Authors: Maggie Gee
First published 2008 by Telegram
This eBook edition published 2012
© Maggie Gee, 2008 and 2012
The right of Maggie Gee to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher
26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH
Thank you to those who made this book possible: above all to Moris and Nina Farhi; to Mai Ghoussoub, the publisher who changed the course of my life by believing in it, and to André Gaspard; to my beloved friends Barbara Goodwin and Hanna Sakyi, who helped me in completely different ways, and to Nick Rankin.
Thank you to those who made it better: my editor Christine Casley, Mike Phillips, Colin Grant, Robert Taylor, Wesley Kerr, Michael Miller, Prabirranjan Ray, Norman Mitchell, Rita Patel, Roy Kerridge for lyrics from his beautiful book
The Storm is Passing Over: A Look at Black Churches in Britain
, J R Shah, David Godwin and Sarah al-Hamad.
Thank you also to John Coldstream, Mark LeFanu, Peter Kemp, Jonathan Lloyd and Caroline Winterburn for their kindness. Thank you to Jonathan Warner who commissioned this book in another life, and is still missed and remembered. Lastly, thank you to Rosa for making me laugh; and to our local park keeper, whose devotion to duty and love of the park were an inspiration, though his character and personal life bear no resemblance to those of my own fictional park keeper.
Albion Park on a fierce spring morning. A mad March day of ice and fire. Thomas’s feet beat a tattoo on the path. Every hair, every bristle on his chin stands on end. He is a small star-ship of blazing neurons –
He is a librarian, on his way to work, half-blind with sun and cold and memory. He used to come here with Darren after school (were they six, or seven, when they first escaped their mums?) And Darren’s dad, Alfred, was the Park Keeper –
Was, and still is. Still at his post. Something epic about it; nearly fifty years of service … Alfred White, who holds the fort.
Thomas hears raised voices, a little way away.
And glimpses Alfred beyond a row of plane trees, a small brisk figure in a military greatcoat. His familiar flat cap with its thin fringe of white hair, in the middle distance by the prize flowerbeds. It’s the only bit of grass where people aren’t allowed to walk; one of Alfred’s main jobs is shooing them off it.
Thomas sees that the woman he is talking to is black. There are two young children; she holds one by the arm.
‘It’s my job, lady. I’m doing my job –’ The voice of authority, from Thomas’s childhood.
‘’Ang on a minute. I’m tryin’ to tell you –’
‘Can you move off the grass, madam. I’m asking you nicely –’
‘People like you don’t never listen!’
‘You don’t have to shout, miss.’
‘Look, I weren’t shoutin’ –’
‘Next thing is, you’ll be all over the tulips.’
Now the little girl begins to cry, a high-pitched sound that seems to come from a childish realm of pain and loss quite unconnected to the grown-ups’ quarrel. She tries to yank her arm away. ‘Mum, Mum, Mum, I can see it!’
‘Shut it, Carly, I’m talkin’ to the man!’
‘Mum, Mum, I want to –’
From the woman’s other side, Alfred presses his advantage. ‘If everyone walked here, there’d be no grass left –’
Harried by both of them, she suddenly cracks. ‘Fuck off! I’m tellin’ you, you’re OUT OF ORDER!’
A tall black man comes hurrying across, carrying a purple basket-ball, and stands close to Alfred, looming over him. He looks at least a foot taller than Alfred, and two feet wider across the shoulders. (Was he actually threatening? Thomas wondered later. Could you say he was threatening? No, just tall. And black, of course, that was part of it.)
‘What’s the problem?’ the man asks, fairly politely.
‘No ball-games here, sir, I’m afraid.’
‘We’re not playin’ no ball-game. Why’s Carly cryin’?’ he demands of his wife, who has subsided a little.
‘He upset her, didn’t he.’ She indicates Alfred. ‘She went and lost Dwayne’s new plane, innit. So she gets it in her head that it’s in the flower-bed.’
‘So what’s up with you man?’ the father asks, frowning down on Alfred. ‘What’s your problem?’
The girl wails louder. Dwayne pokes her in the ear.
Alfred looks pale and old beside them. ‘No mention was made of any lost plane,’ he says, uncertainly, peering round him.
‘This Park belongs to everyone,’ the black man informs him.
‘That’s just it!’ Now Alfred perks up. ‘Same rules for everyone, as well. I’m just asking you lot to get off the grass.’ He wags his finger vigorously.
The woman’s face changes. Is it rage, or glee? ‘“You lot”!’ she shrieks. ‘That’s racist, innit!’
A pause. The two men avoid each other’s eyes. The word lies between them like an unexploded bomb. ‘I’ve been doing this job for fifty years,’ Alfred begins, but the rest is lost.
‘JOHNNY!’ she screams. ‘Call the police on this bastard! Use your mobile! I’m tellin’ you!’
But Johnny snickers, and turns away. ‘You’re windin’ me up,’ he says to his wife. ‘Come on … An’ leave it out,’ he snaps at his children. ‘Don’t whine, Carly, do you hear me?’ But he pauses a moment, staring back at Alfred, saying something with his eyes: this is our Park too.
Thomas feels it is time to announce his presence. ‘Hi Alfred,’ he calls, so Alfred knows he is there. For a moment the old man just stares at him, then raises his hand in a lame half-wave. He manages a smile, but his face is very red.
‘The man is ignorant,’ the black woman announces, beckoning her children in a queenly fashion. When the boy doesn’t stir, she yells at him ‘Dwayne! Get over here! Move it!’ Cowed, Dwayne does as he is told.
They sweep away, a good-looking family, smartly dressed, young, glossy. The mother has righteous arms around her kids, who are still resisting, and pointing at the flower-bed.
