This story is about a skirt, and a Big Day Out in London, and a moment of sheer ebullience that ended badly. I feel like telling it, because I wore the very skirt the other day, for the first time in a while. It is October now, and it was October then, when the skirt was new. Autumn in Santa Barbara bears almost no resemblance to an English autumn, but every time—EVERY time—I put on that skirt, I am there in that morning again.
We were living in Leeds. Lydia, my youngest, had just started school, and I had just gone back into paid employment. I had loved being a full-time mother, and now I loved my new job, in nutritional research at the University of Leeds. Though I had no professional background in the field, it was a good fit for my interests, and getting a paycheck was the icing on the cake. Oh, and after 12 years in jeans and a sweatshirt, wearing nice clothes to work was the sprinkles on the icing on the cake.
Sooner than expected, I was asked to represent my department at a conference in London. I was excited at the prospect of a trip to London, less so at the prospect of being an amateur among professionals and quite possibly making an idiot of myself. So I decided to splash out on a really great outfit: the sort of thing worn by people who know what they are talking about.
I went to an expensive shop in the Victoria Quarter of Leeds, a shop I had dawdled past but never actually set foot in, and bought a v. fashionable skirt and lovely pair of boots. These clothes were not exactly “me,” but that was the point: I wanted to look a lot better than me.
I took the train to London the day before the conference, and stayed overnight with a cousin in Pimlico. It rained all night, but the next morning the sun reflected brilliantly off every wet, bronzed autumn leaf, and I felt a tingle of well-being. Dressed in my new duds, I headed out to join the people streaming towards the Underground. Jostling along with the surging crowd, my spirits rose still higher. This was something I remembered from my early working days in London: being part of the pulse and vigor of a big city at work.
If there had been a soundtrack to those few minutes, it could have been the song Julie Andrews sings on her way to the Von Trapp home at the start of the Sound of Music, “I have confidence.” It was just like that, except I was swinging my briefcase instead of a guitar.
Then I noticed something. The crowds hurrying along towards the Tube were all on this side of the street, whereas the glorious autumn sunshine was all on that side of the street. Staying over here in the gloom would have made sense if the Tube stop was also on this side of the street, but it wasn’t. At the traffic light a hundred yards ahead, everyone had to cross over to the other side anyway!
Wow, I thought: life in the big city. These people are in such a hurry—or such a rut—they can’t move a few feet out of their way to find some sunshine. Well, I might be a stay-at-home mom from out of town, all dressed up and not knowing much, but I know enough to nab a spot of sunshine when I see one. It was time to break free of this crowd. I looked both ways and stepped off the curb.
I’m not sure about the soundtrack for the next bit of the story. Obviously Willie Nelson’s “Sunny Side of the Street” would work, but I am leaning towards the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore show, especially the bit where we see her throw her hat into the air to demonstrate her feisty, independent joie de vivre.
The street was empty, the black asphalt shining underfoot as I walked briskly across. I did not actually look back at the crowd I had left behind, but I imagined one or two had noticed my departure from their ranks. Perhaps they would even be inspired to follow this feisty, independent young woman striking out on her own. If I’d had a hat to throw in the air, I’d have thrown it.
Then I approached the other curb, and saw one possible reason why I was alone in this venture. There was a puddle: a wide puddle, extending several feet out into the road, and the whole length of the block.
I hesitated. What to do? Of course, I could walk back and join the crowd, but that went totally against the mood of the moment. Would Mary Tyler Moore have walked back? Would she, heck! This would be my hat-in-the-air moment! I had jumped puddles bigger than this! So I ran towards the puddle, and I leapt.
Hang on, I have to go back and fill in one tiny detail. I see now that I didn’t actually describe the skirt I was wearing, other than to say it was fashionable, and not the sort of thing I would normally wear. Well, the fashion that autumn was for long, straight skirts. This one was quite long, ending about four inches above my ankle. And it was quite extraordinarily straight. The diameter at the hem—the length of stride it allowed, to put it another way—was 24 inches. So you see what I mean, about it not being the sort of thing I would normally have worn. I’d spent years chasing toddlers about. All I’d worn were comfortable clothes that permitted maximum speed and range of movement. Unfortunately, it was in clothes like that, not clothes like this, that I had jumped puddles bigger than this one.
So, to the end of my story. Let us imagine it from the viewpoint of the crowd back on the pavement.
We are hurrying along, on our way to work, when suddenly a young woman from our midst breaks free! She strikes out on her own, trotting briskly in her very fashionable outfit across the road, towards the sun on the other side. What verve! What indep—wait, what’s she doing now? Is she…? Yes she is, she’s running straight towards that puddle! Now she’s jumping, jumping… right into the middle of the puddle. Ker-splash! She ran across the street...to jump into that puddle!
And now she’s...well, she's just wading out and going on her way, looking up at the beautiful trees, swinging her briefcase and leaving wet footprints in the sunshine.