Doggedness, dogma and tea dances

OBESITY EARLY DEATH

The McDonald’s poster doesn’t mince its words. A young man in pinkish sunglasses is holding up his iPhone as I line up my shot. He looks as if he’ll engage if I kick start the conversation
Says it like it is
Did you do that?

There’s a hint of admiration in his voice, but while quietly flattered he thinks me capable, I’m forced to deny responsibility.
I wish I had
Someone’s been enhancing the billboards by the roundabout ever since I’ve lived here. I don’t even know whether these angry black capitals are the work of the same hand as some of my past favourites – REAL LIFE IS WAY TOO SCARY, added to ‘fortify your home with BT broadband’, or RED-TROUSERED GREENWASH, splashed across an advertisement for a former city mayor’s dubious environmental policies.

Have you lived round here long?
He puts the iPhone in his pocket as he asks the question, which bodes well for an intelligent exchange.
Almost nine years
I suppose that makes me an established member of this shifting community, although having once lived twenty-six years in the same house I still feel a bit of a newbie. The conversation meanders on to human connection. We mourn the easy interactions of pre-pandemic days, and agree the internet’s kept us all from madness this past year. It’s also largely responsible for the decline in physical communities, we opine, but I have to add I think the rot set in some time before the worldwide web was woven
I blame the internal combustion engine
He looks surprised, but he’s too young to remember the days when everyone walked. Back then, it could take an hour to make the half-mile journey from my friend’s house around the corner, depending on who I met along the way. In that lifetime I used to say there was a rut worn in the pavement where the children and I walked to school every morning, deep in conversation with whosoever happened to be on the same part of the route. Come three o’clock I’d return like the Pied Piper, often with eight or ten children. Friends’ children, neighbours’ children, and my own three of course, chasing and squabbling the long mile home to tea and biscuits. I kept an eye on them all whilst I chatted and pushed my friend’s toddler, sleeping oblivious in his stripey buggy. He was killed by a train at the age of twenty-one, walking home along the track in the small hours. The wanton waste of that life wrenches my heart every time I think of it. These days it’s all different. The kids are dropped at the school gate from their parents’ cars. You can’t fit ten kids and a buggy in one car, and you’d be in proper trouble if you tried.

And you can’t talk to people if you’re inside a tin box
I’d never looked at it that way

Turns out he’s called Ben. He’s probably younger than the children I used to shepherd are now, yet still we have more in common than our differences. We move on from fractured communities to what happens on the bottom half of the internet. I’ve never been able to get my head around people who hurl insults at perfect strangers in cyberspace, but there are those who’d call me snowflake if I said so too loudly. It’s odd how such champions of free speech want to silence all voices but their own. Maybe they really do have the one ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything and they just want the rest of us to shut up so they can get the message out, but it sounds much more like intolerant dogma to me. After all, when it comes to spotting the specks in other people’s eyes, even the most vengeful fire-and-brimstone preacher couldn’t hold a candle to a keyboard warrior on a mission. Ben and I part in amicable agreement that blind dogma is probably the most destructive force on earth.

I’m planning a brief turn around the park before going home for a solitary coffee, but the ghosts of lifetimes past have been aroused, and they’re not to be so easily laid. As I come through the park gate, I see half a dozen people sitting in the sunshine, carefully distanced, whilst six or seven dogs romp on the grass around them. Most of the dogs seem barely out of puppyhood. Poor Arthur’s sulking under a bench, a few yards from all the merriment. Arthur’s a blend of Jack Russell and corgi who moved in next door to me a year or so back. He and puppyhood parted company a while ago, and he’s too stout for romping these days, but you can see the longing in his eyes. If Arthur’s here, Annie must be somewhere, and sure enough she’s leaning on her walker in the middle of the path, watching a tussle that’s broken out between a black spaniel and an indeterminate poodle cross. She reminisces about the tea dances of her youth, and tells me once again that the local grand hotel is going to revive them any day now. The building was converted into flats some years ago, but here in the sunshine of an April morning the idea feels almost plausible.

A young man with a beard and an indeterminate poodle cross greets Annie. She introduces both him and the pup without missing a beat, and I find myself chatting about lockdown dogs
What variety is he?
A labradoodle. I don’t know how we’d have coped without him

It turns out James and his partner are expecting their first baby any day, so Rupert probably hasn’t been their only coping strategy. James releases his exuberant charge to join the romping crowd on the grass, while Annie regales him with dreams of tea dances and home made scones. Arthur grumbles to his feet and lumbers to Annie’s side. He’s a dog who marches on his stomach, almost literally these days. Lunch time is imminent, and he’s learned from years of experience just how much dogged determination it’s going to take to persuade Annie to go home.

At Arthur’s silent pleading, I make my excuses. James has joined the group on the grass, easing down tentatively, six feet from his nearest neighbour. Rupert’s rough-and-tumbling with the black spaniel a few yards away and I have an odd sense all’s momentarily well with the world. Then comes the inevitable waft of wondering. How many of these dogs will be sitting at the sides of the same people when they’re old and stout, like Arthur? Will the community taking root here wither in a return to ‘normal’? Can we create a positive future from the wreckage of a pandemic, or is that too no more than the dream of a tea dance?

Back home, and Annie’s lunchtime carer’s waiting in the lobby. Arthur’s worked his magic. Annie’s just yards behind me on the path and only five minutes late. I greet the girl in the mask with smiling apologies for my part in delaying her client, and head upstairs for that solitary coffee at last.

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