After much deliberation, she’d settled on her favourite dress. The colours weren’t as vibrant as they used to be, but she knew it was flattering. She extricated a bracelet from the tangle of jewellery that was usually left untouched and spent at least a minute searching for a matching pair of earrings. But now she was completely ready and there were still a couple of hours to spare. She cursed herself for not being more relaxed. After all, today was just a casual meeting. She and Tony had exchanged so many messages online, it was about time they moved things forwards. And it had been his idea, too. He’d set the date and asked her to suggest the place.
She flitted between the three rooms of her flat, a sense of purpose hovering just out of reach, and in the end decided to go out straight away. If she walked there, it would keep her calm and use up the time. Otherwise she’d spend the next two hours moving things according to a logic that she would have forgotten by evening. The flat could do with a tidy, but she didn’t want to risk smelling of Toilet Duck and bins. Besides, no one would see it but her. She was confident that, as it was a Saturday morning date, she wouldn’t fall into her usual weakness and invite him back to the flat. In any case, she knew Tony was different – his messages were so witty and sweet. And she couldn’t remember having been asked on a Saturday morning date before.
When she arrived at the entrance to the park, she spotted him instantly and breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Hi, Tony? Great. So good to finally meet you! Did you find it okay?’
‘Yes, of course. You’d have to be an idiot to get lost in London these days,’ he said, pocketing his phone. ‘It was a pain to get here though.’
She instinctively took this statement of fact as a criticism levelled at her, but managed to stop short of apologising for it. Instead she said, ‘Just wait till you see it! I think you’ll totally love it here.’
He smiled at her enthusiasm and they turned towards the wrought-iron gates with their peeling black paint. At that moment, she had a flash of perspective; they were on the threshold of her favourite place in the city and she desperately wanted him to like it. All of a sudden her plan for the morning seemed incredibly indecent; much more indecent than inviting dates back to her flat for sex and cups of tea.
The scrape of metal and the brushing sound of trailing ivy as the gates opened brought her back to the present. They were faced with a series of paths leading off beneath huge old trees. To the sides and between the paths were lopsided rows of gravestones and statues.
‘Which way shall we go … left or right?’ she asked brightly, as he gestured for her to walk through ahead of him. She found the chivalrousness rather quaint.
‘Isn’t there one of those information boards – some kind of map?’ he said, looking around. He reached into his pocket for his phone.
‘Oh no, it isn’t like that here really. Well, I don’t know if there is, to be honest. I’ve never looked…’ She somehow hoped the park would show him what made the place feel so magical to her because she realised she didn’t have the words to explain. ‘Let’s go this way,’ she said.
She liked to pick her route through the park according to whimsical signs – new creepers might seem to block one pathway, or fallen leaves to carpet another in invitation. Nature ruled there, always winning the battle against the insufficient time of volunteer gardeners. Tony seemed willing to follow her lead – he’d put his phone away at least.
‘The main part of the park is this cemetery,’ she explained. ‘but I didn’t want to tell you that in my message in case you thought it sounded weird – I mean, you have to see it really!’ She walked ahead, digging her hands into her coat pockets to stop her fidgeting.
‘Hmm… Yes, quite,’ he said. He returned her smile, but he seemed quiet – much less chatty than his messages had suggested he would be. Did she come across differently, too?
She brushed those thoughts aside and looked around her. Every time she went to the park she was filled with a rush of excitement, an urge to open her eyes wide and take in everything. But now she sensed the tugging of his presence by her side. She was aware of his eyes passing swiftly over the scene and risked a glance sideways, trying to judge his reaction. Self-ridicule welled up inside her as she realised what hopes she had pinned on a profile of pictures and facts.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t like it, she told herself.
He caught her looking and smiled questioningly. ‘So, what’s here? Some distinguished dead people?’
‘No, not really,’ she said. ‘There aren’t any famous graves. It’s just, I like it here. It’s managed to escape when everything around has been developed. It’s just … it’s incredible how few people even know this place exists! Completely away from the chaos of the city. Here you can just … wander.’
Was she babbling? She motioned to a narrower path forking off to the left and they turned down it, brushing past the bushes and branches that encroached from the sides. The trees reached overhead, blocking out the sky.
If there were logic to the paths, she’d never fathomed it – their routes seemed dictated by the dead. Where whole families wished to be together, the path would twist aside in deference. On occasions where a merchant desired a monument to his glories in life, the path bowed at his feet and took a longer route.
‘So, you didn’t mention you were into the occult…’ he said teasingly.
‘Here, look at this,’ she said, stepping off the path and into the shadow of the trees looming over row upon row of gravestones. ‘Look at the way the creepers hang down. I mean, don’t they look just like streamers?’ She trailed off. It seemed to lose all the mystery to say it out loud. Somehow he was making her feel foolish without even speaking.
