My friend Flo

When I went to London as a young and naïve Irish girl, I was delighted with my new-found independence and sense of adventure.  Leaving my home-town didn’t seem like such a big step at the time, but in hindsight, leaving rural Ireland for a new country and a new city, was a bigger deal than I realised.

I was living with friends in a not-so-luxurious house in the East End of London.  I was looking for my first step on the career ladder, at a time when finding work was a job in itself.  However, secretarial skills and an ability to touch-type at speed, were a definite advantage in securing a weekly wage.  

I’m not entirely sure why I decided to do some voluntary work a couple of years after my arrival in London.  I think it might have been triggered by an advert I saw in an Underground tube station.  Whatever the reason, one sunny Autumn day, I found myself standing outside a terraced house, with Kelly, a liaison from the charity I had signed up with.

I was volunteering to be a home visitor for an elderly person who lived nearby and was about to be introduced to the lady I would be visiting.  I was told she lived on her own and didn’t really get out much anymore.  She had no family and only a couple of neighbours who popped in occasionally.

As I stood outside the front door, I was nervous and worried.  What if she didn’t like me?  What if she didn’t talk to me?  What if I didn’t know what to say?  I was 22 years old and suddenly felt like a little girl being brought to visit an elderly aunt that I’d never met before.

Kelly tried to ease my nerves and said not to worry, it might take a few visits before Flo warmed to the idea of visits from a stranger.  This did little to ease my concerns.  But it was too late to change my mind and I took a deep breath as we waited for what seemed like an age, for the door to open.

When our knocking was eventually answered, a small, cross looking face peered out around the door.  “Oh, it’s you!” the lady said, with a sharp tone as she reluctantly stepped back to allow us in.  It was clear she was expecting us, but she seemed keen to communicate her resistance to the visit.

Kelly casually made small talk, asking Flo how she had been since they last met.  A sharp ‘How do y’a think?’ from Flo cut the small talk short.  “This is Yvonne”, Kelly said enthusiastically, “the lady I was telling you about”.  I was slightly taken aback by the word ‘lady’, as I struggled to ignore my feelings of being inadequate, out of my depth and wondering what I had gotten myself into. 

“She’s from Ireland and has just moved to live here in Walthamstow”, explained Kelly.  “From Ireland?” replied Flo, incredulous that someone had the audacity to bring an Irish girl into her home.  “From Ireland?” she repeated, a bit too loudly for comfort.  I went red, embarrassed that my nationality was an issue.  “What would I ‘av in common wiv a young girl from Ireland?” questioned Flo.  “This is a bad idea”, she went on.  “’I’m not ‘aving any of it”, she insisted.  “I ‘av me telly and me crosswords and I don’t need to be bovered by visits an’ the like”.  

I didn’t know what to say or where to look.  Maybe she was right.  What on earth would we talk about?  What would she gain from having me intrude on her life?  She highlighted the age difference between us and made it sound more like we were from different planets than from different age groups!  I was guessing she was in her mid to late 70s.   Maybe she had a point.  A 50 year age difference might be too big a gap to bridge, no matter how good we were at conversation.  It felt that our relationship was doomed before it even started.  

But Kelly wasn’t fazed.  Perhaps she was used to this scenario.  She didn’t ignore Flo’s protests, but  gently bypassed them.  Somehow, she managed to convince Flo to give our visits a go.  It would be for just an hour or so a week, and if they didn’t work out, we could stop at any time.  I was aware that Kelly was putting a lot of emphasis on the fact that I was new to London (although I had been living there for almost 2 years at this point!), had only a small number of friends and was feeling a bit homesick.  For a good part of the visit, I felt as if Flo was the one who was being encouraged to help me!  And in hindsight, perhaps I needed Flo as much as she needed me.

We arranged a day for me to call round for our first visit.   Flo, still scowling as we left, said she’d see me at 2pm on the agreed day, as she didn’t want me arriving in the middle of Countdown, her favourite TV show!  I promised to be there at the agreed time.

