Thursday, 18 August 2016

High Street Kensington

Pic: Wikipedia

English for beginners
Giulia worked as a waitress in a teashop in High Street Kensington from half past eight in the morning to three o'clock in the afternoon. She lived in Bloomsbury, where she shared a room with Margaret in a women's hostel opposite the British Museum.
The teashop occupied three floors in a Victorian building squeezed between modern office blocks in a narrow street off Kensington High Street. The narrow ground floor only had room for the patisserie counter with an old-fashioned till and a couple of bistro tables; the kitchen was located on the first floor, next door to the toilets, while the tearoom was on the second floor.
In the tearoom, the tables were covered by pink cloths with small ceramic vases of fresh flowers and a matching sugar bowl. The chairs and wall seats were upholstered in black leather, well worn and cracked in places. There was a small gap between the tables and when it was busy, Giulia moved around with difficulty, trying to avoid bumping into chairs and upsetting her tray.
The staff consisted of two waitresses, the pastry chef, a kitchen porter and the owner, a young French woman who like to talk to her customers when she wasn’t otherwise engaged. Christine was a resting actress. She had bought the teashop from a couple of compatriots, after having worked on and off as a waitress for many years.
The teashop was frequented by artists and businessmen. Christine knew all her customers and particularly cultivated the friendship of a theatre director who had promised her a small part in his new play.
At four o'clock, Giulia would take the uniform off and let her hair loose from the tight ponytail she had to wear while serving. She then combed her hair and applied a little make-up. Every evening during the week she attended classes at a language school in Oxford Street. The class started at five thirty and Giulia spent her free time before in Covent Garden, walking around the shops and watching the street performers.
If the weather was good, she would walk from her workplace to Marble Arch by crossing Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. It was a long walk, but it was very pleasant on sunny days.
Her day off was Wednesday, but she worked every Sunday. On weekends Giulia was on her own because Margaret went to see her parents in Manchester. Margaret had invited her to join her, but because Giulia worked on Sundays, it wasn’t practical for her to get away. On Sunday afternoons, she would take the tube to Camden Town to walk around the market or strolled by the canal towards Regents Park.
Margaret was thinking of moving out of the hostel and had asked Giulia if she would share a flat with her. Their accommodation was cheap and central, but they had to share the kitchen and no visitors were allowed past the reception desk.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Giulia accompanied Margaret to view a flat near Russell Square. The flat was in a quaint, pedestrianised alley, on the top floor of a brick building that was over 150 years old. On the ground floor was a pottery shop, its glazed door squeezed to the wooden front door of the flat, which was painted in an eye-catching postbox red.
The landlord was a middle-aged man who owned a local b&b. He arrived 20 minutes late and excused himself several times. He led them up a steep carpeted staircase and showed them round briskly. ‘The first floor is taken by a dental surgery. Every Friday you can leave an envelope with the rent money with the receptionist. This door, here, leads to the flat,’ he explained patting a solid-looking white door. ‘It’s a fire door and provides some security for you girls as the front door is kept open during surgery hours.’
They walked up concreted uncarpeted stairs.
‘The ceilings are bit low, but it’s pretty good flat for the price,’ he said unlocking the flat’s door.
They followed him in the living room, a square room with a small table and four chairs, a gas fireplace, an old-fashioned chintz armchair and a melamine shelving unit with a small portable TV on top of it.
The kitchen was tiny but clean. The bedroom had two twin beds with matching cabinets, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.
‘Where is the bathroom?’ asked Margaret.
‘The bathroom is upstairs, and it’s shared with one room.’
‘Ah, that explains the price,’ said Margaret bluntly. Giulia admired her nerve; she had been thinking the same thing.
The landlord eyed her warily and said: ‘You won’t find anything at this price in this area. I could have rented this many times over, but I wanted the right tenant, like yourselves, two young girls who work and are no trouble. The room upstairs is rented to a young professional, a very quiet person. I want no trouble here and the rent paid on time.’
Opposite the flat, a matching white door led to more concrete steps, the top landing covered by green patterned lino. A coin-operated public telephone was mounted to the wall between two doors. Somebody had fixed a pen with a piece of blue tack and there was some paper for messages on a metal stool under the phone. The landlord showed them the bathroom, which was outdated but looked clean.
They followed the landlord downstairs and into the waiting room of the surgery. ‘So, girls, what is going to be?’ he asked eagerly.
‘I like it,’ said Giulia.
Margaret gave her a look and said: ‘We will take it if you knock off 50 pounds on the weekly rent. We can pay three weeks in advance as a deposit.’
The landlord didn’t look pleased but smiled at Giulia and asked: ‘I spotted an accent, there, are you Italian?’
Giulia nodded.
‘All right girls, since my wife is Italian too, I will give you the discount, but four weeks in advance, please.’
‘OK,’ said Giulia.
They shook hands and left. In the street Margaret nudged Giulia and said. ‘We got a flat, hurray! We can have parties and invite people now! It’s not a bad deal, but he would have taken three if you’d have let me work on him.’
‘It’s a nice area. I wonder whom we are sharing our bathroom with?’
‘An old man, no doubt. He’ll bang with a broom stick whenever we have visitors.’
The day of the move, Giulia stood on the pavement outside the hostel surrounded by cases and bulging black bin bags, while Margaret tried to hail a taxi. It was a short journey so the taxi driver had to be persuaded to take them. Giulia had only a case and a rucksack, but Margaret had been living in London for two years and had accumulated a lot of things.
The taxi had to stop on the main road as their new street didn’t allow access to vehicles. It took a while to unload their luggage from the taxi and carry it by the door of their new flat. The driver was such in a hurry to pick up his next fare that he helped them with the cases.
Margaret went upstairs to pay the deposit and the rent for the first week, while Giulia minded their possessions, which had blocked the door to the shop. Luckily it was closed.
The surgery receptionist gave Margaret a receipt and the keys of the flat. After several trips, they managed to take up everything. With their possessions in, the living room had shrunk in size.
In the bedroom Giulia and Margaret started to put away their clothes. The empty cases were pushed under the beds. They moved to the living room and soon the flat look more homely with their books, photos and small objects. Giulia looked at her watch. It was three o'clock and they had had nothing to eat since breakfast. She opened the kitchen cupboards and was pleased to find pans, plates and crockery. ‘We have everything we need here, but nothing to eat.’
‘I can go downstairs and ask the receptionist where the nearest supermarket is. Like you I left my food leftovers with the girls at the hostel, I couldn’t risk them making a mess in my bags.’
The surgery’s receptionist told them there was a shopping centre in front of Russell Square station. They found a Safeway supermarket, a laundrette, a cinema, a cobbler, a florist and a burger bar.
‘Let’s have a burger and French fries here and then we can go to the supermarket,’ suggested Margaret.
They ate their burgers perched on stools by the window. They were so hungry that everything tasted so good. They went back to the flat loaded with bags. Margaret filled the fridge and the cupboards, while Giulia investigated a small door near the fireplace, which had been papered to blend in. It was a tiny cupboard containing an ironing board, an iron, a hoover, a broom and a metal bucket with a mop.
‘We really have got everything we need,’ said Giulia feeling pleased.
Giulia and Margaret moved the furniture to suit them and hanged a James Dean poster above the fireplace. The shelves of the melamine unit were soon crammed with books.

