I’m a baby boomer, born in the early 50s to an adventurous father who went on to be a civil engineer working on the barges carrying cargo on the great Brahmaputra river and the Hooghly where it splits from the Ganges at the delta beside Calcutta.
I say adventurous because he met my Anglo-Indian mother when she was singing in a nightclub. She refused to dance with him so he picked her up and carried her over his shoulder to the dance floor. She said she only married him because she thought he was an American. That was his Devonshire accent, apparently. By the time she realised that she wasn’t going to be swept back to the States where she would have a washing machine and a big car, it was too late.
Instead, his British engineering company kicked him out for daring to want to marry a “chee chee” mixed-race woman. So he put her over his shoulder, this time with the approval of my grandmother, and brought her back to post-war Britain. No washing machine, no car, and food rationing. No tailor to make her clothes from a photo torn from a magazine. No cook to rustle up jhal frezi and spicy dhal. For years we made the pilgrimage to Patak’s, in Drummond Street, just behind Euston Station, so that she could stock up on spices and then practice word for word the recipes that her mother would send her in weekly handwritten airmail letters.
Looking back, I can see how she must have looked forward to those rare excursions. First a curry at The Shah restaurant opposite and then a dive into the only place that, for her, smelled like home.
Patak’s, their pickles now a familiar sight on supermarket shelves, were pioneers in the 50s. Starting from their Kentish Town kitchen in an effort to top up the income of Lazmishankar – who had come from Kenya and taken the only job he could get, working in the sewers – they brought a taste of India to London.
My father took a job in Bahrain with the British American Petroleum Company, and my mother and I stayed behind because they would not allow my mother, with her British India passport, to live on Awali, the “oil camp” with the rest of the white expatriates. She and I would have had to live in a shanty, leaning up against the walls. In the 1970s, my father went back to Bahrain, and this time my mother went with him. And so did I. We lived in one of the cream-coloured villas near the clinic. There were very few Bahrainis invited to live on Awali, only the top brass. Segregation continued one way or another.
I cannot imagine what it is like to be set apart because of the colour of one’s skin. My mother never overcame the slight, even though she had grown up in India where the caste system itself made “otherness” a way of living.
Now, in my 60s, I ponder the #BlackLivesMatter movement and I wonder.
What would she have made of it? If I had ever referred to her as “black” she would have given me a slap. ‘I’m coloured,’ she would snap. Once, in Singapore, I went into a chemist shop to buy sun-tan lotion. The Chinese woman behind the till sucked her teeth at me and shook her head. ‘You good colour, already, yah? Almost white. No go in sun. Take this.’ She handed me a jar of whitening cream with an encouraging smile.
My friend Diana, a stunning British Jamaican entrepreneur, go-getter and bottle-of-wine buddy, used to drag me to Black Businesswomen’s groups in the 90s. ‘I feel like a fraud,’ I would whisper as others, a few shades darker than I could ever be, used to eye me up and down.
So now, I wonder … where DO I belong? And, in particular, which box do I tick on forms that ask me to describe ethnicity? Having done Ancestry for a laugh, I’m gutted to discover that, despite having relations called Chaves-Wheeler-Gomes, I actually have no Portuguese DNA at all. Indian? Yes. French? Yes. Welsh? Yes. Philippino, Vietnamese and Italian? Yes, yes, yes. But Portuguese, no.
In considering identity, I put my hand up to being a Londoner, at least. Born at Allie Pally, I came back to my roots – it just took a while. In the swinging 60s, I missed out on all the trendsetting, being at school in Africa, with no TV. But in the 70s, I left the convent, dropped out of university, and set up with a bunch of bachelorettes in a small terraced house just off the King’s Road. Mini-skirts and neon blue platform boots.
But I was a bit shy to be too much of a swinger. Not in those days.
Years later, in my late 50s, after losing a husband, bringing up three daughters and nursing a mother and father to the great rainbow bridge crossing. I felt a certain sense of freedom, at last.
I remember thinking that T.S Eliot was a tough poet to crack. I’ve been reading and re-reading his selected poems for years, and I’m still none the wiser.
Yet I’ve always found something that resonates in The Wasteland, although I’m not at all sure that Eliot would have approved. Not so long ago, I burst out laughing when I read the line ‘By Richmond I raised my knees supine upon the floor of a narrow canoe.’
Whilst my memory had been tickled by the image, geographically speaking it had been nearer to Battersea than Richmond where I had encountered Budgie, the helicopter pilot, for the third time.
Our first meeting had taken place in Covent Garden. Budgie had met me for drinks. It’s safer meeting an internet date in The Crusting Pipe courtyard because you can look down and see who you’re going to spend an hour or so with, especially if you’ve asked him to wear a flower in his lapel. I took a friend for moral support. She was rather taken by him. But while she was in the loo, Budgie took my hand in his. He was wearing a black leather glove. He looked at me thoughtfully and stroked the palm of my hand. I quivered and he smiled. Then, from nowhere, he produced a rose. It was my favourite colour, one of those roses that seem to explode from shocking pink to yellow and then tangerine. Bingo.
‘I only do a little magic,’ he said with a grin. ‘Keep the rose. Can I see you again?’
‘Perhaps,’ I said. I sensed danger. He offered to walk me to the Underground as my friend had left in a bit of a huff. ‘I’ll just get my bike,’ he said airily. And then my eyes widened as I glimpsed a penny-farthing for the first time.
Budgie, it seemed, had a thing about transportation. His tastes proved eclectic.
