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Thank goodness for 21 year old, Julia Divine! Yes, Divine. Name of names. A Brazilian – her sumptuous, kind-looking mother, Victory Divine, recently opened an eponymous vintage and seamstress atelier in Park Parade – at last, who is willing to walk with me. A rare breed indeed. I’ve been trying for a few weeks. Emails, trips to local shops. To no avail. I went down Station Road – Harlesden’s little Brazil – and asked in shops like Planete Brazil. They turned up their noses. Seemingly, weary, disinterested at the suggestion. I was a little disappointed.

Until I found the lively, deliciously opinionated Julia. I’d found her amidst the pink feather boas and glittery jumpers in her mum’s shop. And now we are walking. “We came over from Brasilia in 2006,” she explains, “my mum is actually a pastor and she came with the church. My dad is a prosthetic dentist but they split up a long time ago. I was 16 when I came here and went to the Capital City Academy. It was a complete waste of time. The teaching was really bad and they made me feel different.”

Although Julia used to live here, she’s moved in with her fiance – who has a wonderfully strange name that I sadly can’t mention because post-walk they both have an attack of the privacy virus, but he explains later that his parents were hippies and it’s Anglo-Saxon as an explanation – in Acton. She met him through a friend who went to Cardinal Hinsley. The Catholic boys’ secondary school near me, that has now been re-named Newman Catholic College. “We’re getting married in June,” she says with sudden animation, “at St Lukes in Queens Park where my mum is a pastor. It’s an evangelical Christian church.”

By this time, we’ve walked down Station Road as far as the Amber Grill. Formerly the Willesden Junction Hotel – built in Victorian times for travellers who arrived by train and was probably rather grand, its original painted letters are still at the top of the building – it became a very tatty pub but is is now a Brazilian restaurant. To be honest, I’ve never seen anyone much in there and had relegated it to my no interest mindfile. But Julia is an unexpected fan.

“They do traditional rodizio,” she says, “where waiters bring you slices of slow-cooked grilled meat to taste at your table. I really like it here.”

The strangest discovery is that a pastor – they are popping up everywhere – co-runs it and that it is linked financially to the International House of Prayer next door. Another evangelical Christian church. I’m having a run of them too. The waitress is Brazilian and a member of this church. “I’m studying English,” she says, “and I live upstairs with my husband.”

The conversation turns to the defining qualities of a Brazilian. Physically. “I’m half-Italian,” she continues, “like many Brazilians, but there are so many different types of us. You can’t generalise.”

“There’s a waiter here who is half Chinese and half Brazilian,” says Julia confirming the Brazilian melting pot identity, “and we also have more Japanese outside Japan than any other country.”

Next we pop into the Associacao Portuguesa which helps Portuguese speakers with benefits, jobs and legal advice. “There are 30,000 Brazilians in Brent,” says Edmar, a PHD student who is volunteering here, “a lot came to learn English in the 90s, but US is the first port of call. It was difficult to get in after Sept 11th so they applied to the UK again.”

Julia seems to have sneaked off but re-appears again with a young man in a high visibility jacket.

It’s her darling *****, 25, who used to be a DJ and a radio presenter but lately has gone sensible and got a job over the road as a bus mechanic with First Direct. “I usually work from 4 am til 12 30,” he says, “but since Julia is with you, I’m doing overtime.” Saving up for the wedding? “I am,” he grins contentedly, a young man who knows he’s lucky, lucky, lucky in love. They’ve already bought the dress on Ebay. It’s a size 6. After all if it doesn’t fit, Julia’s mother is a seamstress.

Julia hasn’t got a job at the moment. But she does have a voracious interest in criminal law. She is also ambitious. The Capital Academy has fortunately failed to drain her of that. “I’ve just applied for a job translating Portuguese legal documents,” she says.

She looks cute but goodness, she is sparky too. Sabor Mineiro is a little Brazilian cafe on the corner of Tubbs Lane. My friend, writer, Monique Roffey loved going there when she lived up the road. But Julia disapproves. “Their food is not seasoned properly, it’s not good,” she says authoratively. That doesn’t stop her giving me a quick tour of the mostly deep fried specialities from coxinha which have shredded chicken and cheese in dough, to pasteles which have minced beef inside a pastry envelope, to kibes which are a bit like falafel.