That was the start of my friendship with Flo.  It had a bumpy beginning but slowly the sharpness eased and the worries that Flo had on our first meeting quickly disappeared.  Over the next 3 years, we became close friends.  

It’s almost 30 years since I first went to London and I lived there for a little over 5 years.  This time was a big part of my growing up, becoming an adult, learning about friendships, relationships and all that goes with this stage of life.

My visits with Flo became part of my weekly routine.  I popped round mostly on a Saturday afternoon.  At the start, our visits were short as we carefully navigated each other and worked out if this set-up was something we wanted to continue going forward.  Initially, our chats were a bit stiff.  Small talk.  We chatted about the weather.  A weekly update on Flo’s favourite TV shows which consisted mostly of the old reliable soaps, Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale.  But what she loved most were quiz shows…particularly Countdown.  She was eager to play along herself and see if she could do better than the contestants.  She liked to keep her mind busy and sharp.  When she was waiting for the next TV show to come on, she would busy herself with crosswords and quiz books.  She had a stack of them beside her chair, always ready for a new mental challenge.

When I met Flo, she was a very independent lady, despite not being able to get out and about when she wanted to.  She relied on the help of a weekly visit from a carer, who called round to bring her to the supermarket.  Flo was very fussy about her shopping list and had no intention of handing it over to someone else   No, she knew the type of potatoes and meat she preferred, and she held on tightly, to control one area of her life that was important to her, her food!  At that point, Flo was able to live alone with some minimal assistance with cleaning and shopping.  This allowed her to maintain her sense of control and independence.  However, she was limited socially and hopefully my visits added to her emotional needs being met, even if only in a small way with weekly visits.

I was always impressed with Flo’s love of food and her belief in the importance of cooking a healthy and tasty dinner for herself every day.  She had a meal-plan for the week, and she knew what was on the menu each day.  Her favourite was steak and kidney pudding, made from scratch at about 7 o’clock in the morning, every Saturday.  She liked to get it ready early, so preparations didn’t interfere with her TV programmes.  Her life centred around both the TV schedule and her daily food plan.  She liked knowing what was on the agenda for each day.  It gave her a focus.  It kept her busy.

In the early days, I had no idea if Flo looked forward to my visits.  Initially, it was if we had the same conversation over and over again, week after week.  I often questioned my own conversation skills and wondered if I was really cut out for this volunteer role.  We quickly got to the point where I think we were both bored with the usual list of questions…which I asked, and Flo answered.  “How was your week?”, “What happened in Coronation Street?”, “Did you get out to Sainsbury’s for your shopping?”, “Any special offers this week?”, “Did Renee (her friend) call round?”.  As we became more comfortable with each other, we started to dance to a new rhythm.  

Flo got more curious about me and my family.  She would ask about my Mam and Dad and enquire if I had gotten a letter from them in the post (yes, that was a time when we still wrote a letter home!!).  I’d tell her about my siblings, what they were all doing.  She enjoyed listening to me talk about my grandparents.  She didn’t know anyone else from Ireland and had never visited.  Her limited knowledge of Ireland was mostly coloured by the negative narrative associated with the IRA and frequent bombings in London during the 1990s.  Perhaps this explained Flo’s initial reaction to hearing her new young visitor was of Irish origin.

As time went on, our conversations got a bit longer and I got bit braver.  I started asking Flo more personal questions.  This was a bit of a challenge for me as growing up I was told not to be nosy and not to ‘ask people their business’!  But I was curious about Flo, her life before we met, her childhood, her marriage etc.  Looking around her front sitting room, which was the only part of her house that I ever saw, there were few clues about her life.  A picture of a man sat on the side table, but no other photos were displayed.  When I eventually plucked up the courage after a few weeks, Flo told me that she had been married but her husband Bert, had died a few years previously.  She clearly loved him and missed him dearly. We talked about their happy marriage and life together in the East End.

