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Creative Corner

Creative Corner: A Tribute to My Neighbour, Maria

Person writing in book against pink background with the title 'Creative Corner'
Creative Corner Logo by Roar News

Creative Corner is a space to share your creative writing at Roar! We hope you’ll enjoy the short stories we publish, all of which are written by current KCL students.

On a busy and bustling night, sometime before Christmas, my father, sister and I were having our coffees at a new café on Chiswick High Road. My family lives in the area, and I trek down to visit them from time to time. Aside from catching up with family, I would always look forward to speaking with our neighbour, Maria.

That night, I spotted her browsing through Christmas-themed postcards outside our local independent bookstore and then we rushed over to say hello. After exchanging general pleasantries, she told us that she had something to tell us.

‘The doctors think I might have bowel cancer’, she said, going on to explain her recent consultations. A final test could now confirm a diagnosis. Tears welled up in her eyes as she continued: ‘I have not told anyone yet, not even my family… but I wanted to tell you’.

We were quick to reassure her, and said that it would be best to wait for test results.  While my father consoled her, I found myself automatically running through a mental checklist. Family history? First-degree relatives had died from bowel cancer. Social history? She smoked often. Differential diagnosis? I hesitated and decided to go against my intuition. I settled with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and told myself that she would be fine.

But around two weeks later, just a few days before Christmas, my father rang to tell me that the test results were out. Maria was diagnosed with end-stage bowel cancer. The same one her parents and a sister had passed away from. The doctors said she had about two months left.

In the following days, I texted her now and then to let her know I was thinking of her. Because I couldn’t wish her in person, I sent her a postcard for Christmas instead. She sent me a long text to say thank you. She was deeply appreciative of the simplest gestures.

But soon she stopped taking my father’s calls. We caught glimpses of her from our window, wheeled in and out of ambulances. We were worried. She had become so cachectic that she had nearly vanished into her bones. (Cachetic = medical term for losing muscle; clinical language helps keep my emotions at bay.)

The last time I spoke to her was in February, when I sent her a text to ask if I could say hello. She rang me immediately, explaining: ‘If I get Covid, I’ll die’, adding quickly, ‘I mean, I’m dying anyway’. The long pause that followed was filled with her drawn-out, laboured breathing. Medical school had given me no scripted response.

Her last words to me were, ‘I am in a lot of pain. Sorry I can’t meet. I love you all very much, hope to see you soon’. But I think we both knew that it was goodbye. Covid robbed us of any opportunity to be there for Maria, to say goodbye in person. Nothing compares to that.

As the cliché goes, despite being my neighbour for twenty years, I knew very little about her personal life. I know she was once partnered with an Iranian man with whom she’d had a son who was my age. I know she came to London from a small town in Poland and one of her first jobs was waitressing. And yet as much as we did not know her, we did.

Maria and her son, Neima, in their home. Batoum Gardens, 1995

She enjoyed spending time in her garden, preferred planting potatoes to roses (as she would tell me, pointing at all the scratches all on her arms) and was particular about cleaning. She was kind and warm, always greeting us with a big hug and a kiss.

Aside from being over apologetic and extremely grateful for peanuts, she was also very private, independent, and fiercely strong. Soon after her diagnosis, she planned for her son’s living arrangements and her funeral.

‘It is our home’, she would say as I’d catch her cleaning the front yard downstairs or planting new flowers. ‘Something to make us smile’, and we would invariably end up having hour long conversations about anything and everything – we discussed God, religion, culture, mental health, politics, life in Poland, life in India, and the convolutedness of middle-class English politeness.

We marvelled at the absurdity of not knowing anyone else on the street we lived on. As younger families moved in and out of the private homes around us, with their swanky Range Rovers, perfectly cut-out-from-storybooks children, and well-groomed dogs, Maria was a constant. It was comforting to know that she was always downstairs; we could knock on her door at any time of the night.

She would always refer to our family and hers as one unit. When the third flat in the property was vacated, together we prayed that the new tenant would not have guests who would play loud music until wee hours of the morning, piss on our front door, or swear at us unprovoked. ‘We’ve been through so much together’, she’d tell my father, concealing a fag behind her back when I passed.

Losing her reminds me of how very Londonesque our lives had been. We lived in the only trust property amongst privately rented or owned homes, we had mixed families – in her case Polish-Iranian, and in ours Indian-English – and our lives were shaped by the city, in the stereotypical ways that a cosmopolis can both question and expand your sense of identity. Our living experience had been a microcosm of London life where several cultures met, intersected and co-existed: Polish, Iranian, English, Indian, Muslim, and Catholic.

Walking down the street, it feels odd to know she is no more. No more me yelling, ‘Cześć Maria!’ and her jaw dropping each time, asking, ‘Oh my God, Dani, where did you learn Polish?’ Her son is moving out soon, and new tenants will take over the flat. And now, especially with the pandemic, London reminds us of her most trying cliché: the loneliness is sinking in.

You can send your short stories, poetry or creative nonfiction to [email protected].

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