Having photographed both the tree and surrounding area from a variety of angles, I followed the path on through the trees towards the southwesterly corner of the park, and the narrow exit at the bottom of Fonnereau Road. Immediately inside this gate is a low wall, little more than two feet high, bordering the adjacent flowerbeds. While still some distance from the gate, I became aware of the presence of a man sitting on this wall. I took little notice at first, however, upon drawing closer, I became aware that he appeared to be paying me an undue amount of attention.
Nearing the gate, and passing within a few feet of this man, he spoke to me. I have no record of the brief conversation which ensued, save for my own memory, hence a precise transcription would be an impossibility, and I will not lay myself open to charges of inaccuracy by attempting one. I can, however, convey the essence of what followed.
The man had something of a dishevelled appearance: unshaven, with noticeably dirty clothes, and the distinctive odour of alcohol seeming to emanate from his entire body. He appeared to be without immediate access to drink now however, and though clearly not altogether sober, was surprisingly lucid and calm. He was perhaps in his late thirties or early forties, and spoke softly, with a local accent. He began by commenting that he'd seen me looking at the tree.
I confirmed that I had been. I wasn't surprised by this comment - any individual standing in a public place taking photographs of one apparently innocuous tree, is bound to attract some attention. His next statement was less expected. I believe his exact words were "You like the carving?"
I played a little dumb, which only succeeded in extracting a look of amused incredulity from my new acquaintance, and an accusation that perhaps I was being a little less than straight with him. I changed tack, admitting that yes, I had been looking at the carving. I asked what he knew about it. He shrugged, and responded with a vague "That depends", before in turn asking what I knew of it.
I had no real reason to withhold the truth from this man, but at the same time felt reluctant to declare my hand to a stranger I had met only seconds earlier. I therefore stated that a friend had noticed the carving, mentioned it to me, and that I had decided to take a look. As bogus explanations go, this was perhaps a little lame, since the average city park features the names and graffiti of numerous bored teenagers, and no one is likely to point out this carving above any other.
I suspect the man knew this, but he chose not to press me further. I asked again what he knew, and was a little taken aback to hear him use the phrase "the PM man". I cannot be sure of his exact words, but he began to mutter that he knew nothing about it, and that he had no intention of getting involved with "the PM man". I picked him up on this reference, but he refused to be drawn. It was apparent that we both knew more than we were prepared to divulge, and the conversation was cagey to say the least.
We continued for perhaps another minute, neither admitting anything of any real substance, until the man seemed to tire of my questioning and become a little edgy. He shaped to leave, at which point I made an attempt to prolong the conversation by admitting that I was keen to know more, and offered the incentive of money. Somewhat to my surprise, he refused, and began to move off. Having gone only a few yards however, he stopped and turned, before fixing me in the eye with a certain intensity, and making a short impassioned speech, the gist of which was that I was a fool for taking such an interest in this matter, and that he for one would not be so reckless.
He turned once again to leave, before seeming to have second thoughts, and with a little more calm this time, added that whilst his advice would be to forget this entire matter, if I was insistent on involving myself further, I should talk to the "Matthews Street boys". As a parting shot, I asked the man's name. He responded with "Call me anything you like. Call me John."
Those were his last words. He moved off quickly through the trees towards the main gate in Soane Street. I chose not to follow.
Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved