It was a long walk to the park that day for Maple. It was the same distance she had walked countless times in her life, but on this particular day it just felt longer. Maybe she had had a rough sleep. Maybe it was the warming summer heat - each summer seemed hotter than the last. Or maybe it was just that; Summers ketp coming and going and she had seen 75 of them - well 74 if you count her European winter escape when she graduated from high school – and they were taking their toll.
Maple spent most of her mornings on the same park bench. She knew the regular visitors of the park better than she knew her 14 grandchildren (and two great-grandchildren). But then the family, her son and both daughters along with their spouses, had moved up north so many years ago. All she had were disks and chips and gadgets filled with photos she could rarely figure out how to work.
‘Could you please just send me real photos?’
‘But Mum there are hundreds of photos on just one CD.’
‘Why don’t you just come down and show me how it works?’
‘Mum, you know how hard it is…’
Maple had never been one for gadgets (or ungrateful children). Technology had left her behind when microwaves and remote controls started making everything instant and on-demand. She had always preferred watching the timeless breeze shape a cascading sun shower over the fresh spring grass. She could entertain herself musing over the natural beauty all around her. Each morning she spent hours thinking up poetic descriptions of Tunxton Park, only to forget how they started before she could finish. It was a fitting practice, she thought; the park needed all the linguistic attention it could get, having to live with such an ugly name.
Its namesake, Jeffrey Tunxton had been the original proprietor of Tunxton Motors, a humble local factory that spawned the mass migration of job seeking men to Talismount Hills. Talismount Tunxton, a fellow namesaked Tunxton and Jeffrey’s father, had immigrated to the country from a wealthy European heritage. He died in 1930. He committed suicide after the markets crashed, leaving Jeffrey with a small inheritance and little guidance. But Jeffrey managed it well and, against the odds, he was able to open the factory in 1934 in a remote, hilly area. The next year the park was inaugurated, coincidentally the same day that Phillip and Caroline Corwell gave birth to their only child Maple.
Sally Peters was wheeling her twins along the outer walkway of the park. Timmy Peters, her spritely toddler worked his little legs rapidly to keep up. Sally was a kind lady who still had time in life to chat with an old woman.
“Hi, Maple. Lovely day isn’t it?”
“It is quite splendid, though a little hot.”
“Oh you wouldn’t let a little heat spoil it.”
“Well I guess not.” Maple smiled. She took a long breath, taking her time to fill her aging lungs. “And how is young Timmy?”
Timmy wasn’t quite as kind as his mother when dealing with the elderly. He shrugged with innocent indifference.
“That's not nice Timmy. Answer Ms Weathers.”
“How old are you now Timmy?”
The child was completely unengaged by the conversation but he had a trigger response to this question. “Fwee,” he said staring absently at a boy and his dog jogging along the path.
“Three! Wow! You know when I was your age…” Maple paused, every day more and more of her sentences started this way. “When I was your age I walked on this very same path with my mother. Just like you! That was 70 years ago.”
“Wow, did you hear that Timmy?” his mother urged.
He nodded his head, still mesmerised by the dog, “Woof!” he said pointing his finger and looking up to his mummy.
“Mmhmm, Woof!” she confirmed.
“Well I’ll let you go,” Maple said, responding to the missing chemistry of the conversation
“Bye, Maple,” Sally said warmly, before continuing on her way.
Maple looked out over the park and thought back to her first memory of it; a youngster, a little older than Timmy, chasing her friends across the field in a game of tip. Back then the path was dirt, the goalposts fell over in a storm and the rain took a week to drain out. Playing in the mud was a favourite pastime and her nimble body could deal with the scrapes and dirt. Nowadays, the park withstood the weather while she took a week to shake the cold out from her bones.
She watched the youth jogging with his dog. It was a healthy looking German Shepherd, off leash and running playful circles around her owner. Bella and Max continued to run lazy laps of the oval before Max stopped to stretch by the water bubbler. He slowly walked up the slope to where Maple sat. Her half of the chair was shaded by an overhanging birch tree. She slid over to make room for Max in its shadow before he had a chance to sit.
“Oh C’mon, Mrs Weathers you need the shade more than I do.”
