SKINT

For two years Eileen lived in Queen’s Crescent, on the southern edge of Hampstead Heath, in the ground floor flat of a Victorian semi-detached building, with her landlord living above her. Eileen managed just to get by for those two years, cobbling together the rent money from a teaching job she briefly had at the University of London. Then she lived off of savings, taking a loan from her retirement account, borrowing, getting bits and bobs, here and there, and finally using the dreaded credit cards, using them month after month, as the applications for jobs were sent out, and the rejections came back or the short-lists which she was on, but never made it to the final cut. It was like being invited to the big dance but never having anyone to dance with. Finally, everything went bust, and Eileen had to move. Luckily a friend offered Eileen a reprieve at her beautiful home in Hampstead. The friend said that Eileen could stay for six months or until she got back on her feet. So she lived in two rooms, with her own bathroom, and when she came down the stairs, Eileen could use her friend’s kitchen, her washing machine, and when Eileen was broke, the friend often bailed her out, buying the groceries or inviting her out to dinner, so it was a great piece of fortune.

 

But even that came to an end when other guests were due to stay at the friend’s home, and Eileen found herself flitting from place to place, housesitting one week, living in a room another. By the end of it, Eileen had even lived in a poxied doss house in Cricklewood, with no hot water and drug addicts in the communal bathroom. It was during the time that she acted in a play at a theatre in Hampstead, but she hadn’t received any money for the production, nor was she likely to get any the way the books were kept at the theatre box office. Eileen lived in seven or eight different places during the months of March, April, and May. Finally this place came along in Maida Vale, just on the edge of Kilburn. The building was big, more like a hotel than an apartment building, with about 150 flats, all bedsits or one-bedrooms. It was called Hotel Kilburn by the people who lived there, but that was not really its name. In the first week Eileen lived there, she was in the laundry room doing her wash, and she got into a conversation with an older woman who used to live in Hampstead. When Eileen asked what she thought of this neighborhood, she told Eileen straight away.

“Kilburn is a tip,” the old woman shouted.

 

When Eileen was hungry, Kilburn High Road looked like manna, especially the food shops. An Irish builder once said to her that if the British gave them back Northern Ireland, the Irish would return Kilburn to Britain. But that was a lifetime ago when Kilburn was London’s Irish ghetto, just like Camden Town once was. The playwright George Bernard Shaw was so disgusted with his fellow Irishmen pissing on Camden’s High Street that he had those urinals built at the intersection with Parkway, or at least that is what someone told Eileen once. Kilburn had no such literary benefactor. It was gritty and workaday, what Americans would call blue collar. To be sure it was still Irish, but now it also was a kind of league of nations. Veiled women from the Middle East passed by in black robes. Little Chinese children still wore silk jackets they probably brought with them from China. African children spoke with perfect working-class London accents, the kind of speech that pronounced words like computer and butter without the t’s. But Kilburn was more chalk and cheese than a melting pot, more a collision of cultures than an harmonious merge.

 

Eileen was reminded of her own childhood in Dublin.  She still remembered that her family’s kitchen was in the basement—the lower ground floor—of the terraced house in which they lived. She loved that house, the classic urban dwelling, with its lower ground floor that led to the garden out back. Up the front steps, you walked to the elevated ground floor of the house, and above that were the bedrooms. The kitchen was large, much bigger than the one they would use in Dalkey when they finally moved away. Eileen remembered their dog, a big Irish terrier, and she remembered her aunts and cousins visiting them and standing in that big kitchen. It was not their house, though. It belonged to the people whom her mother worked for, and Eileen’s family lived in the maisonette flat on the ground floor and the basement. That great kitchen was really in the basement, though it had French doors opening onto the garden. Eileen’s mother was not the world’s worst cook. But her mother was not the best either. Her food was nutritional but not tasty. Still, as Eileen’s parents reminded her and her siblings, they did not starve. They always had food, even if it was not as delicious or redolent as their Italian neighbors’ meals. That food smelled of garlic and herbs. The herbaceous Eileen’s family ever got was to use parsley with lamb, though never at the expense of mint jelly, the most unusual they ever got in the kitchen.

