The deceptively large fabric shop, in Shepherds Bush, is bursting with colour and contrast. A typical London building, the shop spans three floors and is as deep as it is narrow. Its walls are lined with rolls of fabric that spill out onto the floor, in a rainbow of colours, meeting the toes of awe inspired customers as they tread, carefully, across the boards.
Why am I here? More importantly, why am I here on a gloriously sunny, English summer’s day, instead of relaxing in my Hampshire garden among the flowerpots and wheel barrows? Therein lies a tale.
I had planned my day quite well at breakfast. I would take the two dogs to the common and wear them out so that we could return home happy and I could continue my research uninterrupted. A mid morning cup of tea figured in my plans somewhere and a relaxing lunch in the garden. True, I would need to go to the shops, tidy up a bit and do a few household chores that would keep the house and family afloat for another day but, essentially, this was to be a day of research and relaxation.
The walk with the dogs was good, if hot. The dogs were suitably exhausted when I left them, panting, in the cool of the kitchen. I finished the few chores that were on my list and went to the shop for supplies for the evening meal. My husband normally helps out with shopping and often cooks. Unfortunately, this week, he has injured his knee and can hardly walk, let alone help. Did he injure his knee playing football/running a mile/climbing Everest? No, he injured his knee, kneeling. He was kneeling by his pride and joy, the Aston Martin DB6 that he bought last year.
“It’s an investment!” he proclaimed proudly when he brought it home.
“It’s an old car…” I shrugged.
It is beautiful to look at, I have to admit but my first journey in it, a short trip to ‘Staples’ strapped precariously into the passenger seat, will probably be my last. It may be a classic, brilliant in its red livery, but in my eyes, it is still an old car and the vintage leather reminds me of long ago car Journeys in my father’s Austin Morris, in the late fifties and sixties, during which I turned green as soon as the engine started.
Dave was tinkering with the wheels I believe – I didn’t ask exactly what he had been doing, but after kneeling for some time, the damage was well and truly done. I am on my own in the kitchen for now.
At eleven o’clock, I had reached the part where the cup of tea was meant to happen. I was settled at my laptop, about to begin work … Zoe brought in a cup of tea for me. How lovely!
“Mum, I need to go and buy some more fabric,” I detected desperation in her tone. She had been on the phone to the fabric shop, the owner of which had received her letter and fabric samples and was sure she had the fabric in stock.
“Would you come with me?”
I glanced at the pile of crisp, research papers awaiting my attention, the cup of tea just made, the dogs, snoring on the floor. I looked at my daughter, stressed to the point of panic, needing to have her final collection ready for a forthcoming photo shoot. (In case you don’t already know, I should explain that my second daughter is completing an MA in Fashion. You can meet her on her blog. http://zlbarker.wordpress.com/)
Surely, I could spare an hour or two.
“Ok, where is the shop?” I enquired.
Shepherd’s Bush is West London. Shepherd’s Bush is an hour and a half’s drive from here. To my credit, I drank my tea, put away my research and agreed to go.
It is a pet hate of mine that there is not a single decent fabric shop near us. I quite looked forward to strolling amongst the reams of fabric and taking my time, gazing upon their rich colours and feeling the different textures…seeing the lengths of material laid out for cutting on those long, trestle tables…
We set off.
An hour and a half later, we arrive at the shop and this is where you now find me, by its door.
We enter the shop, with difficulty. A large, rotund lady is sitting in the doorway on a rickety chair. She is swathed in the traditional, Islaamic, black burka, so we cannot see her face. Her eyes survey us with apparent disinterest, as we step across the threshold and apologise for having to squeeze past her. There is something vaguely disconcerting about speaking to someone when all you can see is their eyes. Inside, it becomes evident that something is going on. A crowd of women, clad in the same black outfits, are gathered in the gangway and are being helped by an extremely patient, young Indian gentleman, who is trying to guide them to the nether regions of the shop, like so many lost sheep.
We assume these women are shopping, en masse, for a special occasion. They are taking up the entire shop, with their ample bodies and excited chatter. Zoe and I squeeze along the passage and gaze at the colourful crepes. At least, we start to gaze, but behind us, a particularly desperate, burka clad shopper, pummels me with a very pregnant stomach and sends me flying into the boxes of oddments that line the far wall. There really isn’t room for both of us. The situation would be comical if she was not continuing to rudely, buffet me out of the way in order to reach her friends, who have now been herded into a manageable fold at the rear of the shop, right by the stairs. I smile at her as I try and squeeze myself into a doorway to allow her to pass, but it is difficult to see if she smiles back. The Burka renders her invisible, even if her pregnant state does not.
We identify a pathway to the counter and make our way through the droves of remaining customers, to where two Indian ladies, safe behind their counter, turn to greet us.
