Charton Street comes to life on Fridays when it is blocked off from the traffic and market stalls line up both sides of the street. It is busiest around mid-day – Bangladeshi matrons in hijab, younger Mums with their push chairs, Somali school girls, workers from the local offices. There are council flats all around and there is a feeling of camaraderie in the air. Each stall has its regular pitch, week on week: small rugs and carpets, including one with a giant face of a lion; knitting yarns of all colours and textures and sewing needles for embroidery; rolls of textiles for Asian dresses; soaps, toiletries, dish towels; food stuffs at cut-down prices; bras, scarves and make-up.
The stall keeper managing the knitting yarn is a tall, languid Englishman who walks around with his head slightly tilted back. Two Bangladeshi stall owners are sitting at the base of their flat-bed vans across the road. Most of the stall-keepers have a money pouch around their waist – a mark of their trade. Whenever a lady stops at their textile stall, there is a shout from across the street, ‘Are you OK?’. Next to the Englishman’s is Pakistani lady’s stall selling ready-made garments. There is a happy banter going on across the stalls. The tall Englishman ambles across the pavement to the Bangladeshi grocery store. The owner’s boys are playing around, and he coaxes them to join him while he starts singing
Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.
Britannia rule the waves.
There is a lot of giggling. I look across to the lady sharing the bench and we exchange smiles.
The Englishman leaves his stall unmanned and walks towards the top of Charlton Street. A few minutes later, three lady shoppers stop at his stall. “John, John”, the Pakistani lady calls out, but he is out of earshot.
She leaves her stall to attend to John’s customers. She seems to know where to find Crochet needles of hook size seven and the cost – £1.49. Meanwhile John is ambling back with a brown paper bag of bananas. He looks at the Bangladeshi boys still sitting on the step of their van and gestures to his bottom – ‘sitting on your backsides while the lady has to serve my customers’.
The boys from the grocery store pass by with their dad. John tries to engage them again in ‘Rule Britannia’ and they all have a laugh. The husband of the Pakistani lady comes along, “Can I have a banana, John.” John obliges.
It is time for me to leave my bench and make my way to the Sommertown Mosque for the 2.20 Juma prayer. (257)