It was sheltered down by the lake, where the wind, having raced rain-spitting clouds across the sky all day, had now died to the merest breath, just ruffling gently the surface of the water. In the distance a blackbird sang its evening song, and the cherry blossom petals fell softly on the ground.
As the girl leaned on the railings, her ears caught the faint sound of the click of metal on stone, almost regular, with a pause every now and then. She turned, and looked down the path. It was fairly open here, and even in the half-light it would have been easy to see someone approaching, but she saw nothing.
The sound grew louder, and she smelt the rank odour of unwashed body, together with a faint whiff of tobacco. Suddenly he was there – an old man in shabby clothes, a high-buttoned brown jacket and trousers of good strong material, which had definitely seen better days. On his feet were thick leather boots. He leant on a stout stick with a metal ferrule at the end.
He stopped by her and gazed at the lake.
“Them trees need tidying up” he said. He spoke with the thick local accent. “But they’re not bothered these days. Lake needs dredging too. He’d never have allowed it to get like that!”.
He dug around in a bulging pocket, bringing out a blackened pipe.
“Used to be a real treat” he said, jabbing at the bowl of the pipe with a filthy fore finger.
“When was this then? She asked, feeling she had to contribute something. He didn’t seem to pose any sort of threat.
“When t’big house were there” he said, sucking on the pipe. “a’ fore they knocked it down and built that monstrosity”. He waved his pipe towards the café-pavilion.
She knew the park was given to the town in the 1890’s. The house had been demolished then.
“Did you know it as a lad then?” she asked, falling into the rhythm of the local speech.
“Aye, came as garden boy, me Dad was one of the Stablemen – he spoke for us and I got t’job”.
She shivered. It was getting dark.
“Master were good to us gardeners. He liked it just so, mind, and we worked hard. But he was fair. And a good man”. He finally succeeded in lighting his pipe and a cloud of foul-smelling smoke spoilt the air.
“That must have been a while ago,” she ventured. Someone was imagining things.
His pipe had gone out. He poked around with a dead match, and sucked on it, making a revolting sound like slurping soup.
“I were 11 when I came. Th’old Queen were still in black for Albert, then. The Mistress, she still wore black an’ all. She were very proper.”
She did a bit of arithmetic in her head.
“We worked hard in them days” he went on,” but it did us no harm. I were nearin’ 85 when I died. Lovely funeral I had. Master sent flowers out of hot houses.”
The girl sighed. The past was so near.
“Best be off then” he said suddenly, and turning, was gone.
He would have been too young, she thought, to remember the accident, when the young daughter of the house had died, thrown from her horse in the park, not far from this very lake. His father would have recalled it, though, he had led the black horses for her funeral.
She looked back towards the lake. The moon was coming up over the trees, throwing a silver light across the water which was now totally still, even the slight breath of wind had dropped. Nearby a horse whinnied gently, once, twice. The girl turned, and lifting the heavy, braid-encrusted material of her blue riding habit in her hand, walked across to where she had tethered him.
This time her ride would never end.