A Taste of Heaven
a short story by James Lovegrove
Harold hadn't been down to the homeless shelter for several weeks. I asked about him, asked anyone that I knew to be a friend of his if they'd seen him, and got only shaken heads and frowns in reply. "Think he might've gone up north," was one suggestion, but I knew Harold: with winter approaching, the last direction he would be heading in was northwards. London, for all its faults, at least had the advantage of being a few degrees warmer than Manchester or Newcastle, and once winter set in Harold stayed here usually until the first buds appeared on the trees. More to the point, he never left the city for long. A week or two, three at the most, and then, his wanderlust satisfied, his footsteps would turn towards the capital again, London a Saturn whose heavy gravitational pull he could not escape.
No, there was definitely something wrong, and once I had begun to fear the worst, every little symptom of poor health that Harold had exhibited the last time I'd seen him took on a new and sinister significance. That cough of his -- it had been getting worse, hadn't it? Had been turning bronchial, definitely. And the sore on his forehead -- just a lesion? Or a sarcoma? God, I'd lost count of the number of times I'd heard about one of the shelter regulars turning his or her toes up overnight, for no reason other than that the unending hardships of the vagrant lifestyle had finally taken their toll. Harold had been in no worse shape than most of them, but that didn't mean he couldn't still be lying undiscovered beneath a shambles of newsprint in an alley somewhere, clenched in a foetal knot of death.
I missed him, and though I didn't give up hope that he might still be alive, quietly, privately, I began to mourn him. Of all the strange and mad and sad and extraordinary human beings who passed through the doors of the homeless shelter, Harold was perhaps the most remarkable. In his time, before answering the call of the road, he had been a fireman, a trawlerman, a professor of Linguistics at a minor provincial university, war correspondent for a French magazine, and campaign manager for a Colombian presidential candidate; he had worked as a missionary in Zaire and had also enjoyed a career as a petty criminal back here at home; he had fitted curtains, carpets and men's suits, had sold double glazing, life insurance and Jesus door to door, and had earned an Olympic Bronze for pistol-shooting, a gold disc for a song he co-wrote that was made popular by Marti Wilde in the sixties, and the respect of a number of peers of the realm for his sound advice on the preservation of British wetlands (his suggestions led to a Bill being passed in Parliament). And these were just the achievements I knew about. Harold darkly hinted that there were more, and that he had done some things so shady, so hush-hush, that if he told me what they were he would have to kill me. He said that he had run errands for people so nebulously important and powerful that even politicians in the highest echelons of government didn't know they existed, and that his eyes had passed over official documents the contents of which were so alarming they would have turned my hair white. He said this in that calm, cultured voice of his that only served to reinforce the impression that he was truly au fait with the secret workings of the world, the unseen cogs which turned the hands on the clockface of everything that ordinary people perceived.
He was, of course, lying his arse off. Everybody knew that. Even I, who have the word "gullible" stamped across my forehead, had ceased to believe anything Harold told me after the first couple of fables I had fallen for. Harold lived to lie. It was his craft, his art, his true vocation. He did not do it idly or maliciously, to start gossip or spread a rumour or destroy a reputation. He lied the way you or I might collect records or read books. It was his recreation. It took him out of himself. It cleared his head of mind-junk, spring-cleaned the attics of his brain. It was a diversion, an entertainment, a stage act. Harold didn't expect anyone to believe his stories, but he told them anyway, and out of politeness or admiration or a weird kind of gratitude no one turned round to him and said, "Shut your mouth, Harold, I can't breathe for the stink." Once you'd been seduced by a tale of his -- and Harold was always careful to hook a new listener with one of his more plausible lines -- you couldn't help but admire the eloquence and the unselfconscious audacity with which he wove his webs of untruth, and marvel at the lengths he would go to in order to keep you, and himself, amused. Nothing in Harold's imaginary world could be proved. Nothing, equally, could be disproved, so it was foolish to try to reason or argue with him. Any objection would only be met with a bigger lie, and if you persisted in protesting, claiming that what he was telling you contradicted another story he had told you earlier or else was blatantly impossible, his tales would just grow taller and taller and taller until he had built a wall of mendacity so high it could not be scaled, and you gave up exhausted. Resistance was futile. It was easier simply to accept what Harold said at face value and, if you were in the mood, perhaps let drop a well-chosen question that would encourage him to yet more outrageous flights of fancy. And maybe, just maybe, if you got lucky, this lifelong liar might trip himself up and accidentally find himself telling the truth. You never know.
