Fluffhead and I went out in the springtime sun. Down to town. Down to sit somewhere and have a nibble. We pause outside the coffeehouse. He likes the vanilla wafers they sell. But it’s full. Not a space to be had. We peer inside, checking; he strains at his reins. Today the coffee house is filled with women. And children. Not one man in the shop.
“What, darling? You wanna sit in your buggy?” I hear a long lost Cockney voice say, as we let the door swing closed on us, and I pause for thought outside again. Fluffhead looks up at me, eyes squinting in the sun. He doesn’t understand why we aren’t going in.
Have you noticed there are few authentic post-war Cockney accents anymore? First they got replaced by Essex, Estuary – that strange flat pulled out way of talking. And then by that brilliantly interesting racial hybrid: the Estuary meets urban black school slang. It’s incredibly blocked nose nasal, and has given us the aural delights of: ‘Allow it, blud! Oh my days! That’s long, its bare long…’ Etc etc etc. Sadly that last is still in use but a titch out of date. I don’t have a secondary school age child to bring it home to me anymore; and don’t live close enough to a secondary school to hear it in passing now. Fry and I used to spend long hours listening to and loving this weird new street hybrid. And speaking it very badly, for the love of the sounds of words. Of course, he heard it and lived it at school. But I was completely putting it on, just because the sound of it was delicious and fun.
For some unknown reason, despite my birth Within The Sound of Bow Bells in Bethnal Green, I fell out complete with relatively plummy accent. This always mystified my countryside mother and my London father. And my mother’s sister in law, who lived over the fence, next door in Roman Road. I got called ‘Little Princess’ in a not altogether friendly way, by some people. At various points in life, my accent got posher and posher (the only state primary school in Mayfair, where we lived ‘cos of dad’s job as a Housekeeper of an office block); and then finally lost its edge altogether (20 years on a Council Estate in Paddington). When I get really angry and lose my temper, raise my voice and generally behave badly (too often), what you hear is a strangely articulate East End fishwife.
I can’t take myself seriously, verbally, being (a) not incredibly quick on my mental feet out loud – much quicker here on page or screen, and (b) listening to myself speak – I have no idea who this woman and her roots are…This also explains why I don’t have the Voice of Authority you need sometimes with children. I listen to myself tell Fluffhead, or a younger Fry – “stop it!” and what I hear is a precocious child bossing another child, in a silly plummy voice. The children laugh or ignore me. This is of course, inconvenient and annoying.
But anyway, I whoppingly digress.
Even after I just wasted your time for the 10 minutes it took me to write that, there is still not one man in the shop. It’s packed to the brim, very full today, and still all women. We’ll never fit inside.
Just had the worrying-y-est [yes, I made that up] thought. It’s also pretty obvious when you come to it. Expect no genius insight here.
All those times I sit, watching, taking my little notes in the coffeehouse. What about all the other people in the room who might be taking their little notes?! About me:
‘Over there, just hidden by the half partition is a woman who shows up every week, just the once. She’s always a mess. Her hair is dyed reddish brown and never brushed before she gets here, bit of a bedhead. She strolls in yawning, always chatting to other people in the queue, regardless of if they want to talk or not. Last time, she bothered a large woman in an overheavy tweed wintercoat about whether chocolate coated coffee beans keep you up the way coffee does, and for how long. Today, she tapped the shoulder of the Muslim woman in front of her and jauntily, though it has to be said politely, asked her if she ‘felt oppressed by the hijab’. This cringeingly interesting yet problematic question actually resulted in an hour’s worth of the two women having an intense and good conversation with exchange of views and questions, which was fortunate for the note-taker, as she had unintentionally picked a woman both as open as herself and as ok with answering questions without offence. I listened to them range over feminism in general, the education of women, the lusts of men and who’s business it was to worry about them or not, and what it was like being a Trinidadian Muslim. The woman was wonderful and deeply thoughtful, and the note-taker wished she had taped the conversation in full, as she had learned much and hadn’t written any of it down. One of the World’s Great Missing Interfaith Blog Posts that would have been. She hopes to see her new friend again sometime.
But this isn’t how it usually goes with her. Usually she bothers people in the queue and that’s that until she pauses in writing or reading a couple of hours later. She sits down, unpacks her books (always so many: 8 or 9, and she only ever uses 2 or 3 of them) and makes a pile at the table’s side.
Once she’s sat down, ordered her books and pens, and belatedly fiddled with her hair, she starts taking medicines. She has a problem swallowing tablets, has to throw her head back to get them down, and looks funny, like a cat trying to balance a ball of wool on its nose.
