She is short and slender, and approaching old age, but in a gentle, almost glamorous way.
Her hair is long and dark, but is pulled back from her face cleanly. Her features are oriental – Japanese maybe – and she wears a lot of make- up, but it suits her.
Her clothes are striking and mysterious. Somewhere between scruffy and extravagant. Either she is very rich and these are designer clothes, collected perhaps from earlier travels around the world, and now tired and worn out with regular use; or she is poor and has chosen carefully from selected charity shops, choosing idiosyncratic items and throwing them together with optimistic abandon.
One day she wears a long swirling blue skirt, with an embroidered jacket in green. It’s impossible to decide whether it clashes dreadfully or is subtly complementary.
Another time she’s wearing something that looks like a kimono from a stage production of the Mikado, but with a smart white coat on top, and high heeled, pointy shoes.
So who is this mystery lady? Is she the rich, eccentric wife of some millionaire, passing the days strolling alone in the park? (For this is where I see her – in Embankment Gardens, next to the Thames, as I sit eating my sandwich lunch by the flower beds.)
Perhaps she is a famous author, wandering by the river looking for inspiration, sitting in the outdoor café sipping tea and making notes for a new novel.
Maybe she is a tourist, visiting London for the shopping, getting carried away in fashion stores and buying odd things without care – or without advice.
She carries a huge black bag, bigger than a handbag. The first time I see her, I wonder if she might have a miniature dog hidden away in it, for she looks like the kind of character who might well have a fluffy terrier or a pink poodle as a companion.
But no, I am soon to discover the mystery item that the bag contains.
A loaf of bread.
For this strangely dressed, elderly oriental lady defines herself to the observer as – The Lady Who Feeds The Fish In Embankment Gardens. (I’d better call her The Fish Lady for short, though that sounds somehow unflattering. Let’s make it The Goldfish Lady.)
There are one or two pretty little ponds in the gardens, with water-lilies flowering at the appropriate time of year, and reeds and rushes growing around the edges.
There are lots of fish in the pond – big colourful goldfish and koi carp (she could be The Coy Koi Lady!), a swirling mix of orange and gold and silver and black. Well, not as big as they might be if this was a big lake in a stately home, but still a lot bigger than you’d find in your average cold water aquarium.
I’d never noticed the fish before. I’m not sure I’d even noticed the ponds before. It’s a wonder they’re not clogged up with litter and plastic bags – they must be at least reasonably well tended and looked after.
The Japanese lady approaches the ponds each day, as if she is on pilgrimage. She leans over and inspects the fishes, as if checking to see that the ones that she recognises are still there. Then she begins to speak to them – not in English – gently, with a lilt in her voice that sometimes actually becomes a little song. She sings to the fishes, as if to greet them, and then to soothe them.
The bread is removed from the giant bag. (For all I know the pink poodle does exist, but remains hiding in the bag’s deep recesses.)
She walks around the edges of the pond, feeding bread to the fish. It’s clear that they eat it readily, splashing about as they sate their hunger.
Two little girls are playing in the park and come to investigate. They peer and point at the coloured fish, holding each other back from the water’s edge by the shoulder, as if they’ve been scolded in the past about the dangers of falling into fishponds.
The oriental lady smiles at them. They turn their attention to her, staring at her as they have stared at the fish, with equal curiosity and wonder. They are captivated by her bright clothes, her pointy shoes, her painted face. And most of all by her strange singing as she throws pieces of bread to the fish.
Their mother calls the girls away, maybe unsure whether the fish-feeding lady poses some threat to her little ones. She looks kind and harmless, in one way. But she also looks a bit mad – so best to err on the side of caution.
But though the possibly mad lady has a smile for these and other children, it is the fish that concern her. She walks up and down the edge of the pond, and some of the fish follow her. It is only the bread calling them, surely. And yet it’s difficult not to wonder whether her little songs have charmed them, whether she has in fact communicated with them and is telling them little fish-related stories.
Once upon a time, in a big lake far away, there lived a brave and famous fish called –
And so that’s how it came about that you little fishes ended up here in this little pond in the middle of London –
The bread she throws attracts pigeons and sparrows, and these she tolerates and allows to share the feast.
But seagulls which sweep in from the river nearby, daring each other to land within sight of the pond – these she shoos away, for fear that their real interest is not so much in the bread as in the fish consuming it.
Oh no, her precious fishes are not going to become part of some bigger food chain! The seagulls can go home to the sea, and leave the poor golden fishes alone!
She doesn’t see me, the lady who feeds the fish in Embankment Gardens. Though I am so tempted to go and speak to her, to try to befriend her.
Is she lonely, that the fish are her only companions? Do they remind her of a childhood she once knew, in some charming Far Eastern palace perhaps?
Or is she a perfectly sane and busy senior executive, merely taking a moment out of a hectic schedule to commune with nature?
Only the fishes know the truth.