We cross over to Planete Brazil – the bikini and handbag shop which has also turned into a hairdressers. Bizarrely, the receptionist at the hairdressers, is still diffident. Just like last time. Even with Julia in tow. She says she doesn’t have time to speak. They have one customer. Mind you, he does look like a rotund version of one half of Jedward and has opted for a neo-mohican in a deep red.

Have I mentioned the flat screen TVs? Everywhere. They scream shininess. As in big new shine. How important new is to the newcomer. And their soap habit. “They’ve all got Sky,” says Julia pragmatically, “they get all the soaps on the Brazilian channel, Record.”

The butcher and mini-supermarket owner next door is much more friendly. He’s been here for 9 years and has 5 businesses. “I’m from a central state called Minusgerais,” he says, “and I always hang my Easter Eggs from the ceiling like that, it’s tradition just like they do in Brazil.”

And then we have an unexpected bit of information from Julia. “Look pest control,” she points out as we pass First Direct and her now invisible beloved. “Did you know number 18 buses are full of cockroaches?”

To be honest, I had no idea. “They like the back seat near the engine,” she says with the benefit of insider’s knowledge, “they always find loads there.”

After that brief but significant cockroach moment, we go into William Wallace. Another hairdressers, this time dominated by black and red, and thankfully, warmth. Down a corridor at the back, and we discover Brazilian Lingerie. It is truly secreted away. Patrizia, the mistress of the lingerie, gives me a tour of her sparkling bra-bedecked hangers. “The difference is that Brazilians wear bras like this,” she pulls out a verdant glossy one with diamante straps, “every day. It’s not special to us, it’s what we wear. Whereas in the UK, you’d probably wear it to a club. Also Europeans hide everything, we like a nice cleavage.”

Patrizia has been here 10 years. She came to learn English and ended up meeting her husband and having a child. “My great grandfather was Portuguese but I’m not Portuguese, I’m totally Brazilian,” she says her six inch wedges confirming it.

Our final destination is Kero Coffee, a cafe on the left past the Post Office. Here we find Limarie – a Brazilian with one set of French grandparents – who is full of beans and positively verbose in comparision to some of her compatriots down the road. She points out one of her customers who “is Moroccan but tells everyone he’s Brazilian because he wants to be Brazilian so much.” She knows her characters.

Limarie tells us a little bit of her story. “My Native Indian grandma was really pretty and my Spanish grandfather chose her, then raped her. She never forgave the Spanish, she wouldn’t let us get Spanish passports. But in Brazil, we’re not racist, it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is. And we don’t use skin whitener, we’d rather be dark.”

Limarie has one of those big, generous hearts. She has a 7 year old son, a 9 year daughter and an Italian husband. “My daughter gets bullied at school because her hair is curly and different. Those curls are so gorgeous and it makes me very sad that she is treated like that here.”

However, the next instant she look over at Julia – divine as ever – and pronounces that she reminds her of a celebrated Brazilian actress but she can’t recall the name. “Well, people do say I’m like a Brazilian Angelina Jolie,” pipes up Ms Divine. Stellar as well, it seems…



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Not enough sex on these walks, I decided. I’ll have to invite the leonine and totally outrageous, Kavida Rei along. Kavida – who organises monthly sensual soirees in Convent Garden and has written books on tantric massage and sex – describes herself on her website as a Tantric Goddess. Are you getting the picture? Yep, she’s a force of nature. Her latest blog features her own long sought after, and recently achieved ejaculation.

The day before we meet, I sent her an email asking her to dress discreetly because we were going to visit a religious establishment. I didn’t want to reveal where we were going. “Be direct darling,” she replied, “do you mean I have to wear underwear?”

“I don’t care about your underwear,” I shot back, “but no shorts, probably a below the knee skirt and bring a wrap around.”

“I’m getting my Amish look together,” she said. I told her I was very much looking forward to seeing her attire.

