At the park, the muddy ground is finally bare of leaves. The high grey tendons of leafless trees scratch at the tenebrous morning sky. Frost has given a hat-hair limpness to the hellebores and has edged with brown the early rhododendron blooms. Chill, close, an air of expectancy.
Such doom and gloom to be found on the internet about the future of reading, of fiction, of books. And yet. The window washer tells me he likes to read non-fiction, and rattles off a list of recent reads. Biographies of sports celebs, politicians, people’s experience of war. Nothing unusual in this except that he reads at the end of a fourteen-hour working day, or on a rare day off. He works long hours to get by, and when he isn’t working, his favourite thing to do is read.
This morning, after I witnessed an exchange of goods between vendors, the vegetable vendor told me that this job feeds him, and is much needed, as he is a student. There was a pause while I speculated: student of acting, agriculture, assets? “Of what,” I asked.
“I like that,” I said, “the market vendor philosopher.” He looked dismayed. I guess I should have said, “the philosopher market vendor.” Or maybe the problem is with the words “market vendor.” There is probably a jazzier English version for guys who sell stuff at the market. Marketeer?
There’s a pay and display stand in the park parking lot. And it seems to suit the height of nobody. The more elegant man stands with one foot forward, knee slightly bent, arm extended as if he were holding a sword, fingertip stretching for the buttons. More typical is the boxer, who stands with legs apart, knees bent, shoulders thrown back, and from this position positively punches the machine. Thumb punches. The third sort I’ve spied is the lover, the man who embraces the machine with an arm resting atop it while swaying his body out and away so that his face leans into it. An aggressive embrace that ends only when the machine spits out the required ticket.
At least none of them have a purse to ponder. The women also display three poses. The ballet dancer, who simply bends her knees, lowering her torso while keeping her posture straight. The twerker, who thrusts out her behind while leaning her torso forward for an intimate moment with the machine, haunches twitching impatiently. Finally, the yoga balance, the woman whose back is plank straight, and whose purse dangles beneath her chest, a swaying temptation.
The half hour before the park closes. Nearly empty of people. At the outdoor cafe, a streetperson, dressed in black, zipping his black bag. The white police van slowly making its way to the far gate. Lovers oblivious to time. Dogs leashed and led away. Peacocks parading loose, the males in full colour. Yesterday one fanned his plummage; white fluffy feathers behind the fan pulsated with the wings’ movement. Emerald and turquoise rainbow. Peahens partied in the children’s playground, swooping from structures.
Daffodils fade in meadows and on banks. Primulas and tulips share beds. Almond and cherry blossoms and others nameless to me cloud the air. Looking up causes me to walk into a congregation of bugs and take one in the eye — midges? gnats? There is probably a word for evening flies. A dog barking behind a tree-bush draws my attention. From the space behind the big bush comes a man walking quickly, not looking back. Then a man’s voice behind the bush, deep, trying to shush the dog, and then saying to it, “Go. Go. Go!” Deep angry voice, I think. The second man emerges with a ball launcher in hand, the dog running ahead to play ball. He too is in a hurry, taking long strides away.
His anger at the dog reminds me of the woman earlier this week, whose dog escaped her attention, ran down the length of the leash-free area to the park entrance, where someone had tipped out a sackful of stale bread. Supposedly pigeon food. The black lab gorged itself frantically. The owner came running. Abandoning the bread, the dog, as best a dog can with its tail between its legs, ran to her. With her open palm she whacked it on the side of the head. It flattened itself to the ground. She then beat it on its ribs with the flat plastic case of the extension lead. Meanwhile, three teen schoolgirls watched from a bench, sandwiches in hand. The middle and tallest girl said, “She hit her dog!” And then, “Oi! Stop beating your fucking dog.” And then, “Leave your fucking dog alone!” The woman, who had been silent throughout, straightened and walked up the path, posture perfect, away from the girls. The dog on its leash behind her. Although I was shocked by the violence of the dog-owner’s retribution, I recognized the look on her face. It reminded me of me, when I have to jerk the leash to yank the dog away from what she considers street food and what I consider to be possibly poisoned probably rotten and definitely going to cause a mess for me to clean up. A look that says, I wish I didn’t have to, it’s complicated, you don’t understand, I am not Cruella Deville.
