Lola was the hard-working Spanish au pair girl employed in the boarding house run by Agnes and her husband, where I helped out now and then. Funnily enough, when the bug (the flu) struck it seemed to immediately knock the Irish boys flat out. It only took from Friday to Monday to fill eight beds. Then Lola made the ninth.
The Nigerian students (Dan, Don, and Andy), though, were luckier. They remained immune, Never had we had so exotic an addition to the street. Neighbors gaped when the Nigerians first arrived in their beautiful flowing gowns; they had to contend not only with curious neighbors but also inquisitive, uninhibited children, who felt it necessary to accompany them wherever they went.
“We will not wear this,“ explained Dan, smoothing his embroidered over-dress, “Because on the street this causes wonderful sensation.” “But,” added Don brightly, “for a special occasion, we will wear it.”
The “special occasion” came when Lola was taken to hospital because of complications, and the three decided to visit her. Terry, one of the Irish students, volunteered to introduce the Nigerians to the etiquette of English hospital visiting, but hoped to take them one at a time. “You’re not after wearing them dresses!” he groaned in agonised appeal, as they hurried upstairs to change. The three strode abreast down the centre of the street, their robes swinging with their stride, with Terry slinking along the pavement studiously looking the other way.
Lola’s bed was at the extreme end in the corner, so poor Terry had to run the gauntlet of an audience of astounded patients and their visitors. No sooner had he slid down on the locker seat, trying to look as small as possible, then Nurse pounced, “Who are these?” She threw out an arm in the direction of the three resplendent Nigerians. The boys, their status threatened, were galvanized into speech. “We, “said Andy gravely, “we all love this girl.” “This girl, “added Dan brightly,” is wonderful—very wonderful.” It was left to Don to make the final explanation. “We all live with this girl!”
Nurse was saved by the bell—visitors’ retiring bell, that is.
The boys advanced down the ward, and the visitors, hurriedly waving goodbye to their dear ones, clustered around them like so many Lilliputians round their Gulliver. When they got to the end of the ward, the three flamboyant heroes gallantly held back the swing doors and bowed everyone ceremoniously through. The other visitors now formed a sort of guard of honour as they made way for the boys.
As the boys reached the street, the crowd began to disperse toward cars, buses, and trains, but one old man patted Andy on the back, “You bucked ‘em up no end, “ he said nodding towards the hospital building. “You come again. You’re a real right tonic.”
An edited excerpt from “.A cup of tea that is forever England: Lighthearted tales of working class life in 1960’s London, by Mira Harmer, edited by Julie Norton, Branchwood Publishing, 2012. The book comprises 18 stories based on real events that happened during Julie Norton’s childhood, were written by her mother Mira Harmer, between 1965 and 1970, and appeared in the Daily Worker/Morning Star, where Mira worked as a feature writer. www.branchwoodpublishing.uk.com