And so I’m waiting for her one sunny Wednesday afternoon at the top of the stone steps at the Harrow Road end of Willesden Junction. I look across and see that my favourite strange railway building – the metal building on the stilts which looks like it has travelled here from Bangladesh or somewhere else where the amount of water forces the architecture – is immersed now in sycamore leaves. Almost hidden.

Before I get to hum ‘You’re so sexy”, there she is sunglasses, muted colours, mad hair, big smile. But hold on. Whoops, up goes the skirt, and the naughty Ms Rei is posing at the bottom of the steps demonstrating her lack of knicker-wearing! Willesden Junction may not recover. Sadly, there are no train-spotters around to share this unusual moment.

Our Tantric – it really (as opposed to the reductive media Sting version) is a Hindu philosophy, which says you can find sensual and spiritual delight in everything from breathing to dancing to putting out the rubbish – Queen is from rural Hertfordshire and Harlesden is a bit of a shock to her system. “I don’t recognise this produce,” she says as we pass bowls of little green chillies outside one of the many High Street butchers and grocers combined.

Her own neighbours, she insists, are completely au fait and comfortable with her activities. In other words, one week she is collecting one of her sons from school (he is 16, the other is 20 and studying History of Art) in appropriately low-key school-run clothes and the next week when her son is with his father, she might be going out with her new partner sporting full-on PVC fetish wear.

“Oh, the hair shops are fantastic,” she shrieks as we peer into one of the amazing emporiums of hair. “I needed one of those when I dressed up as Cher recently.”

I know Kavida will love my favourite shop – as you know by now – Wrights, that marvellous mixture of photographic equipment and lingerie. And especially the sexy tights and stockings. In fact, I bought some brilliant black stockings with beautiful ties all the way up the back for our mutual friend, Jake (another, tantrica, Jacqueline that I met at an International Tantra festival in Catalonia but that’s another story) on her hen weekend.

“That’s so cheap,” exclaims Kavida pointing at a black basque with red ribbons. “In Coco de Mer, it would cost a fortune.” I point out the Nueva Donna nurse’s outfit, but she says her partner, Roland would go for the policewoman’s costume.. Especially the handcuffs. They’re both into the dark side of tantra as well as the light. “We love BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sado-Masochism),” she laughs proudly, “we often sort out our differences by doing some sub and dom role play. It’s about surrender. You receive more, the more you let go. There’s no space for the mind to sabotage you and so you really can reach an altered state. I’m very passionate about it because it is very healing for both men and women. But we also like the theatricality of dressing up. We had fun shopping at Sh, the sex shop for women, they’ve got a great dressing room which is quite private downstairs and Roland would test out the outfits with me. I bought a great waitress’ uniform with apron and cap. But Ro has got a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. They all add to the fun.”

One of Kavida’s many activities is offering sex therapy and tantric healing. As I stand outside Wright’s dazzling display, I wonder how she feels about tantric massages being offered in such a prolific and tawdry way everywhere? If you look in the back of Time Out, every masseuse is selling supposedly tantric massage experiences. Does she get pissed off? “Oh yes, “ she snorts more like a horse than a lioness at this point, “they all think wafting a few rose petals around and a feather is giving a tantric massage. It’s ridiculous. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A healing tantric massage is really about creating an intimate space between you and allowing vulnerability. The tears are the healing, as well as the orgasm.”

At this very moment, Lloyd (not his real name because he’s married), the muscle-bound and very sexy 40 something that goes to my local gym and is wont to turn up on my doorstep occasionally expecting a sexual greeting. He hasn’t had one so far. But what synchronicity that he should appear in the middle of Harlesden High St just as the conversation is turning to sexual healing. All in red, he looks hot today. I wave. He won’t have a clue what we’re discussing which is probably quite fortunate.

