for Denise Arbiso, by Sam Dodd
“I’ve been joyriding down the Roman on my mobility scooter. Gets me about alright, that thing does! Went to Toynbee Hall today – wasn’t able to go there all through lockdown. They’re so lovely there. You know, I’ve got a terrible memory. You may not get a lot outta me. But let’s have a nice chat anyway.”
I grew up in Stoke Newington originally, and when I was very young, we moved more into the centre of Hackney. I was born 62 years ago in 1958. All my family were from there, going back generations. I had two brothers. Those two used to torment me – take my dolls, shake them teasingly… boys can be that way. Ah, but they were only messing. They loved me really. Both of them are still alive, they live near to me – we are all in Bow.
Growing up, my mum used to do the cooking. She was a good mum. Loved cooking dinner – she was very good at spaghetti bolognese and stews! I still love my stews now, make em all the time, but they’re never as good as when your mum makes em are they! She liked getting her hair done, and she’d wear lipstick. Pink, I think. That’s my favourite colour now too, I do like a bit of lippy sometimes. Her and my dad rowed a lot. He was argumentative, never grateful for her. Her catchphrase was “That fucking man.” Hah! He was difficult, yeah. Difficult man. My mum worked in the same warehouse department store in Shoreditch High Street as me and my cousin, it was called Spencer Rotherham. She also had another job, swing park attendant over at Springfield Park in Stokey – looking after all the kids on the swings, making sure they were safe ‘n that. She loved that job. So she did all that, plus being a full time mum. I dunno how she did it.
We had a tortoise, a real one, I used to play with him in the garden. It’s funny, when you look back. What a strange animal to have! I liked mixing with other girls my age at school, didn’t like school overall to be honest, and I couldn’t bear P.E.! Did not like that at all. Climbing apparatus and all that nonsense – what is the point in that?! But I did like netball – that was great. It was called Clapton Park School on Chelmer Road, an all-girls school. It is still there, but the name has changed, it’s now part of Clapton Girls’ Academy. I was a very good child. I never got in trouble, not even as a teenager. The worst thing I ever did in my life was start smoking at the age of 11 – and I’ve been chuffing away ever since. It’s ever so bad for you. I never told my parents; I hid it at the time. If they’d have found out they’d have told me off something rotten.
Hackney has changed a lot over the years. The people are different. It’s more posh now than what it used to be. In some ways it’s a lot better. The crime has gone down for sure. The community was tight knit back in those days, but my family kept ourselves to ourselves. We didn’t go spend time down the community halls or anything like that, not like other families. Just wasn’t my parents’ thing. Some people loved all that though. We didn’t go to church; my parents weren’t really all that religious. I was christened in the Church of England but I haven’t kept up with it. We stayed in a lot.
Much like right now, I suppose. My mood goes up and down a bit recently, with all this virus stuff going on. It can feel a bit frightening. I have my days when I feel down – and the grey weather doesn’t help. I just keep going though, best way I can.
The only job I ever had was in that Spencer Rotherham’s, founded by a fella called Jeremiah Rotherham. Textiles warehouse – fabric, home decoration sections, all that. I worked there for a long while, in the curtain department. When I was a child, I wanted to be an air hostess! I never did get round to that. It’s funny, when you think back to your dreams as a child. I loved airplanes. But I retired before I had my kids, so it’s not like I was at Rotherham’s for decades – I was a stay at home mum – and I wanted to be.
I didn’t really go out an awful lot, didn’t have a bunch of girlfriends, but I did go about with my cousin Elaine. We liked the pubs. One in Camden Town, The Eastnor Castle, as she lived over that way, and one on the Roman near me, the Earl of Aberdeen. We had a lot in common with each other. We wanted the same things in life and were on the same trajectory. She worked in the warehouse with me. Then we both got married, started families, both had a girl and a boy. She was about my age too. We were so similar, and we really had a laugh together. One club we used to go to was on Neal Street in Covent Garden, called Chaguaramus – a gay club – we used to love it there. And funfairs, we went to them a lot too. Hackney, Lea Bridge Road – they’d be big ones, every year. My favourite ride was the Big Wheel. I couldn’t go now! I’d get dizzy ‘n that – I’m too old now. And Saturday morning pictures – we’d go there regularly. It was called the Vogue Cinema, on the corner of Stoke Newington High Street and Batley Road. We did a lot of things together, me and Elaine. Wish I was young again sometimes. If I was, the first thing I’d do would be to get dressed up and go out more, enjoy myself more, have more fun, I think. She’s still about, my cousin, though we don’t stay in touch as much. She still lives in Camden. And I’m still here in the East. Won’t be going out on the town tonight, sadly! Think I’m past all that now, it’s for the young ones to do.
I got married in my twenties. It didn’t last long. I don’t think he was my first love, but I can’t remember who was! He’s still alive, still very much a part of the family. Our first proper date, really, was our wedding. We didn’t really do dating much, me and him!
