“You can get a 36 straight through from Paddington,” Alison had told me.
“A bus?” I’d said. “All the way to Peckham?”
“I know, it sounds mad, but – otherwise, it’s the underground to Victoria, and then trains to Peckham Rye are only every half hour. The bus takes you all the way, and you’ll be able to sit down.”
Obviously I’d done as she’d said. For me, London was just a place you went to on anniversaries, to have a nice meal and see a show. A treat, a weekend break. I knew Trafalgar Square, and I knew the Tower of London, but – Peckham? Peckham was just a name from the news, and not one with good connotations.
“How d’you feel about your Ali marrying a black man?” Irene had asked me when Alison and David first got together. Like me, Irene was a Somerset girl – we’d grown up in Meare, on the edge of the Levels, and she still lived just down the road from there in Street. When I’d married Richard, we’d moved up to Long Ashton – Richard worked in orthopaedics at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, and liked the idea of being able to cycle in each day – but me and Irene had continued to meet whenever we could. Even after sixty years, though, she could still take me by surprise.
“They’re not getting married,” I’d said, “just moving in together.”
Irene had snorted.
“Well, I wouldn’t like it. And Peckham! Don’t you ever watch the news, Mary? Gangs, drugs, stabbings – guns, too – your Ali must need her head examined.”
That had been three years ago. But when, not long after the funeral, I’d told Irene that Ali and David had invited me to stay for a few days, she’d taken up pretty much where she’d left off.
“You can’t possibly,” she’d said. “Them lot don’t care who you are. Mug you soon as look at you. Animals, they are.”
It had never been an option for to us to go up to London to see Ali when Richard was alive. How could we? For fifteen years, we’d barely left Long Ashton. Even the most basic outing was a huge palaver, what with trying to get the chair in and out of taxis. Sometimes, it was quite comical, like something from a film. Other times, if the driver wasn’t so nice, it could reduce me to tears, and I’d have to make some excuse to go back into the house to wipe my face, in case Richard saw.
And then on Monday night – what’s that, four days ago? – Irene had phoned just after ten and told me to turn on the news.
“See?” she’d said, as we’d sat in our respective sitting rooms, twenty miles apart, and watched the buildings burning. “Peckham.”
She sounded almost triumphant.
The boy in the wheelchair has got one wheel caught round the back of the pole. Finally, people are leaning away from him, giving him space, but no one is offering to help. Richard never had any qualms about asking for help – he’d always manage to turn it into a big joke. If this had been Richard, the whole bus would’ve been talking and laughing by now.
Leaving my bag on the seat, I step forward, and put one hand on the back of his chair.
“Here,” I say, “let me help.”
Hand frozen, face burning, I stand there stunned. Even though he’s white, his long hair is knotted into those awful dreadlock things and, as he struggles, throwing the chair violently forward and back, trying to fit it into the space beside the tip-up seats, they whip from side to side. His arm rest catches me on the hip.
“Get out the fucking way, bitch.”
“Sorry. It’s just, my husband was disabled, so – ”
“I said, my husband was disabled, so I know…”
“Don’t fucking patronise me.”
“I wasn’t, I was just…”
“Don’t. Fucking. Patronise. Me.”
His eyes glint like knives, jabbing each staccato word into my face. I feel the tears starting to come, just like when the cab drivers were angry with Richard. What on earth have I done wrong? I was just trying to be nice.
“I just meant,” I say, now aware that everyone on the bus is staring, even the ones wearing headphones, “that I know it’s not easy, and you’re bound to bump into – ”
“You fucking hit me, you cow.”
He’s just so angry.
There’s a bright red button on the pole he’s been trying to manoeuvre round. I push it. I have no idea where we are – the bus is so crowded I can barely see the windows, let alone what’s beyond them. All I know is that we must be stuck in traffic, as the bus isn’t moving, and hasn’t done for some time. I push the button again, twice, three times.
I was just trying to be nice. I want to say it out loud, so that everybody knows, but of course I can’t.
The doors snap open, and there’s a blast of warm air and noise from outside. I don’t think we’re at a bus stop, but that doesn’t matter – all that matters is that the doors are open and I can get out. People hunch their shoulders to let me pass. Someone, I think, grabs my arm, shouts something at me, but I’m not listening any more.
