There’s nothing like going to a new part of town to transform the city you know and love and have lived in your whole life. It becomes an urban dystopia, nightmared by some Hungarian expressionist whose psyche is fixated on conjuring the perfect alienating vision of Hell, just for you. Down south, London is “Thamesopolis” – its inhabitants monstrous. It was always somewhere to avoid, then my sister moved to Plumstead. “Don’t panic,” I thought. “Just never visit.”
But she decided to hold a vintage market in my neck of the woods (it was for charity, but that made no difference to the selfishness of the act). “You can pick up the stuff I’m going to flog from mine beforehand,” she texted, excited. “Stuff” meaning 20 to 30 sequined jackets, Tadashi jumpsuits, and “size 12” tutus that even a zero would have trouble zipping up.
Now, my best friend’s mullet-haired ex once drove to Mongolia, via Iran and Uzbekistan, in a one-litre Suzuki Swift (The Slo Rida) to raise money for orphans and falcons. As soon as I agreed to drive to my sister’s that sweet April day, I can honestly say my subconscious believed it was about to undergo a feat of the same magnitude. I just couldn’t imagine driving from Muswell Hill to Plumstead: it couldn’t be done, surely? Had ever such a feat been achieved?
My angst was not unfounded. I’d only had my license for a month and a car for a week. The license had been hard won, a long time in the making – 15 years, six instructors, and three tests no less. So, forgive me if I rushed out to Dagenham Motors to buy an almost-new Fiesta Edge before my license even hit the doormat. I called my new wheels Glinda, The Good Car of the North, and so far Glinda had only been on a few local jaunts (back home and to Brent Cross).
I drove to Tottenham Hale Retail Park and bought a Sat Nav and checked out the route to “Plummers” online. I set off in the late afternoon with plenty of time, Serena (the calm voice of TomTom) navigated me eastwards with aplomb. As I pushed Glinda into fifth I felt like a proper driver, zipping over flyovers, cruising through tunnels and only slowing down to a dangerous halt once. At the first major roundabout a white van reared up in my mirror, like a randy urban rhino, but I gave it the slip before it could mount me. A-roads turned into B-roads and I’d almost made it when I heard:
“Take ferry… Take ferry.”
I cursed Serena, thinking it must be a mistake, a “Sat-Gaff”. I imagined Glinda and I rolling onto the deck of a tankard bound for Siberia, or worse, Calais, in a “Should’ve Gone To Specsavers” moment. It was too late to turn around, I was stuck in a queue of stationary traffic. I would shortly be boarding, according to Google, the Woolwich Ferry over the Thames.
As the ferry backed away from the dock I smiled, the five minutes it took to cross the river becoming a rare moment of joy, a taste of what seagulls must feel every day. The view was incredible, no wonder they caw so lustily: Canary wharf a molten obelisk in the pre-sunset light, the Thames a sea, freedom-bound. I felt proud of myself, and Glinda, for coming so far. What other adventures would we have? We could drive to Bruges to stock up on chocolate and lace, or Scotland to see Nessy. If we could make it to Plumstead, Glinda and I, we could do anything.
One advantage of living in Plumstead is that you can get a whole house for the price of a doormat pretty much anywhere else in the capital. My sister’s road is predominately Nepalese, which, as a white woman, made her arrival a bit of a novelty. The granny-in-residence used to lean over their shared fence to stare and smile at my sister as she did the garden or washed the dishes.
The house was in good nick when my sister bought it, and even nicer since she’d done it up in a style I’d describe as “sui generis”. Each chair, painting and stuffed raven was carefully chosen for its rarity and beauty.
I flopped myself down onto a bed and watched my sister label a rack of clothes ready to be put in Glinda. The windows were open, a sleepy sun painting the room yellow. I jumped up and pulled on one of the jumpsuits. The foot straps pleased me, but my saddlebags just couldn’t pull it off so I put it back on the rack. Despite being similar in many ways, our “Dalek walk” for one, in sartorial matters my sister and I are polar opposites. I wear the same jeans and grey top until they die, then replace them with another pair of jeans and grey top. Helen, however, is never knowingly underdressed. Many a family funeral has been enlivened by the sight of my sis, sitting in a pew like a merry widow, all stripper shoes and scarlet lips.
I recognised a dress on the rack as one my sister had worn to our mother’s retirement party. It was full length, and binding, something a mummy might wear to one of Osiris’s legendary balls, peplum and shoulder pads taking off at eternally staggering angles. “Why do you want to sell all these?” I said, running my eyes over the gems she’d Ebayed hard for.
“I can’t fit into them and, well, most of them are mutton dressed as lamb, now…” I lay back on the bed, letting her words sink in. I couldn’t help but feel sad for both of us: she was only thirty-five, seventeen months older than me. It was all going too quick.
“Hey,” I said. “Are we going for that curry?”
We were the only white-English in the curry place, so we’d have stuck out like a sore thumb even if my sister hadn’t been part of the group. I wasn’t helping matters in my tangerine jumper, something filched from a wash-basket when it turned cold. Helen’s boyfriend, Hamish, sat to my right. He was twenty-six and a local lad, a gardener who ploughed the allotment next to my sister’s.
A waiter took our order, my sister ordering a cold Kathmandu for herself and Hamish. My reflex was to order one, too, before remembering – I was a driver now. We’d taken the car even though The Danfe was only a couple of roads away, I wanted to give everyone a spin in Glin.
“Be careful,” my sister said as I neared the junction at the top of her road, “lot of African drivers round here.” If there’s one thing learned since passing my test is that driving turns you into a bigot. Shamefully, I believed Hasidic men were the worst drivers ever until a trip to Bradford, where my leftie-friend told me it was “Muslim drivers” I really had to watch out for.
When our food came it was, as my madras-loving ex would say, “as spicy as a rich-tea dunked in water.” I popped momos in my mouth one by one, trying to ignore the dimming light and the growing anxiety that I’d be driving home in the dark.
The waiter came to take our plates. “How was it? Okay?”
“It was nice, but not spicy enough,” my sister said with a smile. The waiter grinned.
“But you can’t eat spice.”
I made it back up north in one piece. I’d had to double back when I thought Glinda’s indicators had gone haywire, only for Hamish to point out they were just my hazards. Glinda started beeping frantically when she realised a seatbelt was undone, she wasn’t able to tell that my passenger was a bunch of frocks and not a child.
It was almost midnight when I pulled up on a double yellow close to mine, exhausted, but victorious, a few new fledge-stripes branded into my back. And what had I learned? That it’s humbling to be a tourist in your own town, to be taken down a peg or two, in restaurants, and at roundabouts because it’s a big, wide, city out there. Don’t be afraid.
Thanks to Sno Flo for her wonderful illustration, too.