Wednesday, 5 March 2014

It Wasn't A Walk In The Park

Mainly because I was sitting down on a bench. Bury Knowle Park in Headington is one of Oxford's many and delightful public spaces. The house at its heart is a nondescript failed manor house that in a fit of philanthropy was bequeathed to the city council and now houses the library. The grounds were, in its glory days, big enough for a picnic, but not a hunt. Now, they are mainly lawn, with some cultivated gardens and shrubbery, some gorgeous tall trees, a lovely playground for the tinies and the Sunday dads, miniature golf, and four tennis courts. As far as I can tell, these are just open and available to all and sundry as and when you want to turn up.

There are three benches along the wall which overlooks the courts. I usually choose the one furthest from anyone playing. If I am deep in conversation, being alone, the noise and movement is a distraction to all concerned. But my peace, at the furthest distance I could reach from four noisy teenagers, was disturbed by a youngish father of two smallish children. Here things become murky. Because it was by no means clear that he was father to both of them. He was quite dark-skinned, they, obviously mixed-race, the little girl, maybe 8, more so than the little boy, maybe 6. So I was thinking, could he be the father of the girl but not of the boy? Is the boy his partner's child by a previous relationship? In which case, the girl would be his by a previous dalliance too. Or have they just come out different shades, and that's how it works? Or was he just the au pair? How very complicated modern life is, when you have nothing to go on, but the colour of people's skin, and a small boy shouting "Dad" rather enthusiastically (not the au pair, then).

At tennis, the kids were pretty crap. So, actually, was their Dad. He was athletically built, he had the physicality for the game, but three out of four serves hit the net. I know little about tennis and care less, but I had a hunch that's under-impressive. Especially when the children started laughing at him, and he started making excuses. I love the way that grown men just HAVE to be good at sport, even when they obviously aren't. But what was more interesting was how the children, although apparently brought out on an even playing field, played up to stereotypes. Even going there with their father was a stereotype, I suppose. It was half past five, Mum was probably making dinner. Those were the days.

The little girl was very nicely turned out (and she knew it), clearly no longer in school clothes, and petulant with it. She complained that her brother batted the ball too high, threw her racquet on the ground, said everything was unfair, and had to be begged not to mince off in a queeny fit. The real problem was that she had no hand-eye co-ordination. She dropped the ball as soon as she picked it up, tried to bat it in directions it wasn't coming from, hit it sideways, behind her, almost anywhere than where it was meant to go. The boy (still in his boring school uniform), although younger, was poised, and could work out how to bounce the ball before hitting it, and when he didn't do it right, had a clever thing about reclaiming it and lobbing it properly over the net on a second go. I should add that the father was very nicely affirming of both children, no matter how crap they were, even though they didn't return the favour, but that perhaps is one of the sacrifices of parenthood.

And then it was time to go - perhaps Mum had dinner ready - and off they went, and I started to realise that the creeping cold had got into me as well and it was time to finish my shopping for sausages. But it seemed an interesting thing that I couldn't work out the family's relationships - or even that I thought to question them at all - but the thing I should have liked to have changed since my own childhood, the gender-stereotypes of the children, hadn't.

A small sample of course, so you can generalise nothing, but it was an interesting not-quite-walk-in-the-park.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2014

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