Is it hunger that makes me see magnolia blossoms as semi-stirred cherry yoghurt, and pink almond blossoms as candy floss? And what’s this ahead, forcing us to cross the road? A group of middle-aged people are gathered on the sidewalk in front of a building under scaffolding. (Construction carries on through the winter here.) Short bearded men stand with women in dark jackets. Just as I am wondering if they are post-renovation buyers, I recognize that red brick, and just as I say to myself, Hey, that’s Radclyffe Hall’s house, what are they doing to it…, I hear the tour guide say, “She was one of a group of upper-class lesbians.” Pause over the British propensity for class classification. Proof of spring: tourists in this quiet street on a week day.
The sun in the park brings flies to the dog’s coat and bees to the buds and blossoms on trees. There is a haze in the air, of cool and warm meeting in a wet kiss flavoured by the airborne dust of leaf and grass from the tractor mower. Ahead, an alley of trees bright with leaves about to unfurl. Green miasma, I think of this visual haze, but my dictionary confounds me.
Two men approach me jogging fast (or running — at what speed does one become the other?), both wearing a white t-shirt and navy shorts. Bright white in spring sun. One is a head taller than the other, and giraffe bony. The taller of the two sweats more profusely. His run is awkward and in his awkwardness seems to run faster. As if his feet are too far away for him to fully control. The shorter man jog-runs easily, barely sweating. The taller man talks, using an English I don’t understand. I pick out: marketing, contract, go forward. The shorter man listens and does not speak. The taller man’s face is loose, his jaw flopping out his words, while the other’s is tight, a nose-breather, his eyes on the ground ahead of him. He listens and does not speak or nod, his face expressionless. They pass, misting my air with their sweat. Looking back at them, I see that the taller man has black panels on the sides of his t-shirt, under his armpits and along his ribs, making him look thinner from a front or back view. Not identical tees, thus not company outfits. The taller man leans his head down to talk to his mate, angling his shoulders, speaking confidently, confidingly. The silent reception of his words bothers me. Don’t trust him, I want to shout to the tall man. His confidences flow as easily as his sweat. He needs a towel to mop it up, to stop his mouth.
I walk on, consoling myself with the thought that the shorter man may be finding it hard to keep up with the long legs. He may seem tight, locked, he may be silent because he can’t talk and breathe. Or he doesn’t want to inhale the miasma coming off the taller man. Miasma: an infectious or noxious vapour, esp. from putrescent organic matter, which pollutes the atmosphere; a polluting, oppressive or foreboding atmosphere or influence.
Pronounce as: me-asthma (if you don’t say the “th”).
-Thursday 13 March
In the field that was a pond two weeks ago, two boys play football (soccer to Canadians). The blonde one slides on the mud, falls onto his back. He laughs and rolls from side to side in the mud, swishing his arms. Like a child making snow angels. Like the dog scratching her back in the grass. His mate watches, bending at the belly to better laugh. I watch, wondering what kind of yellow his jersey is. Mango yellow? Mustard, marigold? When he stands up and hand-shakes his shirt, still laughing, I see the mud is most dense at his spine, emanates from there. Sunflower yellow, and the mud the colour of the sunflower’s seedy centre. I leave the two boys to their play. As I turn away, I see a wistful smile on the face of a passing young man — 20s? 30s? — who watches the still laughing boys. His open navy trenchcoat frames his navy suit. Although his black shoes click with the swiftness of a busy man, his coat does not flap against him or float behind him because the style in trenches this year is knee-length and tight-fitting. Quite unlike the mud spattered loose jersey.
Out in the rain running errands, I pass a street person shivering in grey sweats, his palms pressed between his knees. I go into the Starbucks next door and buy a big cup of tea, lash it liberally with milk and sugar, and take it out to him. I proffer him the cup. He shakes his head No.
