She’d obviously been around the block a few times. She kept saying, ‘You have no idea, you really have no idea,’ and then laughing intensely. Funny thing to say, he thought, because of course none of us really have any idea. Maybe you were a man once, he thought, now that really would be a surprise. ‘You can’t imagine! You really can’t,’ she said again, almost shouting. He nodded in agreement – and meant it. She’d lived in war zones, genocide zones, controlled zones, communist zones, capitalist zones and inner city zones. Nothing fazed her. Those local boys hanging about, shoulders swinging, shouting, a thigh hanging across a bike seat, hoods up, loitering… not even they fazed her. ‘Let’s be frank,’ she said, ‘they’re black boys, and they probably resent us, we know that.’ He nodded, and smiled gently. Not that she noticed. She was telling him about one of her former careers. She’d had so many, and always succeeded. Then he said, ‘I do get a bit nervous actually, of the boys up that end of the street. I don’t mind the ones down the other end. But that end – they really scare me.’ She was focusing on the green washing-up gloves that she was pulling over her hands, as if she was preparing to carry out surgery: ‘Oh, don’t be silly, just look straight through them. Don’t, whatever you do, show you’re scared.’ He smiled a bit, ‘I do like it round here. I do.’ But she was talking about how much she hated Tony Blair, and how upset she felt about sending her daughter to private school. ‘I’m so angry about it. Wouldn’t you feel angry?’ He tipped his head, trying to think of an answer. He was too slow. ‘My daughter’s so clever, she could teach the teachers at our local school, and I’m just not prepared for that to happen. I will not let my daughter be put through that.’ Then she laughed again. ‘I bought this place for nothing, really nothing. Done it up all myself. It cost peanuts. People say you can’t buy cheap round here, but I bought this for peanuts. You just have to be prepared to do the work yourself.’ The gloves were on now and she was exercising her fingers inside the rubber. He was looking at her long brown hair, thinking about how he’d like to stroke it and wondering how he would ever get close enough. ‘I’ve got to do this now,’ she said, adding, ‘I’m sorry.’ She dropped a pile of plates into the sink and began washing up. Occasionally, her long hair fell over her shoulder in front of her face; she pushed it back with a wet gloved hand. He watched the bubbles burst and longed to touch her hair.
Outside, an old man wearing a Schutztruppe and a beautiful silver suit with long silver tails, bicycled slowly past. A pile of old newspapers from Jamaica was tied to an old metal rack that he’d strapped to the back of his bike. He was whistling, and drunk.