What is the relationship one has with a person sitting nearby in a public place, on a train, say, or at a park? Someone you have noticed, perhaps exchanged glances with, averting your gaze and they theirs lest the proximity make both of you uncomfortable?
A ‘bench cohort’, one might call them; a ‘companion’ sounds too chummy, and ‘sharer’ implies you have something in common with them, other than a strip of manky carpet seating or a length of wood inscribed with teenagers’ names and who they fancy. I like ‘cobenchiot’, although it is, lamentably, a bit weird.
The unease felt by recognising that closeness must vary with different degrees of Englishness. Someone who is only partially English, perhaps a Spaniard who has spent ten years of their adult life working in the Home Counties among natives and has acquired some of the primness that accompanies most of our everyday encounters, might follow the protocol of ignorance that is unwittingly enforced by cobenchiots in their reasonably equidistant bottom placement.
As far as I can surmise, in places far removed from the drizzle and damp that makes us instinctively gather our gabardines around us to waterproof our backsides, the distance necessary to cause actual huffing and grave bodily squeamishness is far reduced. In India, the classic example we hear is that of women being shocked and horrified if a man touches their upper arm, and yet if you travel third (i.e. ordinary) class on a train there you are guaranteed an intimate knowledge of the person nextdoor’s body odour, and possibly also a souvenir of it to take home with you. Beats a postcard for realism, anyway.
I am intrigued by the strange, elastic quality of space that we humans like to toy with, desperate to stretch it when we feel claustrophobic, yearning to shrink it to nothing when our heart’s desire is at an unreachable, aloof distance. And the awareness of another being in our sphere of consciousness, their back, their sunburn, their perfume, their twitching as they turn a paperback page, their shoulders ebbing and flowing as they breathe – if we tune into it, without them ever cottoning on, could we know them? Know them better, even, than if we sat down at a table with a mutual friend and exchange pleasantries for half an hour over sushi?
The thought makes me reel back, hoist the No Entry flag, withdraw hastily from the threat of humanity approaching. Who’d want to be touched – emotionally, I mean (oh aren’t we such prudes!) by a stranger? Isn’t there something rather exhilarating about the naked expression we can have with someone we will never see again? And I mean that without ever leaving the park bench, without removing a single item of clothing, without any of the sordid salivary exchanges that spring to mind (oh don’t be so pure…I know you thought it, too).
A benchmate, that is the closest word I can think of to express it. We share a bench, not knowing each other’s names, family histories, favourite telly programs, breed of pet cat, hidden ambitions, proximal dentist appointments, annoying ways of never quite finishing the washing up. But we share a bench, and that is a great, deep, marvellous, expansive thing, a relationship to wonder at, a closeness to savour in its silence, a fleetingness that can teach more than thousands of sutras or years spent in prayer.
Here we are, now we are gone, and the bench is still there. Complete with ‘Kelly Luvs Graham 4 Eva, IDST.’