 

Kilburn was not a tip; it was more like a scrum. People moved in every direction banging into one another. Eileen had taken to circumventing the high street. If she needed to go to the post office, she would wait until she was in Hampstead—where the lines were shorter—or Camden Town—where the long lines went faster than Kilburn. (Of course, there were no ‘lines’ in any of these places, as no one called them that, but rather queues. Eileen had picked up such expressions as “lines” from the four years she worked as a high-school teacher in Boston.) Instead of going to the grocery stores on the high street in Kilburn, Eileen took to shopping  in the little stores on Abbey Road or walked down to Maida Vale or Little Venice, sometimes, rather than approach Kilburn High Street with, not so much crowds, as throngs, hordes, or as a friend called anyone not himself, “you lot.” Of course, you lot was really Eileen herself, the unwashed masses of Kilburn, “the bloody Irish,” as she once heard it so lovingly put, in the days when terrorists were Irish instead of Middle Eastern. The former terrorists lived in County Kilburn, as Eileen also heard it called, with great humor and affection. Kilburn was like Dublin, Galway, or Limerick, crowded Irish places. They were not much different, for that matter, from parts of Brooklyn or Boston or Chicago.

But Kilburn was different.

 

On the surface, it possessed the Irish penchant for the shambolic, even the anarchic, like her family’s own nightly dinner times, which were more like food fights than meals, and more like gun battles than supper. This organized chaos reminded Eileen of how the Irish prayed, never in unison, always to their own drummers, in their own biological rhythms. She had heard this joyful noise since childhood, no one saying the Hail Marys and Our Fathers together, but in a group, but always apart, at one’s own pace. Later she would come to think of this discrete way of praying as deeply spiritual, each person finding a personal beat to communicate with God. Yet saying this, Eileen did not mean to equate Kilburn High Street as being a spiritual experience; it had a way of robbing your energy, of sucking the life out of you. It had a way of wearing you down in the manner of the professional boxer who leans on his opponent in the later rounds, exhausting the opponent further, then setting him up for the kill.

If Eileen took the Number 31 bus from Camden Town, invariably she got off the stop before Kilburn High Street, and walked the block along Abbey Road—the long and winding road that lead to Boundary Road and her flat. There were green grocers, corner grocers, and even a Middle Eastern super market across the street, and yet sometimes she just had to go to Sainsbury’s on the High Road for certain things, though never Marks and Spencer which seemed like the laziest way in the world to make dinner, not a food-lovers place but rather an emporium for someone overrun by the vagaries of the New Age, busy, busy, busy me, I’ll simply pop this bag of veggies in the water to boil, and voila, a gourmet meal. Eileen wanted tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, parsley, lemon juice, pepper and salt added at her pace and taste, at her own leisure and doing.

This was a Sainsbury’s day, much as she dreaded coming onto the High Street to shop. Eileen had run out of money after paying the weekly rent. But she remembered that—although all the other credit cards were frozen because she was at the limit with each—she had paid this one on time and there was enough credit available for a carefully selected week or so of groceries, and maybe even she could top up the mobile phone to make some calls, not just receive them. Eileen might even be able to get another Zone 2 weekly travel card for the local tube and the buses. Whatever the outcome of this trip, she had no fear of embarrassment because she literally knew no one in Kilburn. So Eileen went into Sainsbury’s to shop, and who should she run into but Tanya, from a job counseling group Eileen attended, at the strawberries, and in the dairy was a woman named Roberta, whom she knew from her teaching days, and by the checkout she saw another person named Casey, whom she briefly dated ten years earlier when she used to attend London Irish rugby football matches with some friends. Thank God I have some credit, Eileen thought, and am able to buy some groceries, am able to feel civil and centered, alive and well. Thank God I was not whingeing about being broke and complaining that I had nothing to eat. People frankly were sick of hearing my sob story.

 

Eileen would forever remember each item that she placed in her hand-held blue plastic basket, for it began to buckle as she shopped. She had entered Sainsbury’s around four o’clock of a halcyon summer day in later June, not too hot, one of those cloud-scudding blue skies that John Constable painted in Hampstead a few miles east, and a few hundred years ago. Even the bumping and abutting of Kilburn High Road had a rhythm to it, a musical shuttle like bebop or Thelonious Monk’s thunkingly melodious piano.

Eileen started in produce, placing cheap, delicious strawberries in the blue basket. These were native ones, nearly at perfection, or maybe just past it, as the expiry date was that day, and she’d luckily found a pack that wasn’t bruised or rotten. Next she picked a pack of blueberries from Spain, more expensive, she thought, but one of her extravagances. Didn’t the doctors and nutritionists say that there was nothing healthier than blueberries? It was a superfood, whatever the hell that was. Eileen also got some curly parsley, cheaper than the flat kind, less tasty, too, but good in a fresh tomato sauce for pasta. She also got some new potatoes, a bunch of cherry tomatoes, two for the price of one. Then came carrots (organic) and apples and ginger for juicing through the week. She topped it off with some Fair Trade bananas.

