Sunday, July 23, 2006

In the park

This morning, to escape the noise and smell (the house next door is releasing some very strange and disturbing odours as it is being demolished) I went out to a coffee shop for breakfast, and then to a little park. It is the first really fine day we've had for what feels like weeks, sunny and not too hot. I thought I should enjoy it while I can, because more rain is forecast for tomorrow, and for most of next week.

The park was full of children with nets, chasing cicadas. A small boy wandered behind me with a net and a small plastic cage, and I asked what was in the cage.

"SEMI! he shouted in the way small boys do before they have discovered the volume control. "IT WAS REALLY NOISY! IT WENT BZZZZZ BZZZZZ BZZZZZ! METCHA NOISY!"

"Can I take a picture of it?" I asked.

"NO! I'M BUSY," he said, and ran away, waving his net in one hand and his cage in the other. There were cicadas all over the place, indiscreetly giving away their locations with their shouting, and I got the feeling he was worried that the other kids might get them all first if he didn't hurry.

I sat for a while longer, and then an elderly man appeared and sat beside me. He was carrying an enormous plastic bag. It was so large it looked like he'd stuffed a pillow into it, except that it was a pillow made of concrete, because it was also heavy. It made him list to one side. He was not a large man and looked too frail to be carrying such a heavy bag.

He put the bag down. and sat beside it.

"Taking photos?" he asked, politely, pointing at my camera.

"Yes," I said.

"My wife died a few years ago," he told me.

I said something sympathetic.

"But I keep busy," he said. "I volunteer. Later today I'm helping out at an old people's home."

"That's a good thing to do," I said politely.

"I like taking photos too," he said. "I go to parks and take pictures of people. I especially like photographing children."

I mumbled something polite, not sure how to respond. I wondered if he were one of the park perverts or murderers I was always hearing about. But then he open his plastic bag and took out a paper packet, which he handed to me.

It was full of photographs.

I started going through his photographs as he told me about the various parks where he'd taken them. They were photos of babies and toddlers with their parents, and also photos of teenagers in the latest fashions and with dyed hair and nose rings, and of office people out for a stroll in their lunch break, and couples, and families, and parties of people. All these people were smiling for the camera and evidently perfectly happy having their picture taken. These were not photographs taken surreptitiously. There was nothing sinister about them.

But they were all of different people. As I leafed through the photos I waited for faces to recur, and they didn't. Puzzled, I asked him who the people were.

He laughed.

"They're all people I don't know," he said.

They were terrifically boring photographs. This did not stop me from going through them. There was something sad and compelling about this collection of hundreds of strangers smiling at the camera, happy to be seen, posing for the polite old gentleman with the instant camera. There were dozens more packets inside the bag, and he kept taking out another one and handing it to me as I handed the last one back. They went back years. They were all the same, and yet all different. It was overwhelming. I started thinking that if I looked for long enough, eventually I'd see someone I knew.

The old man chatted as I looked through the photos. He told me he'd come to the park by car, and how did I get there? He said that the reason he was carrying all the photos was that he went to the same parks often, and if he saw someone he thought he'd photographed he could get them to go through them to find the photo of themselves, to keep.

We talked for a while longer. I commented on some of the photos, and we talked about cameras.

Eventually he put the photos back into the bag, and told me it was time for him to go to his volunteer job at the old people's home. We said goodbye.

I stayed in the park for a while longer, and then I went home.


stephen said...

Oerr.. I do hope there's nothing (or nobody) discovered having been entombed within the walls of the house next door! :-/

Fuzzball said...

This story made me weepy, but I'm glad that I read it :)

Writer Mom said...

Seem deal as Fuzzball.
Lovely story.
I should really be more friendly when I go to parks.
But you didn't take his picture?