On our second date, he took me for a spin in his beloved TVR. It was British Racing green and as a lover of elegant cars, I was enthralled. I was less impressed when we got stuck in a snowdrift in Epping Forest on the way back from supper, in what can only be described as a compromising position. I was even less impressed by the sight of flashing blue light in the rearview mirror. We were almost arrested until Budgie pulled rank, being ex-Met, and the two policemen retreated, grinning.
The next date was even more interesting. He invited me back to his penthouse flat and cooked for me. He didn’t have a clue how to cook, but he did have a canoe on his dining table, which is why the T. S. Eliot quote had made me giggle. ‘Have you ever made love in a canoe?’ he asked me, as I poked in desultory fashion at a bowl of stodgy pasta, wishing I’d thought to put a bottle of Tabasco sauce in my handbag.. ‘How about this one?’ he suggested hopefully. ‘But it’s not even on the river,’ I protested. ‘Believe me, sweetie, that’s a bonus,’ he murmured, sweeping me off my feet. It tickled my sense of the ridiculous, amongst other things.
Over the course of the following weeks, I had a lot of fun exploring Budgie’s entire collection of vehicles. He pulled me across London in a rickshaw. He whisked me into a sex-shop in Soho on the back of his Harley-Davidson. I was too embarrassed to go inside in case I was seen by someone I knew. ‘Who do you think is going to see you?’ he said in amusement. ‘And even if they do, they won’t recognise you, because you’re wearing a motorcycle helmet, you daft cow.’
‘I’m not a cow, bugger off,’ I snapped and marched down the road while he followed me on the motorbike, trying to coax me to climb back on the pillion.
Whilst I admit I enjoyed the kiss and make-up part of some of our altercations, I flatly refused to climb into his hand-made Welsh coracle for a spin down to the Thames Barrier. Shrugging, he went solo and was soon towed back to shore by the Thames River Police who said they had received many calls from concerned members of the public who thought he was being washed out to sea.
Enthusiasm only slightly dampened, he ordered a six-foot helium air balloon bearing the colours of the Hindenburg, and we spent a fairly peaceful Sunday morning sailing it around inside his spacious apartment.
One day, he turned up to meet me at my new job at Canary Wharf. He was riding something called a Segway. ‘It’s one of the first in the country,’ he boasted. ‘I got here all the way from Battersea on one charge, can you beat that?’ He paused. ‘But I got chased through the City by the coppers, because they’d never seen one before, and they weren’t sure whether I should be driving on the road or on the pavement.’
‘Presumably, they didn’t catch you?’ I said nervously.
‘Of course not. I took this baby down one of the alleyways and left them standing. She does 40 miles per hour, you know.’
I remember nodding a little wearily. The crowd that formed to admire his Segway was only marginally larger than the crowd who had gathered around his penny-farthing, the previous week when we’d gone to have supper with friends of mine in Notting Hill Gate I was coming from a meeting in the City. ‘Don’t bring the bike, Budgie,’ I’d pleaded. ‘I’m going to be in a tight pencil skirt and high heels.’ When I saw the penny-farthing parked outside, I sighed. ‘How do you expect me to get to yours?’ I said. ‘No problem, sweetheart,’ said Budgie cheerfully. ‘I’ve got you a present.’
He disappeared into the hallway and came back bearing a large coil of thick rope. My friends were quietly in hysterics at the look on my face. ‘Do you intend to rope me to the handlebars?’ I enquired. It had been a long day. ‘No, of course not. That would be too silly,’ he said briskly. ‘Wait until you see the rest of your present.’ He disappeared again and then bounced back into the living room holding a fold-up scooter. He presented it to me, looking delighted with himself. ‘See how much I love you?’ I was dumbstruck. ‘You see,’ he explained patiently. ‘All you have to do is stand on the scooter, sweetie, in your very fetching little tight skirt and high heels and I’ll do the rest.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘I’ll tow you with my penny-farthing, it’s pretty nippy,’ he said. He looked a bit crushed when I seemed unimpressed by his initiative and insisted he call me a minicab. As it turned out, Khyber Pass Cars, were not all they were cracked up to be. They got lost with me in the back, clutching the scooter and the rope. So Budgie did get back to Battersea before me, which pleased him no end. He was the competitive sort.
But the novelty was beginning to wear off. It was when he finally proposed that he take me to the theatre balanced precariously on the bonnet of one of his Sinclair C5s that I realised the relationship was going nowhere, except possibly to Accident and Emergency. Amicably enough, we parted company and he took a job flying bloody big helicopters to the North Sea oil rigs.
Budgie had been just what the doctor ordered. I’ve bloomed as a baby boomer, but time and tide wait for no man … or woman. I don’t think T. S. Eliot said that but he DID say; ‘This is the way the world ends … not with a bang but a whimper.’ I’m not sure if that was some kind of sexual innuendo and after three months of solitary lockdown I think back to the good times with a twinge of nostalgia.
It’s been a tough few months, and he had made me laugh and forget other heartaches. Now, like any rider who’s been tossed off horseback, I need to clamber back on quickly before I lose my nerve. But I’m not talking transportation. I’m talking about internet dating.
Do I have one more adventure left in me? Like an autumn crocus. Is there still the potential to be a late-bloomer?
Or do I accept my fate and go quietly into that dark night? I wonder. I wonder.
We don’t actually fear death, we fear that no one will notice our absence, that we will disappear without a trace. T. S. Eliot.