The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Fiction (For Miriam)
The Woman in the Park
She is sitting on an iron bench in the park. In the distance I can hear horses’ hooves lightly pounding and the sound of carriages trundling down the thoroughfare just behind us. It is early in the morning but London never sleeps and neither do I. I see her in the distance as I make my usual perambulation. She looks still and intense as if she was holding her breath. By her side is a solid black pram.
There is something about her, haunting, almost as if she is a ghost. Of course it is odd to see a young woman unaccompanied at this time of the morning, just sitting; perhaps she is a nursemaid whose charge is being fractious. As I get closer to her I see that she is dressed in black, clearly in mourning. I raise my hat but do not stop, and when I am at a safe distance look back. She is looking straight at me; her eyes even from a distance are dark, and I am sure I can see tears in them, but my senses are not always to be relied upon.
It is a cold morning, early February with frost upon the ground which crunches slightly as I trample upon it. There are a host of smells; the usual polluted effluence from the Thames and general sewage, but also that distinct smell of winter which must be caused by something but I am not sure what. I cannot remember making my way to the park, perhaps I had been there all night, just walking. Perhaps I had been there for days, but I do not feel hungry or particularly tired so who knows.
I have this feeling of something missing; something that I have to find. Something dear to me; a jewel or perhaps a child. It is a sense of unease which is always there at the back of my mind, sometimes it is urgent at other times just a sense of edginess, but it is never absent. It is as if I am incomplete.
Two young boys approach me; not looking at me but definitely aware of my presence. Will they accost me or try to steal my handkerchief? Perhaps they do not know themselves. They look only about eight or nine; street urchins who would earn money minding gentlemen’s horses or selling things found in the mud. I feel sad looking at them but also there is a feeling of fear. They come close to me and I feel them studying me, weighing me up, but then all of a sudden they hurry on and do not look back.
Sometime later I come upon the woman on the bench again. Our eyes meet and her mouth opens but no sound comes out. I stop opposite her. She smells of lavender and sorrow. She tries again to speak but again nothing emerges. She is older than I first thought, probably about thirty; a white oval face with light brown hair mostly hidden under her bonnet.
“Can I help you madam?” I ask. I wondered how long since I had spoken to someone.
She bows her head but still no sound comes from her pale lips, but her eyes are almost pleading with me. I shiver briefly and then after a moment I walk on, leaving the park at the next entrance I come across.
I wander the streets for an hour or so and then make my way to a small building near Piccadilly which I think is my club although I cannot remember what it is called. It feels familiar, and I think I go there a lot. There is a smartly dressed servant in the entrance hall who greets me and takes my coat and other accoutrements. I make my way to the lounge where I sit and read a newspaper and lunch in the dining room.
My days go on like this; walking in the park, wandering the streets, visiting my club, sometimes talking to strangers. I suppose I must sleep, I know sometimes they prepare a bed for me in the club but I am sure I go home as well, but I cannot even remember where my house is or what it looks like. I do not know how long I have been going on like this, surely not forever.
Tonight after a chop at the club I leave and walk some of the less salubrious streets of the city; with no conscious intent. It is dark, and I hold my stick tightly, I am quite fit and strong even now, but I do not want to be beaten up or garrotted. I hear the sound of music from a public house and make up my mind to go in and join the throng but my legs keep on walking. There is still the smell of winter, but also of cheap perfume, sweat and shit.
And then I see her, standing in a square. It is the woman in the park, well I think it is; she is wearing less than before but the predominant colour is still black. Our eyes meet, they are still intent and stare at me boldly. They are brown, lighter than the woman in the park. We stand for a moment and then she joins me, walking by my side and takes my arm, firmly. I am conscious that there is a living being my side, I can feel her gloved hand, and her fingers gripping me just above my elbow. I realise she is a separate human being with her own history and personality. She has no connection to me, just this moment in time.
We keep walking saying nothing. She is steering me. We come to a boisterous looking pub and walk in. I look at the few people who sit and drink and stare at us. I feel as if I have been here before, and perhaps I have. We walk up the wooden stairs, the sounds of chatter and metal mugs on wooden tables resumes as we enter her room. It is warm, surprisingly so, and the bed inviting. I lie on it and remember no more.
