Bedlam outside Brixton station – ‘Repeeent’ – a man is screaming next to the flower stall, selling bunches of electric daffodils lighting up their small corner of this grey February morning. Women are slamming baby buggies Grand Theft Auto-style through the crowd, while teenagers duck and dive around the bare-legged grannies with soft shoes and statement hats. This morning, the young prostitute with the slicked-back hair and Cleopatra eyeliner sits underneath a sleeping bag next to a cash machine, her make-up on point. The Rastas are selling incense and laminated posters of Bob Marley next to the steel pan band. Nearby, a convulsing beat-boxer battles them bar for bar.
Two crackheads drift onto the thoroughfare, wide-eyed and exhausted. Not yet fully-charged, their hustle on mute. But come sunset and the rush hour is spilling out of the station, they will beg and claw their way along the main drag. I see the skinny white woman who once clutched my arm at the bus stop and screamed ‘Mummy please,’ but she doesn’t recognise me. I come to the market when I want to talk. A habit formed in my teens, seeking life outside school, when I’d roam the stalls and passages of Portobello and chat to the traders, who seemed to understand my strange, cobbled-together outfits and passion for the Velvet Underground. It was there I met Tyrone, pioneer of men’s skirts; who made me a full-length, gunmetal puffa jacket like a giant beetle shell, Crazy Claudia with the red wine-stained teeth; who gave me a part-time job in her shop selling second hand fur and 70’s go-go boots. Fedora-clad Gaz; who traded rare vinyl – Ska, Rock, Rhythm and Blues – and first introduced me to Soho. Oz the friendly Moroccan; who dealt weed and roller-skated everywhere.
When I first moved to Brixton and didn’t know anyone, I went to the market every day to
buy bananas or bread, or just to watch it like TV. I need it less these days – I have neighbours, friends. But on certain mornings; mornings like this when the grey filtered light rebuffs the coming of spring and you wake feeling tragic for no reason at all, I take the bus down Brixton Hill to find whatever’s waiting for me there.
I swing my empty shopper as I pass Morley’s department stall, with its strip club window display of lingerie-clad mannequins in cowboy hats. Cross the road and pass through the warm popcorn-smelling air pocket at the entrance of Reliance Arcade and cut down Electric Avenue to look at the fish. Three bass for a tenner stacked silver on the fresh ice outside the Chinese supermarket, the raw meat stink of the open fronts of the Halal butchers. Rows of scarlet pigs’ feet, sweet potatoes, yam, ginger, plantain, fat bunches of coriander. Reggaeton on shitty speakers.
Between two railway arches on Atlantic Road, Jurassic plant life is bursting forth from a narrow crevice in the wall. I stop to admire the shiny leaves of a dark green succulent and a tiny woman with snaking coils of dreads appears from inside. She smiles at me over her tinted glasses.
‘Can I help you my darlin?’
‘Your plants are in such good condition.’
‘I’m always having to tell people not to touch them – they think they’re fake,’ she sighs. ‘They don’t understand they’re harming them.’
‘It’s because they’re so shiny,’ I agree. ‘Mine don’t look like this.’
‘You got to spray them,’ the lady says, ‘they like that. And talk to them.’
‘You talk to them?’
‘I tell them: ‘goodnight my beauties’ when I put them down for the night,’ she smiles.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a youth in a pale grey tracksuit hovering nearby.
‘Having plants is a responsibility,’ she continues. ‘I just wish people wouldn’t touch them.’
The youth has edged closer to the flower shop, shifting from foot to foot. He has a pretty face, teetering on the edge of rough. Like a lot of people around here, he’s too young to look as old as he will in a year or two. The lady notices him.
‘Can I help you?’
‘You got flowers?’ the boy says.
‘Yes my darlin.’
‘I need like…’ the boy waves vaguely at the display outside the shop, his eyes coming to rest on a vase of orange roses.
‘Oh those ones are lovely,’ the lady says.
