Through this daily ritual, I have come to know a very good friend. An elderly lady called Shirley, a retired school-teacher, who walks her dog in the park at the very same time as me. Both her dog and mine are good friends too. Her dog distrusts all other dogs and for some reason will only allow Snoopy to nuzzle her, cavort with her and sniff her rear end. Any other dog even attempting to do any of those things gets the sharp end of her very sharp teeth in their flesh with a snarl and a snap to boot. Shirley and I spend many an early morning walking the circuit of the park together and putting the world to rights, while the dogs run figures of eight around us. She does not know about Greg's real condition of course. She is one of those to whom I tell the abridged version. Shirley is a mine of information, being an ex-school-teacher, I suppose, and I enjoy her company. It is the only real time I have to get out of the house and be among normal people. My two closest friends live some considerable way away and although we email regularly, we only get to meet about once a year (see my post Best Friends.)
Sometimes Shirley is not in the park, or I arrive a bit later than usual, but I still enjoy the walk on my own in the early morning quiet. Our very large park has some beautiful trees, lovely woodland dells where you can feel as if you are the only person in the world and be at one with
nature. It also has a fairly large lake with a good selection of ducks, geese and swans, whose antics never fail to amuse. There are large herbaceous borders too with different species of plants carefully tended by the park gardeners. Then there is the children's playground, often a haven for the local comprehensive schoolboys who make a detour on their way to school and hurl themselves about on the swings and roundabouts, hoping that they will be transported into another realm where they will not have to go to school. There is something for everyone in the park. I can take my problems here and have them solved - at least in my head - before I am leaving the park gates again. I can close my eyes and pretend I am not in a big city but in the middle of the countryside. It is my little piece of heaven.
Living in London, or I imagine in any big city the world over, people tend to be very aloof. You do not just talk to anyone. You have to know them really well to even get a nod out of someone. Even neighbours can co-exist without really knowing first names. You pass people on the street or in shops, on the train or even in a lift and not a single word is uttered. Eyes are averted. You hope you can pass by without the silence being an embarrassment. But get a dog and suddenly the ice melts. Complete strangers will pass you in the street or in the park and if you both have a dog, the very least you will get is a "Good Morning", as each person and their canine partner go their opposite ways. More often than not, the dogs will intertwine, sniff or play the chase game, whereupon the owners will engage in conversation about what breeds the dogs are, how old they are, what their idiosyncrasies are. Before you know it, you have heard about the owner's operations, their love lives and any number of intimate details. You do not get this amount of openness and friendliness if you are pushing a pram with a cute baby poking out of it. I know. I've done that and got the cold-shoulder. Often, usually in the most deserted, darkest piece of woodland I might come face to face with a lone man. In this day and age, the first automatic instinct is to feel slightly anxious that you may not be safe. But as soon as his dog appears from behind a shrub, the situation changes and you stop, chat and end up waving goodbye to one another, having swapped another life history!! Isn't life funny?