“I don’t drink that,” he says.
Uncertain if he means beverages of that brand or if he thinks it is coffee, I say, “It’s not coffee, it’s tea.” I don’t unbend or retract the cup.
He again shakes his head No. “I don’t drink it.”
Finally, I put the cup down beside him. I say, “Just hold it. It’ll warm up your hands.” He doesn’t move. “Seriously, warm your hands.”
He withdraws one hand from between his knees and feels the cup.
I leave wondering if he doesn’t drink tea or coffee so he doesn’t have to get up to pee, or if he thinks I’ve poisoned him, or offered him the dregs of my own drink, or if he just wants to make the point that he’d rather choose how I spend my money. Or that a big cup of tea will slow him down if he has to move away from the two cops nearby. Or he just doesn’t like Starbucks. His No reminds me of how little I know or understand about the world around me.
When I come to the guy selling The Big Issue, I regret the unwanted tea, shrug and say, “Sorry, no change.”
Tube strike from Tuesday evening through to Friday morning. Water causes natural disasters in areas away from London. The South Downs flooded. A rail line washed away in Dawlish on the south coast of Devon. On Wednesday it rained sideways. Yesterday in the park in the straight downpouring rain, empty of nannies and children, a gardener caught my eye. He said, “‘orrible weather we’re having. ‘orrible.” From under his rain-jacket hood he showed me his crooked teeth. I grinned back agreement, happy that 1) he spoke to me 2) in movie cockney English and 3) that he expressed sentiments I have pushed away all wet week long, for I am the Canadian and am not allowed to be affected by this mild [chill damp] weather. I sauntered on, smiling at pathways narrowed by borders of water.
And today, Friday, a reprieve. The strike is over, the sun comes out. Because I can, because the buses are not overcrowded with displaced tube passengers, I go to the library. Sunny days are so rare that I regret my research.
I have a favourite seat in the upstairs of the number 10 bus, the one with a foot rest. Favoured by others, too, as the window’s smudge of head-level grease shows. As does the food flotsam on the floor. I settle in for the hour-long ride, keeping zipped in the unheated pod rocketing through the city. From up here I can better see the buds on the trees, the Victorian flourishes on buildings, the two-tone brick designs around windows. The traffic chaos of Tottenham Court Road. The empty windows of a building under renovation stalked by a dried-blood red steel frame near Goodge Street Station.
There is a large terrace or court in front of the British library, which I have cursed as the rain swept across it. And the wind. Today it is calm, bright, a place of contemplation away from the traffic on Euston Road.
Flat rectangular espaliers trap trees onto music stands, their brown leaves notes.
Morning sun reveals green fur on the temporary structures of the construction site. Green psoriasis proves that the new roof on the design museum is copper.
The Kyoto Garden in Holland Park is forbidden to dogs. Because forbidden, I peer over the hedge when we pass, noting the progress of peacock spots, my ears attuned to the waterfall splash. Yet I never go in should I pass dog-less.
The water rushes. Dogless would I rush past the garden. Yesterday a tour guide told us about rushlights. Boys running ahead of carriages to light the way in the dark streets. One had to be careful of which boys to hire, as rushlight gangs would lead a carriage into a dark dead-end, overturn the carriage and rob the occupants. Rushlights were snuffed in metal cones attached to iron railings. Boys rushing with rushlights. And delight rushes away when I learn that the plant’s etymology is German while the verb’s is French/Latin.
The same guide tells us that Sunday, February 2, is halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox, that the service to celebrate this is Candlemas, and if Candlemas morning is sunny, then winter will linger (meaning more chilly rain). The Brits in his audience look ruefully at the sun slanting down into our street.
White gulls strewn midfield. Around its periphery run boys in burgundy jerseys and navy shorts. Bulked in layered clothing, hunched away from the mud, I pause, waiting for the oval line of boys to warp, waiting for a boy’s dash at the birds. When it comes, the whoops of the boys and the calls of the lifting gulls are rain muted. Whose memory am I standing in?
