I was walking along the high street observing my surroundings as if behind glass, detached, seeing people as characters in plays, playing themselves; the tall man in faded denim lumbering in front of me on crutches, calling out to a man he knew at the bus stop in a strong Irish accent, “see you later Tommy;” a young mum in beige, pushing a pram; a young woman, early 20s, overweight, wearing leggings and a cycle helmet, wheeling her bike up the high street. They passed me in slow motion, images stretching and twisting as if at the end of a reel of old cinema film. I wondered about their stories, the worlds they inhabited and then I met Melina.
She has a wide, laughing mouth and wears tight dark blue jeans, an aertex AJ Hacket shirt splashed with bright, primary colours, and arsenal cap hiding her soon-to-be “locksed” hair which she tells me means dreadlocked.
She’s in conversation with a man up a ladder and can tell from the way in which he’s painting the sign that he is more than a painter of walls and signs, the muscle movement and careful strokes indicate to her, she who has taken the time to observe, that he’s a craftsman. He learned his trade on the shop floor and he now owns the shop whose sign he is painting. She tells him this and he confirms her assessment. She is pleased with herself, and strides off, announcing to the man up the ladder that he has done well for himself and to the world in general that society needs more positive action taken. This phrase finds my ears and she and I smile at each other.
She rattles questions at me, gruffly and in haste, whilst telling me that she has to pay wages today, she owns a construction business, a client has gone to Italy on holiday, she did psychology at University – and I answer some of them, others she answers for me. To one I respond that I have moved back to my Mum’s for a bit, she nods “recently divorced?” to which I confirm, yes, the papers were due yesterday but I haven’t received them yet. She says she’s been divorced for 2 years, married for 14, had her son when she was 31, went to New York for peace. For peace? I ask. Yes, he was stalking me, I needed to hide. I don’t ask who he is. She will tell me if she wants to.
We arrive at the bank. She grumbles about a man who had her train some workers for him and then cut her out of the deal. He’s dodgy, she says, I just need £100 a day profit, sometimes they offer me £70 a day but I cannot work for less than £400 a week! Impossible. Maybe I’ll let them all go and just project manage the next job, she muses as the hole in the wall spits out wages for her staff.
I suggest we go for a coffee. We enter an Arab-style cafe with mosaics, dark wooden cushioned seats, ornate mirrors adorning the walls and patrons enjoying hookah. We reject the cafe as Melina sent her son to New York for the summer to stay with family as she doesn’t want him to become a Muslim. They hang around parks and places looking for young, lost people to recruit, she says. Many suicide bombers are recruited as lost teenagers, not born to the religion; they are weak.
We to go to the Turkish cafe instead. On the way this time I tell Melina something about herself which is that she’s from Trinidad. She says oh, you know about these things, and orders a Guinness from the Polish girl behind the bar as she is vegetarian and drinks two a day of these for the protein content. I have a coke. It’s flat.
She tells me that her father used to work for the Trinidad Express, she has a brother who is in prison. He went down a bad path. He had keys to all our apartments and was always bringing in women. Will he be in prison long? I ask. Yes, she says. He was an accessory to a murder. He was the driver of the getaway car when a robbery in an Italian deli in New York went wrong. They had planned with the manager of the store to rob it but “there was a gun” and the owner of the store was shot.
Her brother’s imprisonment shattered her life, she said. She pauses briefly, smiles, picks up some blue-tinted glasses and puts them on her face. These are my son’s, she says, I miss him. He was staying with her sister in New York somewhere but packed up his-self and went to Queens to stay with a brother. He’s a brat, says Melina, probably my sister told him something he didn’t want to hear and when his uncle annoys him, he’ll pack up himself and go to the next aunt or uncle or maybe bug the family to send him to see his cousins in DC.
She knocks on the window to indicate to the Polish girl who is sweeping the pavement outside and weeding the plant pots, that she has customers inside waiting to be served. The windows are double-glazed and the girl does not hear Melina’s insistent knocking however Melina thinks the girl was wary of her from the instant we walked into the cafe. “I’m not being racist,” she says, “but the Eastern Europeans undercut me constantly.”
She tells me about the low-lifes in her building who open the mail. She shows me photos on her phone of opened mail as irrefutable proof of society crumbling. She tells me that her mother had 14 children but one died, that her mother’s cancer is back but that she and her mother never really got on anyway. There were always au-pairs around and her father had 2 other children outside the marriage. Maybe this is why I’m like how I am, she says. My whole family is in New York, my brother calls me to say let me buy you a ticket to Venezuela (he has a farm there), you can relax by the pool. Why? Says Melina, I have to work. I suggest it’s a good thing to have family who care. She agrees yes, but it’s too much at times.
She punctuates her sentences with street names – do you know Etchingham Park? I did a loft there, the woman was an atheist, she has a 4 year old child, the loft is all for the child. Can you imagine? I can well imagine so I smile and say nothing. Do you know Nether Street? I did an office there, they only wanted me, no one else. She constantly shows me photos of work she’s done and photos of her son who’s 12, “he thinks he’s a rapper but he’ll do a Masters. His grades are all 90%.”
Does he see his father? No, he doesn’t want to. The divorce did not deal with custody or money so she fears that if MJ (Michael Junior) went for a weekend at his father’s, he would keep him. The father has said that he’ll take MJ when he’s 14. Melina says let him start the custody proceedings, I don’t have money for all that.
They had lived in a house in Mill Hill together. When it was sold, he went to the bank and withdrew all but £1,000 of the proceeds of sale from their joint account.
I look at her incredulously. She looks at me. We shake our heads, spread our hands, shrug our shoulders. She smiles again, shows me another photo of her son. Said that she’d wanted to be an architect but, “we had a mortgage.”
She met him soon after his divorce. We had a good life together, she said. Arsenal is her team, he worked there, they had a season ticket to all the games – the season ticket is what I miss most from the marriage, she laughingly explains. Well, I miss sex too but you can get that anywhere.
I ask her what happened to her season-ticket life?
She says, “my son was born on the same day as my husband’s murdered daughter” and the air which had been sluggish and on pause, rushes back in as if we’d all been holding our breath.
He was a father to a murdered child. He and his wife had sent her to England for a better life and her throat had been slit by the woman who was supposed to be looking after her. She pleaded insanity and did not serve a full year.
They would visit her grave on her birthday, her death-day, the day of the trial result. The birth of her son ended the constant vigil for Melina who did not want to take MJ to visit the grave of his long-dead, never-met-never-would-meet, half-sister on his birthday. The ghost tightened her grip and her father would spend evenings at home drinking and staring at photos of his loss whilst his wife and son disappeared like snowflakes in the rain, out of his life.
Melina smiles a lot, showing her gold teeth. She could never be considered beautiful, but she is very alive. She asks me why I talked to her. I cannot articulate an answer apart from to say it was her comment about positive action but in reality, she was technicolour on a grey and grainy high-street; her story sought out a teller and chose me.
She tells me she coaches basketball and various other sports. She could swim 60 lengths at once but now she smokes she probably couldn’t do it. Do I swim, she wants to know. Yes, I tell her, quite regularly now. Am I good, she wants to know. Yes I say. Who’s my team? I say I have none, that my support of Spurs was really my support of my brother’s support of Spurs when we were children together. Do I read, she wants to know. Yes, lots. What’s the last book I read? I bring The Age of Shiva out of my bag and briefly say it’s about choices and where they lead. She examines the book, glances at the back cover, returns it to me and is already onto the next question, stories from her scattered mind escaping from her mouth to anyone around to receive them.