Irene, for Irene

From the life of Irene Pasquini

By Megan Slade

Irene enters the Age UK courtyard, a large patio garden with tables and chairs, on her new mobilised wheelchair in a bright yellow summer dress and leopard-print coat. She greets various friends, support workers, and nurses in the facility.

“Check out my new Harley Davidson,” she grins playfully and tells us how she travelled from Isle of Dogs to Bow on her wheelchair, and everyone in the garden cannot help but smile. If I were one to read auras, I’d tell you she has a powerful, magnificent one, one which you couldn’t just see but could feel. Yet at this very moment, this warm July day as Irene asks me where I’d like to sit, I know as little about auras as I do about Irene and her life. In fact, that is why I am here, and could stay here for many more hours talking with Irene. To overuse the cliché, she really has lived quite the life. Starting with her birth and growing up in the fifties, travelling around the world, living in many countries and owning a number of properties, to suffering a stroke which led to her coming back to almost nothing; just a homeless shelter in Hackney.

Irene, who looks much younger than her years, was born in 1941, in the midst of the Second World War. Blackouts and rationing: she has many vivid memories of her childhood, “There used to be a man who’d tap on all the windows in the town if he could see any light at night. I remember we had to use roof felting to cover up our windows.” She doesn’t keep on the subject of the war long; instead she laughs about the memories of siblinghood, “Oh my brother used to keep pigeons, and birds, all sorts of birds he had, and sometimes he used to stay at his friend’s and mum would whisper to me, ‘Go get two of his pigeons; we’ll have them for dinner,’ and it didn’t matter how many pigeons he had there, he always knew when one went missin’.” We laugh as she tells me games that she and her siblings played and the changes the war had on her family. “It made us appreciate things a lot more, turned us into mini adults I suppose. Me and my brother would help out on the farm daily. We would drink all the cows’ milk, collect all the eggs. Yeah, it was hard work but we never moaned.”

“As I turned twenty-one I thought, I gotta get my own house.” To buy a house without any support must have been difficult? “No, I just saved and saved. See it isn’t like today where there’s all of these shiny new things you can buy in an instant, so when I got to twenty-one I had saved up all my pennies and had enough for a deposit on a house in Croydon and moved as soon as I could.” Was there any pressure for her to get married and settle down? “Never. My parents knew I would always go my own way. I have always been very independent you see, so nothing I ever did really surprised them, and my brother and sister both settled down and had children; I was always the rebel…” As she finishes her sentence she smiles, and lights a cigarette.

“After grammar school, I trained to be a nanny, so I did this for a while, and I was always fond of children, but never had my own.” She takes time to reflect on this, as I ask her more about what she did after she bought her first house.

“I knew I wanted to do something fun, but I still needed to pay my mortgage, so I put up an advert in the local shop for a lodger. As I got there all these other signs read, ‘No blacks, no gypsies’, you know what I mean? I thought to myself, well, why shouldn’t they come and stay with me? I hate that, you know. To me, everyone is the same, always have been and always will be. So I still remember my advert now saying ‘Room available, anyone welcome.’ And I have to admit I’m glad I did as this lovely man from the West Indies came and stayed. He told me all about the weather, the beaches and beauty of where he came from. So, as young people do, I thought, why the bloody hell are you in this country?” We both laugh, as the sun goes back in and I reach for my jacket. “So I thought, yeah, I wanna be there, sunning myself on a beach. Now.” She begins to laugh, “Obviously I didn’t quite understand the politics back then, so I just got on a plane headed for Jamaica, all the time my lodger paying off my mortgage for me. That was when I was… twenty-two? Yeah. I worked over there as a secretary for a Scottish company for a few years.”

I ask her what the West Indies was like. “Yeah,” she pauses, “It was nice.” Again, we both laugh. Her simplicity in the extraordinary captivates me, as boarding a flight by yourself to a country you know nothing of seems daunting even now, but Irene shrugs as I comment on this, saying “Well, I suppose I could call it a bit of a life experience.”

After the West Indies, Irene sold her house in Croydon, bought another property near Heathrow she rented out to pilots, yet she wasn’t back in England for long.

“Then in 1980 I went to Qatar for twelve years doing similar work to when I was out in the West Indies as a secretary…” she pauses as she sees me smile, “You see, nothing’s planned. If you stop and plan things, nothing happens, and it was just a coincidence a friend of mine called me up and said ‘What you doing Irene?’ I said not a lot really, just keeping my head above water. He asked me to come to Qatar, and I hadn’t even heard of it. But I thought why not, so he simply said, ‘Get your passport, go to Heathrow, your ticket is waiting for you!’”

“You know what, in my time I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘If only I had done this, if only I’d done that,’ and these are the people who at the time thought I was mad for leaving everything behind, but if I didn’t like it, so what, I could just come back couldn’t I?” At this point more members of staff come through the courtyard, greet Irene with warm smiles as she makes jokes.

