All Stories, General Fiction

An Audience of One by Hugh Todd

First stop was the bins by the pond. He parked the buggy and blew on his hands with little effect, except to bring on a coughing fit. He bent down to pick up a ketchup-stained PFC take away box, fumbling for a moment, edging the carton along the frosted path towards the pond railings. As he picked it up something caught his eye behind the railings; sunlight glinting off a shiny surface. For a minute his heart raced and he wondered if this was the knife from the attack outside the school last week. He instinctively looked around, but at 7:30am on a February morning Clissold Park was desolate. Lloyd was the only soul in there, with just wildlife for company.

He knew every inch of the place. The drug dealer’s bench. The reeds where the cygnets hatched. The hole by the penalty spot. And of course he was on nodding terms with all the mums and dads, runners and oddballs you get in a park. But this had thrown him. Shivering in his regulation green overalls, which he swore were thinner than a Rizla paper, he checked his footing on the slippery pathway before leaning over the railings to get a better look.

He pushed back the tall stiff reeds, tiny splinters of ice flicking in his face, to reveal not a blade, but a pair of pristine white ice skates lying on their side beside a tangle of twigs. He felt a wave of relief, before reaching down to pick them up. They were still warm inside. He looked up sharply, panicking a nearby moor hen and saw a figure dashing across the zebra crossing just outside the gates. His interest piqued, his heart rate rose and he could hear the blood in his ears. Wish it was in my bloody fingers, he thought.

He chucked the black bin bags into the back of the buggy, before gently placing the skates on the passenger seat next to him. He adjusted his hat in the mirror, pulling the peak down a touch and drove off, re-tuning the radio from Capital to Radio 2. ‘Let’s face the music and dance’ was playing.

Lloyd hummed along, the music reminded him of his forays into dance and acting at Hackney Youth Theatre where he was lauded for his balance, poise and grace. The moves had long since left him, but the music remained close to his heart.

He adopted a straight-arm driving pose, like some TV cop on a case, needing to get to the bottom of this mystery. He looked over at the skates: Do they belong to the figure racing across the road? Why hasn’t he seen them before? And most importantly, how do I keep this secret from Rob ‘by-the-book’ Brown?

He stooped his tall frame and entered the musky wooden hut, black Rasta hat gently nudging the bare light bulb. He could still see his breath, but at least he was out of the wind and could warm up with a brew and a cheeky drop of rum. He filled the plastic kettle and spotted the work schedule blu-tacked behind the sink “Lloyd all week!” scrawled with relish in thick felt pen and a smiley face underneath. He could hear Rob laughing as he’d scribbled it.

Normally they took it in turns who worked the Monday morning shift and then alternated for the rest of the week, but with Rob staying home mornings all this week for the builders, Lloyd was working earlies at Ice Station Zebra for the next five days. He sipped the sweet tea and resolved not to tell Rob about the skates. He was a good kid, he did a good job but sometimes too officious leaving no room for fun or spontaneity and he had an unhealthy obsession with lost property. Lloyd looked up at the clock before swigging the rest of the tea. He fired up the buggy and drove back to the pond.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, other than the incredible cold. The newspapers were calling it ‘The Beast from the East’. Lloyd called it something else, some parts of his body still only just warming up. But if his body was slowly coming to life, his mind was going faster than ever. The skates were playing on his mind.

As he left the park, he was tempted to double back to the pond and check the skates, but the school kids were having fun in the snow and it seemed too risky. He’d placed them back exactly where he found them, as if they were a pair of new born chicks, ensuring full cover was given by the reeds. As an extra touch he’d covered the actual blades with a bit of nearby foliage, preventing any reflections. Don’t want another nosy park keeper finding them, do we? He spotted his little feathered friend the moor hen and put his finger to his lips.

The next morning hewent straight to the pond and hid behind the bins. Anyone passing would have thought he was acting out some bizarre game of hide and seek. He cut an incongruous figure, crawling on his stomach SAS style alongside the pond railings. The cold cut through his uniform, but not to the skin – he felt a moment of warm satisfaction at his decision to wear leggings.

Lloyd crept up to the reeds and gently pushed them aside. The skates weren’t there, the moor hen scuttling away from its nest as he looked down. his heart started to race.

At first nothing happened and he wondered for a horrible moment if Rob had somehow found the skates and they were now sitting neatly in the lost property box. But then he heard it. Muffled and distant at first, the swish-swish of steel on ice, getting closer by the second. There was a rhythm to it, slightly hypnotic.