I've always thought that Harold would have made a fine novelist or playwright. He had the vocabulary for it, the skill with language. He spoke the way most people write, in well-formed, thought-through sentences, which made it all the more logical for me to suggest, as I did once, that he set the story of his life down on paper (by which I meant compose a work of fiction). Harold's reply was uncharacteristically straightforward and self-effacing: "What would be the point, Mark? If I wrote it down, who would believe it?"
And now he was gone, or so it seemed. As the days shortened and the trees shed and the sky turned hazy like a cataracted eye, and still Harold did not show, the hope that I had been nurturing like the last ember in a grate gradually dwindled and cooled. Every evening, having left the office and arrived at the shelter in time to help with the dinner shift, I would walk slowly along the rows of tables, checking each bearded face I saw, smiling if its owner caught my eye and offered a greeting, but smiling without any joy or conviction. And then, as I served out food to the shuffling, murmuring queue, each face would come under scrutiny again. Harold might, after all, have shaved his beard. He might have got rid of -- far more likely lost -- the battered, greasy Homburg that never left his head, even on hot days. He might even have had to part company with his army-surplus greatcoat. But however he looked I would have recognised him instantly, had he shambled up to me, plate outstretched, to receive his helping of mashed potato. You do not easily forget the face of a friend.
Finally I became so concerned that I called the police, though I knew they would tell me that there was about as much chance of tracking down a missing vagrant as there was of finding a lost sock at a launderette. Which they did, albeit somewhat more tactfully. I gave them a description of Harold and a list of his known haunts, and was assured that an eye would be kept out for him. This was the best I could hope for, but it didn't prevent me from feeling aggrieved and frustrated. Vivian, the shelter supervisor, sympathised but pointed out that someone like Harold, who had fallen through a hole in the net of society, would always be in danger of slipping out of sight altogether. "These people have already, to a certain degree, disappeared," she said, raising a wise eyebrow. "There's little to stop them taking a last little hop-skip-and-jump to the left and vanishing completely."
I didn't understand precisely what she meant, but I accepted the basic truth of the statement. In desperation, I pinned my home and office phone-numbers to the shelter noticeboard, with a request to the other volunteers to get in touch with me, no matter what time of day or night, should Harold show up. And winter deepened, and a rare December snow came down in thick flurries and left London with an ankle-deep coating of sooty slush, and Christmas came and went, and a New Year crawled over the horizon filled with the promise of much the same as last year, and January turned bitter, and the last spark of hope that Harold might still be alive winked out, and I learned to live with the fact that I would never see him again.
Then one morning, around about four o'clock, the phone rang, and the voice of one of the damned croaked my name.
The tiny portion of my brain that never goes to sleep knew who it was straight away, but the bit that thinks it does the thinking needed longer to place the identity of the caller, so, playing for time, I muttered something about the ungodliness of the hour and told whoever it was that he had better have a bloody good reason for waking me up. There was a long silence at the other end of the line, but even though I thought the connection had been cut, something prevented me from putting down the receiver. Then the voice spoke again. It sounded as though each word was being forged only with great effort and pain.
"I saw your note on the board. I must speak with you."
My conscious brain finally engaged gear with my subconscious. "Harold? Jesus, is that you, Harold?"
"Well, I mean... What's happened? Where have you been? Are you all right? No, OK, listen, you're at the shelter, right? I'll be right over. Man, I really thought I was never going to hear from you again. Wow. OK, Harold, stay put. I'll be right there."
"Listen," Harold said and, from the effort of concentrating so much energy into the command, left himself speechless again. There was breathing -- sore, laboured breathing -- and then the pips went. I shouted at Harold to give me the number of the payphone so that I could call him back, but he managed to insert a coin in time.
"This is how it is, Mark," he said. "I'm not at the shelter now. I've been there and I got your number there, but I didn't stay long -- I didn't want anyone seeing me. I'm coming round to call on you at your place. I need the address."
"OK." I gave it to him and said I'd have a hot cup of tea waiting for him when he arrived.
Either he didn't hear or he didn't care. "I'll be about an hour," he said, and hung up.
