In the summer, the kids on our estate played outside every night until late. There are no water fountains around and their games of football, running races, and repurposing of household objects left by the communal garbage area into vehicles, left them thirsty.
We live on the ground floor by the concreted area where they play, and often kept the door open to get the air moving, or to disperse the smoke produced by whatever vegetable that I had decided to ‘scorch’ that day. At first, one or two would timidly knock and ask for water, which I would give them. They would often ask a question about our living arrangement at the same time; they found it baffling and downright hilarious that we lived together but were not married or family, though they never offered judgement.
When word got out that we were good for water, everyone came, and I would shuttle from the front door to the tap until they’d had enough, or sometimes fill up 2 litre water bottles. I felt almost embarrassed at how trusting of me they were. Shouldn’t a parent or someone vet me before I was allowed to give them water? Their openness and eager curiosity reminded me of my dad’s stories about getting the train or the bus alone at the age of 8 into London in the early 1960s. Evidently, childhood on this large and leafy council estate in Camberwell had produced unsuspicious, if tenaciously questioning, minds.
As they grew in confidence and got used to us, they would march into the flat, inspecting things and asking questions. What did I do? What was I going to cook? Why wasn’t I married to my boyfriend? I had to repeatedly beg them not to touch the razor sharp mandolin I used to slice potatoes or fennel bulbs. They were desperate to try it out and I was terrified. Once, when I had a few friends round to eat and was playing a record, they all came in and danced to the 1930s jazz. We all stood up and had a disco. Sometimes I put on Mark Ronson’s summer hit at their request.
The fridge was a constant source of interest and they would open it and look inside. The question of whether or not we ate pork came up often. Was there any in the fridge? Sometimes there was bacon or ham. ‘Eerrrrr!’ they’d say, or would inform me sagely that they did not eat pork because they were Muslim.
Sandy, the Scottish artist in our flat would sometimes hand out Tannock’s Tea Cakes and fix their bicycles. We have a good pump and Sandy can mend most things. On occasion, they would escort passers by with flat tyres to our door. I worried that the Tea Cakes might ruin their appetite for dinner at home – though a furious parental knock never came – it’s easy to forget how much you eat as a 10 year old.
Sometimes they would go too far and would hammer at the windows when we were trying to relax or get work done, or shout out loud that we were ‘having sex’ when they saw my boyfriend give me a kiss when he got home. We learned lessons about setting boundaries, though perhaps a little late. It was hard to tell them off though: they were so much fun, but we couldn’t keep up with their energy.
One evening, as I was jointing a chicken into sections a troupe came in and insisted on helping me cook. They gave me explanations of how their mothers cooked chicken and how they liked to eat it. The recipe emerged as I had to find tasks for around 5 or 6 – they lined up and each added a pinch of spice and a spoon of yogurt and a handful of spinach leaves to the pot while one boy stirred constantly. It didn’t really need stirring but nothing would deter him from his self-appointed duty. I had to stop him from doing all of the washing up too. I also feared that they would burn themselves on the gas cooker and repeatedly emphasised the danger of fire. They were unimpressed by my efforts to explain health and safety. Anyway, the chicken was tender and delicious and no-one was harmed.
Another time H, a girl of 8 who wants to be president, prime minister, a doctor and a lawyer, asked if she could sit next to me when I was working on my laptop and told me about what she had cooked at school. It was fermented Ethopian injera bread with a chopped spicy salad. With her permission, I transcribed what she said, here it is:
First you take salad – iceberg lettuce- and chop it up to a medium size and you take hot green peppers and you chop them and then you put them both in a bowl then you take lemon and put it on the lettuce and peppers and then you take garlic and vinegar and mix them up and them you put the garlic and vinegar in the bowl with the salad and then you mix them and take Ethiopian bread – which is sour – put everything on and you eat it.
I am ashamed to say that I have not yet made H’s injera with salad but I will do soon, I hope. Now that it is cold and gets dark early the kids don’t play outside any more and I am moving out from the estate in January. I will miss them next summer.