There are two reasons why I remember the drought of 1976. Firstly, it was the year I met Penny, my wife-to-be, and secondly, the summer months were plagued by swarms of ladybirds. We had no rain during June and I recall sweltering in a jacket and tie during my Year 10 exams. July couldn’t arrive soon enough and I escaped school to relax at the Hampstead Heath Lido. By early August, the pool had attracted vast crowds seeking respite from the heat and ravenous insects. Two weeks later there was standing room only in the water and swimming was out of the question.
The day I encountered Penny, the sound of children’s shrieks and yelps had become unbearable. I grabbed my rucksack and towel and cantered up Parliament Hill in my swimming trunks. I had a favourite spot below the uppermost brow. It was south facing and perfect for reading or basking in the afternoon sunshine.
As I approached, it was clear there was competition from another like-minded person. A slender young woman in a floral swimsuit was lying on her stomach and scribbling in a leather bound notebook.
‘Wotcha?’ I said, glancing at her sketches. ‘Cloud spotting?’
‘Yes,’ she said, twisting her neck and peering over her shades. ‘Who’s asking?’
‘That’ll be me,’ I said, gazing around as if I had company. ‘I’m Neil.’
‘Well,’ she said, pushing her shades back up her nose. ‘Are you checking reservations or selling tickets, Neil?’
‘It appears you’ve got the best seat in town,’ I said, admiring her supple back and elegant limbs.
‘There’s plenty of room here. Pull up a towel.’ she said. ‘I’m Penny, by the way.’
London’s perfect for cloud spotting. There are so many parks throughout the capital where one can flop down on the grass and gaze at the heavens. When I was a toddler, my parents carried me to Alexander Palace for an ice cream and we’d bobble about in a giant swan-shaped pedal boat. Floating on the ornamental lake and gazing up at the sky was as close as I got to the clouds at that age.
We also visited Primrose Hill, which was much more genteel. The surrounding town houses offered glimpses of T.V. celebrities hovering on their doorsteps and from the top of the rise, there were views of the city’s ancient landmarks.
My favourite park remains Parliament Hill fields, on the edge of Hampstead Heath. It’s closer to home, and I had lots of adventures there with my big brother; hiding in the woods, kicking a ball around and dive-bombing its secluded ponds. In my opinion, the south-facing slopes still afford the finest panorama of the sprawling metropolis.
As a kid, I’d scamper up the hill with the sun on my back and collapse onto unkempt meadows full of dandelions, daisies and buttercups. Even in a normal year, the pastures offered solace and a welcome relief from the shimmering midday heat. I’d kick back and play the game of naming clouds and wait for celestial creatures to swirl across the firmament. Stratospheric jets would glint at me from on high and scar the azure skies with criss-crossing vapour trails. I’d imagine their exotic destinations; Bali, South Africa or Egypt perhaps? I could only guess, and dream that some day they’d invite me onboard for an adventure.
Penny had elevated a child’s simple pastime to a whole new level of complexity. Cloud spotting was a serious business for her. If she wasn’t mulling over some new billowing formation, then she was preoccupied with gauging its meaning and evaluating how it might influence her immediate future.
‘So in other words, you’re superstitious, Penny?’
‘No, not at all,’ she said, furrowing her brow. ‘There’s a method to it.’
‘So it’s a science?’ I asked, squinting my mouth to one side. ‘Like fluid dynamics?’
‘Think in terms of metaphysics for transient architecture.’
‘That’s beyond me.’ I said, shaking my head.
‘You’ll get it.’ She pushed her diary towards me. ‘Let me explain about today’s configurations.’
Pioneers are always mocked, but later when I looked back at our life together, I became convinced the meaning was up there waiting to be understood. It’s all about interpretation. That’s the key to understanding the patterns and rhythms in the sky.
Parliament Hill attracts all sorts of people who enjoy the benefits of fresh air and regular exercise. Before I started spending my Saturday afternoons with Penny, I recognised a handful of characters and we’d exchange brief pleasantries. I’d like to think we looked out for each other and I’d miss them if they weren’t around.
My favourite acquaintance was Terry, whose walking circuit followed the park’s outer perimeter. He was a gangly, grey-bearded gentleman, who’d bark a gruff, ‘Hallo there, lad!’ and offered brief remarks about current events. His ambition was to walk across the Pyrenees, and he trained most mornings with a rucksack full of house bricks.
Maureen was Parliament Hill’s inscrutable bag lady, observing life from her bench without comment. She’d waft a delicate paw whenever we met and beamed with delight if I wished her a good day. I‘d heard Maureen had lost a fortune, but was content with her lot and lived here undisturbed. She was the park’s best known unofficial resident.
There were plenty of sporty types who exercised here every day; I never failed to encounter three Tai-Chi warriors who inhabited the lower meadows. They’d synchronise a graceful salute by unfurling their arms, wrists and knuckles in a rippling Fibonacci sequence. During my climb to the top ridge I often met a jolly couple in matching Adidas tracksuits and peaked caps. They’d both raise a toothy grin and a clenched fist in solidarity.
