March 1st 2007 – Moving House
I arrived at the flat in Clapham at about seven in the evening, two hours later than planned, I'd misjudged the London traffic. I parked on double yellows outside to unload my worldly possessions into a big pile at the foot of the stairwell, then I moved the car to a side-street to avoid a ticket.
As I walked back to the big Victorian mansion that is to be my home for the next three years, I tried to get the feel of the neighbourhood. The pavement is made of a crazy mixture of big concrete paving slabs and tarmac, and there are Plane trees planted at regular intervals along it, and the root systems have forced the paving slabs up at odd angles, an accident waiting to happen. But the trees make the suburban road green and leafy and encourage birds to visit, and I like them. And at the end of the road is Clapham Common, a vast green space with plenty of trees and lots of wildlife. I'm going to enjoy exploring there.
As I turned through the gate to my new home I looked up at the imposing frontage and wondered who lived there first. I guessed a Victorian family, and they'd have had servants who lived on the upper two floors where the rooms and windows are smaller. The ground floor and the first floor above it have enormous rooms with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling bay windows. There must have been a lot of money for the building because the pale cream stonework around the windows, the door frames and the eaves is all carved with intricate ornamentation. Even the red brickwork is glazed, and two different shades of brick have been used to make a pattern.
I pushed open the heavy wooden door which apparently is never locked – each flat has its own lockable door. I was relieved to find my stuff still where I left it, and took two big cardboard boxes up the wide flight of stairs to the first floor. And then up the narrower stairs to the second floor, and to my floor, the third and top floor, panting a little. There's a long corridor to my flat at the end, and I passed three other doors because there are four flats on this level. The door before mine was wide open and I carefully avoided looking into the flat as I passed. You never know what you might see.
I was glad to find that my new key worked and I let myself in. My flat is small but practical. I have a great view out over the common from the dormer window in my bed/sitting room, and then I have a separate kitchen with a skylight window, and a bathroom with no window at all, just an extractor fan, and a small walk-in cupboard. And that's all there is. Even this costs a lot but you have to expect that in London.
I dropped my two boxes and headed back out into the corridor to fetch another batch of my luggage from downstairs – and came face-to-back view with an almost naked man. I guessed he'd come out of the open door of the flat nearest mine, and he was walking ahead of me towards the stairs. He was wearing a skimpy pair of blue satin running shorts, and white socks in trainers, and that's all. Even in the dimly lit corridor I could see his broad tanned back running down to a narrow waist and beautifully defined bottom in those sexy shorts, and muscular but not muscle-bound long legs with a light dusting of blond fur, almost invisible against his tan. His pale blond hair was cut quite long, covering his ears and curling into the nape of his neck and I found myself just standing with my mouth slightly open, staring at his beautiful neck and shoulders as they headed away from me.
He heard something, not me, maybe the door banging behind me, and stopped and turned. He had the most beautiful piercing green eyes I'd ever seen and they were twinkling at me and he was smiling as he strode purposefully up to me, holding out his hand to shake mine. It took me a moment to gather my wits and shake the proffered hand. Every nerve ending in my fingers was working overtime and I felt the softness and warmth and the slightest hint of callouses on his palm at the base of each finger. A thrill ran through me.
“Hi,” he said, as he continued shaking my hand, “I'm Mark Fletcher. Looks like you're my new neighbour?”
He let go, if he hadn't I doubt if I could have managed to reply.
“Yes, I'm just moving my stuff in. I'm Ted. Teddy Farnsworth.” I felt a blush flood my face. Why do I do it? I just open my mouth and announce my awful name. I could have just left it at Ted. Ted's okay, lots of people are called Ted and you assume their name is Edward, which is okay too. But I have to blurt out the name my dear parents call me by, and the name I inherited from them too. Why did I have to be called Farnsworth? What kind of a name is that? What's wrong with Smith, or Jones, or Brown? And as if that wasn't enough they named me Theodore. And consistently call me Teddy in front of all and sundry.
I think I detected a twitch at the corner of his mouth when I told him my name, but he controlled it well. I think I fell in love a little bit at that moment.
“Have you got more to bring up?”
At that moment I was in danger of bringing up the sandwich I'd eaten at the motorway services, but I didn't think that was what he had in mind.
“There's a mountain of stuff at the foot of the stairs. I've just started to relay it up here.”
“Well, let me help, then. I was only going running and this will be just as much exercise!”
I did my best to smile naturally. He didn't run for cover so I must have got somewhere close.
I followed him down the stairs, staring at his shapely tanned arms swinging easily as he bounced down the stairs two at a time, stepping lightly and quietly on the balls of his feet. He moved like a big cat, a leopard, or a cheetah. Lithe, powerful, but graceful and light. If I tried taking those uncarpeted wooden stairs two at a time I would sound like a herd of elephants.
By the time I got to the last flight of stairs he was on his way back up with three of my cases and I picked up two more and panted up the stairs with them. He met me on his way down and when I got to the top landing I found where he'd left my cases and added my two to his three. Then I headed rather more slowly back down to the ground floor. He passed me, bounding up with another three cases, one in each hand and one under one arm. I found there were only two more boxes for me to bring. I struggled back up to my flat and found him waiting outside my closed door. Suddenly I realised the door was closed and would not open without the key. He saw the look of panic on my face and raised an eyebrow. But I found to my relief that the key was in my pocket and I let us in. We dropped all the cases in the main room and I turned to thank Mark, but he spoke first:
“Fancy a beer? I've got some cold.”
I caught my breath. “Yes, that would be great.”
“Come over, then.”
I followed him across the corridor to his flat, the door still wide open.
He darted into his kitchen and I noticed his flat was laid out a little differently than mine, with a separate bedroom. The door to it was open so I carefully avoided looking in, he might not want me to see his room. He came out of the kitchen with two stubby bottles of Stella without their tops and handed one to me, gesturing to his living room, which was much smaller than mine, but didn't have a bed in it. He opened the window and threw himself across a rickety armchair which wheezed and splayed as he landed on it, pointed to the only other seat, an equally old couch and said:
“Siddown, mate, and tell me all about you!”
So I sat, a little gingerly, on the edge of his settee and told him the basics, that I'm twenty-seven and I'm a bank cashier, and I've transferred from my rural branch to one in the suburbs of London because the pay is better, and I'm on a fixed term contract so when it's up in three years time I don't know what I'll do next.
And he told me a bit about himself. He's twenty-four and doing a postgrad thesis at LSE. I'm not sure what that means but I didn't ask, I didn't want to sound stupid. He comes from Newcastle, I'm not sure where that is but it's up North somewhere and explains his funny accent. He's got a brother younger than him and a sister older than him, and he misses his home. He's got another year of studying and then he's got to decide on a career and he doesn't know what he wants to do.
And he told me he's a member of the university rowing team. He's stroke for a coxless four, apparently. I tried to look intelligent. At least I know how he got the callouses on his hands.
At one point he bounded out of the chair and caught me a little by surprise. But he just disappeared into his bedroom and came back wearing a tight black t-shirt. I was a little disappointed, I'd been enjoying watching the beads of sweat drying on his chest. He has a small patch of chest hair between his nipples and little rivers of sweat had run into the hairs, and gradually dried, leaving salty trails like miniature snails. His chest is so beautiful that it was difficult not to stare. But I tried to look at it only when Mark was looking away.
We finished our beers and I thanked him and went back to my flat to begin unpacking. It took me two hours just to get the basics put away in the kitchen and in the wardrobe and drawers in the bedroom, and to make the bed. I showered and collapsed into bed and slept.
March 2nd 2007 – Exploring
I woke the next morning having slept well even though I'm not used to the bed. I must have been tired. The clock said half past ten, far later than I usually wake. I got up and put a pair of underpants on before going into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. I had to unpack my kettle to do it.
After a cup of tea I dressed, and spent the rest of the morning unpacking the rest of the boxes and cases and stowing the empty cases under the bed. I flattened the boxes and took them down to the bins outside the back of the building. Then I walked out to find the local shops, and stocked up on provisions for the next week. Back at the flat I filled the fridge, and then made myself a sandwich and put it in the pocket of my green waterproof jacket. I found my kit – my binoculars and my notebook and pen and headed for the common.
I'd never been to Clapham Common before and was surprised at how large a green space there is in the middle of South London. I wandered happily for a couple of hours, finding my way around. Late in the afternoon I stopped by a boating pond where there was a bench and sat munching at my sandwich which had survived more-or-less intact in my pocket all afternoon. And it was while I was eating that I caught sight of a couple whose behaviour caught my eye. They were some distance away so I got out my binoculars to see better. And what I saw made me hurriedly put away the rest of my sandwich and move carefully towards them, keeping hidden as much as possible, until I got quite close, behind a bush that allowed me to watch easily without being seen.
They were a courting couple, clearly completely wrapped up in each other and oblivious to activity around them. I found myself getting excited.
