“Rosalind” by Arifa Akbar, extract taken from Tales of Two Londons: Stories from a Fractured City, ed. Claire Armitstead, Arcadia Books, London, 2019. Copyright © Arifa Akbar, 2018.
Reproduced by permission of Arcadia Books. For more information on, and to purchase this book, visit Arcadia Books.
I heard about Rosalind Hibbins before I met her. I was buying an attic flat on top of a converted period house on Lady Margaret Road, a tree-lined backstreet that runs from Kentish Town to Tufnell Park, and I had just exchanged contracts with its former owner, Holly, when she mentioned the woman who lived down- stairs. She spoke of Rosalind with such strained diplomacy that it seemed as if she were revealing furtive knowledge of a faulty boiler or leaky roof that she’d kept hidden until too late. ‘She’s a character!’ Holly said with a nervous laugh.‘Every street’s got one.’ I was moving from a large 1930s block on Camden Road where my neighbours had been too many and too fluid to get to know beyond the briefest of helloes in the lift. It suited me that way; I had grown up on a housing estate in Primrose Hill after my parents returned to London from Pakistan, and as the only non- white family in our council block, we tried to live as quietly as we could amid the curiosity, and occasional hostility. As the postwar generation died off, our neighbours became far more unknown and indifferent to us, and we to them.
Rosalind introduced herself to me the day I arrived. She was a strapping woman with tidy red hair cut short, and a way of speaking that quickly travelled the scale from genial to spiky. The furniture was still being hauled up when she emerged at the top of my stairs with a box of organic tea, and looked at me with wonder. ‘I’m so pleased to finally meet you,’ she said. ‘I looked up your name. I didn’t know if you’d come veiled.’
Oh god, I thought, but she was full of neighbourly spirit after that. She asked me what else I needed, and when I spoke of a housewarming party, she saw my bare living room and said she’d lend me her corner tables so I’d have some flat surfaces to serve food on to my guests.
I found out more about her as time went on. She was in her early 60s, with no husband or children, and estranged from her sisters, apparently. Despite her age, she had a ruddy strength about her. She had grown up in the country and her hiking boots, which she kept under the settle by the stairs, were always muddy. She had been a librarian at the British Library but found, after retirement, that her true passion was stone-carving.
I also discovered that she had a knack for friendship, but for fall-outs too. She received floods of birthday cards and had friends forever doing her favours. Yet the other two flat-owners in the house spoke of her in the same nervous way as Holly when they took me out to the Pineapple, a pub on the adjacent street where we discussed all communal house matters after that. A few drinks in, they spoke in plainer language: she had fallen out with them dramatically over the years. She had differences in opinion with the Catholic church on our road too and had stopped going to Sunday service there. Even the owner of the local newsagent who had once been known for carrying her shopping home for her now pursed his lips at her name.
She took an interest in me from the first but I suspected it was because she needed an ally in the house. She told me she’d read newspaper articles I’d written on my father’s dementia, and another on Terry Pratchett’s death. ‘Congratulations on writing without sentimentality,’ she said in an email.
She called on me for small tasks at first – watering her plants while she was away, buying milk, hoovering the hallway. Then, a distressed phone call when I was in the office. The builder we had enlisted to lay our porch paving was threatening to take up every last stone and abandon the job in anger. Could I come home and talk him down? I did, begrudgingly, and found out afterwards that she had managed to alienate every builder who had worked on the house.
I got more phone calls in the office after that, some with Rosalind in tears, asking me to fix this or that. Stranger things too: she stopped me along the hallway in a panic, saying that there was a mouse in her kitchen and could I watch over it while she called pest control; another time, she ran up the stairs wild-eyed to ask if I could investigate a possible gas leak in her flat. With each episode, I felt what really disturbed her wasn’t the problem she presented but fear or maybe even acute moments of loneliness beneath it. But alongside her vulnerability, she was difficult, demanding, and increasingly, I became confrontational back.
Then, one day, she caught me on the stairs when I was in a troubled mood about work and over tea she listened in such a way that I felt the possibility of a solution, though she hadn’t given any outright advice. I came away feeling that I was no longer pressed up against my problem but could breathe easier alongside it.
