Been a Place

Max Dunbar
Fiction


A Peek into the Park
Photo Credit: Vaidotas Mišeikis

I came to Hyde Park at nineteen. I should explain that when I say ‘Hyde Park’ I don’t mean in London, I mean the residential student area surrounding Woodhouse Moor in Leeds. It’s hardly one of the world’s great wonders, but it must have made an impression on me, because whenever I hear the words ‘Hyde Park’ I don’t think of London; I think of LS6.

Like most people, I came here for university—the best days of one’s life, they say, but my first year as a student I remember mainly as a time of awkwardness and discomfort. I was in Bod, a halls of residence located between Lawnswood and Adel, right on the middle of the ‘Otley Run’. The accommodation was a nightmare; although our corridors were meant to be segregated you had boys coming home drunk from Vodka Leeds and running around chanting football songs and banging on doors. People told me the first year was when you were supposed to have some fun and have casual sex before the real work begins. But at that time I wasn’t cut out for social life; I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink much and I felt too chunky and plain to go to clubs. For those months I supposed I was lonely: sitting there in a little wooden bedsit, the glow of my MacBook and my desk lamp cast onto Commercial Law in the Next Millennium, while from all over this hetacomb came the sickly-sweet smell of cannabis and the thump and cry of parties.

I did make some friends, through lectures. The very studious people tended to gravitate towards each other, we had after all been thrown together, and in our relations there was this acknowledgement of our shared situation. When it came time to leave Bodington four of us decided to rent a house together and the others suggested LS6. I wasn’t so keen—I’d heard stories of substandard housing, rats in the walls, loud parties and people shot in the street—but the others persuaded me. We found a house on Kensington Terrace that was actually quite lovely—a three-storey Victorian place with very large bedrooms and thick sturdy walls. Then we left the city, to go to various summer placements; I myself was shadowing at a full-service firm in Newmarket.

I didn’t come back until October, when lectures started again. I had only been away for two months, but for some reason—I can’t quite explain this—I had the sense that everything had changed. The others had already moved in properly and I remember Anna and Lucy helping me carry my luggage out of the car. It was perhaps late afternoon, the sun was shining, the leaves were a crinkled golden and there was a cool, avid breeze in the air. I am not a metaphysical thinker so it’s hard for me to describe, but I had the feeling that everything was different, that I was turning into someone else; it was uncanny, a cold anticipation. There was something else that happened, too.

It was the morning and I was walking down Woodhouse Lane, on my way to Cloth Hall Court, which was the law building, in town near Westgate. I was just crossing the motorway bridge that separates Hyde Park from the city when I realised that I had forgotten my USB memory stick. The USB had the PowerPoints on it for my presentation. I hadn’t slept much last night; I had prepared the presentation well in advance but had then sat up going over it and over it, and before I knew the clock was past midnight. I couldn’t believe this; I never lose things. I was furious with myself. I stopped dead on the bridge and said, out loud: ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’ Students were passing over the bridge—a couple of them looked round—I must have looked like such a prat.

Then a young man appeared in front of me. I say young, but to me he looked too old to be a student, perhaps in his mid-twenties. ‘Beautiful lady! You have lost something!’

This completely threw me. I wasn’t beautiful; I knew that. ‘Sorry? Are you talking to me?’

‘Certainly I am.’ He gave a great bow, tipping his hat to me as he did so—it was some kind of nineteenth-century cowboy hat and seemed to be covered in leaves. ‘Martin Sealey, at your service.’

‘Do I know you?’ I was sure I did not; apart from our trips to the local pub and our little gatherings on Kensington Terrace I rarely saw people, and I would have remembered Sealey if I had seen him, with his flowing leather jacket, and odd, translucent-white skin.

‘Perhaps not, lady! But I have seen you! In our happy Hyde Park!’

I thought then that he must have taken a fancy to me, having seen me jogging on the Moor or at the Clock, and this was his way of ‘chatting me up’. My heart sank; I’d had a few dispiriting one-night stands in my first year, with the kind of bloke who thinks it the height of humour to snap a girl’s bra-strap in Tequila Leeds, and since then I had, I suppose, turned my back on men and sex. ‘Well, I’m happy to meet you, Martin. But I really have to—‘

‘But wait!’ He reached into a pocket of that ridiculous jacket and brought out, to my astonishment, a USB stick. ‘I have found your lost thing!’