It was a wonderful experience watching them flirting with each other, knowing they were completely unaware of my presence. They made an interesting pair. Both I would call very beautiful, and surprisingly he was the more flamboyant of the two, and he both knew it and enjoyed it. He preened like a peacock as he made advances on his object of affection. He was very showily dressed in bright colours which looked fantastic on him. If I'd tried to wear those colours I'd have looked gaudy and tawdry, mutton dressed as lamb. But he looked simply gorgeous. She looked equally stunning, but in a much more muted, understated way, and her behaviour matched her clothes. She parried his advances, shying away when he moved to touch her. She's playing hard to get, I thought, and a thrill of excitement ran up my spine. They were both young and I guess they were experimenting with the novelty of new adulthood. Perhaps this was the first time they'd allowed their sexual selves to come to the fore.
I spent over an hour watching them from my cover through my spyglasses, and making notes in my little book, until I lost sight of them. I looked at my watch and decided to call it a day. The sun was going down, it was getting cold, I was getting hungry and I walked back towards my new flat. Once I got to the road I made a short detour to the corner shop and bought some stuff to stock the kitchen, and noticed a take-away a little further down the road. So I took a Chinese curry home for my meal. There was no sign of my neighbour and I had to quash a moment's disappointment. I settled into my armchair, turned the television on and watched rubbish while I enjoyed my meal. It wasn't great, and I made a mental note to try somewhere different next time.
The meal finished and the detritus safely wrapped in a poly bag ready for chucking in the dustbin downstairs in the morning, I decided the television was contemptible and turned it off. I got my notebook out and went over my notes from the afternoon. I got a warm glow of achievement as I remembered the experience and as I idly sketched the couple from memory I promised myself I would return the next day and see if they are regular visitors to the park.
With that in mind I turned in, tired but happy.
March 3rd 2007 – Making friends
I awoke the next day to the sun streaming through the skylight and found it was only six thirty. I made a mental note to rig up some kind of curtain, or I'd be waking at the crack of dawn every day. Today, however, I didn't mind being up and about early. I might get to see the young couple in the park again. I'd taken to calling them Jack and Jill, and found that made it easier to write about them in my notebook. The thrill of excitement I felt at the prospect of watching their lovemaking unseen got me out of bed much more readily than usual. I showered (electric instant shower, so no shortage of hot water) and dressed and grabbed an apple and my kit and headed out. At the front door I met Mark Fletcher again, coming in from an early run, with his satin shorts on, this time with a sweat-soaked t-shirt. His hair was plastered to his forehead and rivers of sweat were running down his cheeks from his sideburns, and into his eyes from his hairline, and into his mouth from his upper lip. Moisture was dripping off his chin and from his neck down his chest, soaked up by the shirt. Because I was obstructing his entry, he paused and on the doorstep he stood straight-legged but bent at the waist, with his hands on his knees supporting his torso and his head hanging low while he panted, catching his breath.
“Hi, Mark, you're out and about early!” I called, and made to pass him.
“Teddy!” Mark panted and shot one arm out in a half-hearted attempt at grabbing me as I passed.
I stopped and turned, with the impression that he had more he wanted to say. I gave him time to recover.
“Thanks. I wanted to catch you. Are you doing anything this evening?”
I was taken by surprise a little by this, and it took me a moment to gather my thoughts.
“Nothing special, why?”
“Well, there's a thing going on at the Carpenter's Arms on the Common this evening and I'm planning on going and getting something to eat there. I wondered if you'd like to come?”
I'm not used to being included in social things so I don't always know how to respond. I said:
“What sort of a thing?”
“Live jazz. They do it the first Monday of every month. It's very popular, and often quite good music. Do you like jazz?”
Actually I do like jazz so I said so.
“Great. So you'll come?”
I found myself saying Yes and nodding furiously. It took a moment or two to pull myself together and stop the nodding.
“Okay. I'll knock on your door about eight?”
“Fine, I'll look forward to it!” and I walked on towards the common, realising to my surprise that I really would look forward to it.
I got to the spot on the Common where I'd been the previous day by about seven, and noted that in my journal. There was no sign of Jack and Jill but I didn't have long to wait. Jack arrived first and paced up and down impatiently until he caught sight of Jill arriving, when he rushed to her side and started chattering to her nineteen to the dozen. What he found to talk about when they'd spent much of the previous day together, I can't imagine, but whatever it was he was very excited and gradually she began to pick up on his mood. In no time they were behaving just like I'd seen them do before – making romantic love to each other in the most endearing way. I settled down to watch, and began making copious notes, and drawing little sketches. I began to regret not having a camera, but I knew from experience that an ordinary camera is next to useless from the distance of my hideout. I would need an expensive long telephoto lens and a heavy tripod to hold it steady. And I don't have that kind of money!
