1st June, 2020
Paul Maitland, Kensington Gardens with Chairs and Figures c. 1907. (c) Tate Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
The party was tedious as Blay knew it would be. The hostess owned a small business, the retailing of artisan dog food – vegan dishes a speciality. This, Blay knew, meant the gathering would be full of what he had started calling metropolitan hippies: stupid haircuts, marijuana or cocaine, conversations about box-set television serials and working holidays in jungle countries. In point of fact they would not be conversations because everyone talked at once and the jabber led nowhere. He knew the food would be fussy and faddy and it was. He knew the wine would be cat’s piss (he was not a wine snob, he just knew the wine would be bought without discrimination) and it was. Knowing all this made him feel low and cynical.
His wife had driven them from north London to south London and beguiled the journey with talk of ‘having the upstairs bathroom done’. Blay just grunted his assent to various points. Any Sunday morning that involved doing anything other than slowly drinking coffee, reading the paper and listening to music seemed a waste to Blay.
At the party he decided his best tactic was to say very little. The house was an old Thirties villa reappointed inside with the latest sterile arrangements from Scandinavia. In every crowded room a jangle of voices bounced viciously off floors without carpet. After an hour or so he ended up, inevitably, in the kitchen in ‘conversation’ with two men in their late thirties, one of whom was enthusing about using his skateboard to go to work. The other composed music for video games. ‘Kill, Baby, Kill is like a masterpiece,’ the latter said about the game he was working on. ‘The player is part of a team of soldiers dropped into Vietnam in the Sixties on a special mission. And,’ he said chuckling and stroking his beard, ‘this is the best bit, they’re all zombies but none of them know. So, like, the player finds out they’re zombies and starts to kill them but then, like on the next level, he finds out, like, he’s a zombie and a zombie killer is after him.’
‘What are your influences,’ asked Blay, who played the piano and at one time had dabbled in serious composition. ‘I suppose you need to make things sound eerie and spectral.’
‘Hard steel,’ said the composer. Blay looked blank. ‘It’s a subdivision of metal,’ he smugly explained. ‘Really fucken’ hardcore. Bands like Zinc Weasel, Dildo Muthas – ’
‘I saw them at Torquefest in California last year,’ said the other man. The composer made an affirmative hum of appreciation and continued, ‘Halo of Fluff, Pig’s Abortion, Anal Fuhrer, Priest Killer, Kübelwagenners, Cum Fight, Deep Fried Knuckle Sandwich, Speculum, Kidney Wipers … ’
Blay asked if he liked Debussy.
‘Did he do Für Elise? I get a little bit of that into Kill, Baby, Kill.’
Blay’s mood sank lower. He went to the loo. Then he told his wife he was going for a walk. She was not happy about it but told the hostess he had a headache. ‘Also,’ she said, ‘I think he’s depressed.’
‘Oh,’ said the hostess, ‘He can have a crystal bath when he gets back from his walk: very lifting.’
It was a soupy day in October. Rain seemed imminent but Blay did not bother to fetch the umbrella from the car. In the quiet street he felt improved by a few notches. A feeling of quiet despair had been growing in him for weeks and today seemed like a sort of climax. His job bored him – he worked as a civil servant – and a sense of dissatisfaction and irritation had penetrated into many areas of his life. He shouted at the TV; he rolled his eyes at things his wife and boss said; on bad days a cynical inner voice kept up a commentary that sometimes shocked him; he woke early each day turning over vague ideas of escape. Escape to where though, that was the thing; he looked at the suburban roads stretching away: his life, his state of mind, felt like a maze. ‘It’s middle age, dimbo,’ his wife had said jocularly when he’d broached the subject of his mood. Perhaps it was, he thought. After he’d been walking for a quarter of an hour he realised that if he pressed on for a while he would eventually come to the neighbourhood where he grew up. Huge inky clouds hung low in the sky and thin rain came down in great swags. Blay turned the collar of his overcoat up and warmed to his walking. The roads and pavements were deserted. Seeing old remembered streets diverted him from his low mood. The rain, deceptively thin, was soaking him but he did not mind. At last he turned into the street where he grew up and stood a while outside his old house, allowing lots of memory fragments to come back in a rush of images, the London Pride in the rockery, the small concrete square where once had stood an air raid shelter, a sheet of corrugated iron fence damming the street behind it. Bernie-next-door’s shed. Blay wondered what it all looked like now.