“Hello, I am Zoe,” announces Zoe, about to explain why she is here. Without waiting for her to finish, the younger of the two women reaches beneath the counter and brings out a piece of paper which she flourishes, triumphantly, in our faces,
“Yes, Zoe!” she smiles. The older woman grins,
“Zoe, Zoe, where are you?” she sings. We are not sure whether she is reciting an ancient Indian ballad or if she is really asking where Zoe is.
“I’m here,” Zoe responds, brightly. The grandmotherly woman laughs, “Zoe, Zoe…”
“We have this, and this, we don’t have this…” the younger woman explains, indicating the swatches of fabric stapled to Zoe’s letter, which she has evidently been keeping safe beneath the counter. Zoe peers at the fabric samples.
“Go downstairs and you will find them, we have a near match for this one,” The woman instructs, thrusting the letter to Zoe and waving us off towards the back of the shop.
This presents us with a challenge. The patient young man has gathered his ladies, indistinguishable from one another as they are, right by the stairs. They look extremely hot and sound harassed. There is absolutely no way through. We try though. The young man sees us approaching and panics,
“Where are you going?” he trills,
“We have been told to go downstairs – to look at some fabric to match this linen,” Zoe waves the letter, with its samples attached, and he breaks through the crowd to stand before us,
“You ladies, stay here. I will go downstairs and find this material. You wont get through,” he warns, waving his hands wildly in the air and disappearing from view. Left in limbo, we turn our attention to the richly coloured silks and crepes to our left. We quickly source the four shades Zoe needs and are standing holding the rolls of fabric, waiting patiently, when he returns.
Amazingly, he has brought us several choices, one of which is an exact match to the linen. He goes back downstairs to cut the required amount. We head back to the counter with the four rolls of crepe.
The two Indian ladies greet us like old friends,
“Hello, Zoe and Zoe’s mum! Oh I am sorry about that, it is Harrod’s Sale here today!” the younger woman jokes, “Take these upstairs and my son will cut them for you, there is more room there,” she promises. We pick our way back through the melee of customers and head for the stairs that go ‘up’. Thankfully, these are located in the middle of the shop and we mount them with minimum effort.
I am expecting a long cutting table. There is a table but it is piled high with bales of fabric. No sooner have I noted this, than a young man steps out of the shadows adjusting his trouser belt.
“Oh, you must excuse me,” he apologises, continuing to adjust his clothing, “I have put on weight you see. When I sit down on that chair,” he indicates an upholstered chair to his left, “I have to undo my belt. I am taking vitamins to help me lose weight but still, I have to undo the belt…I must apologise, but I am putting on so much weight,”
From downstairs, the voice of his mother floats up to where we stand, smiling inanely,
“Cut the fabric for the ladies please!”
The young man throws a clean sheet onto the dusty floor and begins unravelling the crepe so that it cascades onto the sheet in riotous folds. Unravelling an estimated 5 metres, he leaves it to fetch a measuring stick, returns and measures it to be sure. Next, he fetches his scissors. He measures it once more for luck, then cuts. The crepe is difficult to fold and keeps escaping, spurred on by the fan that spins shakily in the gloom. Eventually, he manages to capture the cloth and press it into a neat pile which he throws on to the chair.
Following the same procedure for all four rolls, he chats brightly as we wait. We are aware that our parking metre will expire in less than twenty minutes and we haven’t even found the organdie yet.
After some considerable time, the young man hands us our purchases and sends us back down the stairs. The stairwell is now blocked by a new batch of hapless shoppers who try to move out of our way and cause a pile-up by the door. The young man’s mother is waiting. The little man with the linen has been and gone. He has deposited 6 metres of linen on the counter, before returning to his shrouded audience, at the end of the shop, where the conversation appears to have become rather excitable and the eyes ever wider.
We stand by the counter and the boy’s mother adds up the cost of our purchases. We think we have fathomed out the relationships by now, three or four sons, a mother and a grandmother appear to run the shop.
“I also need some organdie,” cuts in Zoe quickly. This is not a problem, the organdie is by the till and ‘mother’ orders yet another member of her family, (daughter/sister/cousin perhaps?)to cut it for us. ‘Grandmother’ regales us with smiles and calls me, ‘Zoe’s mum,’ as she helps bag up the goods.
Her daughter pauses in her calculations for a moment and regards me with a slight frown,
“Have you just come back from holiday?”
The question startles me. My skin turns brown at the slightest hint of sun whereas my Scottish husband has bequeathed his pale skin to several of our children. No, I haven’t just come back from a holiday.
The ‘Mother’ raises her eyebrows when she hears this,
“Madam, your skin is darker than mine,” she observes, putting her arm on the counter so that we can compare, “See?” I have to agree that her Indian skin is indeed lighter than my own.
“Madam, you could be taken for a foreigner!” she chortles, as she pushes the material into the bags that her own mother is holding.
I laugh too, I am still laughing as we make our way back to the car, laden with crepes, linens and organdie, successfully obtained, against all the odds. The entire experience has been more than worth the time spent on the motorway.
What a wonderful shop – I really must go back there some time.