Telling Them Apart

by Barry Baldwin

The 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.

"Good afternoon, there."

"Oh, hello."

"Not a bad sort of day, is it?"


"How do you mean, no?"

The response mingled irritation with surprise: "What do you mean, what do I mean, no?"

"I was wondering about the force of your negative."

"About the force of my...?"

"Negative." 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?"

"I meant that it is not a bad sort of day. Obviously."

"Ah, so you agree with me."

"I should have thought that was quite clear."

"Not at all. Emotionally, perhaps yes. But grammatically, no. You should be more careful with your negatives."


"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.

"I'm sorry if I've offended you. I didn't mean to, you know. I got a bit carried away."

"By your interest in the weather?"

"No, by your negative. I'm afraid I tend to get a bit carried away by negatives. It come from what I do, I suppose."

"A curious enthusiasm."

"You 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?"

"Well, I could have understood your being interested in the weather. Most people are, after all."

"So you think that is the supreme sanction for one's interests?"


"Majority enthusiasm."

"What? Look here..."

"You are offended, aren't you?"

"No. It's just...well, you must admit this is a queer sort of conversation for two perfect strangers to be having."

"Why? 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?"

"Well...I mean, people do talk about the weather, don't they? It's the done thing...natural, you know."

"Is it? Who decreed that, I wonder?"

There was more emphatic rustling of newspaper.

"Why did you say we were perfect strangers, just now?"

An audible sigh: "Well, have you ever seen me before in your life?"


"And i'm quite sure I've never seen you before either."

"And you think that makes us perfect strangers?"

"What are you getting at? What else could you call us?"

"I'm 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?"

"I suppose you think it's an accident me meeting you like this?"

"Well, isn't it?"

"But 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?"

"If you put it like that. But, look here, I really would like to..."

"Read your paper?

"Yes. If I have your permission, of course."

"I'm sorry if I offended you."

"You've already said that. I am not offended, I tell you. It is simply that this whole conversation strikes me as being too..."


The man on the bench showed no frustration at having his sentence finished for him: "Yes, that's exactly it. Theatrical."

"I 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?"

"I haven't the faintest idea."

"They 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."

"Yes. There's a moral there somewhere, wouldn't you say?"

"There might very well be."

"If one knew where to look."


"Of course, where I am, one has always to be looking out for the morals."

"Where are you from, if I may ask?"

A vague gesture towards the hill overlooking the park: "Up there."

"You mean..."

"Do you know much about the theatre?"

"I don't go very often."


"Don't you mean, why not?" Caught you at your own game."

"You don't get out of it as easily as that. What have you got against the theatre?"

"I don't think that is any of your business."

"I suppose the theatre is another of those things you don't discuss with perfect strangers?"

"If 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.

"What's your name?'

The newspaper was lowered with some force. "I beg your pardon?"

"What's your name?"

"I can't see that is any of your business."

"According 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."

"If you must know, my name is Smith."

"Oh, no! Not Smith?"

"Yes, Smith. Smith. S-M-I-T-H."

"S-M-I-T-H. There's no chance that it could be Smythe?"

"What's wrong with my name, I should like to know?"

"People on park benches always turn out to be Smiths."

"The newspaper, which had been raised again, came down slowly: "How can you possibly know that?"

"Whenever I see a man on a park bench, I try to strike up a conversation. I'm interested in them."

"Park benches? That's worse than negatives."

"The 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."

"Symbol of what?

"Loneliness. 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."

"I believe there are stringent by-laws against vandalism in public parks."

"The invisible barriers. The intangible ones. You don't understand quite yet, but you would if you came from where I do."

"Up there on the hill, you mean?"

Both men gazed briefly into the distance.

"Why 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 is Smith."

"Well, cheer up. You know what they say. What's in a name?"

"A 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."

"Why don't you go away and form one, then? Here, what's your name, if I might ask?"

"Blenkinsop. BLEN-KIN-SOP. A trisyllable. Accented on the penultimate."

"Blen-KIN-sop? 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?"

"That one coming over the grass there," Smith replied, pointing in the direction from which Blenkinsop himself had first appeared.

"You 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: "Yes?"

"I'm very sorry to bother you, sir, but have you been sitting here very long?"

Smith consulted his watch in the same long-suffering way: "Long enough."

"I was wondering if you had seen anybody around here?"

"Well, 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."

"What sort of man?"

"A most peculiar one, if you must know. Bit of a rough-looking character. No collar or tie, I mean."

"I see."

"Not that he was violent or anything. But he did make me wonder a bit."

"In what way?"

"It was how he talked."

"Was he drunk?"

"He didn't smell. Not of alcohol, anyway. Though there was a sort of ...No, not drunk. It was the things he said."


"Some 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 was Smith."


"He went on as though it was a crime for anybody to be called Smith. He could talk, with a name like his."

"He told you his name, then?"

"Oh, yes. Blenkinsop. Blen-KIN-sop. I ask you."

"Blen-KIN-sop, you say? Look, do you mind if I sit down here a moment?"

"There's 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 name's Brown."

"How do you do? You know this Blenkinsop, then?"

"Yes, I know him, all right. Incidentally, I'm from..."

"That place up on the hill?"

"Do you know it?"

"No, but that other fellow, Blenkinsop, said he came from there."

Brown nodded. "So he does. So he does."

"Wait 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?"

"That's one of the new words for them, yes. We up there stick to Loony Bin."

Smith looked thoughtful: "I begin to see the picture now."

"Yes, there's been an escape. It should be in your paper."

"I haven't seen it. But then, I've had no chance to read it properly with him here talking, talking all the time."

"Yes. He would. They're like that."

"Are they?"

"There are some right cases up there."

Smith put his newspaper aside: "I suppose there must be."

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."

"The answer's obvious."

"I'm 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."

"And you are not frightened?"

"Not now."

"Good. 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?"

"All 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.

"Tell me. What sort of people are there in that place?"

"A 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."

Smith nodded.

"It 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 and deceptions."

"Aren't there any cures?"

"They 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?"

"Release him. Let him go."

"Exactly. Back into the biggest illusion of all. Life. What sort of a release is that.?"

"The open air. No walls. No cells. No barriers."

"That may be all right as far as it goes. But what about the invisible barriers?"

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...

Telling Them Apart
© 2006 by Barry Baldwin



About the Author

Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.


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