After a shower and a shave, I sat down in front of the television. All that was on was an Indian film. The hour passed slowly, with me drifting again and again towards the threshold of sleep and just managing to snap myself awake each time, with the result that my impressions of the film were a bewildering, fragmented chaos of blue gods, portly heroes in polyester shirts and women dancing sinuously. At last the doorbell rang. I switched off the television, lit the gas beneath the kettle, and buzzed Harold up, leaving the flat door ajar. The concrete staircase that served all the flats in the building was uncarpeted and Harold's slow shuffling footfalls echoed all the way up. When he reached the landing outside my door he hesitated, pondering, breathing hard, and then, with a feeble knock, he entered.
Nothing could have prepared me for the profound change that had come over him. It wasn't just that he had lost weight, more weight than a man in his circumstances can afford to lose. Nor was it the unkempt straggliness of his hair and beard, which he was normally at pains to keep brushed and trimmed and tidy. It wasn't that his once-pristine greatcoat was mud-stained and had a number of torn seams, or that frostbite had left three of his fingertips black, shrivelled and hard. It wasn't even the way he walked, stooped over where once he had carried himself with dignified erectness, bent as though bearing an invisible boulder on his back. It was his eyes that shocked me the most. While the rest of him had been somehow lessened, his eyes were larger and wider than I remembered them, and stared, crazy-veined, with a despairing emptiness from oyster-grey sockets. They looked without seeing, and when they finally found me standing by the stove in the small kitchen area of the living room, it took them a while to focus on me and make sense of me.
Forcing on a smile, I pretended that there was nothing different about him. "Hey, man, how're you doing? It's good to see you. I'm glad you're alive."
His reply was dragged up from a moss-encrusted well of misery: "I'm not."
Without saying another word he plodded over to the living-room window and, with some effort, drew back the curtains. The street was misty, the milky air tinged orange by the streetlights, the houses opposite blank-windowed and cold-shouldering. It was the dead hour of the night, when the pavements belong to cats and foxes, when no cars disturb the stillness and you can almost hear the burn of the neon bulbs in their glass casings. Harold gazed out for a long time. It was almost as if he couldn't bear, or didn't dare, to take his eyes off the city for a second. The kettle burped steam and I made us tea, and it was only when I nudged Harold on the shoulder with a full mug that he turned away from the window and, with a nod of thanks, accepted the mug, made his way over to the armchair and settled down. I took to the sofa, and in the eerie small-hours quiet we sat without talking and sipped without tasting. The pain that had been clearly audible in Harold's last remark kept me from asking him anything. Though I burned to know what had happened to him, and though I was deeply concerned about the state of both his physical and his mental health, I realised I would have to wait for him to speak; the only way he was going to give up any information was by volunteering it. And while I hated myself for even giving them head-room, the words "cancer" and "AIDS" did flit across my mind. What else but a terminal illness could so ravage a man, suck so much of the juice out of him, make a husk of him in such a short space of time?
"You want to know where I've been, don't you?" Harold said at last, haltingly, like a man treading barefoot over sharp stones. "Gone all this time -- must be dead, right? Sometimes, you know, I think I am dead. I feel dead, that's for sure. If this isn't how it feels to be dead, I don't know what does."
"I was worried. We all were, all of us at the shelter. You'd never been away for so long before."
Harold didn't seem to care that someone cared. "I'm going to tell you something now, Mark, and you'd better listen, because I'm never going to tell another living soul. I'm not even sure I should be telling you."
"If it's a matter of national security," I joked, "perhaps I shouldn't be --"
"This is real." From beneath the brim of his Homburg Harold fixed me with his eyes. Briefly they gained a lustre, though it was not the pleasant twinkling light that accompanied his forays into falsehood; this was a mean light, bitter in its brightness, harsh and hard. "This is something that actually happened to me, and I'm telling you because I have to tell someone. Because I'll go mad if I don't. I regret, for your sake, that it has to be you, but of all the people I know you're the one I trust most to remember and believe. Everyone else will think I'm making it up. Everyone else will think this is just another of Harold's stories."
It was the first time I'd heard him even come close to admitting that the tales he told about himself, the tales he maintained in the face of all opposition were true, were lies. While it didn't amount to an outright confession, it was near enough to one to make me sit up and pay attention, which was perhaps what Harold had intended.
"You know me, Mark," he continued. "I've been wandering London for a fair old number of years now. I think I know this city pretty well. As well as a husband knows the body of his wife, you might say. There's not a street I haven't been down, not a square inch of pavement in the Greater London area that hasn't seen the soles of my feet. I've worn parts of this city away with walking. It's worn parts of me away in return. I really thought there was nothing new in it, nothing that could surprise me. It turns out I was mistaken.