As they both worked during the day, they only met late the evening when Giulia came back from her classes. On her day off, Giulia used to spend most of the day in the flat studying. They loved the independence and did not mind having to share the bathroom as it was always free when they needed it.
Giulia bumped into their neighbour on a Saturday evening. Margaret had gone to Manchester to a friend’s wedding. She was carrying a shopping bag up the steep stairs and was so absorbed in her thoughts that she collided against a tall, young man, who was running down in haste.
She managed to keep her balance, but the shopping bag flew off her hands. He helped her to pick up her purchases then introduced himself. ‘Hi, sorry about the accident, I’m Robert.’
‘I'm Giulia. Don’t worry; I wasn’t looking where I was going.’
‘You must be my new neighbour. Are you Italian?’
‘Yes, from Milan.’
‘I have great admiration for Italian art; I have been in your country many times. I'm an architect. What do you do here in London?’
‘I study English and work in a teashop.’
‘I'd like to speak Italian. I did a course but I lack practice.’
‘I've had some problems with English. It's so different from Italian.’
‘I could help you, if you could help me in exchange,’ Robert offered. ‘Does it matter that I’m American?’
‘No, it’s OK,’ said Giulia. Robert sounded like an interesting person and was very good looking. ‘When are we going to start?’ she blurted, and then bit her tongue hoping she did not sound desperate.
‘First we must get acquainted. What about going out for a walk tomorrow afternoon? I'm a respectable man, with respectable intentions,’ he joked.
‘We could meet after three, where I work, if it’s OK,’ suggested Giulia.
‘OK, leave the address by the phone, I'm going now. I’m meeting a friend and I am late.’
Giulia prepared her dinner and ate with appetite. She then sat on the chintz armchair to watch TV. At ten o'clock she switched it off and took a book from the shelf. It was a simplified version of Pride and Prejudice. She read it with a dictionary on her lap so she could look up the words she didn't understand.
The next day she woke up early. She arrived at the teashop well before the opening time and had breakfast in the kitchen. The cook did not come on a Sunday and his assistant was in a good mood. He had prepared crepes, which they ate drizzled with honey.
That morning there were only a few customers. It had started to rain as soon as Giulia had opened so not many people were about. Giulia hoped the weather would change in the afternoon or her walk with Robert would be ruined.
It stopped raining and the tearoom was crowded at lunchtime. There quite a few elderly men and women as they still served tea in the old-fashioned way, with a hot water jug by the teapot.
Giulia’s replacement arrived early, so ten minutes before three she went into the staff toilet to get changed. She looked at herself in the mirror with critical air and put a bit more makeup on her eyes.
Robert was waiting outside and smiled when he saw her.
‘What are we going to do today?’ She asked.
‘What about a tour of the canals? You can leave from little Venice and reach the zoo and Camden Town by water.’
‘Where is little Venice?’
‘It's by Paddington. It's not quite like Venice, but it’s pretty and the barges are very pretty.’
They took the underground to Paddington. During the journey, Robert told Giulia about his big family and his plans to open an architect studio in Houston. He wanted to build houses in the traditional European style.
Giulia was impressed. She didn’t have much to say about herself, she was an only child and her parents owned a small wine company. She had come to London to study English so she could help her father export wine.
Little Venice was a narrow canal crossed by two brick bridges. Colourful narrowboats and barges were moored along it.
A barge hosted an art gallery. The artist, an older man wearing a kaftan on cropped jeans, showed them round and gave Giulia a postcard with an ink drawing of the canal and his barge.
They waited in line to board the tour boat. The boat moved slowly because of the shallow waters. For a while there was nothing much to see. The embankments had been reinforced by block of concrete, which were covered in ugly graffiti. The view improved when they passed near Regent’s Park and when the boat reached the zoo, Giulia spotted wild animals peering at them through the fence.
They got off at Camden Town and walked towards the Lock market. Robert seemed to know the area as well as Giulia. He bought a wooden incense dish for himself and a small papier mache’ box for Giulia with two Siamese cats painted on its lacquered lid. Later, they shared a cream tea at a teashop overlooking the canal.

From that afternoon, Giulia and Robert would meet once or twice in the evening during the week and spent the weekends together. Sometimes they spoke Italian, sometimes they spoke English.
Margaret was introduced to Robert and often invited him to dinner. Occasionally they all went to see a movie at the cinema opposite Russell Square tube.
As Giulia and Robert became good friends, Margaret started teasing her. Giulia was unsure of how she felt. Robert always behaved correctly and made her feel at ease. She was going back to Italy at the end of the summer and she didn’t believe in long-distance relationship.
Margaret was of a different opinion. ‘Life is short, why don’t you let things take their course and worry later? You think too much, just let yourself go.’
‘I’m not a flirt like you,’ retorted Giulia which made Margaret laugh as she had met a university student in Manchester she really liked and did not know what to do about it.

One evening, Robert came back from work with exciting news. ‘The project is complete so I’m finished here. I called one of my university pals and he’s willing to be my partner in the studio. Things are proceeding faster than I expected.’
‘When are you leaving?’ asked Giulia. She was shocked at how much she was distressed by Robert’s departure. She had known from the start that they would have to part. Had she hidden her real feelings to protect herself?
‘When I'm settled, you can pay me a visit. In my home, there will be always a place for good friends.’
Friends, that’s what they were and what they will ever be. Giulia’s father might not wish to finance another foreign trip and it would take her a long time to save enough money for it.

Giulia returned to Italy two months after Robert’s departure. She had passed her exam and obtained the proficiency certificate. Her father was delighted and soon Giulia started working with the sales manager.
She left home early in the morning, worked and came back home late in the evening. At weekends she went to eat a pizza or watch a movie with her school girlfriends. At Christmas she received a card from Robert. He had finally opened his studio and was inviting her to visit him in the spring or summer.
Giulia thought it was best to leave it at that, Christmas cards and the occasional postcard from Liguria where her family owned a holiday flat. Although she missed London, she had fitted back in her old life and was enjoying her job. Next year she would start travelling to the European wine fairs and she was looking forward to that. She mentioned the invitation to Margaret when she called her to wish her a Happy New Year.
‘Are you mad? You have to go! Think of the great time you’d have.’
‘But isn’t it best this way? Besides it’s quite expensive to fly to the US.’
‘If you go in the low season it won’t cost as much.’
‘What about you, what are you up to?’
‘I got a promotion! I’m now the PA of the managing director. I can afford to rent our flat on my own. Emma is a pain, she has to go. Soon it will be just me, unless you fancy coming back.’
‘Are you going to ask her to leave? Poor Emma.’
‘Don’t worry. She’s is moving in with her boyfriend. I wish him all the luck in the world as he will need it.’

Giulia called the travel agent to book plane tickets to Paris and hotel accommodation for the Spring Wine Fair. It was going to be her first international fair. She couldn’t resist asking for the cheapest fare to Houston. She was told that direct flights were expensive, but if she didn’t mind changing in New York, there was a really good deal for early February. Giulia thanked the woman and hung up. If she added her Christmas money to her savings she could afford to go.
She rang Robert and asked him if it was OK to visit him for a week in February. ‘I know it’s a bit sudden, but I was quoted a good fare and I can just about afford it now.’
‘I’d love to show you around,’ said Robert. ‘I can take some time off as it is not too busy now.’

Giulia managed her connection to Houston without a hitch. She had never spent so many hours on planes and when she got off, her legs felt numb. She collected her case and walked towards the exit, eager to stretch her legs.
Robert was waiting in the arrival area with a pretty blonde. They were laughing and looked very happy together. They soon spotted her and Robert waved.
‘Hi, I'm Susan, Robert told me all about you.’
 ‘Hello, Susan, nice to meet you.’
‘You must be tired,’ said Robert and took her case. They walked to the underground parking and Robert put Giulia’s case in the boot of an expensive looking convertible.
From her back seat, Giulia struggled to follow Robert and Susan’s conversation, saying very little. When they reached Robert’s apartment and Susan made her feel at home with a coffee and slice of cake, Giulia couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer. ‘Where did you meet?’ she asked trying to sound casual.

‘I've know Rob since he was a little,’ said Susan, ruffling Robert’s hair. ‘I’ve loved him from the first sight. Isn't my little brother awesome?’ 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Circle Lives: Liverpool Street

