East End Memories



The third character I found fascinating as a child was also somewhat frightening yet was equally mesmerizing. As a young boy, my parents gave me numerous jobs to do on a regular basis. Besides being asked to take the rubbish to the dustbin, clean my room and help with the washing up and to occasionally follow my mother about when she cleaned the house, I was given other little duties that taught me both responsibility and the value of money. I was never asked to do anything terrible, just little jobs to introduce me into the concept of working and helping with family matters. One such little job, as my mother called them, was to go to this small shop several streets away to buy the week’s vegetables. My mother liked the produce that was sold here and so there was no question of going elsewhere. Each Friday I would be given a shopping bag and some money and be sent off to buy various quantities of carrots, onions, cabbage etc. It amazes me now that I don’t recall ever being given a written list of what to buy and can only believe that I somehow sort of knew what was wanted.

The vegetable shop was hidden on the ground floor of a dark and dingy block of flats on Brady Street, which is road off Whitechapel Road. It was a small place and very dark inside since it was lit only by one small electric light bulb. The shop was always crowded on Fridays since people wanted to get their veg in early, ready for the weekend. In those days, everyone stood in an orderly line and waited for Ma to serve them.

Ma worked alone and did so at one speed, which although it was not a snail’s pace, did not change regardless of the numbers waiting for service. Ma was of great interest to me, as she was small. Perhaps small is the wrong word. Ma was tiny. Mind you, saying that Ma was small or tiny was an understatement since she was possibly only about an inch or so taller than me and I was no age at all at that time. Anyway, she was best described as a miniature. Ma was, without doubt, the smallest woman that I had ever seen at that time and quite possibly retains the title today. Although she was small, she did not seem to be deformed in anyway although she did have what I later learned to be a small dowager’s hump on her back. This hump was characteristic of many women at that time once they advanced in years. Still, her hump and height only served to give her a mysterious appearance and I was convinced that she was quite capable of weaving spells should she be crossed. I was also convinced that in addition to selling vegetables, she could also whip up the occasional potion in the corner of the shop and perhaps provide the odd eye of newt and an occasional wing of bat to the more discerning customer. In spite of her size, Ma’s appearance and deportment gave her an austere look suggesting a formidable person who expected, and received, both consideration and respect.

Ma had gray-white hair that was pulled straight back and held in a bun at the back by a multitude of hairpins. This gave her a look of severity. She always wore what I believe to be the same old dark blue pinafore over the top of a blouse and skirt. Her skirt was of thick wool and came down almost to her ankles where thick dark brown and loosely fitting stockings were seen. Poking out from the pinafore at her neck and wrists was the white lace trim of her blouse. Ma had a small bulge at her left wrist, which was caused by the large red spotted handkerchief that she had tucked up her sleeve. She would take her handkerchief out periodically, allow it to fully unfold and blow her nose into it. I say blow, but it was more of a trumpet and could sound like an elephant hailing its mate. I was amazed how such a small and seemingly delicate creature could produce such a sound.

Over her pinafore, Ma had tied an apron about her waist. Her apron had a large deep pocket that could be closed by a zip. Ma kept her change in this pocket and perhaps all of the money that she owned since it was always full with notes and coins. Ma stood bolt upright, as if she had a board down her back. I rarely saw her sit down on the little stool in the corner of the shop, which she used when business was slack. Most of the time she would be positioned close to the potatoes and wearing what were once called sensible shoes – stout, heavy, dark blue lace-up shoes with a slight heel, the kind that women of a certain age wore at one time.

Ma’s mouth was somewhat twisted on the left side, which made her look as if she was constantly smirking. However, what was truly remarkable, as if her size and demeanor were not enough, was that I never once heard her speak. I never knew the reason why I never heard her utter even the smallest of sounds. I never knew if her silence was a result of a speech impediment resulting from her deformed mouth and so chose not to speak or if she was incapable of speech for another reason. It even crossed my mind that she found those about her of too little interest to warrant her speaking and so she remained silent. I remember thinking that I hoped that this latter theory was correct.