He turned, crossed the road and walked down to a small park.
He stopped at the threshold. Here was one of the most familiar scenes of his childhood: an area of swings giving away to a scruffy expanse of grass about half the size of a football pitch. Beyond that, Blay knew without having to think, was the keeper’s house, a bowls club, a concrete children’s paddling pool and another, larger area of grass.
Blay was quite soaked but he hardly noticed. He was mesmerised by the park, which was covered in a silver mist of rain. It was deliciously quiet save for the angelic hiss of precipitation. The clouds seemed right down with him now. There was wonderfully murky atmosphere. He moved into the fenceless park and walked aimlessly across the soaked grass. Forty years ago he had played football here with the rest of the children of the street. It came back to him in another stream of images: pullovers for goalposts, summer evenings that extended magically, chases, fights, sweets, tennis-ball cricket. He stopped to take all the ghosts in.
‘It’s a lost world,’ he murmured.
‘What’s that you say?’ said a voice. Blay turned. It was an older man standing a few feet away with small dog on a lead.
‘I said it’s a lost world. I knew it as a kid. Haven’t been back here for donkeys’ years.’ They exchanged pleasantries and started to walk on together in the same direction.
Blay said, ‘It’s in quite good nick, really.’
The old man explained that the park now had a ‘friends of’ group that supplemented the council’s stewardship. ‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Blay. ‘I was worried it would be all ruined and full of graffiti.’
They had reached the other side of the grass and stepped on to a path, where stood a pink granite drinking fountain of Edwardian vintage. ‘I’m glad this is still here,’ said Blay mournfully.
‘It gets spray painted by vandals from time to time,’ said the old man, ‘but we clean it off.’ He paused and watched his dog drinking from a puddle. Then he said, ‘You seem a bit sad if you don’t mind me saying.’ In few and abstract words Blay explained his ennui. ‘You probably just need a new project or a change of scene,’ the old man said. ‘I dug a pond last year and it gave me a terrific lot of pleasure. Still does, actually.’
Blay nodded vaguely. They passed forlorn, autumnal rose beds. They passed the bowls club, a smallish Sixties modernist building with an impeccable striped lawn. Blay watched the impact of raindrops forming expanding circles in a puddle. He felt a fleeting pang of pleasure. The circles and the mention of Debussy earlier now brought that composer’s Reflections in Water to mind. He decided he would try to learn it. He turned to the old man and said, ‘You don’t mind rain, then.’
‘No, I think it’s underrated.’
Blay smiled, the movement feeling unusual. ‘Underrated, I like that,’ he said.
The old man then talked about his allotment, how it was sad to be winding it down in autumn. ‘But,’ he said, ‘the loss of it makes it that much more enjoyable come the spring. Know what I mean?’
Blay did not answer. He was staring at something a way off. After a while he said in a vague voice, ‘Yes.’ Then he started to walk off. The old man and his dog followed him.
Blay briefly stopped in front of a beech tree then walked up to its trunk. Reverently he put his hand on the bark. ‘I remember this tree,’ he said. ‘One afternoon we got this idea we were going to make a treehouse in it, me and my friends. We made this plan, got hold of some bits of wood and rope and so on and got all set, you know, almost synchronizing our watches as if it was a war mission. I suppose because we thought we’d be stopped by what we called a nosy parker.’
