Read by Lois Tucker
Rowan’s Nan is offended by Rowan's loose tunic: knobbly raw silk, navy blue.
'A trapeze dress?' she snaps, unhindered by the oxygen tube that loops under her nose, 'what's that when it's at home? You don't wear a trapeze. You don't wear a cocoon.’
'It's nice stuff, Nan. It’s Cos. I saved up.'
‘You want to take more pride in yourself, Ro. You've got such a pretty figure, not like your mum. Why’ve you got to go dressing up like the little match girl?'
‘Cut her some slack,’ says Rowan’s dad, who is looking out of the window with his hands in his pockets. ‘She’s come all this way.’
‘Oh, she’s a good girl really.’
Nan looks little and faded in the hospital bed. The sheets are too white and the windows are too big, letting too much chilly grey light spill in. She’s wearing a candy-pink angora cardigan, which smells of her talc, but they’ve taken all her rings and bracelets off her and so to Rowan she looks exposed: slack putty-coloured skin and knobbly knuckles and naked skinny wrists. At home she’d be ensconced on the couch in her velour dressing gown, surrounded by her souvenir cushions and her carnival glass, bright as jellies. She’d have her ash-tray shaped like a spaniel, she’d have her little satinette quilt. She’d be OK.
Rowan’s dad leans against the radiator under the window and gets out his crossword. He’s been hanging around the hospital long enough to know that nothing is going to happen very fast, that these are not moments to cling to. Rowan pulls a plastic chair up to Nan’s bedside.
‘I’ve got you some presents,’ she says, pulling them from her satchel and laying them on the little tray over the bed. A box of Milk Tray and some synthetic crushed-velvet slippers from Primark, hot pink. ‘To help you feel better.’
Nan has to shuffle herself more upright to see them: an effort. Her cardigan slips, her hospital gown gapes, and Rowan can see the cannula by her collar-bone, but Nan’s attention is all absorbed by her presents. She spreads her fingers happily like a small child, trailing tubes. ‘Ooh,’ she says, ‘now these are nice. Very nice. Where’djoo find these?’ She presses the slippers between her fingers. ‘Cosy,’ she clucks. ‘You’re a good girl.’ She is greedy always for the cheapest sort of opulence. Faux fur, creme-de-menthe, the porcelain figurines advertised in the back of her weekly magazines. It is easy to make her happy, ten pounds well spent.
‘Where you living now, Ro?’
‘You’ll never guess.’ Rowan clasps her hands in her lap.
‘Well then save me the trouble.’
‘Deptford!’ Her usual disbelieving squawk. ‘Why’djoo want to do that?’
‘Well, my studio’s there. It’s cheap. It’s nice.’
‘Don’t tell me about Deptford. I know all about Deptford. Grew up there, didn’t I?’
‘I know you did.’
‘Nice, she says! No, I remember Deptford. Our family lived there ever since there was houses to live in. Hundreds of years.’
‘Well, who can know. Who’s writing it down?’ She fumbles at the buttons of her cardi, to hide the bits of plastic sticking out of her skin. ‘We had a veg stall on the market. We lived – we lived – Poland street, it was called. Thirty-four Poland Street. Behind the high street, with Aunty Mary next door and our Kathleen round the corner. None of it’s there any more, council pulled it all down when your dad was a little boy. Slums, is what they said. Not fit for habitation. No heating, no toilets, none of that. We had to fetch water from the pump.’ She is plucking at the bedsheets: the backs of her hands are puckered with surgical tape and dark with a bloom of pooled blood.
‘You don’t need to worry about me, Nan. I’ve got running water.’
‘Well some people like it. My dad, he wouldn’t leave. They given him a thousand pounds to move out – back then, mind, that’s real money – but he didn’t want to go. There were rats, and no streetlights, but he said no, no, he couldn’t leave his stall. Not that it belonged to him any more. They fixed him up with a nice new flat, a proper kitchen, no damp, but he couldn’t get his head round it.’
‘He’d never lived in a block of flats before,’ says Rowan’s dad, not looking up. ‘He was an old man, he didn’t know anyone there. It wasn’t fair.’
‘Better than leaving him to rot.’
‘He died within the year,’ says Rowan’s dad.
Nan turns back to Rowan. ‘I don’t know what you want to live there for.’
‘It’s really different now.’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’
But later, when it’s time for Rowan’s dad to drive her back to the station, her Nan clasps her hand in her little dry fingers and says,
‘Fancy you living in Deptford. We spend sixty years dragging ourselves out of there, and you with your fine art degree, you turn round and go straight back.’
