Groups of faces swirl around me like loose pages from a school yearbook drifting in the deep flooded basement of the year I turned thirteen.
Every so often a face comes into view, but most of the features have faded, and of the few that are still clear the names have either washed away or been torn off.
Today though, Julie Harman’s name and features come into shaky focus for a moment.
For many months––perhaps even a year or more––the park was my home. In the warm weather I would sit on my favorite swing, and when it rained I’d retreat to the shelter, at the top of the slope, overlooking the playground.
Forgetfulness guards the secret of how Julie first came to the shelter, which was a three sided brick display case with slatted benches around the inside walls, plus a Gent’s toilet at the southern end, and a Lady’s to the north. The background to her arrival is a dull, drizzling, September afternoon. She sits opposite me in the shelter: ratty, shoulder-length hair, a pointed nose like a sparrow’s beak, and wearing a red knitted pant-suit, with big flares at the ankle of the pants part.
She told me she was trying to hide from a 17 year-old boy who was playing miniature golf. “The only thing older boys wanted,” she said, “was one thing––You know what.”
I wasn’t sure this was true. I had an older brother who was almost 17, and as far as I knew he wanted a car more than anything. But I might have been wrong. I had developed the technique of concealing my true desires like a rain forest chameleon, and perhaps my brother had too.
She told me it was nice to talk, so we must have talked. I can’t remember any conversations, but we probably talked about the characters who––like me––virtually lived in the park. There was the enigmatic Mick-the-Murderer, an aging teddy-boy, who prowled the paths armed with a transistor radio, and Van Delmonte, a boy a little older than us who orbited the park at regular intervals on his fixed-wheel bike.
At some point we ended up sitting side-by-side. We kissed, clacking teeth and bumping noses until the rain stopped, then we walked, holding hands (the 17 year-old must have left), with Van Delmonte passing us every few minutes like a wayward asteroid.
As it grew dark we exchanged phone numbers and went our separate ways. I called her from a nearby phone kiosk over the following week (the same kiosk I once changed clothes in).
I waited all day for Julie the following Sunday, but she never came. She’d told me where she lived, so about 6 o’clock I made the ten minute walk to her house. It was a basement flat, it was starting to get dark, and the doorway was shrouded in a moss-covered gloom. I rang the bell.
The door was opened by a tiny woman of about 30, holding the biggest baby I had ever seen. The baby was about the size of a 7 or 8 year-old child, but still, very definitely a baby. The woman, in contrast, was about the size of a ten year-old girl, but from her skin texture and the lines about her eyes, she was a grown woman.
I waited patiently while she told me that Julie was out, that when she came back she would not be able to see me, and that I should not under any circumstances call again.
I’d like to say that I walked back to the park, but I probably ran.
By the time I got there the trees were silhouetted against a deep blue sky, and owls were hooting from the engineering works, just behind the shelter. I sat there out of the wind, lit my last cigarette in my shaky fingers, then made my way home.