Sunday, 21 February 2010

London East Street Market on a Saturday Morning

Our plan for the day included six markets, starting with East Street. One of the watches Zoe bought there the day before didn’t work. I bought a two inch wide matte and shiny silver bracelet as well yesterday. When I spotted the bracelet in a glass case at the market, I thought it was beautiful. The shape of the beads reminded me of the shape of eye teeth of elephants. 

Today I mean to wear the bracelet every day I am in London to remind me not to buy anything else like it. Over-the-top guaudy, eye-catching and useless, I bought it initially to stop myself from buying more watches at the stall that had attracted Zoe. Invest £1.5 to stop myself spending £30 pounds, I thought. 

The merchants are clever with their chatter bringing the customers closer to their stalls. I was looking for a red purse, but didn’t say anything to anyone about it. However, I must have touched a couple of red bags, because in no time, every red bag the merchant had on hooks or tucked under the counter was in front of me. 

The fellow selling watches to Zoe was having a harder time figuring out who his customer was. For one thing, she takes longer than the regular person to process whether she is interested in an object or not. After she has been asked a question, she may give the answer but after a 3 minute time lag. By the time she gives the answer, the merchant has already asked 10 to 15 more questions and it is hard to go back and figure out which of the questions this was the answer to. 

I asked Wyona what the common denominator was for her when she had finally selected three watches. The colour pink or the shape of a heart or a combination of pink/hearts.

Wyona and I are so cold. Every day, we are cold. I layered up for the shopping trip: a t-shirt, a button up shirt, plus one of Greg’s over-the-head, zip-up-the-neck shirts, my wool coat and 2 scarves. Before I was half way down the market I had bought 5 pair of gloves – one of the pairs a much cheaper model than the same black gloves I bought a few days before on Oxford Street. I will just pick up this as a back-up pair for when I lose one of the first set, I thought. 

A finely woven black and red shawl calf length coat caught my eye. I must have been cold. I paid and put it right over my shoulders. No bag for me. “Let me fiddle with this,” said the shop-keeper as she arranged it over all of those other layers I had put on in the morning. “The pin to attach this at the shoulder is free. No charge. Better to buy the cape from me, than at Harrods, and much cheaper,” she continued, all of the time interspersing our conversation with calls to other customers about the size or the price or under which pile to look to find another colour of the item they were looking at. 

“Do you have a pin that matches,” I asked as she clasped one corner of the cape to my shoulders.

“Only in my knickers, and I am not giving you that one,” she replied.

Warm now, I walked ahead of Greg, Zoe and Wyona for a while, stopping to observe the underwear stall because I saw an old man there, carefully going through a beige cardboard box of bras, fingering a pink one adorned with red roses, sweeping his hand along the inside of the cup. 

“I can’t tell which of these three men is the shop keeper,” I said to Greg, when he caught up. “Look, the two wizened old men behind the counter are lifting the knee length silky underwear, and letting it billow down to touch the table. And the other is interested in the bras. But neither act is attracting customers.”

I had just heard a black man shouting to a white merchant, “Shut up, you dirty black nigger.” I did a double take and had to look again to see who was black and who was white. When he shouted the same phrase again I thought there would be trouble. A younger merchant was sitting cross legged on scaffolding above his merchandise. He looked straight ahead as though he was unaware of the noise. “Looks like our friend has had too much to drink,” Greg said. “I saw him further on down the market.”

The market was also full of a lot of “Praise the Lord for the beautiful day” and “Thanks be to God, days not as good as last years, but still beautiful”. “Hey. man” and “Jesus lives” were antiphonal phrases, as well as a deferential, “Hello boss” to some customers.

One glove seller was singing along with the African music blaring from the next booth – the live singer had a rich deep operatic quality voice. A talent not really lost for he sang as he sold gloves.

Wyona showed me some small flashlights with batteries included in the package. “We need these at the lake. You should buy them for your grandchildren, Arta.” 

“Now why would I do that? They are all so afraid that I don’t have one who would use a flashlight and go out after dark,” I answered.

Zoe was getting hungry by this time and she had been promised chips. Wyona stayed back buying pansies for her window boxes. Zoe looked through the window and into the House of Kebabs but they only sold Mediterranean food. At the shop called African and Caribbean Cuisine, I saw Zoe’s nose was pressed against their restaurant window reading the menu inside. The shop keeper opened the door and told her to come in. She saw the word chips on the menu. I saw the words gizzards, jollope, black-eye beans and rice, saveloy,and spinach and egusi stew. Looked like a place both of us would like to eat.

