On an idle afternoon I sat in a park
that was clean and green and sunlit, and saw
a lady who liked children (she herself
having been a child once) call Hullo, Hul-lo
to three small-to-medium girls she recognised
because she was a relation, or neighbour, or friend
− like a less demanding mother than the one
in charge of them. She also said Hullo! to a boy
who pulled with him a red and green wooden horse
on bumping wheels, very rare these days…
Beside us were goldfish ponds, a clock of flowers
that faithfully struck the hour trembling all its petals,
and a putting green where the grass was fresh enough
for a ball not to roll too fast down the slightest slope.
Then together, including their obvious mother
− who was silent throughout, and it was not clear why −
they all went slowly on past a bandstand where
on Sundays the Subtopian Fusiliers
would often play the Merry Widow Waltz,
the theme tune of Ingmar Bergman’s Hamlet.
Every bandsman was into promoting nostalgia
(What else is left? was the regimental motto)
and followed the injunction: Think of beloved
grandmothers and maiden aunts while you perform.
As receivers of treats and kindnesses with no idea
of their marriages, you adored them, lads, when you
were innocent children!
Then − Time for our ice-creams!
said the lady all at once, as I followed the group
to where I too was going, the Refreshment Room
(this was when it existed), and Remember our custom!
she “exclaimed” (enacting a favourite word).
What she meant was: Take an ice-cream cornet,
and break off its end to make a smaller cornet,
and with it scoop up some ice-cream so that you have
a tiny new cornet to give to a favourite friend.
It was not a routine that the mother liked at all,
not receiving many cornets of this kind.
Part of her silence consisted of not talking
to the lady throughout, not a word from her.
It was as if she thought her irrelevant
to whatever the afternoon could have been about
− like an irritation having to be endured.
Was she stealing something from her by being there?
No giving or receiving went on between the two,
though the children did not notice.
It was a Thursday,
in a dry late July, and with breezes on such days
early leaves will fall; so that the lady called
to the children suddenly, Catch them, catch them!
− in a high voice with a triumphant tone
that caused the mother to frown impatiently
as they ran round among the nearby plane trees
all catching and collecting, with the boy even
abandoning his horse to join in. Now they won’t have
so many to sweep up come the autumn, she said,
out of breath and smiling, this just before her illness.
She seemed almost to feel it could make a difference.