The gang could be heard before they were seen. Their shouts echoed off the walls and buildings surrounding the Peace Gardens. It was a mixed group. There were different sexes, different races, different styles of dress and attitude. Some were quiet, uncomfortable to be part of such a group. Others enjoyed the attention they attracted. Most were more or less drunk or drugged. A weedy fug trailed in their wake.
The old woman watched as the group approached the fountains. Children played on. They were too consumed by their play in the cool dancing waters on this hot sunny day to notice the newcomers. Most people did as the old woman did and watched as the gang invaded the peace of the gardens.
A tall blond boy in skinny jeans and an equally tall black boy wearing low-rise sweat pants led the group. They walked past the old lady and the other people sitting on the low wall outside the Town Hall. The others following behind him in couples and clusters. The blond boy looked into the eyes of the people he passed. He spat little drops of insolence on the ground as he walked. A young couple and a family got up and walked away from the gang, leaving a space of the wall beside the old lady vacant. The gang began to occupy the vacated space, settling and rising like birds roosting.
The girl at the back of the group was young, perhaps sixteen. Her hair was a warning. It had been dyed day-glo red and was draped around her pimpled face like a curtain, something to hide behind. Strands fell down over her face and from between them a pair of too-blue eyes stared as she passed. Something about the eyes seemed false and it took the woman a moment to realise what it was. They were incredible, the brightest blue she had ever seen. Right now they were unfocused and permanently moving. The old woman noticed the irises, black, wide and of different sizes.
“Wotchewlookinah?” said the girl, her words all slurred into one.
The woman realised that she had been staring. In some other summer, she and her husband had sat here. Here, together, on a bench made of knife-scribed wood and coiled iron snakes. They had talked of the here and now that was there and then. Children ran and squealed in joy as jets of water flew from the ground beneath them. This was the place where her young self and her younger husband had held hands and talked of the future. Bare feet splashed through her memories. Children’s voices, the music of the present, sang to her past. The sights and sounds and smells of today overlaid those of yesterday, of other days. She and her husband had been happy here, watching people. She watched these young people now. She watched this girl.
“I’m sorry, dear,” said the old woman. “I was looking at your eyes. They’re beautiful.”
“Yeah?” said the girl.
She hit the old woman with the back of her hand. The blow was hard and fast, the young hand whipping across the old face, arms sweeping wide like a matador with a cape. The old woman fell sideways like an un-strung puppet.
“You twat,” the blond boy said to the girl, standing behind her. “You stupid, pointless twat.”
The old woman levered herself back up into a sitting position. She placed a hand on her reddening cheek. She looked down for a moment. She saw the neatly laid grey granite paving blocks. She raised her eyes to look at the torch of a girl blazing in front of her.
The girl was standing on the balls of her feet. She was almost hopping, adrenalin and alcohol and amphetamines rioting in her body. She waited for a response, for comeback from the old woman.
The old woman placed her hands on the top of the wall either side of where she sat. She pushed herself up, with care, rising to a standing position. She brought her hands together and clasped them in front of her, her smart leather bag dangling from one arm. She looked at the girl.
The bouncing girl looked into the old woman’s eyes. She could see no anger in those eyes. There was not even fear. All the girl could see were eyes almost the same colour as her own, though they were weaker. The whites were yellowed in places, the irises less delineated than her own. She felt as though she were seeing through the old woman’s eyes now. She saw through eyes that had seen so many things, seen war and death and hurt and loss, eyes that had seen enough. The old woman was done with fear and anger and blame, and she would see no more of them.
The girl stopped bouncing.
A bald fat man in a food-stained vest came up behind her. “All right, love?” said the man to the old woman. He was looking at the blond boy and the others in the gang. “The wife’s called the coppers. They’ll be here in a minute.”
The blond boy looked at the fat man and spat carefully on the floor.
“We don’t need this, man,” said the black boy. “Come on. Skip.” He began to walk away. The others followed him, walking slowly backwards out of the gardens. The blond boy looked at the girl and then at the fat man and then bent and spat once more before following the others.
The old woman held out a hand to the girl. The girl looked at the hand and saw the wedding ring. She saw the swollen knuckles and the liver spots and the fine, fine skin. She looked up again, into the mirror of the woman’s eyes. The woman opened her hand and turned it palm upwards.
The girl took the hand. The old woman drew her in. She put her arms round the girl and hugged her.
“There, there,” said the old woman.