Mary Bacon glances furtively around to check that no one else can be seen this end of the park. She enters the children’s play area through the low black-railed gate, pushing it to behind her. Gives a small satisfied nod as the latch-bar settles into its keep with its familiar tune.
It’s important to know that she’s safe inside this large cage with its low, spaced railings keeping dangers out, not in. At the same time she’s able to survey almost the entire park, down the hill beyond the line of sycamores and limes, towards the stretch of grass and the bandstand’s blue dome.
She stands beside the slide-cum-climbing frame and the rectangle of musical tiles, in front of a solitary bench (also black-painted) and proceeds to take from her raincoat pocket a folded plastic supermarket bag which she spreads before her on the seat. From the scuffed vinyl bag she has with her she retrieves her glasses case, a copy of yesterday’s Daily Mail rescued from a litter bin and the sandwich she’s just bought from the bottom shop, where the owner, Rajif, always gives a few pennies discount.
She sits down on the plastic, opens the case, puts on the glasses, then spreads out the paper on the bench to one side of her, using the case as a paperweight against the ruffle of breeze that already begins to play with the news sheets and the curls of her grey hair.
Another furtive glance around, then she tugs at the plastic strip that covers her sandwich and takes it out of its box, holding it up in both hands like a squirrel, her slight, round shoulders hunched, sniffing its eggy flavours, before nibbling into it. A school day, mid-week, a lovely early breath of summer, scarcely a soul around, no dogs, even young children a rarity at this time of day. She is Queen of the Park.
Mary glances down at the headlines, then peers over the rim of her glasses as she nibbles and chews and checks for people. A man in a business suit carrying a briefcase strides past the cage. A young woman wearing mules, a small dog on a lead, skitters down a rough slope to the path below. Then all’s quiet again. There are benches all over the park, some with lovely views of the flower beds spread with blooming petunia, lobelia and marigolds, but she can’t sit there. Oh no. She’s only safe here, within the railings. As long as she’s here alone.
When she’s finished her sandwich, Mary carefully tucks the box into her bag, and idly turns over a page of the newspaper. But now she feels a sudden urge to pee. It’s annoying, but it’s something she’s come to accept with age. When she was a girl she didn’t think about it, she could go hours…but nowadays…
She rapidly snatches up newspaper, sandwich carton and make-shift seat-cover, bundles them into her bag, then dashes out of the gate and bobs down behind the laurels by the park wall. She’s done it before. It’s one of her solutions. It’s always essential to have solutions.
As she squats, she remembers her reading glasses. In her hurry she’s left them on the bench.
“I’ll fetch them in a minute,” she thinks.
But there’s a noise. A scuff of shoes on the tarmac, the whistle of the play-area gate as it swings open and closed, followed by the unmistakeable click and note of the latch.
Mary eases up her underwear and peers cautiously over the laurels. A girl, of around eleven or twelve, Mary guesses, has entered the play area and is already climbing up the ladder to the top of the frame, bending double to squeeze through to the start of the slide and launching down the silvery shoot on the other side.
Mary frowns. How will she retrieve her glasses? For now she daren’t enter the children’s area. The girl swings back round to the ladder. For a moment Mary fears that she’ll be seen. She dives back below the tops of the bushes and peers through the leaves. The girl doesn’t seem to notice, twirls on a dangling rope, legs splayed.
I can’t go in there, thinks Mary.
But she can’t leave without her glasses. A replacement pair is out of the question.
Perhaps, she thinks, the girl will leave in a moment.
Mary risks another peep.
If she sees me, she’ll think I’m a peeping tom, a pervert like I’ve just been reading about in The Mail.
The girl is seated on one of the swings, pushes her skinny legs out whilst leaning back, teases the swing into action. She’s wearing the red jumper and grey skirt of one of the local schools. If she was Mary’s child she’d give her what for, skiving off like that. Though, thinks Mary somewhat ruefully, I’m not one to talk. Would’ve done the same myself at that age.