“Now Mr Million, what did I tell you about calling me Mrs Weathers?” she replied playfully. Max was always good for a laugh but he never stayed long so she had to make the most of it.
“Sorry Ma’am,” he quipped, breathing heavily.
“You look short on breath, maybe Bella’s too much for you to handle.”
“I think you’re right. Do you think you could take her around for a couple laps while I have a breather?”
She laughed despite herself. Max leaned forward, a sign he was about to up 'n leave. She didn’t want him to up 'n leave. Max had an energy about him that reminded her of Charles Weathers, that handsome, free spirited 18 year old who asked her to marry him the day she left for Europe. ‘Ask me again in six months’ she had said. Charlie waited patiently knowing her mouth had said maybe but her eyes had screamed ‘YES!’
“Oh, I could, but then I would prefer stay here and chat with you.” I’m starting to sound like a desperate schoolgirl.
“Aww, that’s sweet Mapes, but Bella is the one for me, you know that,” he looked in the direction of Bella, “isn’t that right, girl?” The dog spiked her head up out of some long grass in the shrub and yelped a short, sharp confirmation.
Maple laughed again and Max stood up, he was just one more quick witted line away from taking his leave. He looked out at the view of the park. “It’s a beautiful place. We’re lucky to have it.” It seemed like some harmless small talk Max was using to fill the silence. But it stirred something in Maple; something that had been simmering for some time.
“Mmm…You’re so young…”
Max wasn’t sure if he heard her correctly, “Sorry?”
Memories of years from a distant past slowly crept into her mind. They were unpleasant and she didn’t care to indulge in them, but it was difficult not to. Having Max there helped to steady her mind but she didn’t want to trouble him; he still shone with the innocence of youth and inexperience, the optimism of life. If he was lucky he could escape up north like her children. It’s too early for life to catch him up.
“It’s OK, Max. I feel a little tired all of the sudden. That’s old age for you. Maybe I will slide back in the shade and rest my eyes.” Her voice was barely a note above grave but her smile was sincere as always. Max read more into the latter and gave her a flirty wink and a flirtier,
As she watched the young man walk away it was like déjà vu. He looked just like Charlie. When she was just 33, still happily married while all her friends complained about boring, ignorant husbands, wishing they hadn’t said yes so eagerly, she and Charlie felt like they had entered the tenth year of their honeymoon. He worked long hours as a foreman at the factory but he was doing the hard yards for their happiness later. And she let him know she appreciated it. She loved him more than anything, more than anyone could ever love anything. They would take walks through the park every Saturday and sit on the very same bench she sat on.
“I miss you, Charlie,” she whispered into the wind.
Despite their personal happiness, the economy was not so prosperous. A recession had swept through much of the country and suburban hubs much larger than Talismount Hills had fallen to its suffocating grip. Poverty drove people to desperation. Pay checks were a bonus. Strikes and unions and ludicrous demands were threatening an aging Jeffrey Tunxton. He worked hard for his family’s fledgling legacy and with the help of folks like Charlie Weathers, who worked 60 hours a week while being payed barely a third of that, they dug the town out of ruin. But not before it took both their lives.
Fred Malloway took a seat next to a dozing Maple. She snored in a light, almost soothing purr. He lifted a chocolate croissant up to her nostrils. For a moment they were still. On the next inhale they twitched just a little, shortening the breath a moment before it returned to its normal rhythm.
“Fred you know those are no good for my health,” she said without opening her eyes.
“You gotta enjoy life while it’s still here, Maple.”
A smile began to overthrow her false sternness. “Is this how you talk to an aging old Lady?”
“You’re no Lady, Mapes,” Fred said, cracking himself up in the process.
“You’re right,” she said laughing, “Give me that croissant!” She reached over and grabbed it, chomping a large portion (too large). Fred cracked up again as she struggled to contain the sizable helping.
“Howmphh-” She put a finger up to signal one more moment. She eventually swallowed the sugary serve and cleared her throat.
“Water?” Fred offered, still brimming with joy at the sight of this seasoned life veteran wiping chocolate stains off her cheek.