"It happened last October. Nice, wasn't it, October? Mild, mellow, calm. Trees putting on their autumn firework display. Lovely weather to be out in, all the more lovely because you know it's not going to last. Well, I'd strayed into the suburbs, south of the river. Down Balham way. There's a couple of churches round there that open their crypts at night to let us sleep in them. One of them has a health-care place attached to it, you can get seen by a doctor almost straight away, and I'd had a cough that had been bothering me for weeks, you probably remember. The doctor said it was nothing serious and gave me some antibiotics for it, and I left the health-care place feeling pretty good about myself, the way you do when you're ill and you've just been to see the doctor and he's given you something that you know is going to make you well again. I'd got a meal inside me, too, from one of those charity vans that do the rounds. Soup and sandwiches: God's way of saying, 'Cheer up, old fellow, things aren't so bad.' And I'd picked up a pair of trainers from a skip -- these trainers I've got on here -- and they happened to fit me just right. Air-cushioned soles, nearly new. That put a spring in my step, all right. So I had just about every creature comfort you could think of, nothing whatsoever to complain about. I wonder if that had something...? No, never mind. I'll just tell you the story straight. It hurts too much to think too hard about it.
"London lives. You know that, don't you? Perhaps you don't. It's true of every big city, of course, but it's something you're only aware of if you know that city well, and the way to get to know a city well is not to travel across it by bus or tube, not to drive around it in a car, but to walk through it. That's when you're moving at its own pace, do you see? Contrary to popular opinion, there's nothing fast about cities. The people who live in them may rush around all the time, but cities themselves grow and change so slowly, it's hard to see it happening. It's like mould forming, like a rising-damp stain spreading across a patch of wallpaper. A building goes up, a building comes down, and most of the time we're whizzing by too quickly to notice. Haven't you ever found yourself strolling down a street you know well, only to be caught up short because a house you didn't even realise was being demolished has gone? Whish! Like a conjuror has magicked it away. And I'm sure there have been times when you've stumbled across a brand-new block of flats or a brand-new shopping centre and, when you stop to think about it for a moment, you realise you've been passing that site every day and not once did you spot even one piece of scaffolding. Shops are changing hands all the time, aren't they? Façades get repainted. Black brickwork gets sandblasted clean. And all this goes on around you, and yet only occasionally -- usually when you're out on foot -- does it ever strike you that the city is constantly renewing and reshaping itself, that it's not just a great mass of brick and stone that sits there mouldering and decaying, that the place you live in is something that breathes, pulses, has a heartbeat, may even have some dim kind of sentience."
Here Harold paused, giving me an opportunity to take in what he had been saying so far and prepare myself for what was coming, which, judging by the ironic purse of his lips, was going to be harder still to swallow. I don't think he appreciated how immune I had become to his fictions and fabrications. Neither his savagely altered appearance nor his insistence that this story, of all his stories, was true gave me any reason to suspect that I wasn't just being spun another yarn. I'd decided to hear him out because I thought it would be good for him to get whatever was plaguing him off his chest and because I hoped that this unburdening would be a stepping stone to getting at the real problem, the real reason why he looked and spoke like a soul in torment. I'd also decided that when he was done I would bundle him into a taxi and get him to a hospital. Even if his spirit was beyond repair, his body could be mended.
Harold drew a deep breath and sent it hissing out through his nostrils. "I was coming up through Streatham when it happened. At first I didn't know what was going on. I felt it all around me, like something vast and unseen turning over in its sleep, but I'd no idea what it was. The sky rumbled like a jet was passing overhead, though one wasn't, and the air turned a different colour, darkening several shades. The street I was walking down was busy, full of mid-morning shoppers and pedestrians, and for a few seconds, while this 'shift' was taking place, while the city twitched and stirred and scratched its nose, everyone paused and looked up and around and at each other like there was something they were supposed to be communicating, some thought, some vital piece of information they were supposed to be sharing. And then the rumble faded and the light brightened again and, the moment past, everyone dropped their heads again and carried on with their lives. A few children, for no apparent reason, started crying. A dog that was barking fell silent. That was it. Nothing else was different. Yet I knew -- knew -- that things had changed. Ever so slightly, but perceptibly. And I started walking again, warily now, glancing around me in every direction, hoping to find what was new about the city, what London had done to itself.
"It didn't take long. I hadn't gone more than half a mile when I came across a street I didn't recognise. I said I knew London as well as a husband knows his wife, didn't I?"