The morning flew past, I was absorbed in watching the courting couple, until I saw Jack go off and fetch his ladylove something to eat. Which made my stomach rumble and I ate the apple I'd brought. It wasn't enough to quieten my stomach and I was forced to leave my post and get myself something more substantial. There's a burger trailer that is usually parked on the edge of the Common, and I made my way over there and bought a cheeseburger in a bun. It wasn't nice – tasteless, running with fat, no sauce or garnish of any kind, and not as hot as I could have wished for. But it was food and I wolfed it down, anxious to get back in case my lovers should have moved on.
They were still there, I was pleased to find, and I got to watch them for another couple of hours, until they finally left.
I'd never been able to watch young lovers in this passionate stage of courtship before and it sent a frisson of vicarious thrill up my spine to think of what I had witnessed. It wasn't until I was walking home that I remembered Mark's invitation to the jazz night, so I quickened my pace and got in in good time to shower, shave and change.
As good as his word, Mark knocked on the door at eight, although I'd been ready for half an hour by then and had left my door open. So after knocking it he walked straight in and found me on my settee re-reading my notes from the day.
“You ready?” He asked, unnecessarily.
“Ready and waiting!” I replied, closing my journal and standing up. Mark led the way back out of the flat and down the stairs. I paused to deadlock my door and trotted after him.
Outside, he turned and smiled, and explained the pub is across the common and within easy walking distance. So we walked together.
I guess he was just making polite conversation, but I was a bit taken aback when he asked:
“So, what was that you were reading when I called for you? Study notes of some kind?”
“Something like that, yes.”
I was a bit brusque and hoped he would take the hint and not pursue the subject. I didn't want to tell him about my predilection.
He got the idea and we walked together for a bit in silence. I found I enjoyed the companionship even though we weren't talking. Which was a new experience for me.
As we walked across the common in the chilly evening breeze we began to hear the music through a grove of trees before we saw the floodlit pub once we'd passed the copse. It looked inviting and I broke the silence:
“Thanks for inviting me, this looks like fun!”
Mark turned and smiled broadly, I thought with a hint of relief in his expression. I realised that I'd snubbed him rather roughly when he'd asked about my journal. But what else could I have done? I couldn't let him in on my secret, could I?
I'd been assuming that Mark had arranged to meet up with a group of friends at the pub, and had decided to invite me along, which I thought was kind of him, and I was a bit nervous about meeting a whole lot of new people, who might not like me. I'm not much good with people, usually. But when we arrived I realised that Mark didn't know any of the crowd of people in the pub. We made our way to the bar and waited our turn to be served, while checking out the band, a four piece trad jazz band who were really very good, and investigating the food menu and specials board. It's one of those places where you have to order at the bar and tell the bar staff your table number. So Mark went off to find us a table and came back with the number. By the time we got to the bar we'd decided on our menu choices so we ordered food and got ourselves a drink and went back to our table. To my surprise Mark had chosen a table at the far end of the room from the band, where we couldn't see the band at all unless the audience all sat down – which wasn't going to happen. But our table was relatively private, and quiet enough to hold a conversation.
So there we were, sat at a table just big enough for two to eat at, with pleasant live music to listen to and – in my case – a good-looking man to look at.
“So, how do you like Clapham, so far?” Mark asked, with a wry grin and a captivating twinkle in his bright blue eyes. I smiled back, foolishly, and almost forgot to answer him.
“It's great. It's a bit daunting living in Greater London for me – I'm used to small towns and villages where you can drive ten minutes and be in the country.”
“Hmm, the big city. You'll soon get used to it. There's no better place to live, there's so much going on and you can get to so many great places really easily on the tube.”
“So, you like it down south?”
“Well, yes, but there's still plenty I miss about the north. The landscape, the wide open spaces, for instance the North Yorks Moors are just fantastic.”
“I've never been there. Should I go?”
“Oh, yes. You won't regret it. Let me know and I'll tell you where to stay!”
We continued chatting easily, the conversation moved from Yorkshire to Jazz, to Universities, to Politics, to Religion and eventually to leisure interests. He told me about about rowing, and about his love of Rugby, and the team he plays for. He told me about the Three Peaks Challenge that he's taking part in next month – an attempt at climbing the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales in 48 hours. It seemed impossible so I got him to explain how the participants are taken by coach from point to point, sleeping in the coach and climbing in the daylight hours. He got me quite enthused and I almost decided I'd like to do it. I also almost told him about my interest. My hobby, as I call it. Almost.
I have often wanted to tell people what I do in my spare time, and when I was a lot younger I rashly told some people. The way they reacted made me realise what a mistake I'd made. After that I never told anyone else. I realised, other people don't think it's normal.
