Monday, 3 December 2007

A walk from Mortlake to Hammersmith

There is a part of me here that wants to communicate with you. I’m speaking to you at the moment but that isn’t the part of me that wants to communicate. I can chat on at length but it still won’t get a word in. Indeed the more I rabbit on the less it may be inclined to communicate. It will just lose heart and go back into the recesses of who I am. Somehow I need to shut up and still hold your attention. That’s the challenge.

In the past I’ve tried to explain to people what that part of me would say. It works only imperfectly. Words seem to connect us but in practice they block any direct communication. The need to interpret their meaning creates a barrier because they arouse different images and ideas depending upon background and education. They can only go so far in painting a picture that hints at this reticent part.

It is so reticent indeed that I had no idea it was there until a few years ago and even when it revealed itself I couldn’t understand the full implications of what it signified. I’m not sure that I can even now.

Instead of worrying about it I’ll tell you a story if I may.

In essence it concerns my heart.

Yesterday I walked along the Thames from Mortlake into Hammersmith in order to meet up with my daughter for lunch at her workplace. At first I was pretty half hearted about the walking bit. The route lay along the tree-lined banks but it wasn’t a particularly nice day – a bit dull and dank, autumn winding inexorably down to the shortest day. It was muddy under foot too, and sticky with sodden leaves totally devoid of the colours they’d worn brightly for so long this year.

The river was hardly the mighty Father Thames of world renown either. More like his starving nephew. The tide was so far out it looked a fairly trivial stream with its grubby, muddy beaches stretching far out from the banks.

And then I noticed a bird singing. Probably a robin I thought. Before now on sunnier days I’d been brought to a halt by that most exquisite singing only to have to hunt about for ages with my eyes before locating the neat little source of the sound. This time I accepted that it was a robin and walked on without stopping. But there it was. I’d noticed.

Part of me was still mulling over the events of the past few days - unmistakeable signs that I was waking up from the enforced distraction and worry of serious illness. Hints that I might be able soon to let that silent part out into better view.

I walked along the roadside approaching Barnes and then cut back onto the muddy path. I was getting warmer so I took my woolly hat off. Into my stride more, I was beginning to enjoy myself. Soon I had my jacket undone.

Most of the trees were bare by now and not particularly alive but there were still a few, mostly saplings, holding on to an array of big, pale yellow hands. A common tree I’m sure but not one I know the name of. Every so often there was a movement and a leaf dislodged itself. Usually there was a squirrel nearby busily sorting things out. Not too shy of me but wary and alert.

African grey parrots are indigenous round these parts nowadays but there’s still a delight in seeing a gang go squawking by. They made me smile to myself. African parrots at home by the Thames. What nonsense that was. But they didn’t mind my gentle scorn – far too busy screeching about for that.

Herons too, every few hundred yards and obviously good hunting for them at low tide - plenty of ideal places in the shallows to ply their trade. I didn’t pay much attention to the first few but then a pair caught my eye, standing a dozen or so yards apart. The male, presumably, with a long neat, pencil of a crest stretching down the nape of his neck. Handsome birds these, unlike the scruffy scrounger who begs food from humans on the lawns by Richmond Bridge. He often slumps on a moored boat like an old bag on a hook. No pride.

But, these were a different kettle of fisher-folk, the real thing, sleek, elegant, brimming with life in their gathered stillness. I watched, as still as they, wondering if I’d see a kill. At intervals, the female would very gradually extend her neck towards the mill pond surface. I could sense the small fish cruising in and just out of snatching reach. She extended and then raised her head to the rhythm of the fish. I felt my attention swaying with her.

But this time it was not to be.

As I continued on my way I wondered how I’d have felt at the sight of a kill. Elation probably. And the fish. I nearly said poor fish but stopped myself. Ridiculous sentimentality. Remove that and I felt the moment of shock. Death and silence.
The heart leaps one moment sinks the next. It’s coming alive.