"'Knows the body of his wife,' were your precise words."
"Right. Well, imagine you discovered a mole -- no, a tattoo, an old faded tattoo on your wife's right buttock that wasn't there before, couldn't have been there or else you'd have noticed."
My bachelor status made it difficult to empathise with the metaphor, but dutifully I made the imaginative leap. "OK."
"Same thing," said Harold. "What I found was a street that I would be willing to swear on the Bible, the Talmud and the Koran hadn't existed before that odd moment, that 'shift', occurred. Leading off a road I'd been down dozens of times before: a new, perfectly ordinary-looking, perhaps somewhat seedy little street. One that appeared to have been there for ages, for as long as all the other streets around it, at least a century, perhaps longer, but a new street all the same.
"Well, what would you have done? You'd have investigated, wouldn't you? And that's what I did. I wasn't scared. I was curious, and part of that curiosity was fear, but not enough of it was fear to make me turn and walk away, as I should have done. Things would have been so much better if I'd simply turned and walked away. But then we don't do that when we're confronted with a mystery, do we? And it was also a challenge. A stretch of road I'd never been down before, a virgin piece of the city just begging for me to trample all over it -- how could I resist? Me, who's known London so intimately for so long? How could I not walk down those fresh pavements and make my knowledge complete?
"The most peculiar thing about that street was, it felt and smelled and sounded just like any other street. Radios were playing, and there were cars parked along the kerbs and net curtains in the windows of the houses, and people had done different things to their houses, whitewashed them, pebbledashed them, had paved over their front gardens, made little glades out of their front gardens, or not bothered at all with their front gardens and let the weeds grow up and the low front walls crumble and sag. Lives had been lived there on that street. Children had been born, old people had died. Dogs had filled the gutters with their droppings. The street had a history -- and yet less than quarter of an hour ago it hadn't existed.
"And that wasn't all. At the end I came to a pair of huge wrought-iron gates, topped with spikes, wide open. And beyond them was the park.
"I couldn't tell how large the park was when I first stepped through the gates. It was as big as I could see, it stretched in every direction to the horizon, but there were trees and low hills that made it hard to discern exactly how far it extended. It was larger than Hyde Park, that's for sure. Larger, maybe, than Richmond Park. But I wasn't wondering about that at the time. Certainly that was at the back of my mind, but what I was really thinking about was how this place couldn't possibly fit into the map of London I have etched in my head. There wasn't room for it in the network of densely-packed suburban streets in that area. For that park to exist, thousands of houses would have to have been shunted aside, acres of built-up land would have to have been levelled and planted. It was a municipal impossibility. But there it was. I was standing within its perimeter, my feet resting on a solid asphalt path, and I was inhaling the damp sweet autumn aroma of its trees and grass, and I was staring at flower beds and small swelling hills and neatly clipped bushes and hedgerows, and I wasn't dreaming and I wasn't hallucinating -- I hadn't had a drop of alcohol all week. It was all perfectly real, perfectly there. I couldn't have created a whole park out of nothing. No one's imagination is that good.
"I must have stood there like a zombie for the best part of twenty minutes. People were strolling past me, giving me curious looks -- questioning, not wary. A jogger almost ran into me, checking his watch. He apologised and carried on panting along the path. A dog veered away from its owner to sniff at my shoes, tail wagging, and then got dragged back by a tug on the lead, and its owner, a pretty young girl, gave me a brilliant smile and said sorry. She wasn't scared or suspicious. She simply smiled and said sorry, and I said there was no reason to apologise, and she smiled again and carried on her way. Some pigeons strutted over to me and pecked expectantly at the ground around my feet. And then the sun came out.
"It had been overcast all morning, not cold, just grey, but the clouds had been threatening to part for an hour or so, and now at last they did, and the sunlight came down like a blessing and suddenly everything was aglow. The trees were no longer weighed down with yellow leaves, they were dripping with great gleaming flakes of gold. The breeze had been nagging and chilly and a little unpleasant, and now, suddenly, it was warm and wild and playful. It was amazing, the way the clouds rolled away across the sky and left everything below bright and sparkling. Like a TV advert for floor polish, you know what I'm talking about? One wipe of your mop and your linoleum is gleaming. Only on a giant scale. I didn't take my hat off, of course."
"Of course." Harold never removed his Homburg outdoors, and seldom indoors. He had worn it ever since the day he had been struck by lightning in the Sudan (yeah, right). He believed the hat protected him from being hit again, and so far no one could deny that as a talisman it had been an unqualified success.
