Memories on the bus

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Carrying several bags of shopping, I got onto a bus and stood in the space usually reserved for parents with buggies or wheelchair users. I thought my shopping was all well assembled and I occupied myself, reading the evening paper. After an unexpected jolt of the bus, I found myself having to retrieve things from my shopping bags, so I asked the woman sitting in the nearest seat to excuse me while I picked up my groceries.

The woman decided to leave her seat and move to another side of the bus. I apologised for disrupting her peaceful journey, only to find out that she is someone I know. We ended up having an interesting conversation and my memory went into overdrive.

“Do you still have your spinet?” I asked her, much to the bemusement of some fellow passengers. I’m sure they were used to overhearing conversations on buses about owners of keyboard instruments from the baroque era. Sadly, the spinet was no longer in her possession. Today however, I remember someone who entertained guests in this same woman’s apartment in Soho. This South African female thespian must have lived a very colourful life, since she seemed to be experienced at performing something akin to burlesque.

In her turn at the Soho party, the artiste introduced herself by her ordinary name, and then went into a long clicking oration that was her praise name from her land of origin. She was going to sing us a song that was made famous by Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. She did sing the song, but what I remember most is the contortions of her body as she sang. In that context, the impact was electrifying, but later she was drafted into poetry collective that specialised in presenting agit-prop variety events. There was something inside this woman that needed to do her loose limbed erotic movement sequences whenever she faced an audience, sometimes to the chagrin of her colleagues in the collective and to the amusement of the wider African arts community in London.

Our lady of the burlesque is now of blessed memory. No one has mentioned her to me in recent times, yet she was so vivid and full of life in her heyday, she ought to be better known. My little incident on the bus took my mind back to her essence.


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