‘Running late for Valentine’s Day?’ I ask.
The boy grins.
‘How much are they, like?’
‘They’re £1.50 a stem,’ the lady says.
‘What for one??’ the boy is flabbergasted.
‘Roses are expensive, darlin.’
The boy looks defeated.
‘Who are they for? Your girlfriend?’
‘Nah…nah…nothing like that…’
‘They’re for this girl…I only seen her. But…I think I love her.’
The lady and I exchange a smile at this.
‘I need to talk to her, so I thought…’ he gestures helplessly at the flowers.
‘I think it’s a good idea,’ I tell him, ‘all women love flowers.’
The boy looks at me sideways.
‘How much do you want to spend?’ the lady asks. The boy pulls out a crumpled fiver from his pocket. The lady points to a tub of white blossoms.
‘These are £3 a bunch’
‘They’re nice,’ I offer.
‘I like these ones though,’ the boy said pointing at the orange roses.
‘Maybe you could put one in the middle?’
The lady maintains a poker face and draws out a single orange rose from the display and holds it together with a bunch of white blossom.
‘Yeah…I like that,’ the boy says, nodding his approval. ‘Does it come in paper?’
‘I’ll make it look nice for you,’ the lady says and disappears into the shop.
‘I think it’ll work,’ I tell the boy. ‘It’s a much better way of starting a conversation with a girl than just asking for her number.’
The boy looks at me. I notice he has sparse stubble scattered across his cheeks and chin. His skin is the exact same colour as milky tea. He smiles.
‘So how’s your relationship going then?’ he asks, suddenly.
‘It’s going ok,’ I laugh, ‘kind of long distance. He’s coming to visit next week.’
‘Yeah?’ the boy says. ‘So when he goes, can I be your man?’
‘Er…Aren’t you buying flowers for a girl you think you might love?’
‘Yeah but…You’re nice though.
‘Sometimes it’s important to stick to your Plan A.’
‘Nice lips…juicy…nice legs.’
‘You hearing this?’ I call to the woman in the shop.
‘You remind me of my son,’ she tuts.
‘Can I have your number though?’
‘I don’t think I want to be a Plan B.’
‘Haven’t you got any pink paper?’ the boy calls to the woman, who is wrapping his flowers in orange tissue to match the rose.
‘Orange looks good,’ I tell him, ‘it works.’
‘Seriously though, I’d put a ring on your finger.’
The lady in the shop shrieks.
‘Lord have mercy!’
‘Seriously,’ I say, ‘it takes balls to chat one woman up while you’re in the middle of buying flowers for another.’
‘I need a woman bad,’ the boy explains. By now we’re all laughing. ‘I haven’t been in a relationship for a month.’
The lady comes out with the flowers, wrapped and ready.
‘They look great,’ I say, ‘but I really should go…Good luck with your quest,’ I tell the boy.
He grins regretfully as we shake hands.
‘My name’s Cain,’ he says.
‘It was nice to meet you Cain.’
‘I won’t see you again.’
‘You might,’ I tell him, ‘you never know, you just might.’
My bag is weighed down heavy now. Time to take myself home. The 333 pulls into the stop and I’m swept onto the bus by the crowd. I look around for somewhere to sit and an old man with a walking frame twinkles at me from the priority seats next to the window.
‘Ciao bella,’ he wheezes, gesturing to the empty space beside him.
‘Where you from then?’ he says as I sit down.
‘I’m from London.’
‘I thought you was Italian, or Greek or summfin?’
I shake my head.
‘Gawd. They don’t make ‘em like you anymore,’ he says as the bus sets off up Brixton Hill.
I look out the window. It’s started to drizzle. Dirty droplets on the grubby pavement and a grim sky above. In the glass, I catch the reflection of the bunch of glowing daffodils, clutched in my fist like a torch, and above the half-moon of my own teeth – a wavering Cheshire Cat illusion – I’m smiling.