Silent Night - By Tom Barber


No one was in Central Park to see the man die.

It was Friday 17 December, a week before Christmas. New York City was a majestic place during the summer but it was equally captivating in the winter. Festive cheer was everywhere. Shop windows were adorned with imaginative seasonal displays, each store trying to outdo the other. Bars served strong punch containing warming liquor, fruit and spices. Speakers were rigged up on lampposts in several neighbourhoods in the outer boroughs through which familiar carols were played during the day. And saplings planted in small soil patches on the sidewalks all over Manhattan were decorated with lights, contributing to the red and golden hue the city adopted every twelfth month of the year.

With soft snow powdering the grass and golden lights sprinkled in trees all over its 843 acres, Central Park epitomised the feel-good seasonal ambience of the city. During the day and early evening, the ice-skating rinks in the Park were in constant use. People could either rent skates or wear their own, some gliding around the ice gracefully, others wobbling their way round far less confidently, treating each completed lap as a small victory. There was the constant click-clock of horse’s hooves as they pulled carriages along the roads, tourists or couples sitting in the back, taking photographs or enjoying a romantic tour. Small two or three-piece brass bands took up positions beside the paths and worked their way through a repertoire of Christmas songs. And amongst all this, there was a constant stream of people just exploring the sights and admiring the scenery around them. Thirty five million people made their way into Central Park each year and a significant portion of that number came during the winter months.

Nevertheless, once the sun went down the Park started to quieten. A few remaining horse-drawn carriages trundled past, but the activity from earlier in the day quickly decreased as the air grew colder and the night got darker. The Park was open until 1am, but it had been a chilly December and that particular Friday evening was the coldest of the month so far. People were not inclined to hang around.

Coming up to 10pm, the lamp post-lit paths and sidewalks were now eerily quiet.

Snow had just started drifting down from the sky again, adding an extra layer to the white powder that had already blanketed the grass and naked branches on the trees.

During the summer one of the most popular areas in the Park was Sheep Meadow, located to the West between 66 and 69 Street. Fifteen acres in total, the large field hosted hundreds of people every day from early May to the end of September, but apart from the paths running around the perimeter it was shut off during the autumn and winter months to protect the ground and preserve the grass. That night the Meadow was dark, empty and quiet.

Save for the falling snow and one solitary figure.

At the north perimeter, a groundsman was slowly trudging his way along the fence, heading west. He was working alone. Before starting his shift he’d wrapped up well. He was wearing four layers of clothes accompanied by a scarf, a thick set of gloves and a knitted woollen hat. He’d read somewhere that a human being could lose something like fifty per cent of their body heat through the top of their head, so during the frostier months he always made sure that the beanie was firmly in place before he started work.

Being of Mexican descent, he didn’t enjoy the New York winter for a number of reasons. One of them was the emptiness of the Meadow at this time of year. Even though the summer period tripled his workload he still far preferred the warmer, and therefore busier and more sociable time of year. Some places were designed for activity; without it, they seemed neglected and forlorn.

Pausing by the fence, he looked out at the dark field. It had the same deserted feel of a large school on a break for the holidays or an airport Terminal at night.

It was unnatural.

He didn’t like it.

Six hours after beginning his shift, the groundsman was almost finished for the evening. He had a number of jobs to attend to in his area of the Park, but emptying the trash cans would be the last tonight. When he was done, he’d punch his timecard, take the A train back up to Spanish Harlem and enjoy a bowl of his wife’s homemade soup. He walked along