A considerable amount of time has now elapsed since the publishing of my field notes from Sevilla. Over 10 weeks have gone by without me uttering a single word.
To be completely candid, I feel shame. It’s only now, upon penning this truth that I realise what an inordinate period has transpired without any output whatsoever; by far the longest break in the timeline since this project’s inception.
One of the reasons for this gaping hole in the scheme of things is that during this period I was working as a teacher at a summer camp in Hertfordshire for 6 weeks. I was a teacher of English amongst other things, but there was one field of academia which I did not get the chance to teach, to no end of regret: the sage wisdom of bench-sitting.
I shan’t divulge the name of the institution at which I was a resident as well as a teacher for those long 6 weeks, but I will divulge this: I sincerely hope that this school is not an accurate metric for the current state of the schooling system in the United Kingdom.
On the surface, this school appears to have everything one could hope for to propagate the brightest minds of the next generation: well equipped classrooms, a wealth of sports facilities, good catering, and an accumulation of teaching resources which would make Yoda blush, and possibly emit some disgruntledly muddled oration about funding cuts at the Jedi Academy.
Yet despite this bounty of scholarly delights, my insides were turned to stone upon catching a glimpse of the feeble excuses for benches which they have teasingly scattered around the grounds of the estate. And this is an estate, make no mistake about that; this is a school catering to the privileged ivory tower-dwellers of tomorrow. This is a fact which is plainly reflected in the cost of tuition.
The fees for regular term-time subordinates are in excess of £10,000 a term. Ten-thousand pounds! You would think that for that kind of money it would be feasible—if not downright obligatory—to find a few lengths of ply, a handful of nails, and cobble them together in a comfortable way. To place it adorning a scenic overlook with both substance and style. But no. Evidently, the powers that be at The Sadist’s School for Boys couldn’t manage such a task. The benches they did have were either slanted too far forward—making them useless as oases of comfort—or picnic benches: a bench designed for eating, not for serious contemplating. Just a simple rock would have been enough, at least then pupils could emulate “the thinker” and start their bench education off with a bit of history and culture. But there wasn’t one to be seen anywhere, it’s a disgrace to the notion of education.
That kind of offering is not becoming of an establishment which fancies itself as a centre for high learning. Either through incompetence or sheer a lack of compassion, that school is a prison for the enlightened man and boy alike.
If I haven’t done so already let me make myself absolutely clear right now: the bench situation disgusted me. But, being both paid and contractually obliged, I thought it best to crack on with the job at hand, and not allow myself to be bogged down by sacrosanct ideals. It is regretful, but as we are starkly reminded by the pertinacity of the oldest profession; there is very little that one cannot be made to do for the promise of a few coins, especially when one finds themselves lacking them.
I was resigned to play the whore for now. My inner partisan would have to remain quiet for the time being, but there would be another time and another place to fight this battle.
Upon starting my contract, not only did I find myself living as a teacher of fortune, but I also found there to be a great deal of restrictions on my movements. Due to the hectic schedule I was now shackled into keeping for those 6 long weeks, there would be scarcely any time to leave the grounds of the school and go out hunting for benches. That would be a challenge in itself. Let alone finding a bench-worthy of my time, letting it take me on a journey into the cerebral-ether, and then thereafter writing up my findings into a 2000-2500 word odyssey worthy of your time or your attention.
This obstacle seemed substantial, and I wrestled with the dilemma internally for most of the first week at camp. I would lie awake at night staring at the ceiling. Writhing and sweating from the effects of a prolonged bench-withdrawal syndrome. I knew that this situation couldn’t possibly continue, and on one particularly rainy and torturous Wednesday evening, I set about plotting my escape.
As luck would have it, I’ve always been a fantastic liar, and the very next day I began sewing the first seeds of an elusive gambit. A manoeuvre which would ultimately grant me an entire afternoon of opportunity and emancipation, so I could scurry off into London and quench my thirst for bench.
I can’t remember what the lie was exactly. I believe it was some old shit about my aunt being in London for the weekend and wanting to catch up. No matter; the inspired intricacies of the ruse are not important. What is important is that my unsuspecting superiors were fooled with remarkable ease. They actually seemed pleased for me. They even wished me a safe journey, and a good day into the bargain. A more empathetic person may have felt bad for misleading them, but at this point, any of the milk of human kindness left in my body had long since curdled into soggy wet lumps. After such a long period of detachment from the replenishing aura of a sturdy bench, I was more monster than man. This was no longer an excursion of folly; this was a matter of life and death.
That day was a slow day. You have to make your own fun somehow.
So it was that I found myself in Central London, curiously wandering down one of its many high streets. It’s a testament to the cuisine in Spain that upon spotting a local branch of KFC, I realised that I hadn’t even had the opportunity to sample their infamously fried chicken for over 7 months. I also realised this: I hadn’t even wanted to.
Now, I’m no fool. I’ve known for many years that KFC is not ‘good food’ despite what their slogans might inversely claim. This is brought back to me every time temptation befalls me and my strength of character falters in tandem. I know all too well what it’s like to indulge in a solitary bucket of fried consolation in the hope that it might just make all those tears and fears go away.
This is, of course, a fallacy. I know this now and I knew it then. Yet standing there on the high street (I had already been stopped in my tracks upon sight of the brazen facade) I was being tempted to the core.
I juggled with the notion in my mind:
Should I do this to myself?
Surely I’ve grown accustomed to better than this?