When lunch was finished and he asked, the proprietor told Greg where to find plantain chips, so we slipped across the street, behind the stall, to another store ... all out, but the shop next door had a large crate of cows feet for sale, and next door, for sale, large cows feet. 

Greg said that the smell of Africa was in the House of Africa and suggested Wyona and I checked it out. Packages of dried anchovies, with 1000’s of eyes looking out of the cellophane package at us. Next to that, ground crayfish, -- a whole new world of ingredients to cook with. Greg was not up to carrying rice home in the 50 pound bags that were sold there, so we went on down the market.

On the bus, on the way home, there was the hum of international languages, none of them with the rhythm of any western European accents that I know. The bus lurches suddenly when the light turns from red to green. I was hanging onto the pole to my side, but my feet didn’t have a stance that gave me equilibrium, swinging me around the pole. Now I know where the idea of pole dancing comes from. Dramatic, but I am not that graceful yet.

Wyona and I dropped Greg and Zoe and the packages off at the flat and slipped up to Camden for the last two hours of the day. “Where you come from all the time,” the clerk in the Indian shop near the main entrance asked Wyona. “I see you every two weeks or so.” 

The women on the second floor among the scarves said the same thing to her. “I know you. You come here often.” And when Wyona asked the price of the scarves, one of the clerks said, “Baal is not here today. He is at the market at Petticoat Lane, but he gives you a special price, so I will call him on his cell and tell him you are here.”

“What is going on with that?” I asked Wyona. 

“I don’t know why they are saying that,” she said. “I slip in and out of these stores and I don’t want anyone to know me. These little merchants are working so hard to make a living in these stalls.”

I was in Camden with a purpose. I wanted to go to a shop that buys and sells gold. The sign says, We Buy your Old Gold, on the Spot. Cash.” I don’t have any gold, but the last time I was in Camden, in that store, I saw large seed pearls on a 48 inch string, a knot between each pearl. I know that when the necklace breaks, there will be one complete string on the floor and not the sound of beads running along the floor, everywhere. My friend, Dani Pahulje, took a course last year where she restrung some pearls of her grandmothers, and the course cost the same amount as the pearls cost that I saw in the store. 

Still I had to go home and think about buying those. I am not one to buy on the spot, but ever since I saw the pearl markets in China I have been thinking about this. The seed pearls are the natural ones, not beautifully matched, and graded ones that you see in the strings of pearls in better stores. This string is full of irregular shapes, a beauty in the uneven naturalness of them, I think. 

I have no idea where I will wear them when I get home. Maybe out to garden. And until I get back to my garden, I will put them on every morning and wear them under my coat as I sight see London. Wyona mocks me and asks me what I am thinking of. I tell her I am having my own kind of pleasure.

I was so tired when Wyona and I finally got home at night that I could hardly get a bite of a donut to my mouth. Wyona was the same. This morning, Greg asked us what happened to both of us last night. Two tired women absolutely disappear at the same time. 

Today, Zoe and I went on a bus tour on our own. She was practising with her new camera – taking pictures of the celebration of the Chinese New Year at Trafalgar Square, shots at St. Paul’s Cathedral, walking across the Millennium Bridge and taking pictures of the tour boats as they passed underneath us, catching the British Telecom Tower and the Tate Museum in the same shot, a shot in front of the Horse Guard at Whitehall, a landscape picture of London Bridge as we were walking over the Thames, and a couple of shots of both of us at the top of the double decker bus. 

We also travelled on one of the heritage Routemaster buses, one of those old vehicles where the driver is at the front, but you get on at the back. The ticket master stands at the open platform until everyone is seated and then comes by to check tickets as the bus is moving along. After all of that, the highlight was of the day for her was the chicken nuggets and fries meal at MacDonalds. Some menus work in every language.

I dropped Zoe off at the flat and went sight-seeing by myself, from the top of a bus #15. I touched in with my Oyster Card and then sat with a map on my lap, checking it often to see which of the sights were rolling by. Trafalgar, the West End, Aldwych, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, and then residential districts as the bus went all of the way to Blackwall, where the Docks begin. 

I was the last one on the bus at its terminal and the only one on the bus as it began its route back. The name of my favourite pub along the way was Hung, Dried and Quartered. If I drank, I would surely have stopped in there.



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