It’s time to top-up the compost in the raised beds at the front of the house in Stepney Green. A lot of people get pleasure from looking at my garden as they pass by and I like that. Two elderly well-dressed women stop to look and admire my red Phormium Tenax.
‘That’s from New Zealand – flax,’ one of them says. ‘We’re from New Zealand,’ she continues.
‘So am I. I’ve been here thirty-nine years.’
‘I’ve been here for fifty,’ the other woman says.
‘Are you local?’
‘I live in Whitechapel, next to Sainsburys.’
‘That’s handy. I shop there every week. Whitechapel is the traditional place for immigrants to arrive,’ I say with a wry smile.’
She smiles back.
‘It’s great that we have a new woman Prime Minister,’ I venture.
A shadow crosses their faces momentarily. ‘Yes it’s interesting.’
‘I do hope she can fix a few things,’ I’m pushing their boundaries, I can tell.
‘It’s good for Labour to be in power every now and then to make some social changes.’
I adjust my narrative. ‘Yes, it’s good to have a balance between social care and capitalism, I guess.’
‘We don’t really want to get into politics,’ one of them says.
The second one, from Whitechapel adds, ‘New Zealanders live in paradise, they just don’t know how well off they are.’
I look doubtful. ‘Perhaps a demi, semi paradise,’ I say, all the while thinking of child poverty, water pollution, housing and high suicide rates.
She continues. ‘New Zealanders just don’t realise that these issues are all over the world.’
Now this is something I can really agree with. It’s true, New Zealand, in spite of the traditional ‘Overseas Experience’ done by young kiwis, still seems to think that their problems are unique. No, they are not. They are experiences all over the world.
We return to the red Phormium Tenax, a safe conversation. I tell them how I grew it from seed (really easy) brought from my Mother’s garden in Hawke’s Bay. They are amazed that it can survive here in the UK.
‘Well if you’ve been to Otago, (they have) they grow enormous down there.’
They move on down the road and a walnut-faced old man, who has been watching us from his white van parked outside the house next door, approaches. He grins to reveal a front gap in upper and lower teeth between in incisors and canines.
‘You like to have sex?’ He nods in the direction of the parting women.
I’m shocked and surprised on a number of levels. I never consider sex with women whatever their age and briefly consider telling him I’m gay. Quite quickly I decide that it’s not worth the bother and as English is clearly not his first language, he may not get the message. I’m surprised that he has even thought about sex with these women, or has he observed my conversation and confused it with flirtation?
I shake my head and laugh. ‘No, not for me.’ and decide to move the conversation in a different direction. ‘Are you working on the house next door?’
‘Yes, my son. I watch out for parking guys.’
‘If you’re working for the council, why don’t they give you a permit?’
He shrugs. ‘There was not time to do it.’
‘What are you doing in there?’
‘My son, he is fitting new bathroom.’
‘Yes, they are always doing something in there. Where are you from?’
‘Oh. How long have you been in London?’
‘Ten years now.’
‘So after the war?’
He nods and proceeds to tell me all about the former Yugoslavia. I try to show him I know about it and attempt to contribute by naming some of the regions which are now countries, but he’s on a roll. Finally he comes to a halt with ‘Croatians very bad people.’
‘Oh, I thought the Serbians were pretty aggressive.’
‘No, no, Serbians are very kind friendly people. BBC got it wrong, they told lies.’
I’m not quite sure how to answer that, particularly as he’s Croatian himself and should know. Just as I remember the current lot of Croatian military men being tried for genocide, his son emerges from the house next door and he’s off.
A few moments later a woman of South Asian origin, wearing a headscarf passes my garden with her hands, palms together as if deep in prayer. She stops and smiles. ‘I really like your garden; it gives me great pleasure every time I pass.’