Up the road, Betsie poked her head out of the window and waved me off with her usual “Mind how you go, darlin’.” Had it been a warm summer’s day, we’d spend a few minutes of natter about this and that, about our girls who grew up together and about the worrying level of crime in the area. Betsie is almost family – her parents lived next to us and hers was the shoulder I cried on when our cat died. She had taken it to the vet, but it didn’t make it.
These days the walk up the road to our small town seems a bit tedious. I have sort of lost that spring in my steps, or don’t they put springs in shoes anymore? It took me a full ten minutes to reach the post office and by then the queue, something that the British do with passion, was already long. I used to joke with friends that soon I’d be queuing up for my pension at the post office. And now it doesn’t seem funny anymore.
At Mr Patel’s, our local newsagent, the queue was just as long; this one had pensioners and out of jobbers queuing up to scratch their lotto cards or buy lottery tickets for that promised millions. Day after day, I see these people queuing up for their place in the sun, dreaming of the promised jackpot. Next week, I will still see the same faces queuing up and still not going anywhere. Only Mr Patel, transfixed behind the counter, ringing his till, has gone up in this world.
Mrs Van, that’s what he calls me. He cannot pronounce W, even after forty odd years here, half of which he spends behind the counter selling newspapers and lottery tickets and such likes from his corner shop. From behind the counter, he has seen his children off to medic school and they are doing very well indeed. And the people who are queuing up to buy the lottery tickets from him are still there.
I got my turn to top up my Oyster card and paid for my bar of Galaxy and a bottle of mineral water while Mr Patel updated me about what’s happening around our little town. More and more Eastern European shops are sprouting in the area, he lamented, and one old lady got mugged down the road last night, so mind how you go, Mrs Van.
I don’t know whether I was more perturbed by the news of the lady being mugged or by his emphasis on OLD, but with that we said goodbye.
This small town of ours had seen better days; there were no yobs in hoods cycling around to intimidate people and no drunks sleeping on the bench outside Mr Patel’s. Woolworth, once Britain’s famous chain store had long closed down its shop here and you’d be hardpressed to find a bank. If desperate enough, we’d use the ATM at Mr Patels’ and pay £1.70 for the facility.
On a brighter note, we’ve seen more halal butchers from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the way to the station I suddenly felt a tinge of sadness as I caught a glimpse of old Mrs B’s house. She was our other former nextdoor neighbour before we moved. I could see her putting the cone on the road outside our house to reserve the space for our car. Once we’re back from work, she’d come in for tea and offer to bring in our washings from the washing line. She’d talk non-stop, much to the annoyance of the children who wanted to watch T J Hooker or the cartoons. But the old dear just wanted company. Her own children saw her once a month to take her out for a meal of fish and chips. Then when we moved, we heard that she was found dead one day in winter.
Although I could hear the train approaching, I took my own sweet time. There’s no more bounding up the steps two or three at a time, and whenever I am with him, he no longer chased me up to the top, both of us panting and laughing like school children. Now, even without the race, I pant.
Long before credit crunch came into our vocabulary, I had already stopped buying newspapers. There are loads of free newspapers littering the seats these days and the only time I quicken my footsteps is to get to a newspaper before someone else does.
I was engrossed by the day’s news; more gloomy forecast, more unemployment in the horizon. An announcement made me look up, only to see a familiar face staring back at me from the reflection in the window. The tudung looked familiar, the face tired and bored. We both looked away to see the autumn leaves fall.
As if programmed in my mind, I got off at the eleventh station and changed train, and then dragged my feet up the steps at Russel Square. There was a mood of merriment as a group of young medic students in drags collected money for charity. They were young first year students, all fresh and eager and in drags. At least they were not drunk.
Once out of the lift and the station, I was thankful to breathe in the fresh air of autumn again, the wind bringing a whiff of roasted hazelnuts from a stall nearby. Roasted hazelnuts without fail always signal the arrival of winter, and we’d pay more than necessary to buy the nuts and linger a bit more for the warmth from the crackling fire.
The campus was buzzing with students, young and old. There was again a long queue snaking towards a member of the Hare rama group giving away free vegetarian meals. I spotted a familiar face – still young and fresh and still full of enthusiasm. She must be, what, 25? We were classmates when I was doing my MA a few years back and now, still with the same energy and enthusiasm, she is pursuing her PhD. She asked me when I am doing mine and I didn’t have an answer to that.
Walking towards the lift, I saw another familiar face. She was one of those who, like me, hunched over our PC in the computer room trying to finish our dissertation. We smiled and hugged. Yes, she had also finished her MA but is pursuing another course. She is 65. When are you studying again, she asked? And I still don’t have an answer to that.
I walked up the steps to the office and sat down to prepare my work but my mind kept going back to the questions I didn’t have an answer for. My eyes kept going back to the park outside the window, to the autumn leaves still hanging on bravely to the branches. How beautiful, how rich, but they fall eventually, don’t they?
Other listless Mak Cik in Autumn stories:
Love in the autumn years 1
Love in the autumn years 2
A Small Malay Kampong by the A40
Listless in London