Varsha 2020 Issue, Stories - Shereen Pandit


Brickbats and Bouquets

By Shereen Pandit


Before doing the shopping, Ada decided to go for a ride through the park. It wasn’t exactly the thing to do on a grey December day, when not a tree was in leaf, not a flower in bud, the grass turned to mud and the path water-logged, but it delayed the shopping she dreaded.

She would give anything for a bright blue sky, a sharp golden day, even a cold one, even if she’d still have to ride wrapped in half a dozen layers, two pairs of gloves and bootees over her riding shoes – and the headscarf under her helmet to keep her head and ears warm. She’d give even more to avoid the shops altogether.

She passed several people huddled in dark coats, hats and scarfs, faces down, hands buried in their pockets. No cheery smiles or greetings or calling out about what a lovely day it was. Instead they trudged around, ignoring both their dogs, filthy with running and rolling in mud, and the bundles produced by the dogs, which Ada had to take care to avoid.

It was bad enough that her wheels and shoes would be covered in mud, she didn’t need them covered in dog dirt as well, which would take ages, when she got home, to clean off in the freezing cold. Some pushed prams one-handed, those enormous prams which took up so much space here, on pavements, on buses and in shops – while the other hand-held a mobile phone to the ear.

No matter how cold it was, mobile conversations would carry on, leaving Ada to ring her bell and call out fruitlessly and then get dirty looks when she finally found room to pass them and did so.

At least, she thought, they didn’t call her names or physically attack her. Not like that man in Waitrose last week. She remembered the aisle, half as narrow as the path in the park, where she’d stepped aside to let him pass, the big older man coming towards her, stick in the crook of one arm, shopping basket in the crook of the other.

The blow from behind had sent her stumbling, almost into the arms of the tall girl following in the wake of the old man. The girl caught her, holding Ada steady, her face shocked and the words coming from her mouth angry.

“You did that on purpose!” But she wasn’t looking at Ada as she spoke. She was looking over Ada’s shoulder. Ada turned to follow the girl’s outraged stare and pointing finger.

The old man, faster on his feet than Ada would have given him credit for, now stood inside the area roping off the tills for basket shoppers only. Chin lifted in defiance, he glared a challenge at the girl.

“He hit you!” the girl insisted. She spoke to Ada but her blue eyes flashed outrage at the old man.

So, it hadn’t been something heavy which had fallen from a shelf onto her back, Ada thought.

“Why’d you do that?” she called to the man, although she already knew why.

Confirming her thought, the old man let loose with a stream of invective against both her – a paki, a nigger, a bloody foreigner, it seemed there was nothing he regarded as negative that she wasn’t - and at the girl. Paki-lover. Encouraging “them bleeding foreigners.”

It was nothing Ada hadn’t heard before. For the girl, being on the receiving end of such vituperation seemed a new experience. “Fucking little bitch standing up for terrorists” made her mouth drop open, her eyes fill with tears.

She shrank in front of Ada’s eyes - no longer the Amazonian defender against injustice but just a child being shouted at by someone louder, someone bigger, someone with weapons against which she had no shield.

“Are you mad?” Angry now, Ada stormed towards the man. “Or just a nasty old bastard?”

But already he was darting towards the door, unimpeded by other shoppers or staff members, every one of whom, after a cursory glance to see what the disturbance was about, continued with their business. As the security guard held the door for him, the old man paused for one more bout of insults.

Giving chase, Ada found the guard barring her way, looking pointedly at her shopping basket. Ada sighed. It wasn’t the guard’s job to stop men abusing women. It was his job to ensure people paid for their goods before leaving the shop.The girl stood where Ada had left her.

“I’m sorry.” She patted the girl’s arm. Poor child, to have all this heaped on her because she couldn’t walk on by. “Are you OK?”

The girl nodded, then shook her head, making the soft blonde curls swing. “What a horrible man,” she whispered.

So now, here Ada was, a week later, desperate for bread and milk and other essentials but more desperate still to put off the evil moment of entering a supermarket.

Finally, when her nose felt as though it would drop off and her fingers were getting too numb, despite the two pairs of gloves, to hold the handlebars properly, Ada decided to simply head on home. She’d do without. Her husband could shop later.

The long ride had taken her to the far side of the park. A runner - clad against all odds in shorts and t-shirt, woollen gloves and a woolly hat her only concession to the freezing weather – jogged in place, allowing Ada to exit first.

The woman sped off with a cheery greeting and red-gloved wave. Ada gazed after her with admiration and envy. Would that she could treat this miserable weather with such defiance – and relish it.

Since Ada had last used this exit an Iranian food shop had opened over the road. Outside it, women wrapped in long heavy garments and headscarves picked over rows of exotic fruit and vegetables displayed under an awning.

It was slightly pricier than the big shops but she doubted there’d be stick wielding old racists inside. Even if there were, they’d be hard put to beat up all the headscarf wearing dark-skinned women here. Ada smiled to herself as she locked the bike and slid the panniers from the rack.

Inside, the shop was much smaller than the major supermarkets, its aisles just wide enough for people to pass down singly. Nonetheless, women squeezed chest to chest and belly to belly with other women, giggling when two sets of bellies and bosoms passing down the same aisle caused stacks of goods to wobble dangerously.

