Wiśniewski. Please accept our sincerest condolences for your loss…

Hampstead Heath and that pleasant lady upon Parliament Hill seemed so far away from John Abel Wiśniewski right now.

~o~ On that Bench in Hampstead Heath ~o~

A month went by, John Abel Wiśniewski had lived and reborn when he had finally quit his job. He never met with that solicitor again and left him hanging in the Michelin star restaurant that they booked. He knew that he had to find one at some point soon but that thought was the furthest thing in his mind. He had changed his mind and joined his old co-workers to Las Vegas. Only for John to ditch them again at the airport. He had already hired a car and went to the Red Rock Canyon, then to Valley of Fire State Park, then to Lake Tahoe. He had been smiling and laughing all the way.

John was also able to write two novels both on his journey in Nevada and back when he was home, one was science fiction and the other was romance. John was able to tell that they were shit and he would have to go through many rounds of editing before they can be even sent to an agent. However, he never felt such an accomplishment from all of his hard work that it made him think what was really hindering him from all this time. Exhilarated and driven by a passion that was both alien and welcome, John went to edit a novel and started looking through literacy agencies in London.

Along the way, he had also managed to adopt a cat from his local RSPCA. The little monster had an absolute hatred towards his ties. Thinking that he would never need them when he was finally a world-renowned author, he let the cat shred them.

However before all of the above, when he was still reeling from the news and sprawled all over again on his kitchen floor, John managed to pull himself together to book a plane ticket to Katowice. He had only packed his essentials in a duffel bag. After two days, he was on the way to Gatwick Airport. It was no great party when he had finally set foot on his childhood home before the family immigrated to Britain. However, the glistening unshed tears and hope from his father’s eyes prompted John to finally embrace him tight. They stayed in each other’s arms for a long moment, openly sobbing and mourning the sunshine that they had lost too soon. The funeral had been a brief affair with John’s father adamant to finally let his wife rest.

“Lingering would only hurt her more,” John’s father had said. “We can mourn and we can cry. But we will move on. That is what dear Ana would have wanted. The two people she cared and laboured for standing on their own feet again.”

The burial was quite with only the priest saying the prayer and the pitter-patter of the rain upon umbrellas were the only sounds that occupied them. When John’s mother was finally buried under the earth, the crowd quietly and quickly dispersed. John and his father were the only people left looking down at the headstone and the planted flowers. It was also the moment that John admitted that he had undermined his father, who were always behind their many photographs and who had framed them all in a meticulous manner in the rooms of their home. He had been the reluctant one to move, because that would mean leaving all of the memories and moments he captured behind.

“Father, am I capable of loving?” John asked his father. Not because there was no mama to tell him. It was because he learned that his papa was just as honest and strong as his mama. “I might as well be the advocate for sorrow and have dinners with devils. I fear that they have torn me to the point that I am numb and unfeeling.” Then, he smiled and he told his father in a soft voice, “I saw a pleasant woman in a pale yellow dress one evening in Hampstead Heath. She was reading ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking. She asked me if I was alright with such a concern in her eyes that it made me fumble. My heart skipped three times that evening and seemed to have stopped the rest of the time.” John turned to his father, “Papa, that is no illusion right?”

John’s father smiled at him and for a second, John imagined his young self sat upon his father’s shoulders as they walked around Kościuszko Park. It was something that they did whenever John’s mother were too tired or away on business. They were normally quite moments but they were treasured nonetheless.

“Your mother had always thought that you were too honest and that you loved too much,” John’s father told him. “Ana had always been afraid that someone would take advantage of you so she made you strive, to always look diligently for flaws, sometimes I think too much so that you could not see the good things. It was a relief for her that you seem to do badly regarding your love life.”

At that John’s father had chuckled and John felt that he would very much like it if the earth could also bury him. Then John’s father had sobered, placed a reassuring hand upon John’s shoulder, and looked directly in his eyes.

