On particularly warm summer days they’d take the children to the park for lunch, all twelve of them, with extra staff, a couple of parents, perhaps; the ratio had to be 1:3 if the kids were under five, which most of the kids were. This was his first job in London: cooking for kids in a nursery school. That was fifteen years ago. He made lunch three times a week for a playgroup, three members of staff, and always a couple of parents who’d pop in to sit around the table with them. They all sat around the same table on low chairs, all ate the same things, all talked about life in general, dreams, told stories.
The playschool was up the road from the house I lived in for the first ten years of my life in this city. Working where you live, and especially if you’re working with kids, makes you feel strongly connected to the community. You’re always bumping into people to chat to. You know things about people. People tell you things, young mothers call you up at night – okay, there was one; she was drunk and phoned you from the bath, though you don’t remember what the reason was. She was young and blonde and beautiful – an actress? – and her husband had just left her without prior warning or discussion.
You met a lot of young women without men, women with time on their hands, with unfulfilled lives. Which, really, is what you life was like back then, to a large degree. You were mildly lost. Having children, or just working with them, gives one the feeling that one’s life means something, and it does, because being kind to children, and attentive, and present, is what helps them turn into good people.
On those days when we took the children for lunch in the park, mainly Clissold Park, but sometimes other parks, like Allens Gardens or Butterfield Green at the end of Nevill Road, I’d prepare the food at home. Tuna sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, and little batons of cucumbers and carrots. There was fruit, too, and biscuits, homemade. I’d cut the sandwiches into triangles and pack everything into plastic containers and cycle over to the park where the kids would be already, and the staff – Tammy and Anita and Salma, and at some point Nicholas, too, a semi-professional footballer in whose presence we all got a bit excited – and some mothers would be there, too, and an occasional father, though not often.
The children liked you. A few of them would shout out your name when they saw you arriving, and you’d shout their names back. You were so purely happy at these moments. The blankets were laid out, juice was poured, everyone settled down to eat. After a few weeks of working with them, you knew what they liked, who wanted mayo with everything, who demanded extra cheese with everything – “More cheese, please, Louise” – and who wouldn’t have sauce on their pasta.
The nursery school no longer exists where it used to be. And I imagine the kids are mostly at college by now, or working. I sometimes wonder which of them has gone on to do good things, who is still as shy as they were at four, who as nasty, who is as outgoing as they were, who as obsessive, clinging to a plastic tiger, growling and bearing his teeth at everyone. And if they met me now, as one mother did a few weeks ago, in a restaurant near the Angel that serves rice and noodles in a large mess hall, everyone sharing long narrow tables, would they recognise me, or like that mother, would I have to go up to her and re-introduce myself.
The person who jogs in the park now, who walks through it, who thinks about it, writes about it, is not the same person I was fifteen years ago. I have more grey hairs, more weight around my middle, more wrinkles. I’m more of a writer now, though I’m not sure I actually write more. I was always writing back then, filling notebooks indiscriminately. I’m trying not to make this sound maudlin or world-weary. But in many ways it was a more innocent time, it was the beginning, everything was possible; I’d come back to living in English after seventeen years of Hebrew, and I’d gone back to nursery school, to the language and the playfulness and the sense of how huge the world is, even if the world was only a park.