The naked trees dripped, the tarmac paths ran black. The park had soaked up rain like blotting paper and the lake was full, spilling noisily over the litter-clogged weir into the dark sewer that ran beneath the town.
Even in the clammy chill, the park had its occupants, heads down, striding through, taking a shortcut from one side of town to the other. Not many came to enjoy the park for its own sake at this time of year. No one except her came to pace every path, note every hump and hollow, count every skeletal tree.
‘Good evening, Mrs. Parish.’ Lewis Damper, grey-haired, West Indian, warmed his hands on his mug as he emerged from his kiosk by the gate. He beamed, his friendliness simple and transparent. She valued him for that, she realised. Valued a guileless smile that conveyed nothing but a smile.
She smiled in return, welcoming the human contact. ‘Good evening, Lewis.’
‘Days drawing out. Still chilly though.’ He put his mug on the sill of the kiosk and pulled the collar of his uniform around his ears. ‘You keep warm now.’
‘Yes.’ She nodded, walked on, thinking of that bottle-green uniform, that pathetic display of civic concern for public order. Park wardens. Last year there had been a rape, in full daylight, a woman screaming and no one helped. Lyford council had been forced to make a show of doing something, bringing back wardens after thirty-five years, closing the park gates at night.
After all those years with no one caring how dangerous the park was. Because little evils didn’t matter. Her little evil didn’t matter.
She dug her nails into her palms. No point directing her anger and resentment at the uniform. Certainly not at the man wearing it. Lewis was one of the good guys, even if there was precious little he could do. There were still broken bottles and used condoms littering the concrete round the swings. Still obscene graffiti sprayed on the toilet block and supermarket trolleys in the boating lake. Still the gaps in the clusters of cherry trees, where a gang had taken a chainsaw to them.
Still the emptiness, the unanswered question.
She walked on, briskly, keeping fit, keeping ready.
Through the chestnuts – ignore the expectant squirrels – to the knoll with the drinking fountain, smashed and dry now. Then to the playground, with its decaying timber shelter. Some days she sat there. Always empty. No one seemed to play any more on the rusting swings and the battered roundabout kicked clean of its colours. Children were all too busy at their Play Stations probably. Or at the brand new play area with rubber mats and garish plastic on the far side of the shopping centre.
She paused by the shelter, seeing the sheet of paper pinned there. A photocopied blur with the glimmer of two eyes. ‘Lost. Trixy. Black and white kitten. Please contact Lucy Grayling.’ The paper, ripped almost in two, dangled by one corner.
That lump of anger and bitterness swelled up again in her throat. She searched on the ground, found the missing pin and secured the sad little poster. Someone should care. It was only a kitten but even so. Lucy Grayling was suffering. Someone should care.
For a moment she burned with desire to find the cat, to march up and down, searching, raking, ransacking… But what was the point? She would never succeed.
She turned away, continued on her route.
Two women passed her, one with a pushchair, one with a cigarette. Their eyes took her in, then averted. Strangers did not make contact in the park.
She took her usual turn, over the footbridge that crossed the narrow neck of the lake, past the long-abandoned boating shed, past the stump of the old band stand, round the head of the lake and back. Counting the trees, the bushes.
At her usual spot she stopped, gripping the railing, quelling her feeling of nausea. She opened her bag. Just a piece of burnt toast today. Even before she had reached inside, the ducks began to gather, streaming across the lake, querulous quacks building up to a cacophony as the birds crammed together, fighting for a place within reach. Some swam in determined circles, others clambered out onto the grass, waddling closer to the fence. Quack quack quack.
Every crumb fought over and devoured. When she had nothing left, as ever, she hesitated. Maybe this was the day her mind would be tricked into spewing out its contents. Delay wouldn’t work. Only suddenness. So suddenly she turned, with the ducks still gobbling and quacking, to face the darkening park.
No surge of buried memory. No revelation. No exoneration or incrimination. Not today. Today, as ever, just an empty park.
‘And I said to her, you do as you’re fucking told.’ The two women she had passed earlier. Again the hasty look, wary and dismissive.
Then a backward glance, a hesitation as memories slipped into place. The one with the cigarette came marching back, jaw pugnacious, eyes squinting in accusation. ‘I know you.’
The mother with the buggy turned too, drawn instinctively into the drama, her infant lolling unaware. ‘What’s up?’
‘I know her!’ said the first, jabbing her cigarette in emphasis, near enough to be threatening. ‘I remember you, in the papers. They shouldn’t let you in here. You should be fucking locked up.’ She spat.
Her companion glared her support.
‘Keep our Kiera away from her. She’s a murderer. Shouldn’t be allowed in the park.’
Would they attack her? She could feel their hatred already battering her. Once she would have responded, shouted denial, faced them down, but now, after so many years, so many similar scenes, she knew better than to bother. Keep quiet. Keep dignified. Keep sane.
‘Mrs. Parish?’ Lewis Damper was strolling across the grass, alert to trouble and ready to calm any tension.
The cigarette woman grabbed her companion to lead her away. ‘You should keep her out of the park, you should. Keep her away from kids. Fucking child killer, that’s what she is. Killed her own kid. Hanging’s too good. They should have thrown away the key.’
Was she hearing all that, or simply filling in all the insults that had been hurled over the years?
‘You all right, Mrs. Parish?’ She could sense the sudden chill in Lewis’s voice, the suspicion.
‘Child killer!’ A last receding screech.
‘I am fine, thank you.’ She raised her chin.
‘Park will be shutting soon. Best be on your way, yes?’
Out of his life, he meant. But she didn’t care. She didn’t care what foul-mouthed women said. She would keep coming back, until she finally shocked into focus that fractured image in the corner of her mind, and grasped what she had missed, what she had done or not done.
Until she faced and finally accepted what had happened to her daughter.
She turned back to the lake, to the ducks who were drifting into the gathering gloom, the water rippling white in their wake. Rippling out and out, going nowhere.