Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)
Never marry an intellectual
“Never marry an intellectual, girl! They make rubbish husbands!”
This piece of life advice for unmarried girls came from the woman at the table to my right; blatantly loud and laced with a heavy foreign accent anchoring words as if they were balloons.
Costa Café in the Walthamstow Mall isn’t excessively busy or noisy; but caught in the maze of my late accounts, either I did not notice her coming in, or she has just arrived. Glancing in her direction, I offer a shy smile of acknowledgement.
Too late for that, I whisper into my chest. The damage has already been done. That kind of damage.
“We've met, don't you remember?”
Still wrapped in her long puffy beige coat with a greyish patch on the right side of her waist – obvious marks of her black bag rubbing onto her body – the woman stares at me with a pair of large blue eyes; as transparent as the sunny winter sky outside.
“At the swimming pool! You helped me get dressed!”
My eyes and my mind start an instant cross-examination of her statement.
I remember the woman from the swimming pool; fully naked and with hair flattened on her forehead. But the woman in front of me is overdressed and her hair is jumbled and wild. There are no obvious resemblances between the two that would trigger that signal of instant recognition typical for such situations.
A few weeks ago, before the Walthamstow Pool & Track closed for refurbishing, a woman stepped out of the changing cubicle right in front of me. Her vest was rolled up under her armpits and she wasn’t able to reach it. Her large, bare breasts rested on the cushion of her midriff.
“Would you mind helping me, darling?”
The sticky roll of the polyester vest had glued itself to the wet and chlorine-smelling skin of her armpits. It took me a while to unfold the undergarment and stretch it down towards the bones of her hips. As my hands arranged the hem around her belly, my eyes travelled further down. She did not wear knickers and was either skilfully waxed or her pale hairs had melted away with age. Embarrassed I looked up and met her piercing blue eyes, and a pale HB pencil line instead of the natural hairiness of the eyebrows.
“My left shoulder is troubling me; it just wouldn’t do what I want it to!”
The woman raised the culpable part of her body. “Can’t hook my bra any longer…”
“You look very fit to me; you are still swimming and all that!”
“Thank you, thank you! So kind of you!”
I was not sure whether she referred to the compliment or the unrolling of her vest. With swollen fingers resembling a display cabinet of antique and unusual jewellery she grabbed my hand and squeezed it with affection.
“I’m eighty-four you know!”
“I would never have guessed!”
“And I only learnt to swim in my sixties, when my bastard of a husband left me!”
The changing room abruptly filled up with noisy kiddies getting ready for their Monday morning lesson.
“Mum, let’s go now. I will miss my lesson!”
My four-year old daughter – placing her Peppa Pig towel around her neck – pulled me towards the showers.
“Goodbye, have a nice day!”
“Goodbye darlings!” The woman blew a kiss in our direction.
Once outside the changing room, my daughter said:
“She was fat and naked – yucky!”
By the time I had opened my mouth for a quick lesson on human diversity she was already under the showers, giggling away with a boy from her group.
And here we are; three, four weeks later, on an unexciting Wednesday morning, just gone 11 o’clock (six minutes past eleven to be painfully precise), my daughter at the nursery and me desperately trying to identify the errors in my accounts.
Our attention slips towards a young couple arguing loudly at the table in the corner. The girl’s dark eyes are red and swollen, heavy tears rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks. With arms folded over his chest, her boyfriend is looking around indifferently with an I_don’t_give_a_fuck and her_state_has_nothing_do_to_with_me expression. Abruptly ending the outburst, she grabs her bag and runs out, looking fragile and unsteady (between her extreme emotional state and equally extreme high heels).
As soon as his crying lady friend is out of sight, the man leans towards the table where an attractive blond girl is sitting peacefully and texting away.
“Fancy a drink, gorgeous?”
“Sorry – I’m waiting for a friend!” The girl sharply brushes off the arrogant flirting, not even raising her eyes and deigning to glance at him.
