She sat, deep in the long grasses, listening to the world. The park had long since been abandoned, the upkeep of all those acres beyond the council budget. Green paint flaked lazily from bent railings. Weeds sprouted merrily between the stones of once pristine gravel paths. Hedges, before trimmed into prim perfection, clambered eagerly toward the skies in great clumps of crazily tangled branches. She could hear the scurry of small things in the grass, the occasional flutter or buzz of an insect as it zoomed by her ear about its business of survival. All else was silence, stillness, suspension.
Usually she headed straight for Grandmother Willow, a sprawling, drooping presence in the centre of a daisy-strewn lawn by the boating lake. A quick glance up and down the road, a dart through the gap in the fence where a rusted upright had given way, and a slow stroll towards the green haven to sit with her back to the tree, sheltered beneath drifting, billowing boughs, watching coots and moorhens scooting about the emerald waters of the lake, smiling at the mallards bustling for the best spots on the splintering hulks of forgotten paddle boats.
Today the rose garden had called her. Far back in her memory she remembered wandering there with her grandfather. So formal, precise, perfect, laid out with a tinkling fountain at the centre of seven squares, each with a particular type and colour of rose. She recalled the scents, dashing along the cobbled paths, hiding from grandpa, trying to keep ahead of him, knowing he could appear from any one of the three paths out of each square, daring him to catch her before she reached ‘home’ the fountain.
Now the pergolas and gazebos leaned at peculiar angles, or slid gently over to be buried beneath the riotous abandon of the climbing roses they had once supported above the heads of genteel walkers and capering children. Dandelions and moss fought for tenancy in the cobble cracks and the grasses were three feet tall in many places. The roses turned blowsy heads to the sunlight, peeked through the shrubbery in unexpected spaces, sending out delicious scents with the slightest riffle of breeze.
The fountain had long since failed. It stood empty, silent. The angels grasping ribbons, the scrollwork and prancing fauns were gradually eroding, fading back into the stone. Soon it would be a vaguely shell-shaped piece of stone on a moss-laden pedestal; nature had a habit of reclaiming her own. Only when it rained did the fountain regain a little of its previous glory. A hard shower could send water cascading over the bowl once more, creating tiny waterfalls and elegant splashes as drops fell and were bounced up into the air for a final flourish.
As if catching her thoughts, the world darkened, sprawling dark clouds hovering suddenly above her. As the first plump drops of a thunderous summer shower fell, she began to clamber to her feet, thinking Grandmother Willow would be the place to wait for it to pass. Barely to her knees, she froze in place. Small movements held her eye, waving branches and odd little scuffles at the base of the fountain, already beginning to brim with the torrential rain.
Always eager to see the wild inhabitants of the park, the rabbits and foxes that had taken over once the humans had departed, she carefully settled back into the grass, flipping the hood of her jacket up before the rain could soak her and obscure her vision. It took all her control not to gasp aloud when six little figures emerged from the ivy which meandered about the fountain’s base. No taller than a magpie, dressed in what looked like hides in varying shades of black and brown, they formed a close group, staring up at the fountain as water began to fall over the lip.
She exhaled slowly, aware she had been trying not to breathe, but the little folk seemed unaware of her. They were running in and out of the rainwater, weaving between the streams alternately, a complicated dance on tiny bare feet as brown as bark. Amongst the ivy flowers had grown up. She had looked them up because their shape had fascinated her; celosia. The purple spires made her think of crowns and it seemed she was in tune with the universe again for the little folk were planning.
They leaned heads together, talking although she could hear no more than a high fluting in sing-song cadence. Next moment they were breaking off the flower heads. One each, they spent some time bent down, out of her view. When they rose again she stifled a giggle for each had contrived a way to secure the flowers and bore them on their heads as grandly as any duchess' tiara. They stalked about for a while, clearly mimicking humans promenading, then paired up. This time she could hear the giggles as they began another complicated dance, in and out of the cascades, stomping in the growing puddles beneath the fountain.
As suddenly as it had arrived, the storm departed with a final, deafening crash and a sheet of lightning that lit up the tiny dancers in perfect stillness for a fleeting moment. The rose garden was so still, utterly quiet in the cessation of rain that she heard when one of the little folk called out to the others. She must have moved, gasped in her happiness, for there was one word;
Then they were gone, blending into the foliage before she could even get to her feet. Saturated, dripping, oblivious, she ran to the fountain, dropped to her knees in a puddle. At first she though there was nothing, not even a footprint to show their passing and then she smiled, reached down, lifted a single blossom, its grass blade ribbon dangling limply from her fingers. She curled it gently in her fist and whispered into the silence;
“Thank you .”