When I awake there is a woman dressing herself, she has dark hair, which is long.
She turns and it is the woman from the night. She is mostly naked and very beautiful.
“Who is Elizabeth?” she asks, her accent is cockney. I do not think we even spoke last night.
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. Sorry I slept.”
“It is okay, but you do need to go. I need to help open up.”
I give her some money and walk downstairs. There is someone lying slumped on one of the tables and I wonder if I should see to him but I hear him snoring, and then what could I do? I leave.
The next day is Sunday; she is in the park again. Is it the same woman? She looks at me as I walk by her. She is rocking the pram, gently, and I hear her murmuring. I think it is a nursery rhyme at first but as I get nearer realise it is a rather rude song from the music halls. I quicken my pace and go past her. When I walk past her again a few minutes later she has stopped chanting and is sitting quietly looking modestly in front of her. I want to sit by her and chat, but I am scared and leave the park.
I am in Cripplegate and see a dark church. I walk through the lychgate and into a small and neat graveyard; I am tempted to stay there, but something draws me into the church itself. Are my actions not my own? Is everything I do by compulsion? The church looks old but the minister is fiery and intense. I think it is a nonconformist church, perhaps Baptist. The minister is just wearing a suit and is informal in his address.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
I listen for a while and then leave, and sit on a gravestone until the congregation leisurely leave the church and after them the minister more hurriedly.
She is in the park again. My memory is getting better. I remember how I have been spending my days; going to the bank and I talked to a tramp on his way into London. And I had been to the theatre; a variety show which I had enjoyed. I had kept expecting there to be someone by my side, but there was a just a loud couple who I did not know. And I had visited a medium in a large house in Highgate who had looked at me intently and then told me she could not help me and returned my money, hurrying me out of her room.
I pluck up courage and sit next to the woman, the other side of her from the pram. She does not flinch but bends towards me almost imperceptively.
“Do you remember me?” She nods but does not speak. “From the other day…and then later.”
She nods again. And we sit in silence, but it is a comfortable silence. I notice she is shivering so I put my cloak over her gently.
“Are you okay?” I ask her; “you look so sad”.
She moves her hands in front of her as if in entreaty or helplessness, but still does not speak.
“Have you lost someone?” I ask her.
“Yes”, her voice is refined with a trace of the north.
“I had a baby. And they took it off me.” I look inside her pram and realise that it is empty; just blankets and a pillow. She weeps quietly. I hold her hand and stroke it slowly. She does not speak again and eventually and with reluctance I leave her.
I look for her at night; every night, but for five nights I do not find her. On the second night I find another woman who looks similar and she takes me back to her room. I was expecting it to be sordid and to feel hateful afterwards but actually it was loving and I give the woman, who was called Mary, extra. We talk afterwards mostly about her, and then I gave her even more money and left.
On the sixth night I find her.
“I have been looking for you, and you are never in the park.” Silently she leads me to her room and this time we have sex, and again I stay the same night. I watch her idly dressing; looking beautiful, her bottom surprisingly large but oh so lovely.
“Come and live with me” I say to her.
She smiles and carries on putting on her corset.
“I mean it, I have a large house and my servants are discreet”.
“But what about your wife” she asks and leaves the room.
I get dressed and go home.
I know where to go; it is a long walk but the streets and houses are familiar. Nobody greets me or acknowledges my existence, but I do recognise various faces. And then I reach my house, which is large and white. A maidservant lets me in, and says “good morning sir.” In a voice just the correct side of impertinence.
A strange woman comes down the stairs and leads me into the drawing room. I have never seen her before but she sits me down and tells me that she is my wife. And then there are small footsteps and who are these two children who stand in front of me, call me daddy and weep?
© Andrew Lee-Hart - February 2016
email: fridge2 at hotmail.co.uk
Play That Thing
I almost walked passed it. A small café, hidden between a newsagent and a kebab shop, on one of the main thoroughfares of Camden.
More life stories