“So, where were we, yes, I was on the plane to Qatar, which at the time I had no idea where it was, just thought it was somewhere near a desert — how naïve was I? And anyway it was there I met my husband. How did I meet him? Well there was a beautiful big marina, and he had a deep-sea diving licence… I’ve got one as well.” She nods slightly at me and chuckles, “…and they were building a dam to stop the oil, so I saw this little man coming up, and I was with this girl who was the secretary of the Doha club who knew him, and you had to be working a certain salary to visit one of these clubs — expats weren’t allowed in. Anyway I looked at him and said, ‘Ooh, look at that pair of legs,’ and she said that’s Alf, and she introduced me to him… that was thirty-five years ago. We stayed in Qatar for a few years until his job came to an end, then we came to England as I had bought a house in Lincolnshire that my parents were living in; however, they didn’t really get on with old Alf so to speak, so we just packed the tent and went in the mini, you know one of those old minis, and went to Italy. We began by camping anywhere we could until we started looking at various properties in Italy. We ended up buying a beautiful house in Tuscany, then I sold the houses I owned in Lincolnshire and Heathrow, just before the recession which had hit Italy. We bought it for hardly anything, now it’s worth about 800,000! I want it to go to his grandchildren though. I don’t need anything.”

I asked Irene how her marriage ended. “I think, you know, you’ve got to compromise, and there can’t be two bosses in one house, and I’ve always been independent and done what I wanted to do, and there ain’t room for two dictators.” She laughs again, “So I ended up back here. We are friends, mind, I still phone him every Sunday and Wednesday.”

Despite meeting in a stroke awareness support group, I noticed she had yet to mention her experience of surviving a stroke, “It happened when I was out in Italy, at a christening,” is all we touch upon, yet it seems to be the catalyst for her new life experiences.

“After my stroke I had come back to England, and at the place I was staying, I got everything stolen from me, all of my things, my money, my credit cards, all stolen. I had no house so I stayed with a friend of mine, and she only had a bedsit which wasn’t enough room, so I decided to get help. That’s when I first started coming here. The council, they sent me to a homeless place. I quite liked it actually, down Well Street in Hackney. It’s a well-known hostel you see. There was this guy, he’d been in there for years — refused to move; he was in the army for a few years then, did you hear about that Brinks-MAT gold robbery at Heathrow? Well, he was the main instigator of that and he done nine years. Anyway, he introduced me and said ‘Everyone, this is Irene. She’s had some strokes. She’s an old age pensioner, don’t any of you ask her for anything, or you’ll be seen to by me.’ And some of them in there, they were the biggest criminals you could ever imagine! I got on with them all though.” I widen my eyes at the concept of Irene, having lived in Qatar and Italy, now adjusting to life with absolutely nothing in Hackney.

“No, it weren’t that bad at all. Anyway, I weren’t there for long, I got a call and was told to go to this homeless hostel. Well, it was down near Whitechapel, you know, and I thought, what am I going there for? Anyway I go down; they told me I had a home in the Isle of Dogs but it needed new carpets. I was glad I finally had a place and only had to spend a week in this hostel. And I could write a story about that place, let me tell ya! The room was… basic, you know, but I didn’t care, I had a roof over my head. Beautiful kitchen, but oh, the state of it. I think for the ten days I was there the same pot of rice stayed there too, oh god. On top of this you know all the girls had been going out down the lanes to… well, you know. And I kept saying to myself, you’re only there a week Irene, but I couldn’t help thinking how much I missed my old criminals from Well Street! But I can’t complain, at night Pret a Manger and Costas used to bring us great sandwiches. Oh it were lovely. They brought it to the sitting room, and I’d be thinking I’d read my book, settle down, then all the girls would be getting ready to go out, working for a fiver, tenner — now that was an education.” She begins laughing again.

“Yeah,” she looks past me to reflect, “You know, what if I hadn’t experienced this? Life is life, you know, and I was the eldest one in both the shelters, and they found it interesting to talk to me, and I found it interesting to see another side of life, to them – an everyday existence, and to me I was fascinated by these criminals, prostitutes — they were educating me about things!”

“But after my ten days there, I was glad to get to my new home. Okay, it’s not what I was used to, but it’s a roof over my head, and I have some lovely friends there. We have BBQs on the lawn, and with the Age UK I get to go on all these trips. Did I tell you about Kew Gardens?”

The sun again goes into the clouds as we stop and listen to a plane fly overhead.

“I suppose what I mean is this: you get these opportunities in life, and let me tell you, you just need to grab them with both hands, because you never know what they might lead to, and at the end of the day, if you don’t like it, then you can just drop it like a hot potata.” And with this she sparks another cigarette, not knowing just how relevant those words are.