In the park

I’d seen her many times before, not every day, but often enough for me to notice her. She usually sat on the same bench, an older woman with dyed black hair, her pale face wrinkled and inscrutable. She nearly always wore a dark purple hat, a soft knitted thing and from a distance I’d thought at first it was her hair which was purpl. She sat as if meditating, her gloved hands on her trousered knees, looking straight ahead across the well worn park grass.

The grass suffered from people playing football, from dogs racing round like mad things. from children and youths on bikes even though bike riding was forbidden, and from the municipal garden’s popularity. On the whole it was a friendly park; when I took my perambulation, not every day but most days, other strollers would nod and smile or exchange a few words, mostly about the weather.  Much more pleasant today, isn’t it? Quite a sharp wind despite the sunshine! The rain seems to be holding off, doesn’t it? I hear snow is forecast! 

In the summer people would lie on the grass, or sit on rugs, sometimes with picnics, or with ice-creams bought from the energetic and cheerful lady who peddled a bicycle with a chill box on the front selling cold drinks, lollies and ices.   Parents would come with their babies in prams and toddlers toddling, and sometimes at lunchtimes they would bring their young children from the school opposite the park gates on the east side, for a quick picnic. After school would be the time for older children, and as evening approached teenagers would come on their bikes and hang out or play football.

But summer or winter, in the sunshine or beneath cloudy skies, older people like the lady with the purple hat, would enjoy the park, admiring the municipal flower beds, commenting on the trees – the leaves are beginning to bud, springtime – the leaves are such a lovely bright colour, the trees are beginning to suffer in this dry weather, ah, I see the leaves are beginning to turn. The lady in the purple hat never seemed to notice the leaves, she just sat, staring into space. Occasionally I saw her walking slowly into the park; if someone was sitting on ‘her’ bench, she would sit on another near by. I never saw her get up and move to her bench if it was vacated, but on the other hand, I didn’t hang around watching her either.

Actually, I didn’t hang around watching her at all,  I just noticed her as I strolled around as I noticed other ‘regulars’. Nor did I follow her when she left her bench even though I was intrigued by her for some strange reason. She always wore the same jacket, an old-lady sort of waterproof jacket, a dark lilac colour which I guess co-ordinated with her hat,  and she always wore old-lady trousers, dark colours mostly but she did have a dark red pair and a dark green pair, which didn’t quite cover her shiny black shoes.

She could have been any age really from mid-fifties to her eighties. I guess she was nearer the older end, her pale inscrutable face gave nothing away. I never saw anyone speaking to her, and I did on occasion wonder if she was really there or just a ghost – but of course I’m being fanciful, she was a real person, who started when a frisky dog unexpectedly barked, and who stepped aside as a child pushed past on a little scooter, or walked round a fallen branch across the path.

I realised I hadn’t seen her for quite a few days. As I mentioned, she didn’t come every day, but when it seemed like a week since I had last seen her I felt slightly and unaccountably anxious. I started to visit the park at different times, I saw other ‘regular’ visitors but not her, not on her bench or any other.

Maybe she was ill, maybe she was on holiday – but I never went away on holiday and I walked in the park most days and I had never not seen her. Maybe – oh dear, no! Maybe she had died! I reasoned that maybe her circumstances had changed and for whatever reason, she had moved away, or moved into sheltered accommodation, or moved into an old folks home, or a care home. I couldn’t shake the thought that she had died. I knew nothing about her at all, there was no-one I could ask, but now my walks round the park seemed less enjoyable.

One day I noticed  small bouquet of flowers propped up on another bench, the one by the fish pond in the corner surrounded by flower beds. There was a tag attached, ‘In memory of dear old Bill, who loved to sit here watching the fish and feeding the pigeons. With fond memories, Elsie and Marj.” I vaguely remembered a stout old fellow who used to sit on the bench here, but I knew nothing about him. On another day I noticed another small posy with a similar tag in memory of Hilary who loved this park.

It took me a while to think of what to write on the gift label of the flowers I had bought. It was rather silly actually, In the end, I wrote a plain ‘In memory’.

I walked through the old park gates, past the fish pond, beneath the trees bereft of leaves, and with a curious feeling of real sorrow for an old soul who I didn’t know and didn’t know anything about.

But there she was! Sitting as usual on her bench, hands on green trousered knees, her dark lilac jacket dimpled with tiny spots of rain, her hat pulled down the same as ever, hiding her ears and blending with her hair. I stopped in front of her and looked at her as I never had before. She lifted her head slightly to look at me, no doubt wondering who I was and why I was staring at her.

I handed her the small bunch of flowers which she accepted graciously but in some puzzlement.

“Welcome back,” I said because it seemed odd not to say anything.

“Bolshoi spasibo,” she replied hesitantly.

“You’re welcome,” and somewhat embarrassed I gave a sort of smile and turned and walked away.


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