Inside the shop, Kavida makes a beeline for the tights. I find myself talking to Sonia Uttam who came over from Kenya  – her family is originally from East India – thirty five years ago. She’s a gorgeous 60something. “The Irish used to buy so much from us,” she says confirming my previous theory about this being a quintessentially Irish shop. “But the Somalians and Afghanis don’t buy so much. The Polish do though. And the Portuguese and Jamaicans. “

Meanwhile Kavida is striding over to Ben Uttam – who came originally from Mumbai – and asking him if he tells his wife she is beautiful. “I tell her that marrying her was the best decision I ever made,” he says. There’s a communal ‘ah’ from us two at the longevity of their love. At which Sonia strolls over and insists that they have a photo taken together. But Kavida is still not quite satisfied. “I hope you’re still enjoying yourselves sexually,” she interjects cheekily. Ben is unfazed.

“I still get excited when I see her bare thighs,” he says ever so sweetly. Tantric Goddess and I have tears in our eyes at this moment. We have found that rare jewel of lasting, sexy love in the lingerie shop. Oh, it’s one of those rare touching moments.

But Tantric Goddess is unstoppable in her shopping. Now it’s a flame-coloured thong. “Because normally I don’t wear underwear,” she explains, “Roland gets excited when I do.” As we leave, Ben rushes up to Kavida with a present for being such a good customer. It’s a pair of pink furry handcuffs. He doesn’t realise what a perfect present this is.

Spotting the Shawl across the road, Kavida suggests we share a Guinness. To a pub at 3pm! Both of us profess we hardly ever go to pubs these days. This one is half-full of  Irish gentlemen nursing pints. She’s just telling me proudly about her 20 year old son being in New York at the moment as a DJ, when the Guinness brings on sex memory. In typical Kavida style.

“I had sex with this bloke in a synagogue in New Orleans,” she says, “in front of the  Torah ark which is considered the most holy place. I consider sex to be the holiest of holy activities so for me, it was entirely appropriate.”  Kavida is Jewish and obviously has a history of fruity rebellion. “There was a time when I loved having sex in churches,” she giggles, “I loved pulpits. In fact, if boyfriends wouldn’t shag in a church, they were out.”

Walking down Craven Park Road afterwards she just telling me about an idyllic naturist island off the South of France, when Starlight Records catches our attention. “It’s such an old fashioned record shop,” she says enthusiastically because she’s also a singer/songwriter, “with great reggae vinyl.”

The owner ‘Popsy’  -a white-bearded, gentle-looking Jamaican; there are three similar men in this parade of shops, there’s JJ at the wine bar and jerk chicken shop, and George at the cool clothes shop, Avant Garde next door – is chilling out with a cigarette and his two huge dogs are lying next to him. It’s like going back in time. And place. He tells us he’s been here for thirty years.

But can he survive? There are very few record shops left. “Our main distributor went out of business last year which was down the road, now I have to get records from New York,” he says managing to emanate total chilled ‘outness’. “I am thinking of dividing up the shop and having an internet provision here too.” Hawkeye Records over the road have done something similar, now they’ve got a bakery and take away as well as records.

“I feel as though I’m holiday in Harlesden,” says Kavida. She admits that Roland had told her she was wearing too much jewellery for Harlesden so she’d taken some pieces off. But now she’s seeing an unexpected side to our NW10 neighbourhood.

I’ve got another surprise in store for her. I can tell she’s thinking where on earth are we going? But she’s being bubbly to cover her doubt. The route – Craven Park Rd, then right before Hillside down Brentfield Road – is urban desolate. So I ask her how she’s changed since she’s been – 18 months – with Roland, to distract her from the concrete. “I’m much more feminine,” she says, “because he is so in his masculine energy. He is very sensitive but he still takes charge in that male way. That has meant I can be softer.”

Eventually, I’m able to stop her talking for a second and direct her attention to the left. There it is – the magnificent Neasden Hindu Temple. It really is an amazing sight. So unexpectedly decorative in this industrial landscape. Kavida is ecstatic. She hadn’t guessed that this was the religious establishment that we were visiting. “It’s the perfect heart-centred place to take a tantric goddess to,” she exclaims.

