for Peggy Metaxas, by Nacima Khan
The phone clicked quietly as Peggy’s clear voice echoed through the line.
It was never a formal nor distanced hello, but one which always opened up a door into Peggy’s home, one which invited you in for a cup of tea, one which made you stop and take a deep breath as the humdrum of life seemed to come to a halt in those few moments of opening up a conversation.
“I am so afraid. But we have to do what needs to be done.”
The lockdown had hit in March of 2020 and Peggy had become resigned to life within her home. Unable to leave the house, with fear of a virus which, at the age of 95, meant she might not be able to fight it off, she was scared to face the outside world. But Peggy’s outlook on the whole pandemic from within her home is what struck me the most in our conversations.
“Well you just get on with it. I spend my time deciding what to cook, looking through my recipe books and seeing what ingredients I have. I tend the garden as much as I can. I have two cats to take care of. I keep myself busy.”
Peggy takes me through a journey into her home and there I imagine myself to be, every time we speak:
The front door opens and Peggy looks out with a smile. Blue eyes shining in a face framed by dark hair as she leans against a walking frame ordered under the insistence of her daughter, from Toronto.
“I don’t like to rely on other people. I am quite independent when I can be.”
Continuing on into the small hallway, the colour blue is dominant as it reflects throughout the décor.
“I like the colour blue, and I like my things.”
She chuckles as she tells me this unapologetically. Books and trinkets line the shelves and any other open space. China plates are framed on the walls, sketched with blue paint as they depict various patterns and scenery. For the first time, I hear a sense of hesitation in her voice as she reflects on her possessions.
“Perhaps I have too many things and should get rid of them.”
But then as if having settled the matter already to herself: “No…they are my things and I like having them.”
A phone hangs on the wall in the hallway. This has been the connection to Toronto – a life that once was and still is being lived through her two children who now reside there. “They would like me to go back, but I am not sure.” Peggy lost her husband, George, twenty years ago, when he became ill. They moved to Canada with their children to live a life which was comfortable and quaint, until Peggy decided to move back to London after George passed away when they were still living in Toronto. The mention of George sparks youthfulness in her voice.
“He always made me a cup of tea and would bring it to me in bed. That was every night without fail. And it was lovely and that was George. He always thought about you. I do miss that.”
I follow Peggy’s voice as she imagines George sitting at the kitchen table reading the Telegraph, with his hazel eyes perusing the words of a language that was never his mother tongue. Years of hard work had made his English vocabulary perfect, while it interlaced with his Greek accent; it had been a journey that began from the moment he met Peggy working at the Greek Embassy.
“This would all have been so much better if he was here.”
Peggy spots a picture of Yorkshire and remembers how it was one of the places she had planned to see with George when they had returned to the UK from Toronto.
“But he never got to see this flat in London. George passed away.”
I imagine her shrugging her shoulders as she accepts life for what it is now.
“I don’t get sad about things like that. I am quite sensible in that way.”
The smell of spices cooking from the neighbouring homes is a stark reminder of where Peggy lives. A heavily populated area, mostly by Bangladeshi families, it’s a world away from the busy city of Toronto where Peggy lived for many years, and the common east London accent is a contrast to her accent as Peggy speaks.
“It’s lovely where I am. I am blessed with the neighbours that I have.”
There is a knock on the door. Another George, who lives upstairs, has come to do his daily check-in to see how Peggy is. He was the first on call when Peggy had a sudden fall. Something she told me in our calls, but not to her own children.
“They will only worry.”
I can’t help but think of Peggy’s George who no doubt would have done the same for anyone else.
“My George would have been the first to lend a hand if you needed help.”
I can see Peggy’s George standing in the doorway, handsome, with a greying beard and hair that still curled ever so slightly as he nodded to the neighbours. Peggy sees him too, but she remembers the 23 year-old George decked out in a naval uniform as he walked into the Embassy for the first time.
Peggy laughs now:
“He didn’t change my life – I changed his.”
As she looks out into her small garden, Peggy’s voice is laced with vulnerability as she reflects.
“I wish I could get someone to clean up the garden for me. I don’t know who to ask.”
I see the fruit trees blossoming through the sunlight as the lockdown creeps into spring and then summer, with a sigh from Peggy wondering how she can reach for the highest apples, resigned to collecting what she can. I see the leaves being blown off their branches as autumn runs through the garden leaving behind an orange and brown trail of a mess with Peggy only now venturing to the door to look out for her cats.
“I’ve kind of adopted them.”
These particular cats seem to have chosen Peggy’s kindness to keep them fed and warm when the cold hits and when they need somewhere to call home.
“Do you fear the unknown?”
Peggy chuckles at this question.
“I was a child who went through the Second World War.”
I am hurtled through a snapshot of a young girl having to suddenly move schools, live with another family in the countryside, reveling first in the adrenaline of this change which then shifted to a constant fear of German bombs and not knowing when life would go back to normal.
“I was afraid. But you do what needs to be done.”
In my mind’s eye, I see Peggy poring over her recipe books as she talks me through what she will cook that day. Nestled between her books is a copy of her very own recipe book – something which her children had put together. This is where I see Peggy the most animated as she describes the simplicity of cooking delicious and wholesome dishes.
“You just need to roast chicken with herbs and butter, and some vegetables, like broccoli, on the side if you like. It is so simple but lovely.”
I think about the complicated dishes of spiced meat and vegetable curries which have often been offered to Peggy from her Bengali neighbours.
“They’re much too spicy for me.”
But out of politeness, Peggy never refuses the food parcels that sometimes get sent to her door, though they often stay untouched and unopened.
She takes me through the set up on the kitchen table. It is always dressed with a tablecloth; today a white and blue one. A plate is laid carefully with cutlery on either side, with a napkin. Here, Peggy teaches me the importance of taking care of the little things.
“Set up the table for the morning so you don’t have to think about what to do.”
I imagine Peggy walking into her living room and sitting in her armchair as she looks down at her slippers hiding the toenails which have become too overgrown for her liking but much too hard for her to reach down and trim herself.
“It’s all getting to me now. But I don’t like to ask for help.”
Peggy looks at the clock and realizes the time.
“For lunch I think I shall have a cheese toasty. It’s very simple, just butter the slices of bread and grate some cheese inside and fry in a pan. Yes, that is what I will have for my lunch.”
I hear her smile and a heartfelt wish for me in one simple word as the door to Peggy’s life closes once again.
The phone clicks once again and I am engulfed in sudden silence.