“Please,” she replied with short courtesy. She took a healthy swig, downing it like she was back in the bars in Stuttgart, a young teen learning the fast way how to come out of her shell. “How’s the job going?” she managed to ask in full this time. Fred was a healthy forty-something who had moved to Talismount Hills when the jobs started popping up like daisies in springtime. But then it seemed like that had been happening for 30 years. Before he could answer she cut him off, “How long have you been here for Fred? Talismount, I mean.” the question was a reflex to her own train of thought.
Fred had his jibe face on, but seemed to think twice about what he was going to say.
“Don’t worry, Fred, I’m not losing my memory; just trying to figure out a puzzle in my head. And don’t get any ideas, young man. I’m still a long way from the nursing home.”
“OK, calm down, calm down. Hmmm…must be coming up to fifteen years pretty soon. Time does skip by doesn’t it? Why? What’s your conundrum?”
“Oh nothing you would remember. Just when all this serenity was injected back into the place.” Her tone was distant and Fred was a little discomforted by her vagueness.
“Do you mean when the recession ended? I’ve heard stories from Dad about what happened back East in my hometown but everyone here old enough to remember says Talismount fared considerably better than the rest of the country.” Fred was very business-like when it came to talking business.
Maple remained quiet. It seemed her mind was intent on pursuing the subject today. She meditated on nothing for some moments but flashes of Charlie kept sweeping through her vision. Charlie and…the other two…
“Yeah work isn’t too bad,” Fred said with some awkward authority. The pensive silence was a little discomforting to him. He needed the pop of action to remain in the moment, “We are actually thinking of expansion plans.”
“It seems like everyone is intent on growth these days,” Maple spoke vaguely, “but then I guess it was always like that. That’s what life is, growing and growing until…”
“Are you sure you’re OK, Maple?” this was more than business and Fred put a caring hand on her shoulder.
The old lady buried herself in his strong, receptive embrace. “Give me strength, Charlie,” she whispered softly. A tear slipped down her cheek, past the chocolate stains. She couldn’t help but relive the moment. She hadn’t lived it for so long. She knew it would hurt.
Charlie had worked that Saturday. He worked later than usual and was dead tired when he got home. 'Are we going for our walk, honey?' Maple beamed. Charlie could never say no, and the walk was a proud tradition in their marriage.
They walked in the dim lighting of the park holding hands. They talked of many things and made each other laugh, squeezing each other’s hand tightly to show their happiness. But the park wasn’t always a safe place at night. Not with the poor and desperate and bankrupt. Some shadows moved in the distance. Suddenly everything felt very silent. The shadows moved closer. Maple squeezed Charlie’s hand. It wasn’t in appreciation of a funny joke this time.
‘Well look at the happy couple’ a husky voice hissed. He was not alone and he was not empty handed. A metallic object gleamed briefly in his right hand before he hid it from view again.
‘We don’t want any trouble.’
The stranger swaggered up to Maple. He reeked of liquor and had sores all over his arms. His friend circled shadily around the back. He looked like he was shivering from the cold. Or from hunger. The first stranger, the one brandishing the weapon, ran his scoured tongue up her neck.
‘Get the fuck away from her!’ Charlie threatened. The stranger swung his blade wildly in retaliation to the threat. Charlie instinctually put his hand up in defence and received a stinging gash across his palm. He reeled back in pain and looked up, ready to strike, but the stranger had the knife poised for more action.
‘I think we could have a little fun here.’ he said, with sinister delight. He relaxed his posture as he devoured Maple with his eyes. His hands were about to follow suit.
Charlie stepped forward again to protect Maple but suddenly he straightened up and a streak of terror gripped his face. Maple saw the second stranger, like a faceless shadow, back away from her husband. She looked back to Charlie. Her face now reflected his terrified expression; he looked longingly at her, his brow angled upwards in the centre, a tear raced down his cheek. ‘I love you,’ he said weakly and dropped to his knees.
‘CHARLIE!!!!’ Maple screamed. ‘CHARLIE STAND UP!’
The first stranger began to pull at her. She lost control of her body and collapsed. She was the dragged away, down into further darkness. The second stranger delivered another blow into the kneeling figure’s neck and it dropped to the ground limply and out of viw beyond the crest of the hill.
