man was sitting by himself on a bench in a secluded area
of the park. Youngish-looking, pleasant if undistinguished
features. A quiet gray suit, a white business shirt, and
a dark tie held in place by a gold pin at the collar,
a sensible distance from the Adam's apple. Not too lomg
ago, there might have been a bowler hat. He was just finishing
a lunch of sandwiches. An unopened newspaper reposed at
his side. He looked relaxed and content with his own company.
A second man came into view across the grass. This one
was large, and obviously older. He had on a blue, open-necked
shirt and fawn trousers. His plentiful hair was tousled
though not unkempt. He seemed agitated and out of breath,
as though he was looking for someone or something.
He stopped when he saw the bench. Its occupant was now
engrossed in folding up the pieces of paper which had
contained his lunch and depositing them ritually in a
waste paper bin beside him. He had not noticed the newcomer.
After completing his task, he rubbed his hands with precision,
and made to pick up his newspaper. At this point, the
second man advanced cautiously towards the bench. Aware
of him now, the other eyed him briefly, then took up his
newspaper in a manner calculated to discourage the opening
of any conversation. However, before he could unfold it,
the stranger spoke.
a bad sort of day, is it?"
do you mean, no?"
The response mingled irritation with surprise: "What
do you mean, what do I mean, no?"
was wondering about the force of your negative."
the force of my...?"
The man sounded anything but. "When you said no,
were you agreeing with my proposition that it is not a
bad sort of day, or were you rejecting it?"
meant that it is not a bad sort of day. Obviously."
so you agree with me."
should have thought that was quite clear."
at all. Emotionally, perhaps yes. But grammatically, no.
You should be more careful with your negatives."
are very important things in one's life, that's why. So
are emotions, of course. I wasn't implying that...but
negatives, they are the things, you should never trifle
with your negatives."
There was an impatient rustling of newspaper.
sorry if I've offended you. I didn't mean to, you know.
I got a bit carried away."
your interest in the weather?"
by your negative. I'm afraid I tend to get a bit carried
away by negatives. It come from what I do, I suppose."
think so? I suppose if it had been the weather I was carried
away by, you wouldn't have thought it the least bit funny?"
I could have understood your being interested in the weather.
Most people are, after all."
you think that is the supreme sanction for one's interests?"
are offended, aren't you?"
It's just...well, you must admit this is a queer sort
of conversation for two perfect strangers to be having."
Are there formal rules laid down for the type of conversation
perfect strangers, as you call us, should have? Why is
it acceptable to converse about the weather, but quite
wrong for us to ponder negatives?"
mean, people do talk about the weather, don't they? It's
the done thing...natural, you know."
it? Who decreed that, I wonder?"
There was more emphatic rustling of newspaper.
did you say we were perfect strangers, just now?"
An audible sigh: "Well, have you ever seen me before
in your life?"
i'm quite sure I've never seen you before either."
you think that makes us perfect strangers?"
are you getting at? What else could you call us?"
sorry. It's just that you seem to live by fixed distinctions.
You have fixed topics of conversation. You have fixed
ideas about who are your friends and who are perfect strangers."
A pause. "Is there anything wrong with that?"
suppose you think it's an accident me meeting you like
it would be just as much an accident us not meeting. Far
more so, in fact. Look at it this way. The accident of
us meeting can only happen once. But the accident of us
not meeting, when you work it out, that adds up to infinity
minus one, doesn't it?"
you put it like that. But, look here, I really would like
If I have your permission, of course."
sorry if I offended you."
already said that. I am not offended, I tell you. It is
simply that this whole conversation strikes me as being
The man on the bench showed no frustration at having his
sentence finished for him: "Yes, that's exactly it.
remember seeing a play once which had a setting just like
this. It was an American play. I can't remember the author's
name. You never do, do you?" The man did not wait
for an answer to this. "There was this bench in Central
Park. That's in New York, you know. There was a man on
this bench, by himself, reading a book. It turned out
that he was called Peter. A saintly sort of name, don't
you think? Another man came on to the scene and tried
to strike up a conversation. He was called Jerry. I don't
know what sort of a name you would call that. Anyway,
Peter didn't want to talk, but Jerry kept on and on and
on, and do you know what happened eventually?"
haven't the faintest idea."
began to quarrel, and Jerry pulled out a knife and suggested
they fight for the right to sit on the bench, and they
fought and somehow Peter managed to get hold of the knife
and Jerry died."
