I received a letter in the post today, from a stranger.
It was from the niece of a neighbour, from London where I grew up. The letter informed me that Kitty had passed away at the end of June and a family service had been held. Barely 30 written words but enough to form a bridge across the last 40 years.
As adults, my brother and I would alternate, sending Kitty and Fred Christmas gifts and a card. We always received a present each in return, sometimes with a short, handwritten note. I didn’t know Kitty well and even when Fred died I didn’t feel it right to express anything beyond condolences and flowers. Somehow, I always felt there was something prim and proper about them but I think I still saw them through a child’s eyes.
Kitty and Fred never had any children. But they were always generous to us, buying toys and taking an interest in what we were doing. David and I weren’t really close with them though, which makes their generosity all the more touching.
Latterly, Kitty and I said more in our letters; updates about the present from me and comments about the past from her, about how much London life had changed. It occurred to me only recently that Kitty was the last person who would remember the local shops as I knew them.
Mr Thomas, running the fruit and veg shop with his son and daughter – the scent of apples always lingering in the shop, and soil from the sacks of spuds spilling across the concrete floor. The way that, years later when every shop tried to sell everything, they would wrap up a single toilet roll in newspaper for you to carry home. And Lil’s, on an opposite corner, selling sliced meats, bread and breakfast cereal. Even then, those shops seemed so small. Especially Mr & Mrs Pitman’s sweetshop – where jars of sticky boiled sweets crammed the shelves, just out of reach, like a children’s purgatory.
If I make that walk of old, I reach the High Road where Pete ran the other fruit and veg shop. Where his labrador Sam would sleep all day, unimpressed when Pete picked up an apple and twisted it in half. Further along, Bob’s Wavy Line store – probably one of the first convenience franchises. Bob used to reach for the top shelves with his pincer on a stick, like a 1970s Doctor Who monster. ‘Go to work on an egg’ still proudly displayed on the wall, and Bob resplendent in his white coat.
There was Chappel’s, the newsagent was a door or two away; the only place you could buy newspapers back then, and fireworks too. Past the baker’s was a sub post office, the one where I used to save my milk-round money for my holidays. In a savings book I still have – £5.11 left, last time I checked. On the opposite side of the High Road was a hardware shop. Buckets and pans and mops, stacked outside and in, as if in a hurry. There were parafin heaters on sale and the thick scent of polish in the air.
Kitty knew all those places, all those faces now lost to time. It’s a world I visit occasionally in dreams, a shadowy half-remembrance of travelling on routemaster buses, of going to the library to look at picture books and stumbling around Coronation Gardens with mum, David and the dog.
It’s a realm of bright sunshine and smiles, of pleasure in small things. I still have a Lesney’s matchbox car which came from Kitty and Fred. It’s an heirloom of sorts from my brother – an ambulance.
I wish I’d spoken to Kitty more, about her memories, about the East London of my childhood. But I didn’t. L. P. Hartley opened his novel ‘The Go-Between’ with: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”