We do this walk most days, now, it’s a chance to get out on the streets, to breathe the muggy air that almost tastes of the particles of black dust that dirties your nails, the inside of your nose, your ears. But it’s worth it, to get out and about, to have a look around. We is my good self, 88 if I was a day, and of course Mrs M, my pusscat, (we thought we should have one Mrs. in the family) not quite 88 yet, no not indeed, although I have often become confused by the concept of cat years so perhaps she is, perhaps she is even older.
A trudge, I suppose it is these days, more than a walk. No longer for me the swish of my arms and cocky angle of my chin, feet kicking my skirts out of the way as I walk along, feeling untouchable, feeling that the streets will belong to me, forever. Now I trudge, a hobble almost, shoulders hunched over, looking sideways, along the streets past the market, selling the odd cuts of meat that look positively indecent, pink and shiny, dotted with the black flies that make you feel slightly dizzy in your stomach at the prospect of eating them, of course you would wash it first and it doesn’t do much harm but still, flies on meat, flies on fish, flies on veg – it seems that the market is more flies than produce some days.
Tucking Mrs M into my coat, hidden from the prying eyes of the bus driver, I lift myself delicately onto the steps of the bus. A seat is free near the door, it’s the right time of day for the bus, mid morning, the workers and the school kids safely arrived, the tourists not yet up. Not that there are any tourists in this end of the city of course, not where the houses crookedly shelter pound shops and kebab shops, where the litter on the street sits in the corners, building up higher and higher, a rat’s paradise, and the smell of Kentucky fried chicken and McDonald’s fries fills the air with a sodden, sickly scent, wrapping it around your throat that closes up at the thought of eating it. I think briefly about the Lyons Tea Room. No rotten smells coming from there, just a steaming cup of tea and a cheeky slice of cake, a safe smell, with a cheap luxury of sitting on the seats under the white scalloped ceilings, passing the time with a never ending pot of tea, staining the cups with tannin. But what am I at, thinking about Lyons. I almost laugh out loud! There’s probably no one on the bus that remembers the Lyons Tea Room, probably no one in a five mile radius.
I look around at the other passengers. There are a few older people, not as old as me, I judge, but old enough to be outside the commuter hours. A mother and a baby and a mother and a toddler, looking tired, more weary than tired maybe, and I wonder whether I would have looked that way, if I had chosen to have a baby, rather than just a cat. The mad cat woman I think to myself, the bogeywoman, living alone with a cat, the crone, the witch. But no, it’s just me! Just the same as I ever was, with thinner hair and less of a face, but the same really, never one to become a crone. Not enough bitterness in the blood to cause trouble.
My favourite people on the bus are the morning-afters-the –nights-before, as I choose to call them, wide eyed with sticky mascara, heels rubbing against pained feet, silky sequinned finery dusty and dull in the cold morning light. Some smiling with a secret joy of memories from the night, others looking sad and drained, and none of them knowing that I was once one of them, different patterns of dress but the same expressions, none of them aware that they may one day be me too.
It’s a grand old bus ride, it really is. Along the Hackney road, into Shoreditch, now overrun by “fashionistas” and artists, no longer the slum I remember of course, now it’s the swank, you’ve got to put on a little swank, that’s what my friend Mary always used to say, a little bit of swank will get you further than much else in life, and it hasn’t done Shoreditch badly at all. I love the bus rides through the City, city with a capital C, the winding streets that have stood in the same place since the Roman times, the houses that lean to over the streets that are dusty with the history, ghostly footsteps and horse’s feet clip clop under the roar of the traffic. Past the buildings that are imbued with a sense of money next to buildings that stood over cholera infested slums that even I am too young to really remember.
The bus drops me off at Oxford Circus and this is where I start to trudge again, can’t go any further anyway, according to the lights flashing to warn us all that we have reached our destination. I delicately step off, Mrs M tucked in my jacket, as the noise and scream of the Oxford Street city hits me like a blast. I take in the people moving around me like a brook diverts around a stone. Old people, we are invisible and yet as solid as a rock that people recognise in the peripheral.
I can’t help it when I walk around here, memories feel as thick as a treacle pudding, and if I didn’t have Mrs M to cling onto then I might drown within them, a terrifying thought. It’s terrifying to feel like you may disappear in memories, losing the sense of your own outline amidst the ghostly shapes that you once inhabited as solidly as you now live within your own bodily space. I cut through Carnaby Street and see Mary and I giggling and tottering on our heels and our sequinned dresses, over large mouths painted against powdered faces, wrapped up against the cold with furry collars on woollen coats. Look again and through the fog I see my figure, alone, back from the continent, drained of belief, drained of confidence, my ribs metaphorically broken. I don’t think about that time, of course. But her ghost is always moving along with me on the street, the ghost of the bad times as well as the good.