“Idiot! Such an idiot!” utters my swimming pool acquaintance with a tone of loathing and disgust, before turning towards me and adding:
“Trust me, intellectuals don’t make good husbands! Divorce him while you are still young and can do something with your life!”
“Haa!” I close my laptop, finally giving up on doing any more work; not that my morning has been productive so far.
“And if he ever gets a lecturing position, pack a bag and run away at the speed of light!”
“Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“No, no, please do!”
I quickly glance around. For some oddly mediocre and out-of-character reason I suddenly fear being seen in the company of this weird woman with messy grey hair and faded pink highlights. Two businessmen have sat down at the table of the quarrelsome couple and started to open their laptops and spread folders and papers.
She’s removed her coat and is sitting on the chair diagonally opposite to me.
My husband has recently left his corporate career in the City and started a lecturing job at the University of Southampton. How can that be a bad thing? More time for the family, longer holidays, less stress and less overtime? It was supposed to help us deal with the crisis that sneaked imperceptibly into our relationship when our daughter was born and has been lurking in the shadows ever since, not the other way around.
“Oh, are you?” She rolls her r's strongly and her speech has a staccato rhythm, indicating Eastern European linguistic origins. “And how many years have you lived in London?”
“Over fifty, darling, over fifty! Half a century.”
“Sooo, why don’t you tell me why intellectuals don’t make good husbands?”
“Everything I did, I did it for him! When we came to Moscow from our village, I worked so that he could do his doctorate. You see, we married when we were 21! Children we were! Then he got involved in some political mess; not that that was difficult in the Soviet Union, so we escaped to Germany first, and then the UK. And while he pursued his fancy things...books…philosophy or whatever… I worked as a cleaner or potato peeler in restaurants… anything I could find, really… All rubbish jobs, meaningless, no perspective or hope… But – we also had to eat! Years came and years went and in no time I was too old to have children, not that he ever wanted any…”
Her throat – dry and exhausted from talking – produces a sudden cough that in no time turns into one of those painful and unstoppable fits. I jump up and feed her drops of water from my bottle and massage the top of her back.
“Then his books got translated and he was offered a lecturing job!”
She continues, as if the near-asthmatic experience never happened.
“And one day he went to live in some accommodation provided by the University… He didn’t invite me so I went looking for him. This young girl opened the door…tall, slim and with orange hair. Orange hair and orange eyebrows… I haven’t seen him in twenty years!”
A long time to carry a grudge.
“Four decades of slavery! That’s forty years of washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking and even unblocking the toilet for that bastard! And for what? Oh yes – he is a famous professor living with yet another young bitch – and I’m a weird woman pacing the streets of Walthamstow.”
“I think you are a charming and joyful lady!” I smile and instinctively stretch my arm and place my hand onto her folded firsts, squeezing them lightly.
“So kind of you… When he left I started living. And you know what the first thing I did was? Learning to swim! One life has to end for a new one to start! I only wish I'd done it earlier…”
“It’s never too late!”
My voice drops to a soft whisper in yet another attempt to lower the volume of our conversation. Once more I scan the café. The two women sitting at the table in the far corner, next to the stairs for the downstairs toilets and the car park, look vaguely familiar; they could be mothers of kiddies from my daughter’s swimming class. But without glasses my sight is not sharp enough and I can’t be sure.
“And don’t get me started on how rubbish he was in bed! All about him; just about him; and always about him. What the hell do all those young bitches see in him? You know, he used to invite them home! Private tuition, he said. I would serve coffees and cakes in his study and then happily wander off to the market to buy vegetables and meat for our dinner!”
“Young students get attracted to the intellect, the knowledge…”
“Haa! You can join a library and read all those books by yourself; less hassle and more satisfaction! A woman needs someone who will change the bulbs and tighten the screws on rickety chairs and then grab her in his arms… And not talk about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky…”
As her right hand stretches towards her tea, the left one follows, visibly shaky and weaker than the other one, until they both reach the cup and bring it back to her mouth. Her gulps are loud and desperate for the smoothing, hot brew.
