Chapter 35: The Billericay Pilgrims
Billericay to Chelmsford
Not much stirred in an empty Billericay. A bright pink sign, out of date and glazed with frost, told me when Sugar Hut reopened. Shops were shuttered and cars silent. Only a well-dressed couple made any movement. The man wore tight trousers, his ankles defied the cold and his polo wrapped tight against his belly, like a sail in the wind. A woman clopped next to him in heels quite high. She had an orange face and a startled look. He stopped and swept his hand in gesture then followed her into Cafe Deli 37. Inside in the warm, a collection were hunched over steaming plates of Full English.
I walked along the high street reading the shop names. Any name sounds good with Billericay in front. It’s lyrical. The Billericay Willow Tree Tea Rooms and the Billericay Blue Boar, the barbers, Street Preachers and Sparklers jewellery store. Even the Billericay Foodbank had a ring.
Slipped Discs was a music store with a baby blue sign. It was closed but I lingered all the same. It’s where Christopher Martin lived. Not the Coldplay Chris Martin, this was 400 years ago. This Chris Martin was a merchant, estranged from his parish for his radical views. In 1620 he boarded the Mayflower and went to America. Three others from Billericay joined him, Pilgrim Fathers, though they never made a name for themselves, all four were dead in a year. Fever. More followed though and 20 years later someone named a town in Massachusetts Billerica. They obviously didn’t have much of an ear, not nearly as smooth as its Essex cousin.
I left through the suburbs and found a spot to head out of town. Chelmsford was next and it wasn’t long before I was on my way. The wonderful Nuzhat was responsible for that. I sat in the back since the front seat was full. She had neat jet-black curls that weren’t that long. She was confident and kind and we spoke as if we’d known each other a long time. Her name was pronounced news-at, she explained, like news-at-ten without the ten.
Nuzhat told me the night before she’d been in London at an instrumental drum and bass night with her husband. It was a DJ they’d loved when they were students and it was fun to see him all these years later, even if drum and bass hit different these days.
She’d been to a play before the set. Theatre was her weakness, she told me. She loved it. This play had been moving. A beautiful depiction of women, feminism and ‘faux-feminism’.
I asked what faux feminism was.
“Women are always told this is what’s wrong with you,” Nuzhat said, speaking through the mirror, “Your hair, your family, your weight, your looks, whatever it is. And then you’re told to go and buy this remedy to make you feel better. But it doesn’t make you feel better. It makes it all worse.”
Nuzhat was a GP. The medical side had slightly lost its appeal over the 25 years but it was the people side she really loved. Talking and interacting with all manner of folks, helping them overcome problems.
“I have lots of women on benefits come into my surgery. They say they’ve got nothing and that they’re really struggling, and yet, they’ve got these absolutely perfect nails. It’s so sad.”
“Is there not an element of dignity?” I said, wondering what she meant, “If you’re on the breadline is it not a nice treat to make you feel better?”
“Of course, of course. No, I’m not saying that. But there’s a line. A treat should be something that’s nice, not necessary. When it becomes necessary, it’s no longer a treat. Women are sold so many things all the time, they become necessary. That’s what faux-feminism is really. Exploiting feminism to sell something.”
Botox was a similar thing.
“Some of my daughter’s friends are going to Harley Street already,” she went on, "getting their cheeks done, muscle atrophies, pushing cheekbones up. It’s not cheap this stuff and they’re at university! They already are so young. It’s marketed in such a way that makes it necessary. They say you’ve got to have it preventatively. It’s crazy. I’ve got lines on my forehead but that’s just me, it’s who I am. I’ve been a GP for 25 years and I’ve got five kids. Of course, I’ve got lines on my forehead! If I didn’t something would be seriously wrong! That should be a mark of pride, not something to feel inadequate about.”
It was inspiring to hear. Nuzhat went back to the play, “There was this amazing moment when a woman climbs out of a bath and her two friends wrap her up and help her get dressed. It was so tender and I thought, you know, that’s sisterhood. It’s looking after each other and loving each other, that’s all it is.”