And Rowan cannot tell if she is disappointed or pleased.
In the morning, Rowan makes coffee on the stove. She lives in a flat over the fish shop on the high street, and she likes to lean on the windowsill and watch the market traders setting up their stall. They are calling to one another, shouting and laughing over the beep of reversing vans and the crash of scaffolding. Out the back, Mr Ramachandran and his sons carry in polystyrene cartons of today’s deliveries. There are chips of ice scattered on the tarmac of the loading bay, sparkling as they melt.
A jangle of keys at the front door and Rowan’s housemate Etta lets herself in, her arms full of box files. She is studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths. She wears horn-rimmed glasses and a kente headscarf. Her lipstick is cherry-red.
‘You can’t get anything photocopied round here any more,’ she says.
‘You can,’ says Rowan. ‘Across the road from the station, there’s a copy shop.’
‘Nope. It’s gone. It’s all been turned into studios. There’s a raw food café.’
‘Christ. What’s happening to this place?’
‘Don’t ask me. You’re part of the problem.’
‘And what about you?’
Etta rips open a packet of kimchi. ‘At least I’m from round here,’ she remarks.
‘I’m from round here.’
‘You’re from Manningtree.’ Etta finds a fork and eats straight from the packet.
‘Yeah, but my Nan was born here. We are old, old Deptford. What are you, second generation?’
‘Right, right. You know how my dad managed to find a place here when he first arrived from Ghana? Because people like your Nan had all shipped out. They didn’t want to be here any more. You’re saying you’d be living here even if it weren’t getting gentrified to fuck?’
‘You’re saying you would?’
Etta is laughing. ‘At least I’d stand a chance of getting my photocopying done. Anyway, I bet I know more about this place than you do, little miss Old Deptford. Do you want to know a fact?’
Rowan sips her coffee. Etta picks at her kimchi.
‘So,’ she says, ‘way back when, in the eighteenth century, Deptford was a pretty wealthy place. Everybody worked at the dockyards, building the ships. They were highly skilled craftsmen. So one of their little perks was to take away all the leftover wood. Great big beams, some of them, from building these battleships. And these leftover bits of wood were called chips. Got it?’
‘They used to build their houses from them, sometimes. This house was probably built using chips. This house was definitely built the same way you’d build a ship.’
Rowan looks around the kitchen. Somewhere underneath the smooth tiles and laminate floor are the hefty beams, pegged tightly together.
‘If your people lived here back then, they probably worked in the dockyard. Now the admiralty didn’t like a lot of the ways these Deptford people worked, and they especially didn’t like them taking the chips away. They tried to crack down on them, and the dockyard workers unionised. Nobody did that back then. The navy sent troops in to deal with them. So if you, Rowan, have a chip on your shoulder…’
‘… then you’re a Deptford dockyard worker standing up to the man, taking what’s yours.’
‘I like that.’
‘The things you don’t know about your home town, huh?’
Rowan rinses her mug. ‘I’m going to the studio,’ she says.
‘I’ll walk with you. I’m on a quest for Deptford’s last surviving photocopier.’
The flat is part of a little warren of tenements. Rowan and Etta must walk a draughty corridor with narrow staircases that leap off it on unexpected corners. It gives out onto a flat roof covered in decking, where tenants keep their potted geraniums and their fixed-gear bicycles, and then there is a dark concrete staircase down to the street. It’s busy now, the pavements half-covered with market stalls, so passers-by pick their way through slowly in single file, African women swathed in Ankara prints, hipsters with their string bags and Breton tops, stooped men as old as Nan. Have they always lived here? Would they remember her? There are bin bags and crates of rubbish piled by lampposts to be taken away, and bits of stray fruit in the gutter: pulpy plums too far gone to sell; grapes that have tripped off their stalks.
‘Let’s get off the pavement,’ Etta says, and they dart down the gap between two canvas-walled stalls to walk in the middle of the road where there’s more space. Under blue tarpaulin awnings they are selling remaindered Topshop dresses and Xbox games. ‘THIEVES, DON’T WAIST YOUR TIME’, a hand-written sign above them says, ‘DISPLAY BOXES R EMPTY’.
‘I’m still thinking about those ship-houses,’ says Rowan. The buildings behind the stalls and shopfronts are crooked and grimy, with net curtains at some of the windows and others blocked by stacks of boxes within.
