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.

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