Elena and her family have travelled to London...The month of June was three days away and Elena still wasn’t used to the dark and dingy weather of London, misty, foggy. She felt like she was always shrouded in grey; the buildings, the streets, the sky, the landscape. The climate remained...
The month of June was three days away and Elena still wasn’t used to the dark and dingy weather of London, misty, foggy. She felt like she was always shrouded in grey; the buildings, the streets, the sky, the landscape. The climate remained unbearably gloomy until the first signs of summer started to appear.
The house her family now lived in on Copenhagen Street in Islington, a month and a half after arriving in England, wasn’t much better than the one they had shared with aunt Adelou.
Elena lay on top of the lumpy mattress, trying not to think about its discolouration hidden under the blanket her mother had tightly tucked around it, the set of clean sheets over it smelling of washing soda ??? The sparse linoleum flooring was patchy with ingrained dirt, even after Elena had scrubbed it on her hands and knees, its frayed edges curling around the perimeter of the room like the rough tendrils of an octopus.
She remembered that first rambling house on Moray Road. Elena and her mother had spent the whole of their first day scrubbing and cleaning the rooms from one corner to the other despite aunt Adelou insisting she had already cleaned it in advance of their arrival.
It had been the tallest house she had ever seen, with peeling green paint clinging to the window frames and crumbling misaligned ledges. It depicted grimy dereliction, a war zone. Her mother’s face had been one of initial horror as they finally arrived after their exhausting tube journey from Victoria to Finsbury Park. Elena saw how her mother quickly re-composed herself, a smile set in stone across her face as she was greeted by her sister. Elena stood in awe of her aunt who was well-groomed, her hair in a beehive as she had seen in the magazines on the ship coming over. She wore a black dress with a full skirt which fell just below her knees, white polka dots all over it and cuffed sleeves which finished at her elbows. Her kitten heels were elegant.
Evangelia thanked Adelou for organising the accommodation for them, hugging her tightly. The enormity of the reunion was too much for Elena. Fat tears streamed down her face as she watched her mother hug her big sister not having seen her for over three years and she couldn’t help wondering why her mother had not been as emotional seeing her father after all this time.
Aunt Adelou covered Elena’s face with lots of little wet kisses and Elena thought how she looked like her mother but different. She quickly came to realise that it was more that their mannerisms and expressions were similar rather than their physical features although they were both tall and slim. Andreas shied away from aunt Adelou’s kisses, nibbling at his finger nails nervously. Aunt Adelou’s husband, Uncle Partenis, pinched one of his chubby cheeks and ruffled his hair, making a grizzly bear sound. Andreas laughed.
Their cousins, George, Petros and Emilia, a few years older than Elena and Andreas, spilled out into the street to welcome them. Uncle Partenis bundled them inside, instructing his children to help with the luggage. He had a gruff voice and a dark moustache which jiggled when he spoke. His eyes were hidden behind thick, black spectacles, only his thick eyebrows could be seen above the rims. He wore a dark grey flannel suit with pleated trousers and a white shirt. His shoes were shiny. Elena looked down at her own shoes which were dusty from the journey.
The house was dark and unwelcoming, the smell of damp and urine penetrating the stale air. There was an instant chatter and joviality, as if to mask the pungent odour. Tears and hugs were commonplace that whole afternoon as they were welcomed and shown around the rooms reserved for them.
The three rooms Elena’s family occupied were dingy and desperately cold despite the two bar electric fire aunt Adelou had lent them. The rooms were bare, with nothing ‘homely’ about them at all apart from the odd trinkets her mother had brought over from Cyprus. The furniture provided was basic, shoddy.
Two rooms were used as bedrooms, one with two single beds and the other with a double mattress on the floor which her mother shared with yiayia. A heavy mirror, speckled with black stains, hung by a tarnished chain from the picture rail in the sitting room above the threadbare sofa, a dark purple rug covered part of the floor. The paint was peeling off the skirting boards and the doors were grimy with dirty marks and smudges from the traffic of occupants previously living there.