I stumble slightly as I misjudge the distance to the gutter.
Oh, Mary, now what?
I’m standing on the edge of a paved precinct. A canopy arches overhead like a tent and, through the thick metal struts that support it, I can see the word “Library” spelt out in big free-standing letters. Across the road, a window is piled high with what look like stacks of pillows. Grubby white letters on a green awning above it read: Victory Food Stores, Jesus is Lord, Phil.2:11. Beside the food store is a nail salon, then a jeweller’s, a florist’s, and – I stare at the words above the next doorway: Divine Money, Financial Services. Why is that so familiar? Obviously it’s an eye-catching name, the sort of name you remember, but – where would I be remembering it from? On the opposite corner, across what looks like some sort of high street, yellow letters glare from a plain black board: We Buy Gold. Any Condition. Instant Cash.
And suddenly I know where I am. I’ve looked down that street before. Only last time it was evening, and the buildings were hazy with smoke.
“Don’ worry ’bout it, lady.”
“Don’ worry ’bout it. Jus’ tryin’ to be nice, you were.”
When he lifts his hat, the hair underneath is grey. I can’t remember the last time a man lifted his hat to greet me.
“I was,” I say, “I was. I was just trying to be nice. But… goodness, is that my bag?” Suddenly I remember the voice on the bus. “Oh lord, I’m so sorry… have I made you get off…”
“Don’ worry ’bout it.” He waves his hand across his face. “You be OK now?”
“I will, yes, thank you so much. I seem to have got off the bus just where I was supposed to. More by luck than judgement, but… well, I’m here, that’s what matters.”
He touches his fingers to his hat brim.
“Welcome to Peckham.”
I smile. And then, because he’s been so kind, I fumble in the pocket of my coat for the envelope on which I’ve written Ali’s address. “Actually, I wonder if you can help. I’m trying to get to my daughter’s house. You wouldn’t know where this is, would you?”
He takes the envelope from me, then pulls a pair of wire-framed glasses from his jacket pocket.
“She said to call her when I got here, but I don’t have a mobile phone. I’m sure I can find a phone box, but if it’s not too far…”
He hands the envelope back to me.
“Not so far at all,” he says. “You wan’ me to tek you?”
“You did what?” Irene said when I told her. We were in the café by Wells Cathedral, one of our favourite places to meet, even though it meant me catching a bus into Bristol and then another one out again. But they did a very nice afternoon tea, with proper china and scones and jam.
“We went for lunch,” I said.
“You went for lunch? With a black man you met on a bus?”
“With Aldwyn, yes. I was hungry, so why not? I had an all-day breakfast, in somewhere called Ozzie’s. It was very nice.”
“An all-day breakfast? Mary!”
I gazed out through the lace-curtained window, enjoying the heat of her stare. Across the close was the great West front of the cathedral, its tower-topped limestone screen decorated with the carved figures of more than three hundred medieval saints – or so we were always told at school. Those silly old saints have been stuck up there for nearly eight hundred years, I thought; and I’ve been coming here to stare at them for nearly seventy.
And then I turned back to Irene and told her about fat sacks of rice flopped in neat heaps on pavements and giant tins of cooking oil on shelves; and plucked boiling chickens, pale-skinned and scraggy, strung up on hooks hung from rails; and smoked hen and goat’s leg and sealed plastic bags of halal chicken feet; and pink and grey fish lying dead-eyed on beds of crushed ice, snapper, mackerel and catfish; and windows blazing with rainbow-coloured fabrics and garish shirts with clashing collars; and signs offering eyebrow tinting and eyelash extensions and wigs of human or synthetic hair; and young men promising to unlock your phone or give you cheap international calls or send your money home to Nigeria and Ghana; and fistfuls of wet green herbs and fat peppers glistening like traffic lights in cardboard trays; and nets of onions and sweet potatoes and crates of shiny brown cassava and rough woody yams sliced open to show their milk-white flesh; and black-skinned plantains I’d thought were bananas and unlabelled fruits I’d never seen before and had to get Aldwyn to name for me.
I told her about Rye Lane.
I didn’t tell her about the boy with the wheelchair.
Why would I?
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