I have just walked through a park at night.
Consider the equation, a mantra repeatedly chanted to us from childhood by adults who know.
A woman + alone + darkness = things that go bump/scary monsters/criminals = DO NO EVER DO THIS.
I passed a woman walking in the opposite direction.
We smiled like conspirators.
Only we knew we were doing something subversive.
We knew the above equation is wrong.
Well, mostly wrong.
We were co-conspirators, debunking a big Urban Myth.
We were sharing a secret.
PARKS ARE SAFE AT NIGHT.
They are safe mostly because they are so seldom used, so criminals and ply their trade elsewhere and scary monsters have more fun in our dreams.
I had always avoided parks at night, even if it meant taking a huge detour to get home. But one night things changed. I was tired to the point of near delerium, my feet were killing me. I was near collapse.
I decided to take a big risk.
Attack by monsters was preferable to collapsing in the street in the middle of the night.
I entered the gates.
I heard a scooter.
The local paper shrieked about joyriders, louts, causing antisocial behaviour.
So I walked fast.
The scooter noises continued, closer, getting closer. I was scared, so I walked faster.
But then I noticed in between each burst of revving was a joyful, childlike shriek.
The ‘louts’ were having a ball driving over bumps on the lawns.
They were not harming anyone, they were too far from any houses to disturb with their noise.
They were just being kids.
I paused for a moment.
I was amazed.
In that moment the whole world changed.
I was alone in a scary park.
But I was no longer scared.
I was in the presence of louts, but they were not being loutish.
We were supposed to feel safe on well lit streets.
But we all know bad things happen on streets, at night or in broad daylight.
Streetlighting is harsh, inhuman.
It blasts you like a power shower.
The darkness of the park had a softness, like velvet. It embraced me like a blanket, it was strangely comforting, memories of days long past.
It was fun watching the kids on scooters.
I wished I could join them.
The noise was rhythmic, revving, then whoopiing, up and down.
Though standing up, I felt myself drifting into sleep.
Out of the darkness came the gentle sound of jangling metal.
A dog appeared and nuzzled my hands before its owners ambled past.
We smiled that smile.
All of a sudden it seemed the park was alive with dogwalkers.
They know the park.
They notice if anything is wrong, but their presence ensures they seldom are.
I heard a voice.
A woman in distress.
She was crying, and heading straight towards me.
This was it, I thought.
Something scary was happening.
What should I do?
Should I run?
No, that was impossible.
My feet were in so much pain they were in need of amputation.
I stood still as a tree and watched a woman stagger past me to sit on a bench.
“You bastard! I hate you! I hate you! I saw you with her! Stop lying to me”
She was crying into her mobile phone.
I felt bad.
She was very upset.
She was all alone.
Should I offer to help?
But what could I do?
I limped on, respecting her right to the solitude she had come here seeking.
Approaching the children’s play area, I heard the gentle squeak of swing.
A teenage girl was being pushed by a young man.
To and fro, up and down, squeak then whoosh.
The squeaking stopped.
He bent down and kissed her forehead, softly, slowly.
They held hands and the darkness engulfed them.
I felt like I had intruded on a private moment.
The dawn of young love.
But I was invisible, irrelevant.
They only had eyes for each other.
An owl hooted overhead.
He saw, he knew.
And now I knew too.
The park had ceased to be a place of night fears.
In the dimness, surrounded by huge ancient trees, the park glowed.
It felt safe, alive with the sounds of creatures who shunned the noise and light of day, a place to be when you couldn’t bear to be somewhere else.
It was a place alive with people, but with no connections, no commitments.
A place of respite, to rediscover the inner child, to let off steam, to say and do things and have nobody remind you of it in the morning.
Or just to be with your best friend, whether two or four legged, to walk off the dust of another day.
I love parks, but now I love them best at night.
I love the quiet, the mystery, the solitude,
And because those of us who go there share the secret.
So shhh! Don’t tell anyone the secret so few of us share.
Parks might become so popular at night I’ll have to find some other outlet for my subversiveness.
Like writing perhaps.