We are heading for the Botanic Gardens on a Sunday walk, leisurely, hand in hand. There are dry autumn leaves to be kicked; they have collected in eddying drifts on the pavement of Ava Avenue. At the Annadale Flats we find mushrooms sprouting in the boggy grass under the trees, and more leaves to kick. We take a short cut down the banking, slowly at first, then gaining momentum we run the last few feet, laughing and whooping. There is a new concreted area where major works have recently been done on the sewers. It is patched with textured rectangular metal drain covers. My daughter has to dance, stamp and jump on each of them. We can hear the sound of torrential rushing water under one of them; the wee girl can even see it through one of the small key holes.
It is a glorious day, feels more like April than October, and we are loving the warm sun on our faces. I am carrying her raincoat but she will not need it. Crossing the King’s Bridge we are passed by two black guys. They are like the opposing poles of a magnet; one in a shiny grey suit, talking noisily on his mobile, the other in a red tracksuit, looking a wee bit bored with the company he’s keeping. We enter the park by the playing fields. There aren’t many people around; two lovers are chasing each other, laughing. They stop and kiss each other fondly, then continue walking, his arm over her shoulder. They are in step, synchronized.
Further along the path we meet a witch. She is muttering to herself, staring straight ahead. She has angular features, swept-back, grey-streaked hair. Her left thumb is clumsily bandaged. My daughter whispers to me: she is a bad witch, not a good one, and she cast a spell on that. I look around searchingly: what? She is pointing to an old, redundant, telegraph pole, with a single black cable running down it. The witch has pulled the cable out of the ground, stripping the end of it to reveal copper wire, and has tied it in a Gordian knot around the pole. Very bold behaviour, we agree.
We enter the formal gardens through a gate in the black-painted railings. She is starving, and we gently hurry along the tree-lined paths to a sunlit bench overlooking the lawn, to eat our picnic. She is very diligent, taking her empty yoghourt pot to the litter bin at the end of the railings herself, instead of just handing it to me. Attached to the short fence, next to the bin, is a small round sign. My daughter explains it to me: drinking alcohol is prohibited in public places. I have no idea how she knows this. There is a group of teenagers on the grass near us: two girls, five boys. It looks like they haven’t made it home from Saturday night yet. They are getting stuck into tins of beer and blimps of cheap cider. One of the girls is half-fighting with one of the lads. She is overdressed for the park, wearing boots with spike heels that stick in the ground, leggings, and a top which displays large areas of skin; it is bare at the back and split at the front. She is gorgeous and shapely. In breaks from the rough and tumble she hokes at her top, pulling it into shape and making sure the look is right.
As we eat our picnic, over the next half-hour, more people arrive: a crowd of students in football kit on their way to a match, joggers, couples, dog-walkers, a posse of four beautiful, skinny, Chinese girls. The benches around us fill up. More teenagers join the party on the lawn in front of us; now there is pulsing music and a football. A bleached-blonde girl throws dancefloor shapes. Things liven up a little; I can hear loud cursing and wonder if it is time to move little ears out of range, but my daughter is laughing at their antics: Look Daddy! He’s so silly! One of the boys is nonchalantly sporting a cardboard box left over from the carryout on his head, like a Bishop’s mitre. Someone’s trainer gets thrown around, the owner running awkwardly after it like piggy in the middle, with one muddy sock. The girl in heels is slagging passersby; her voice is surprisingly low, rough. She shouts to an elderly sausagedog-walking couple: is that a real dash hound? She is ignored and the watery abuse doesn’t last long. She returns to the business of the day; soon she is sitting on the grass draped over one of the other boys.
My daughter asks why they are being so silly, and I tell her they have had too much to drink. She reckons they will get into trouble, because it’s not allowed; the police will come. She points to the sign. She is spot on. As we are walking away from the benches a city council van approaches with its hazard lights blinking. Before it even reaches them, they are packing up the remnants of their carryout into plastic bags; they know the drill. They give the driver enough lip to be able to retreat with dignity, but there is no trouble. Only one low, strident, voice still carries through to us as we meander towards the Palm House.
Two of the lads have a competing eye on her; they envisage bucking her tonight: frantic, joyless, sprawling, drunken sex. But she is way ahead of them; the man in the moon has more chance with her than they do. She is a gem, and one day soon she will walk hand in hand with her lover through the gardens.