Monday, February 11, 2013

A Winter's Walk

Us (and my sister, tucked in her coat) in Regents Park, late 1983/early 1984

It was late morning in mid-winter.  There was a crisp chill in the London air and I was wrapped in warm layers: a cuddly hat and scarf, warm overcoat and patent leather T-bar shoes buckled firmly over my wool tights.  She pushed brass handle of the heavy, mahogany door open and we squinted in the bright morning light, one small hand tucked safely inside one big hand. The sun hung lazily above the trees  whose stark, finger-like branches were barely a shadow as they reached toward the milky winter sky.  With my right hand firmly in her left, we walked down Clifton Gardens, my free hand gripping the plastic bag of stale breadcrumbs we were bringing for the duck's breakfast.  She told me about the boats we were going to see, about the ducks we'd later feed and how they say hello.  I practiced my "quacks" as best I could, and as I told her of the mummy, daddy, and baby ducks we'd see she listened to me as she always did: with full attention, as though what I had to say was the most important thing she had ever heard.

When our route met the canal, we veered off Blomfield Road to the little footpath beside the canal.  This was my favorite part.  The canals of Little Venice seemed a well-kept secret, and three-year-old me liked to believe that she and I were the only two who knew about them.  But the best secret of all was that people lived in boats on the canal.  They slept in them, cooked in them, ate in them - a concept that seemed so magical.  As we strolled along the dark water, I crouched down to peek through the sheers hanging on the tiny windows.  I'm sure I expected to see tiny people living in these tiny, floating homes.  She told me stories of the people who lived in the boats, real-life fairy tales and I hung on every word, her breath billowing clouds around her head as she spoke: "This boat belongs to a little princess who is hiding away from life in the palace, and in that boat lives a little girl, her favorite doll and her mummy and daddy, because they don't like to live in proper houses".

The Little Venice canal we walked down many a day. via

Once we had examined each and every 'house' along the canal, she said "let's go to the park and feed the ducks".  Some days we'd take the big, red, double-decker buses, but on this occasion we found our way to the nearest Tube station.  We sat on the bench, waiting for the train, and I looked everywhere for Paddington Bear.  As the roaring train approached, she gripped my hand and I tucked my face into her hip as train stopped in front of us with a screeching gush of wind that simultaneously frightened and excited me.

After a thrilling train ride, we rushed along the glossy moss-green hallways, climbed the stairs, and began the short walk to Regents Park.  We followed the winding footpaths, the bare trees looming overhead, the wind whipping through our hair.  As the pond came into view, I began to skip, excited and anxious to meet my waddling little friends.  At the water's edge, I gently lay my bag of breadcrumbs on the ground, careful not to spill a crumb.  As I reached in to grab a handful,  I authoritatively announced to the ducks that it was breakfast time, just as she had announced to me every morning of the last year.  I carefully threw some crumbs in the water and squeaked with delight as the ducks came paddling over, heads diving through the surface of the canal, scooping up their morning feast with their little brown beaks.  I always felt it terribly unfair that the 'lady ducks' were brown and, to my young eyes, ugly.  They should be green, blue, black and cream, and beautiful like their male counterparts.  I think I threw a little more to the lady ducks to apologize for nature's injustice.

After the ducks had had their fill and our plastic bread bag was empty, we walked over to the swings where I'd fly through the air, throwing my head back and laughing, while she pushed me higher and higher, all the while holding tight to my sleeping baby sister, tucked snugly inside her coat.  In the summer months, when I was free of my wool tights and overcoat, I'd run through the soft, green grass as the sound of the ice cream van melodically announced it's arrival.  She'd ask the ice cream man for a "special cone", which he never failed to produce: a cone cut off a couple of inches from the bottom with a miniature swirl of vanilla ice cream on top.  A special treat at the close of a perfect outing.

These simple memories are some of my most treasured.  She made a loving and protective hand, a winter's walk, an underground adventure, a chat with some ducks, and a special summertime treat last almost 30 years, locked safely in my brain so that whenever I fancy it, I can close my eyes and immediately be transported to experience how it looked, sounded and felt that day in London with her.  She isn't here anymore to create new memories with, but I will always have these memories to revisit and relive - comfortable and familiar, like old friends - and the most treasured gift she could have ever given me.

Happy birthday.

The earliest photo I have with her.