Love Florence

Florence packed her rucksack filling it with a purple feather boa, two jumpers and a packet of marshmallow snowballs; her collection of postcards, including one of Buckingham Palace, the Uffizi Gallery, Florence from a school trip and a dog-eared card from Bondi Beach sent by her father. She also packed three books: Animal Farm, Gone with the Wind and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Florence took a train to London with £100 in her pocket and a slowly shrinking feeling of despair.
Florence felt a bit sad for her mother, but she had Gary and her job as a psychologist. Sonya Redmond was often on the radio telling the nation how to deal with adolescents which brought to mind black pots and kettles.
“Mum, I’m not happy. I…”
“Sorry, Flo. Just ironing my dress for the university dinner. What do you reckon? Flat or heels?”
“Mum, I need you to…”
“Have you seen the file I left on the table? The red one? You’re looking a bit thin. Would you like some toast? Don’t go anorexic on me, young lady.”
There was one thing worse than a mother who never listened. A mother who believes she listens but doesn’t hear a word.
As the train jolted along the tracks to London, Florence allowed herself to cry. Silently and still, a jiggle between shakes on the tracks, a sigh between breaths with a song spinning between her ears, an old Beatles tune about jars and doors. ‘All the lonely people…’
Florence had visited London with her mum and dad when she was small. The zoo, the Science Museum but most of all, embossed in her memory, the Queen’s palace with the shining gold statue of an angel outside the gates and the red roads that led to anywhere. Florence was very taken with the red roads. They ran along St James’s Park with its bandstand and green river, its birdlife and couples holding hands. London had seemed so sophisticated and grand but now as the train shuddered and slowed past the backs of buildings which could have been drawn in charcoal, it just looked dirty. Where on earth was she going to stay?
Florence was 20 and had worked in a gift shop in her home town until the boredom threatened to roll her in a sack and bury her forever. She was a girl without a plan.
London is a city of millions of people yet Florence had found an empty corner. She had wandered into the waiting room on St Pancras Station looking for somewhere to think. The room smelled of sick. Florence cried noisily as no one was there to hear.
“What are you doing? You can’t stay here.”
“It’s a waiting room.”
“I have to clean.”
Florence looked up into the brown eyes of a young woman dressed in unflattering overalls. “I left home and have nowhere to stay.”
“You in trouble?”
“No.” Florence’s long brown hair hung limply around her face.
“My name is Verda. What’s your story? Everyone has a story, no?”
“Florence.” She held her hand out curling her fingertips to hide her bitten nails. “I don’t really have a story yet.”
“Everybody has a story, Florence. I came to London from Turkey with my brother. We live in Acton. It’s not as beautiful as our village in Turkey. We make money to send home. In my country I am a teacher, here I clean up after drunks and lazy people.”
“That’s not fair.”
Verda shrugged. “It’s okay. I will go home someday and never think of London again.” She stood and picked up her mop. “You can stay with me tonight. No one else in this terrible city will look after you. I clean. When I finish, we go home.”
“Why would you want to help me? Nobody is helping you.”
“You can help me. You can help me clean.”
Florence helped Verda clean the waiting room and when they had finished she helped her vacuum the deserted café.
“People think cleaning is too good for them. But if I don’t do it, it will look awful.”
Florence wondered how much more awful it could look, this was a part of London she didn’t remember. Verda took her on the tube. Florence watched as the names of places she had only heard in books and films whipped past her eyes. Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate, Notting Hill and Holland Park. When they emerged from their underground warren, Florence noticed that the roads to Verda’s house, shiny wet from rain, were black, not red.
Verda and her brother, Ari, lived in North Acton. It was west, a little too west, of London. Their two-bedroom flat smelt of old ladies and mice. Here Florence slept on the sofa under thick grey blankets which itched. She fell asleep thinking ‘I’m here, I can’t believe it’.
Her first day in London started early. Ari was up and about. Florence opened her eyes. Thin grey fingers of daylight crept up, stealing the night away.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” Ari stood in the space between the tiny kitchen and the living room where she lay. Florence cleared her throat. “That’s okay. I was already awake.” She was aware of him, a stranger, and the intimacy of the scene. Florence wrapped the blanket around her and swept a hand over her hair which still stuck up messily from sleep. She was grateful Ari hadn’t switched the light on. It felt odd, the two of them alone, without Verda. But not unpleasant.
“Coffee? Good Turkish coffee, not your English shit.”
“Yes. Please.” Florence only drank instant at home.