‘I probably saw you,’ said the old man. He pointed to the houses in Alexandra Road on the other side of the park. ‘I’ve lived there for fifty odd years.’
Blay turned and smiled acknowledgement. ‘Thing was,’ he said with a chuckle, ‘once we got over here we couldn’t climb it. None of us; we couldn’t get that first branch.’ He looked at the branch intently.
‘Didn’t you try any other trees?’
‘We didn’t. It had to be this one. I think the idea was that we would have a commanding view of the park, like a lookout tower. I remember thinking that to be stationed up there with my toy machine gun would be just about the best feeling in the world.’
The old man bent down and gave his Yorkshire terrier a biscuit. He looked up and was about to say something when Blay swiftly took off his overcoat, dropped it on the floor and made a small jump and grabbed the first branch, his body swinging underneath.
‘Hey,’ said the old man. ‘Steady. That’s an expensive looking overcoat to be throwing in the wet.’ He picked it up.
With great effort Blay had swung himself up on to the first branch. Now he stood and climbed into a trunk pocket that led to another thick branch at a more useful angle. This gave access to higher branches. His hands gripped the damp bark with a certainty that surprised him. Somewhere above a bird flew off rattled.
Occasionally dead leaves fell past him. He was visited by a fleeting childhood feeling of worry that he’d gone too high but this faded as soon as it arrived. He found he was halfway to the top. Looking down he saw the old man below, grinning. ‘I’d say try to your left,’ he called to Blay. He was right, and Blay carried on in a series of scrambles and levering actions. He was sweating now despite the chilly wet afternoon. Now and again his brogues slid treacherously when he stood on a branch. He was out of breath but he kept going, absolutely intent upon his task: calculating and moving with determination.
He was stretching up at his full capacity when he slipped, dropped a few branches but managed to cling on. Though shocked and winded, he recovered from this setback and continued, occasionally stopping, weighing up, then moving further. He found himself humming a curious tune of his own invention. Eventually he stopped and looked around. He was as high as he could go. He had done it. He had climbed the tree.
What a great view, he thought. In one direction he could see over the tops of the houses in Alexandra Road into their gardens and the church and Lennard Road beyond. He turned, with his arm round the trunk of the beech. Across the park he could see the roof of his old home and the flats opposite, beyond that the railway line and rising lines of houses going up to the Crystal Palace television transmitter, which was half shrouded in vaporous gloom with one red eye winking at the pace of a heartbeat. Rain fell gently on Blay’s face. He pushed his sodden hair back into a sopping quiff. He watched a train pass down the railway line, its wheels sparking white. Its horn blew then it vanished behind the pub at the corner of Parish Lane. Two people walked down Alexandra Road hand in hand under the same umbrella and briefly kissed as they moved. He started vaguely humming his melody again, finding new ideas within it, now sombre, now comic.
In the far west the clouds were clearing to reveal the late sun in a golden autumnal ball of fire. Blay was still smiling. Now he found that he was weeping at the same time. There might be a rainbow in a minute, he thought.
A bus came down Lennard Road with a wet sigh and turned with slow care into Parish Lane. He could see someone on the top of it reading a book. A woman came out of the back of a nearby flat on to a little balcony, put up an umbrella and lit a cigarette. On top of a shed in a garden in Alexandra Road a cat was sheltering under a rambling rose.
‘Your mobile’s ringing,’ the old man called up. Blay told him to answer it. A few moments later the old man said, ‘It’s your wife. She’s not very happy with you, mate.’
This did not dent Blay’s smile. ‘Tell her I’m up a tree,’ he called back. ‘Tell her I’ll be back soon and that I’m going to write a bit of music, orchestrate it, the lot. Tell her I don’t care if anyone ever hears it or if it’s rubbish. Also tell her I’m not a zombie.’
‘OK, will do,’ called the old man.
‘And tell her I love her,’ Blay shouted.
He took a deep breath then closed his eyes and added: ‘Tell her I love everybody.’