We’re lucky, we’ve arrived at one of the prayer times when the sacred shrines are open. Ironically, it’s me who is handed pieces of material to cover my legs and arms. We’re directed outside once we’ve removed our shoes. The craftsmanship – 2,820 tons of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tons of Italian Carrara marble were sent to India and carved into these ornate pinnacles by over 1,500 artisans and finished in 1995 – is spectacular. We’re drawn to the voluptuous statues of dancing goddesses on the outside of the temple. They are flexing their barely clad bodies in all sorts of joyous, celebratory ways. They are incredibly sensual. “So these goddesses are allowed to be this sexy and undressed,” says Kavida, “and we have to cover up. What’s that all about. Look they’ve even carved their nipples in. No doubt it’s men who are scared of women’s sexuality and ultimately their power, and so want them to  hide their bodies away. It’s not right. That’s so non-tantra.”

We enter the sacred space and a few Indian families are in prayer. One of the men lays prostrate on the floor. They touch the shrine and kiss the hand that touches it in a time-honoured fashion. We stare at Rama and Parvati– the heroic prince and princess from the Ramayana – who are fetchingly bedecked in pink and blue. There’s an atmosphere of spiritual reverence but also a crazy sound of beating in the background.

“There isn’t an S&M party going on behind the scenes,” says Kavida with characteristic irreverence.

I burst out laughing but smother it with my hand. “I think they are feather-dusting the deities,” I say equally ignorantly.

As we walk away our heads back and transfixed by the marble lotus flower ceilings, Kavida tells me about a 25 year old British Asian man she knows. “Often Indian families are so repressed when it comes to sexualty,” she says, “he is a virgin and very shame-filled. But I got him to come to one of our sensual soirees and he ended up kissing someone. He felt ashamed at first, but came back and now has started getting rid of those layers of repression. I’m really happy for him.”

I decide to ask one of the information assistants why we have to cover up when the  goddesses on the temple depict such an overt pleasure in their bodies. “Because we are ordinary people,” he says, “and they are not. They are on another planet so they can do what they want. They have attained that right, we have not.”

Ah yes, they are ‘in heaven’ so they can take their clothes off and act erotically. We mere mortals must wait until we die before we are allowed such unabashed pleasure. “An enticement to death? wonders Kavida.

In the temple shop – truly fabulous tat from sparkly garlands to ayurvedic remedies – we hear a family discussing the stock. “Why have they got an Eiffel tower key ring here?” asks the young father. His wife cannot explain. Neither can we but we can’t help loving the idea of it anyway.

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Streetcomber, poet, artist, mother, gas meter reader, Sue Saunders has been sacked since last time I met her on my first walk. So in fact, it’s an ex-gas meter reader’s perspective. Sue was reading the meter at Car City UK when she overheard me discussing the availability of Somali men with a lovely Somali woman, Amran. My son, Marlon and her daughter, Eileen, went to the same primary and secondary schools. Talking to her, I realise what a great walking companion she will be, so I invite her along. We decide to meet outside the very same used car showroom at 9am on April Fool’s Day. It’s a great portent.

She’s wearing tiny teacup earrings, striped tights, sneakers with silver laces and immediately launches into telling me about the precious street bounty she has collected in the past. “I’ve got a bird table in my garden that I found down Tubbs Lane,” she laughs. So we decide to go down Tubbs Lane. Just like that.

I hadn’t realised that Sue had been wearing her green blankety outfit (in other words, gas meter reader uniform) for three years. “Yes, I loved it,” she says wistfully, “the freedom to roam around, to investigate basements and the backs of buildings. Just me and my meter reader.”

As we gaze at a church, which announces itself as OPEN DOOR, I’m beginning to become aware exactly how much of an asset it is. To walk with an ex-gas meter reader. “I always thought Open Door was rather an ironic name, ” comments Sue dryly, “because I could never get into the building.”

So we try the door at the back. It has a bell marked ‘Please ring for attention’. “I would always look at those words,” she says in her rather wistful haughty tones, “and think ‘Oh yes please, I love attention’. If only my husband would put in a bell like that in our bedroom.” But this particular attention fails to materialise and we move on.

Only moments earlier, Sue had been telling how difficult it was for her to find a job again. Then she drops a little bombshell. “They put me on a register for professionals because I told them I have a degree from Cambridge University,” she says, “but I’ve never been a professional. I don’t want to waste their time.”

