John Vane: Hackney dandelions

John Vane: Hackney dandelions

You get to know the local lost souls, drinking, cadging cash and saying surprising things. That is to say, they become familiar figures on the street. You don’t actually know them at all, and you intend to keep it that way.

There’s one, a desperate-looking woman with missing teeth, who has been sitting intermittently on the same corner for years. A wandering man mentions each time I pass him that Chelsea are playing Fulham later that day. But the one I met last week was new to me.

She was sitting on the low wall before the Salvation Army church, an incongruously post-war building inconveniently no longer running a shop to which the affluent can donate clear-out cast-offs. Between the wall and the church there is generous stretch of grass.

As I approached along the pavement I knew she would speak to me. After all, she had spoken to the people who had just walked past her, and to the ones before them.

“I reckon Hackney’s got the dandiest dandelions, don’t you?” she remarked, nodding at the yellow crop sprouting amid the green.

I thought, ‘nice alliteration’. But I didn’t slow down to engage, so I’m unable to describe her in detail. There are just three things I can tell you: one, she was quite old, maybe younger than me, maybe not; two, she had an old-fashioned London accent; three, she wore a child’s pink cowboy hat with decorative fringing.

“Oh yes,” I said, about the dandelions.

“They should get a prize.”

“They should.”

“The daisies ain’t bad either.”

I raised a thumb in bright agreement, striding on.

What happened next? For how long did the woman in the cowboy hat sit on the Salvation Army church wall? How many people did she urge to admire the dandelions? And the daisies? At what point did she get bored?

I want to know. How much, though? If she is there the next time I walk past the church, perhaps again heaping praise on Hackney dandelions, I won’t stop, talk to her and try to find out what brought her there in the first place, and how she became one of the local lost souls – if, indeed, she qualifies. Was the church ministering to her in some way, or was her presence there a coincidence?

Teetotal Salvation Army soldiers used to go into pubs, making collections for the destitute and selling their newspaper, War Cry. It was brave of them, I always thought. It’s a shame the church has shut its charity shop. Perhaps I’ll give them a few pounds.

Buy a copy of John Vane’s London novel Frightgeist: A Tall Tale of Fearful Times. It’s terrifically topical.

Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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