There were other moments like that which crept up on me over the next eight years, when we’d bump into each other on the stairs and talk about life over tea – her joy at finally renting a studio in Bethnal Green and becoming a bona fide artist ‘at my age!’, my slow but steady progress with a book idea, her dislike of the new pope and, ultimately, of all organised religion. I felt I understood her better after hearing her ferocious attacks on parts of the church, only because she held equally outspoken views on Islam which she had volubly expressed to me in the past, knowing I was a Muslim. Now I figured it was nothing personal.
She’d point at objects in her flat as we talked – the stone-carvings propped up against the fireplace, the leather case which contained the love letters that her father had written her mother before marriage, which she claimed never to have read (I told her I’d never be able to resist). She cried each time she pointed to the photograph of her father, taken at 90-something, and told me again how it devastated her when he died.
She caught me exhausted one time and craving escape from the city. ‘It’s still bluebell season,’ she said, ‘you should go and see the bluebells’, and gave me a map to a copse at the top of a golf course on the outskirts of London. As a British Asian urbanite, I hadn’t even known bluebell season existed. I was curious, and so I trekked there with a flask and a packed lunch and the bobbing sea of flowers was so joyful that it breathed new life into me.
It became a friendship, of sorts, with its confidences, rows and appeasements. Or perhaps a kinship in which she saw something of herself in me and I, for my part, recognised my inability to com- promise in her and I imagined it leading me to the same future – a woman without family, alone in older age. Yet her life offered reassurance too because it showed me how I could live fruitfully this way. She had warded off loneliness, for the most part, and kept a hold of her passions.
I never felt sorry for her because she emanated great strength of will. So, when she sent us a house email three years ago to announce that she had ovarian cancer, she made it clear she’d be fighting it all the way. She got herself on a drugs trial and the medicine seemed to work. Her cancer was contained and a year later she was just as alive, just as solid-looking, even though she wore scarves now where her hair had been.
Other emails came, but the starkest one arrived early last spring, over a year after her diagnosis. It was short and to the point. The drugs had stopped working. She was at Stage Four and they had given her ‘a few weeks, maybe more.’
The woman who lived below her rang me. We should go to see her, she said, but I wasn’t sure I could. A few weeks earlier, my sister had died suddenly and it had left me poleaxed. Now, here was death again on my doorstep. It took all my strength to go two floors down, and then I was uncontrollably tearful at how vulnerable Rosalind looked. It was as if knowledge of her impending death had transformed her instantly; her hair had grown back in tufts of white and she had lost so much weight that she looked frail, all signs of the former battle-axe disappeared. She moved slowly and gasped for breath. We sat as a group in awkward silence until she looked around the room in shock and said ‘what will happen to all my things?’
I saw her on Lady Margaret Road only one more time after that, just outside the house, with a cluster of women around her who must have helped her down the stairs. She was leaning on her walking frame and she told me in a whispering voice that she was going to visit her studio, and what struck me was how free and happy she looked in that moment. I knew it was because she loved the studio and the things she had made with her own hands inside it.
We heard that she’d been taken to a hospice in July. I wanted to say goodbye but felt too shy to call and too reluctant to visit. Facing death, I had observed through my sister, was such an intimate thing and I didn’t want to intrude on hers. I was a neighbour who had known her only in passing. So I texted her, saying I would remember our conversations, particularly the first one when I had been thinking of finding an alternative career though I had no idea what else I might enjoy doing other than writing. She had talked about learning to navigate two things, and conjured an image of the woman who rides two horses at the circus. She has learned to slip from one horse to another, and she is in control of the manoeuvre so that it is not frightening for her, she had said, suggesting I might try at being her, metaphorically. The image had stayed with me, and I spoke of the woman, perhaps because I saw Rosalind was poised for the ultimate transition from life to death, and I wanted to remind her of the sliding manoeuvre.
I got a voicemail back and it was so hard to hear her because Rosalind barely had a voice left and she struggled to finish her sentences before breathlessness got the better of her. She was saying she would love to see me again and inviting me to visit her at the hospice in Belsize Park, just around the corner from where I grew up, and where my mother still lived.
