I was reviewing a poem the other day which brought back a memory I had completely forgotten. Usually reminiscence is pleasant, but I can’t say so this time. It took me back to when I was still at grammar school, in the little village-turned-commuter-town where I was born and brought up. I suppose I was sixteen or so; or at least, old enough to go to the library on my own on a dark winter evening.
I must have had the twelve-year-old fox-terrier bitch with me. Her name was Chispa, Spanish for “Spark” for the star-mark on her forehead. Chispa accepted that if I took her to the library she must wait patiently, with the leash tied to a hook in the entrance lobby, until I came out. When this incident opens, in my mind’s eye I am walking through Mayer Park; in those days, dog walking in parks was not frowned upon and one didn’t have to “scoop the poop” behind them. I would not otherwise have gone that way to the Library, after dark, when the nearer way, along the street, was also better lit.
It’s odd how memory layers information. The Library at that time was in an old farmhouse. It had been bequeathed to the community by Joseph Mayer, a local industrialist and philanthropist of the 19th Century. Although my grandmother’s maiden name was Meyer, having been born back in the 1890s to a German/French father and an English mother, Mayer was no relation to my family; the similarity of name was pure coincidence. I remember outside on the Library wall there were plaques in ciment-fondu, which depicted scenes from Proverbs: Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Mayer had donated not only the farmhouse in which he used to live, but also the Hall he built next door, and all his collection of books which formed the nucleus of the original library. The house had been extended in the 1960s to accommodate the growing demands of the book stock, and I was familiar with all its ins and outs because my mother worked as a librarian there. I (with or without Chispa) was always welcome behind the scenes. I looked forward to spending an hour among the shelves, choosing something to borrow, then walking home with Mum and Chispa.
So there we were, the old dog and I, walking through the dark Park. We were following one of the broad paths, under the bare horse-chestnut trees. The Library extension was on our right, and on our left a laurel shrubbery which we didn’t walk in because of its dense foliage and tripping roots.
It was quiet, with only the sound of occasional passing cars on the road ahead and Chispa’s claws click-clicking on the tarmac beside me, accompanying my clacking heels. I probably had my hands in the pockets of the grey wool coat Mum made for me; she often told me off for spoiling its line. Although the evening was dark and cold, we were at peace with the world. I had my eye on the orange of the street lights and my mind on the warmth of the Library.
Then I heard the cry. I can still hear it. It came from the shrubbery. One crack of a twig, a rustle of leaves, and that cry of fear. It was not a child, not someone playing a game. It was a gasp and a cry from a girl of my own age. I stopped. There was no way to see through the bushes. I listened. There was only a crack of another twig, then silence. The leaves were dark, and the spaces under the branches lay thick with night.
“Hello? Are you all right?” There was no reply. “Hello?”
I stood there with my heart thumping. I was conscious of danger but I simply didn’t know what I could do. I wore glasses and knew my short sight to be a very vulnerable point. I couldn’t see anything among the shrubs, didn’t know my way in there, couldn’t drag the old dog after me in among the laced branches, didn’t know who was in there apart from the girl. I also think I was aware of the fragility of my new nylon tights compared with the dense nature of a laurel bush, and that I currently had no money to buy more. Not even a few pennies for the public telephone.
The local police station was a mile and a half away. How handy it would have been for a police “Z” car to go by, but it didn’t.
I walked away rapidly to the Library. I took the dog right indoors with me, while I looked for my mother. After five minutes or so I found her, somewhere in the back corridors, and I poured out my breathless story.
“Do you think we should call the police?” I finished.
My mother was tired after a long day on her feet.
“No,” she said shortly. “She probably didn’t get anything she wasn’t asking for.” And the topic was closed.
I don’t remember the walk home.
I don’t remember anything reported in the local newspaper. I was not forbidden to go to the library on my own, and I think the caution that I developed about dark shrubberies was entirely mine. I never heard of anything having happened to a young girl, that dark winter evening in Mayer Park.
But forty years later, I still wonder what I might have prevented.