"That was what finally got my feet moving," he continued, "that sweep of sunshine. It was an invitation. 'Come on,' it said, 'come and explore.' So I did. Any sane man would have done the same."
Harold took a swig of lukewarm tea and set the mug down on the coffee table. For the first time since arriving at my flat he smiled. It was a half-hearted smile, a tenth-generation photocopy of the real thing.
"What can I say about that park? It seemed to have been designed with one thing in mind, and that was to please the human eye. The shapes of the flower beds, the shrubs and the roses that still were still blooming even in October, the patterns made by the hedgerows, everything just so. Where you expected to see a tree, there was a tree. Where you expected a pathway to turn or fork or intersect with another, so it did. The lawns were immaculate, clipped to an inch, rolled, and springy underfoot, the perfect resilience, and where a path cut through there was a clean division, a ridge of sheared-off earth the colour and texture of chocolate cake. And whichever way you looked there was always something to catch your eye: a little Roman garden, a privet maze, a cupola perched on a low hill, a small windowless Georgian house at the end of an avenue of cypresses that was there not to be lived in but because it looked right, a wooden bandstand straight out of an American town square circa 1958, painted blue and cream... Did I mention a maze?"
"I stood for a while at the entrance and watched people go in and out, hearing exasperated cries and peals of laughter coming from inside. No one got lost for long. Everyone who went in emerged after about ten minutes, grinning and satisfied, saying that the maze was just the right difficulty, puzzling but not perplexing. I didn't try it myself. There was too much else to see.
"There was a boating pond where a dozen amateur admirals -- young and old, from eight to eighty, the boys as intense as grown men, the grown men as blithe as boys -- were sending their precious craft on perilous voyages across an Atlantic twenty yards wide. Destroyers and ducks were engaged on manoeuvres side by side. Hopes were pinned on the whims of the wind to bring sailing yachts safely back to shore. A lone submarine glided underwater, popping up every so often and surprising everyone.
"And there was a playground, a playground like you only ever dreamed about when you were a child. There were swings, there were roundabouts, there were slides and seesaws, and best of all there was a climbing frame as big as a house, a sprawling fantasy of ladders and portholes and turrets and fireman's poles, its various sections joined together by wooden suspension bridges hanging from knotted ropes. To the children clambering all over it, it was Sherwood Forest, the Marie-Celeste, Fort Apache and the Death Star all rolled into one, and they were having so much fun, I had to fight the urge to join them. And do you know what? In any other park in the country, if I'd stood for as long as I did watching those children, at least one of the adults present would have come up and asked me to leave, if not threatened to call the police. But in that park the mothers and fathers and nannies and au pairs just smiled up at me from the benches that surrounded the playground, understanding that I was simply sharing their delight at seeing children at play.
"Not far away there was an ice cream van. I didn't have much change on me, and it wasn't what you might call a blistering-hot day, but right then I could think of nothing nicer, nothing that would cap my mood better, than a vanilla cone with a Flake in it. I joined the queue, and, can you believe it, they were giving the stuff away. A promotional offer, the man in the van called it. A new brand, apparently. I don't think I need to tell you how much sweeter that ice cream tasted for being free.
"I took my cone to a bench on a rise just above the playground and gazed out across the park, licking slowly, savouring, nibbling the Flake to make it last. I looked for houses, but there were none. Their rooftops were hidden by trees. I couldn't even see a tower-block. There was just park whichever way you looked. Park to the north, park to the south, park in every direction. There were bright green tennis courts, and men and women in clean white sports clothes running backwards and forwards, and the yellow balls arcing over the nets. There were three teenage boys tossing a Frisbee to each other, and with them a red setter that rushed to and fro and every so often leapt up and snatched the Frisbee from the air in its teeth and wouldn't give it back without a long, grinning tug-of-war. There were young couples wandering hand in hand, pausing now and then for a lingering kiss. There were other young couples lolling on blankets on the grass, legs entwined. There was even an elderly couple behaving like a young couple -- walking a little more slowly, to be sure, but taking more time over their kisses, too.
"Who were these people? Were they Londoners who, like me, had strayed into the park by accident? Or did they belong there? That might have explained their universal cheerfulness -- the fact that they were the park's people, embodying the delight of every spring, summer or autumn day anyone had ever spent in a city park. The ones I'd exchanged words with -- the jogger, the dog-owner, people in the queue for ice creams -- had all been kind and gracious and generous with their time. They didn't shy away from me like most people do, worried that I'm going to ask them for money and that they won't know how to respond. These well-dressed, smiling human beings had without exception treated me as an equal. Much like you do, my friend. You don't know what that means to a gentleman in my position.
