As restrictions relax, our benches are returned to us. And I am happy, not just for the simple convenience they offer, but because a bench is so much more than a place to sit down.
At the beginning of lockdown, each bench was garlanded with strips of yellow tape, cordoned-off like a crime scene, and stern notices told us not to use them. Suddenly, the innocuous wooden seats scattered through our cities and around our countryside, things we’d taken for granted, walked past without a thought or sat on for as long as we liked, were off-limits. Forbidden. It seemed a loss of something intrinsically human: the ability to sit and survey the world passing-by in peace, the chance to rest inside nature, the opportunity for tranquil reflection or private conversation. In this new and frightening world, we had to avoid contact with each other at all costs, keep moving, keep going, heads down.
It seemed particularly ironic to me, because benches are at the heart of my latest novel, titled (what else!) The Bench, published in the midst of this pandemic. In my book, a particular bench on Hampstead Heath, partially shielded by dense greenery, with views across rolling hills and woodlands, acquires significance when it becomes a meeting place for two people who’d lost each other years ago; but having found each other again, discover that their lives are complicated by circumstances and other people. They make a pact to meet at their bench in ten years’ time. The simple seat is not just a wooden structure, it represents romance, loss, and hope. The plaque on the back carries potent words – brief lines that tell a love story in the time it takes a heart to skip to the next beat.
I first understood the sanctuary a bench offers when I began my first real relationship. As a teenager in a small country town back in the 80s, there was nowhere to go after the pubs shut. This only became a problem when I fell in love. He was my first real boyfriend. But neither of our respective sets of parents encouraged the relationship. We couldn’t go to our houses, we didn’t have a car, and there was no public transport. So, we walked. Luckily, it was the summer, and we walked in warm rain and under bright moonlight; we walked for hours, and often we were drawn to the river, to meander along its narrow wall. During those long hot months, it felt as though it was us against the world, star-crossed lovers adrift under a huge night sky. We discovered a bench by the tow path, and it became ‘our place.’ It was somewhere tangible, something we could make familiar, that felt safe. We sat and talked and kissed, my head on his shoulder, his arm around me. We stared at the ever-shifting water, listening to the night-time hoots and cries coming out of the darkness. We made plans on that bench. We shared dreams.
When I began to think about writing a love story, it was the memory of that bench by the river that surfaced.
In this pandemic, not being allowed to sit on benches marked the end of a common-place ‘right,’ an everyday contentment. Those yellow tapes and stern signs a reminder that we could no longer hug the people we loved. We could no longer sit close, share air-space, laugh and talk together. The calm quiet of sitting alone on a bench, looking at the world or reading a book, is very different from the smothered stillness that fell across our country at the first lockdown – a hollow silence filled with the clatter of our fear.
Benches are symbolic of waiting, of enduring as the seasons roll across them. And perhaps now they take on another meaning in the light of all that has happened since March 2020 – that ability we have to stand in all weathers, waiting out the storm, waiting for better days.
I have always been a romantic, which is why I wanted to write a love story. True love is not a static state, it requires us to be unselfish, generous, giving, forgiving and brave. The best kind of love challenges you to be the best version of yourself. And the best love stories take you through a process that’s cathartic – they make you feel deeply, they make you cry, they inspire empathy, and they nurture a belief in the greatest parts of human nature.
Love is not just love for a partner, husband or wife, but for our children, our parents and grandparents, siblings, cousins, friends and strangers. It is the thing that keeps us going, stitching us into a community, making us more than ourselves. As restrictions ease, I hope that you are able to sit with the one you love on a bench – their hand in yours, the warmth of their skin against your own. And tilting your head back, perhaps you will close your eyes, breathing in the moment, enjoying the play of the breeze, the kiss of the sun, gathering to you all the possibilities that love brings.
'With echoes of David Nicholls's One Day, this romance has just the right mix of heart-melting moments and heart-rending near misses' GOOD HOUSEKEEPING
'Intensely romantic' SUNDAY MIRROR
'Wonderful, heart-tugging' PRIMA
'Timeless and moving' HOLLY MILLER
Perfect for fans of One Day and Me Before You, this is a heartbreaking love story spanning three decades that starts and ends on a bench, by the Richard & Judy Book Club bestselling author.
It begins at the end.
It begins on a bench, on a heath, where a woman waits for a man.
Ten years ago, they made a pact:
On this bench, on this day, they will end a love affair that's spanned three decades, or start again.
They should never have met. They should never have fallen in love.
But they did, until a lie separated them for a lifetime.
Can they fix the mistake, forgive the lie, erase the years in-between?
Can what was lost ever truly be found?
Readers are falling in LOVE with The Bench . . .
'I loved this book from beginning to end' ***** Reader review
'A raw, emotional book about love in all its guises' Sun
'I cried at the end, they were happy tears!' ***** Reader review
'What an epic love story, I loved this so much' ***** Reader review
'Irresistible' Jemma Wayne
'Beautiful, painful, heart-breaking' ***** Reader review
'Honest, tender' Emma Rous
'Poignant and heart-wrenching' Mary Chamberlain
'I absolutely loved it' ***** Reader review
'Beautiful' Cecilia Ekbäck
'I fell head over heels in love with it' Fiona Mitchell
'Wonderful storytelling' ***** Reader review
'Wonderful' Lisa Ballantyne