By Marilyn Pemberton
I sit on my favourite park bench under a large oak tree, whose ancient canopy both shelters and camouflages me. I am close to the lake and I watch with pleasure as the ducks waddle intently from bread crumb to bread crumb as if it is their last meal. The late afternoon sun no longer penetrates my corner; no-one breaks their step to glance at me, it is as if I am myself a shadow.
I continue to sit as the birds begin to roost and the families leave for home. I wait in the gloaming and then she comes. A young woman in her mid-twenties, trying unsuccessfully to restrain a chocolate brown labrador puppy from pulling her arm out of the socket. She stops at the railing that prevents her from actually being dragged into the water. She loops the lead over one of the spikes and sternly commands the pup to “sit!” Surprisingly it does and the woman rewards it with a pat to the head and something tasty extracted from her pocket. She then takes a plastic bag from the same pocket and starts to throw lumps of bread over the fence into the lake. She laughs as the ducks come from all directions fighting each other for their supper, having seemingly forgotten that they had just been settling down for the evening. The woman is completely enclosed by an aura of pale green, the colour of a new leaf about to unfurl; fresh and vulnerable.
She points to a bird whose gorgeously coloured feathers shine in the dying sunlight. “That, Bella, is a male duck. The males are, quite unfairly to my mind, always more beautiful than the females, which are usually a dull brown and very plain. I am sure that the males love them, nonetheless.” Bella sits with her head to one side, as if listening to her lesson, but her eyes remain firmly on the prey just out of her reach. “And those big birds are geese. We need to make sure that they don’t get all the food. And that little black bird is either a moorhen or a coot, I can’t remember.”
“It’s a moorhen.” So intently has the woman been feeding the birds and educating her dog, and so intently have I been watching her, that neither of us has noticed a young man arrive and stand nearby, accompanied by a shaggy dog of indeterminate breed. “The moorhen and coot are cousins, but the moorhen has a red beak and the coot has a white one. My name is Arthur, by the way, very nice to meet you.” He puts out his hand. Even though I can only see the woman’s back I can sense the blush that colours her cheeks. She touches her hair nervously but gives his hand a firm shake and tells him that her name is Elizabeth, but her friends call her Beth. He is a good looking young man with a charming smile and it comes as no surprise to me that he moves nearer and starts to give the correct names to the flock of birds that I and the woman have merely categorised as ducks. As the humans tentatively get to know each other, so too do the dogs, in their own inimitable way. I watch, unnoticed in my gloomy corner.
They come to the park most evenings, as I do. I watch with interest as their friendship flourishes, just like the flowers in the well-maintained beds. Over the next weeks and months I watch Beth transform from a young, lonely woman with only her dog as a companion, into a woman confident in herself and in her beloved. They only have eyes for each other and even as the leaves turn and fall, leaving my corner exposed to those with the sight, I know they will not see me. One evening when a full year has passed and it is spring once more, I notice a ring on Beth’s finger that sparkles brighter than the sunlight on the water. Her aura has matured into a bright yellow like a fully open sunflower, joyous and hopeful.
I always know when Beth is coming for the surroundings light up as if a hundred spotlights have been switched on. I prefer it when just she and Bella come; I enjoy her ridiculous conversations with her dog, who still yearns to chase the ducks but knows she shouldn’t. Even if the day is overcast and cool, her aura warms me and melts the coldness of my heart. When he accompanies her, however, his body casts long black shadows in the brightness and there is a coldness in the air that makes me shiver.
Summer has segued effortlessly into Autumn and they do not come to the park for a fortnight, but I sit on my bench patiently, knowing that they will return soon. When they do, both slightly tanned, I glimpse a gold band nestled next to her engagement ring. She looks so happy and still has eyes only for him, although I cannot but notice that his glance wanders sometimes as other young women stroll past. His smile is as charming as it ever has been, but his eyes lack warmth.
As the weeks pass I notice that her aura is turning to a contented hyacinth blue, and I know that under her winter coat her belly is gently swelling. He, however, has the look of a trapped animal and his eyes are forever searching, for what I know not. Then, two months before Beth is due, there is a whole month when my evenings are empty. I am filled with apprehension. I feel as if I have swallowed a canon ball and I dread their next visit.
I see her aura before I see her, a vast cloud of blackness that almost engulfs her. She shuffles rather than walks and rests heavily on Arthur’s arm. The two dogs walk quietly by their side, sensing the grief that threatens to devour her. But not him; I can see the relief in his walk, in the glint of his wandering eyes. Her melancholy does not lift and her aura remains an impenetrable veil such that I can hardly discern her slender body. My anger mounts as each evening goes by and he supports her less and less, and criticises her more and more for not “getting over it.”
Then one evening she comes alone, but for the two dogs. I long to go to her and wrap my arms around her but I know it is a battle she has to fight on her own. She continues to come each evening, as if the habit is the only thing that is keeping the strands of her life together. It takes many months, maybe even years before her aura turns from black to charcoal grey, to silver, just like the strands in her hair. She turns to look in my direction sometimes and my heart breaks for the sadness I see in the downturn of her mouth, and the emptiness in her dark eyes.
The years pass, as do both dogs, but she continues to come and I am pleased when she arrives with another puppy straining at the lead. I am even happier when I see that her aura, silver for so many years, is tinged with pink. Her tread is lighter and I see the ghost of a smile. She teaches the new pup the names of the birds, learnt all those years ago. Then one evening she turns up with another man. I am surprised at how old he looks, but I count back the years and realise that Beth must be well into her forties by now.
There are five years of quiet contentment. Her aura never brightens to the shining yellow of her youth, but it remains a steady apricot colour. They marry, but no honeymoon breaks their daily routine and my heart grows heavy as I see how tired she now becomes by the time she reaches the lake, and how she has to rest for longer and longer on the railing. She starts to use a walking stick, and the paleness of her face haunts me. Her husband remains faithful and loving and offers the support and comfort she deserves. He now pushes her in a wheelchair, as effortlessly as if it was empty, so frail has she become.
It is a cold Monday evening in January. There is no-one else by the lake except myself. My heart flutters in anticipation. I hear his steady step and the crunch of the wheels on the gravel. The dog is now old and pads slowly by his mistress’s side. She no longer has the strength to throw the bread but she watches him follow the ritual, a gentle smile hovering over her lips. He screws up the paper bag and carefully puts it in his pocket. He continues to look out over the still water until she says something quietly to him and he turns towards her. I am shocked by the anguished expression on his face. He bends to kiss her gently on the lips, then takes the small pillow from behind her head.
I can almost feel the satin pressed firmly against my own nose and mouth; I smell the faint scent of lavender and I remember the absolute relief as my breathing dwindles to nothing and my aura glows pure white.
About the authorBuy "The Jewel Garden" now at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jewel-Garden-Marilyn-Pemberton-ebook/dp/B079ZY877T or https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-jewel-garden/marilyn-pemberton/9781912582037
Member of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists
Member of the Historical Novel Society
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