He placed the wooden tray with two small coffee cups on the coffee table. The dark hair and eyes she’d noticed the evening before were almost hidden in the half light. “No milk but there’s sugar if you like.” He pointed to a green ceramic dish on the tray.
Ari pulled the curtains back on a deserted street, not even a bird sang. He passed the brown earthenware cup to Florence. “It’s the mornings when I miss Turkey so much. The light is bright but soft. The sun on the sea shines like a thousand stars. And the smell of coffee, cardamom, salt from the harbour, I would sit and watch the boats coming in and out.”
They sat in silence for a moment. “I have to go to work now.”
“What do you do?”
“I work at the vegetable market in Wandsworth, New Covent Garden. I unload the trucks.”
“Is that what you did in Turkey?”
Ari smiled, a snake that slid across his face, no hint of pleasure. “Of course not.”
He picked up his bag and left while Florence still held her coffee cup in her hands. It smelled of cardamom. These kind people who worked hard for little money, and she had so much more. Was she wrong to want a mother who listened to her, or a father who wanted to stay in touch?
Florence threw on a pair of track pants and one of her jumpers, the pink one to add some colour. She washed the coffee cups in the plastic kitchen sink. Verda slept on, her shift didn’t start until 2.00pm. The kitchen cupboards stored a netted bag of onions and a stale box of cereal stuck together in one lump. The wonderful coffee was stored in the fridge along with a jar of black olives and a fruit cake wrapped in a calico bag. She smiled. She would repay Verda’s kindness by doing a grocery shop. She left a note for her new friend and shook out her clothes and books from the backpack to accommodate the groceries.
Florence walked softly down the uncarpeted stairs and past the table by the front door where bills in brown envelopes gathered. Different names from different countries, people who were fighting to make a life in a place that didn’t welcome strangers. It was 8.00am when she closed the door behind her, realising that she wouldn’t be able to get back in if Verda went out. What about her possessions, shabby as they were, they meant a lot to Florence. She might not get them back.
The morning was still abrupt in its coldness. It bit at Florence’s ears as she pulled on a hat and gloves she had knitted herself, following but not sticking to a pattern she’d found, in last years colours of aubergine and sky blue. She walked past red brick buildings with concrete steps leading to front doors where old prams and tricycles jostled for position. From a second floor window she saw a child with honey skin, dark eyes staring, hypnotized by the ebb and flow of traffic as it jockeyed for order and waited at the lights.
Florence heard a cacophony of languages, some melodic, some faster, more urgent, annoyed. The smell of curry, burnt toast, coffee and fried food, overwhelmed her senses.
Her father had lived briefly in London, on the south side. Mortlake, morte meant death in Italian, as he was to her now. He’d lived there before he’d emigrated to Australia and was never seen again. Florence’s last memory of him was of his back as he’d walked away whistling. Why had he whistled? Her mum had taken up with Gary from the philosophy department at the university. Gary who couldn’t put a shelf up, who needed a manual to change the oil in his car.
Her dad had been a carpenter, she must take after him. She was good with her hands but her mind swam. It flowed like florescent ribbons, colourful and playful but not a mind for focus or deep thinking. Florence wondered if this mattered. Her mother thought it did.
At the convenience store run by an Indian couple, she bought mandarins and potatoes, feta cheese and chocolate chip cookies. Butter and a loaf of grainy bread. Sardines and a jar of plum jam. A wonderful mixed up meal for Florence hadn’t yet learned to cook.
She distributed the weight of the bags in her hands but still the tight plastic handles dug into her fingers. On the way home the streets seemed more ordinary, they had lost some of their mystery and Florence wondered why. Had London taken these people from cultures of colour and rich aromas and made them greyer, absorbed them rather than letting them brighten up the gloomy cut-outs of a city of inadequate light.
Later when Verda had gone to work and Ari sat with her drinking more coffee, she asked him what it had been like for him arriving in England.
“England was okay. From the ferry the bus drove through green hills and villages. But when we got to London it was as if its grim self reached into the sky. Dense particles of grit like unwashed curtains draping the streets.” He laughed, not a happy laugh.
“Why stay?”
“I am making money to send home to my family, Verda too. She will go home soon, next summer. She is to be married.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. She must miss him.”
Ari frowned. “She hasn’t met him.”
“An arranged marriage?” Florence gasped.
“It’s the way it’s done. I don’t see England is happier with so much freedom of choice.”
“And you, Ari?”