The many rooms were spread over four floors and everyone used the same front door. It became evident to Elena there were as many families as there were rooms living there. She lost count of the different faces she saw and voices she heard through the thin, damp walls and sagging ceilings. The Irish landlady, although initially friendly and welcoming, quickly disseminated a long written list of rules; no toilet before 7am or after 10pm, no visitors after 5pm, rent had to be paid weekly in advance by 9am of the Monday each week, cash only. There were many misunderstandings as her mother couldn’t read what she was being issued with and the rules seemed to be somewhat different to those being followed by aunt Adelou and her family. Uncle Partenis intervened, trying to reason with Mrs O’Flaherty, but she remained stoic and unreasonable in her demands. Elena began to feel irritated by the constraints. She was used to being free and having lots of outdoor space. She felt constrained, as if in a prison. Despite the all the people everywhere, Elena was lonely and the alienation swamped her. She often cried into her pillow at night. She missed her friends and her simple, uncomplicated life of Kato Lefkara.
Elena remembered seeing a man, maybe a bit younger than her mother, smoking on the landing between the second floor, where they’d resided and the third floor occupied by aunt Adelou’s family. She’d stood inside the bedroom door, mesmerised, unable to take her eyes off his filthy fingers as he flicked his cigarette lighter. He pulled up his quivering bony knees, protruding through his dirty jeans like bent twigs, towards his chest. He sat on the floor, oblivious to her watching him, inhaling deeply on the roll-up, slumped against the grimy, stained wall. His face was grey and pasty, his eyes sunken. His dark hair shone in the shaft of light coming from Elena’s open bedroom door, but it was greasy and lank. She remembered her disgust as he leant over and spewed all over the floor, the acrid smell hitting her senses, making her gag. She never opened her door onto the landing on her own again after that. She often wondered if the man was still living there and why he appeared to have no family.
During these early weeks Andreas and Elena stayed at home most of the time; Elena doing chores around the family lodgings or helping with the cooking.
“Why can’t we go to school?’ argued Elena one morning as she slurped at her cup of
warm milk and ate her toast hungrily. ‘We’ve been here for nearly six weeks.’
‘Be quiet!’ Andreas scolded. ‘Who needs school?’
‘Well how do you plan to learn English you idiot?’
‘You can learn and then teach me. I’m not going!’
‘You’ll both go soon enough!’ interrupted her mother as she buttered some toast for
‘I’m so bored at home,’ whined Elena.
‘Go and help your aunt Adelou.’
‘Cleaning. That’s all I’ve done since I got here. This house is horrid!’
‘As soon as we are settled in a place of our own we’ll get you into a school close by. I
promise Elena mou.”
‘And father? Will he come and live with us?’ asked Elena.
‘Yes I would think so.’
‘Well, can we go out and buy a uniform so we’re ready?’ she asked.
Elena didn’t miss her father at first, being used to not having him around. But as time went on she did wonder, however, why he rarely spent any time with them. What was the point of them moving here? Where was the better life her father had promised them?
“Where’s baba?’ she asked that same evening as she dished up the mashed potato she had made all on her own as her mother took the meat filled shortcrust pasties aunt Adelou had encouraged her mother to make out of the oven.
‘But why does he work so late? And all the time?’
‘To make money to feed us all. Now be quiet and eat up. This looks lovely Elena mou,’ her mother said taking a forkful of the fluffy mash as she blew onto it to cool it. Mashed potato had quickly become one of Elena’s favourite foods after her aunt Adelou introduced her to it. Elena had never eaten mashed potato before coming to England.
‘Then why do we have to keep looking for shillings for the meter?’ asked Andreas innocently, suddenly vocal.
‘Well, he hasn’t been paid yet,’ said Evangelia, repeating what her husband had said to her two nights before. Elena had heard her mother ask for housekeeping and her father had said he couldn’t give her any. Elena had only caught a part of what her mother had said to her father in response. She re-called the fragment of the conversation…playing cards again with your so-called friends… to the early hours.
Eventually her father moved to their current rented accommodation on Copenhagen Street with them. He had not joined them at aunt Adelou’s and stayed away for a while saying that he had his rent paid up for another six weeks in a house he already had lodgings in. Elena wondered why her mother didn’t insist he move in with them but she daren’t ask her. She could see how upset she was and how strained things were between her mother and father. They rarely hugged or kissed like she’d seen other couples do.