File:Liverpool Street Central line roundel.JPG
Pic: Sunil060902

Liverpool Street: The hoarder
As the taxi drove down Old Street and under the railway bridge, the white spire of Shoreditch Church surged against the blue sky. ‘When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch,’ Judith mouthed. She hadn’t thought about this nursery rhyme since she was a little girl.
There was no money for anything fancy back then. When Judith had told her father she wanted to sell their home to buy a mountain of sweets he had lectured her on the starving children in Africa. He had made her feel greedy and ashamed.
Judith’s mother had died when she was 12. A middle-aged woman, who Judith had nicknamed Mrs Hen, came in to clean, cook their meals and look after her until her father came back from work. She was a nervous, thin female, forever clucking: ‘Your father really wants you to do this, your father thinks it’s best for you to do that.’
No wonder Judith had chosen to study English literature as far from home as she could, in Scotland. After her degree she had qualified as a TEFL teacher and applied for a teaching post in Greece. She had been all over Europe, taught for a year in Japan and worked for the British Embassy in New York. Her father’s lawyer's letter had reached her in Italy, where she managed a language school.
When the taxi drove down the Hackney Road, past the City Farm, Judith felt her heart jump into her mouth. She tried to remember when it was the last time she had seen her father. She had endured quite a few dire Christmases, her father’s enthusiasm for the festivities matching Mr Scrooge’s, before arranging her annual skiing trip to coincide with the Christmas holidays. Last time she had visited her father was three years ago. He had been in hospital with a ruptured hernia.
I’m all alone, she thought, but felt nothing. Whoever had turned up at her father’s funeral may well be thinking she was a heartless cow. But if the lawyer’s letter had not been delayed in the post, she’d have attended.
The taxi drove off as she pushed the gate open. The front garden was terribly overgrown. Evergreen shrubs, thorny bushes, wild flowers, plants spilling out from hanging baskets and two mature trees hid the lower half of the house.
After a good tidy, she could put it up for sale. She had called an agent and had been surprised at how much Victorian houses were selling in the road. The proximity to Liverpool Station and the City was attracting young professional couples who couldn’t yet afford Islington and did not care for the Old Street area. If she sold the house, Judith could buy the flat she had been renting in Italy and have some improvements done.
She unlocked the stiff front door and pushed her way in. The hall smelled musty and was cluttered with cardboard boxes piled up against the stained walls. Nothing had changed there. What could she expect from a man who didn’t throw anything away and in the past ten years only allowed a cleaner to come in once a fortnight to do his laundry and give the rooms a once over?
She felt a twinge of guilt, but pushed it firmly back where it had come from. She had never got on with her father and living with him would have been pure hell. In fact, the distance between them and her infrequent visits had channelled their relationship into less troubled waters.
Judith opened the faded curtains of the living room and let the sunlight into the drab room. The wall-to-ceiling bookshelves were overflowing and big tea crates were dotted around, as if her father had been in the process of moving out. In the kitchen, big piles of newspapers had been stacked under the table.
Her stomach rumbled. She grabbed the keys, picked up her handbag and stepped out. The fish and chip shop across the road was shut. She walked to the greasy spoon café she had seen from the taxi, but it was closed, too.
Then she noticed several men and women carrying trays of plants and big bunches of flowers emerge from a side street and recalled a recent telephone conversation in which her father had complained about how busy the Columbia Road market had become.
‘Full of noisy tourists, useless things for sale and fancy coffee shops,’ he had raged.
She decided to get something to eat there, after all there weren’t so many places open on a Sunday. She crossed the road, walked down a narrow alley and stepped into a small cobbled square, where a band of buskers playing ukuleles was entertaining the crowds.
A wooden-fronted bakery shop offered organic produce along with exotic fruit and vegetables, a garage displayed plaster casts in all shapes and colours, a courtyard spilled out beautiful glazed urns in dark blues and warm brown onto the pavement and a yard behind an old factory was crammed with stalls selling second-hand clothes and bric a brac. Opposite the bakery stood a coffee shop, with wooden benches spilling on the pavement and a dilapidated leather sofa on which perched a group of young people holding oversized coffee mugs.
It all reminded her of a Parisian flea market. Just then a busker started playing La Vie En Rose on a shiny accordion. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted in the air, mingled with the strong aroma of brewed coffee. She bought a cup of coffee and a salmon and cream cheese bagel and found a seat on a bench. While she was eating, the music changed from French vaudeville to reggae rhythms. The enthusiasm of the players was so contagious, her right foot started tapping on the ground.
When the music was over, she sighed, got up and dropped some small change in the band’s collection box. She should be going back now and start dealing with her father’s clutter, but her rebellious feet directed her towards the flower market. The traders were shouting the prices, offering four plants for the price of two, lifting pots high for all to see as if they were in an auction room. In front of her, a young woman staggered under the weight of a large polystyrene tray full of pansies. The air smelled of flowers, aromatic plants and damp compost.
Boutiquey units selling home and garden accessories spilled lined the narrow street. In their windows were displayed beaded jewellery, handknitted jumpers, lavender bags, Indian carved furniture, incense and candles in all shapes, colours and sizes. Half way down, a door opened to show a garish poster pasted on an ochre wall that read: ‘50s, 60s and retro upstairs’.
Judith climbed the stairs and entered a tall loft crammed with furniture, memorabilia and crockery. In a corner, a big orange television set was perched on a 60s-style coffee table. She smiled at the bright plastic telly as if it were a long-lost friend.
Later she queued at the fishmonger’s and bought a cup of cockles, which she impaled on a plastic sword. Last time she had done this she had been in Margate, on a rare family holiday when both of her parents were alive.
She looked at her watch, it was half past two. The traders were shouting more urgently and some had started to load trays full of plants on tiered trolleys that were wheeled off towards their vans. She retraced her steps to the bakery, where she bought a loaf of wholemeal bread, a tin of dolphin-friendly tuna, a tin of butter beans, an onion, two tomatoes, two ripe avocados and a pint of milk.
Back to her father’s house, she headed straight for the kitchen and dumped her purchases on a chair. Under the sink she found a pair of gloves, some sponge cloths and a bottle of all purpose cleaner. She put the gloves on and scrubbed the sink, the worktop and the cooker. Then she cleared the fridge and the cupboards of expired provisions and stored her purchases. She moved upstairs, where she cleaned the bathroom and tidied up her old bedroom, changing the sheets and transferring the contents of her suitcase into the wardrobe. She pushed her empty case under the bed and glanced at the watch, it was seven o’clock and she was exhausted. The rest of the house would have to wait; she had had enough for a day.
She removed her shoes and padded to the kitchen in her cotton socks. She mixed a bean, tomato, avocado and onion salad and ate it quickly, accompanied by two thick slices of bread smeared with butter. She felt too tired to do the washing up, so she left the dirty crockery in the sink and carried a mug of tea to the living room.
She glanced uneasily at the boxes and tea crates surrounding her, wary of finding unsavoury things nested inside them, like a dead mouse, cockroaches or other vermin. The easiest thing to do would be to throw away the whole lot, but there could be important papers and documents mixed in with the junk.
Judith remembered how embarrassed she had been when a few years back, on a trip to Brick Lane market, her father had stuck his arm into a waste bin and dug out a half-dead plant in a cracked pot. ‘Dad, leave it, it’s rubbish,’ she had pleaded.
‘It will be all right, just needs a bit of TLC.’ That was her father, always scouring markets and jumble sales in search of treasures and never missing an edition of the Antiques Road Show. He kept everything in the hope it would be worth something one day. In the past four years, the gentrification of the neighbourhood had provided him with plenty of skips for his ‘treasure’ hunts.
