Two Old Men on a Bench

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166

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There were two old men sitting on a bench. They looked as if they were waiting for a bus, but when the bus went past, they were still there.
The one on the left was holding a bunch of flowers. The one on the right opened a box and held it out to his companion. It was a box of chocolates or candies, because the other man took one. He said thank you, well, you couldn’t hear him, but you saw his mouth frame the words.
The one on the right helped himself too, and shut the box.

They continued to wait, for what you couldn’t tell exactly, because another bus went by and they didn’t move.
The one with the bunch of flowers opened his bag and took out a book. First, he thumbed through the pages quickly, then he looked at the contents page and started to read.
The other one, the one with the chocolates, was staring ahead, straight in front of him. They said nothing.
A car went by. There was not really much traffic on the road, apart from a bus every quarter of an hour and that car, suddenly. But it whizzed by, without stopping, it was already gone.

The one with the chocolates nearly fell asleep. His head leaned forward slightly, then sideways. When it touched his neighbor’s shoulder, it sprang back quickly. He opened his eyes. The next moment, his head started to droop again.
The one on the left continued reading his book. He turned the pages by wetting his index finger. Occasionally he nodded or shook his head. The bunch of flowers was about to slide onto the ground. He had always looked rather uncomfortable with those flowers. He had tried putting them with their heads pointing down or on the ground against his legs and now, finally, on his knees. When his neighbor touched his shoulder with his sleeping head, he moved rather sharply, which woke the other man up. He stuck the flowers under his arm and went on reading.

Every time the bus went past, the two little old men were ready. There was no more sleeping or reading. When the bus drove off, and silence descended once more on the main road from the village, each one took up his role again. These old men were dressed as if for a celebration, with polished shoes and shabby ties. They even had a crease in their pants and frayed but perfectly ironed shirts.
They were strange, those two old men. Rather sad to look at. They did not seem to know each other, yet they looked like each other.
There are rarely many people at the bus stop. At any rate, not people who act like that, waiting for the bus and never getting on it. In any case, nobody ever gets off anymore at that quiet spot on the main road.

The answer came in a taxi which stopped right by them.
A little old lady got out of it. She was wearing a suit from another age and her shampoo and set was gleaming with lacquer.
She told the taxi to wait, at least I think she did, because she leaned over to the driver and he did not drive off.
Then she went up to the two old men who, at that point, had stood up. They looked at her and it was like the first time they had met, no one knew anybody else, and they didn’t know what to say to each other. However, one of the old men held out his bouquet and the other, his box of chocolates.
She smiled, I saw her smile and she kissed both of them. She looked at the flowers and chocolates. She stepped back a bit to get a better look.
For one of them, that was perhaps the beginning of a period of grace. For the one she took by the arm and pulled into the taxi that took them away.
For the other one, however, who remained standing, alone, on the main road, it was the end. She had preferred the chocolates.

I stood up, in my store that faces the bus stop, in my old store. I could see the man who looked frozen to the spot. I knew he would still be there in an hour, in the same position, unless he collapsed onto the bench.
I went through to the washroom at the back of the store. I did my hair again, not too much, a splash of perfume, a little lipstick, I straightened my dress. What about my gray hairs? You couldn’t really see them against the light. And in any case, given my age, I could be forgiven for having some… I stood up straight. For a little old lady, I still looked good.
I went back to the window. He was still there, immobile. It was our last chance, for both of us. There are days like this, when you don’t need to plan a meeting.
I would have said yes to the flowers.

I opened the door.

Translated by Wendy Cross

166

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