My best memory is when I had my daughter Keely. She was born in Jubilee year, 1977. I always wanted a baby. Didn’t mind whether it was a girl or a boy, but I wanted kids. And I loved that she was born in the Jubilee year. Then having my boy Terry, it just made me so happy, I was complete when I had those two. I love my kids very much. Very much. And all my grandkids. If I was to give any advice to young people now, it’d be to keep off drugs. They’re different these days. And when we’re young we think we’re invincible. Keep out of gangs as well; there is so much knife crime now, there weren’t any knives when I was a kid, or at least it was very rare. So, stay out of gangs, stay out of trouble with the law, and stay off the drugs.
If I could, I’d move out of London. Loughton is nice, that’s where my son lives with his young family. I’d like a change in the air quality. I’d go there, if I could. The pace in London is much faster now than it used to be – or maybe I’m just slower! I do think though, if you want to move and you’re still young enough, do it. Take the leap. London ain’t what it used to be. The air here is bad now.
I’ve been trying to cope as best as I can during this pandemic. The lockdown was tough, didn’t leave the house as much as I used to, just stayed in really, though still made it down to the corner shop to buy my fags and crossword books. I had my hair done a couple of weeks ago, hadn’t done that for months. I felt ever so fancy. Toynbee Hall sent me colouring books and fiction novels through lockdown, and the pharmacy delivered my medication. I went out for food when I had to, I could sort that myself and I didn’t mind. My housing association even called to check I was alright – I thought that was very thoughtful. Did a lot of colouring in and crosswords over the lockdown. This week, I went down the Roman as I needed a new microwave. It’s nice to be able to go out a bit more again now. Didn’t find the one I wanted on the Roman, so I got the bus down the Bethnal Green Road. One of those market stalls with the fridges and cookers on it too. Must be a pain for the stallholders when it rains – what with all them electrics. Anyway, Toynbee Hall sorted me out with a laptop! I’ve never used one before. Just getting used to it – looking at the weather, the news, some pictures, all that. I’ll never put my bank details in that thing.
I don’t know of anyone in my immediate circle who got COVID, but I watch the news a lot – the numbers were frighteningly high. They still are. The NHS response to COVID is amazing. Unbelievable. The nurses and doctors are so good at what they do. Nobody in my neighbourhood did the clap for carers, not that I saw or heard myself anyway. I missed my mum during lockdown – she was in a supported living home in Bethnal Green.
My priority in life now is trying to stay healthy and listening to doctors. I have a lot of health issues now, all of which came later on in life – I was a fit young thing in the old days. I’m still eating chocolate though – even though I’m not meant to! And still chuffing away on the cigarettes! I went for another scan yesterday. Have a lot of scans these days, that happens when you get old. The results will go to my doctor. Not a particularly exciting week. Haven’t really seen anyone. What I do on any day depends on the weather. I can’t ride my scooter when it’s raining cos I gotta hold a brolly at the same time. If I ride, I get soaked – if I hold the brolly, can’t ride!
When I think about the future, I feel good. I like to be positive, not negative. It’s important to think positively. It keeps us sane. If we keep thinking negatively, we are never gonna get nowhere. Negativity puts obstacles in your way. If you wanna go somewhere or do something, go there! Do that! You only live once. We must enjoy this life. We are lucky to have it.
Been sorting out me winter jumpers. Coming up winter now, and I like me jumpers. Had a shower, washed me hair. Things like that. The decorator has gone now, it’s all finished. It looks nice, it feels good to have a fresh home. And me tea is in the oven. I’ve got a bit of cod in. Don’t like the ones with bones, too fiddly.
I like my own company, enjoy living alone. It’s nice to be able to come and go when you want to, do your own thing, don’t have to answer to no-one. Peaceful. Course, things changed a bit when we went into lockdown. You realise how much you like to get out and about, the moment you can’t do it no more. But I feel lucky to be here, to have a safe home. These days you can lose everything so quickly, there are so many homeless. And I’m grateful I’m not one of them.
My mum died this week. I’ve never felt anything so acutely in my life as I am right now. It wasn’t COVID, it was dementia. When she first started getting ill with the dementia, it was so hard to watch the gradual deterioration. She just didn’t know what she was saying half the time, and then eventually, all of the time. This feels painful, to lose her hurts.
Her name was Joan, and she was a fantastic woman. When she died, this week, she was 91. White haired, lovely old lady. She was so kind, to everyone. Much more outgoing than me! I’m quite shy, but my mum never was. Got on with everyone. Loved going Bingo and socialising – well known in the community, cos she would always help a struggling person out – sometimes with money, sometimes with food, sometimes just with a kind word. Such a good heart, my mum had. She was never strict, just understanding. Loved all her grandkids too, mine and my brother’s kids, and when they were little she came round a lot to help me out; I needed it. She was always out with her trolley, out and about, she liked being active. Loved the markets; Dalston, Mare Street, Stratford, Hoxton – all of them. She loved buses as well, was always on and off a bus somewhere or other. I’ve gone through her photos with my daughter, she was much closer to her than she was to me. One has got pride of place on top of my telly. I am going to miss her so much.
It’ll be another Christmas soon. I hope people are OK this Christmas. Never had one like this before, have we? My mum won’t be here for this one. It’ll be the first one in my life I haven’t spent with her. I suspect many people’s mums won’t be around this Christmas. I hope people cope OK.