I can’t stay here.
Her back is beginning to ache with the crouch. And she needs her glasses. She’ll have to go in.
It’s only a girl. I’ll have to go in. She might think I’m a pervert. I have to go in.
It’s just then that Mary turns her head and spots a man walking up the path by the play area, a man in a shiny suit, with a neatly trimmed beard. She dips back down amongst the leaves. She’ll wait until he’s walked past. Then she’ll pluck up courage to come out for her glasses. Girl or no girl. She has to.
But the man doesn’t walk past. He enters the play area. The latch emits its low squeal as he closes the gate behind him. Mary cranes her neck to watch, trying not to show the top of her head. The man is tall. More likely to see her.
To Mary’s surprise, on noticing the man, the girl scuttles up to the top of the climbing frame and huddles in the play tower at the top of the slide, knees drawn up to her chest, arms clutching her legs.
“I see you up there,” Mary hears the man say.
“Go away,” says the girl.
“Don’t be like that, Poppy.”
“What’re you doing here?”
“Thought you’d be here,” says the man evenly.
The girl says nothing.
“Would you like me to take you to school?” asks the man.
Mary sighs silently to herself. This could take a long time. He’ll be Education Welfare. Her back’s killing her. If she could only retrieve her glasses, she could go, leave them to it… She could just come out of the bushes as if it were the most natural thing in the world, saunter in, collect her glasses and go on her way… Except, oddly, peeing behind the bushes isn’t the most natural thing in the world. Not the world we live in. And what the heck are they going to think – some sort of voyeur popping out of the laurels on them, eavesdropping? She could go to jail for it.
If only she could just… If they didn’t hear her, there’s a possibility she could creep out the other way, follow the length of the wall, then saunter back up the path. Plain as peas. She would explain (with a little laugh or two) that she had left the glasses behind earlier, oh, much earlier… maybe an hour or two… and she’d just returned to fetch them… Such a pain, she would say, walking all the way down the hill and having to come all the way back up again (adding another little laugh). Yes, yes. That would work.
She’s disappointed though. It would have been so nice on a sunny morning like this to continue to sit for a while on the bench, in peace, breathing in its safety. Like breathing in the cleanest of air. If the man and the girl were to go, she could read the paper some more. Then, when she was ready, really ready, she could gather up her things (this time remembering her glasses) and saunter off through the park along the streets. Right now she doesn’t relish the idea of returning to her room. But she could meander a little. Maybe dip down and follow the river. If she’s feeling brave enough, that is. These days there seem to be no predictors for that.
There’s a shout from the girl.
“What?” says the man, still good-humoured. “You don’t fancy a day at the seaside? We could have ice cream. What’s your favourite flavour?”
The man has moved around to the side of the slide. Mary has a clear view of him. He must be late thirties, forty perhaps. Mary’s not so good as she was at guessing people’s ages.
It’s a strange welfare man that offers ice cream at the seaside, she thinks, though you never know what goes these days.
The girl hunches tighter than ever, while the man’s suited arm lingers on the top of the slide’s rail, his fingers drumming slowly towards the girl, rings on two fingers sparkling in the sunlight.
“I’ll go to school,” says the girl, “if you go away.”
“What?” says the man with a slight jeer. “You’d rather go to school than eat ice cream at the seaside with your Uncle Eric?”
“You’re not my uncle,” says the girl coldly.
Mary’s stomach gives a violent lurch, chill and heat swamping her all at once. If this man is what she thinks he is… it reminds her of … she feels sick… pray God she won’t be sick. She watches as the man leans into the play tower, the girl shying away like a nervous animal, but there’s nowhere for her to go. Nowhere at all to go.
Mary suddenly burns with anger. How dare this man…?
For a moment nothing happens. The man glances away, back in the direction of the laurel bushes. Mary ducks down again, afraid he has seen her. Which scares her more than ever. Because she’s seen enough to know that there’s violence in this man. Welfare be buggered, she thinks. He’s going to hurt the child!