The second house, spread over three floors, was in a slightly better condition externally and internally than the first. It had a red brick façade across the ground floor and the rest of the front was painted bright white. It had a solid front door painted black with a brass knocker and huge, square sash windows which Elena quickly discovered were draughty and let all the cold in. Elena and her family occupied the second floor which was converted into a separate flat. It had a separate inner entrance door at the bottom of the staircase leading up to a square landing. Two bedrooms and a small make-shift kitchen opened onto this area. The toilet facilities were outside in the concreted yard; a brick-built lean to at the back of the house. Although everyone still entered by the same front door being at the top of the house meant it was a little quieter and the second door made Elena feel much safer, offering greater security.
The only downside to the move was that there was no room for yiayia to come with them and so it was agreed that she continued to live with aunt Adelou until such time that larger lodgings were found to accommodate her too. Elena missed her yiayia dreadfully. The journey by bus was too expensive to see her more than once a week and too far to walk there and back. Elena often cried at night, soaking her lumpy pillow with hot, salty tears. She missed the smell of her yiayia’s skin, the aroma of the sweet rose water which made her feel warm and safe inside.
Renting homes was commonplace and there was a different family on each of the three floors. Elena was often woken by the hubbub of different people coming and going at all hours as they wandered up and down the stairs. She often lay awake listening to fierce confrontations and wondered whether her mother was awake listening too. And once awake she heard the scurrying and pitter-patter of cockroaches and beetles echoing in the night. She wondered what they were doing in the middle of the night but she and her mother never spoke about it. At least this house was less crowded.
The new lodgings were somehow colder than the first place they stayed in. Elena wondered whether it was because there were less people crammed in. The bedroom she shared with Andreas was freezing, a thin film of ice gripped the window panes last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Andreas constantly complained about the ice box chill of the room, every opportunity he had, even though it was the first week of June already.
‘You’re Cypriot!’ said the woman delightedly standing behind them in the queue when she heard Andreas and Elena talking Greek in the grocery store one day. “I’m Georgette, originally from Pano Lefkara,’ she said to Evangelia, tapping her gently on the shoulder.
‘Hello. I’m Evangelia. Lovely to meet you. I’m from Kato Lefkara, what a lovely coincidence.’ Elena watched her mother’s face light up as she relaxed being around a fellow Cypriot. Her mother had never been warmly open towards strangers and seeing her mother smile and chatty made her happy.
‘Oh I have friends in Kato Lefkara… Maroulla and Zeno. You probably know them being such a small community.’
‘Oh yes…I do,’ said Evangelia, reddening slightly. “Their son Niko was in the same class as my two.’
“I hear they are planning to come to England too.”
“Really? I’ haven’t heard.”
‘You’re new round here?’
‘Yes, a couple of weeks in this area,’ Evangelia said, composing herself. ‘My husband’s been here a lot longer though.’
‘Welcome,’ said Georgette with warmth.
‘Thank you. We’re still finding our way around. The language is the hardest thing for me is how grey it is, dull, so little light.’
‘Oh, I’ve been here for nearly two years and still can’t speak English that well. Lots of Cypriots round this way though so I don’t have to make much effort. It’s lovely. Like being back in Cyprus!’ she laughed. ‘Apart from the weather!’
‘Well lovely to meet you Georgette,’ said Evangelia turning to pay for the shopping. ‘Hopefully see you again.”
‘Actually before you go…I hope you don’t mind me saying but I’ve got a hot water bottle I don’t use anymore. You’re welcome to borrow it for the children for as long as you need,’ she offered. ‘I couldn’t help overhearing your son complain about his cold bed. I know how difficult it is getting used to this English weather.’
Evangelia, hesitantly agreed to use it temporarily and was most grateful when one of Georgette’s sons, a strapping lad of about eighteen years old with jet black hair and eyes to match, dropped it over later that same evening. The earthenware device was eagerly passed around between Andreas and Elena to warm up their beds. They both whooped with joy as their hot mattresses enveloped them when they settled for the night. With jumpers and coats piled over their blankets too Elena was cosy and warm as was her brother who said he loved the hot water bottle more than anything.