She switched on the old black and white television and sank in the sofa. She sipped her tea slowly while watching the news. Halfway through an old movie, she fell asleep. When she woke up, it was midnight. She had planned to have a bath before going to bed, but she couldn’t be bothered now. She undressed, slipped in between the sheets and fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.
The whining sound of a police car speeding up the Hackney Road woke her up. Judith had a quick shower as the boiler was old and unreliable. She wore a T-shirt and an old pair of jeans, made herself a mug of strong tea and ate some bread and butter while standing up. She spent a long time doing the washing up then drying up everything with a dishcloth, trying to put off sorting the boxes as long as she could.
Sighing, she trudged to the hall. She unstacked the boxes and peered inside them one by one. Empty tins, jars and bottles were jumbled with old copies of Reader’s Digest and Radio Times. One by one she took the boxes outside by the bin. In the living room she found torn gardening books and magazines, picture calendars, more bottles, old tax returns, bank statements, bills, photographs of unknown people and piles of cuttings from various newspapers tied with rubber bands.
A tea crate was full of lamp bulbs that had burned out, fuses, pieces of string, nuts, bolts, screws and nails in several jam jars, a broken hammer, a hot water bottle without its stopper, cracked china, a skipping rope missing a handle and polystyrene packaging. She found family photographs and her letters to her father in a smaller cardboard box, mixed with pieces of string and a mouldy tea cosy.
One by one she dragged the boxes full of junk outside. The tea crates were too heavy, so she emptied their contents in black bags and pushed them against the wall - they might well come in handy for storing whatever she decided to ship to Italy.
At lunchtime, she had a tuna sandwich and a cup of tea. Upstairs, the guest room was full of worn-out clothes belonging to her mother, rags, yellow or greying sheets full of holes, moth-eaten jumpers and frayed blankets. She climbed up a rickety stepladder and poked her head in the attic, but all she could see were two mattresses and a broken chair - whoever bought the house would have to chuck those out, she didn’t want to risk breaking her neck to bring them down.
She had left her father’s bedroom for last and when she opened the door she gasped. There was not a box in sight, everything looked tidy. The bed had been made and her father’s slippers were neatly arranged under the bedside table. She felt uneasy again, as if some hidden unpleasantness lurked under the bed or behind the doors of the big wardrobe. She bent to her knees, lifted the quilt and looked underneath the bed, but all she could see was a thin layer of dust and a forlorn white shirt button.
She opened the wardrobe and found everything neatly folded or hung. Bizarre, mad, she thought. Many of the clothes were old and patched, but they were clean and had been carefully ironed. She threw the clothes in a black bag - she found the idea of donating a dead person’s worn clothes unsavoury. The contents of the wardrobe filled three bin bags.
She decided to keep the fine linen on the top shelves as it had belonged to her mother’s trousseau and had been hardly used. At the back of the highest shelf, behind some linen tablecloths and napkins, she found her mother’s sewing box. She had not seen it for years, but she remembered playing with it as a child.
She closed the wardrobe and took the box downstairs. She made herself comfortable on the sofa and removed the lid. Three tin boxes nestled among sewing implements: a pair of scissors, thread reels in a rainbow of colours and a pincushion shaped like a tomato. She picked it up, removed a couple of rusty pins and squeezed it. It was still soft but smelled sour. She opened the biggest box, which had contained Quality Street chocolates, and found it full of buttons, remains of fabric still stuck to their backs. A smaller box contained her mother’s few pieces of jewellery, her grandfather’s silver watch and an antique gold brooch with matching pearl earrings that must have belonged to one of her grandmothers. The third box was an old custard tin. Inside was a pouch of velvet that contained military decorations with faded ribbons. She fingered them with curiosity, her father had always refused to talk about his war experiences, even when she had asked for his help for a school project.
At the bottom of the basket she found a bulging envelope. She emptied it on the coffee table and several pink postcards cascaded on its wooden top. She picked up one, addressed to her mother. It was written in pencil and dated 20 September 1944. She couldn’t make out the faded postmark, but it looked foreign.
She read:
My dear Alice, I hope you're well, my love. I've received the parcel No. 870 still intact, containing bread, two tins of spam and some chocolate. Please keep sending parcels every 15 days. I dream of you, Clive.
Her father must have been somewhere in Europe, during the war. She picked up another postcard. She could barely read the postmark, a German-sounding place she had never heard of.
My Alice, I received news of you with pleasure. I'm quite fit, in good spirits. I don't need money, keep sending bread and tobacco if you can. The bread in the last packet was mouldy, I had to throw it away. Please arrange for me to get a parcel every ten days, so that it arrives safely. I love you dearly, Clive.
She continued reading.
Alice my love, I sleep with your letters on my heart. I've got your parcel containing everything I wished for: bread, powder eggs, butter, tomato soup, a small tin of spam, soap and tobacco. All my kisses, Clive.
Judith frowned, trying to image her father young and in love. It was quite romantic really. He must have loved her mother, yet Judith never remembered him being touchy-feely with her, not even when she was a tiny child. She picked another card. It had been written on 13 March 1943, earlier than the ones she had already read.
My dear Alice, I hope you are as well as I am. The reason why you haven't heard from me for such a long while is because I'm a prisoner in Germany. Don't worry about me, I'm fine. I've written to my parents, but you can show them this card, if you wish. With love, Clive.
Her father had scribbled an address, in which she could make out the word lager and hütte No.53. She picked up another postcard.
My beloved Alice, this week it was blessed as I received two letters, one from you and one from my parents. As it is nearly Christmas, the Red Cross sent me three special parcels. Thanks for arranging them, my love. Besides bread, I feasted my eyes on spam, sardines, a tin of stewed apples and rhubarb jam. We are planning jolly celebrations at the camp. Happy Christmas from all of us at hut No.53. Yours always, Clive.
A tear fell on Judith’s wrist. She wiped her eyes and picked up another card.
Oh, Alice, I was sorry to hear that you haven't received any news from me for over two months. I write once a fortnight as I'm allowed. Can you try to increase my tobacco allowance? Smoking is the only amusement we have here. Do not worry, I'm well, dreaming of coming home. Love, Clive.
Dabbing at her eyes with the corner of her T-shirt Judith read on.
Dear Alice, can you arrange to have smaller loaves sent to me? Now that the weather is warm, the bread goes stale quickly once is cut, or you could dry it in the sun before it's sent, I could dunk it in some water or have toast. One of the parcels had a piece of cheese, what a luxury! I need some underwear, possibly a jumper for the winter, if you start knitting now it could be ready. Winters are cold here and my uniform is wearing thin. Would it be too much trouble to ask for socks? Mother could help you. Your Clive.
And another.
Dear Alice, tell my mother not to worry. She wrote to me to suggest I should see a doctor, she doesn't realise my situation, but I'm not unwell. I keep fit as I can. Don't worry yourselves, my heart tells me I will see you soon. I dream of spending the next Christmas together. Our prayers will be heard. Love, Clive.
When she had finished reading them all, Judith put the postcards back in the sewing box with the tin boxes on top. She closed the lid and drummed her fingers on the top. She remembered one time when she had stolen a few bread rolls to feed the ducks in the park. Her father had been so angry he had sent her to bed without dinner.
He had never allowed her to leave the table without having eaten everything in her plate. And the starving children of Africa were a daily reminder of her luck in life. She put the box on the coffee table and picked up her bag. She found the piece of paper where she had scribbled the estate agent’s phone number, tore it into small pieces and tossed them in a crate.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Circle Lives: Monument

