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.
Ahead of me, a traffic warden in his nasturtium-orange rainwear walks beside a construction worker, his rain pants and vest the colour of an almost ripe lemon. The colours of candy, of a PEZ, of a sweet and sour. Slow in their boots, shoulders touching, they turn out of the rain into the organic coffee shop.
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
Sounds of Spring in London. The leafblower replaced by the handheld pressurized water cleaner, cleaning slippery green off sidewalks. Birds turning up the volume, showing off. The clop clop of the hooves of the police horses soft under the jackhammering at the construction site. The park gardeners pause in their leaf-gathering to look at the neighbouring construction, frowning over why so much for so long.
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.
In a January melt in Ottawa there would be sleeves of ice on tree trunks and ice varnishing sidewalk edges. After a winter of rain in London, moss slicks the bottom of walls and walk edgings, and adheres to tree trunks in a bright green, almost fluorescent. Not the deep soft green of moss growing on the earth in a woods. This green is like algae, new and greedy.
The park offered a fungal tour. I didn’t go.
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?
Brown fronds folded down shawl a palm tree.
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.