The man on the bench seemed unperturbed by this violent
turn to the conversation: 'Really."
There's a moral there somewhere, wouldn't you say?"
might very well be."
one knew where to look."
course, where I am, one has always to be looking out for
are you from, if I may ask?"
A vague gesture towards the hill overlooking the park:
you know much about the theatre?"
don't go very often."
you mean, why not?" Caught you at your own game."
don't get out of it as easily as that. What have you got
against the theatre?"
don't think that is any of your business."
suppose the theatre is another of those things you don't
discuss with perfect strangers?"
you must know, I don't care for it very much, It's too..."
There was a mutual pause. The man on the bench carefully
unfolded his newspaper, turning it back to open at the
centre pages, and ostentatiously lifted it to cover his
face. The other man looked at him, then glanced around
the park before he resumed staring.
The newspaper was lowered with some force. "I beg
can't see that is any of your business."
to you, nothing is any of my business. I just thought
that, since you object to discussing things with perfect
strangers, you might prefer to get down to a name basis."
you must know, my name is Smith."
no! Not Smith?"
Smith. Smith. S-M-I-T-H."
There's no chance that it could be Smythe?"
wrong with my name, I should like to know?"
on park benches always turn out to be Smiths."
newspaper, which had been raised again, came down slowly:
"How can you possibly know that?"
I see a man on a park bench, I try to strike up a conversation.
I'm interested in them."
benches? That's worse than negatives."
men, not the benches. Not that park benches aren't interesting
in themselves. Men sitting on park benches. Sitting, that
is. Not men who lie on park benches. They represent something
quite different. I see men sitting on park benches as
a sort of symbol."
Despair. Lucifer fell from Heaven, almost. Adam expelled
from the Garden. You may think this is very boastful,
but I always have the feeling I can do something for such
people. If I can only break down the barriers."
believe there are stringent by-laws against vandalism
in public parks."
invisible barriers. The intangible ones. You don't understand
quite yet, but you would if you came from where I do."
there on the hill, you mean?"
Both men gazed briefly into the distance.
are the invisible barriers the hardest to break down?
Because nobody knows they are there. Or, if they are aware
of them, who put them there. Or why. Take ourselves. I
can see that you are really more interested in that newspaper,
but that doesn't put me off. I've stood here very patiently
for some time now. And you sit there telling me your name
cheer up. You know what they say. What's in a name?"
cheap evasion, coined by a man called Smith. I swear to
God, if there was a Society for the Prevention of Men
Called Smith, I'd stand for President."
don't you go away and form one, then? Here, what's your
name, if I might ask?"
BLEN-KIN-SOP. A trisyllable. Accented on the penultimate."
And you talk about my name. You ask anybody which name
they think the funny one, which do you think they'd say?
It would be yours every time. Let's ask that chap."
Blenkinsop looked around quickly: "What chap?"
one coming over the grass there," Smith replied,
pointing in the direction from which Blenkinsop himself
had first appeared.
ask him. I'll be over there." Blenkinsop got himself
over to a clump of thick bushes and dove down behind them.
What an extraordinary fellow. Blenkinsop indeed. Well,
peace at last. Once again Smith held the newspaper up
in front of his face.
The third man was an elderly figure, wearing a white jacket,
light trousers, white shirt, and black tie. He approached
the bench decisively: "Excuse me, sir."
Smith lowered his paper with an obtruded air of martyrdom:
very sorry to bother you, sir, but have you been sitting
here very long?"
Smith consulted his watch in the same long-suffering way:
was wondering if you had seen anybody around here?"
there was no one when I came. That's why I sat down here."
This was said in a meaningful tone. "But there was
a man here until a minute ago."
sort of man?"
most peculiar one, if you must know. Bit of a rough-looking
character. No collar or tie, I mean."
that he was violent or anything. But he did make me wonder
was how he talked."
didn't smell. Not of alcohol, anyway. Though there was
a sort of ...No, not drunk. It was the things he said."
stuff about negatives being important, and the theatre,
and invisible barriers. I couldn't follow him at all.
And then he got all worked up when I told him my name
went on as though it was a crime for anybody to be called
Smith. He could talk, with a name like his."
told you his name, then?"
yes. Blenkinsop. Blen-KIN-sop. I ask you."
you say? Look, do you mind if I sit down here a moment?"
plenty of room. He could have sat down if he'd liked,
but he never did."
