When I need to think, I go for a walk in the park. I'll tell you about the park someday, about its history, how it got its name and who it used to belong to. But today I just want to tell you about the walks and the thinking.
It's been warm, these past few days.Too warm for a coat, so I've made sure I had a jumper with pockets. You just can't be moody if you have no pockets to stuff your hands into. And then there's the walkman. It's been 10,000 Maniacs, Our Time in Eden. It is the perfect soundtrack to those 'snotty tissue' walks by the river.
It really is a beautiful place and there are long and short versions of circuits to include the river or the playing fields or the cafe or the woods. So, I take my regular circuit, which starts off at the northernmost gate and I head straight down towards the river. The sky is blue, it's warm, there's the smell of blossom in the air, dogs running, sniffing excitedly at the trail that some canine relative has left hours before. There are kids playing football and teenagers giggling on benches, texting on their mobile phones and comparing ringtones. It's all so beautiful it hurts.
I sneak a look down 'Squirrel Alley' but I couldn't face it today. I would just get angry with the pigeons who steal the peanuts from the more timid squirrels who want you to leave their treats on the ground for them. So I march past the ancient black walnut tree and the air fills with the smell of freshly mown grass. I can feel my nose itch already.
As I walk through the gate to join the towpath, I steel myself ready for the ultimate in cuteness. There's a bird sanctuary just here, by the bridge and so there is a plethora of ducks and swans who have their regular crowd-pulling feeding spots. And sure enough, there's today's contender. All 'Gapped out', sticking her bum out in that way only three-year-old girls are capable of, knickers unselfconsciously on display, as she leans forward to feed crusts to the ducks. She should be in an advert of some kind, many would melt to see the smile on her face, and those pale gold ringlets just peeking out from under her floppy hat. My ex-husband-to-be would have wanted to take a photo. He would have wanted to go home and 'try' for a kid just like her. Head down, so the queue of passengers waiting for the ferry don't feel uncomfortable when they see the tears rolling down my face, I make my way towards the kid's park and turn up the track on my walkman.
There are a few nursery school age children with their nannies or cousins or older sisters (but I was probably right the first time; their nannies) playing in the park.Then the shock of the sweet smell of weed, playing under my nostrils like Bisto in the ads from my childhood. A furtive glance around leads me to the culprits. Late teens, on the swings. They are having a great time. Kids after my own heart. I can't help but smile, so many memories flood my brain and overcome all my senses for probably much less than a second, but long enough to transport me back to a dozen different moments of my teenage years. All the images flash and merge, like some kind of music video collage. Too much MTV. Mum always said it couldn't be healthy.
I finally reach my destination. There's a gap in the bushes that line the riverbank. It's a little off the beaten track and perfect for navel-gazing and general introspective, solitary moments. In other words, if you're in West London and you're suffering from a broken heart, it's the best place to be. You can swing your legs over a gnarled tree root and watch the ripples in the water just a couple of feet downwards. I look out across the river to watch the swans glide effortlessly across the murky water of the Thames. I've always been wary of swans. Someone told me when I was young that they are vicious birds. How can something so elegant be nasty, selfish and aggressive? My thoughts are interrupted as a family of ducks swim past. Mum and Dad duck look like they are trying to do an Egyptian dance, their long necks zigzagging in tandem. Baby duck is flustered, flapping his tiny wings and paddling away, desperately trying to keep up. Why, oh why do all these cute, pretty, amazing things keep crossing my path? Does no one understand I can't bear to see beauty today? It just makes the ache in my heart grow tighter, knot itself up, burrow itself in deeper so it will never come out. I look down at the sodden tissue I am slowly shredding. God, even my nails are out to get me today, mocking me in their pink and white shininess. You see, I have nails like butterflies. Months of painstaking cossetting are needed to achieve just one day of perfection. Tomorrow one will break. The day after the varnish will be dull and chipped. Why today, when I have nothing to say, when my hands will be chaste, not gesturing as I speak, do I have nails fit to flirt with?
It's getting late. The shadows of the trees are giant beanstalks, long and thin and stretched out across the playing fields behind me. I look at my phone to check the time and see that home have been calling me. They want their dinner, where am I? I wipe my eyes, and as I stand up I dust off the dirt from my bum. I take the long way home, along the overgrown towpath by the woods. It's shaded, cool and damp here. The smell of cow parsley and rotten undergrowth is overpowering. Crumbling brick walls and the heady stench of decay accompany me for most of the way home. At last I have found the perfect setting for my misery. And I have to laugh at myself. As I leave the towpath and cut through the estate I walk out into blinding evening sunlight. Cars are being parked, lawns mown, rosebushes watered and their first blooms snipped off for the dinner table. The music ends, too and I hear kids laughing and the brakes of their bikes screeching and the clatter as they drop them on the drive in their hurry to get inside for dinner. And that's when it finally hits me. You know the cliche, life goes on. Even when your heart is a heap of shards of pottery, about to fall through the holes of a string bag... I've been here before and I recovered. I can do it again.