The answers to these questions seemed so simple and obvious, but KFC has always had this effect on me: maybe this time it’ll be different…
I didn’t even want to risk going through the door. I was sure that upon entry I would be greeted by a gurning member of their propagandising sales team, whose cheery demeanour and overly jovial tone would soon have me convinced that buying a bargain bucket was exactly what I wanted to do. I’d then be powerless to stop myself diving head first down that 10 piece rabbit hole yet again. In every reality, this would be a complete disaster.
Firstly I was alone, which meant that I would, of course, be eating the whole 10 piece bucket myself. I’m not a man of many principles, but one which I do live by is that I will not allow good food to go to waste. And my definition of ‘good food’ in this instance is probably very different to your own. In fact, it’s different to my own definition which I alluded to in an earlier paragraph. In this iteration, ‘good food’ just means it’s still medically edible and doesn’t have things crawling on it, that’s about it.
Some of you may wonder why—if this is of such concern to me—I don’t just not order a 10 piece bucket and choose something else on the menu instead. And in response to those of you who posit that idea, I put it to you, that you clearly don’t understand how KFC works.
Secondly, it was now 3:30 pm. Which would basically render the rest of the day a right-off if I did end up reaching the bottom of that bucket. For those of you that don’t know, upon completion of a whole KFC bargain bucket you’re rewarded with far more than just an immense feeling of personal achievement. There’s also an invariably unrelenting desire to seek out a soft prone position, and revel in your own gluttony for about 7-8 hours until the internal marinade of shame has had time to digest itself out of physical memory.
These were the facts that raced through my mind as I considered how I was going to approach the dilemma of being out on the street having spotted a branch of KFC.
In retrospect, I can’t remember if I considered this on the pavement, on my way over the road, whilst passing through the door, or after having already sauntered up to the counter. It’s all a bit of a blur, but what I do remember is that as I came to standing there, I saw with my own eyes that I’d had nothing to fear. One glance at the interior of the restaurant and it hit me how naive I’d been, indeed how little I remembered of KFC restaurants in general (even now describing KFC as a restaurant just feels wrong).
I was expecting regret, sure. It’s KFC. But I expected the regret to be my own; 30 minutes down the line, once I was breathing heavily and slouched in a dingy corner. But if there was regret to be seen anywhere it was in the eyes of the employees serving behind the counter. On the contrary to smiling at me, they looked palpably angry to have seen my come in. As I stood in line waiting to join the fray, I took in their miserable demeanours. Their resigned dead eyes, their tragically stained hats, their general apathy about anything going on around them. After observing them for a short while I suddenly came to understand their situation.
Their very employment and subsequent commitment to this miserable existence relied on patrons such as me. They knew that their only possible escape from that fry kitchen-nightmare was for the joint to go out of business. They themselves didn’t have the financial freedom to throw in the towel that would ultimately set them free. Such an act of defiance would leave them equally helpless at the same time. They were in a catch-22 situation.
I too have known the horrors of low-income drudgery. So I know from personal experience that as much as you may want to quit at the time, such draining, meaningless work quickly kills off most of your self-esteem and motivation.
I felt for these people. If quitting wasn’t a viable option, they could be there forever save some intervening miracle or act of God. They’d need someone with experience of escaping this nightmare. Someone to step in and unburden them from their servitude. To lead them out in search of greener pastures: a proverbial Chicken-Moses. Perhaps it could be so. If given the freedom of wandering in the desert of free marketeering, just maybe they could find a job working in a slightly more up-market chicken establishment. Maybe Nando’s or Chicken Cottage. I understood their pain, and I understood the dream. Maybe I could be their Moses. Just maybe, I was the one who could save them.
Alas, it was not to be. The temptation was too great, I was quickly overcome. My inner Moses was vanquished by a devilish desire for crispy skinned sin. The red mist descended and I demanded chicken; I needed chicken. In fact, I’m sure that if a pyramid of chicken hadn’t been delivered to me as it was, I would’ve taken up the whip myself. This is what KFC does to me, it brings out the evil that lies within.
That being said, in the moment it felt like such a sweet victory being handed that greasy bucket of fried gold. I carried it over to a table aloft, to the (this now in my head) applause of my fellow diners. They knew all too well what I was embarking upon, and they were behind me every step of the way. They’d all been there before and they’d be there again, they were battle-hardened veterans just like me.
I am the villain of this story. The chicken-crazed monster. That bucket stood no chance whatsoever. I consider it a miracle that I came through it untainted by the darkness. The fact that I didn’t is nothing but an attestation to the sanctity of the hero in this story. The humble hero.
For any danger that I might have been in whilst consuming that bucket was counteracted by the guardian angel I found myself sitting on. I see it as no coincidence that I ended up sat on a bench in that restaurant. There were chairs aplenty; I could have sat on any one of them. And I’m sure that if I had done I wouldn’t be writing this account now. A much darker fate would have befallen me on that sullen afternoon.
But I didn’t sit on a chair, I sat on a bench. A crappy, plastic KFC bench yes; I concede that. But a bench nonetheless. The bench that saved my life. I see it as an act of fate. My muscle memory kicked in, even after the chicken-coloured demon had ensnared me, tainted me, attempted to take me as one of its own. My bench-trained mind guided me to safety like an organically integrated autopilot.
It’s the reason that I’m still here today.
I am now in eternal debt to the benches of the world, and as repayment, I will continue to do my good work in their service from now until the end of time. It is the least I can do, and the noblest cause I can think of.
Maybe I am like Moses after all. Not a Chicken-Moses, but a Moses of the Holy Bench. I like the sound of that, it has a good ring to it. I will find the promised land; within it the promised bench, and I will set my arse down upon it. And you will see, they will all see… that it was, is, and will continue to be…good.
You have been reading: Thoughts on Benches.
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And remember, as always.
Please remain seated, and please remain in thought…