Next on the way, one particular squirrel caught my eye, sitting looking out across the school playing fields. He held me in his right eye but didn’t move. Grey squirrel, how we seek to demean them with that name and blame them for removing our beloved reds. More sentimentality. This chap was up on his hind legs looking lovely with his feathery brown cheeks and hands up at the ready. Tail curled over behind. How could I describe the feeling of that sight? It arrested my attention. Don’t remember using that term before. But it was the one. Arreter in French, to stop. That squirrel stopped my heart with its beauty, shocked it into life As, I soon realised, did the herons, the leaves, and eventually even the muddy path.

On past St Paul’s boat house, a huddle of kids behind the shed in the trees having a sly fag. My dad went to St Paul’s in the mid twenties, presumably before it moved out of the city. Somehow that made me proud. He was a clever chap my dad, a scholarship boy. Not one to make a fuss but he had something about him. My eyes filled with tears. I loved my dad even though it was impossible for such words to be used between us, not with his upbringing or, indeed, mine. Just saying it to myself by the river made me feel richer.

I wanted to say it again. I loved my dad. Typing it now makes me cry. The power of saying those words! What a barricaded heart I must have developed as a child. No longer so locked away now. Those words unlock my heart. My heart says them.

I reached Hammersmith Bridge and cleaned the mud off my shoes on some fresh grass. Walking across the bridge behind a lady in a leather coat. Humans go about their business showing the scars of their upbringing but they walk on all the same often with heads held high despite their chains. My heart hurt as I contemplated that leather clad back and then tears came again. So many unsung heroes. So many songless hearts.

I remembered hearing a pop song of a few years ago on the radio that morning. Love is in the air. I had begun to dance about the flat to the jaunty rhythm. My hips were freer than of late, my back less stiff. On the mend. I wanted that song played at my funeral.

I caught the bus along to Earl’s Court exhibition hall and then met up with Anna outside her offices. We went off to the nearby Tescos to buy some soup for lunch. As we looked for the right aisle we bumped into a baby being pushed in a pram type pushchair. No ordinary baby this one. It was facing towards us standing up, holding the hood and peering eagerly over the back of the seat. Such a bright soul. We smiled at both mother and child and cooed our pleasure.

After spending a few minutes deciding which bunch of flowers to buy for Anna’s colleague who was getting the keys to her new house on Friday, we found the soup and set off in search of rolls. Suddenly there she was again, beaming up from her pushchair. I had to stop this time. “Aren’t you lovely?” I had no idea if it was a girl or boy. Her mum said she was a girl but hadn’t got any hair yet. She told me her name but it was an eastern European variant of one of ours and I forgot it almost immediately. How old? Ten months. Can she walk yet? No but she can stand. I beamed at her again. What a joy to behold!
She beamed back, her tiny teeth shining in her smile. “You are so gorgeous.” I had to say it again. She said it all with her smile. As yet no words to disturb her.

We found the bread and went back to have a happy lunch with some of Anna’s lovely colleagues. I was so full of beans and probably talked too much but they didn’t seem to mind. We had a great time.

On the bus home I relived the moments of my walk and then suddenly remembered that baby. Squirrels and herons are one thing but another person however small is so much more than that. She had more than arrested me, she’d set me free as well, free to adore her without any fear or shame. My heart filled brim full.

So what was I trying to say by recounting this tale? I still can’t quite put my finger on it but my eyes are filling with tears as I write. My heart is brimming over.


Donna said...

I have recently read and enjoyed both your "Walk from Mortlake" and "Cancer Adventure".

In the Cancer article I admire your desire to find the root of the problem and your willingness to share your struggle with us and especially the happy ending.

The Walk brought tears to my eyes as well, which is a tribute to your writing ability, as well as the reminder of the power of life all around us.

Donna (Santa Rosa, CA, USA)

robert gilson said...

Thanks Donna. Your post touched my heart. It's good to know you understood what was going on for me.
Life is a wonderful thing now I'm getting the hang of it.

William said...

Beautiful dad. keep it up.
Also a memo to yourself: row to hammersmith in the summer - less mud.

Love is in the air was by an aussie, would you believe it, and your request is noted. But there's no hurry...

xxx love you man.

robert gilson said...

You've got my cup runnething again Will!