I took it from him. It was my memory stick, it had my label with my name on it. ‘Wow—thanks. That’s a big help. But I really do—‘

‘Think nothing of it, beautiful girl!’ He knelt and, incredibly, kissed my hand. ‘I am a Finder of Lost Things!’

I remember no one was looking at us.

I walked down to Cloth Hall in a state of anxiety, not just about the presentation but the fact that this man had taken an interest in me. Obviously the stick must have fallen out of my tote, and this Sealey had picked it up, but it worried me that he had taken this interest all the same. He had seen me in Hyde Park; what if he started hanging about the house?

But by the time I got home I was in better spirits. The presentation had gone very well and led to an interesting discussion. By the time I arrived—it was around five o’clock, Neighbours was on the TV and the delicious cooking smells from the kitchen told me that Lucy was preparing our evening meal—I was able to relate the incident in a humorous framework. The girls were amused, sort of pleased for me: they were always telling me how pretty I was and trying to ‘set me up’ with suitable men from the course, much as I tried to dissuade them.

That night, in my attic bedroom, before I went to bed, I did something I had never done before: I took off my clothes, and looked into the full-length mirror. I suppose I had a good body, with a flat stomach, muscular thighs and arms, but the whole never seemed to come together: I had a rather horsey, freckly face, breasts that made me feel self-conscious, and I was too tall—almost six foot. Only my red-blonde hair I truly liked about myself.

Despite these ‘body issues’ it was that autumn that I really began to enjoy university life. The course was going well; I was getting 68s and 72s, but it wasn’t just that. I began getting on more with the girls at the house; before, as I said, we had really just been thrown together, but now we actually found we had a connection. Getting ready for nights out, giggling for ages at our silly jokes, going to pubs and house parties, long animated chats. I began to run. I stopped wearing my rather drab high-street clothes and I bought new clothes from the curious little shops on Hyde Park Corner. I found that I was laughing more often, that my anxieties about the world seemed to melt away in the autumn sunshine.

I wasn’t the only one who changed, though.

It was in the winter that Anna began seeing someone. It was inevitable, I suppose, and no reason I should take exception to it. Of the four of us, we all kind of had our characteristics, like four girls in a TV series: Lucy was the thinker, the ‘ideas woman’; Dani was the good-looking fashionable one. I was, of course, the sensible one. Anna was our eccentric. Convention did not seem to matter to her. Anna would think nothing, for example, of staying up all night at a gig, then going to her lectures in the morning, or of stopping on the way to university to play with one of Hyde Park’s innumerable stray cats and dogs. She wore bangles and played the guitar and had lots of ideas and projects. Although she was studying law like all of us, I thought she could have been a writer or a musician or a great artist, and indeed she told me that she had wanted to study art, but her parents would only pay the fees for a law course. I got the impression that she didn’t like her parents much and there was some suggestion of cruelty in the family. But that is by the by.

What struck us all about Anna’s boyfriend was that we never saw him. Obviously it was the done thing to introduce your partner; Dani and Lucy’s boyfriends used to come for meals at our house, it was sort of a custom with us, to see if the boys were ‘up to scratch’ as it were. But Anna’s boyfriend we never saw. She would simply disappear on an evening or at a weekend to be with him, and come back at dawn or around that time. Often she would bound into my room and start talking. On these occasions she never appeared drunk, rather she seemed to be full of this bright energy, her skin fresh and pale, her body vitalised and taut. She would talk for about an hour, about books, music—I couldn’t follow half of what she said. Then, abruptly, she would fall asleep, and I’d lay awake beside her for a while afterwards, and when I managed to get back to sleep myself I always heard the sound of voices in a language I didn’t know—to me the voices seemed to be speaking in Gaelic—and the sound of bells.

‘Why can’t we meet your boyfriend, Anna?’ I asked, once.

‘It wouldn’t work,’ she muttered into my shoulder. ‘He’s not part of us.’

Wherever she went—and we never quite knew: no one ever reported seeing her at the clubs or the bars on Call Lane—it seemed to take it out of her; after one or two of these mysterious excursions she would often sleep for the rest of the day, missing lectures and seminars. This was what worried me: surely it wasn’t worth falling behind, and having to re-sit exams, just because of some bloke?

‘Do you think she’s on drugs?’ Dani asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. I didn’t know anything about drugs. ‘She’s certainly very pale.’ I had the idea that drug addicts were always pale. ‘But maybe it’s a mental health problem. Maybe she has bipolar disorder.’

‘Do you think this man’s hurting her?’

‘Victims of domestic violence tend to be quiet and withdrawn,’ Lucy said. ‘But, when Anna is around and awake, she seems happy.’