He slowly looked up and saw a female figure moving gracefully across the frozen pond. She seemed to be magnetically attached to the surface. With every move she was seeking out more of the pond, hands behind the small of her back, swerving in front of the bullrushes. A nearby duck flapped its wings, the sound of cutting growing harsher as the skates carved ever sharper turns, then returning to larger quieter arcs, before the silence of a single graceful glide, like a majestic swan.

Lloyd was transfixed, enthralled and worried all at once. His brain was struggling to deal with so many emotions so early in the day at such a low temperature.

He thought about filming it on his phone but remembered he’d left it in the buggy. So he recorded it onto his mind’s hard drive instead. Like a ballerina, with balance, poise and grace, she continued the show, skating behind the huge clump of trees in the centre of the pond, momentarily hidden from view.

He looked down and checked himself, damp patches on both knees but nothing had penetrated through to his skin. Even if he had been soaked it wouldn’t matter. He didn’t care about his five early shifts in a row or ‘The Beast from the East’ or charging the buggy or any of those dull things that normally filled his mind. Nothing else mattered but this moment. This was better than – oh here she is again.

It was really hard to get a look at her face in the semi-darkness of the early hour with the hoodie tied close to her head. But suddenly the arcing headlights of a passing bus lit up her features for a moment; small neat nose, pale skin adorned with freckles and a rosebud mouth. Her steely blue eyes totally lost in the moment with no idea that Lloyd, the 57-year-old park keeper hiding in the reeds opposite, was also totally lost in the moment.

She came closer, much closer, before a hard stop not six feet away. Tiny shards of ice kicked into the air, landing on his face, his large brown eyes blinking away the cold frosty flecks.  He was so absorbed he hadn’t realised she’d end up being this close. And he certainly hadn’t figured having ice flicked in his face. He couldn’t look, petrified he’d be discovered. The moor hen came to his rescue, flapping its wings and skidding on the ice, as the girl delicately removed her white boots and popped on her trainers. She placed the skates next to the nest without looking around, convinced she was alone, unaware she had just put on a faultless show for an audience of one. She checked the skates were well hidden behind the reeds and was up over the black iron railings and across the zebra crossing in a matter of seconds.

Lloyd’s heart was still racing. He double checked the skates were hidden, leaving no evidence of the show that had just taken place, before heading back to the office, celebrating with a tiny slide along on the icy pathway.

That night he had proper KFC instead of that fake PFC nonsense. This was a good moment. His mother had always said you got to enjoy the good days, because there’ll be a bad one just around the corner. Lloyd and his brothers used to roll their eyes and laugh at her little sayings, but the older he got the more he understood them. Chicken zinger, large coleslaw, onion rings, proper ketchup and large Coke topped up with a splash of rum, watching ‘A place in the sun’. Simple pleasures shared with Queenie, who got to clean up the box, nosing it around the vinyl flooring, before settling on his lap, purring over the sound of the tv.

The news said the freezing conditions were set to continue. Lloyd put his boots under the radiator and uniform on top. He was already looking forward to tomorrow.

The second performance was even better than the first. Lloyd was more organised this time and got settled in position nice and early. Even the moor hen seemed to know the drill and managed to sit quietly a few feet away, cleaning its feathers before the curtain went up. She arrived like yesterday, same outfit – black hoodie and leggings offset by the white skates. She was once again lit by the intermittent arcing headlights from the road, but today there was also some top lighting coming from the council flats overlooking the pond, the early risers adding a touch of ambient light to the arena below. Lloyd pulled the peak of his hat as far down as it would go, his dreadlocks squeezed tight to his scalp and zipped up his jacket over his beard and nose, allowing just a slit for vision.

As she sped across the ice it wasn’t only Lloyd and his feathery sidekick she enchanted. The wildlife on the opposite side of the pond seemed to appreciate the show too. A couple of geese had decided to stop hissing for a moment craning their slim white necks to get a view of this curious visitor to their habitat. She performed several new moves today, a slalom around some sticks and skating backwards around a plastic bottle. A performance of skill and grace. Lloyd wanted to clap out loud, not just to warm his hands but to applaud another amazing show.