We passed on through Essex. I didn’t take in much of the surroundings, craning as I was to the front seat. Nuzhat told me about the play she was writing, about a family in a block of flats in East London. It was about motherhood, race and class and it had a twist at the end. It was amazing she found the time to do all these things. Time management is the most underrated skill out there.
When Nuzhat was younger she’d hitchhiked herself. Not a great deal but once or twice back from Glastonbury, things like that. She loved travelling. Once she’d run out of money in Kenya so had to live on an island painting black hair dye on people’s skin, kind of like henna. She missed being able to do that now although once a year she went to a village in Andalusia called Orgiva. There’s a commune there in the mountains. It’s a mixture of hippies and Sufi Muslims and as a Sufi Muslim herself, it was an escape. She painted a wonderful picture of it, secluded in the mountains away from the world. “That’s my retirement plan,” she added with a laugh. I asked about Sufism. “Well, it’s more about the spiritual side of Islam,” she explained, “And love. There’s a great deal about love.”
By now we were driving through Chelmsford. Big roundabouts and Tesco Extras were everywhere. We went on up the hill to an Ambulance depot where we pulled over. I climbed out and said goodbye. The ambulance drivers watched.
I traipsed along the dual carriageway on the north side of town. Then all of a sudden it felt like I’d been shrunk and dropped into a model town. The streets were pristine clean, every line of every building razor sharp. There wasn’t a stray twig in a hedge nor a blade of grass misplaced. On the map, tiny driveways looked like capillaries or one of those diagrams of lungs. I wondered if any of it was real.
It was, and it was called Beaulieu. Built about 20 years ago and still being added to, it was a sort of model town, a bit like Poundbury in Dorset but without the infamy, or the King. Having said that, the town, or ‘community’ as the marketers call it, had a King story of its own. It was built in the old grounds of the Palace of Beaulieu. It was once Anne Boleyn’s father’s and in 1527, Henry VIII and his royal entourage stayed for over a month. It was supposedly here that Henry and Anne, falling deeply in love, began plotting the grounds for Catherine of Aragon’s removal. The rugged course of history was decided right here. Now there’s a purpose-made park with a serpentine footpath and a middle age man in an outdoor gym. I couldn’t decide if the whole place was amazing or awful.
I reached the edge of town and waited for a ride outside a Macdonald's. There’s only so long you can stand outside a MacDonald’s without cracking. I discovered it’s about ten minutes.
After a big lunch, feeling expectedly awful, I returned to my post. A car pulled over. I looked in through the window and the driver suddenly looked like she’d made a terrible mistake. “I’ve never done this before,” she stammered anxiously, “Is this a really stupid thing to do?” I wasn’t quite sure what to reply.
“Don’t worry,” I said, trying my best to look reassuring and friendly, “I won’t murder you!” I’ve probably never been less convincing in my life.
Fortunately, I was convincing enough for Ellie and after a few awkward moments of indecision, she invited me in and we drove off. “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” she said a few times more, and I said I wouldn’t murder her several more times too.
Ellie had a baby in the back and a baby on the way. She was heading home from her parents in Chelmsford to the Ipswich airbase. Her husband, Jerry, was in the RAF and had been since he was 18. She didn’t mind life in the camp. Jerry would finish work at 5 and then Ellie would go and work the evening shift at the local co-op. She thought she might quit after her next child. It was sad not being there to put the kids to bed, missing bath time and reading bedtime stories. The trouble is, working during the day’s pretty much unfeasible. Childcare costs £60 a day and she’d only earn £80 - not much logic in that. “It’s hard for mothers,” she sighed.
They’d been married about two years, about the same age as the little one on the backseat. “To be honest,” she said pointing her thumb over her shoulder with a grin, “She was an accident! Me and Jerry had only been going out for six months when I found out. It was good of Jerry to stay. Nobody would’ve blamed him if he’d run a mile. Imagine you discover the girl you’ve been seeing for 6 months is pregnant you’d shoot yourself!” She laughed heartily.
“No, he stayed and actually, he proposed. People say it was meant to be. A happy accident.” Her warm smile lit up the car.
I agreed. You can’t beat a happy accident.
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