Voices on the Page
|Theme:||homes, old, new|
I arrived in the middle of the night. I slept fitfully and awoke more tired than if I’d had no sleep at all. A face appeared at my door, bodiless with a smile, peeking around the edge like a child, polite and discreet.
“Good morning, how are you? Where are you from and what is your name?” One might think such rapid fire questioning from a perfect stranger might seem intrusive, even impolite, but the face with its dark eyes, symmetrical brows and perfect shining teeth and pale skin was full of kindness and compassion.
“I’m an American, from Florida. My name’s Jim,” I answered after a moment’s hesitation.
“Who are you and where are you from?” I asked.
“I am called Rachid and I am from Algeria, excuse me,” and he popped around the cored of the door again. I lay back down with no intention of getting up but he was back again in a few minutes with a basket which he put on my table.
“Here,” was all he said as he smiled and disappeared again. In the basket were some tea bags, some instant Cappuccino sachets, some dried fruit and a few pieces of fresh fruit. I didn’t seem very well and probably didn’t look any better. It had been almost a week since I’d had any decent food.
In a few minutes he was back, with a jug of hot water, “Tea or cappuccino?” he asked.
“Cappuccino,” I croaked.
“Yes,” I realised I wasn’t being as polite as I should be, so I sat up, arranged my bed and invited him to sit as he’d finished. “Thank you,” I said as he offered the cup. “You’re very kind. You’re Algerian, then you must speak French?”
“Yes, I do.” So we spoke briefly in French, his impeccable, mine with a New Jersey twang. Later he brought towels and blankets and slippers, made sure I knew what to do and when. Kindness is so appreciated when so unexpected.
Later there were Cockneys and Scousers, Geordies, Yardies and Mack’ems. There were even people from small islands that I was familiar with such as Dominica and Antigua, or far away places like Pakistan or Egypt. There were other Algerians, various Muslims and Irish Catholics too.
One would think that with such a mix of people there would be trouble on a grand scale. I suppose there may have been, but nothing very serious.
Besides, Rachid, who I became friends with, there were a group of Londoners from the Elephant and Castle. I didn’t know London, but the name is one so unusual that I wondered what it was like there. They took me under their wing, so to speak, I didn’t know why…
My money ran out after 6 months. I’d made it last as long as it could, even quit smoking. But my new friends, the Elephant and Castles and the Algerians were as kind as they could be, with life’s little luxuries: batteries for my radio, a fruit salad or a bit of chocolate.
In return, when Mustafa’s first child was born, a son, I wanted to do something to commemorate the day, and also thank him for his kindness. He spoke no English and so I wrote a poem in French about the day Abdulla was born. It was rainy and stormy and a little group of us celebrated the birth. My poem was well received.
Months later, one of the elders from the Elephant & Castles group died. They were very sad and began telling exploits from his life. I was a trusted friend by this time and allowed to listen in. So I thought I would write a poem for them about their friend’s life, the little I had heard. They were pleased and sent it to his wife who had it read at his funeral.
His name was Terry, but his nicknames was ‘Tangiers’ because he had spent some time in Morocco. One story goes that Terry, as was his way, had entered a bank and requested a ‘withdrawal’. Everything had gone smoothly except there was one minor problem. He had cleaned out the place so efficiently that he wound up being handed (even he was amazed) a couple of large sacks. He struggled with these as he made his getaway.
Trudging up several flights of stairs he was well winded when he reached the top. He wasn’t as young anymore. He thought he might finally have that retirement fund for life. Of course he had procured several useful bundles of large notes, but upon opening the sacks he found they were full of £1 notes that had just been stuffed inside. I took him quite some time to smooth them all out and stack them into piles. They were a goodly number of them but they created a dilemma. He didn’t know what to do with them as he didn’t just want them hanging about. He didn’t even want his friends to know he had just scored. He couldn’t even give them to anybody!
Margaret Bloom had lived in the Elephant & Castle all her life. She’d been born just a few blocks over from the very street she was trudging along this cold and blustery night. As she turned a corner a blast of cold air flipped up her coat and sent a chill through her body. She could remember when this walk used to take 15 minutes. But down she was down to a brisk shuffle. She leaned into the wind and carried on.
Margaret was 75 but still worked part-time. She didn’t have to. She had a basic pension that covered most bills but the work allowed her to see her few remaining friends and provided her with enough so that she could be generous on Sundays with Reverent Hollister’s plate. God knows he needed it, what with so few people attending these days.
Bowed now into the freshening gusts with head down, Margaret thought she heard the tinkle of a small or distant bell. Peeking under the narrow brim of her woollen hat, she could see nothing ahead except the beginning of a snow flurry. In an instant she felt the first pellets, not the soft flaky kind, against her face and worried that she hadn’t worn her boots. She couldn’t afford a fall at her age. Again, she heard the tinkle of what she’d thought was a bell, but this time she was sure of it and looked up briefly. The wind had eased and the snow, though heavier, had started to turn to flake.
Further ahead, on the corner of the next block under the yellow dimness of an old streetlamp, Margaret could see through the swirling flakes the grey outline of what appeared to be a Charity Santa. There were still a few pedestrians hurrying home from work. She could see them flow around an invisible barrier around the poor fellow and pass on. “My, my what are people like these days,” thought the pensioner as she fumbled in her purse for some change. The intermittent ringing seemed half-hearted. “Poor dear,” Margaret reflected, “he’s lost faith.”
She closed the distance and finally crossed the street. The flakes of snow had accumulated and formed a slippery slush. As she stepped onto the curb in front of the bank, just where Santa had made his post, her left foot went out from beneath her. But under a watchful eye, her elbow was just as quickly caught, and she was supported by the rather tall, lean Santa. Margaret thanked him with the same breath, she’d caught instinctively when she thought she was going down. He only nodded in response.
She reached forward and dropped a number of coins into the bucket slung under a green and red tripod. In response, Santa reached into a sack that had gone unnoticed by the pensioner and produced a small, wrapped gift. He could see the childlike delight in her eye, mixed with a little confusion. As she walked off with her gift, carefully marked “Do not open ‘til Christmas”, Terry knew the forty single pound notes would probably come in very handy to the old pensioner. “It’s only the poor who give,” thought Terry as he turned and gave his bell a desultory little shake, looking for the next person.