I am glad I can relax, for one afternoon | Louise Holmes

By noon on the Tuesday before Wednesday’s council meeting, I am already sitting outside the door of a spacious council chambers in the heart of London’s East End.

As far as I can see, everyone is sitting or standing – the mayor, his councillors, a clutch of journalists.

But not one member of the public can see through the double doors to the public gallery, where a long line of carers, patients and friends are coming in. I have no idea if any of them are suffering from severe anxiety or a severe case of the flu.

Among them is a young woman in a wheelchair who can’t get out and about in London – she is so disabled that, even though she has large gaps in her apartment window to extend the windows for wheelchair access, she is advised to stay in because it would make her life too precarious.

She is here today with her mum, aged around 60, but her friend has passed away. She cannot talk about the loss without her mum close by.

The other woman in her late 30s, a carer with a severe depressive disorder, is also here. She tells me that she feels immense anger and guilt that she is not able to walk to her friend’s funeral, because there is nowhere for her to go.

I sit and tell them my story. The main source of my anxiety is the tube. I have been travelling on it for 20 years, including 11 years on London’s network – often with my family. I am not always the happiest traveller. Although my husband is tolerant, I find travelling so stressful that I will sometimes cut myself with a knife. I work in health and am normally upbeat, but travelling with family causes me to gain weight. I also keep running late because I’m constantly moving from station to station to avoid people gawping and looking me up and down. I’ve become a liability – I should be at home with my husband and small child, but I’m at work.

I would say all is peachy at home. But when I go into town, I’m almost in a panic. I’ve recently learned that the lowest point in a human being’s life is the very moment a child makes a correction. Their attempts to comfort you are made on behalf of their class, their age, their ability to see when you are being annoying. They are desperate for you to apologise.

I’m here today because I worry for other people like my friend and her friend – people who are coping with serious mental illness, who have physical disability, who are not brave enough to tell me about the tragedies they have experienced, who don’t trust the people closest to them.

There is just one man standing in front of me. He looks like a bus conductor from another era. His manner is well-mannered, and most of his neighbours are sitting in high chairs or snacking on juice, leftovers from the lunch they just ate. I ask him if it is okay to sit here on the steps. He looks at me with not the slightest hint of puzzlement. I look him up and down, and finally I accept that I am in the wrong place.

Will there be another councillor from Greenwich next year? Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

I am unaware that the borough council is about to get into debates on supporting prisoners and to report on the possible extension of a £500,000 grant to New City Circus, an organisation that I know as a contractor.

I am unaware that there will be a group of citizens meeting to discuss whether there should be a glass roof over the main theatre at the O2 concert hall. I am unaware that a final decision will be made, just before we bid goodbye to Sadiq Khan as mayor of London, to whoever gets into power after May’s elections.

But I am glad that today I can relax a little bit and listen to their stories, for one afternoon.

• Louise Holmes is a freelance journalist

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