May 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Sunday in the park

By Leigh Sales
Sunday in the park
The mystery of a man, a tree and an umbrella

I am sitting on a park bench, reading, when a closed umbrella thwacks onto the path next to me, seemingly falling from the sky. It is one of those flimsy, collapsible black numbers that you dash into the chemist to buy when it’s pouring, inevitably to leave forgotten under a table or in a taxi because you’re not used to carrying one.

A middle-aged man retrieves the umbrella, and I resume my reading.

Twenty or so seconds later, thwack again, this time on the grass about a metre away.

What is this crackpot doing? I wonder, irritated at the interruption. It is a bright autumn day, certainly not the type requiring an umbrella. The man is thin and wears a loose white T-shirt, baggy grey pants and white sneakers. His wiry hair is like a steelo stitched to his scalp.

I try to pick up the thread of my book again, but can hear the slap of the umbrella hitting the ground over and over. So I give up and start to watch.

We are in an inner-Sydney park, a block of green bordered by streets of cafes, pubs, run-down terraces and organic food stores. Across the road is a new library, all glass and gleaming steel. Around the perimeter of the park are a dozen majestic old trees with thick trunks, branching into a green canopy about 25 feet in the air. They’re stately and beautiful, but not easy to climb. This is the man’s predicament.

He throws the umbrella high into the branches of one of the trees, clearly trying to dislodge something. A frisbee? A kite? Is he the sort of monster who would knock out a bird’s nest? I crane my neck and strain my eyes, but can’t see a thing. Whatever it is hides in the foliage. Every time the umbrella hits the ground, the man grabs it, takes aim and lets fly.

Others start paying attention. On a nearby bench, an old woman with hair dyed the colour of walnuts puts on her glasses. A boy runs down the slippery dip instead of sliding on his bum, and launches himself towards the patch of grass where the action is taking place. A couple of his friends jog after him. For reasons known only to him, another little boy pulls his pants up as high as he can and minces over on tiptoe. A mother with a baby on her hip stares as she pushes her other daughter on a swing, distracted enough that the girl strains forward at the peak of the arc because the swing isn’t going high enough anymore.

Every now and again the man stops throwing the umbrella and talks to a woman standing nearby with two children. It must be his family. The girl, around six, wears a pink dress with tiny flowers on it. The smaller child, a boy, wears white pants and a blue-and-white striped shirt, like a mini French mime. He is solemnly watchful, almost grave.

A council worker with a fat red face and an orange vest walks by, licking an ice-cream. He stops to gawk too.

“What are you trying to get?” he asks.

“It’s a tiny …” is all the breeze carries of the reply, annoyingly.

By now, the man has been tossing the umbrella for nearly half an hour. At one point, the brolly almost opens; fearing it will lodge in the tree, the man swaps it for a stick. But the stick is useless, so he switches back.

Surely he can’t keep going for much longer. His shoulder must be burning with fatigue. Almost everyone in the park has stopped what they were doing. All the kids have abandoned the playground and look on, wriggling in a group like puppies in a pet store. The woman says something, I guess telling him to give up. But he squints up at the faraway branches, winds his arm back and hurls the umbrella once more.

This time, something starts to fall from the tree.

“Yes!” the man whoops, leaping in delight.

The park erupts in applause and cries of triumph, as if someone has just smashed a six off the final ball. The children run to see what has fallen to earth but the man reaches it first. He picks up the object, then walks over to his son. The little boy jiggles in excitement and, as he takes the tiny black remote-control helicopter his father holds out, his eyes shine with love and admiration.

Leigh Sales

Leigh Sales anchors the ABC’s 7.30 program and has written two books.

@leighsales

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