Ma never seemed to smile either and, to those that did not know her, appeared not to ever change her facial expression. However, this was not true, since although she never spoke, her clients would chat away to her and ply her with questions and, as far as I could tell, she was able to communicate her replies through the subtlest of eye and eyebrow movements, which her customers had obviously learned to interpret. An interesting repercussion of her inability or unwillingness to speak was that Ma never communicated to me, or anyone for that matter, the cost of anything purchased. All we could do at the conclusion of our business was to hand over some money and accept the change she gave back. When I got home, my mother would check the change and inspect the produce with some care. Since she always seemed to be happy, I can only presume that I was never overcharged or cheated during my shopping jaunts to Ma’s.

Although Ma’s appearance and manner of communication would most certainly qualify her as a colourful character, it was neither of these characteristics that in fact qualify her for inclusion here. Ma had another quality that easily outranked these and set her apart from all others that I knew at that time. And this quality would both fascinate and be inexplicable to me for many years to come.

Site of Ma's ShopWhen I was a child, greengrocers would often sell half a cabbage, and many would slice an apple or other fruit open for potential buyers to see and sample. Generally, the cutting of a cabbage and the slicing of an apple was achieved by the use of an extremely large and very sharp knife. Ma would split cabbages, slice apples and skin onions with great dexterity using an enormous and obviously very sharp knife. I was extremely impressed by the way she wielded her knife. I was especially impressed as Ma suffered with what was crudely called in those days, the shakes.

Ma suffered with a tremor. However, Ma’s tremor was no mere twitch. It was no gentle movement. It was well and truly a shake! You may ask what it was about her shake that fascinated me. After all, isn’t one shake like any other? It was when Ma took up her knife that something quite unexplainable to me would occur. I would see the hand clutching this deadly weapon undulate and vibrate with such a magnificent amplitude and frequency that I expected her to chop off fingers or even a hand when she aimed her mighty dagger at the held apple or cabbage. I would marvel as she brought down the blade to meet the waiting vegetable for the amplitude of the tremor would somehow lessen to a mere quiver and then to NOTHING! She would slice the fruit or vegetable with the ease of someone no longer afflicted. However, once the produce had been split, her tremor would reappear and return to its former intensity. I was at a loss to explain this magic.

Occasionally, when I went to Ma’s shop early in the morning before the rush, I would find her seated on her little stool enjoying a cigarette and a cup of tea. The cigarette would dance in her hand only to come to rest as she brought it to her mouth to inhale. This action was as fascinating to me as her chopping a cabbage in two!

I was totally mystified by Ma’s ability to shake and yet perform difficult and skilled tasks. I was not able explain this. I asked my parents. I asked my teachers. No one could explain this curious business - another of life’s great mysteries! Sadly, I never thought to ask the one person that could have explained it all to me and it took some forty years before Ma’s secret was finally revealed and all was explained.

Years later, I would learn that Ma must have suffered with Parkinson’s disease. This is a malady characterized by a tremor. The tremor of this disorder is interesting as it disappears when the afflicted reaches for an object or sets about a particular task. So, as was the case with Ma, she shook at rest, but her shaking would lessen as she set about slicing a cabbage in two!

As I said, the East End used to be filled with many colourful characters.


Ma’s shop and the buildings above it and around it have long since been demolished to make way for other buildings. Time marches on so I am told and the old must make way for the new. And so on, and so on. The whole area has now become a Sainsbury’s shopping store where fruits and vegetables and a multitude of other things can be had. I am certain that the conditions of this store are much more hygienic and that the products are all suitably organic and prepared according to the various Ministries responsible for seeing to this sort of thing. I expect old Ma has long since past on and now is perhaps just a memory to only the very old left living in her family. However, she will always be fondly remembered by a one-time youthful customer that once marveled at her dexterity with a knife and at the skill with which she sliced a cabbage in two.

Site of Ma's Shop where Brady Street and Darling Row once met.
Site of Ma's Shop where Brady Street and Darling Row once met

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins