It’s that sort of perfect cold; bitter cold that sits in your bones and gnaws away at the calcium in them, that causes them to sing when you try to dissolve it in bathtubs of hot water and even then that may not be enough.
I lean my head against the window and feel the juddering of the car’s engine rattle my temples as I try to pick out anything in the sky but it remains clear of life, no cloud nor bird disturbing its claustrophobic whiteness, like the bottom of a milk pan coated in a dairy layer. It remains so perfectly devoid of anything that you know something big must be afoot.
“Y’know it’ll probably be dark by the time we get there?”
I nod. I hope not but I know this is more than likely to be the case. I want to see the deer.
The cars tail back and mesh together forming the cable-knit of a long metallic scarf with us hemmed into the middle, a row on either side of ours making sure we are locked in place, another metaphorical prison for me to tangle with in my depressed and dilapidated mind.
I must have mentioned Richmond Park months ago, before this latest bout of sunken misery, but I can’t remember it. I’ve never been but I’d seen pictures of the deer and was always intrigued how somewhere so large and filled with, ostensibly, wild animals could exist within the limits of London.
The light is starting to dim but we might just make it, might just be able to see something of it if only we could get a bit of a clear run as we edge closer. The fact that we’re crawling through Wembley makes it all the more painful that we are so near and each stab forward riles up a flutter of anxiety that settles into despondency once we come to a complete halt. Stopping still would almost be better, an acceptance of the fact that we’ll never make it in time but now I have hope and I don’t think I can bear it.
The rattle and hum of the idling motors is all that there is between us, otherwise the silence slithers in and starts to feed off the stubbornness of either one of us, neither wanting to bend to the will of the other.
Weeks I’ve been like this, in this state of suspended animation, functioning on autopilot as my brain tries to numb everything around me. Sometimes, living with another depressive can be quite helpful in terms of understanding but often it devolves into a perverse competitiveness where neither one of you wants to reach out for fear of being told it’s nothing compared to what the other is going through or having unwittingly triggered a monologue on their emotions. Frequently you feel like screaming, “I don’t want your problems, I need help!” but you never do and days can pass by with very little being said.
The silence is flexing, expanding into the space around us as the cramped vehicle starts to become more compact and the noiselessness is probing, curling up slowly and finding a throat to choke…
“I used to come this way all the time when your aunt and uncle lived in Richmond.”
“Mm? Ever go to the park?”
“I’ve driven through but never stopped and got out.”
“Something new for us both then?”
“Something new for us both.”
The clunky, whirring grind past business parks trickles into the stadium traffic, its own lugubrious arch that was supposedly a beacon of national pride like the jagged and jaded towers before it, a cog unto itself, an outstretched gear to jar against as you try to navigate your way around middling football results and staged corporate events. But we persist and soon the faltering stop-start begins to gain some semblance of uncomfortable flow about it before making way for unexpected momentum through residential streets before Kew Gardens eases by. Then, as though nothing had passed before it, we are funneling in through one of the gates on the North side and beginning to ooze along the solid grey vein that had been opened up all the way down the verdant flesh on either side of it, still alive and still full of life. There, to the left, a giant red stag lazily flicking its head, undeterred by the three or four tourists gingerly edging forward, desperate for better photos but eyeing the protruding antlers at all times.
The nonchalance of the beast is completely at odds with my quickening breath as we slide past.
“Is there anywhere we can pull over?”
“There’s parking throughout, I think, just keep an eye out.”
We creep further along, clutches of big, red deer pockmarking the green as twos, threes and fours clot together here and there but still nowhere to pull in. No layby or passing point to rock up in, just a straight line of road scything through the middle and out to the other side of the park.
The deer become fewer and fewer until it is evident we are now in dog walking country, an area where it is safer to stroll with curious canines who might spook the other quadruped residents and again I am at a loss. Nearly at the South gate and it is only here that a lot of tarmacked parkland splurges into view, scruffily containing the vehicles of wayward motorists who have coasted from one end to the other in search of prime parking for an amble in the park and are now sequestered in a corner with everyone else.
Frost stabbed lungs bleed warm vapour as each breath delivers pain. I don’t want to waste more time getting coffee from the hut on the edge of the cement square but it’s impossible to turn it down when offered, if only to give me something warm to hold onto, to help the sting subside in my chest. It remains tight though and I want to cry. Don’t cry, grown men don’t cry over deer.
Sipping froth and slipping forth we are confronted with just how little we know about the creatures we seek. Should we head to the wooded patches of the park or out into the more open regions? It seems logical that the sheltered arboreal areas might be the best bet since they would naturally abide by woodland but mum’s stick holds her back in this terrain with the temperature further affecting her creaking joints. I can’t hold it against her but it is just a further frustration of the ill-fated hunt.
The solid crunch of frost-stiffened leaves offers a satisfying reprieve but not a comfortable one as the noise continues to the growing dread that we’ll never see an animal. The shuffle and rustle makes us loud, ineffective trackers and the low light becomes further dulled the deeper we push into the trees, only adding to the foreboding air of greyed out failure.
Sensing the sting of defeat, mother takes this as a sign she can start talking inanely as if knowing there is nothing to scare off. This doesn’t ease frustration though as she tries to spot birds and offer them up as a consolation prize and I couldn’t care less. I pull two, three, four steps ahead and try to focus on my pacing. I can’t peal away completely and make a break to the other side of the park, that would be unfair. Besides, I’d never make it by now.