Pic: Sunil060902

Monument: banking perks
 Jane worked in a City merchant bank as a receptionist and most of the workforce was made up of men wearing dark suits and flashy ties. "The suits", said her husband in a scornful tone and he probably meant "the pigs". Martin worked in a hospital and did not like bankers.
Flirting was part of Jane’s job description. She had been chatted up by messenger boys, the security guards, employees and visitors, but nothing much had ensued. Her marriage might feel stale at times, but she still had her moral standards.
Then Mr Falco arrived, wearing glorious designer pinstripe suits, surrounded by a special aura as the eldest son of a famous industrialist. He had been seconded from the Milan office and was soon the darlings of all the secretaries, young girls who, in Jane’s eyes, had applied for their jobs to bag a rich husband.
Mr Falco walked past Jane's desk several times a day, devouring the carpet with his long, sharply suited legs. He was handsome in a Mills and Boon alpha male kind of way with his dark curly hair, masculine jaw and the build of a sportsman. He had a deep voice, like an actor so anything he said always sounded meaningful. Martin was no match. He was short, balding and a couch potato.
Jane had always liked men in suits and Martin was wearing a smart one when they had met in a pub, nearly 12 years ago, when he still had all his own hair. He had been so funny and romantic, buying her a red rose from a street vendor and presenting to her on their way to the tube station.
Jane was sharing a flat with Eileen, an Irish girl who loved horses and hated men. She accompanied Jane to pubs because she liked drinking but disliked being chatted up. This did not stop her enjoying the free drinks men bought them. She kept drinking and glaring at the men. She would only open her mouth to order the next drink so Jane had to be extra bubbly to compensate for it. Only on one occasion Eileen had brightened up and joined the conversation after hearing about a polo match.

Jane had met Martin while Eileen was in the toilet. She had been away for a long while, probably throwing up after four pints of Guinness and two Tia Marias. When she returned looking pale but determined to have another drink, Jane introduced her to Martin and Eileen soon found out that he loved horses and monopolised the conversation.
Jane won Martin out of a competitive feeling. Of course, Jane lost Eileen's friendship in the process and had to move out. They got married. Their life together was all right. They hardly quarrelled, sex was not too bad but something was missing.
When did dissatisfaction step in?  When did their life as a couple start to be as flat as an ironing board?  Work was more exciting now. Nine to five and suits of all kinds, shapes and colours.
Since Mr Falco had arrived Jane was changing her outfit every day, applying layers of make-up that needed to be freshened up during her lunch break. Unfussy, ‘the little black dress will do’ Jane had vanished.

