In my hometown there’s a square patch of grass about 100 metres across between main roads called the Level. It’s not exactly what you’d call a park as the only trees to be found are the ones that run around it’s borders. It has a gritty, urban feel to it and the surrounding traffic is so loud that it’s not where you’d go to do Tai Chi or chat with your sweetheart.
A few times a year a travelling fun-fair makes a brash visitation. Then the air is thick with candy floss, sirens and the screams of teenagers experiencing all 360 degrees the rides have to offer. Then the fair moves on and it takes a couple of weeks before the grass recovers.
In fact the only time I remember enjoying an hour at the Level was during an August thunderstorm. Two concrete paths crisscross the Level and I got drenched in the centre, staring up at the sky in childlike wonder. It was about the only place in town where I could be guaranteed a view of the electrical show above.
Now, around 1994 I was on my way to school when I saw that on one of the concrete paths someone had taken the time to bear his heart to the world. In large, white letters was painted:
How could you do that to me, Mary?
It was such a pure, tragic cry of an injured lover that it was practically poetry. I immediately thought of all the Mary’s I knew and wondered if any of them could have driven someone to such plaintive extremes. No one came to mind and in the next few days I passed by each morning hoping to see some elaboration on the complaint – or perhaps even a reply from the infamous Mary herself.
Thousands of people cross the Level every day on their way to work or to go shopping. You had to suppose that the site had been chosen strategically so as to haunt Mary with her alleged sins. With no further clues to guide me I took to studying the faces of each young woman that passed; if Mary was among them then she kept a poker face.
What had Mary done anyway? The obvious choice was infidelity, I supposed. However, it was also possible that she’d had an abortion, crashed the author’s car or let his goldfish die while he was away. It was clearly some transgression of the laws of the heart, thus meriting artistic complaint.
I would have forgotten about the entire incident after the next rainstorm but the letters stubbornly refused to fade away. Through hard winters of rain, frost and snow the original accusation hardly lost a smidgin of its initial impact. Neither did the council arrive to erase the graffiti. After all it was neither racist, criminal or even sexist in nature. The only person it could have offended was Mary – and she clearly hadn’t registered a complaint. Perhaps a tacit admission of her guilt?
Or then again maybe she’d just changed her route to work each day and simply ignored the charges laid against her. Or bought a car and no longer traversed the Level on foot. Brighton being a student town it was highly possible that both Mary and the author had even long since moved away to high-paying jobs in London and had started families. In which case it was only the few thousand people who crossed the Level each day who were left with the memory of their mysterious acquaintance; a daily reminder of the fecklessness of the human heart.
It took over a decade for the words to fade away – or maybe they were removed, I don’t know.
How could you do that to me, Mary?
When you think of the billions spent each year on imprinting our minds with commercial slogans, logos and clever ad tricks; none of them came close to the impact of those eight words painted in white by an unprofessional hand.
In my heart I like to believe that Mary has occasion to cross the Level every now and then. Try as she might, her eyes always flit down to the immortal accusation and she’s overcome with ancient guilt. Whether she slept with his best friend, threw his new guitar on the fire or laughed at the size of his penis, I hope she feels sorry. The bitch.