She could barely feel it as the two strangers raped her limp body, though she would feel it for weeks afterwards. All she could do was stare up over the crest. Waiting for the silhouette of her husband to reappear and come rescue her.
“Maple, do you want me to walk you home?”
Maple’s eyes were stinging. She sat back up wiping the tears away. Fred, too, had wet traces down the sides of his nose. He choked slightly as he spoke, “Maple, I-”
“Oh, no it’s alright, Fred. Just some old memories floating back up, you know. I’ll be fine, thankyou. You should get back to work.”
“I just need to rest my eyes a little, just need to…” Maple’s voice trailed off and she fell into a light, peaceful sleep. She always slept well after crying. Fred sat with her pensively for a few moments before realising he had overstayed his lunch break. He stood and looked down at her one last time with a fatherly tenderness and walked away.
Maple awoke a short while later. She gazed around a little disorientated. She scanned the park again. She saw the luscious green grass stretched across the two football fields, fresh cut for the upcoming weekend matches; She saw the community centre which had a function room, a canteen that opened on weekends and a day care centre that Timmy sometimes attended; She saw the swings and exercise equipment; She noticed how the path bordered the whole scene and how the overbearing trees further framed the park. It was all in pristine condition. So new. So clean. So pure. But it hadn’t always been like this and not many people remember what it was. Most who lived here were too young. Those who lived through it had reached retiring age and moved north. Maple had witnessed it all.
The murder/rape of Tunxton Park had been the bottoming out of those dark days. Charlie’s death crushed the fighting spirit of Jeffrey Tunxton. He had a heart attack two days after the funeral, his ticker unable to bear the grief of losing his best employee and close friend, combined with the stress of the struggling factory. But their deaths were not in vain: the union men and the rebelling youth wisened up. They rallied together to resurrect the failing fortunes of the factory. They many-handedly pulled Talismount Hills out of the recession and were the spark that helped reignite the country.
Jobs began to pop up rapidly. The population experienced a massive boom as new business ventures and industries based themselves in the stable economy. But the lifestyle, though richer for the new wealth, didn’t improve quite so rapidly. The park remained a dank place, shrouded in drugs and the dregs of the suffering populace.
Maple remained housebound and ruined. She received support from many friends and was able to save face long enough to look after her children each day. But when they went to school she would sit in silence, window shades pulled closed. When they went to bed she would cry herself to sleep, praying. Give me strength, Charlie.
For 15 years the park remained a desolate area. A black stain on the prospering Talismount Hills. Maple, with her children now old enough to have moved out to work and study, spent her days alone. All her friends had moved on. She and the park remained a shadow of the dark days; she felt it was time to move into the light. Nearly fifty, she began to take walks. First around the block, then around the immediate neighbourhood. Eventually, and she knew that she must do it even if it scared her half to death, she re-entered Tunxton Park. She included it in her daily walks. It was great for getting her heart rate going. She passed countless hobos, some barely older than her children. She saw the effects of the drugs, the abuse, the hardships and she realised there were people in the world lonelier than her. At least she had her inner strength, a flickering light that burned on the candle of Charlie’s memory. These people, these kids, had nothing.
Maple sat quietly on her bench. She had cried her tears. She felt her strength building again. She stood and walked a lap of the park. It was slow going (especially on the inclines) but she made it the whole way without stopping. She returned to her seat, short on breath and sweating a little. A little inappropriate for an old lady like her but she didn’t mind – no one was here to see her.
Suddenly a young man with long hair and a fresh complexion that said I haven’t suffered a day of hardship my whole life walked over to her. Typical suburban youth. She knew most the faces of the parkfolk but this one was new. He approached her with a bubbly determination, happy to find someone in the empty park – just before school finished was the slowest hour of the day.