Jane could not see how to progress beyond the greetings stage. She kept smiling significantly, hoping that Mr Falco would understand. She didn't give her special smile to anybody else after all. At night he lorded over her dreams. Jane knew she wasn't being reasonable, but her sudden obsession was hard to dispel with moral considerations.  She dreaded weekends until Martin started to work every other weekend to earn extra money. He was thinking they could buy a house now and wanted to put together a good deposit.
One morning Mr Falco was standing by the lift with his back to Jane. Suddenly, he turned and asked her for a paper clip. He strode to her desk and bent very close to pick it up, his handsome face only inches away. She could only stare; her tongue was heavy and useless. She felt stupid, like she had failed some sort of test.

The director, Mr Arpini, rumoured to be the youngest son of a Count, was going to be transferred to the New York branch and the personnel department organised a lavish, no expense-spared leaving party. The boardroom was emptied of all furniture and given over to an event organiser. Mr Arpini gave a short speech, calling all the employees "a big happy family" and then the champagne and wine started flowing.
Jane took a plate and filled it with the delicious buffet food. She ate standing up, juggling the plate with a glass of white wine. Mr Falco was standing on his own, holding the thin stem of a champagne glass with his tanned, manicured fingers. He met Jane’s glance, smiled and joined her.
Jane got rid of her plate and tried to strike a pose with her half empty glass. They started a conversation about holiday destinations while their bodies communicated a different message. Jane could not believe how easy it was now.
She re-assessed him. Mr Falco was not a Mills and Boons hero, more like a primitive idol who had to be pacified with an offering. Jane was only too eager to do so in the unromantic atmosphere of the cleaner's closet of which Mr Falco had a duplicate key.
Jane could not stop wondering how many other women had been initiated in the closet. How many pagan priestesses had given themselves to this clay-footed idol?
Reality was not as exciting as fantasy. Mr Falco was an unimaginative lover. Perhaps handsome people did not need to try hard. Jane had read somewhere that unattractive people were good in bed to compensate, was it in Cosmopolitan?

Out of the closet and back in the boardoom with a fresh glass of wine, Jane looked around. Mr Wright, the bald and bespectacled accountant, was on his own, absorbed in the task of trying to stab at a cocktail onion with a toothpick. Jane remembered an article about the relation between hair loss and testosterone production. She moved closer and smiled, while caressing the key she had slipped into her jacket’s pocket.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Circle Lives: Embankment

Pic: 0x010C

Embankment: Mean Streets
'Do you mind if we squeeze in?'
Amy wakes up with a start. She sits up and looks at the anxious face bent towards her. A mongrel with a piebald coat stands by the girl.
'It's just for tonight,' she adds, her hand clutching the dog's lead like it were an anchor.
'All right,' Amy says in a gruff voice and shifts her sleeping bag towards one side of the shop's entrance.
The girl sits down with the dog in between her legs and sighs. 'I'm sorry I woke you up, but I was feeling lonely and you looked so peaceful.'
'Do you have a blanket or something?' asks Amy. 'It's going to be really cold when it gets dark.'
'No, I don't have one. I've been staying at a hostel, but the people there gave me such a hard time that I ran away. I know it was stupid, but I couldn't stand their bullying anymore.'
Amy rubs her eyes, picks up her rucksack and rummages inside. 'Here,' she says, throwing the girl a big towel. 'I'll need it tomorrow morning, but you can have it tonight. See that bin over there? You may find some clean newspapers and stuff your clothes with them. It keeps the cold out.'
The girl returns making crackling noises. 'Do you have a drink?'
'No. How old are you anyway?'
'I'm fifteen, Max here is five, 35 in dog years.'
'A bit too young to drink alcohol.'
'Don't start, I've had enough lectures to last me for a lifetime.'
'All right, then, I'm no preacher. Good night.'
Amy lies down with her rucksack under her head and zips up her sleeping bag to her neck. She closes her eyes and falls asleep. She wakes up a couple of times during the night as she isn't used to sharing her space. She checks on the girl, who is sleeping wrapped up in the towel, the dog lying at her feet.
A whining car alarm wakes Amy up. She stirs for a while, then sits up. The girl and the dog have vanished. 'She stole my towel, so much for being kind,' she thinks bitterly.
She rolls her sleeping bag and secures it on the top of her rucksack. As it is Saturday and the sun shines, she walks down Villiers Street towards the Embankment Gardens. A garish poster sellotaped by the park map reads Street Arts Festival in colourful, fat letters and Today in bigger, black type. 'Oh, goody.'
The tea house is open but still deserted. Amy whistles and, after a couple of minutes, Gino comes out with a mug of tea and a croissant. 'Morning, Amy. Can you give me a hand with tables and chairs after you had breakfast?'
'Sure, Gino.'
Amy eats her breakfast on a bench, soaking the sun rays and dunking the croissant in the milky, sweet tea. Then she walks to the park's toilets and has a good wash in the sink. She dries herself with toilet paper, mourning the missing towel. She hopes to make enough money today to buy another one at the charity shop in Drury Lane.
When she reaches the hut behind the tea house, Gino is already busy moving stacked chairs towards the front. Amy lifts a plastic table and carries it by the chairs. She doesn't stop until all the tables are surrounded by chairs and covered with paper cloths, topped with sugar, salt and pepper dispensers.
'Come back later and I'll fix you some dinner,' Gino shouts and Amy waves at him.
The street festival is to start at twelve, but a few stallholders are already unpacking their wares and arranging them on their folding tables. 'One hour to go,' thinks Amy, checking her watch. She lies on the grass by a flower border planted with yellow roses and dozes in the sun. A shrill trumpet makes her jump up. A clown is staring down at her. Amy frowns then she jumps up and hugs him.
'Alex, how are you?'
'I'm well. I'm off the street now. I started selling The Big Issue, then I got a flat through Shelter. Now between selling the magazine and doing street performing and kids' parties, I'm making a living.'
'You've still got bad teeth.'
'Not for long. I'm going to have them fixed as soon as I've saved a bit more money. You should try it too.'
'I don't need anyone's help,' says Amy belligerently.
'Still the same, aren't you? Are you doing your tricks today?'
'Watch out, I've got some new ones! I'm saving money too for the winter. There's a nice hostel around Westminster where you can stay for up to four months. I'm too old for sleeping rough in freezing weather.'
'Listen, if you change your mind about The Big Issue, come and see me in Covent Garden, I'm there almost every Sunday.'
'Thanks, but no thanks.'
'I'm off then. See you later.'
'Yes, see you.'
Amy looks around in search of a good spot. A mime is performing on the stage, watched by a group of families with small children, while stilt walkers dressed as butterflies, fairies and birds circulate among the crowd.
Amy walks past Alex, who is surrounded by Japanese and American tourists, two dancers mimicking a courtship with an enormous bunch of flowers and stops to listen the harrowing melody of a violin.
A man dressed in a bear costume plays the saxophone by the stalls. 'He must be having a sauna,' thinks Amy, throwing ten pence in the instrument case, opened at the bear's feet. The sun is getting warmer and warmer and she removes her shirt. She looks at her T-shirt critically and decides it's not too dirty. She needs to go to the launderette soon, she doesn't want to end up like a smelly bum.