“But it seemed that her plan did not work either. Not that she deliberately planned for you to have dinners with the devil,” John’s father continued. “So I think this is your shot now. To answer your question, yes. Yes, you are still capable. It was very weak but if you worked hard and freely for it, it will become stronger again. And maybe that lady that you have been talking about may help you as well. That is if she could stand  being told of that her nose might be too big or something like that.”

John took one more week to spend time with his father in Katowice before heading back home and quitting his job. Then after his trip to Nevada, the completion of his drafts, and adopting his cat, John took a stroll in Hampstead Heath. However, John could easily admit that it was not much of a stroll for his legs had this determined stride. It made John taller and his chest a little lighter. The best part was that this was no illusion.

The bench upon Parliament Hill was empty. It was Wednesday afternoon and thus many would have been crammed into the tube and buses, eager to get home. But John was not eager to be home yet as he sat down and looked upon the London lights. The sky was turning into a blend of deep ambers and blues, and the breeze in the air was cool. The trees around him were rustling and birds were tweeting. Time went by and the evening continued to darken but John did not made a move to leave.

Then, something was dropped upon his lap.

“I believe you left that ages ago,” a soft voice called to him. It was a familiar voice.

John whipped his head around and his heart leapt three times in one go as he stared at the pleasant woman from that day. She was still wearing her pale yellow dress and her dark hair were still dancing in the wind. Her lips were less chapped than before but her eyes were brighter than before. John only managed to make out that they were looking right into his.

With that, John fumbled and looked at the thing that was dropped into his lap. It was his suit that he lost that night, cleaned and ironed. John looked at the woman again, who was now settling down on the other side of the bench and began reading another paperback. This time, it was ‘Forces of Nature’ by Professor Brian Cox.  John swallowed and braced to finally talk to the woman, but somehow the ‘Thank you’ was dislodged on his throat as he looked closer.

“That was a rather large wart on your jaw right there,” John blurted.

It took a moment for him to realise what he had just said before clapping his hands over his mouth. The woman turned to him with such an incredulous look that John might as well be in his own horror show. He was just about to apologise when he saw the woman smirk and raise her eyebrow.

“At least it is only on my jaw,” the woman had said. “I can hide it with my hair.” With a mischievous look, she continued, “You, however, will have a hard time with your parrot nose.”

John gaped at the woman, fumbling even more. This was new to him.

“Is that all you got?” the woman challenged.

John watched as she shuffled on the bench to face him, her elbow resting on the back and her chin propped upon her knuckles. The paperback was set to one side. Her raised eyebrow and her smirk were on her face again. She was not so pleasant now but she did not fail to made his heart skip three more times. She still got her dark hair softly blowing into the wind and she still have her soft voice. But her eyes gleamed with something sharper than what the stars could do in John’s opinion. The woman was a supernova that John could never expect.

“Is that all you got?” John challenged back. “I thought you would have done more damage than that. Considering the smart books you read, you are very dumb reading them at night, Miss..?”

“Mei,” the woman finished for John. “My name is Mei and you?”

Smiling, John replied, “John. John Abel Wiśniewski.”

“Well, Mr John Abel Wiśniewski,” Mei started, “I have got more where that came from and some stronger ones that will make you cry.”

John chuckled. “Aren’t you so sure of yourself, Miss Mei.” Then, he leaned forward and was delighted when Mei had also made a move to lean towards him as well. “Why don’t we compare at some time then?”

Mei smiled. “It would be a date then.”

On a Wednesday evening, upon a bench in Hampstead Heath, John Abel Wiśniewski could finally start to grow his love back.

This story is an unedited version as I am battling against the deadline for this piece – and still failed as I am one hour late. Thus, I am fully aware that there will be some (and hopefully, only some) mistakes in this story and I am quite happy to hear your criticisms.

For a little side project for my stories, I have decided to make these city series which will be contemporary and slice-of-life pieces that I am influenced by the workings of Banana Yoshimoto and Murakami. As you can see on my title, this is my first story for the London series. I am also thinking of an Amsterdam series and Prague series.

Apart from the huge amount of mistakes, I do hope that you enjoyed this piece and once I have collected the adequate amount of criticisms I may go back and edit this piece again.


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