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Every Day Acts of Bravery

on Wed 19 Mar 2014

 

It's Wednesday. Once again I'm on my way to the Jagonari Centre in Whitechapel to meet with some of the women who go to a drop-in class there on Wednesdays. I hadn't expected to have a 'Jagonari-Wendesday' again because at this point we were supposed to have finished our creative sessions with the women. But Rebecca and Mandy, two of the women who took part in our story-telling project hadn't been able to finish their stories which we wanted to include in our book about the project, 'The Fox and the Tiger: Tales from East London'. The stories are about every day acts of bravery which we had explored over several weeks – Mandy had started a story about her fear of crossing deep water over a bridge and how she has to do that almost on a daily basis given she lives in Canning Town, and area with lots of canals and basins. Rebecca's story was about an new cleaning job and her fears around travelling to work in the early hours of the morning when it's still dark but also the pressure of wanting to do a good job as a step back into employment.

 

Because Mandy and Rebecca haven't been able to complete their stories we have agreed to meet with them once more for additional one-to-one story support. This Wednesday is our third attempt to do this because Mandy and Rebecca had not been able to keep to the previous appointments.

So here I am on my bike pedalling to Whitechapel once again to meet with my colleague Polly at café Marrakech. We take our time to check in over a cuppa, and talk through what we hope to achieve and how best to go about it – we both hope that 'third time lucky' will mean that Rebecca and Mandy will both be there. And we appreciate how complex their lives are and how many things can upset their best intentions to attend our meeting: pressure from the Job Centre, difficulties in personal relationships, anxieties of speaking on the phone to get in touch with us, a sense of guilt from having missed two previous meetings, nxieties about speaking about a time when bravery was required...

 

The air condition in the café is too cold. Someone quietly cleans the tables around us with a spray that smells unbearably fresh and hygienic; I should be reassured but really I'm just ready to leave. But between us we don't have enough change to pay our beverages and the waiter with his big smile cannot accept card payment; in the end he accepts my handful of coins – that's 20p short – and my embarrassed apology and still smiles while he tells us that this has happened to him before. Now I am reassured.

 

We go to Jagonari. Mandy and Rebecca haven't arrived yet; it's unusually late for them and I'm a bit concerned that it might be us that are the problem. The other women have started sewing leaves on a banner with a tree design. There isn't anything to do so we start helping them: I have managed to sew 2 leaves to the banner by the time Rebecca and Mandy arrive, and I'm quite pleased that this women's banner will have a few purple stitches made by me on it. I left a tiny imprint.

And Mandy and Rebecca are ready to finish their stories. We clarify a few sentences that were unclear; Mandy writes a beginning for her story, Rebecca an ending for her. Their bravery is captured. We take our notes and our leave.

 

I'm determined to find a cash point to be able to go back to café Marrakech and pay our debts. The staff at Jagonari are a bit unclear which one is the nearest cash point – someone points towards Aldgate and a Lloyds branch but someone else seems to think that this particular cash point doesn't always work – or did she mean one of the two that are in the other direction towards Whitechapel Station? We decide not to take a chance and go towards Whitechapel for even if there's one that might not work there is clearly at least one other one somewhere there.

 

We walk along the stalls of Whitechapel market and as always I get a little bit distracted by the sight of pashminas in all colours, fresh coriander and piles of mangoes next to plastic legs with stockings on them dangling down and the red bristles of a street brooms poking out underneath a tarp.

I almost miss the sign 'FREE CASH HERE' and it takes me a moment to take in that this is the place we are looking for because I find the symmetric sign post aesthetically so very pleasing: three words with exactly the same number of letters written in captial underneath each other so that they build a square. A solid square of black letters, looking strong and reliable.

Once again, I feel reassured. Until my eyes glance at the place that offers free cash here: a gambling shop. I stare, then walk on thinking it must be the place next to it – but it isn't so I walk back. Polly is equally unsure but then says loud as if to instil confidence: this is the place with a cash point. And so in we go. Through a door into a large room that would be really dark if it wasn't for at least 30 gambling machines all lined up along the walls like very obedient school children, all facing us, quietly, with shiny screens and happy colours. I notice that I'm standing on a thick carpet and wonder for a split second whether that would be difficult to keep clean on bad-weather days.

Then I hear a man speaking – he's just taking money out of the cash point and says good-bye to the only other person in the room, a woman with dark skin and a white blouse sitting on a high chair by one of the machines and drinking tea. At least that's somehow what I believe a shop assistant would drink out of a mug in a gambling shop in the early afternoon. While I wait for Polly to take out money I notice a big bowl of sweets on the counter next to the cash machine. Somehow this strikes me as odd: a place for over 18 yearn olds that's full of gambling machines and sweets on the counter. I have to fight a real urge not to take one of those sweets, all of a sudden I'm really obsessed with eating a sweet, mostly because their very shiny bright wrappers that I can almost feel rustling and crunching in my hands. But I reckon that with sweets it's like with gambling: once you start one is never quite enough.

Polly has now finished and it's my turn at the cash point. The writing on the screen matches the writing on the signpost outside. Black. Green. Purple. It looks quite humble among the other garish machines in the room. I wonder why they let people come in just to draw money – do they hope that once I'm here and have taken money I might be lured into the idea of increasing that money by playing a game? Or do the sweets have something to do with it – maybe a lot of people are like me and desperate to take a sweet after they took out money and then they feel guilty because they know they've entered a shop that's all about gambling and made use of their non-gambling services and not given anything back?

I don't want to give anything back and I don't take a sweet. Just my money and out we go with a short and barely audible 'good bye' to the woman in the white blouse. We haven't spoken a word and when we get back into the day light I take a deep breath and break the silence saying that this was the first time in my life to enter a gambling shop – it's the same for Polly – and I share that I feel awkward being seen to leave such a place.

Quickly we walk to the café where it's very busy with the lunch crowd. Around us students and hospital staff eat, laugh, chatter; people great each other – a young waitress welcomes an elderly Asian man and leads him through the crowd to the only free table in the restaurant like a ship sailing gracefully through wild water. He smiles at her and she gives him her full attention whilst people squeeze past and the chatter becomes a cloud of noise. Sitting here in the midst of life it seems almost surreal that I've just been inside this thick-carpeted silent gambling shop where nothing lives and I bet even the time stands still. I realise that entering that shop was my act of bravery for the day and without Polly at my side I would have most certainly not done it...

 

@petrahilgers

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