"And at no point during that long, happy, sunlit afternoon did I ask myself if this was possible, if a place like this could really exist. Exactly the question you're asking now, Mark, with your eyes. What you must realise is that I wanted it so badly to be possible that I wasn't going to let a little thing like common sense get in the way. So a vast park had appeared where a park could not possibly be -- so what? Sitting there with the sun on my face, a free ice cream in my belly and a view of dozens of happy people in front of me, why would I want to disturb the illusion with questions?
"I stayed there all afternoon, heavy with contentment, the kind of contentment I haven't felt since I was a very small child. A peace that, to coin a phrase, passed all understanding. A sense that the world and I had come to terms with each other, shaken hands and declared a truce. And the sun rolled down and shadows fell, and gradually people began to gather up their belongings and move off. One by one the tennis courts emptied of clean-white-clothed players. The young couples suddenly found a purpose after a day's dawdling and hurried off to the pictures or a pub or a bedroom somewhere. Supremacy over the boating pond was given back to the ducks. The ice cream van whirred away along the pathways, headlights on against the clustering dusk, tinkling a mournful tune. The climbing frame was abandoned. Beside it the swings swayed vacantly to and fro. And finally, when there was no one else in sight and I felt like the only person left alive in the entire world, I hauled myself to my feet, stretched the cricks out of my spine, and set off down the hill in the direction of the gates. Everything was hushed, that twilight a sacred hour. The only sound I could hear was my own reluctant, dragging footsteps. Had it been summer I might have thought about spending the night there, perhaps on the very bench on which I'd been sitting all day, but what with my cough and the dreadful dampness of autumn nights, I thought it would be best if I found somewhere indoors, one of those crypts perhaps. And I could always come back to the park tomorrow, couldn't I? I could keep coming back as often as I wanted.
"There seemed to be only one way in or out of the park, and that was the way I'd come in, through those gates. And now, as darkness was beginning to fall, one of the gates was shut and there was someone standing by the other. A plain-faced man in uniform. A park-keeper. He had on a cap and a courteous smile.
"'Last one out, eh, sir?' he said to me. Someone in uniform calling me sir!
"'Am I?' I replied, glancing around. I really thought there would be others like me, stragglers unwilling to leave. No one. 'I'm sorry. I was enjoying myself so much, I entirely lost track of the time.'
"And the park-keeper said, 'That's all right, sir. We deserve a little enjoyment in our lives, don't we? One day of happiness to make up for all the other miserable ones.'
"I told him he couldn't be righter, thanked him for the use of his park and said I'd be coming back soon. It was too wonderful a place not to revisit. And he just smiled again, a little sadly I think, and ushered me through the gate and closed it behind me with a heavy, ringing clang and wished me good night and strode away. I was halfway down the street when I realised I had forgotten to ask him the name of the park, but by then it was too late. I looked back, and he was nowhere to be seen.
"I slept well that night. The crypt was warm -- once a hundred or so bodies had heated it up -- and a mattress makes all the difference, doesn't it? A mattress and the memory of a day so strange and delightful you can hardly believe it happened.
"And then, near dawn, I woke to the sound of the 'shift' taking place again. A great groaning, far off, like the bellow of a dinosaur in pain. A grating noise like a huge stone being rolled across a cavern entrance. And up and down the length of the crypt sleeping people stirred and moaned and rolled over, as though sharing a bad dream. I lay there for a moment frozen in horror, then leapt out of bed and threw on my hat and coat -- of course I'd kept my new shoes on in bed; even amongst beggars there's precious little honour -- and I sprinted out of there filled with a panic I couldn't explain, a sense of foreboding, of abrupt and irredeemable loss. I dashed through the dawn streets like a madman, driven by fear and the need to know, and finally I reached the street from which the other street, the street that had come from nowhere, led off. Gasping for breath, I staggered down it to where the junction with the other street had been. But I knew, even before I got there, that..."
I completed the sentence he couldn't finish himself: "That it was gone."
"As though it had never been there," he sighed. "The street was gone, the houses were gone, the iron gates were gone, the park was gone. What had been unearthed by that first shift of the city had been buried again, packed neatly away back where it came from, like a toy no longer wanted."
