There’s a little park in the City of London that is like a secret, other world. It’s been built in the ruins of a Christopher Wren church that was bombed in the war. You walk up the steps, through the archway, and, well, you’re in Narnia. It has little paths, and all sorts of exotic plants, and miniature lawns, and in the middle is a pool and a circle of benches surrounding it. There is no noise of traffic and, on a summer’s day, above you there is only dappled sunlight and a blue, blue sky – if you’re lucky, that is, because this is London we’re talking about.
So there I was, sitting on one of those benches at lunchtime, eating a prawn mayonnaise sandwich from the Tesco Metro on Eastcheap and generally wondering if anybody would notice I didn’t go back to the office, when this bloke wandered in, and sat down next to me.
He was in his late sixties, maybe; he had quite a craggy face and grey hair, and he was wearing a tweed jacket and a polo neck jumper and jeans. I didn’t pay too much attention to him, after all, he was just another passing stranger. But then I noticed he had reached down into the little backpack by his side and instead of a camera, or a sandwich or a book, he had brought out a CD case, and then he just sat there with it on his lap, staring at it. Well then, I looked at the case too, and it said, I am not kidding, H&R Block tax prep CD, whatever that meant. I thought he was a bit weird, finished my sandwich and went back to work, on time for a change.
Next day, he was in there again, same bench as me again, and this time, when he got the CD out, he started crying. Not the sort of frenzied weeping, that would make you think he really was crazy, but just slow tears dropping on the case. I thought about moving, but I couldn’t leave him like that, so I rummaged in the bag I’d got with that day’s sandwich (beef and horseradish), got out the little paper napkin it came with and passed it to him, and he took it without a word and blew his nose.
I said something like, ‘Are you all right?’ And he nodded. After a bit he just looked at me and shrugged and tried to smile.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I appreciate your kindness.’
So he was an American.
I said something like, ‘Oh that’s ok,’ and opened my yoghurt, and when I’d had about three spoonfuls, he began to talk.
‘I used to meet my wife here,’ he said. ‘We started coming when it opened, in 1970. Before we married.’ He paused. ‘She died last month. In the Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ Which sounded a bit inadequate, so I added, ‘Was she an American too?’
He smiled then. ‘No, she was a Brit like you. From Tunbridge Wells. Feisty. God was she feisty. I met her at the Grosvenor Square riots in 1968. We’d both come to protest about the Vietnam war and got more than we bargained for, let me tell you. We had police horses coming at us, and cops swinging their batons. And they’d closed the square off so nobody could get out. God, what a mess; I’d just gone there for a peaceful protest, and next thing I knew some cop was taking a swipe at me, and this girl, who’d I’d never seen before, just whacked him, just like that with this stupid beaded hippy bag. Well that was us both in the cooler.’
I looked at this man again. I was trying to imagine him as a young student. He looked at me and smiled.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he said. ‘I’m just a college professor now. Some old fart. But we old people were young once too, you know. Hey,’ he grinned. ‘I’m younger than Mick Jagger.’
‘Everybody’s younger than Mick Jagger,’ I said. ‘Even God.’
He laughed and looked around at the soft grey walls and the shining trees.
‘Well, go on,’ I said. ‘Don’t keep me in suspense. What happened then?
He shrugged. ‘So after we’d been formally introduced by the cops, we kind of hit it off big time. She worked near here and I was at Imperial College. I used to come and see her at lunchtimes, and then when this garden opened we came here all the time. And then I got my degree and we got married, and then we moved to California.’
He reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. ‘That’s her. Jeanie. On our honeymoon in New York.’
I peered at the picture of the pair of them; he had black hair then, and plenty of it, and an extremely dodgy moustache, and she looked like Ali McGraw in Love Story, and they were both holding some ridiculous glass apple paperweight or something and pulling faces at it. ‘Big Apple, ‘ he said. ‘Yeah? We bought it as a joke.’
I put the empty yoghurt pot in the bag with the sandwich wrapper.
‘We never came back,’ he went on, grasping the CD case.’Not until now.’ He looked around the garden. ‘It’s even more beautiful than it was then.’
There was a long silence, and then I couldn’t avoid the question any longer. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but what is it with the CD? I mean you can’t have her ashes in there…’ I trailed off. Why did I always have to be so tactless and blundering? The bloke looked as if I’d stabbed him. He grasped the CD case even more tightly if anything, and then he just sighed, big time, and opened it. Inside was a pressed flower.
‘She took it the last day we came,’ he said. ‘To remind her. She was going to come back. We were always going to come back, but we had kids and commitments and then when we had the time she got sick, and she made me promise that I would come after she…’ he breathed deeply. ‘After she died.’
He touched the flower very gently with his forefinger, and then, of course, just as I was going to say something sensitive and lovely, my mobile phone rang. It was work. I should have just ignored the call. Graham, my boss, was on the warpath. ‘You’re late, again,’ he said. ‘Where the hell are you? I’ll have to give you a verbal warning, now, and one more of those and you are on your way out, Karen.’
‘I’m really sorry,’ I began, looking at the guy and his cd flower. I stood up and moved away a little. ‘I’ll be…
‘Cut the crap,’ said Graham. ‘I want you back in five.’
In five? Who says ‘in five? ‘In five minutes, Graham. You’re not on TV you know, you’re a bloody IT monkey.’
‘Don’t you speak to me like that. I have people lining up to do your job.’
‘Well bloody get them, then. I’m resigning. You can stuff your job where the sun don’t shine.’ I rang off and then turned back to the guy.
‘I’m really sorry about that…’ I began. Only he wasn’t there.
There was nobody in that lovely park at all, just me and some faded petals on a seat.
I wrote this story as a challenge from Geanieroake, who gave me three objects I had to include; a cell phone, a red apple paperweight, and a CD entitled H&R Block tax prep CD.