‘People give up their seats for me now on the Tube
London, my sister’s flat. I’m with my mother, making plans for a day out. Last time we had a day out together, we followed an itinerary of her choosing. This kicked off with a visit to Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, followed by coffee in Waterstones, then onto Fortnum’s to look at marzipan fruits, back to Hatchards, into the Royal Academy for the Summer Exhibition and onto lunch. The afternoon remains a bit of a blur but what stands out in my memory is marching through Green Park looking back at the deckchairs and wanting to lie down in one. Today, we’re following my itinerary. “Because that’s how it should be,” Mum says, “when people get ancient they get taken out for the day. I know plenty of old people – people much younger than me – who get taken out for the day. So I must be old enough to qualify.” “I think that’s what happens when people get infirm,” I say, “as opposed to just 80.”
“People give up their seats for me now on the Tube,” she says hotly, “if I’m infirm enough for that to happen, I’m infirm enough to be taken out for the day. So where are you taking me?”
“What do you fancy doing?” “Take me to all those funny places you go to buy your materials,” she says, “I want to see a side to London I never see anymore.” “The trimming shops?” I say, “in Electric Avenue?” “Even the name sounds exciting,” she says “where’s that? Let’s go there.” “Brixton,” I say, “but it gets really crowded and noisy on Saturdays.” “What’s wrong with a bit of noise?” she says, “for all I know I could be deaf next week.” “Or I could take you to Tooting, where I buy my metallic braid.” “Why not go to both?” she says. “It might be a bit much in one day,” I say. “For who?” she says, shooting off the sofa.
Electric Avenue. I browse through rolls of braid at the front of the trimmings shop. Meanwhile, down the back, my mother has come across the owner and is putting his broken English to the test by chatting with him.
They are still down the back when I pay for my trimmings. They have had to swap gesticulation for words but are getting on like a house on fire. “I’m worried for him,” my mother says when she rejoins me by the braid. “Why?” I say. “His English is very poor.” “Our Hindi is very poor,” I say, “I don’t see what -” “We are not running a trimmings shop in Rajasthan,” she interrupts, “so our Hindi doesn’t matter a fig. I have an awful feeling the reason his fabrics are so cheap is because the only thing he knows how to say is, ‘two euros please’. He’ll never be able to keep a business going like that. At the very least someone ought to teach him how to say ‘five euros please’.” “Time for lunch,” I say, before she puts herself forward for this job, “what do you fancy?” “That,” she says, pointing at a booth selling Asian street food, “I can’t remember the last time I did battle with a pair of chopsticks.”
A man walks past our little table where we sit, waiting for noodles. He’s wearing an advertising sandwich board on which there is a painting of Jesus. Jesus has flowing robes and beseeching eyes. The man has dreadlocks down to his bottom and his eyes are darting and maniacal. He roars about Jesus at the top of his voice. Everyone, when they see him, looks down at their feet. Apart from my mother.
“Well you certainly see the sights down here,” she says, “from now on when I come up to London, I think I might meet my friends in Brixton. It would make a nice change from the Victoria and Albert. Perhaps I should keep the V and A in reserve for when I’m completely decrepit.” “The V and A feels quite appealing right now,” I whisper, looking down at my feet. The Northern Line Tube to Tooting is packed. A man stands up, offering his seat to my mother. “How kind of you,” she says sweetly as the man makes room for my mother to sit.
Everyone in the carriage watches this small exchange. “But I’m not that feeble yet,” she says. Then she turns to me, points at the seat and orders me to sit.