I was what my granddad might have called ‘courting’. A walk in the park with my girlfriend. The exact details of the rendezvous are, like the weather, a bit hazy. It was a bright sunny day — might have been a weekend, and St James’s Park was a neutral point halfway between my flat in Willesden and her home in Bromley.
Whether we were later heading off to the theatre, or cinema, or gig I cannot now remember, but whilst we were wandering through the park, our paths took us down to the lake. As ever, deck chairs were lined up against the very edge of the path, as the tarmac sloped gently to the water’s edge. The water was busy with ducks, and coots, and geese and all the other assorted waterfowl, and there were plenty of families feeding them crusts and sandwich ends.
We sat briefly in a pair of the deck chairs and watched the hubbub on the water. This was suddenly interrupted by a plaintiff peeping from underneath us. A lone duckling, an ungainly fluff of dirty yellow was waddling along through the chair legs. Lost from its mother, it was making that heart-rending alarm call easily audible to us on the bank, but probably smothered by all the frantic quacking and honking of bread-induced feeding frenzy out on the water.
We were not the only ones to notice the duck chick. It was being slowly pursued, rather pathetically I have to say, by a small middle-aged man. He was holding out a folding take-away box which had once held a big mac or a quarter pounder with cheese, and was following the lost duckling as if he expected it to jump in, a willing victim into the gaping jaws of his expanded polystyrene alligator.
Needless to say the duckling was having none of it, and shortly after it bumbled under our deck chairs it took to the water to avoid him. Weaving its way round the squabbling mallards and bullying Canada geese, it continued its piping search for its lost parent a few yards offshore.
Without warning — gallomph — it was gone. A huge herring gull dropped on it, scooped it up in its beak and took off in the space of a single broad wingbeat. Barely a ripple disturbed the now quiet water.
It was an astonishing and brilliantly executed manoeuver, and I was really impressed. Not everyone with me, however, was quite so clinically detached, and expressed, let’s say, mild anguish at the poor duckling’s demise. My mind was with the seagull, though, at least it would be able to feed its chicks today. Almost without conscious effort I then uttered the now immortal words: “Nature is not sentimental”.
Perhaps it’s a wonder I was not lynched on the spot. We’re still on speaking terms; then girlfriend is now the mother of my three children, but even 30 or so years later I am often reminded of that dark day’s events, and those haunting words are still regularly thrown back at me.