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A Walk in the Park
By David Gardiner
This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
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Louis Pasteur, who discovered both vaccination and how to ‘pasteurise’ milk, said that both had been largely chance discoveries, but he added the very important rider that “Chance favours the prepared mind.” In fact I would want to take that idea further and suggest that every insight, every experience and life-event that moves us forward and lets us grow as human beings, favours the prepared mind.
We can’t lift ourselves out of bad situations or change anything until we have opened our minds to the possibility. We take charge of our lives when we are ready to take charge of them. We move on when we are ready to move on. We fall in love when we are ready to fall in love.
Sometimes we are perfectly aware that our mind is in this prepared state.
In the closing months of the 1960s, when I stepped from the Belfast Boat Express onto the platform of Euston station, having spent the night fighting off seasickness amid the prone bodies of beer-and-piss-smelling football supporters on the floor of the second class lounge of the Ulster Monarch, I was fully aware of this sense of readiness. This was going to be the first great turning point in my young life. I wasn’t a schoolboy any more. I was free to make my own life choices. The world, or more precisely England, was my playground. I could live in a squat. I could grow my hair long like the Beatles. I could stop going to Mass on a Sunday. I could get a motorbike. I could get a girlfriend.
Although I was no older than my former friends at the Belfast Sixth Form College whose faces were already beginning to fade from my memory, I felt myself considerably wiser. I knew something that they didn’t, or that they were unwilling to accept. People don’t ‘find themselves’, in India or anywhere else. People make themselves, and they can do it wherever they happen to be. Creating a life is not a question of geography, it’s a question of making choices and acting on them. Of being open to change, deciding to do things and letting nothing stand in your way. Life, I had decided, was an unending series of opportunities there for the taking.
This was still my frame of mind the following morning, after my first night in the boarding house that I’d seen advertised in the Irish News. The landlady, a Southern Irish widow with a helmet of lacquered white hair around her swollen red face, had warned me of the terrible moral and physical dangers the big city posed for a naïve boy like me. She had recited a list, of which my mother would have been proud, of the many things that I was not allowed to do. Prominent on that list was ‘taking girls back to my room’. I decided that my first day in London would be devoted to the task of finding somewhere else to live.
To a boy used to the few dozen back streets of West Belfast, the scale of London was simply incomprehensible. The streets went on forever and in every direction, big ones and little ones, some of them choked with angry traffic, some littered with broken cars up on bricks, loud with the cries of dirty-faced children on roller skates or displaying their skills with hula hoops, or jigging around to the distorted sounds of Cliff Richard and the Shadows from some over-driven transistor radio. Mean-looking stray cats watched me from under cars or searched through the rubbish that overflowed the galvanised iron dustbins. Were these the streets that were paved with gold? No, I decided they must be elsewhere. I had a whole lifetime in which to find them.
My morning was spent writing down addresses from newsagents’ notice boards and plodding hopefully from one prospect to the next under the guidance of the minute print of my A-Z Pocket Atlas of London, only to be told in each case that the room was either ‘taken’ or ‘not suitable’ for a person like me. With the noon sun high in a clear sky, sweating uncomfortably despite my rolled-up shirt sleeves and loose-fitting flared jeans, I decided the time had come to take a break and review my room-hunting strategy. According to the A-Z there was a large park with a series of lakes nearby, an enticing island of green and blue amid the fine grey and yellow spider-web of roads I had been navigating all morning. I took my bearings from the nearest road signs and headed towards it.
I was not disappointed. Beyond the blue iron railings and the broad open gates a wide dusty pathway curved out of sight into a vista of low tree-lined hills and immaculate mown meadows where people sat or lay around, either singly or in couples or little groups, sunbathing, reading books or newspapers or tucking-in to the food and drink that they had brought with them in various boxes and baskets. To one side was the shore of a substantial lake, its perimeter, like the central pathway, disappearing amongst the low wooded hills that hid the distant houses that the A-Z assured me lay beyond. There was a paved path around the visible lakeshore with benches at intervals where people sat and socialised. Two large fountains thrust their jets skywards from man-made islands a hundred yards or so from the shore. Dogs on leads pulled their owners here and there, and a group of young children laughed and yelled at one another as they played with a Frisbee on a nearby lawn. This was bigger, better maintained and more beautiful than any park I had seen in Ireland, yet it was barely a smudge on the big front page map of Greater London. The delicious smell of new-mown grass filled my lungs. This was paradise. A mighty city pausing to take its rest.
The natural beauty on display extended noticeably into the human realm as well. Considerable numbers of what we were then allowed to call ‘young girls’, office workers on their lunch break I guessed, had come equipped with large towels on which to lie in various states of undress, up to and including the skimpiest of bikinis, their working clothes carefully folded beside them. Passing young men glanced appreciatively in their direction, but social convention dictated that eye-contact was never maintained for more than about a second. I noticed that my sweating problem had grown worse. I ventured to smile at some of the girls but they instantly turned away. I was nevertheless rather proud of myself. In Belfast I would never have had the courage to do even that.