I enquired about children and she said there were none.  I probed a little further and nervously asked her about this, careful not to cause offence or upset.  She told me that they had tried, but ‘God didn’t bless them with children’.  She said it matter-of-factly, but there was sadness in her voice and an acceptance that that was just the way it was, so there was no point dwelling on it.  She was an only child herself, as was her husband. Perhaps her contentment in her own company stemmed from her childhood, as she seemed happy enough in her own company most of the time. 

Looking back now, there are so many questions I regret not asking Flo.  Maybe I did ask and perhaps my own memory, 30 years later, lets me down now, in recalling the details.  What I do remember is how struck I was back then by the contrast in Flo’s life, living alone in the East End of London, with the lives of my grandparents back home.  My Nanny and Grandad had 13 children, 12 of whom survived.  The number of grandchildren was ever increasing, as the family continued to expand.  Their home was never empty and there were always visitors coming and going, sons; daughter; grandchildren; friends; neighbours.  It wasn’t a big house, but it was always full.  

Perhaps this is the reason I volunteered to visit Flo in the first place.  I found it hard to imagine that someone, particularly an older person, might not have any visitors from one week to the next.  It seemed almost impossible to me.  My visits with Flo gave me an insight into a different reality to that of my grandparents back home.  Flo’s world got smaller with the death of her beloved husband.   Their lives pretty much revolved around each other and they did everything together.  While they had each other, they didn’t seem to need very many others to add to their happiness.  Their small circle of friends lived close by, but that circle diminished too, as friends and neighbours slowly started to pass away, one after the other, including Flo’s dear husband.

I loved Flo’s cockney accent!  She could have played a starring role in EastEnders, her favourite soap opera.  She wasn’t shy about sharing her thoughts on the various characters as she kept up with all the goings on in The Queen Vic.  Conversation around the soaps often led us to bigger and sometimes deeper discussions on life, love and relationships.

I was curious about Flo’s childhood.  She was born in 1914.  She said she couldn’t remember all that much, or perhaps she chose not to share many details of her childhood.  I treaded carefully and asked her about her memories of World War II.  History was never my best subject in school, so I felt privileged to have the opportunity to get a first-hand account of London in the 1940s.  Flo would have been in her late 20s during the war.  Matter-of-factly, she told me about the nightly air raids, the ear-shattering sirens that alerted people to make their way to the safety of a shelter.  She spoke about waiting for hours, huddled with friends, sometimes strangers, waiting for the all- clear siren to sound.  She shared her memories of a distant past, with little emotion or upset.  It was a different time she said.  They got used to the nightly air-raids and continued with their lives during the day.  It was not something she had much cause to speak about in later life.  They had all moved on.   Flo didn’t seem to mind sharing her stories of the war with me, memories that seemed to have been stored away for a long time.  

I look back on my conversations with Flo and wonder what it would have been like if we had access to the same technology then, that we have now.  I could have shown her so much about my home and family and places that she’d never seen.  Maybe it would have expanded the horizons of our chats or maybe what we had was enough, as we connected our stories through simple but sometimes powerful conversations.

The weekly visits continued and in what seemed like no time at all, our conversations spanned 3 years.  Around this time, I realised I had to make a big decision about my life.  I knew that I would always return to live in Ireland and the time was now right for me to leave London and go home.  I dreaded telling Flo about my decision.  I felt a deep sadness about having to end our friendship.  I knew I would miss my friend and our weekly chats.  And I knew that she would miss me too!  I can’t remember how I eventually told her about my decision to leave, but I do remember her kindness at trying to reassure me that it was the right decision and it would be nice for me to go home.  We promised to keep in touch and write, a promise we both kept for a couple of years.  Then eventually the replies to my letters ceased and I heard no more.  I had no contact details for anyone connected with Flo and I was never notified of her passing.

Our friendship is one that I will always treasure and look back on with very fond memories.  Although I had a busy life in London, as my career progressed and my circle of friends and colleagues grew, spending those Saturday afternoons with Flo enriched my life.  Our friendship made me realise and appreciate the importance of conversation, connection and company.  These are things we all need, no matter what age we are, wherever we live or whatever our circumstances   I am so glad that I had the opportunity to share those weekly chats with my pal Flo.

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