Winter snow deadens sound. Not the persistent ringing in my head though, the volume of which has gradually increased with age. That sound is always with me. My perverse comfort blanket.
Today it accompanies me as I walk, alone, through the park. The grass lawn surrounding the duck pond lies like a soft baby’s blanket, in gentle undulations of pure white. For now, at least. Once the toddlers have been down with their wellies, and their inattentive mothers, and their bags of bread for the mallards, the sublime surface will be churned beyond recognition.
I look as if I am without purpose. I have no grandchild on a bike, no dog on a lead. I have a book – large print – and enough money in the pocket of my fleece for a hot chocolate in the café. I can make one hot chocolate last for approximately thirty of my large print pages. Forty-five minutes, or thereabouts. The walk from my home to the café in the park takes twenty minutes. The walk back – uphill – takes thirty. If I stop at the newsagent’s for a newspaper on the way back, and Mrs Potter is behind the counter, not Mr, then I can easily kill another twenty minutes. Add in the shower I have every morning, and the porridge I make on the stove top – I don’t have a microwave – and that’s my morning almost gone.
How my world has shrunk. Once it was filled with school runs, the nine to five of a job behind a desk in a town hall, football coaching ten-year-olds at the weekend. Now, I’m lucky if I speak to another human being once a day. My social outings have been reduced to the funerals of old school acquaintances and colleagues from my former life.
I walk in the park every day. My own routine, rain or shine. I walk its paths, listen to the voices of the trees that line the main avenue leading to the country house turned Council-operated museum. I’m fortunate that local residents can enter the house for free, as it’s become my shelter when the weather is unsuitable for a longer walk. I’m unfortunate that Government cuts have forced the Council to close the house three days a week, as I’m left, on those days, to the elements, whatever they may be.
Today, it’s cold, but bright – blinding almost – with the sun reflecting off the snow. I continue past the duck pond, the café and the house and take the path that leads into the woods. Tarmac turns into rough stone peppered with potholes, which have filled with water and turned to ice overnight. I stamp the heel of my walking boot in a couple, watch the ice fracture, and the water seep up to the surface. Gives the birds a drink if they need it. Great tits, sparrows and chaffinches watch me, from leafless branches, and, deciding I am no threat, flit down to rest in the drinking fountains I have made. A jay flies overhead, a flash of blue registering in the corner of my eye. I have time to watch the birds these days. In my postage stamp garden, I spend lots of time working on various combinations of sunflower hearts, seed and plump balls of fat, trying to attract visitors. I sit at the kitchen table and watch the jackdaws attempting to knock the seed out of the feeders and onto the ground where they peck noisily. They scare the smaller birds away, and if a tit or a finch dares approach, they squawk and flap their wings, like playground bullies.
Here, in the woods, there’s enough space for everyone. The birds are braver – they’re on their home turf. Even the excitable red setter up ahead of me, leaping and running madly around its owner doesn’t seem to cause them concern, and they drink undisturbed. The setter spots me as I grow nearer, and begins to run at me, with a lolloping gait, ears flapping, leathery tongue hanging out. Its owner, fluorescent pink waterproof with a bright blonde ponytail, shouts ineffectually in my direction.
‘Boris! Come back, Boris! Leave that man alone.’
But Boris is intent, and it seems it’s me he’s after. The world slows down, and the ringing in my ears is temporarily replaced by the theme tune to Chariots of Fire, as Boris leaps, saliva flying, overjoyed to see me.
It’s a cliché, I know, but I’m not as steady on my feet as I once was. I step back, the side of my foot catches on a rough stone, and I begin to lose my balance. I drop my book and stretch out my arms like the world’s oldest tightrope walker, but it’s no good. Boris’s paws land on my shoulders and his touch is enough to send me flying backwards. My coat rips on a bramble on the way down, and as I land – my body mercifully cushioned by the snow – my head smashes into an old tree trunk, sculpted into the shape of an owl. I lay on my back, dazed, my glasses in the snow somewhere besides me. The owl stares down at me, aloof.
Pink Waterproof is shrieking now, as she runs towards me. Boris is licking my face. I can’t stand dogs. Especially not ones that lick you. But I’m too shaken to fend him off. My large print book is lying in one of the drinking fountains I so thoughtfully created, and I briefly wonder what the library fines are for drowning.
There’s a hint of metallic in my mouth, and I lick my lips – I must have bitten myself when I fell. Pink Waterproof leans over me, brow furrowed with concern.
That doesn’t sound good.
‘Oh dear what?’
Her eyes flick to mine and she plasters on a fake smile.
‘Oh its nothing, I’m sure. Just a bit of a cut. I think I might just run back to the café and get some help. I’d try to get you up, but I have a bad back and I might not manage it.’
She’s clipping a lead to the wayward Boris, who’s straining towards me, still trying to clean me up. I feel vulnerable, on my back, lying in the snow, reliant on a stranger. I try to lift my head, but Pink Waterproof shouts in panic,
‘Don’t move!’ Then softer, ‘Just try and keep still, love. I’ll be back in a sec. I promise.’
And she tugs on Boris’s lead, and then they’re gone. Running through the woods away from me. I concentrate hard, trying to locate the comforting ringing that emanates permanently from within me, to zone in on something familiar.
Apart from the ringing, all I can hear is silence. The birds have left me for dead, even though I came to their aid. I can feel the snow soaking through the back of my fleece and I suddenly feel very alone. My mind fills with the panic on the face of Pink Waterproof as she looked down at me, and I wonder what on earth I’ve done. I want to move, really, to get myself up, but my head’s throbbing and I feel a little faint.
With nothing to do but lie and wait for help to arrive, I slip into worst-case-scenario-mode. I have no wallet on me, just a few coins in my pocket. If I die, how will they know who I am? Will anyone even report me missing? My daughter lives in Australia. Finds time in her busy diary to ring me twice a year, birthday and Christmas. Well, Christmas is only just past, and my birthday’s not until June. What about Mrs Potter from the newsagent’s? If I don’t go in for a paper, she might think something’s up. Maybe the woman in the café might notice. The one who’s been making me hot chocolate every day for the last year, but whose name I don’t even know. After that, I’m struggling to think of anyone who might actually notice I’m not there. Out of my small circle of friends I’m the last man standing. How depressing. This is what it comes down to in the end.
I remember a programme I saw just a few weeks ago. 150 unidentified dead body cases reported every year. Most of them found by dog walkers, joggers, mushroom foragers, usually in late Autumn or winter, when the foliage has died back.
I don’t know Pink Waterproof from Adam. What if she never comes back? She looked panic stricken, so she must think my head injury is serious. Perhaps she thinks I might sue her. I try to remember what she looks like, but the brightness of the waterproof overshadows her facial features in my mind. My memory’s not what it was. Another cliché, another truth. Sometimes I have my porridge twice. I only realise that when I go to wash the bowl and find an identically-caked one already in the sink.
I feel tired now, and my eyes flicker briefly before shutting. I wonder if I am the equivalent of a hit and run. Dog attack and dash maybe? I force my eyes to open again and listen hard. I must try and stay alert. Surely there must be someone else in the park. Another dog walker, or a jogger.
I desperately want someone to come now. I make a pact with myself. If Pink Waterproof comes back, I’m going to start making an effort. I won’t be grumpy when Mrs Potter collars me in the shop. And the next time I go for a hot chocolate, I’ll say hello to the lady in the café, ask her what her name is. I might be old, but I don’t want to be lonely. Not anymore. I want someone to miss me one day.
Enjoy stories about human relationships? Why not to try Jamie Guiney’s The Amazing Chen next!