Coats were unbuttoned in the heat generated by so many enclosed bodies, revealing a multitude of styles of dress and colours. There was much casual chatter as the women filled baskets with things none of the big supermarkets sold – ingredients for familiar dishes of faraway birthplaces or ancestral homelands. It took ages to queue, so that Ada too, feeling the prickle of sweat pouring down her body, opened her jacket.

It was only when she was about to unlock her bike that she remembered the newspaper. Shops like this didn’t stock papers. She’d have to go to one of the usual supermarkets after all. She donned her helmet, covering most of her headscarf, so that she looked like any cyclist garbed against the cold.

Then shouldering the bags, now heavy with the weight of her shopping, she crossed to the “express” version of one of the main supermarkets. She headed straight for the newspapers, collected her copy, then, relieved to see only one person in the queue at the shop’s single till, waited to pay. The grey-haired man in front of her turned. Ada involuntarily stepped back.

He was younger than the man who had hit her but slight and not armed with a stick. Still, Ada dropped one bag, preparing to flatten him with the other if he tried anything confrontational.

The corners of the man’s eyes crinkled, deep lines creasing his cheeks as he smiled. “Which of those do you like?” he gestured at the window display.

Ada looked behind her. There was nobody there. She looked at the cashier. The plump little woman’s red-cheeked face was also turned to Ada, waiting for Ada’s answer. Ada looked at the shop window, where a row of orchid stood in pots – one a delicate cream, another pale pastel pink, the third a mix of colours.

He’s probably buying it for his wife, she thought. Or perhaps his mum. Wishing he’d asked the cashier rather than her, she mumbled, “The multi-coloured one.”
But then, as he walked towards the display to fetch it down, she saw the one half-hidden in the corner. Tallstemmed, with leaves of the darkest green and flowers of the boldest, brightest blue. It was probably the dearest but on this dreary day, whoever he was buying it for surely deserved a bit – or even a lot – of brightness.

“I’ll buy it for you,” the man said.

Ada laughed bitterly. First they hit me then they make fun of me, she thought, as he took the flowering plant down and carried it to the till. He paid the cashier and faced Ada, holding out the plant.

“For you,” he said quietly. The smile was broader now, warm as a Summer’s day, lighting the craggy stubbled face beneath the untidy mop of grey hair.
Ada dropped the bag with which she’d been going to hit him alongside its partner. “I can’t take it,” she said, slipping off her helmet so that he would see her headscarf. “I don’t know you. Give it to your wife. Or your mother. Or your daughter.”

“Don’t have any of them,” he shrugged.

“Give it to her,” she nodded at the cashier.

“It’s the helmet I like,” he said, holding out the flower still. “Put it on again.”

She decided to humour the man. Mad he might be, but he didn’t seem dangerous. “Well weird, or what?” she asked, aware from non-cycling friends’ comments that the combination of headscarf and helmet looked ridiculous, but it kept her ears from dropping off with cold.

Besides, it was no worse than the layers of pullovers and jackets that made her look like the abominable snowman. Altogether she didn’t look like the kind of woman strange men bought flowers for.

“Brave,” he said. “Wearing it like that.”

“Braver without the helmet!” Ada burst out.

“Yeah.” The smile disappeared. “I suppose. Take your flower.”

The bold blue flower was in her hand and he was at the door, waving cheerily as she stumbled out garbled thanks. Shaking her head, she approached the cashier to pay for her paper.

“It’s done,” the cashier said, her delight at Ada’s bewilderment bursting out in peals of laughter.

“No! That’s too much!” Ada put paper and pot plant on the counter and dashed to the door.

She scanned the pavements. The man had vanished. The security guard didn’t bar her exit but, facing inwards to keep a wary eye on the shop’s contents and customers, he seemed oblivious to the orchid-giving, let alone the way the orchid-giver had gone.

Ada returned to the cashier.

“Don’t forget your change,” the girl waved a five-pound note as Ada gathered up bags, paper and pot plant.

“What change?” Ada asked.

“He gave me twenty pounds,” the girl said. “Your stuff only cost fifteen.”

“I don’t believe this! Bung it in the charity box.”

She put the paper into one bag with her earlier shopping. Into the other she gently lowered the orchid, leaving the tall bag open so that the flower wouldn’t be crushed.

The flower in her bag made it impossible to ride, so she pushed her bike along the pavement, apologizing to pedestrians as she went. Women with prams. Women with dogs. Women on phones. They stared at the flower. They stared at Ada. And smiled.


So, by the time she put the bright blue flower on her own windowsill, did Ada.


Shereen Pandit from London was born in apartheid South Africa where she transformed into a lawyer, lecturer, political activist and trade unionist. In 1986, she was forced into political exile in the UK where she completed a PhD in law, continued activism service, and began writing. Her writing has been widely published in the UK and elsewhere, it is translated into various languages, awarded several prizes, and her works have been turned into plays, and broadcast on National Public Radio in the USA. Some of her publications include A Burnt Child (novel), Waiting for Fidel in the Springtime (short story collection) and Trafalgar, and The Golden Years that she edited with her brother. .


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