The park wasn’t always a source of happiness. An increasing number of squatters were sleeping under the willows. One morning we saw a man lying in an unusual position and it crossed my mind that the might be dead. On my way back from dropping the children at school I took a closer look and tried to attract his attention, but after several loud ‘Excuse me’s’ he still didn’t flicker. I was too scared to actually touch him, so I went home to phone the police. They came and confirmed the man had been dead for several hours, so I couldn’t have helped him, even if my CPR had been up to date.
Stories spread and change direction as fast as a bushfire, and later that day we heard that my neighbour’s lightweight nine-year-old son had pulled this large man from the stream on his way to school, and there was a bullet hole in the man’s head and stab wounds all over his chest! Fortunately not even remotely true.
Another day I was walking through the park and came across an African woman sitting in the filthy stream. As I approached she slipped further into the murky water. I tried to help her on to the bank, but couldn’t budge her. She asked for water, so I nipped home to get her some food, drink and a towel. Edward came back with me and together we managed to help her out of the water and under a tree. She was wearing only a black polo neck jersey and a piece of sacking for a skirt.
She could hardly walk and was speaking in one of the eleven official languages that I could not understand, but we managed to ascertain that she was sick and needed help. We went home to phone for an ambulance, but by the time we had walked back, the woman had disappeared. I looked around puzzled, because the ambulance couldn’t have arrived that quickly, and the woman had struggled to walk three paces with us.
A man told us she had moved to the shelter of the trees because someone had stolen her clothes. He said she wouldn’t go in an ambulance because she’d been drinking meths.
We came home again to find her something to wear, returning with an old dress that I was sure had shrunk while hanging in my cupboard. We managed to ease the woman into a semi-respectable state before the ambulance took her to hospital. The following day she was back in the park with her ankle in plaster, wearing a different dress.
Our contributions of food and drink to the vagrants were random. We did not take food every day, partly because we were battling financially ourselves, but mainly because once started, we would be committed to running a regular ‘soup kitchen’. If we went away or moved house, who would continue to feed these people?
Our finances were at an all-time low, thanks to my costly escape to England. I used to search down the backs of the chairs in the hope that some loose change might have fallen out of a pocket, so I could buy milk. We sold the car and Michael bought a motorbike. Sometimes I caught a lift on the back and felt the wind whistling up my trouser legs and whipping the split ends of my hair from under my crash helmet, lashing my neck and mascara-streaked face. And I wanted to go faster.