“I am free to make a choice. My family would like me to go home and marry a Turkish girl but they also like the money. I may stay here.”
The next day Florence woke late wondering where she was. She lay looking at a foreign ceiling, listening to the sudden sound of a milk float outside the bay window and was sad she had missed Ari.
When she came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head she collided with Verda.
“Hello, Florence.” Verda smiled brightly.
“Hello Verda. I hope you don’t mind me staying a second night.”
Verda looked thoughtful. “We need to find you work. I am free until this evening. Let’s go for a walk.”
They walked the same route to the shops that Florence had taken the day before. Past the convenience store with exotic smells and the polite Indian couple and a bookies which smelt only of cigarette smoke. They reached a newsagents with a window full of cards. Things wanted and unwanted, things to find and things to lose. There were cards asking for au pairs, cleaners and shop assistants. Nothing interested Florence. Verda pointed out a card with a thumbnail sketch of a dog on it.
“Look at that Florence.”
“It doesn’t pay much.”
“You wouldn’t need much living with me and Ari. If you don’t mind the couch as a bed.” Verda tucked Florence’s arm through hers. A feeling swept through Florence, a warmth she hadn’t had since childhood.
“Let’s go and eat too much ice-cream!” Verda said, leading the way to an Italian ice-creamery painted in pastels. The only colours in the streets of grey.
When Florence got home she placed her three treasured postcards on the mantelpiece and her three favourite books on the old, lopsided shelf unit by the sofa.
A few days later Florence walked the streets again, A-Z tucked under her arm, she stopped every now and then to find her way. The man on the other end of the phone told her his name was Brian and he worked from home. He had recently separated from his wife and needed someone to walk their dog, a Great Dane called Rainbow. His wife had been a free-spirit, Brian explained awkwardly, so much so that she had disappeared to New Zealand leaving Rainbow behind. Florence understood what it was like to be abandoned.
Number 57 Orchard Street was a pale bricked townhouse with five steps leading to the front door, painted black. Florence rang the door bell. The door opened and an enormous dog poked his head out ahead of his owner. He appeared to be well trained, Florence would have feared for her bones if Rainbow had jumped up at her.
“Hello, Florence,” Brian was going thin on top and sported a grey beard. Everything about him seemed to apologise.
“Hello, Brian. Pleased to meet you.” She stuck out her hand to her new boss. Whatever her mother had lacked in parenting skills, she hadn’t stinted on teaching her daughter manners. “And I’m pleased to meet you too, Rainbow.” She stroked the dog.
On Sunday over a quiet breakfast, Verda was sleeping after a late shift cleaning an office building and Ari was already at work, Florence noticed something stuck between two sauce bottles. A card written in biro. It said, ‘I finish at 10.00am and will be home by the time you’ve walked Rainbow. Fancy a trip to see the Queen? Ari’. Florence turned the postcard over. The other side had a large yellow smiley face but she was already smiling.
They took the Central Line to Notting Hill then the circle line to St James’s Park. They walked up and down Birdcage Walk, Florence’s request, to savour the red roads she loved, before they went up to the gates of the palace. This time they couldn’t afford to go on a tour but there was an unspoken promise that they would one day. Ari took her hand from the bars and gave it a squeeze. Florence whispered, “thank you.” They found a bench in St James’s Park and sat down.
Ari held Florence’s hand again. “I was a fisherman in my village but now the boats are used to ferry tourists around. I was angry at first but as I heard these English speaking people talk about their lives I found I wanted to see what I had only seen with words. Now I work hard to buy my own stall at the market, life is hard but it’s bigger somehow.” Florence understood completely.
When they got home and Ari was in the kitchen making his special coffee for them both, Florence took down the postcard of Buckingham Palace she had asked her mum to buy many years before. She knew what to write.
‘Dear Mum, I don’t need to keep this postcard as I live quite near it. I don’t want to be anywhere else but maybe one day I’ll send you the card from the Uffizi Gallery or even one from Bondi. I’ll phone soon. Love, Florence’.

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5 thoughts on “Love Florence

  1. That you so much girls! For taking the time to read my story and commenting on it too. It’s a very attractive idea to pack a bag full of frivolous things and take a train into adventure. Descriptions are exactly what they are Di. XXX

    • Rosie, I actually had Vita in my mind when I wrote of Florence. And I remember friends who had moved from Africa to London in their youth and all they could remember was the overwhelming grey. I still get excited when I see the red roads on the telly though.

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