There was a bright chill in the day. I was walking slowly up the hill when I saw one of my neighbours talking to two men in red t-shirts. She said hello to me and so I stopped for a quick chat. The men were from a building firm, working on one of the nearby houses, and were asking about parking permits. I made a tangential comment about my neighbour’s shoes and the men laughed uproariously. Slightly taken aback, I carried on my usual 5 minute conversation with the neighbour, covering a range of topics. Every time I said something even vaguely witty the red-shirted strangers would start giggling and choking. After a while it began to go to my head and I decided to up the ante a bit, trying out a few impressions and mentioning Brexit. You’d think the whole Monty Python team had reformed and were doing their greatest hits outside on a small bit of pavement in the southern slopes of Finsbury Park/Highbury border country. As they spluttered and wiped tears from their eyes, I realised I was starting to get addicted to this and already envisioning my forthcoming stand-up comedy tour.
Then a van the pulled up. The driver wound down the window and said “Alright lads?” and made some very bland comment about Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The two men nearly wet themselves laughing and I realised that, far from them being highly tuned to my subtle brand of middle-aged beardy dad sub-Marxist Zen banter, these poor souls must have been stoned out of their minds on some kind of knock-off brain melting Skunk. I said goodbye, to my neighbour, the laughing twins and my dreams of comedy stardom, and shuffled off up the street.
It’s that time of year when the colours of the trees have passed into a dead brown and piles of leaves are no longer fun to walk through because they are too soggy. The weather is alternating between over-warm soft mugginess and bitter crispness. The general greyness is eased by the fact that at least one of our kids is still really excited about thoughts of Christmas and so invisible magic dust is breathed out into the air and stopping me becoming too morose at the passing of time. Our 11 year old’s general positivity and joy of life means that even though he had to have an operation a week ago and spent all week at home, he is busy creating art daily (usually Dalek based scenarios) and enjoying this quiet, introverted time of year.
At the weekend we went to Dublin to visit our daughter, who’s gone to university. Leaving London for a couple of days meant that my head somehow emptied of many of my small and large worries. When I saw her waiting for us at her halls of residence a kaleidoscope of images of her as a young child, playing in the park, and just generally hanging out with me as she grew up, came rushing through my head and then out into the clear morning sky. I could now enjoy seeing her steps into adulthood and independence. We walked all over the city, I bought two new books, saw the Book of Kells and, later in the day, my daughter bought me a pint for the first time.
It’s a strange, warm-chill morning, just after half seven. The mist still lingers around the lower stretch of the parks, ear the ponds. A bagpiper has started up. He’s obscured by the trees, but we can hear some plaintive tune.
“In the first world war they sent pipers out in front of the troops to scare the Germans.”
“Did it work?”
“Probably not. At least, not after the firs time.”
My 14 year old son is in his tracksuit, jiggling about excitedly. We’ve stated doing running in the park, before school. Short intervals sprints, about 50 yards, then walking back.
The piper is now playing ‘Amazing Grace’. The mist seems to be moving towards us.
“3-2-1 go!” I shout and we are off. Me in front of him by miles, I think, then in the last few strides he lopes past me and wins by about five or six metres.”
“That was fun.” He laughs.
He is now faster than me. An inch shorter, about three and a half stone lighter, but he has looseness, a happy explosive elasticity.
We go again. This time it’s closer, as I’m trying harder. Walking back, the dog runs around our feet, trying to get us to kick his tennis ball.
‘Amazing Grace’ is still going. A park warden is walking over to where the piper is hiding behind the trees (Horse Chestnut?).
Third run. I’m winning all the way until the last couple of strides. He glides past me, still talking about how pipers have been in the British Army for a long time.
The park warden is striding back now. The piper is playing a different tune, something melancholy. The warden must have asked for a request.
Next sprint, he wins by a long way.
The mist is moving towards us.
I kick the tennis ball and the dog goes sprinting off, but in the wrong direction. My son runs after him and kicks the ball again. The dog is getting old, his eyes are going.
Fifth run. I’m nearly there, trying to relax into the running. It’s pretty much a dead heat, though a photo finish would have had him as the winner.
Last run. He is away fast and wins by ten metres. I’m knackered. The mist has stopped halfway up the park, reminding me of the time the tower block on Green Lanes was demolished 15 years or so ago and the dust cloud enveloped the lower reaches almost up to the raised New River bank.
We walk home. He his happy. The piper plays on his sad tune.
I’m trudging back from the park, feeling tired and for some reason dejected by the clammy cold breeze that’s whipping off the pavement into my threadbare old jumper. A bloke in army fatigues heads down the road towards me, at a fair old clip. He’s on one of those self balancing motorized unicycle things. As he zips past me I see he’s holding a can of extra strong lager and talking on the phone in Russian. He takes a nifty left turn, sips from his can and carries on the conversation. He’s a metaphor. Heading north towards Finsbury Park.
The wind always gets suddenly colder in the first week of October. It’s the beginning of browns and reds appearing everywhere. I walk my youngest son to school. He can’t resist kicking through the piles of dry leaves. He simply has to walk through them. It’s as if he is pulled along by an unseen force. And it slows him down as he turns round for another go
Back home I notice the little shrubby tree in a pot a the front of our house has shed most of its leaves, but it still has its deep pink seed pods, like tiny rose coloured pumpkins. The plant belonged to our late next door neighbour… he had a great selection of front garden plants that I redistributed around he neighbourhood after he died.
Today is the birthday of our late next door neighbour on the other side (both have died in the last year and a half). He would have been 65 today, but succumbed to lung cancer in June. On our hedge cutting days we would chat and he sometimes mentioned vague plans about moving to a cottage in the country with his beloved dog. But I have my doubts. He was born and brought up around here, in these streets, with this wind.