I arrive, as usual, with my gleaming parcel of tin foil packed tight into my lunchbox, and an old flask discovered quite recently, in the back of a cupboard. I venture into the park every day to eat my lunch, allowing myself a sojourn from my one-bedroomed flat. I pass the curious oriel that sits on the side of the café building and walk down the steps. I miss the warm innards of the park café. A slice of chocolate cake and a strong coffee might bring an impromptu chat with the friendly stranger at the next table. But not at the moment. At the moment, I have only my seat next to the willow tree. I smile when I see it’s empty. I crave company, but company disturbs me. Above me, the willow’s tendrils hang ragged, like a head of freshly washed hair. It’s cold, and when I reach my seat, I wrap my coat around my legs. There is an air of hibernation about the park today, or perhaps that’s everywhere, I’m not sure. I stare at the screen of my mobile. I have exactly one hour before I have to return to the bigger screen that will replace it. In fact, it replaces everything. Shopping, my family, an intimate discussion over a glass of wine. I am so lonely; sometimes it’s hard to carry on.
My eyes scan the park; I’m struggling to see another human being. The roof of the dovecote that lies within the mock Tudor lych-gate is as usual, stapled with white doves. And behind me, the tennis courts yawn with boredom. I miss the laughter, the energetic grunts, the clunk of the balls hitting the rackets. My only companion is a duck, who lies by the lake, and is a perfect replica of the one on the windowsill in my flat. I unpick the silver foil and it catches the eye of the winter sunshine, flashing with a thousand diamonds. I dig deep and pick out a sandwich. The seat dips unexpectedly. I look up and see that a man has placed himself at the very end. I find myself gauging the distance from my body to his – something I subconsciously do all the time. I sneak a glance. He’s an elderly gentleman. His overcoat seems a little too big for him, and his neck is nowhere to be seen. He has wisps of thin grey hair and an old moustache, and such a bend to his spine that he cannot sit straight-backed on the bench. He glances at me and I look away, embarrassed.
‘Hello,’ he says.
‘Hello,’ I reply, my sandwich poised at my lips.
‘Lovely day,’ he continues.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Do you like this bench?’ he asks.
I manage a nod.
‘I do, too. I’ve been coming here for years. With the wife, of course.’
‘Right,’ I say.
He stares at me, searching for my eyes, and I have no option but to swallow the juices in my mouth and return the sandwich to the foil.
‘Childhood sweethearts, we were. We came to this park all the time. It was different, then.’
’Was it?’ I find myself asking.
He smiles. ‘Oh, yes. You could go boating on the lake, and there was an outdoor swimming pool. Mind you, you, it was fit to freeze you – but you could swim all day for fourpence, and nobody bothered you. Are you all alone?’ he adds, quickly.
His question takes my breath away. I wonder if there is something in my facial expression, or even my attire, that could bring a total stranger to this rapid conclusion. To my horror, I begin to cry.
‘I know,’ he says. ‘It’s hard, isn’t it?’ He pauses. ‘Have you seen the statue of Mercury?’ He slowly removes his hands from his pockets and points to beyond the lych-gate.
I wipe my eyes. ‘Of course, loads of times,’ I reply.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘But looking is different to seeing. You go and have a proper look at Mercury. He looks as if he’s by himself, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I answer. ‘I suppose he does.’
He places his hands on his overcoat. ‘Well, he’s not,’ he replies. ‘And neither are you. The birds will be nesting soon, and the buds will come. This whole place will be filled with daffodils.’ He laughs to himself. ‘I’ve seen so many terrible things in my life, and people said they’d never end – but they did. There’s always a way out…you’re obviously a special young lady,’ he adds.
‘No, I’m not,’ I say.
‘Of course, you are,’ he replies, nodding. ‘And you will find your way out of this.’ He claps his hands. ‘Never give up, that’s my motto.’ He looks to his right, and I look too, but there is nothing.
‘I have to go, now,’ he says. ‘She’s here.’
‘Who is?’ I ask.
The old man rises quietly from the seat. Around him, a mist is gathering. It’s approaching quickly, as if its journey has already been planned. He’s no longer alone; a woman has taken his arm. He seems taller, and his strides out, strong and purposeful. I watch as the mist engulfs them.
I leave my lunchbox and flask on the seat and run over the humpback bridge, through the lych-gate. A couple of doves shuffle around the entrance, and their wings flap nervously as my boots fly past. The statue is in front of me now, and I when I stand on the edge of the stone border and lean precariously over the slice of water, I notice for the first time, that Mercury’s foot rests on the head of another God, whose breath is shooting him skywards. And his arm is held in an upwards position, the finger pointing high into the blue.
I lift my own arm to emulate this messenger of the Gods. ‘It will end!’ I shout. ‘Tomorrow will be a good day!’