Friday, 5 February 2016
The Tao of Lambeth Lil
Bertram Nicholls 'Lambeth Bridge' 1949
Dressed in a woollen blue coat fastened with nappy pins and stained down the front with tinned ravioli. A straw bonnet during the summer, the top of a sawn-off kettle in winter. Support tights, no knickers, one blue shoe, one brown welly. Speckled with sticking plasters. Lil went back and forth over Lambeth Bridge all day, day in, day out, pushing a supermarket trolley filled with china ornaments wrapped in newspaper, curtains with the hooks half off and a display halibut late of the fish shop in The Cut.
On his way to work at Myer's Beds each day Big Sid, who lived round the balcony from us, took her a flask of tea. He collected the empty flask from her on his way home each evening, saying, 'Same again tomorrow, then, Lil?'
'If you'd be so kind, Sidney. I wouldn't want anyone to go to any trouble just for me.'
'No trouble, Lil.'
On winter mornings, Big Sid put a tot of sherry in the tea.
Lil wasn't an object of fun to local children. We said Hello, Mrs Lillian, very respectfully when we crossed Lambeth Bridge on our way to the Marsham Street Baths. She replied, 'On with you, on with you - and don't cause a florry!' And we were never taunting, as we were with Funny Brian, the Tinworth House witch woman, or stinky Mr Lingwood whose glass eye scooped out and laid in his palm never impressed us.
According to local rumour, Lil was a retired head of MI5, an ex-windmill Girl, or heiress to an unimaginable fortune from an insurance business owned by her father, who paid her an allowance to stay away. My mother thought she may have lived in one of the prefabs this side of the Archbishop's Park.
A reporter on the South London Press went to interview Lil.
'Just the single bridge, now,' he said. 'Five hundred yards down that way you’ve got Vauxhall Bridge. Five hundred yards down the other way you’ve got Westminster Bridge. Have you not thought of varying your walk by going over either of those other two? Variety, they say, is the spice of life.'
Briefly holding her trolley at a stand still, Lil replied, 'Young man, you will hopefully one day learn. In life it doesn’t do to spread oneself too thinly.'