Our garden backed on to my Primary school playground. When I was six or seven, a few friends and I would lean against the school fence of a break, and shout: “MUM, biscuits!” and she would come and hand out the custard creams for us to eat on the grass, each in our own individual way. A couple of years later she went to work full-time and I would go over the road to a family of eight children before school. The breakfast production line would have made Henry Ford proud.
We lived in the middle of our street (my parents still do) and it’s book-ended by a pub and a church. And like many of the streets people grew up on, it had its array of different characters; a number of Irish Catholic families as well as those who had grown up in the city (although they were in the minority); a British heavyweight boxing champion, who’d let you knock his door and hold his Lonsdale belt. Then there was the spooky overgrown house on the corner where two brothers lived, although you only ever saw one of them – rumour was they were identical twins and never went out together, and that one had a wife who he drowned in the little pond in the garden.
Forgive these reminiscences, but I wonder how much you think back to your childhood street and all the people who lived there and where they might be now? I have to thank Mona Arshi for her wonderful poem, On Ellington Road, for jogging me back in time. But Mona has a much better memory than I do, for the detail she gives of the many characters on her street is remarkable. ”Old man Harvey, with his thick specs and polished shoes/shouting ‘trespassers’, yet offering us a penny for collecting/his waspy pears.” Each line or couplet has a life story that you want to explore more, “Aunty Kamel, knocking on our door, with her black plait undone,/begging us to keep her for the night.” Close family are mixed with strangers who she knows, and is intrigued by their ‘strangeness’. “The white-haired lady we called ‘Mum’ at number 4, roaming the fenceless gardens, until they brought her back in.” As Mona says, she “sees it as a number of very small photographs.” But I just want to develop them into films. “Meeting Renu the new bride for my mum’s cousin and being scared/for her as I’d heard about what had happened in the launderette the year before.”
It reminded me of a great series on BBC, The Secret History of our Streets, which in the first series looked at six typical streets in London to see how they had changed since Charles Booth survey of 1886. Which makes me think that what is so intriguing about the people we live alongside and that Mona shows us in her poem, is what we don’t see of them behind the curtains or in their past. If you were to see Mona’s Dad, on his way home from work in the morning, ‘blood-eyed’, how would you know that he was an ‘insomniac shift-worker’?
Mona Arshi was born in West London where she still lives. She worked as a Human rights lawyer for a decade before she received a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and won the inaugural Magma Poetry competition in 2011. Mona was a prize winner in the 2013 Troubadour competition and joint winner of the Manchester Creative writing poetry prize in 2014. Her debut collection ‘Small Hands’ was published by Pavilion Poetry, Part of Liverpool University Press in Spring 2015.
On Ellington Road
Old man Harvey, with his thick specs and polished shoes
shouting trespassers, yet offering us a penny for collecting
his waspy pears.
“Biji “, looking old in widow-white, whose soft hands were always stained with turmeric.
The achingly cool white brothers, who lived opposite with their
Mum and spent days fixing their motor-bikes.
Aunty Kamel, knocking on our door, with her black plait undone,
begging us to keep her for the night.
The Aroras, who had a real football pitch at the back of their garden (Hounslow FC).
Cunny, Pummy, Bally, and Kully (all boys).
The girl next door stealing her dad’s razor and showing me how to shave my legs with baby oil.
The white-haired lady we called ‘Mum’ at number 4, roaming the fenceless gardens, until they brought her back in.
Dave, our young lodger, with his paisley cravat, smelling of Brut and he had a car.
The boys in the gardens interrupting cricket games to scream at the sky while Concorde flew by.
The girls being told off for climbing trees because ‘it was dangerous for girls’.
Meeting Renu the new bride for my mum’s cousin and being scared
for her as I’d heard about what had happened in the launderette the year before.
Manjit, aged 9, left in India as a baby arriving back to her parents, her eyes black with kajal.
Several men from along the road setting up in our garden and building the extension in just one day.
My dad, insomniac shift-worker, blood-eyed, nursing his head in our tiny kitchen.