And just as she’s thinking it, she peers out in time to see the man stretch his arm up through the frame and grab the girl’s wrist. The girl lets out a howl of pain.
“Stop it! she cries.
“Come on,” says the man, still in the same even voice, but somehow rimmed with a tight meanness. “We’ll have a lovely day at the seaside…”
The girl begins to sob. Mary now knows that she must do something. She wants to do something. It could be her there, fifty years ago. Something must be done. She wants to emerge, brave and wily as a fox, and frighten away the nasty magpie with his shiny suit and glittering rings. But how can she? She’s scared to death. Her heart thumps hard in her chest, she feels dizzy, she thinks she might faint. And then what good would that do? Yes, she wants to go out and confront this man. But if he strikes her… like… like… What if he kills her? How can she go out there when she hasn’t so much as spoken to another person for three whole days, apart from Rajif in the bottom shop?
But if she doesn’t go? What then? Already the man has managed to force the girl out from her safe house. Reluctantly she’s climbing out through the wooden bars, back down the ladder, the man caging her with his arms as she does so, lest she leap down and nip away. Because the girl’s that type. Sprightly as a cat. Just as Mary had been once.
If Mary doesn’t act quickly, the two of them will be gone. But that’s what she’d wanted, hadn’t she? Until a few moments ago.
The girl ducks and dodges sideways, hovers at the other side of the slide, snatching glimpses at the railings, as if she’s contemplating a leap over them. Not easy, Mary would have thought. Not even for a cat. The man stands casual, raises a hand to unbutton his jacket, loosens his deep red tie, then the top buttons of his striped shirt, exposing a few smears of dark hair. He turns away, tossing a sly glance backwards.
“Of course, I could tell your Mam…”
The girl’s shoulders sink as if she’s been punched.
“You wouldn’t…” Her voice evaporates into the breeze.
Mary must act. She’s no longer thinking of the sanctuary where she’s sat so often in quiet contemplation. She’s almost forgotten about the need to retrieve her glasses. The playground has become a danger zone. And there inside is someone young and vulnerable, how Mary herself had been once, the little Mary who had been brave and fearless until that night when… tears surge into her eyes as images machine-gun into her mind of how her life was changed.
She’s shaking. Hands. Legs. She thinks her whole body will collapse. Yet Mary knows that if there was ever a time in her life when she must act, it’s now.
Suddenly, the man springs, snatches hard at the girl’s dress, tugs her towards him and clamps an upper arm in his large hand. But the man’s smirk is dissolving into a faint look of surprise as his attention is drawn to a rustle in the laurels and the appearance of a grey-haired woman in a faded green mac emerging and making a bee-line for the play area.
“Hello, Poppy,” Mary says, in as strong a voice as she can make though her mouth is dry and her lips tremble. “Let’s get off to the dentist, shall we?”
Mary clicks at the latch and enters the play area, careful to leave the gate open behind her. And without glancing at the man, who has released the girl’s arm and stands momentarily nonplussed, Mary strides over, takes the girl’s hand and leads her swiftly away, catching up her glasses from the bench as they pass, then out of the black gate. She doesn’t stop to look back. Just keeps right on walking.
“I’m not going to the dentist,” says the girl, extricating her hand from Mary’s grip.
“No, dear,” replies Mary, “but if you’ll allow me, perhaps we might call at the police station.”
The girl gives a small frightened smile. But immediately is crestfallen again.
“If you like,” Mary considers carefully, trying not to allow her voice to break, “I could talk to your mam. I’ll help you explain.”
For a moment the girl stops in her tracks, glances hastily over her shoulder. There’s no sign of the man. She stares up, scrutinising the old woman’s face, her eyes.
“Me mam’ll be so angry.”
“Not at you, pet. Not at you. I can help you tell her. We can go to the police.”
“D’you think we dare?” she asks.
“Oh yes,” Mary replies, “we most certainly dare.”
Adrienne Silcock asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work