Ah ha, I think, degree from Cambridge, I’d never realised that. Sue is such an amazing mixture of contradictions. She reminds me of another era. The 70s. When students went to study what they fancied, not what career they thought they should go for. I have an ex-boyfriend, Jerry Tidy actually, who studied Latin and English and then became a car mechanic in the US, another friend, Simon Farr who became a Maoist whilst he was at art college, then worked on the Underground for eight years.

Jerry still works on cars but they are Alpha Romeos in Virginia, whilst Simon is an artist who paints portraits.

Sue’s leading me round a new corner. “It doesn’t have a sea view,” she says, “but it leads to the backs of the businesses that are on the High Street and there are some interesting alleyways.” I’m always thrilled to go somewhere totally new and I’ve never walked down here before. Clifton Road looks onto Willesden Junction from the west and there’s an impressive warehouse-type of building at the end. “You’d really like it in there,” declares Sue knowingly, “there’s a flat up there that’s rather modern and fascinating.”

We investigate the alleyway on the left, which takes us to the back of the shops. “I’d think of myself as Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs,” says Sue now leaping around as though she has a fake gun in her hand, “when I came down here. I’d be creeping around in the darkness. People don’t realise how hard it is to actually locate meters especially in businesses.” It’s true, it had never occurred to me. At that very moment, she spots an ‘inviting’ open back door which looks very dodgy indeed. The way to it is strewn with mattresses and discarded magazines plus it is decidedly waterlogged. I’m not sure I’m so keen on this particular excursion.

But Sue is enchanted. So I join her. We step into the darkness and realise we have found the downstairs club area of Jet Set, the nightclub. The notorious Jet Set. I have already mentioned the shooting of a 28 year old DJ outside here in the fifth walk. “I would sometimes wander up the road to find cigarettes at night,” says Sue, “and I’d find myself ordering a whiskey here.”

Sue obviously has a perambulatory late-night life. By the time, we’re back on Tubbs Lane, she is telling me more about her night-wandering. “There used to be an old snooker hall up the road,” she says and I think she must mean in what was the old Picardy cinema, which has been rebuilt and become Paddy Power, “one night, I had an amazing time. There was a big gypsy bloke and a black jockey who kept bursting into tears because he’d got caught up in drink and drugs and missed out on a successful career. They ended up taking me to Lakeleys, a drinking club in West Hampstead, which is where I met my husband a while later. On the way home in a mini cab, the gypsy kept telling me that we would never meet again and that he knew this because he was a gypsy. But I still didn’t give him a kiss.”

By the time we get to Station Road, Sue admits she’s been tempted by the interior of the Victorian Willesden Junction Hotel to go there and dine, but the desire has diminished since it has become recently the meaty Amber Grill. “But look at these original tiles,” she says pulling up the front mat. “they would make a great photo.”

I suddenly feel drawn towards Harley Rd, which I’ve never walked down and looks distinctly unpromising. The railway lines are on the left with a huge industrial complex. Neither of us are not sure what it is. I’m expecting endless nondescript houses, but suddenly I notice a girl’s face wearing a hijab on the railway wall. A row of faces painted in dramatic black and white. Boys, girls, serious, threatening. What do their expressions tell us? It turns out to be a 2008 art project by Brent Council called Girls and Boys (note order), which is questioning the negative stereotypes that we have about teenagers. Great idea. Shame it is hidden away down here. Although it is brilliant to discover. And the first bit of public art in Harlesden that I’ve actually liked.

Sue spots a bloke in a green uniform munching away on a park bench. “He’s probably a street cleaner,” she says going into her uniform expertise, “having his elevenses. That is one of the problems about working outside, you have to find somewhere to eat. In winter, of course, I used to seek the comfort of a cappuccino in a café. Actually I used to get given food all the time. Especially loaves, then I’d have to carry them around with me all day. But people were being so generous, I couldn’t refuse.”

