The Psychic Topography of West Ham Park

For those of us who know and love it, West Ham Park is not a single unity. Although you can see from end to end there are little passages (the metaphor is musical rather than a topographical) that are different from the rest. The most obvious is the Ornamental Garden. Another is the area reserved for nudists. Others we create ourselves.

Because Bella’s morning walk happens daily, and at a time when neither of us is always fully awake, we tend to follow the same route. When the better half is with us we go a longer way, so that she can satisfy herself by reference to her iPhone after the event (the better half, not Bella) that she has covered what she calls ‘3K’ [two miles or so]; but she usually isn’t with us on these occasions. So we turn right across the small lawn which Bella regards as particularly suitable for her daily offices. This enables us to pass and take advantage of the bin entitled ‘Dog Waste’ and strike out across a larger piece of grass.

A couple of weeks ago we had an encounter there. Out of nowhere a liver-coloured dog hurtled towards us. It rolled Bella over expertly onto her back and sank its teeth into her leg. I shouted. Two chavs wheezed up, who appeared to own this dog. (Is it all right to say ‘chavs’?) I shouted at them. They shouted at the liver-coloured dog, which eventually disengaged its jaw.

I said to the chavs that they should keep their unpleasant dog under control.

“Your dog started it,” said the woman.

“No, she didn’t,” I said.

“Oh. Sorry.”

At home, Bella got onto the sofa for a rest, and bled on it. It was a nasty wound. We took her to her vet, who gave her a not inexpensive jab.

The upshot is that now, when we get to that particular bit of the park, Bella ceases her gamboling and stays close to me, just like a dog that knows the meaning of the command: ‘Heel!’. Moreover she scans the horizon. I suppose that she wants to be alerted to the first signs of hurtling. It can’t be the liver colour, as, like all dogs, she is colour-blind. When we cross the path she starts to gambol again.

I am sorry that she was hurt. I am angry at people who have aggressive dogs, particularly if – as I suspect here – the dog was trained in its aggression for the amusement of its thuggish owners. There were no growls or other preliminaries at all: it was straight for the bite. But what I mind most is the loss of her innocence. West Ham Park has ceased to be a place of safety and joy for her – that bit anyway.

So when we cross the path Bella is still sticking closely to me. This is just as well because the other side of the path has become a place of physical training. As often as not when we pass it on our walk there is a couple. She is white (you will see in a second why this is relevant) and very fit: she is the sort of fit where the thighs are wider than the bottom. When she is not exerting herself she is usually running on the spot and her face has a keen expression very like Bella’s when one makes preparatory gestures towards her bowl. Bella’s keen expression is limited to a couple of occasions in the day but the fit woman always has it– or at least always when she is in the bit of the park devoted to her exercises.

The other one is a black man. He is a little overweight and he doesn’t – or when we first saw them he didn’t – waste his energy on running on the spot, or indeed anything else. Sometimes he would take yellow plastic things from his bag and put them on the ground. The woman would then run up and down and touch them as she went past. Bella would run up and down the line with her, encouragingly.

I wondered why a woman so obviously fit needed to be told what to do, but it was clear that this was not at all unusual. Scattered around the Park could usually be seen a number of fit young women, of all backgrounds but usually being told what to do by overweight male members of the Afro-Caribbean community.

I tell the story in the past. For one thing, since Bella’s encounter with the liver-coloured dog, she no longer has the joie de vivre required to help the woman with her yellow plastic things. Much more significantly, however, the relations between the woman and her trainer changed utterly.

One morning, there they were as usual. The woman was running on the spot, as always; as always she looked keen. The difference – and it was an essential difference – was that she was telling him what to do. He was shuffling around gracelessly, reaching up or, as it might be, down. His stomach wobbled. His facial expression was that of Biff in Back to the Future – the subservient Biff not the truculent version.

What could have happened between them? How had their roles been so comprehensively reversed? Was this Miss Julie Redux? What hideous passages (that word again) had taken place between them – and where? Had it happened on that very spot, once all nosy men with their mutts had shuffled past and were out of earshot? Was there a place of resort for them: the Soviet-style changing rooms by the larger cricket pitch, perhaps?

I was not displeased; at the same time was curiously humbled: great things had happened.

“Come on,” I said to Bella. She was showing renewed interest in the yellow plastic things and I thought that she might get under the man’s feet and have him over. She looked at me hopefully and set off for the nudist area.

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