“My best friend in Russia was an artist. She posed naked…for students…you know those art classes …and she was so beautiful. She could have had anyone. Teachers, students, politicians… But no; she turned them all down and married a car mechanic. Even on their wedding day his hands were callous and rough; with black traces of grease all over them. I remember thinking how the hell does she let those hands touch her? And they are still happily married. Today they are rich. He owns garages all over Moscow and she does as she pleases! When they come to London they stay in the Intercontinental on Park Lane and dine in the Oxo tower! And in those days, I thought I'd got the better deal! The stupidity of youth!”
I smile; by now completely indifferent to the loudness of her voice and the fact that everyone is turning in our direction.
“And never, girl, never, rely on hope! It’s a bitch; it gives you chains with the excuse of a better tomorrow. Rely on your instincts; on your internal madness; let it take over and guide you through life! I wish I'd done it, I wish I'd done it…”
She sips the last drops of her black tea with two slices of lemon. My coffee has long gone and the waitress has already collected the cup.
“What’s the time, darling?”
“Quarter to twelve!”
“Oh oh… already! I must rush. I have a hospital appointment at 1. There is this lump in my left tit that’s been bothering me…”
I help her get into her coat and as I reach the top button I notice a lump in the hollow under her left ear. She arranges her handbag over her right shoulder and grabs me in an overpowering hug placing loud kisses on both my cheeks.
“Trust me, girl, intellectuals do not make good husbands! Teach your daughter too!”
As she saunters off, patrons from surrounding tables turn towards me offering one of those understanding /irritating/highly unnerving smiles. I smile back and follow my new friend crossing the recently renovated square and reaching the Walthamstow Central bus station. At the same moment, a Chinese woman in a grey suit and a man in a denim jacket and with an Arsenal cap on his head approach the table where she sat before joining me. They are both in their fifties and look at each other with unfamiliar suspicion; typical for first dates.
Within minutes, a red W15 bus heading to Whipps Cross Hospital turns into the station.
She’s gone and I start packing my things. My laptop goes back into its sleeve and in the rucksack. After a fall on the frozen road last winter that damaged a couple of vertebrae in my lower back, I’ve permanently retired fancy handbags in favour of ugly but practical backpacks. As I lean under the table to pick up my bag of groceries from Asda I see her scarf on the floor; creased and forlorn.
Immediately I glance towards the station. The W15 bus is already turning towards the roundabout with Hoe Street. I’m sure she caught it.
I pick up the forgotten shawl. It smells of old age and mothballs; of sweat and pungent traces of some old-fashioned perfume; sweet and flowery like AnaisAnais. It’s of an indefinable shade of dark green with equally dark pink edges. I’m not sure if the dark colours are the result of it not been washed for a while, age itself or whether it was the exact same shade when she bought it, countless decades ago.
I’ll take it home; but I’m not sure where to put it. It doesn’t seem right to drop it on top of my groceries (a few aubergines, a baguette, cheese). Yet again; my rucksack with the laptop, the accountancy notebook, my purse and a few cosmetic items seems too private. In the end, I roll it into a cylinder shape and squeeze it into the mesh compartment at the side where I carry my bottle of water.
As soon as I get home I wash the scarf in the basin. First I soak it in lukewarm water and then gently rub it with my palms, using just a few drops of the delicate liquid handwash. I dry it flat, placing it on the old towel that I use when dyeing my hair and then onto the radiator in the bedroom, making sure it doesn’t touch the dusty wall behind. It’s a perfect square shape. You can fold it over into a large triangle and tie it around your head; like old peasant women do. Once it has dried, I iron it over a slightly wet muslin cloth on minimum heat, slowly and gently. I fold it into a small parcel and put it into a large freezer bag and then in my rucksack. For when I see her again.
If I ever do.
London, March 2015