‘What a nice lady,’ Elena said that night, and nearly every night after that, as she got into her warm bed. “She had lovely hair as well didn’t she mama?’ she said, remembering the soft black curls pinned into place. ‘Like a film star,’ she said dreamily.
‘Yes, lovely,’ said her mother as she reached up and fingered her dull, brown hair which hung limply round her shoulders.
‘And her blue coat was so pretty. All those folds across the back…it was lovely.’
‘I didn’t notice her coat but I’m so very grateful that I’ve met someone who I can speak Greek to, a new friend, someone who understands what it’s like to be in England.’
‘You can be happy here now mama. It won’t always be like this…’ she said delighted her mother had made a new friend. “And…the summer will come.”
As time went on Elena was desperate to join the neatly uniformed children walking to school in the mornings; girls with their grey pinafores and white knee high socks and the boys in grey shorts and matching long socks. She briefly remembered the hand-me-downs in the village and was glad she didn’t have to wear other children’s clothes any more. Looking out of the grimy pane of glass in the sagging window, framed with thin floral curtains, she watched the children run along Copenhagen Street and past their house on the opposite side of the road.
‘Catch,’ called out a boy of about eleven to another as he threw his grey school cap across to him, his blond her flopping over his eyes in the light summer breeze.
‘Bleeding ‘ell Charlie, what sort of throw was that, mate?’ he called out almost losing his balance as he reached for the cap that was way off course, only just grabbing it. He took two steps forward and threw it back, scuffing his black shoes on the cobbles.
‘You daft beggars,’ called out the woman with them, as she scurried to keep up, the rushing threatening to mess up her perfectly back-combed hair. She pushed a navy blue and white pram with huge spoked wheels with force. The thin tyres got caught in the uneven pavement as did her fire orange pumps with pointed toes and slender, stiletto heels.
‘Frigging hell, you’re joking…’ shouted back Charlie as he missed the cap flying towards him and it fell into the street.
‘Your mam’ll kill me if you lose that cap! Charlie! Alan!’
Charlie ran out into the street. There was a screech of brakes.
‘Charlie!’ yelled the woman, her hand on her chest as she called out in panic.
‘Oi! Watch out! You little blighter!’ yelled a man on a bike. He swerved awkwardly around Charlie, narrowly missing him, shaking a fist wildly in Charlie’s direction. The man, in a dark brown coat and cap, his flannel trouser bottoms flapping as he recomposed himself. Panic over, he rode on down the street, wobbling dangerously from left to right as he righted his bike, one hand holding his cap while the other gripped the handlebars.
Charlie appeared to be oblivious to the danger he’d been in. He ignored the shouts of the man, laughing loudly. He scooped up the cap, dusting it down before placing it on his head.
‘Pillock!’ he yelled at Alan.
‘You’re the pillock!’ shouted back Charlie. Mirth engulfed them both. Elena watched them wrap their arms over each other’s shoulders. They lolled down the street, their leather satchels banging against their thighs. The sun peaked weakly through the wispy clouds.
‘You lot enough!’ yelled the woman, as she stomped across the street. Elena watched them as they disappeared through the school gates and joined the throng of pupils in the playground dwarfed by the huge, red brick building situated on the opposite side of the road. An eye-sore compared to my school in Cyprus, she thought.
‘What are you doing?’ asked her mother, interrupting her day dreaming as she sat cross-legged on her bed drawing in the pad she brought with her from Cyprus. Her mother put down the pile of ironed clothes on the top of the wobbly chest of drawers.
‘I’m breathing through my mouth so I don’t have to smell that Dettol.’
‘Well it’s better than the whiff of urine and sweaty bodies,’ said her mother, as she sat heavily on the bed next to her. ‘Look, I know it’s not much better than the house we moved into when we first arrived but it’s a bit quieter.’
‘Yeah, I know. Always crowded with people in and out,’ replied Elena.
‘It will get better. This is only temporary Elena mou.’
‘I know mama,’ she said as she reached over and squeezed her mother’s hands, folded together in her floral aproned lap.
