She sat on the bench looking out across the river. At her back was a strip of grass planted with plane trees. Behind that was the wall of a big house. The stone shone deep orange in the light of the setting sun. The sun was still hot, the shade dark green and dusty. An old couple walked past, slowly. He leant on her arm, leaning on her more than he leant on his cane. She measured her stronger step to his. Walking with him right up to death’s door.
The old couple stopped at the next bench and the woman helped the man to sit, holding his arm, so the back and legs bent in the right places, lowering his frailty gently until he relaxed with a sigh and sank back against the backrest. His blank eyes filled with the bright light from the sky and the peripheral glitter from the river.
She looked across the river to the trees still in the full sun, and behind them gentle hills, peaceful, vine-covered on the south side. Beyond the hills was sky. Bright, implacable and blue. The bench was at the edge of the footpath, then the bank planted with a municipal assortment of plants, then the river. The river ran. It ran brown, and its ripples caught the light and sparkled. She stared across the river, but her gaze stopped always with the sky.
Footsteps crunched on the dry earth of the footpath. Stopped. A man hovered, hesitated. Then he sat down. She turned her head.
“Evening,” he said and smiled. It was a quick smile and she didn’t see if he had nice teeth. His eyes were creased against the light; his skin was tanned. He smelled slightly of the shower.
“Evening,” she replied, and turned back to the river and the hills, the vines, the sky beyond.
“Lovely view from here,” he said, misunderstanding, and smiled again, longer this time. He had normal teeth. “Live here, do you?”
“I like looking at the countryside,” he rattled on, “but I couldn’t stand to live in it.”
She frowned. “This isn’t the countryside.”
He waved a hand in the air, encompassing everything from the litterbin next to the bench to the clear sky above the hills. “When you come from the city, it’s all countryside.”
She turned, raised an eyebrow.
“All too empty. Too quiet,” he said, and grinned again.
“Too empty?” she murmured.
He crossed his legs and settled back. “You know, Nature and all that. It’s great in documentaries, but we all need supermarkets, don’t we?” He looked at her, as if expecting to find logos for big brands appearing, sprouting from her armpits, from plastic bags stuffed under the bench, from between her teeth. Expecting her to giggle and agree. Expecting her to fall for the superior man from the capital and follow him back to his hotel like a lost dog.
“Pretty,” he went on, “but give me the Champs-Elysées any day.”
As if he owned it.
She looked across the municipal flowers, across the river at the woods, the vines on the hill, heard the hum of traffic on the road, the murmur of voices from behind the wall of the big house. She smelt the smell of the shower, the smell of car exhaust, the barbecue behind the wall. She felt the inanity of the conversation as a physical hurt.
A road ran through the woods across the river, to a town in a fold of the hills. The vines had killed the soil on the hill slopes and there were no insects, no birds to speak of. This was the city man’s countryside, a pretty, sterile desert. She looked across the flowerbeds of gaudy scentless flowers, to the river than ran brown and glittering. She looked across the hills with their well-tended vines, listened to the distant drone of traffic. She shivered and her heart longed for the quiet of a wilderness with no road to follow, no bench and no normal teeth chattering to break the silence.