Something woke me up earlier than usual, this morning. It was the light pushing through my curtains. It had a different colour and texture than of late. I switched on Radio 4, negotiated myself out of bed, and approached the window, gingerly at first, then gave the curtain a firm tug. The bright sunlight punched me right in the face and flooded my room. Yes – the sun was actually out. I lifted open the sash window, and leaned out. The wind ruffling the oak branches outside did not carry its usual, insidious chill.
Tempted as I am just to go and bask in the sun, with my scribbling notepad, I just have too much work to do. I am going to act like a responsible adult and not an essay-delaying undergraduate.
No. It’s no good. I am staring at the same page for ages, and my mind keeps wandering. I feel restless and boxed in. I give myself licence to explore a compromise, and put my work into my rucksack. I’ll go to the Village, and work at a café table on the sunny pavement. My painful tennis elbow needs warming in the sun. I cling to that excuse.
Tennis fans are already spilling out of the Tube station. The shops are all decorated with lime-yellow tennis balls. Tennis balls everywhere. Stacked up in pyramids, hanging from ribbons, or just strewed in the window as if they don’t care. Funny – the championship isn’t actually in Wimbledon proper, but in Southfields, two Tube stops away. I walk up Wimbledon Hill. The Village is not quite awake, yet, and the only café tables out on the pavement are in the shade. Perhaps I can go and sit on a bench on the Common. I get a take-away cappuccino and croissant. On Wimbledon Common, I can’t find an empty bench that faces the sun. Again, something feels lacking.
I miss my favourite London park. I suddenly realise it. I miss my park, by the river. And so I start walking along the edge of the thick woodland, towards Fulham. As I approach a bus stop, the 93 bus slows down but I let it leave again. I’ll catch it at the next stop. Or perhaps the one after that. Along the path, I have to contend with runners. What is it about joggers that seems to expect right of way? Does exercise endow them with a special virtue that states, “Step aside and let the jogger through – you’re only walking”? The sun is caressing the back of my neck, and warming my elbow. I slow down, take a sip of my velvety cappuccino, taste its richness, then take a bite from my freshly-baked, buttery croissant. Yes! Now that feels good. A passing jogger, trainers thumping hard on the path, face twisted in the evident discomfort of excessive physical effort, cheeks all red and floppy, catches the smug expression on my face and darts me a dirty look. I smile back at him, feeling even more unashamedly smug.
Another bus stop. Not yet. I’ll walk a little further. I feel a sense of triumph when, about four miles later, I walk down Putney Hill, along the High Street, and reach the river. The green water ripples glisten in the sunlight. I inhale that unmistakable river smell Rupert Brooke described as “thrilling-sweet and rotten, Unforgettable, unforgotten”. Ducks are grooming on the bank. Canada geese paddle expectantly. The white band under their beaks looks like a bandage for toothache. Above Putney Bridge, the sky is a deep blue canvas brushed with strokes of purple-grey gossamer clouds. At the bottom of the bridge, the Tudor belfry of All Saints church marks the start of Fulham and the entrance to my favourite and, formerly, my local park.
Bishop’s Park does not have the fame of Hyde Park, the elegance of Regent’s Park, or the wide expanse of Hampstead Heath. However, it possesses a unique charm and can cater to different tastes and moods. Right at the foot of Putney Bridge, you can sit in the rose garden, where the breeze carries sweet, heady fragrances, as well as the sound of church bells. There is the wide lawn at the back of the Palace, where you can sprawl on the grass, or have tea on the stone patio of the café. You can venture through the arch into the walled herb garden, gently brush the numerous plants with your fingers which you then take up to your face and breathe in rosemary, sage, lavender or thyme. If it is shelter from wind and people that you seek, then you can take refuge in the courtyard of the Tudor palace that was once the residence of the Bishop of London, and listen to the playful murmur of the fountain, and the tinny old clock chiming every quarter of an hour. Or you can sit on one of the benches on the embankment walkway, beneath the branches of horse-chestnut trees whose trunks are so wide, you would need two people to stretch their arms around them. Old trees with centuries of stories to tell.
I turn around to see what is rustling behind me. A squirrel is rummaging on the ground, trying to remember where the nuts are buried. On the river, seagulls swoop, their cries exaggeratedly strident, like idle threats. Above, the rheumatic caw of a jet-black crow, glossy in the sunlight. I throw a handful of monkey nuts. The crow calls out to its friends then lands next to my offering, stabs the shell with its beak, and extracts the peanut. Deep black eyes make contact with mine. I nod and resume my walk.
Today, I shall go and work in my favourite spot in the park.
No, I’m not telling where.