I get on to Brook Road, where it crosses with Bond Street and New Bond Street, and almost unconsciously gaze at the mannequins in the windows, the luxe products. Now I flinch from the reflection, as my body looking back at me merges grotesquely with that of the mannequin. Remembering, remembering that I thought I would really be ok if I could wear those clothes, if I could go into those shops and boldly hold my head up and say yes, I belong in here, you can’t remove me, I am part of your world. Of course, sometimes, after a windfall, a good job well done, I would hold my head high and demand the service that money could pay for. But most of the time, most of my life I was just too afraid. And now, now I am too old to be afraid, not afraid of the spiders in the bathtub, not afraid of the men who look at you with mocking eyes, certainly never get looked at by men in any other ways these days dearie, and most definitely not afraid of death any more, seen too much of that, for I have lived through history and it loses the power to scare you. Of course, sometimes I am afraid of Mrs M passing, but I know we’ll be ok.
I go passed the big houses in Mayfair, and always pause outside one of them, the one I hold the memories of, the memories now forgiven, the first one who I forgave everything because I had to believe that he cared, really, deep down. If I didn’t forgive him then it would have been admitting that something had gone wrong. So young then, 12 years after the Great War and 9 before the next one started and look at me now! Alive in the first year of the new millennium! We didn’t even think of such years back then, except to wonder if we would be living in space. How disappointing to discover that we aren’t, that in real terms things are similar, even if they all have phones and computers and bombs and rockets. Not living in space and not flying to work, but like I said, we didn’t really think about it then. I was so young then. Easily forgiving, didn’t know any better. It was later, after a second and a third time, a second and a third pain and let down, when forgiveness became the struggle through gritted teeth and stinging eyes, wondering when it was really all going to end. But all that is so far in the past and now I always stop outside his old house, where I would sit and lie, nervously, until the small hours, before it was my time to leave. Huddled into a cab, safe from prying eyes, before returning the next day to repeat it all over again. His is the only house I stop outside, the only one I pay a moment of respect for my past to. A hello, a salute to youth, to naiveté, to a beauty lost but not forgotten. He will be dead now of course. Already more than twice my age 70 years ago, and who knows what happened to him, he may not have even survived the war, let alone seen the decades beyond. I mourned him in my time in a way I never mourned the others, for in him I could mourn the spectre of myself.
Mrs M pushes her warm and soft face up to mine and reminds me to keep walking. Get sentimental too easily now you see, it’s something that happens in the extremes, an overindulgence in sentimentality. Still some distance to trudge before we get to the park!
For the park is where we are going! It’s good to see a bit of green every now and then, healthy you might say, and so Mrs M and I decided that we would make it a daily task to visit the park and see what we can see.
Since the days I first arrived in this big city that has grown outwards like my waistline ever since (for I’m not from round these parts duckie, however much I may drop my h’s these days) I have always come to the parks. I remember walking through these parks for hours, before my legs got so stiff that I can only trudge down to sit happily on the bench. I have seen lovers behind trees and I have been a lover behind a tree of course, doing my bit for the war effort (!), I have walked hand in hand with girlfriends blushing and being “picked up” and whisperingly giggling about the people we see. Now in the park I am invisible, as we old people are. I sit on the bench and watch the people go by, oblivious to the pleasure they give me. I want to laugh at the roller bladers, so clumsily graceful as they swerve from edge to edge. I smile indulgently at the laughing students, smoking and drinking and singing along to a guitar, kissing and hugging and thinking they are the first to discover it all. I listen ear half cocked to the ranters on speaker’s corner. I jump with a start, as I think I see myself coming towards me. It must be me, curl hanging out the brown felt hat, pale face and red lips emerging from the fur collared long jacket, nervous on lace up heels! Walking towards me, my own ghost – am I dead yet? But closer she comes and I see her chatting on a mobile phone and that her eyes are blue not grey, and it is just a someone, wearing the past as a fashion, not myself at all.
It gives me a shudder for all that. You get these fancies. I remember the me, walking through the park, cigarette held nervously between my lips, on my way to the club, whichever club I needed to go to that day. Fantasising for beautiful gowns as now I fantasise for my beautiful youth. What if I stood up and told her, she who had just walked off, that I had a coat and a hat and a curl just like she did, 70 years ago, when I was probably a bit younger than her. But to the young we don’t have a youth. She will have discovered it all.
It’s getting later now, and I want a cup of tea. No Lyons these days though. Just back to my home.