Three more days, three more performances. Lloyd became so engrossed he started to mark them in his head and recall his favourite moves. So far the slalom was the best, a perfect 6.0. Last night he secretly chucked a couple of rogue sticks onto the pond to increase the factor of difficulty, but she seemed to relish the extra challenge, zig zagging through the knobbly branches with ease.

Towards the end of the week he couldn’t contain himself anymore and did the thing he said he wouldn’t do. He wrote her a note and stuffed it in her skate. As he watched her the next morning he felt embarrassed and silly and wished he’d never written it.

He looked down and noticed a few white specks around the edges of the moor hen’s nest, he pulled at one. It was a chewed piece of paper. He inspected further and realised the moor hen had sabotaged his efforts to contact the skater, using his note as extra ballast for her nest. Lloyd shook his head, relieved, “Thank you my dear” he whispered, heading back to the hut.

At the Friday crossover of shifts Rob had news: “Have you seen them? On the pond. Never seen anything like it.” Lloyd looked at the chipboard floor, butterflies in his stomach. “I can’t believe you’ve not seen them,” continued Rob, “big cut marks, like somebody’s been ice skating on the pond.” Lloyd readjusted his hat and scratched the back of his neck. Rob was on a roll. “We can’t be having that. If I catch them they’ll know about it.” Lloyd summoned his old acting skills. “No idea what you’re talking about. Skating?! It could be anything really. Sticks scratching the ice, the geese, swans, God knows.” Rob was adamant: “Nah mate, I’m telling you, something’s up.”

It chilled Lloyd’s bones. He looked down at a rip in his uniform trousers and picked at the leggings underneath, waiting for Rob to leave. Lloyd turned the radio up. There was news of the weather. The thaw had begun. By the end of the weekend it would be edging above zero. Lloyd’s shoulders drooped and he felt colder than ever.

***

Lloyd had the Monday morning off. He stretched and looked out the window and realised after a moment something was different. The snow had melted. The magic had gone. It was just a damp grey morning in Clapton, with all its ugly bits back on show.

He slumped back to bed before doing something he never did before. He texted Rob to check everything was ok. He got an instant reply: BEEN AN INCIDENT AT THE POND SPEAK LATER. R

***

Lloyd thought his heart was going to explode out of his chest as he raced across the park. The whole of his upper torso heaving up and down as if he was having a seizure, but somehow still remembering to swerve the pothole by the penalty spot. As he got closer he spotted the ambulance by the pond and slowed a little. An area had been cordoned off and a body was being treated on a stretcher.

He saw Rob: “Is she okay, please tell me she’s okay?” “Yeah course she’s okay,” replied Rob half laughing, “She was chasing a tennis ball and went straight through the ice. She got out no problem. Can’t say the same for Keith, he got proper soaked pulling the stupid mutt out, he’s frozen.”

Lloyd adjusted the peak of his hat and mumbled: “Aah gotcha yeah, stupid dog, hope Keith’s ok, gotta go.”

He wandered off sheepishly past the pond and looked over at the reeds. Rob broke off from dealing with the paramedic and shouted “Who did you think it was mate?” But Lloyd was out of earshot now, walking towards the gate.

The moor hen sat in its nest and looked across the pond. A small piece of ice with carved blade patterns sank under the grey dismal waters.

Hugh Todd

Image by Daniel Stuhlpfarrer from Pixabay 

5 thoughts on “An Audience of One by Hugh Todd”

  1. Hi Hugh,
    There are far too few Hughs on the site!
    There were so many positives in your story that we simply couldn’t refuse!
    I did like that there were a few things that we were left to consider. Who was she? Why not take her skates with her and is all unsolicited watching classed as perving? (Maybe that one is just me!)
    I did cringe at the thought of rum in tea! I can’t take any sweetness in tea as it makes me boak.
    Well structured, well thought out and beautifully told!!
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

  2. There are just enough vague pieces to allow me to fill in those spots as I see them. Now, this story is unique to me. Well done!

    Like

  3. I enjoyed this warm and enthralling story where Loyd showed great appreciation for the wildlife and the lonely skater. I kept wondering why she had to hide the skates and leave them behind.
    I was equally caught up mystery of the girl and understood how Lloyd was protective – after all she was allowed her fun.

    Like

  4. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt a man secretly watching this female figure skate, but later in the story, I realised its beautiful innocence, knowing it was his actual job to stop anyone from skating on the ice. I really do wonder what the note read… Thank you for sharing this piece with us!

    Like

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