‘Whatever the reason, Anna’s got to pull her finger out if she’s going to save her degree,’ I said. That became my ‘mission’ for the second year; help Anna get her grades up to speed. Plenty of students ended up dropping out after getting too heavily into Hyde Park’s drug and house party scene, drawn into the orbit of LS6 characters, men like Ray Perinelli and Nate Kirby. I liked Anna and didn’t want her to get sucked in.

That Friday, the three of us took Anna out to a local pub, the Hyde Park Social, and told her frankly that we were worried. It didn’t go well; Anna seemed tired and drawn. She drank pint after pint of the awful watery beer the Social served and she didn’t seem to understand what we were saying to her. ‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘I’m free in every way you’re not. I don’t have to join the assembly line.’

She went on like this at some length, talking in these very romantic and mystical tones. By eleven Dani and Lucy were tired and left for the house, but I stayed with Anna. I still thought I could get through to her—at least that’s what I believed at the time. Looking back, though, I just wanted to stay with my friend. There was a happy playful energy that seemed infectious to me. It was a strange cold thing and it scared me but I liked it also.

When the last-order bell went, Anna said: ‘Would you like to meet my boyfriend? You might understand then?’

‘That’s a great idea.’ Perhaps, I thought, if I could talk to this man, he would help persuade Anna into a more sensible work-life balance.

I followed Anna through Hyde Park. I had been to lots of parties by now; there always seemed to be several happening at any one time. There were lots of people getting falling-down drunk and taking cocaine or ecstasy or one of the newer drugs, but it was okay, there was never any pressure to take drugs, and I enjoyed these house parties; they could be a good laugh. But what I loved about these nights, what I remember, is walking through the streets of Hyde Park, a darkness that teemed with glimpses of laughing men and women, bottles in clinking bags, the light from the doors, the sound of strange foreign music, slipping from house to house.

I had assumed we were going to one of these parties, and was surprised when Anna led me up Brudenell Road, towards the park. I should explain that Woodhouse Moor is miles across, with the streets and universities clustered around it. In the spring and summer you saw people sitting on the park, drinking, playing football; I used to get up on winter mornings and run on the Moor, it was gorgeous at that time, the stately frost on the grass, the air crisp and elemental. But the park had no streetlights and you would not want to walk on it at night. It loomed above us like a black cairn.

‘We can’t go through there,’ I said.

And Anna said, ‘Why not? This is where the revel is.’

She led me through the trees, and although I felt afraid, that cold energy was there as well, on me and in me, and it drove me forward. Lights appeared in front of me and in those lights I could see people. ‘Fern,’ Anna said, ‘this is Martin.’

A shadow detached itself and I realised this was Sealey, the man from the motorway bridge. ‘Beautiful lady!’ he cried. ‘I am delighted to see you again!’ He put his arm around Anna, and for some reason—it was silly—I felt a pang to see them.

Some kind of music started up (although I didn’t see a sound system or anyone playing an instrument) and Sealey gave me some kind of tea to drink in a weird mug made of crumbly stone. Everyone started talking, but not to me. I tried to listen to the conversations and couldn’t make any sense of them: Anna and Martin and her friends talked about old battles I’d never heard of and mad stories about made-up creatures. The music grew louder, it was like nothing I had ever heard, something with fiddles and lutes and strings, rhythms like no music that could possibly exist, an insane symphony. We were dancing in the middle of the park. Although there were no streetlights here, miles from the lights of the city and of the streets of Hyde Park, I saw vague flashing whitenesses that illuminated the faces of the dancers. I saw a man with antlers growing out of his temples, a woman in a red cloak with eyes so far apart they were almost on the sides of her head, people dressed in a crazy mishmash of finery and rags; one blonde woman tore off her bodice at one point to reveal three perfect breasts. I had also the feeling that there were animals around us, dangerous creatures from underneath the earth.

The thing was, none of this struck me as grotesque at the time, or frightening. I loved these people, I danced with them, I kissed them and their mouths tasted of stone and earth. More and more I loved Anna, too, I hugged her and we vowed our undying love and friendship, again and again and again. Woven into the music I could hear a female voice, that felt like it was coming from the grass and the trees and the sky, you are it you are this alone beautiful and free this is everything, and oh! how true it was! There was a leaden tightness in my lower jaw, and the trees made a soft susurration as wind passed through them.

