Chris Kimberley, 58, has a top speed of eight miles per hour. He navigates east London on a blue mobility scooter covered with England stickers, a Bluetooth speaker blaring in the front basket and a Shih Tzu perched serenely on his lap. Her name is Skye.
The two are together when we meet outside Mono cafe on Roman Road. The speaker in the basket is playing The Best of UB40 – Volume One as Kimberley parks. At any given time it may be playing Debbie Harry, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Queen. Madness is his favourite.
Traders can hear Kimberley coming. ‘Every time I go past one of them goes, “There’s Chris. You’re not playing rock today. What’s happened with your ska?” I said I’ve got to sort that out.’ Does he take requests? Of course. Sometimes he sings along.
‘I know I don’t sound pretty, it’s just about being happy and lifting your spirits up,’ Kimberley says. ‘Sometimes you get people dancing, smiling, and I feel like I’ve done a good job.’
Off his scooter Kimberley moves with a sprightliness befitting a man who spent 11 years as a postman. Through his entire professional life he always did manual work, always outdoors. When his body could no longer keep up he found a new way of staying active – scooters. They’ve been his main mode of transportation for five years.
He generally goes at four miles an hour, but cranks it up to eight when the way is clear.
Has he had any accidents? One. No, two. No, three. Three.
One and two were mechanical malfunctions. The first sent him backwards onto a DLR track, the second sent him forward into The Albert pub. The third time could have happened to anyone. His attention was drawn by a young lady passing in the market, as one’s is, and he hit a lamppost, as one does.
He agrees three mishaps in five years isn’t half bad. ‘It’s quite good.’
Transformative, in fact. ‘The scooter has been a lifeline.’ It has allowed him to rediscover a market he visited in his youth when growing up on the Isle of Dogs. ‘It’s nice that we’ve different culture’s food, that is nice, I do like that because you get different smells. You’ve got Italian, Indian, Turkish, the Caribbean. It’s a nice mix.’
No nation is safe from Kimberley’s banter. ‘I’ve made a lot of the friends in the market,’ he says. ‘I’m cheeky. I call myself the Cheeky Cockney.’
How is he Cheeky? He giggles.
‘I banter a lot, and sometimes I banter with the ladies. Only if they know me, of course. Some friends I can go a bit further with.’
Kimberley’s music is a reliable source of banter down the Roman. It was the final piece in the scooter puzzle. ‘I’ve always been a gadget man,’ he says, and a speaker was the ideal way to enjoy music while staying connected with the world around him.
‘I know I can’t please everyone with my music, but I’m not aiming to please. It’s to help my mental health. It keeps me upbeat, especially on miserable days, because I can’t cope with miserable weather.’
The city outside is touching 20 degrees as we talk. ‘Today is a very good day.’
The Kimberley picture wouldn’t be complete without Skye. She sits on his lap as we talk, quietly content and well loved. She arrived on the scene in 2014, the same year Kimberley began using a mobility scooter, and the same year his mother died.
‘I was having difficulty adjusting to losing my job, operations, the osteoarthritis taking over, living in an empty house. From being married I was used to having people around.’
He originally wanted a Jack Russell — ‘I’m an east London man, I wanted to be east London manly.’ — but he was brought round to the idea of a Shih Tzsu. When Kimberley went with a friend to see a litter one of the pups stood out. ‘She bit my friend’s toe and I thought, you’re the one.’
They go out three times a day to Victoria Park. Kimberley fishes there in the spring and summer, and at BowHaven, a mental health charity off Roman Road, he exercises, sings, and paints. He uses acrylics and animals are his preferred subjects, Skye included.
‘I’ve done two paintings of her. I’m going to do a third one because I want to see if I’ve progressed.’ He’s not always convinced by his work, but believes it when he’s told when he is getting better.
‘Every young artist is their own worst critic ain’t they.’
Roman Road locals come and go as we talk and it feels like Kimberley knows all of them. Lots of laugher, plenty of banter. It is a good day, but not all days are good days for Kimberley.
‘I still get lonely, don’t get me wrong. At the weekends I don’t know what to do with myself. The nightime’s even worse.’ He apologises, but he needn’t.
‘I had a bad childhood. Not as bad as some people’s, but my household was violent when I grew up, like my mum being hit, me and they boys being hit.’
Much like his music and his painting, creative writing at BowHaven has provided an outlet for Kimberley. ‘They get us to write down what’s gone on, what’s in our heads, free flowing what’s going on in our heads and a lot of us write down what our issues are at the time. Once we’ve done that a lot of us start to feel good because we’re getting it out.’
Kimberley has reinvented himself in the last five years. His daughter and grandson live down the road in Bethnal Green, he is active, and Skye recently became the official mascot of BowHaven (special outfit and all). But Kimberley isn’t one for staying still.
‘I have thought about moving out of London. Next year I’ll be 60 and I’m thinking do I want to be in London when I’m 60? But all the pros knocked that right on the head. Will I be able to find a park to go fishing in? Will I miss people down the market going, “Chris how are you doing? Why aren’t you playing your music? Are you all right?” I’d miss all that.
‘Now I’m just enjoying what I can, dealing with my issues when they arise, if they arise. I’m in a happy place at the moment.’ He laughs. ‘Until the weather changes.’
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