Always so serious, head bent over her notebook, eyes moving round the room, always watching. Gives me the creeps, to be honest. Taking her little notes. And scratching her head. Shifting about, rearranging her legs, changing position. Constantly. Ants in her pants, my granddad would have said. Frowning and scowling and eye-drilling her page when she pauses from writing. She notices Jonah and his mother are there again. She notices Jonah’s mother has a hugely obvious New Zealand accent – how in hell did she miss that before?? Whereas Jonas’s accent is from here and quite posh…hmmm…’
See, now I ask you, is that actually flattering – someone watching me watching them?? I come off like a nutter. Anyway…we can’t get in to the coffeehouse, so Fluffhead and I move along.
We go past the flower shop. Fluffhead stops because he loves flowers. He bends his head low over the buckets of hyacinths, bending his whole body, a very cute parody of attention, and smells them deeply. I think he’s actually blowing down his nose as much as sniffing, he can’t seem to quite do whichever one when needed on command, yet. Buts he’s vastly enjoying himself. The two women who run the shop come out and make cooing noises over him, as they always do. One of them offers him a digestive biscuit, which he takes with his thankyou nod and large smile, generally being excessively lovely and heart melting (as they often are when you’re out). He points at all the different buckets of flowers and I have to identify them for him. The sun catches his hair and moves it about a bit. He glows, with his small hands and bent legs. Eventually we move on, going to sit on a bench overlooking a retirement home. Fluffhead watches the cars and lorries going by (he’s looking for buses), and I watch the retirement home windows, which are open wide. A row of old people are inside, looking out. They look a bit sad. One of them is sleeping, head to the side as Fluffhead does. I feel it’s a shame to be looking out on a view of a set of roads, even if its sunny.
Makes me think of seaside hotels on the English seafront: Westgate, Brighton, Worthing, Hove. A day baking with sun, too bright by far. I have always wanted to be one of those, usually pensioners, sitting on the long balcony covered porches of those huge white fronted hotels. Sitting there with their white hair, beatifically watching the sun twinkle on the sea, the golden bits at the far edge of the horizon: white, blue, grey, yellow, gold, silver. Boats in the distance, always quite far out. Almost a mirage, but moving slowly along.
The smell of chips, and battered fish, salt on the air, salt on the food. Prawns, shrimps, and the tangle of nets, brown and dirty-looking. Shingle, blackened and dried seaweed. Boats bleached on the rocky shore. Stones and warm conch shells. Shells of perfect soft salmon colour inside, white and grey on the outside. All the stones worn edges, all round or ovoid, or rougher indeterminate shapes: but soft soft soft at the edges. Like the little old people watching them, their eyes pale now, faces dragging downward with folds of skin, dry. Their strange clothes of no style and often little attention to colour, but comfortable. The sit in their tall backed armchairs and watch the sea, watch the people, drink in the light.
Are they sucking up life force and glittery joy? Or letting it all go and noting how separate they are, set back from it all, a watcher of the scene? Imagining themselves not a participant, when of course, they are – just by being there and part of the whole. That’s the other option: do they feel themselves blending, pastel as the scene before them, as much a necessary part as the stones and shells? Does it give them peace? Or do they feel lulled, watching that sparkly sea; in the incredible brightness? Does it send them off into their pasts, when they ran agile and slender across the beaches of childhood, screaming and splashing with friends long dead, or lost?
Do they crave strawberry ice-cream, vanilla blocks between soft crunchy wafers? A choc-ice? A bucket and spade, to hear that thwack on the bucket before releasing it, drawing it upwards, and seeing that perfect sandcastle? Do they hear the gulls above, crying and swooping, and think of tales of sailors lost at sea with souls trapped forever in these birds? Or the freeness of their height, their flight cool and supported by the currents?
There they sit, getting a bit sunburned on the backs of their thin skinned hands and the bridges of their noses if their hat brims are not wide enough. Or the balcony extending far enough. Judging the world as they stare out, nodding sometimes. Watching it all go by. That smell of sea, a salty slightly dirty tang, real and pungent. They sit, they watch, they remember. Part of everything.
And in the real world, Fluffhead turns to me and points at his mouth; he’s hungry. I come back to Coulsdon, smell the roads, feel hungry myself. The pensioners in the retirement home are still at the window. One waves to me, and I wave enthusiastically back, feeling slightly less sad for them. Off we go, slowly up the hill, Fluffhead examining the driveways for interesting stones or white feathers. Slowly toward home.