I watched a boy leaning on a tree vomiting this lunchtime. I was out for ‘a run’ with the dog. The truth is I’ve not ‘run’ anywhere for eighteen months, although in order to avoid being one of the hordes of New Year Resolutionists I had a tentative trot out a couple of times last week just to check everything sort of worked. (The jury is out on that one.)
Anyway, at first I thought the boy was older than he was, probably in the grip of a hangover. As I got closer I saw he was no more than twelve, maybe younger. He had got out of a silver car, parked on the wrong side of the road. A man, probably his father, was in the driver’s seat, his elbow sticking out of the fully open car window, the engine running. Car sickness probably. Football fans perhaps – the Shrimpers were having an early kick-off.
That, I thought to myself as I passed the poor kid, is the difference between a father and a mother. The mother would be out with the kid, by the tree, as useless as the father still sitting in the car, engine running, but she would be there. Then I carried on and thought I might die myself in the far muddy corner of the park as my lungs threatened to explode. My life is not glamorous, my trainers are covered in an inch of mud at all times and when I ‘run’ I can’t always breathe. Still, I hope I would get out of the car if my child was throwing up by a tree. It would make no difference of course, but one can’t, always. I am reminded of the quote from Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde which said, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ The gutter doesn’t change but the stars do. At the moment my stars are a bit hazy, like this one.
This woman walks past, her age perhaps mediated in her own head by symmetrically applied make-up: two strong horizontal stripes in a plain wrong shade of pink, hint at an imagination of cheekbones, long ago. She is all strong soap smell and hair dye and there’s at least an hour of early morning work at the coal face of capturing fading youth right there, that I can see.
I feel angry with cheap make-up companies, allowed to peddle these colours that would only, and at a stretch, enhance a baboon’s bottom, let alone a lady’s face. She deserves better than that, this lady, all scrubbed and smart but cosmetically unenhanced. I am aware I am struggling to even stand up straight out of all my own wrinkles; clothes and skin. Who am I to even notice? At least she has a spring in her step as she shoots past me shuffling on the pavement, her go-faster stripes glowing beaconlike on her cheeks.
I can see the squirrel about fifty metres away. I must have my spectacles on otherwise I would not see anything. The squirrel is well out of its ground – equidistant between two substantial trees; in short, much too far away from guaranteed arboreal safety for my liking.
My dog, the barbarous Hibernian, has not yet seen it. He has no need of eye-glasses. As a sighthound, his eyes do what it would have said on the tin if they had come in one… which they very well might have so bionic are their powers, compared to my pathetic efforts at long distance vision with the naked eye. Without my non-tinted, non anti-scratch-coated (extras I live without), diamante-studded (included in the price) spectacles anything on the horizon is a blur.
I know if it so much as twitches, which it surely will, that being a main squirrel activity in life, the dog will see it immediately and it is doomed. I shout and become most animated – much waving my arms about and calling repeatedly ‘Where’s the ball?’ The dog does not turn in my direction. He has his back to me, but if I could see his face I know I would see his eyes narrow.
His shoulders tense together and drop a little lower. He is not a Pointer, yet somehow he manages a respectable half-point in the direction of the furry grey rodent. The squirrel crouches, oblivious. I am transfixed.
I want it to stop before it starts but it is too late. And when did it start in any case? When I decided to walk him here, in the park. Not really, I deliberately headed this way, to the tennis courts and grassed football pitches and away from the trees because it is squirrel season. I came this way to avoid squirrels. And here is this idiot prey animal, miles out of its ground, asking for trouble. Did it start when I decided to spend my half an hour lunch hour (that’s what a working mother ends up with: half of what everyone else does) walking the ingrate hound? Or was the squirrel’s fate signed when it was born, surely after I had found the dog in my possession? Who knows, existential questions are impossible enough for the human condition to answer without trying to apply the model to a squirrel whose existence is in imminent mortal danger.
The dog takes off. Even with significant yardage to make up the dog is too fast. The squirrel runs, it dodges, and finally darts through the high, wire netting that surrounds the tennis courts. With no apparent entrance for dogs to the courts, he is foiled.
The current dog had never been to my old regular haunt on the Marsh. I rectified that by being accidentally in London today. It’s a long time ago that me and my old dogs used to walk, or run, with me there and a lot’s changed since then. A new car-park and new wooden-clad changing rooms. Over the White House Bridge, access to the East Marsh is now forbidden; it being carved up between Olympic Park needs and the relocation of the travellers’ site. The old travellers’ site closed when it was swallowed up, along with Waterden Lane, underneath the monoprint of one of the Olympic stadia.
In my mind, my dog Rudi was going to open up the throttle across the marsh. In reality, there were still a cacophony of football matches being played cheek-by-jowl. Each game was notable for the lack of spectators; all the noise came from the pitch. The only thing I could make out was an urgent ‘Carry on, carry on!’. The rest, I imagined, was in Turkish. I sent Fabrice Muamba positive thoughts; the London Chest Hospital that is treating him is only a few miles south of the Marshes. My own ancestor (a baker from Grays) died there in the last century. I hope that Fabrice will be alright, although his career will be over, which is a tragedy in itself. Because of the football, we skirted along the banks of the old River Lee. I was hoping to see a familiar sight: a comorant perched on a thick branch drying its wings. In the end, the final twitching list included: magpies, seagull, chaffinch (probably – even with glasses it’s hard to be definitive with my eyesight lately), mallards, ruddy or teal-type ducks (pretty anyway) and one dipping-in-flight green woodpecker. No cormorants.
How things change. Across the marsh the skyline has moved on. Still the Post Office or Telecom Tower and the Gherkin, now joined by the nearly finished Shard, that I photographed at closer quarters last year. It dwarfs the others, soaring well above the apex of its nearest rival, St Mary Axe. What hasn’t changed on the wide expanse of Hackney Marsh is the cold wind. Yet, the water looks dirtier, the industry heavier. Two new multi-coloured towers for private housing sit on the west bank of the canal part of the Lee. I remember the workers clocking on and off when the site housed the old Lesney Matchbox factory.
Opposite the old flat, more travellers have fetched up like a line of driftwood on the far edge of the cinder pitch. Children play outside the caravans. A dog sniffs where my own used to avidly hunt dead chicken bones. Back on the marsh two Orthodox Jewish men cycle by, chatting. It occurs to me that you never see an Orthodox Jewish woman on a bicycle. There is no-one else about. Where the capital city strains against the Olympic Park there is more space than where the hell I came from. I wonder about the wisdom of progress and walk back to the car carrying a piece of wood. No doubt I make a strange sight. I am used to this. This does not change.
The other thing that had not changed was the police helicopter having its regular Sunday whir over E9. How they afford it, I do not know.
Rudi’s Weekend Walk – one’s enough…
Came home, the walls closed in and the dog crashed out stinking of salt marsh mud.
It really is a dog’s life.