‘See how grand they are? There was money here once.’ says Etta.
It’s true that behind the shops - Convenience & Value – Silk Road Asian Supermarket - £££ Shop - there are handsome barrel fronts and broad sash windows rotting away.
Up above, the cranes are pivoting slowly. ‘There’s money here again,’ says Rowan. She and Etta stop to look at the posters on the hoardings: a brand new complex of one- and two-bed luxury flats.
‘Private gym facilities and an underground car park.’
‘That’s that, then. We’re priced out.’
‘Where’ll we go next?’
‘I think there’s only Catford left. Start getting used to it.’
The other half of the market, past the hot-dog van and the man who auctions bolts of fabric to a gathering crowd, is all house-clearance stuff, saucepans and alarm clocks and piles of old coats. Etta peels off to inspect a box full of Pyrex teacups. Rowan picks through a stack of art books, their pages crimped and speckled with mould. She finds an old Roses tin full of somebody’s sewing kit: wooden cotton reels neatly tucked together; a green felt needle-case; scissors and an unpicker in white plastic sheaths. There’s a Simplicity pattern for a pleated knee-length skirt, size 16, and scrawled on it in biro is somebody’s name.
‘Philomena,’ Rowan reads. She reaches out to grab Etta’s elbow. ‘Look at this. Do you think everything on this table is her stuff?’
‘Probably,’ says Etta. ‘She’s been to Sharm-al-Sheikh on holiday, look.’ She holds up a little bottle layered with different colours of sand. ‘She bought a yogurt maker thirty years ago and never took it out of its box.’
‘Do you think she’s dead now?’
‘I suppose so. Or in a home.’
There are tears prickling the backs of Rowan’s eyes.
‘It’s so sad. Why is all her stuff here? Didn’t she have family who wanted it?’
‘What, her collection of cotton reels? Her rolls of undeveloped film? Her crappy seventies sherry glasses? They’re not exactly heirlooms, are they?’
‘They were hers. Maybe nobody cared about her at the end.’
‘Maybe they knew what to let go of. It’s just stuff.’
‘Stuff is important.’ Rowan wants to gather up everything on the stall, to piece Philomena back together from the detritus of her life. ‘All these things are going to get spread about and then nobody will remember who she was.’
Etta rolls her eyes. ‘You don’t know who she was! Come on. Let’s get out of here.’
They walk up the high street arm in arm, passing the building that used to be a job centre but which is now a bar called JobCentre. ‘Poor people, go away’ hisses Etta.‘If you can’t be ironic about unemployment, we don’t want your sort.’
Outside the church – a laminated sign, all the lead from this roof has already been stolen – Rowan’s phone starts to ring.
‘It’s my dad.’
She stares at the screen.
'Are you going to answer it?’
She flips it to ignore, but as soon as she makes to return it to her pocket, it starts to buzz again, angry in her palm.‘I know what he’s going to say.’
She hits ignore again. And again: bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. They are standing together on the pavement, saying nothing, their heads bent over the screen.
‘You’ve got to pick it up,’ says Etta, her hand on Rowan’s shoulder.
‘No I haven’t.’
‘I think it’s an emergency.’
But Rowan has already shoved it into her pocket and she is walking fast, away from the church, her feet dodging squashed hot-dog rolls and flyers for hot yoga. Etta is chasing after her but Rowan can’t turn around. She just keeps walking until she gets back to the market. She is casting about for the round blue tin, the collection of useless junk that is about to be dispersed.
‘How much do you want for this?’ she asks the stallholder.
He casts a cursory glance over it. He glances at Rowan too. ‘Pound, to you. You want a bag?’
‘No. That’s OK.’ She is clutching it to her chest with both arms. She starts to run between the market stalls, between the tall shipbuilt houses. She holds the tin so close she can feel her heartbeat hammering through it.
(c) Imogen Hermes Gowar, 2015
Imogen Hermes Gowar is a recent graduate from the UEA Prose Creative Writing MA, where she was the recipient of the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Prize. She is currently working on a novel set in eighteenth-century Deptford, chronicling the menage-a-trois between a merchant, a courtesan, and a mermaid.
Lois Tucker is an actress and creative, interested in consciousness, communication and adding to our enjoyment of life here on this spinning ball of rock, hurtling through spacetime. Likes: singing at the top of her voice; throwing fierce shapes on the dancefloor; diving head first into a project; making you laugh. www.loistucker.net