As I drew up to a girl in a long blue floral dress sitting alone on a bench I noticed that she was flouting the convention on eye contact. More than that, she was smiling at me.
I slowed down. What are the rules here? I really didn’t know. She was around my own age but there was something very young about the way she sat swinging her legs, her white plimsolls just clear of the ground, her auburn hair held in an Alice band spilling carelessly over her shoulders, her dark eyes wide and welcoming. She made me think of hippies and flower power – the Woodstock Festival that had been on TV a few days before I left Belfast. I returned the smile. I was suddenly aware of the beating of my own heart. I stopped walking, and for a moment felt my lips tremble as I tried to think of something to say. She was really very pretty. And still smiling at me. How could I open a conversation? Did I have enough self-confidence even to try?
Before I had time to do anything, the moment was gone. She sprang to her feet, gave a little giggle, and turning her back to me started to walk quite quickly, almost to skip down the path ahead of me.
I was utterly smitten. She seemed so happy, so full of the joys of being alive, so totally self assured. As I followed, trying not to be too obvious about it, I began to create a fantasy in my head about how the days ahead would pan out. We would pause at another bench and talk first, tell each other our life stories, she would kiss me on the cheek as we parted; then we would meet again and again, sometimes in the park, sometimes in the cheap coffee bar where she worked. She was an artist, I decided, waiting to be discovered, selling a painting every now and again at a street market – a musician too, one who wrote her own songs and sang them to her own guitar accompaniment, and collected money outside busy tube stations. She had been living alone since her boyfriend went off to do the Indian thing. He hadn’t written and she was lonely now, and ready for a new relationship.
She stopped for a moment, turned around and flashed another devastating smile in my direction. Yes! It was real. I hadn’t been mistaken.
We would start with one blissful night of passion; in the morning she would cling to me and beg me not to leave. We would find a place to live together, maybe in a squat or a communal house, and I would get a healthy outdoor job on a building site to support her so that she could devote her time to her art and her music. We would write poetry together – she would introduce me to all her Bohemian friends. When we were both ready we would leave to go around the world together, working to support ourselves as we went, picking grapes in the South of France, teaching English to African village children, digging wells in India. She would write songs about the life we shared, and one day a big impresario like Brian Epstein would hear her singing them…
I lost my train of thought. There was a woman up ahead – small, middle-aged, round-faced – bulging out of her tight beige three-quarter length summer dress. She was smiling at the girl, who seemed to be hurrying to meet her.
The woman opened her arms and the girl ran to her with an enthusiasm that I found quite disconcerting. I was close to them now, the woman was looking straight at me, and I could think of no respectable excuse for having followed the girl who was evidently her daughter. She confirmed the fact in a jovial Cockney accent that I strained to understand. ‘Awright? How’re ye going?’
‘Oh, I’m fine, thank you. Grand…’
‘This ‘ere’s my daughter, Lucy. She’s a real beaut, ain’t she?’
‘Yes. Absolutely. Very beautiful indeed.’
The conversation seemed rather weird. The girl was still smiling at me, holding her mother’s hand.
‘Don’t worry about ‘er. She’s a right little flirt. Likes all the young men, don’t ye Lucy? You’re Irish, ain’t you?’
‘Yes. That’s right. From Belfast.’
‘She really likes you. I can tell. She ‘ad a young Irishman who used to take her out a while back. She likes the park and the swings. Loves to get out for a walk, our Lucy. You can meet us ‘ere most days if you want to get to know ‘er.’
‘Really? Can I?’ I was wondering what on earth was going on, what kind of person this mother was.
‘She’s right fond of the young men. Sometimes she’ll be with one and still trying to pick up others. It’s all completely innocent, of course. We’d be chuffed if you wanted to meet her from time to time. She’s no trouble at all, very independent, ain’t you Lucy?’
Lucy didn’t acknowledge the remark but continued to smile at me.
‘She can dress herself, and feed herself and keep herself clean, and she hasn’t had a toilet accident for months. Of course we put her in a pad when she’s out just in case. She doesn’t speak, but she understands every word you say – don’t you Lucy?’
Lucy continued to smile, her expression completely unchanging, while I felt the blood drain from my face and my elaborate fantasy world fade away like the dissolve-to-white at the end of a Walt Disney film.
I struggled to think of something to say. My embarrassment mounted and all I could come up with was: ‘I’m afraid my life is very busy at the moment. Maybe another time.’
I walked quickly on, feeling Lucy’s smile on the back of my neck, never once turning round. ‘Goodbye,’ the woman shouted after me. ‘Lucy says goodbye. Don’t you Lucy?’
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