“Hi, how are you? My name is Terry and I’m collecting signatures to put a stop to the constant expansion of industry in our beautiful area, especially Tunxton Park. You’re a local here aren’t you?” Maple was still short on breath and had to take her time to talk. It seemed, though, that this gentleman wasn’t too interested in her input. “Of course you are. Like I said, we are looking to collect 5000 signatures and if you sign right now we would be crossing over the 2000 mark! That’s only after six days of partitioning. We should be there in no time! The current council, led by the evil tycoon Samuel Tunxton, son of the equally evil profiteering ‘pioneers’” – he performed the customary visualisation of the inverted commas with the index and middle fingers of his spare hand – “of our now tranquil community wants us too…” Maple studied the boy as he rambled on. He spoke like it was his first speech at high school, unable to control his pitch and timing. She wasn’t easily offended – after a life like hers that was understandable – but this stranger, this uppity kid got under her skin. “…small housing complexes; further industrial growth; new office space. Destruction of the community centre. It’s just terrible. Our small activist group is inspired by the heroes of old. Heroes like Maple Weathers, the brave lady who helped make Tunxton Park what it is today. When we get enough signatures we can take it straight to Town Hall and show it to Samuel Tunxton and his in-the-pocket politic friends.”
Terry looked exhausted and out of breath after his spiel. Maple had just regathered hers. “Young man, I think I missed some of that,” she began slowly, “Now, what’s your name again?”
“Terry. All I need is that you-”
“What’s your last name, Terry?”
Terry looked annoyed, “King. All you have-”
“It’s nice to meet you Terry King. Now what do you want me to sign for?”
“Well,” he rattled off his abbreviaed rant in a rapid monotone, “that corporate pig Tunxton wants to destroy the Park to make way for new office space and apartment buildings and industrial complexes and destroy the community centre and ruin the…” Maple put up a calming hand to silence him.
“And how many signatures do you need?” She already knew the answer but the boy must learn the art of patience.
“5000. But we have only…” Again her hand silenced him.
“And how many do you have?”
“2000.” He was about to keep talking but something made him stop – and it wasn’t the old lady’s condescending hand.
“How long have you been partitioning?”
“And why are you doing this?”
“To save the natural beauty of Talismount Hills,” he answered slowly, adding cautiously, “Ma’am.”
“And we need to carry forth the spirit of Maple Weathers, ma’am,” he added with authority.
“And what did Ms Weathers do to inspire your faith in her spirit?”
“She got raped and her husband was killed in the park so she cleaned up the place.”
Maple let out a hearty laugh. It was so blunt. But that was young people these days. This boy was probably born after any of this happened. This is how her legacy would remain. She had spent ten years working with the homeless and the desperate and the drug addicts. She raised awareness and money and support for the equal rights to welfare. She convinced the church to open a soup kitchen. She rallied enough people to demand the council share its budding wealth just enough to open an injection/rehabilitation program. She inspired locals to donate their time to clean up the park. She negotiated with local business to build a community and childcare centre. She did it all for Jeffrey Tunxton, for her own damaged soul and most of all for Charlie.
“Young man, you have a lot to learn and I pray that you don’t suffer too much in the process.” She reached for his partition and signed an elegantly scripted Maple Weathers.
Terry King looked at the signature with gratitude, beaming a half genuine, half fake smile he said, “Thank you, Mrs…” His voice trailed off. He was motionless for a moment. Looking up at her, gobsmacked, he spoke, “I…I’m sorry, Ms Weathers…I didn’t even ask you your name.” his eyes darted guiltily away from hers.
“It’s OK Terry. You’re young and you’re a good kid. Sometimes in life the only thing that stays the same is that everything eventually fades away.” She had just made that up and was quite proud but her face remained stern, Terry was experiencing a defining moment right now. “Fight the good fight and give it your all. Be true to yourself and others and even if the park may fade away too, you can hold its spirit inside you and carry that throughout your life. Pass it on in every encounter and adventure you have.”
Terry was nodding and staring intensely at a spot on the ground. “Your spirit,” he said looking up, “Your spirit, ma’am.”
Maple stood up smiling, there was hope for Terry King yet, “Maple,” she said. Terry nodded again. “Good bye, Terry.”
“Good bye, Maple.” Terry stepped forward and gave her a hug. Maple received it gratefully and then turned and walked down the path. It had been a long day and she was tired. She left Tunxton Park and walked home.