The kitchen of this flat, apart from looking out over the point where most of the long-haul stuff coming in from around the world does a sharp a left turn before heading down on its final run to Heathrow Airport, also looks out over a small park. It’s an attractive area of green, once apparently the gardens of a school for the blind. There are horse-chestnut trees, plane trees, sycamores and a few more unusual ones whose names I don’t know. There are hedges in which birds nest, wide swathes of grass and a few wooden benches which are seldom free of sitters if the weather’s half decent. And if you look out almost directly down from the kitchen you’ll see a small recreation ground. There are the usual things – a see-saw, swings, a small and not very high slide, a metal climbing frame and a thing with a rake of half a dozen seats for children which terminates in a rather ugly metal horse’s head. This creature shunts rather constipatedly back and forth horizontally if the rider(s) have enough weight behind them to get it going or if a parent has enough wind and staying power to push and pull on it for long enough.
On warm days at the weekend looking down on the recreation ground is almost like looking out on a Lowry painting. Children of every age between about eighteen months and ten years, dressed in all colours, kick balls, shout, laugh, throw things, whizz down the slide, push the swings to the limit of their altitude range, shove each other over and generally rush about the place. Families and groups of friends spread picnics out on the grass around the perimeter, pass the sandwiches, thermos flasks and bottles of wine while keeping an eye out – more or less – for their charges.
The behaviour of adults in these places can however be intriguing. Some parents – mothers and fathers alike – get down with their children into that childish world we all once inhabited. You see them immerse themselves in Kiddiland, talk with their children, laugh with them, join in their games. Others however, seem at a loss to know what to do, how to be. The child with them, especially if there’s only the one, is like an encumbrance they’d be better off without – they really could be doing important adult things.
One day, I watched a man – mid-thirties-ish – who had brought his son of about three years to the recreation ground quite early one morning before the school-trip mothers had turned up with their pushchairs full of pre-school toddlers. He and his little boy were the only living things – bar one or two of the ever-present crows – in the recreation ground. But having brought the child there, he then proceeded to take no notice of him. In fact, while his lonely little boy tottered and pottered about on his own between the swings and the see-saw and the slide not knowing quite what to do with himself, his father dogged his wandering footsteps. He kept about three metres behind the boy, a book ever open in one hand, making out he was reading. Every now and then he would glance up to check his son was still somewhere in front. That’s what he really came here for. To have good read. Dostoevsky maybe. The kid’s a hanger-on. Just an incidental.
Then there was the woman a few months ago, also on her own with a little boy of about the same age. Well dressed, in her late twenties or early thirties perhaps. She too had nothing to do with the child. Instead, she parked herself – incredibly uncomfortably it seemed to me – with her buttocks lodged somehow on the narrow metal rail that runs around the recreation ground, one foot just about touching the ground. And she too had brought with her a book. She made no pretence of taking any real notice of her offspring. Every now and then she’d look up from her reading just to make sure he was still alive and moving. Apart from that, he could have been on another planet.
Taking a child out is clearly a real chore to such people. And I doubt the children themselves get a lot out of it. OK – children are a nuisance. They won’t talk Dostoevsky, economics, fashion. They’re not interested in the mortgage rate and they won’t have an opinion on organic food. They’ll disturb your sleep, they’ll interrupt your reading, they’ll howl in the night, they’ll knock things over, refuse the food you cook for them, break things and drive you to drink. There’s only one way of coping with it – join them. Get into their world. Be part of it and of them. Talk to them, be with them. Don’t let them get away with what’s not right, for they know almost as well as you do, right from wrong – they just need you to remind them. Then – well, even then it’s not easy. But it’s rewarding. You’ll look back on that time with huge affection. And it will come back to you a hundredfold in later years.
So if one day you bring your child to the recreation ground beneath this kitchen window, please be nice to him/her. Play with them and understand their world. That world was once yours, for you were once a child. And inside, if you take a good look, you’ll find you still are.