I was with her for a few hours. She had a big, bright room, with one wall covered with cards. She sat on a chair by the window and, every now and again, she looked down to the manicured garden and suggested we go down to sit in the sun, in a little while, when she felt stronger.
She asked after my sister, the details of how she died, and how I felt about it. ‘Don’t hold on to her too tightly. She’ll come back to you, in other people you meet,’ she said, which wasn’t exactly a comfort but like the circus lady on two horses, it stayed with me as a possibility.
‘Did she die alone?’ Rosalind asked quietly, and when I said yes, she grew grave. She was not afraid of death in itself, she said, but she was afraid of dying alone. The hospice didn’t have enough staff to allocate her a nurse overnight. What would happen if she found herself heading towards the end in the dark with no one beside her?
I knew the answer to that. My father’s care home in Kentish Town had plenty of nurses who I knew would do extra night shifts if Rosalind wanted it. I asked my father’s favourite nurse, Bobby, to stay with her over several nights. She was comforted by his presence and they had interesting conversations, he told me afterwards, but he had booked a trip to visit his family in the Philippines and when he went, I couldn’t find another replacement that Rosalind liked. One nurse snored too loudly, another didn’t look strong enough in the event of an emergency, and finally, she left me a message to say that friends were staying with her overnight in rotation so I shouldn’t worry.
Her sister emailed the house in early September to tell us Rosalind had died and invited us to the funeral. I knew I couldn’t go. One funeral that summer had been enough.
In the months afterwards, a certain hardness grew in me, or perhaps it was grief disguised as disappointment. She hadn’t properly thanked me for the jobs I had done for her, I said petulantly to my mother, who didn’t indulge me for a minute, and reminded me to give, and then to forget about it. That was too Buddhist for me, I told her. I was always giving but the world never noticed. It took givers for granted.
In fact, Rosalind had said thank you. A number of times, she’d said she wanted to get me a bottle of wine or invite me down for Sunday roast. ‘But you don’t drink and you’re a vegetarian,’ she’d sighed, as if these were terrible failings. She’d thanked me in emails too but in her usual, no-nonsense way and I now wanted something more as a validation of our friendship.
A year passed and a young art historian moved into Rosalind’s flat who redecorated it completely. I went to the Pineapple with the new complement of neighbours. We talked about Rosalind and I told them how, a few days ago, I had passed a woman who seemed so much like an older, happier version of her, shuffling up the corner of Lady Margaret Road from the future on a walking frame. When I spotted her, she stopped me in my tracks and I thought this is what Rosalind would be like if she were alive many years from now. In her parallel earthly paradise.
Later that week, I got a letter from her solicitors. Inside was Rosalind’s death certificate, her will, and a list of legal charges. They must have accidentally sent me these documents, I thought at first. I re-read the covering letter, absorbing lines that I had skipped over. Rosalind’s estate was being settled and her flat had sold for not much short of a million pounds. And I was entitled to a percentage, because Rosalind had put me in her will. I read the letter again in disbelief. I put it back in its envelope and later, when I was on the Tube, I unfolded it and read it, as if for the first time. I did that several times until I made myself stop. Rosalind, I thought: a neighbour who lived two floors beneath me. A cancer sufferer whose medicine I collected from Boot’s. An adversary with whom I occasionally butted heads. A friend who gave me solace, and whose grave I still hadn’t sat beside.
A month before dying, she had considered my future and perhaps worried about it, knowing that I’d lost my sister and that a job of 15 years had also come to an end. And then she had put me in her will, and a year later – on a day when I felt especially grumpy – she had reminded me of the cups of tea and the bluebells. This wasn’t the thank-you that I had so craved. It was a show of love.
Arifa Akbar is a British Asian journalist and editor. She is currently arts editor at Tortoise Media and a theatre critic at The Guardian. Born in London, she worked for the Independent for fifteen years as a news reporter, leading its news-team in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, and then as its art correspondent and literary editor until April 2016. She has also been the head of content at the publisher Unbound, where she launched a long-form literary website, Boundless. For more information on Tales of Two Londons: Stories From A Fractured City, visit Arcadia Books.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.