entrance to the park
I went along Rectory Avenue, remembering the “psychedelic tree” that stands on the corner. Once years ago I looked through it and saw each leaf move separately in the breeze and imaginatively merged with it, so that its limbs were my limbs and I felt it all at once. Now it’s strangled by ivy, but still the same tree, still standing to remind me of that momentary experience.
Just as vividly, I remember one Christmas when my younger children were little, and I thought it time to take them out from the warm house to breathe the frosty air. Rectory Avenue was a few minutes’ walk away. We made a game of looking in at Christmas lights in the big houses there. As they were mostly set far back from the road, it was no impertinence to gaze through their windows, their curtains not yet being drawn against the long dusk of these winter afternoons. In our new house we follow the Dutch custom and seldom close our curtains, though we’re only a yard from the narrow pavement, and show our Christmas tree gladly in this mainly Mahometan street.
The children were of an age for fairy tales and I wove one into our stroll: Hans Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. That urchin’s entertainment was to look into the windows of restaurants and rich people’s houses, imagining their warmth and feasts, whilst igniting her own matches one by one to try and keep frostbite at bay. We pretended to be ragged children envying the rich who lived in Rectory Avenue, with its neat gardens and fancy gates.
I passed a man yesterday on that same road, installing a new pair of very solid gates. The wood was pale, freshly planed and sanded, with the aroma of pine. It was yet to be painted with preservative, and looked good enough to eat. He was stretching over to nail up some final piece of trim, and I could see he found it hard with only two hands. I nearly offered to help, or he nearly asked for help, I am not sure which. But when our eyes made contact, the moment had passed already. He became a distant stranger like someone glimpsed from a train. Passing him again on the way back, I felt even more distant, as if he saw me as a ragged wayfarer, or an outsider like Hesse’s Steppenwolf.
Just after I’d passed by the man and his gate, I felt an urgent need to take a leak. Now I really was a miscreant wayfarer, eyeing the hedged or walled frontages for some neglected front garden, preferably of an empty house. No luck, but the end of the road faces a little park on the hillside, with children’s swings and winding paths, one of which takes you into a wood. I hastened my step, hoping to reach the desired spot undisturbed. Suddenly from nowhere a tall teenage girl appeared with a dog on a lead, going in the same direction. I overtook her in long strides, not daring to look behind me. If I got to the woodland path first, she might be dissuaded from going that way. On the other hand I didn’t want her to shun me as a possible pervert. We had made momentary eye-contact when she had first appeared and she did look attractive. Fortunately, she lagged behind, allowing me privacy to complete the mission.
Half a century earlier, I’d have slowed then, till she caught up, and addressed some friendly remarks to her dog, to see where things might lead.