I awoke naked just before dawn. The revellers were gone; Anna was gone; everything was gone and I couldn’t remember enough of last night. There was a block of perhaps five or six hours I could not account for, and that frightened me. When I got up, also, there were lacerations down my right side, as if I had been fighting through brambles.

I walked back naked through the park. On occasion, when I got up early, I would see party heads wandering back from the night before, but luckily today I saw no one. At that point I was more worried about pneumonia. I had been out all night on a subzero December. What had I been thinking? I realised that my drink must have been spiked.

No one was up in the house. I took a long warm bath, careful not to get the water too hot. There was no pain in my vagina and I had no tearing, but the lacerations really hurt and I had to disinfect them. I realised I would have to take a morning-after pill, an STD test, inform the police. The thought exhausted me. I went to bed and fell asleep.

A knocking on my door woke me from a sleep of mad rushing nightmares. Dani and Lucy were at my door. ‘Anna’s not back,’ Dani said. ‘Has she been in touch with you?’

‘I haven’t seen her since last night,’ I said.

‘Last night? You’ve been asleep for two days, Fern.’

I struggled into jeans and my LS6 hoodie and we went onto the park. Dusk had fallen again and the moor was deserted; there were distant figures with dogs, but that was all.

‘Anna!’ Dani’s shout echoed across the grass.

I looked at my phone. Nothing from Anna. I rang, got her voicemail. She’d changed her recorded message; it now consisted of a series of bells that made me think of empty churchyards and gave me the shivers. I sent her a text message: Where are you?

‘And this was the last time you saw her?’

‘She took me to some mad party,’ I said. ‘There were hundreds of people on this park. It was stupid. I shouldn’t have gone.’

My phone bleeped. It was Anna:

I will tell you where I am

I will send you a map

The three of us gathered around my phone. Bleep. I opened the map that Anna had sent me. It was just a Google map of Woodhouse Moor, but the locations made no sense. She’d dropped pins at various points. Emain Ablach. The Hinterlands. A roving dot that, when I moved onto it, said Daoine Sidhe. At the centre of the park, where we had been dancing, was a dot labelled Tir na nÓg.

Anna did not come back that night, the night after, or the night after. We informed her parents, informed the police, put posters up on the flyers and drums. A detective came to the house. He told me that the area had higher than usual rates for missing persons, particularly the young. He showed me photographs and faces. I said I did not recognise any of these people, at which he glanced up; I had spoken too quickly.

The next summer I spoke in the university law society in a debate about the EU. The debate went well and I had a glass of wine with my opposite number in the Town Hall bar. His name was Michael and he was quirky and good looking, with cropped curtain blond hair and—for some reason—braces instead of a belt. By the third year we were living together in a flat in Headingley.

I graduated with a first and completed my pupilage at a London firm. At twenty-two I had already qualified, but it felt like a hollow victory. The hours were long and the work, for the most part, a dull grind. I stopped thinking in academic years and started thinking in financial years. Michael and I argued, then split up. Shortly after I turned thirty, I began to feel depressed.

I don’t mean numb blank depression; what I felt was an awful sweeping melancholia, a sense of how insignificant I was, how quick and brief my life, with no more meaning to it than the flight of autumn leaves in the fury of the wind. I began to cry at random moments. I would get up in the middle of the night and walk with my heels in my hand and sit by the Serpentine. Towards the end I began to hear bells, and to taste the earth in everything I drank.

They told me I had a breakdown. They were okay about it. I had BUPA coverage. I had a private room. I slept a lot. My dad brought me some books.

One time I woke up in the middle of the night and Anna was there. She looked as beautiful and alive as she had that night on the moor. She began to speak to me, but I could not understand what she was saying. I could see intimations of people and landscapes behind her.

‘Anna!’ I cried out. ‘Please help me!’

But with a graven sadness in her expression, Anna turned away, and there was only a trace of forgotten music to mark where she had been.

 

I’m now thirty-five years old, living with a wonderful man on the Dartmouth coast and expecting my first child. I changed my field, from commercial law to housing: it’s not as profitable, but much more human work. I enjoy a glass of wine, making love, walking along the beach with my dogs. I’m happy.

This is the first time I’ve written about the strange events of Hyde Park, and only for myself, for not even my dear husband would believe me. I haven’t been back, and never intend to. The place scares me. I have come to the conclusion that I’m really too sensible to be touched by magic.

And yet there are times, particularly in the autumn, when I think about my friend, and in my mind I hear the bells ring out, and the laughter from Woodhouse Moor.

pencilWebsite: Max Dunbar. Email: max.dunbar[at]googlemail.com

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