-29 January 2014
There are 242 acres of Kensington Gardens. Surely a dead squirrel in all that grass would be a needle in a haystack? The dog found the stiff and peed on it. Which I told to the woman who later petted the dog wearing her black leather gloves, asking if the dog was a good girl. Speaking of good girls, the iron fencing around the statue of Queen Victoria casts a shadow that looks like a crown. Fortuitous that I was passing when the sun glanced down to cast the crown shadow.
A small branch stripped of bark gleams in the grey air. Bone-white, I think. And retract the thought. The prominence of my own bones, and spinal osteoporosis, moves the word bone out of the interior designer’s catalogue and into the undertaker’s. Bone has lost its innocence for me.
At the top of the bare tree is a large nest. Whose interior decorator urged the bird or squirrel to take the red and white warning tape that barricaded us from fallen trees after last month’s windstorm? A nest that incorporates a warning.
Stopped a moment in Kensington Gardens to enjoy a rare patch of sunshine, I hear the squee sound that a dog’s chew toy makes. Ears direct eyes upward. Six parakeets fly around the top of a tall plane tree. Just as I marvel at the beauty — bright green birds, grey tree, blue sky — the birds break formation. Two dive at a branch. A blur of grey fur. Two squirrels race along the slenderest of branches, framed by sky, to the next tree and the next, down to the ground. Where they sneak back to the tree that must have a stash at the heart of its upper branches. The grey squirrels are not a native species; they are pushing out the red squirrels. The parakeets are not a native species; they escaped from an aviary. And I, the foreigner, watch them taunt each other in the heights.
A tall couple have no time to waste, pushing past me as I wait in front of the Wait to be Seated sign. He is tall and thin and of an age to have known post-war food rationing. She is blonde and looks like him, thin and sharp-nosed, and younger, possibly his daughter. When I am seated beside them, I see that she is in conversation with her cell phone. Facing her and the wall, he watches her talk into the gadget. Is he annoyed? Puzzled? She lifts her phone away from her face to say to him, “I’ll have cake. See what cakes they have.” He gets up and walks away to the front, to the bakery counter. Her call continues with the other person doing all the talking. He returns. Still standing, he lists the cakes down to her. She nods. He sits. She lifts her arm and magically the waiter appears. The cafe is crowded and I would expect to wait longer to order; I envy her arm gesture even as I know I would never do it. After we have ordered, she continues to ignore the man and gives her attention to her caller. I smile at the man. I believe I hear him mentally cursing the gadget and feeling anxious because they have so little time together and this is it and they haven’t even talked. When the food arrives, she doesn’t put her phone away. He forks off a piece of his strawberry tart. After he has chewed and swallowed, I ask him if it tastes good. The tables are close together, in a row. He smiles and says yes. And she shifts her conversation down, saying, “It’s been good talking to you, let’s catch up later” and that sort of thing. She hangs up and by way of apology, speaking even as she stabs at the tart, says “I just couldn’t get him off the phone.” She is halfway through her tart when she says to him, “Your memory is going. Sometimes you forget things. Like your pills. You take your pills, and then five minutes later you say I need to take my pills. That’s what we have to sort out.” I read on his face my astonishment that the first real bit of conversation she has with him is this. Private failings aired in public. Maybe she’s not his daughter, maybe she’s a caregiver. Or would the callousness be the other way around? He finishes his tart in silence. Before she has finished her tart, her arm goes up again. She is asking for the bill, he is gulping his coffee. She orders him to go to the loo. While she pays, she complains that her café au lait was too foamy. Then she gets up and paces in front of the door that leads to the washrooms. I consider whether I should tell her that there is an exit on the other side of the door, that he could escape. But here he comes, tall and straight-postured and dignified and silent. How does he do it?
In the crowded tube, my back to the person nearest me, aware that I am part of a circle of backs whose owners face outward, as if expecting attack. Like the battle positions you see in movies, from the wagon train circle to the embattled dwarves in The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug.