I walked through the open cast-iron gates of the park and followed the smaller path round. It seemed to lead nowhere, but it actually curved back on itself, behind the large rhododendrons into a small hidden alcove, surrounded on all sides by oak and forsythia and buddleia. But as I followed the path to what I always thought of as my hidden place, I swept a branch out of the way and saw that there was already someone sat on the bench that was hidden in the bower. I hesitated for a moment, my need to be alone so overpowering I was ready to just turn around and go somewhere else rather than sit with someone who had invaded my space.
But, the rhododendrons were already blooming despite the chill air so I pulled the branches out of my way, and strode across the small, grassy clearing, sitting on the other end of the bench, and opening my lunchbox as aggressively as I could.
I tried to ignore the man sitting next to me, his blazer and slacks, the faint scent of whiskey that carried over to me when he coughed, and instead tried to calm down and focus on my sandwich.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man looking at me as I chewed.
“Why did the boy call his dog Sandwich?” he said.
I turned to him. My mouth was still half-full. “Sorry?”
“Why did the boy call his dog Sandwich?” he repeated.
Now that he’d stopped reading and was facing me, I could see that he had a broad grin, stretched almost painfully across his face.
“I don’t know,” I said. Surely he could tell I didn’t want to talk to him.
“Because it was half bred,” he said, then he guffawed, so heartily he spluttered and seemed to have trouble catching his breath.
I smiled weakly out of politeness, then turned the other way.
“Cheese, is it?” I heard him say. “What kind of cheese is made backwards?”
I turned to face him, my expression deliberately blank.
“Edam! Get it? Edam! “Made”, backwards!”
He picked up his own half-eaten sandwich from his lap. “Course, I get mine from the baker’s down the road. After all, five million flies can’t be wrong!”
I turned away from him, hoping that if I blatantly ignored him, he’d get the message.
“When I was in there, this fella came in for some doughnuts. The baker said, “Sorry pal. I’m fed up with the hole business!”” He started guffawing to himself again.
As I sat there forcing my sandwich into my mouth, I couldn’t believe that he thought he was funny, with his hackneyed jokes and tedious gags. I turned, ready to have a go at him when I saw his face. Every muscle seemed to twitch, his huge grin a palsied rictus. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead, and it was then that I saw a shaved patch of hair behind his left ear, in its centre a raw scar.
He must have come from a care home or something, and as annoying as he was I wasn’t going to abuse a psychiatric patient. My anger drained, and I stood up. “Have a good day, but I’ve got to go.”
I made my way towards the gap in the bushes that led to the rest of the park.
“Help me!” the man called out, his voice cracking in desperation. I turned and he was sat on the edge of the bench, his face still contorted into its beaming grin, but he was tapping his scar as if trying to tell me something. And as the man laughed I saw tears well up in his eyes and it’s then that it finally clicked. This guy had had a Humour-chip fitted. But judging from the end result, far from becoming an urbane wit, a latter day Oscar Wilde, he must have gone to Turkey or Poland or somewhere to get it installed cheaper, and been burned by some cowboy fitters. I’d heard stories of it going wrong of course, but the only evidence I’d ever seen were Saturday night BBC Variety show presenters.
As I went back to the bench I couldn’t help but peer at his head. “You’ve had a Humour-chip put in?”
“Y-yes,” he stammered, tears rolling down his cheeks. He reached into the carrier bag and took out a half-drunk bottle of whisky. “What drinks do you get at a ghost’s party?” he said, quietly. “Spirits……”
And as he started to laugh, a desperate howl rose simultaneously from the back of his throat. He slumped forwards and like a child, vainly tried to pull his smile down with his hand.
“Hey, relax,” I said. “Deep breaths.”
He looked up at me, and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Thank you….. You…..your name?”
“Edward,” I replied.
Then, he sat up and I could almost hear the chip “ping!” in his head.
“What do you call a man with a piece of wood on his head?” His desperate eyes darted frantically above his grin. “Edward!”
There was nothing I could do for him. I turned to leave.
“What do you call a man with three pieces of wood on his head? Edward Woodward!”
I could hear him spouting his puerile bollocks as I walked away. He acted as if everything, everything was hilarious.
“What do you call a man with a seagull on his head? Cliff!”
And yet, he was desperately unfunny. And the tragic thing was, he knew it.
And as I pushed the branches out of the way, I turned to him and said, “What do you call a man with a piece of silicon in his head?”
He thought for a moment, the tears still running down his face, his grin rigid on his face.
“Chip,” I said simply.
And as I walked away I heard his roars of laughter, and between each guffaw a desolate wail, preserved in the frosty air, as it echoed around the boundaries of the park.
– James Burr
Copyright James Burr 2017
James Burr has had many short stories published in novellas, journals and Independent Press magazines, including Suspect Thoughts, Darkness Rising, Bizarro Central, Raw Edge, and Ideomancer. His first collection of short stories, Ugly Stories for Beautiful People was published in 2007. A full publishing history and list of reviews can be found at http://www.james-burr.co.uk/.