The food arrived, and broke into our conversation. I made a trip to the bar for more drinks, and while I queued, and made liberal use of elbows to avoid getting squeezed back from the bar like the ball in a rugby scrum, I thought about my new friend. Something about him made me want to take a risk on him. I really liked him and I wanted to bare my soul. Perhaps it was the alcohol but I decided I would tell him my big secret.
So when I got back to the table, over our meal I told him what I'd been doing on the Common the previous two days. He didn't hit me. He didn't make embarrassed excuses and leave. He didn't betray his disgust in any way. I wondered if maybe he didn't even mind about it. So I went one step further. I invited him to accompany me onto the Common.
As soon as I'd said it, I regretted it. He looked taken aback and I cursed myself. I'd frightened him off, and I so wanted him to be my friend. You see it's true what they say – people like me can't have proper relationships. We can't do social interaction. We're all the same, all crippled this way. It's why we get obsessive. It's a terrible burden and makes for a lonely existence. But I'm used to it now.
So you could have knocked me down with a feather when Mark, after quietly thinking it over for a few moments, said he'd like to come. I choked on my beer and sprayed it all over my face and down my front. So then I had to use the napkin to wipe myself down, and was beginning to wish a hole would open up and swallow me when I caught Mark's eye and he was smiling, and the smile became a giggle which then became a laugh and it was infectious and I began to laugh with him. I can't remember the last time I've laughed with someone like that and it made me feel so close to him and I wanted to grab hold of him and hug him right there and then. I restrained myself.
The following day would be my last day off before I had to report for work at my new workplace so I invited Mark to go with me that morning and he didn't have lectures until mid-afternoon so he promised to come, even though I insisted on starting early to make sure of the best chance to seeing the lovers.
After the meal we walked back over the Common together and I had to stop myself from holding hands with him and skipping. I was filled with childlike joy.
March 4th 2007 – Watching with Mark
He was as good as his word, not long after dawn the next morning there was a knock on my door. It woke me and I stumbled to the door with the duvet wrapped around me because it was cold in the flat. When I opened the door there was Mark, bright and enthusiastic, warmly dressed and ready. I invited him in and put the kettle on, then discarded the duvet on the bed, leaving me naked, and shuffled over to the chest of drawers and found, and then donned, clothes.
I packed a flask of coffee and sandwiches and took them together with the usual kit and we set off for the Common. On the way I cautioned Mark to be quiet and unobtrusive and explained why, and we got to my favoured vantage point. Through binoculars I checked all the likely spots. No Jack or Jill, but I did see a number of other characters, regulars who I already had in my notebook. It was not long before Jill appeared, closely followed by Jack and I handed the binoculars to Mark so he could see them. I was, I admit, a little disappointed he didn't seem to share my enthusiasm. He made interested noises, though, which was nice of him.
Jack was on top form, as I saw when Mark returned the binoculars, and I watched closely as he wooed his girl, flattering her, showing off to her, and pressing his suit in song. He made love to Jill tenderly and passionately and I was captivated.
Mark was good enough to listen as I whispered a running commentary of the events I saw through my fieldglasses and even held my notepad steady while I made some hurried notes and jottings. But his heart was clearly not in it and when the weather began to deteriorate, black clouds scudding into place and blotting out the light, and then the first big drops of what would certainly turn into a rainstorm hit us, he began to hint that it was time to go. Jack and Jill were still at their lovemaking and I was loath to leave before they did.
Suddenly it all came to an end. The sky was rent by a flash of lightning which was followed almost immediately by a deafening clap of thunder, making me flinch and cower. I looked back to where Jack had been chattering to Jill a moment before, but my birds had flown. I saw them flying helter-skelter towards the shelter of a copse of rhododendrons which would give them dense cover from the rainstorm, and I got the binoculars focussed just in time to see the white flash of their rumps under their tails as the tiny goldcrests disappeared into the foliage. Never mind, it was the best observation I'd done since arriving at Clapham and I had some new notes to make about their mating behaviour that I'd never seen before. I promised myself that I would write it all up properly back at my flat once I'd changed out of my already sopping wet clothes.
Mark and I ran back across the common, heads down and holding our collars tight closed against the rain. We careered through the big door, as ever unlocked, and stopped at the foot of the stairs panting and chuckling together at our disarray. Mark said something that that surprised me and warmed my heart.
“It's nothing to be ashamed of, you know, being a birdwatcher.”
I beamed my best smile of gratitude, with water dripping off my nose.
reproduced from the RSPB website www.rspb.org.uk with kind permission of the artist, Mike Langman
© Bruin Fisher August 2007