She noticed that he made no move to follow her off the path, so she dropped her fingers from the vines and clambered back out. He did smile at her then, but with a kind of distance that made her feel something like a monument herself.
‘You won’t see the best bits if you stick to the pathways!’ she said.
His smile faltered and his eyes flicked from her face to the darkness of the bushes behind and back again.
‘Well, it’s…’ he said. He broke off then started again. ‘It would be easy to trip on those vines. If I’d known what you had in mind I could have brought a torch, but I wasn’t expecting an archaeological expedition.’
She laughed. ‘You’re right – I did say a walk in the park. Let’s stick to the paths from now on.’
‘And this way I can see you better,’ he added. ‘You’re just as pretty as your picture, you know. Even with those bits of leaf in your hair.’
Her hand flew up to her hair and she tugged her fingers through it, realising how knotted it had become.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s keep walking. It’s gloomy here.’
The trees did cast the park in a dusky light, even though the sun was high and bright. She didn’t see it as gloomy at all, but she didn’t want to object and risk sounding childish. Despite herself, she felt sullen.
He can’t see beyond the obvious, she thought.
As he walked ahead, she looked around at the subtle lights that illuminated the scene – the bright white moon-glow of flowers, the silvery glint of the spiders’ webs, and the green, deep-sea light of the sun through leaves upon leaves. In some places, marble gleamed, not yet claimed by the moulds and algae that flourished.
‘It’s a shame they’ve let the place get so run down,’ he said. ‘I imagine it was smart … in its day.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she replied in a rush. ‘I like it this way! It feels more … special.’
But would the inhabitants of the graves approve of the park’s present state of disarray? She was sure the most god-fearing would be shaken to see how the marble angels enlisted for the protection of their souls had become victims to the implacable power of nature. And yet now they were safer than ever, she thought. Concrete, plastic and metal had risen and risen around them, but these graves were buried so deep within the trees that it seemed they would never be touched. They had become like matryoshka dolls – a skeleton inside a coffin inside a tangled parcel of trees and roots, binding everything together.
For the most part he kept pace as he marched along the pathways. When she stopped to decipher the epitaph on a gravestone, he stood and waited, taking no interest.
His mood had seemed to infect her and she began to look at the park critically. She resented him for it. She had hoped that he would appreciate the romance here at the heart of the city. His profile had mentioned his interest in poetry and walking but she could see now that she’d been pasting her own ideals on to him. Here beside her was the real Tony – undeniably alive but persistently contradictory to the Tony she had created in her mind.
Maybe this is better, she told herself. She decided to start afresh.
‘How was your walking holiday?’ she asked. ‘Slovenia, wasn’t it?’
He perked up instantly at the question. ‘Oh, it was excellent – a really challenging trip. Put it this way, you wouldn’t find my expedition in any of those amateur walking guides. Over a hundred and fifty miles in six days and we summited four peaks – the highest was 6,000 feet.’
‘Oh, right…’ she said. ‘Wow.’
‘We were on the go from 7 a.m. until nightfall every day to cover the distance. Two of the group had to abandon the trip on the third day.’ He smirked. ‘They hadn’t put in the prep and they were holding the rest of us back. It was much easier going without liabilities.’
It sounded more like a business deal than a holiday, she thought.
As he talked on, she reflected wistfully on the imagined Tony she had held in her mind for the past few weeks. The real Tony had become quite chatty now she’d got him talking, but he seemed to have almost forgotten the park.
In contrast, she felt like she was betraying it by walking through so carelessly and at every turn she hoped they’d come upon an exit. Never before had she found herself frustrated by the circuitous routes and lack of signposts, but it was as though the paths were playing with her.
They emerged, finally, into the clearing at the centre of the park, back into the bright sunshine. The abandoned church reared up in front of them and she stopped, overwhelmed by the drama of the huge blackened stone shell even though she’d seen it so many times before.
Tony, however, continued talking, seemingly oblivious to the building that glowered down at them. She waited for him to finish but he moved seamlessly from one thought to the next. The more he spoke, the more clearly she saw the chasm between them. They were nothing but two strangers standing in a small green space in the middle of the gargantuan city.
‘Well, look at that sorry excuse for a church,’ he said finally. ‘What a mess. You wonder why they don’t do a proper job of tidying up this place.’
She felt cold as she absorbed his words. He wanted to tidy up people like her; to strip away the leaves, the tangled vines, the trailing flowers and heap them on a bonfire to burn.
Ruth Bennett currently lives in London, although she has written stories whilst living in locations as diverse as Peru, Australia and India. She works as a children’s fiction editor by day and snatches time to write her own fiction around that. Her flash fiction has been published by Litro US and she is currently working on a collection of short stories. Say hello on Twitter @ruthmarybennett.