The wind blew fallen leaves along the street. Grey, leaden clouds lay low in the sky. Phil walked along the row of terraced houses in the same direction as the leaves, travelling just as aimlessly. It was two p.m., the dead time of the afternoon when people had finished lunch but before the kids arrived home from school. The street he walked on was completely empty.
He reached a junction with the main road and saw there was a park on the opposite side. He might as well waste time in there rather than wandering the empty, depressing roads. Phil could see the local Council had recently tried to make improvements in the park; the railings were all freshly painted, the small tea-shop was actually open, the grass was freshly cut, and the beds and pond well-kept. He felt cheered at the sight. It would have been easy to let the park fall into disrepair and ruin.
Because it was mid-week and off season, there were only a few people in the park; a couple walked a dog, an old lady listlessly threw bread at a bored looking duck, and a barista in the tea-shop leaned on the counter with no customers to serve. A man in overalls worked on a flower-bed, clearing out dead flowers. None of them paid him any mind. He noticed a greenhouse on the other side of the small lake, and headed round to have a look.
He peered through the cloudy glass on the door and saw a magical world of green inside. A notice on the glass said it was closed on Wednesdays. It was Wednesday.
He walked round the building, looking for something else to do. He ended up in a part of the park which hadn’t been as well restored as the other areas. Overhung trees and bushes sprawled untidily over cracked and broken paths. The railings, such as they were, were rusty and damaged. The whole area had an atmosphere of dereliction and decay. He saw an old sign attached to one of the trees. It read ‘Maze’ in antique script. Underneath the words, an arrow pointed him further away from the main park. Phil decided to go for a look.
The path led him through oppressive bushes and trees for a few hundred yards, then ended in a wide grassy area with the maze set in the middle. It wasn’t a particularly big maze, no more than a hundred feet square, but it was tall; about eight feet high. It didn’t look as if it was well maintained; the hedge itself was ragged and unkempt, as was the grass surrounding it.
Phil walked up to the maze, and looked around. There was a small booth at the entrance but it was in a poor state of repair suffering from dry rot and peeling paint. Phil checked his watch, then decided to have a go at the maze. There was no particular reason, it just felt the right thing to do. He walked past the booth and was about to enter when he heard a small voice.
“A penny please, sir.”
Phil gave a visible start, he thought he was on his own. It took him a moment to source the voice and finally realized it had come from the booth. He looked toward it and saw there was a tiny old man sitting in the darkness of the wooden hut.
“A penny please, sir,” repeated the old man.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” stammered Phil.
“That’s alright, sir. Don’t get many visitors down here. I was just taking a nap when I heard you passing me by.”
Phil smiled at what he thought was a joke.
“Don’t like people passing me by, sir. Ain’t right,” the old man said in a dour tone.
“Sorry.” Phil mumbled again. To ease the tension, Phil changed the subject, “I like the renovation they’ve done to the rest of the park.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing been done to this whole park nigh on twenty years, not since the Thirties. Alderman Smith did it, well leastways he organized it.”
The Thirties? Twenty years ago? More like eighty. But Phil didn’t bother to argue. The old guy had obviously lost his marbles. He reached inside his pocket and dug out a coin. A twenty pence piece, it was all he had. Phil handed it over.
“Keep the change.”
The old guy smiled. “Thank you, sir. Go right in.” he said motioning to the entrance of the maze.
Initially Phil enjoyed the sensation of getting lost. He tried to make the most of the experience, and intentionally wandered aimlessly. He twisted left and right without thinking, following the paths of the maze as he saw fit. After what he felt was about fifteen minutes he decided he was lost enough and would try to find his way out.
No matter which way he turned he was faced with the same scene; green hedges. The green was vibrant and almost dazzling; it struck a harsh contrast to the grey of the sky. He stopped and sighed, it had looked like a fairly mediocre effort from the outside, but he had to admit the maze had stumped him. Faced with no other choice, he started to walk once again.
The hedges were impenetrable; no light shone through them. He could see nothing but grey when he looked to the sky. To make matters worse it was beginning to get dark. Dark? It was only about three o’clock. He looked at his watch and realized with a jump it was half past five. How the hell did that happen? Time didn’t race when you were unemployed; it dragged.
With no other choice, he kept up his pace, twisting and turning through the green walls that trapped him. Trapped? His subconscious had thrown the word into his mind; a word he would never have normally used. He didn’t feel trapped; it was only a bloody maze! Don’t you? a sly voice inside his head asked. He checked his watch. Seven o’clock. What? He shook his wrist, not believing his eyes. He looked up at the sky, saw only grey and the darkening of approaching night. He could still make out the hedges in front and beside him, and the ground was still visible, but he wondered how long that would last.
Something twitched at a locked door in his mind, something he tried to get rid of. Panic. He suddenly realized he was really lost, not like earlier when it had seemed merely a game. Why hadn’t the old man tried to find him before the park closed, had he forgotten or had he not cared?
Phil reached a junction – left or right? He went left. After what felt like only a few moments, he checked his watch again. It was nine-thirty. He was cold, hungry and tired. Surely there was a way out of the maze? He took a tissue from his pocket and shredded it into long, thin strips. He put all but one back in his pocket. He twisted the remaining piece round a small twig so its whiteness was visible in the night. He started to walk again, careful to count each step. When he reached fifty he tied another small twist of tissue into the hedge. Fifty steps; a twist. Fifty; twist. His plan was to eventually get back to the first twist so he would know he had covered that portion of the maze. Then, he would be able to find his way out. It was simply a matter of elimination.
He gave up on that idea when his watch read one a.m. and he still hadn’t come across any bits of tissue. He had run out of twists around eleven o’clock but had carried on in vain as he tried to find any sign of the twists he had lain. He couldn’t find one. Crumpling to the ground, he put his head in his hands and began to sob.
In a deserted and scruffy part of a forgotten park, in a small hut at the entrance of a neglected maze, an old man waits patiently for the next customer. While he does, he smiles because he is the only one who knows that sometimes, just sometimes, those who enter the maze never find their way back out.
∼ RJ Meldrum
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