All I can remember about the bloody weather that one Monday in November 1999 is this: It was raining. An unremarkable recollection about what turned into a truly remarkable encounter. It happened because I went for a walk to buy The Guardian and look for jobs in the media section. It was a weekly ritual: Pretend to sift through the adverts whilst sitting in my favourite little Turkish cafe and instead, talk to the owner about life, the world and other things. He always tried to give me free food, but a coffee was just fine.
A month earlier, I had moved to London with my then boyfriend. We took turns to drive a hired white van, full of our meagre belongings, from a small Cheshire village called Wybunbury to Colindale in north London. Reams of paper from our recent university years shuffled and slid from north to south, and ended up entwined and somewhat confused by the time we reached The Old Smoke.
We had rented an apartment from a very nice lady who worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation. She had wonderful karma and was laid back. I can still see her thick black hair, dark eyes and perfect skin. I am still laughing now about the morning we finally left one life to start another: We returned the key to our pretty little cottage with open fires and low ceilings, and embarked on our new adventure. My hair was coiffured, my nails painted in my favourite Chanel ‘Rouge Noir’ Le Vernis and, of course, I was wearing spike heels. Everything is an occasion for the Italians. Three hours to get ready just to drive a manual transit van. As I famously once said to a close girlfriend, “I wear Cavalli to put the bins out. You never know who you might meet”. I remember pushing my Dolce & Gabbana prescription sunglasses back onto the bridge of my nose as I turned the key with complete confidence. I had foolishly insisted I really could drive that pitted, rusting hunk of junk on four wheels down the M6. The deal was, we would stop at the Hilton Services at junction 10, have a coffee and a sandwich, and then swap roles. For the first part of the journey, the boyfriend would escort me in his pride and joy: A Mini Cooper 1600cc in Anthracite Grey with white stripes on the bonnet, a wabasto roof and walnut dashboard (we ended up with three original Minis during our time together). Four spotlights sat on the front grill. A black, leather sports steering wheel and alloys finished off that little pearl of a motor. I loved that car like I had almost given birth to it (our baby was later stolen from outside the Independent Television News studios on Grays Inn Road, but that’s another story). Once I had got the hang of driving the transit, it didn’t feel too bad, but reversing was a challenge. I took so many wrong turns trying to get to the motorway, it felt like my eyes had found a new home in the back of my daft, twenty-something head. I still can’t take instruction, be it on a road sign or verbal. It’s not that I don’t absorb. I really do. It’s just that my mind glazes over in a matter of seconds and suddenly, I am transported to a much nicer, glamorous world full of nice things and nice people. This is the reality: I made it down the road to Crewe and admitted defeat. However, we were definitely having fun that frosty morning filled with the sharp, English sunshine. It fills me with deep sadness that I will never be able to cradle just a tiny handful of that time again and turn it into moving pictures. You see, I see in pictures and colour, which is why most of what I write is based on the “truth.”
A few days before that ill-fated move, my Italian mother phoned me. “Who would want to leave such a beautiful place to live in that shithole?” We left a picturesque, quaint Cheshire village only to plunge ourselves into a rapidly expanding moral rubbish tip: London. The so-called capital. A mecca for media types dreaming of glory, of changing the world, of television and breaking news. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but let’s put this one down to experience. I met two categories of people there: The wannabes and the has-beens. I was always sitting on the outside looking in. I never really understood the sly motives of any single person I encountered in that pit of constantly denied desire. Like the unique and strange encounter with a bloke in a bar myself and the boy used to frequent in Hampstead. He clocked us as soon as we walked in. His name was Derek, but he liked to call himself ‘Del.’ The memory of his rhetoric points to what we are facing in Britain today. He scrounged a cigarette off us. He lit it. He blew plumes of blue smoke in my face. I blinked and winced, taking a few high-heeled steps back. “I’m waiting for my bird”, he said. The Devil was sitting on his left shoulder, raising a filthy, half-empty glass. Ever polite, I smiled back and said, “Oh. That’s nice. Is she from these parts?” Derek replied, “Well, she’s a Pakistani, but I quite like the fact that she doesn’t shave. The collar matches the cuffs, know what I mean, girl?” At the time, I didn’t think there was a part of me still waiting to die.
From that moment on, I learned that trust is a certain luxury. I quickly perfected the art of the “white lie”. On the surface, British society is all about “How do you do?” Hovering in the background is the real query: What do you do and how much are you worth? The other constant is, “What does your father do?” The problems start when everyone you look in the eye is Beelzebub wearing the face of Gabriel. This much is true: If you don’t create your own story, someone else will. It’s a constant theme and something that we all endure. Then, we begin to realise that there are people in our physical space who are very sick. They just can’t help themselves. Their role model is the family dog at the dinner table.
As I once loved to step out onto the open road and drive, be it behind the wheel or riding pillion, I now love to walk, and walk and walk. It became something of an obsession when I moved to London. I was alone. I paced those broken pavers day in, day out. The loneliness was also palpable and not only because the boyfriend was frequenting porn websites each and every night. When I eventually found out, I phoned my Italian mother and cried hard. “Why would he do this to me?” I clogged up the receiver with snot and salty tears. “Darling”, she said, in Italian. “All men do it. Your grandfather used to read Gentleman’s Relish in the outside toilet. There was a pile of magazines on the floor. Didn’t you see them?” There are times in our lives when we do not care to look. The brain has the most amazing function to save and preserve. One of my many news editors once said to me, “There’s a reason for everything.”
That Monday, as I left the little Turkish cafe, a plump, open pored orange suddenly landed at my Patrick Cox clad feet. Confused, I looked up, behind, to the side and around. A thousand oranges from Israel were lazily rolling into the road, slipping off the kerb without an owner. A woman was kneeling in the middle of the raised, concrete slabs, sobbing over her loss. Crouching down and on her level, through tears, she said, “ We are from Tel Aviv. My husband has had a heart attack.” I gently put my arm around her and clasped her right shoulder. I whispered, “Don’t worry. No one saw you fall. Only me”.