 

In the dairy Eileen got three cartons of orange juice for two pounds and a big hunk of cheddar cheese for a little over two pounds. She bought a big tub of plain organic yogurt, wishing she could buy Rachel’s vanilla yogurt, but she’d already indulged herself with the blueberries, and now she needed to move on. Lastly, before leaving the dairy section entirely, Eileen bought some grated Parmesan cheese from Reggiano, Italy, expensive, but the best tasting of this cheese, and her rationale was that it lasted a long time, which it did. Next she bought a big bag of brown organic rice and a big bag of penne pasta, but no sun-dried (sun-kissed, the jar says) tomatoes as she already had some at the flat. Eileen then got some dark rye flatbread crackers and a big, cheap bag of Scottish porridge oats for a month of breakfasts. She bought sweetened, organic soya milk, and some Sainsbury’s instant coffee, and then got some Dove soap and deodorant, some toothpaste, and looked for cheap bread and some olive oil. Logically, the olive oil should have been with the pasta and the tomato sauces, but in this Sainsbury’s, it was in the back of the store, with bread, condiments, and eggs.

The handle on the plastic basket was bowing, and so Eileen grasped the heavy load with both hands, cradling it in her arms as if it were a baby. In the way a child was precious, so were those groceries because Eileen didn’t think she could afford them until she checked the various credit card statements from the month before, and then she saw this window of opportunity, as the benighted politicians say, and therefore went to the bread basket of Kilburn High Road to affect the transfer of credit for food. In the scheme of things, Eileen felt like a millionaire, like a million bucks, i.e., like five-hundred-and fifty-five-thousand pounds, give or take a shilling.

 

Eileen put down the bulging market basket, this horn of plenty, and she recalculated its expense, estimating it to be thirty pounds, well within her credit limit and budget, and then she re-examined the grocery list, making sure that there was nothing there that still needed purchasing. In recent months Eileen had taken to going to the Tate Modern to look at four magnificent paintings by Cy Twombly called Quattro stagione, the four seasons. The Serpentine Gallery also had his drawings on display, and the Gagosian Gallery in King’s Cross showed ten new paintings and a sculpture. In all of these, Twombly wrote words in pencil, then scratched them out, and wrote other words. The seasonal paintings—the Vivaldian paintings—had poems and words from poets like Dante. The words in the drawings, as she recalled, were more muted, and the ten new paintings didn’t always have words at all, except the occasional word Gaeta, and the date. Twombly, an American, had lived in Italy for nearly half a century, and Gaeta is where he had lived. Eileen thought of him because her grocery list had words that had been written over and crossed out, so that her own list resembled a palimpsest, the same way that Cy Twombly’s paintings were. Her words were in blue ink, the lines through them in black, only because she had used the blue pen at the flat, and had the black pen in her pocket in the supermarket, a chance occurrence, a happenstance more than a willed artfulness like the paintings, had come into being. It was less Cy Twombly than Kurt Schwitters, an art of poverty and circumstance rather than imagination and wealth.

In fact, the list bore no resemblance to art. It was a life list, as sustenance, a boon, a blessing, a gift. Eileen had imagined she would eat nothing but a crazy salad of air and anger, vinegar and despair for the next month. Instead she had a plastic blue market basket bursting at its seams with food and provender, with the abundance of life.

Here is the list Eileen used:

olive oil bananas
oatmeal blueberries
brown rice
soya milk cheese
o.j. Parmesan cheese
penne pasta
instant coffee
deodorant
top up phone for 5 pounds

The list seemed modest enough, but Eileen had managed to improvise from it the way a jazz musician might take a popular musical standard and give it pure, improvisational form. She had added strawberries, apples, carrots, and ginger, just like Charlie Rouse adding his saxophone solos to Thelonious Monk’s piano music. Eileen had plucked fruit from the bins into the blue basket the way a bass player—Ahmed Abdul-Malik at the Five Spot Cafe in August 1958 did with Monk—plucked improvisational chords on the big, stand-up bass, full of life’s rhythms, really full of optimism in this sea of despair, not Kilburn High Road, but Eileen’s own later life, so seemingly hopeless and foregone. Now she had been given, in Wallace Stevens’ words, a momentary stay against annihilation, she had been given a governor’s stay against execution. She had enough credit to buy this mother lode of groceries, this treasure trove, this gift of abundance.