The newcomer sat down. "Thank you. By the way, my
do you do? You know this Blenkinsop, then?"
I know him, all right. Incidentally, I'm from..."
place up on the hill?"
you know it?"
but that other fellow, Blenkinsop, said he came from there."
Brown nodded. "So he does. So he does."
a minute." It was as though a light bulb had gone
on inside Smith's head. "Isn't that place what they
call a Retreat?"
one of the new words for them, yes. We up there stick
to Loony Bin."
Smith looked thoughtful: "I begin to see the picture
there's been an escape. It should be in your paper."
haven't seen it. But then, I've had no chance to read
it properly with him here talking, talking all the time."
He would. They're like that."
are some right cases up there."
Smith put his newspaper aside: "I suppose there must
Brown looked around with studied casualness: "Where
did he go?"
Smith indicated the clump of bushes: "He nipped off
as soon as I saw you coming. When I said we should ask
you which was the funnier name, Smith or Blenkinsop."
glad you think so." Smith looked expectantly. Brown
did not answer. Instead, he asked, "You aren't in
a hurry, are you?"
Smith inspected his watch elaborately: "I could stay
for another ten minutes or so."
you are not frightened?"
Let's keep talking. I can keep an eye open from here.
There are two other men with me. They'll be here in a
few minutes, they're looking at every bench and behind
every bush. When they get here, I'll jump up and suprise
him. All right?"
right. I say, this is quite exciting. Mind you, I knew
there was something queer about him before he opened his
mouth. You can always tell, can't you?"
Brown said nothing.
me. What sort of people are there in that place?"
pretty mixed bunch. Some are always crying, saying they're
being persecuted. Others think they are Prime Minister
or what not. Some want to die, others don't want to live;
there's a difference there. And we've got the usual crop
of those who think they are God. Of course, you find plenty
of those outside the place as well, if you get my meaning."
would make a change to have a few gods thinking they were
men. Original forms of lunacy seem to be running out.
All these poor devils shouting at you and trying to make
out they are God Almighty when all the time you know they're
not even capable of being real people. It would be a lot
easier if one could believe in other men's delusions.
But up there it's very hard to believe in one's own self-deceptions.
And yet it's quite impossible to carry on without illusions
there any cures?"
keep experimenting. Shock treatments. Operations. Drugs.
Nothing works. In any case, what does it mean, cure? You
change somebody. You stop him believing something. You
play God with a scalpel or a piece of electrical apparatus
or a pill bottle. If you did that outside those walls,
you'd be arrested. And what would you do afterwards?"
him. Let him go."
Back into the biggest illusion of all. Life. What sort
of a release is that.?"
open air. No walls. No cells. No barriers."
may be all right as far as it goes. But what about the
Smith gave him a different kind of look: "Invisible
barriers? But that's what he was on about. Blenkinsop."
Brown smiled. "Maybe illusions become a bit tangled
up there eventually."
Smith jumped up: "Your men are here."
Brown was on his feet as well. "God, let me get over
there." He charged across to the bushes. Sounds of
a violent struggle broke out. Brown's two men came up
panting. "Over there. He's found him."
They moved across quickly, without a word, and vanished
behind the bushes. Smith stood gazing after them. Presently,
the men re-appeared, dragging Brown with them Blenkinsop
followed, brushing himself down. "Take him away,
and put him behind visible barriers this time." They
started to retreat over the grass, leading a now docile
Brown with them. Smith turned to stare at Blenkinsop.
Blenkinsop chuckled: "Of course. You thought I was
the one who had escaped. And it seems it was the nice
Mr Brown, after all. That's what comes of breaking your
rule. Taling to perfect strangers. And about invisible
barriers and illusions, too. Tut, tut. I should have let
you read your paper, shouldn't I? You had me all weighed
up. And Mr Brown as well. A nice piece of theatrical theatre,
wasn't it? You believed what you thought you understood.
Mr Smith on the park bench, deciding who was what. Go
back to your newspaper, Mr Arbiter Smith."
Blenkinsop turned abruptly and started off after the others.
Smith looked after him until he had gone out of sight,
then slowly resumed his position on the bench. He glanced
down at his paper, not picking it up, visualising another
story, his lips moving slightly as one hand caressed the
much-used something in his pocket: Police are searching
for a man who broke out of a city institution for the
criminally insane. They describe him as youngish-looking
with pleasant features, wearing a gray suit, a white shirt,
and a dark tie with gold pin...