The nattering becomes a familiar drone. I’ve become so used to tuning it out to a low hum that I’ve learnt to grunt at the pauses but now it becomes a persistent hammering, a spitfire blitz of ratatatat in short, persistent bursts and, for once, I can’t shake it as the irksome noise bites at the base of my skull. But it’s not the words tap, tap, tapping, although they continue above the sound, and when I spin to confront the annoyance I spot it there in a tree above.
“I see it, I see it.”
A tiny, fragile thing with an exquisitely tailored velvet jacket of green and a streak of red on its head like a punk rock aristocrat. I’ve never seen a woodpecker before and didn’t realize just how small they are. It hammers and stops, hammers and stops; its intermittent workmanship creating a greater furore than its diminutive stature suggests it should be able to. It hammers and stops, hammers and stops before twitching its little head from side to side. Has it seen us? It appears not to as it hammers and stops, hammers and stops but it pauses again to bob one way then the other before flitting off, zigzagging away.
“Now wasn’t that worth it?”
Was that worth it? Was that worth it! Oh my god she thinks I’m in control. She thinks this is all for fun. She thinks this is some diversionary tactic fun day out doesn’t matter what happens pin a smile on my face I’m not screaming jolly hockey sticks try again next week AS THOUGH THIS ISN’T THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MY LIFE FIND A CURE FOR THIS THING IN MY HEAD BEFORE I RIP IT OUT BECAUSE I JUST WANT TO SEE SOME DEER UP CLOSE IN REAL LIFE IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK I JUST…IJUST…I JUST. I just want. I just wanted. i just wanted to see some deer.
Careless footsteps now, my head hung low to look at them munch up the ground, greedily champing the fallen debris of winter beneath them.
I don’t even realise when we’ve cleared the trees. I must pick up some slight change in the wind chill or light as I do raise my eyes to the horizon and notice I can actually see it now. I turn back to the tree line and see I’ve come a long way from it, but where to next? I spin trying to find something to associate with, to walk towards, but all I do is spin. I spin and I spin and I spin.
I recognise things, objects in the distance but I can’t think what they are, why they are there. I know I am here and that here is where I’m stood but I am still lost. It’s as if I can’t see the forest for the trees.
The failure sets in as though it’s carried on the back of the cold. I know I can always come back, try again another day, but I needed this now, I needed to just have something to hold onto. I’m guided in a direction, presumably of where I came from, by some physical force, like I’ve been taken by the shoulders and steered this way and that. It can’t be mum because I can still hear the ‘click, clack, clack’ of her stick.
I am numb now, numb from the cold, numb from the frustration, the collapse of plans, numb from the falling through of a day with such potential only to be greeted by the same old feelings of forever missing out on something. With the numbness comes a blindness, a cataract film of despairing thoughts that make it impossible to see past my own fuzziness, as though I am being blurred out of existence and my vision is the first thing to go.
Now it has become a certainty, I just want to get back to the car, get back and drive away from the abject misery, the shame of feeling so desolate over something trivial. So when I hear “There, on your left,” I can feel the anger rise in me. Does she not know I cannot orientate myself, the effort it would take to shake this impairing veil from my eyes? I fear I may collapse in tears of rage and anguish, drained and devoid of any energy to take one step more if I have to pool what’s left in me into clearing my head and looking up just to see another bird. I go to say something bitter…raw, a flashpoint of needling fire behind my teeth and on the tip of my tongue but she hisses at me a short, sharp “shh”. It shocks me that I have become the one being reprimanded and bitten at. The opaque bubble has been punctured and I can see her clearly now, pointing. Pointing off to my left, and I am aware of left and right, and up and down again and she stab, stab, stabs to that definite, solid left I can once again identify. I do not want to turn, I want to stay, face and fight but that force has returned and is turning me silently, dutifully.
It’s not one of the big red ones, like the magnificent beast at the gates. Its tiny size and pale and spotted colouring makes it look fragile and sickly in comparison but it’s enough, And there’s another just a few feet away, this one a grubby ghost with its dirty white coat. As I look over and above them I see more and more specked here and there grazing softly, a whole mass of them loosely together, nowhere near the trees, as people start to edge in on them around the fringes of the group.
I try to get closer to the nearest one but as I edge forward it takes a few steps away, clearly not perturbed but wary enough to keep its distance. I usher mum closer before digging into a pocket and throwing my phone to her.
“Get a photo, get a photo.”
I can feel my irritation surge up again as she struggles to work it but it does not take long before it is done. We did it and now there’s photo evidence too.
I rush off like an over eager child trying to find another spot, a better angle of the whole herd or one that will allow me nearer, each time trying to urge her on and keep pace and she plays along for a period but at the third or fourth time of asking she just stops.
“We have to go now. It’s almost dark and I presume the gates close soon.”
I nod and concede silently. I don’t want to leave but we have succeeded and I don’t want to taint that with an argument. We have to get back to the car yet and the cold has solidified her already aching joints so it’ll be no speedy dash.
The return walk is in silence but not the cagey, tense kind. One of exhaustion and satisfaction. I sigh deeply when I climb back into the vehicle.
“Yeah, I’m alright.”
We take the same road out as we came in on and just as we are about to exit I see the big, red stag still lying where it was but no longer eyeing tourists, who have seemingly all scattered to make their way home. Not a word is said between us.
It snowed today. I stand by the window clutching a hot mug of tea as I watch the laconic flakes drift and fall, settling evenly on the road outside.
“Good job we didn’t decide to go to Richmond today,” I hear from behind me.
“Mmm,” I murmur in response.
I wonder what the deer do in the snow, if they cluster under the trees where previously they could not be found? I wonder if the big red stag still lies in its favoured spot or takes shelter with the others? I suppose it doesn’t really matter now and I pull away from the window and allow my mind to think of other things now it is clear to do so.