Whatever the logic and discipline involved in reading the clouds, we both missed the obvious signs during that last day of summer. I’d disregarded the morning’s weather report predicting an end to the drought and Penny had ignored the newspaper’s latest warning about swarming insects.
‘You’re brave souls!’ Terry had said earlier that day as he’d marched past us with his bricks. He knew we were in for a shock when he’d said, ‘Best call it a day, lad!’
In retrospect, it was unusual to see Maureen descending the hill with a shopping trolley full of her belongings. She was moving on and no doubt heading for a secure shelter on the high street. Either way, we overlooked sound opinions and our blissful summer was about to be curtailed forthwith by nature’s pitiless hand.
While we’d snoozed away our afternoon, the sky had undergone a dramatic change and was darker than a medieval wardrobe. The ladybirds knew when their time was up and they descended en masse for a concluding banquet.
‘Agh! What?’ I rolled over, brushing bugs off my skin. ‘Penny! Penny, wake up!’
‘Neil, help me!’ Penny struggled to open her eyelids and clawed her face. ‘Agh!'
‘They’re biters and---’
‘Get them off, Neil!’ she said, flapping her arms about as I brushed them away.
We were covered in tiny scarlet sores and rashes that hurt like hell. The dainty red and black bugs had nipped and nibbled our exposed flesh with impunity.
‘It’s all your fault, Neil!’ Penny said, as the bugs dispersed into the ether.
‘But we were both asleep and---’
‘You distracted me,’ she said, standing up and shaking out her towel. ‘No! No! No! I don’t believe it---’
‘Hey!’ I said. ‘It’s not my fault if---’
‘Neil!’ she said, her eyes welling up. ‘Where’s our stuff?’
For a peaceful life, I accepted the bugs were my fault. But it was a stretch to suggest I was responsible for a light-fingered visitor snatching our possessions.
‘All my money!’ she said. ‘My diary too!’
‘Hey, I’m sure the police---’
‘Neil!’ Penny screamed at me as the first droplets struck our shoulders. I say droplets, but they were the size of sixpences, and hard too. The hailstones arrived one at a time and then in staggered clusters. Within ten seconds, the air was full of falling debris and the desperate screams of bathers exiting the distant lido.
‘Get under my towel!’ I said, covering Penny’s head. ‘Leg it!’
The bald summit offered no shelter from the deluge as we made our rapid descent. Somehow we escaped serious harm below our flimsy cotton rags and headed for the Victorian bandstand near the eastern park gate. Being an obvious sanctuary, it was packed full of bathers protecting their eardrums from the deafening cacophony above their heads.
We raced on towards the high street where cowering shoppers giggled as we ran past; our bare feet slapping on the wet pavement like excitable seals performing a hearty ovation. Penny was convinced the combination of my ‘budgie-smugglers’ and knobbly knees were the cause of their hilarity. The following year we were better equipped for a hasty departure, and she spared my blushes by treating me to the latest in thigh-length surfing shorts.
Penny’s mother called the police and reported the theft. A week later she got an answer machine message. The voice asked Penny to visit Camden police station. The sergeant said a neighbour had found the abandoned bag in her front garden, handed it in and it matched Penny’s description. Alas, the purse and money were absent, but her precious cloud diary was intact.
It was a relief for Penny to recover her journal and she pored over the notes concerning our fateful afternoon. Penny confirmed all the warning signs were written in the clouds that day. She had it all figured out. If we hadn’t nodded off, then the disastrous events could’ve been avoided. I didn’t argue and took it on the chin.
We put the summer of 1976 behind us and avoided mentioning it until the start of last weekend. Penny woke up in a breathless panic and told me she’d had a nightmare. She’d got a bad feeling about Sunday afternoon. We moped around the garden all Saturday and had a restless night, unable to sleep.
During breakfast on Sunday, Penny said she’d detected an ominous cloud system approaching. It was a rare combination of upper structure formations that looked exactly like that one we experienced together back in 1976. We shouldn’t disregard its appearance or possible influence.
I was a nervous wreck by Sunday lunchtime and quizzed Penny during our subway journey across the city in the evening. She rolled her eyes, but couldn’t be any clearer concerning her anxiety. As we approached Camden Town tube station, Penny reached down for her bag to discover an empty space. Her eyes darted about like startled minnows in a rock pool.
‘Neil,’ she whispered. ‘It’s just happened.’
‘I thought you knew and---’
I got the blame for the theft.
She said I’d distracted her with all the questions.
Penny had seen the signs, and it was my fault again.
You know what? It’s easy to be sceptical about people who claim to possess divine powers. I mean, why do well-known astrologers never win the lottery and how come bookmakers never go out of business? In my mind it’s no coincidence, however, it doesn’t do any harm to hedge one’s bets. After all, I continue to give Penny the benefit of the doubt and she still pursues the wisdom of clouds.