Amy is returning to her shop door with a big grin on her face. The day's takings, converted into crisp banknotes by Gino, are safe in her money belt, tucked inside her trousers. Coins jingles happily in her pockets. If the good weather holds, she may go to St James’s Park tomorrow and earn her crust there. If it's bad, she will walk to Oxford Street and juggle by a department store's entrance. Whichever way, she'll treat herself to an afternoon tea at the crypt cafe.
The girl and the dog are back. Before Amy can say anything, the girl hands her a wrinkly carrier bag. 'Sorry, the bag is a bit squashed.'
Amy peeks in the bag and sees a lemon yellow bath towel. She touches it, it's soft, thick and smells new. She gets it out of the bag and the price tag catches her eye. 'Where did you get it?’ she asks staring hard at the girl.
'I bought it with my own money,' answers the girl proudly. 'I exchanged yours for two cans of beer and then I felt so bad, you being so nice with us and all.'
'Where did you get the money?'
'You're curious, aren't you? I earned it. Also my boyfriend is back in town and I'm staying at his place.'
'Thank you.' Amy strokes the towel and put her right cheek against it.
The girl smiles. 'Can I come back to see you, next time my boyfriend goes away?' she asks.
'Sure, if you want.'
'Friends? My name's Susie, by the way.'
'I'm Amy.'
'Max, says hi to Amy.' The dog lifts his right paw and offers it to Amy, his pink tongue lolling out.

Amy is worried. Susie should have arrived hours ago. Susie's boyfriend is away and she has been spending the last three nights with Amy. Perhaps he has come back earlier. Or perhaps Susie has been arrested for drunkenness or stealing or whatever else she does to get money.
Every time her boyfriend goes away, Susie binges on cheap beer and gin and comes back to the shop door drunk and giggly. Amy misses her when the boyfriend is in town, but, on the other hand, it's best for Susie when he's around because he can control her drinking.
'Once a friend bought me some drinks while I was working and when he found out, he beat me black and blue,' Sue told her once.
Amy has never met the mysterious boyfriend and Susie has never offered to introduce him. She can only wonder about that part of Susie's life as Susie only tells her what she wants to tell her and gets angry or throw tantrums if questioned.
When she disappears to drink, Susie leaves Max with her and Amy has taught him some tricks, so he can help her to make money busking. He's so smart and undemanding. He doesn't eat much and a scratch behind his furry ears goes a long way. Amy loves Max and misses him when Susie is with her boyfriend.

Amy is kicked out of her deep sleep by a man's boot. She sits up and is about to protest, but the big man who towers over her spells big trouble. Recalling a vicious attack committed by a thug, when she lost her savings and two teeth, she freezes. Then she sees Max, cowering behind the man's legs. 'Hi Max,' she says and the dog comes forward wagging his tail.
'You must be the old bag Susie was always nattering about,' the man says in a gruff voice.
'Something happened to her?' Amy asks, another kind of fear playing in her head.
The man scowls. 'Nope. Wherever she is now, she can't keep the poor bugger.'
Amy takes Max's lead. 'Has she been arrested?'
The man whistles. 'She propositioned a pig and he got her all right. Her parents were called and took her away. Fellow down the station is a special friend of mine and told me all. He kept the dog for a few days to see how things would turn out and then dropped him at my place.'
'Oh. I see. Can't you keep him?'
'Nope. I'm no animal lover, I'm a business man. Sue told me that if something ever happened to her, you should have him. Take this, for his keep.' The man takes a roll of banknotes from his trousers' back pocket and peels off two twenties and a tenner.
'Well, I must be going. I've got two new girls starting on tonight. You got to watch them, can't trust anyone.'
When the man is gone, Amy looks at Max and sighs, 'What am I going to do with you, now that winter is coming by? I can't keep you at the hostel. No pets are allowed there.'

Max licks her hand and his toffee eyes are full of doggy love. When Amy’s tickles him behind his ears, his tails starts wagging frantically. Poor mite, he must have been starved of affection for a few days. If she only had her own place, she wouldn't have to give him up. Remembering Alex’s promise, Amy walks briskly towards Covent Garden. She is not too proud to ask help for someone else.