Some years ago I was sitting in the park in St James's Square, eating a shop-bought sandwich. It was a beautiful Spring day and the place was crowded with office workers. It still felt slightly miraculous to find myself working in central London. I'd been made redundant the year before and then had spent months juggling several stressful short-term jobs, often two at a time. Now, I'd finally found something secure and reasonably well-paid. I liked the people I was working with and the job left me a bit of time to write; I felt like a swimmer who's managed to struggle out of a storm-swollen river onto a sunny rock. Some mornings I'd stop and buy myself a flower, just to celebrate my good fortune.
On that particular day, as I was sitting there in the park, a strange thing happened. Two ragged men came bursting out of the large green shrubs along the fence. One was leading the other by a rope around his waist. The man at the end of the rope was a miserable looking creature. Half crouching, he shuffled along crabwise, darting terrified glances around him, locked into a world that we office workers couldn't see. The other man yanked the rope and yelled and swore. For about a hundred yards they travelled along on the path like this, paying no attention to the rest of us. Then, with a volley of abuse from the tall man, they crashed off into the bushes again and were gone. A ripple of amazement passed through the park. Some people got to their feet and pulled out mobile phones as if they were thinking about doing something about this. What? The men were quite gone. We stared at one another. It was as if the manicured surface of the day had suddenly been ripped open, forcing us to stare into the river of chaos and horror that runs along beside us all the time, and into which any one of us--given a bit of bad luck or bad judgement--could so easily slip. Then it zipped closed again.
A few moments passed. The gravel settled back into place on the path. The pigeons returned to their pecking. Conversations resumed against the constant background roar of the traffic. I tried to think about what I'd just witnessed, but I could feel my mind buckling under the strain of it. I went back to eating my shop-bought sandwich, and when I'd finished, I went back to work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vicky Grut, who won both the Asham and Ian St James awards in 1999, is currently completing her first novel. Her story, Stranger
, is featured in this year's New Writing
anthology (Picador). Vicky was one of the guests at 3:AM
's 5th anniversary bash
in April 05.