He paused there, as if unable to contemplate the magnitude of his loss.
"I don't understand the hows or the whys of it," he said eventually. "Perhaps the street and the park belong to a London we don't normally see, a secret London that exists alongside the city we know, a second London, a ghostly twin that's made up of all our hopes and dreams and longings of what this city should be like, and sometimes the two, for some reason, overlap and you can move from one to the other. I don't know. Or perhaps everyone, once in their lives, is allowed a glimpse of how things should be. Perhaps that's what the park-keeper was telling me when he said that everybody deserved a day of happiness to make up for all the miserable ones. Perhaps he meant that we should never forget that true contentment is possible and, whatever our circumstances, we should keep striving to achieve it. I don't know.
"All I know is this. I've been searching for that park ever since. For four months I've been roaming London in a state of shock. I've hardly slept, I've hardly eaten, I've hardly communicated with anyone -- I've talked more this past half-hour than I have in the entire past four months. I've just walked and walked and walked, gradually coming to look like a cartoon parody of a tramp, and hoping constantly, with the desperation of a fool, that somehow I'll find a way back to the park, or another park like it, another pocket of perfection in an otherwise ruined world.
"At times I think I've been close. Once or twice I've heard a distant rumbling, but so far away, too far away to be sure that it wasn't just a bus revving in the next street or a tube-train thundering below my feet. Once or twice I've detected a change in the quality of the light, but how can I know for certain it wasn't just a cloud passing in front of the sun or my eyes playing tricks on me? I can't. I can't be sure of anything except that the park was real, that the peace I felt there was real, and that I will never stop looking until I find both that park and that peace again.
"What do you call it, Mark, when you get a taste of heaven and realise that nothing will ever be that sweet again?"
"Growing up? Growing old?" I hazarded.
Harold lowered his gaze to look at his cracked, frostbitten hands. "I call it Hell," he said, simply.
There wasn't much else to be said. The alarm clock trilled in the bedroom, slowly winding down to silence. Outside the street had become marginally brighter, and every so often a car swished past. Lights were on in some of the windows opposite. London and its inhabitants were gearing themselves up for another day.
"Harold," I offered tentatively, "how about I take you to a doctor? Get you looked at?"
"What's the point?" he said, after a moment of actually looking like he was considering it.
"The point is, frankly, you're in awful shape, and in my opinion if you're not careful and you carry on the way you have been, you're going to do yourself irreparable harm."
"And in my opinion I think I should be going now." So saying, Harold rose stiffly to his feet.
"Harold," I said, "you're crazy."
"Mark, I wish I were," he replied, and turned to go.
I didn't stop him. I know I should have, but really, what could I have done? Manhandled him down the stairs and wrestled him into a taxi? Knocked him unconscious with a candlestick and called for an ambulance? I had no right to force Harold to do anything he didn't want to do. Or so I justified it to myself then, and have been justifying it ever since. The fact is, I watched Harold shuffle out of the flat and listened to him make his way painfully down the stairs and didn't lift a finger to prevent him because right at that moment I hated him. I hated him for having sat there in my armchair and manufactured a story of utter preposterousness -- possibly the most ludicrous and pointless story he had ever told, not to mention the hardest to disprove -- rather than simply owned up to the truth. What the truth was I had no idea (I fear he actually had contracted a terminal illness), but whatever the real reason for Harold's physical and spiritual deterioration, I hated him for not having the courage to share it with me. Until then his stories had been a source of amusement and wry pleasure, but that morning I saw Harold clearly for the first time, saw him for the pathetic, deluded, degraded man he was, a man so vain and yet so devoid of self-esteem that he felt he had to lie to make himself interesting.
And I'll tell you this, too. I have never seen Harold since that morning, which is getting on for half a year ago now. Neither has anyone else, and it seems to all intents and purposes that he has vanished off the face of the earth. And while an ungenerous part of me thinks good riddance, another kinder part hopes that wherever Harold is, he has found his park again.
In the meantime, whenever I'm walking around London, I find myself half listening out for what Harold called a "shift", a faint, far-off rumble that will mean that the city has in some way reconfigured itself to show another facet briefly to the world, revealing the truth behind the façade -- or the façade behind the truth (Harold would have known the difference). And for all my cynicism, for all my scepticism, I find myself hoping that, in this one instance, Harold was on the level.
Well, you never know.
© James Lovegrove 1995, 1999.
This story first appeared in Dante's Disciples (Borealis, 1995).
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