Eileen smiled at the people in front of her and in back of her in the queue—the line, her Boston friends called it—to check out. They looked at Eileen as if she were crazy. After all, this was not some arty redoubt like Hampstead; it was working-class Kilburn, tough and no-nonsense, a commonsensical place, practical, crowded, and blindingly efficient in how it gave people what they wanted, then shot them back out onto the High Street, bag-laden, poorer, but with the potential to be less hungry, perhaps even less grumpy, less angry and feeling alone. They would eat dinner with family, watch television, and go to bed with their stomachs full. Eileen saw nothing but hope on this check-out queue, this queue that was like a stairway to heaven, if she might sample from Led Zeppelin.

Then came her turn. The check-out person wore a badge that said her name was Mary.  Eileen had encountered her many times. This Mary was decent enough, not harsh like the other clerks. There was a note of compassion in her face, especially her eyes. Like Eileen, Mary looked as though she lived by herself or perhaps with an elderly parent. At any rate, Mary had never married; that was obvious. She was a big, round, slovenly sort of woman, the kind you see everywhere in America, especially in the countryside. Eating was probably her only pleasure, Eileen imagined. Eileen was not a big, round, slovenly woman, but in every other way, she thought that she resembled that clerk Mary.

The groceries zipped through Mary’s scanner, and the end result was a figure just over thirty pounds, well within Eileen’s credit limit. She would top off the mobile at the cigarette counter near the exit. Then she would go home to cook dinner, not watch television because she had none, but maybe listen to jazz on the radio, and actually go to bed with her belly full, no food anxiety, no mad jealousy of other people’s good fortune, no desire to be anyone but who she was, Eileen O’Faherty; she would be stuffed, sated, elated, sleepy, and ready to drift into the deepest slumber. Eileen fumbled with opening the last of the plastic bags, her hands all thumbs, and Mary and the person behind Eileen popped open the bags for her to fill the remaining items into them. Eileen then handed Mary her credit card, and waited for Mary to come back with the slip for her to sign.

 

“I’m sorry,” Mary said, “your card has been declined.”

Eileen had bagged everything now, the olive oil, the juice, the instant coffee, the bag of penne, the fruits, the cheese, the yogurt, the oats, and all.

“Declined?” she asked.

“That’s right,” Mary said. “Declined.”

Mary asked what Eileen wanted to do.

“I don’t understand,” Eileen said. “I checked my credit before going out, and it was fine.”

“What’s the problem?” the brusque assistant manager asked, stepping over to unclog the logjam Eileen had created in this queue.

The assistant manager was small and angular, brusque, bristly even, impatient to be done with Eileen or this problem or whatever it was. The assistant store manager had a touch of Irish in her voice, but not that lyrical Irish of Eileen’s mother and grandmothers, nor any of the compassion of the clerk Mary. This was the clipped brogue of angry head sisters in parochial school. Mary explained to her manager that Eileen’s card had been declined.

“Do you have another card?” the assistant manager asked.

Eileen had many cards. The only problem was that none of them worked. No, she said, that was the only card she had at the minute.

“Then there’s nothing we can do,” the assistant manager told her. “You can go off and call the credit card company to sort it out straight away and I’ll hold your groceries at the courtesy counter in the front of the store for a half hour.”

 

As Eileen walked back along the Kilburn High Road towards Maida Vale to the south, it seemed like every mother and child, every drunken father, every drunken bum and vagrant, bumped into her and shouted for her to watch where she was walking. Veiled women dressed from head to toe in black, with only a slit in the veil for their eyes, also bumped into her, and let fly with what Eileen imagined were infelicities of the Arabic tongue. African women, who were taller than Eileen by a head, told her to watch her step, to look where she was going. Teenagers in blue nylon jackets and pants with white stripes down the sides of them shouted in her face, and their girlfriends with their loopy gold earrings called out things like “Yo, bitch” or “Watch out, ya feckin’ eejit!” Eileen walked off crestfallen, a black cloud over her head like Pigpen in the Peanuts comic strip she read religiously when she lived in Boston, Massachusetts. She walked along the high road to a call shop and called up the credit card company to sort out what had happened. Though Eileen had paid the credit card bill with cash in a bank, she was told that it was not credited for four days—two days after the due date—and the late fee, plus interest, plus being fined for going over her credit limit—which they mistakenly put Eileen over—closed down her credit line automatically. They were sorry, the voice on the end of the telephone line said, but “there is nothing we can do about it, madame.” So Eileen went back to her flat at the beginning of Maida Vale, stomach growling, arms empty of any provender, and she wondered how much longer she could continue to live like this.

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