‘You see how it is?’ Alfred asks, out of breath. There are bubbles of spit at the corner of his lips. ‘Can’t bloody win, whatever I do. And the language … The women are worse than the blokes. They’d turn the Park back into a jungle. There are notices. These people can’t read.’
Now they are gone, he feels safe to say it. Thomas starts to protest, but nothing comes out. It’s just a generation thing, he tells himself. The polite silence hasn’t fallen, for them. ‘Are you all right, Alfred? You don’t look well.’
‘Calling the police on me. Bloody cheek. They’d laugh in their faces, down at the station. I’ve got good mates there. Known me for years.’ Alfred pauses, still breathing hard, and his pale blue eyes focus shrewdly on Thomas. ‘I’m not against them, you know. Don’t get me wrong –’
‘I didn’t think you were,’ Thomas lies, feebly. This is a subject that cannot be spoken. He veers away. ‘Have you heard from Darren?’
‘They go on the grass. Always doing it. English people know not to go on the grass –’
‘Alfred, shouldn’t you sit down for a moment?’ There is something very wrong about Alfred’s pupils.
‘I’m not a man of leisure, like you,’ Alfred says. ‘Things to do. Jobs on my list. Not least the toilets. It never stops.’
‘You’re upset.’ Which is the wrong thing to say.
‘I never let that lot get to me.’
‘I’m not sure they intended –’ Thomas tries.
But Alfred is off, with a bony smile, launching himself against the wind like a fighter. ‘Bye, lad. Take care now.’
‘See you, Alfred.’
Thomas watches him go, lickety-split, a white-haired soldier off at the double. Glancing back for an instant, his eye is held by a cross of scrap paper flickering on the red swathe of tulips ten metres away. As he stares, the cross becomes a child’s toy plane, crazily poised on a crimson runway. He thinks of going to pick it up; rushing after the family, making everything right –
But as he turns to look for them, he sees Alfred collapse, fifty metres away, his cap coming off as he wheels and crumples, falling heavily backwards in his army greatcoat as if he has been shot in battle.
And Thomas begins to run, in slow motion, trying to run though his legs have stalled, to the spot where the Park Keeper lies felled, yelling ‘Alfred, I’m coming …’
Alfred White, the Park Keeper.
It’s different in winter. Days are shorter. Alfred’s locked up by half past four. So he’s home in the evenings. We sit for hours. And I get used to him being there. Then when the days get longer, he’s gone. Out all hours. And I’m alone. Never really alone, though. I know he’ll be home. But spring is coming … spring is coming.
We’re like the seasons, we ebb and flow. You take it for granted, after forty-odd years. His key turning. The voice saying ‘May?’ His familiar voice, which will always come, no matter how late, always the same.
I’m proud of him. The job he does. A big job for a little man. Looking after the Park. It’s the best thing we’ve got. In summer I almost start to hate it, because I don’t like his being out till ten, but I know the Park matters more than us.
It’s something we can all share, isn’t it? The place people go to be together. I think it’s the heart of Hillesden, the Park. As London gets dirtier, and more frightening.
We don’t talk a lot. But of course, I do love him.
And there he is. He forgot his sandwiches. I’ve kept them for him, and his tea in the thermos. The clink of the gate, then his feet on the path … Heavier than usual.
Why is he ringing?
Silly old thing, he’s forgotten his key. We’re getting older, both of us …
May opens the door, to smile, to chide. But it’s Thomas, not Alfred. Black shapes behind him. A short policeman in a giant helmet. She furrows her brow, turning back to Thomas …
On his face, the dark, the cold.
May read, as usual, before she went out.
First she got herself completely ready. Alfred’s pyjamas, freshly laundered, neatly folded in a plastic bag inside another, larger plastic bag that held today’s
and a quarter of extra strong mints, just in case he should be feeling a bit better, just in case he should fancy something. It was comforting, getting the bag together. It meant she could still look after Alfred, though she also experienced the usual sense of boredom; women spent their lives looking after men. And even that tiny skin-tag of irritation was comforting, because entirely familiar. The house was so much colder since he had gone.
She was completely ready, hat on, coat fastened, twenty minutes too early to leave for the hospital, even if she walked slowly, even if she dawdled, not that she would dawdle on a day like this, even if she stepped into the Park to have a quick look at the café and the flower-beds so she could report to Alfred later. Each day she had half-meant to do it; each day she had found herself unable to, because she couldn’t bear to see the Park without Alfred. Without the hope of seeing Alfred …
Without the hope of seeing Alfred come hurrying down one of the distant paths, trim, narrow-shouldered in his old army greatcoat and the new check cap she had bought him for Christmas, eyes turned away from where he was going to follow the deeds of some child or dog. Then she might hear him shout or whistle to recall the wrong-doer to order. Not today. That piercing whistle. The Park Keeper’s whistle which had sometimes pained her like the sound of chalk pulled the wrong way across a blackboard now seemed in its absence an arrow of light, a clear white line shooting out across the darkness.
Twenty minutes early. So she sat in her chair as she had done every day this week and began to read, clumsy in her coat, catching its heavy woollen sleeves on the pages.
And again she noticed a difference. It was normally evening time when she read and Alfred would be there, rustling his newspaper or clicking the cards as he laid out a game of patience, and he always said ‘What are you reading?’ in a grumpy, almost affronted way, as if he had failed to entertain her, as if she was rejecting him, and she always made herself answer cheerfully, she always ignored his tone of voice and said ‘Auden, dear,’ or ‘Catherine Cookson, dear,’ though he had been doing it for nearly half a century. But now he had stopped, May found she missed it.
‘Tennyson, dear,’ she whispered in the silence, slipping inside the entirely familiar Victorian patterns in their long cool scrolls, the beloved rhythms of her other Alfred:
He watches from his mountain walls,