‘I leeve Copen…ha…gen Strit Is…ling…tone,’ practised Elena in English, her diction clear but crude. “I come Cyproos.’
‘What are you drawing?’ asked her mother, changing the subject.
‘Dresses and shoes,’ she said proudly, turning her book round to show off her sketches.
Her mother gave her a little smile and said, “Beautiful. And Elena mou…All will be well, I pray every night.”
Elena regarded her uniform drooping limply on the metal hanger on the outside of the broken wardrobe. It had a door missing, but it had a full length mirror on the inside of the one door which hung precariously from its rusty hinges. ‘I think school will be great. The English children look nice,’ she said as she re-called the boys playing catch in the street.
‘And don’t forget to look out for your brother when you start school on Monday,’ reminded her mother.
Tudor School on Essex Road was a thirty minute walk from home. Her mother couldn’t afford the bus fare there and back every day and so Elena and Andreas strolled along, keeping pace with their mother as she crossed Upper Street and continued down Essex Road.
The school was a maze of long corridors and staircases, classrooms and a library. It was much bigger than the village school they had gone to and there were many pupils. Each classroom door was labelled 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D…up to 5A, 5B, 5C, 5D. Elena and Andreas were welcomed into 3B with Miss Fisher.
Miss Fisher walked with a determined stride and every morning she stood at the front of the class, welcoming each pupil by name as they came in and took their seats. She stood in front of the black board, tall and erect, smoothing down her plain blouse and tugging at the ends of her flicked hair. Elena couldn’t understand why she was a Miss and not a Mrs…she looked far too old to be a Miss.
Elena quickly made friends with pupils in her class; Susan Pollard, Caroline White, Janet Simmons, Alan Churchill, Edward Barnes and Judith Varady from Hungary. The school day was much longer than they were used to, starting at 8.45am and finishing at 3.20pm. Elena and Andreas stayed in school for their lunch, the dinner hall a bustling hubbub of laughter and relaxation although Andreas complained about the food and the strict dinner ladies to Elena. Elena quickly learned to find her way around the building but Andreas continued to struggle.
‘Where were you?’ asked Elena as he skulked towards her after getting rapped on the knuckles with the ruler for being late.
‘I got lost,’ Andreas hissed.
‘For God’s sake Andreas. It’s not that difficult. The doors are all numbered. They go in order around the corridors.’
‘Be quiet. Clever clogs!’ Andreas sulked for the rest of the history lesson. He didn’t perk up until after lunch time where he beat Alan at marbles. He walked home with Elena and his bulging trouser pockets, full of glass marbles, jiggled noisily all the way home.
As the rest of the term continued into the last week of July, Elena and Andreas walked to school together.????
‘And we have two certificates for Most Improved Spoken English,’ announced the Head Teacher, Mr Bainbridge, in the weekly assembly. “Elena Ellina and Judith Varady. Let’s give them a huge round of applause.”
Alan and Edward whistled loudly through their fingers in their mouths and all the other children cheered and whooped as the two pupils weaved their way up to the stage to collect their certificates. Miss Fisher, their class teacher, beamed and clapped loudly over the noise. The other teachers congratulated Miss Fisher and Elena gave her teacher a wave as she stepped down off the stage to sit back down in her place amongst her classmates.
‘You’re my honeysuckle,’ said Janet, her chubby arms wobbling like spam as she cuddled Elena. ‘My honey bunch.’ Janet was Elena’s best friend at school and she gave her a huge hug as they filed back into the classroom to begin the day’s lessons. They got on so well and laughed at the same things, chatting together endlessly at play times and hanging back after school to giggle and flirt with the boys. They were inseparable.
‘I have to go,’ pleaded Elena. ‘My mum’s waiting.’
‘Five minutes,’ begged Janet. ‘The new boy Andy is looking at you.’
Elena blushed as she caught Andy’s eye. She pulled away from her friend who was hanging onto her sleeve and fixed Janet with an expression fizzing with laughter. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ she trilled and tapping Andreas on the shoulder she ran off ahead of him her long plaits dangling behind her. ‘Last one home’s a loser!’ she teased.