We stand by some metal fencing and admire the gigantic yellow industrial equipment that looks as though it’s about to clamber across the landscape. Like a stray rollercoaster that has wandered off from the Pleasure Beach. Then I notice a discarded crutch just through the fence. “I’m such an optimist, that I would look at that and assume that a miracle had happened,” she says. “But you see that plastic ghost-like model, that’s the sort of thing I would pick up in my streetcombing. It could give meter-reading a poetic dimension. I once opened a meter and found a lion inside, I imagined I was in Narnia. I’m always writing bits of poetry. Sometimes, I  have written on the backs of maps, then forgot and thrown them away by mistake.”

As if summoned by our resident poet, the heady sweet smell of biscuits wafts over us. It’s McVities factory, which Sue has just mentioned. “I once wrote a poem about real success being about having the freedom to imbibe that smell, rather than the safety of working in a bank,” she says. A sign appears on a wall above the railway lines, it declares; ‘Prepare To Meet Thy God’. I have to admit I am unprepared.

There’s a Caribbean Cultural Centre on Minet Rd where Sue recommends the woman who works there as a good chatterer. “But not today,” she says, “otherwise, we’ll never get away. I used to go to read the meter and then she’d engage me in a lengthy discussion which I found very difficult to extricate myself from.”

On Acton Lane, Sue explains that she actually relished meter reading for businesses and that no-one else wanted to do them because they took so long to find. “We didn’t have a target because the managers knew how hard it was,” she says, “which was perfect for me because I could wander with impunity. But I was very good at it.” It seems rather tragic that they sacked her. She is obviously so ideally suited to the profession.

She strokes the lichen on top of a wall and explains that it’s called Golden Haired Lichen. We pass a shop further up called Fix Up Good, which has the mystifying sign Acc/clo/toil on it. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed it if she hadn’t pointed it out. ‘What does that mean do you think?’ asks Sue. I’ve no idea but she has already worked it out. “I think it’s accessories, clothes and toiletries but it’s not exactly the most attractive of abbreviations, is it?.”

We pass Connaught House – obviously a grand Victorian abode in its day. It has black wrought iron at the front and a veranda. “I was delighted when I found out that it’s owned by the family of one of my daughter’s friends,” she says displaying her penchant for grandeur in design at least. “Eileen has visited and she says it’s just like being in the Little House On The Prairie when you sit on the veranda.” I can’t help myself mentioning that 30 years ago, I (with Jerry, the Latin scholar and car mechanic) lived for a short time in a plantation house that was in New Orleans’ ninth ward – the place that was hit so badly by Hurricane Katrina – which had a similar veranda. And of course, a couple of rocking chairs. Is this veranda one upwomanship?  Probably. Unaware in a delightful way, Sue gasps in wonder at the thought of me in New Orleans!

I want to have a look in at the enormous Catholic church, the one Alexei Sayle thinks occupies an industrial bleak architectural genre, Our Lady Of Willesden. Where pilgrimages have been coming since 1538. And there’s a black Madonna inside. Now home to a Brazilian/Polish etc congregation, it has wooden herons on the roof. “They don’t seem to be working,” says Sue, “the pigeons are still there.” We have a quick peek inside but the cleaners are preparing for the Easter services. And all the statuary is shrouded in purple covers. To keep them respectfully away from the dirty process of cleaning.

So we stop at my favourite shop Wrights instead, to admire the skimpy lingerie and the strangely attired models. Sue, in contrast to Alexei, is unabashed in her appreciation. “I bought that classified Babydoll calendar for my 33 year old husband, Sid,” she explains, revealing her cunning housekeeping methods,  “and stuck it on the instructions that I left him, hoping that it would enthuse him into DIY action.” Would he similarly purchase a portrait of a hunky, young ‘stud muffin’ to motivate his wife? “Oh no,” she says, having spent a few minutes examining a ‘naughty’ lighter for women, “he’d never think of that.”

The Portuguese Bicafe is our final destination. I’d seen it on our dawn walk and thought it looked worth a visit. And Sue, it turns out, is already a regular from her meter-reading days. The gallaos and cakes are worth it. So is Sue. She’s been fabulous entertainment every step of the way.


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