Saturday, 9 March 2013

The good, the bad and the unsettling

'Do Not Cross' proclaimed the blue and white tape being furled around a neighbour's house, by the policeman in the flak jacket.  The late Friday night was cold, dark, drizzly and silent.  The policeman and I were the only human beings out on the street.  There was probably a cat prowling around somewhere.  (There usually is on my street.)  The house stood at one end of the street, perpendicular to the parallel terraces, whose front windows and inhabitants look onto one another.

My street is a nice North London street.  Residents tend terracotta window boxes full of cyclamen and lavender plants.  Small children ride bikes and scooters up and down the pavements.  There is even a particularly keen family (possibly with some kind of insane death-wish) which plays badminton in the middle of the road in the summer.  The street is religious about its recycling and rages about dog-fouling.  Neighbours water each others' plants and feed each others' pets when they are away on holiday.  There are good schools, nice restaurants and pubs, and excellent transport links nearby.  Houses are not especially cheap here.  And despite some of our neighbours being the 500 or so inmates of HMP Holloway, we sit in a peculiar celebrity street triangle with Suggs on one side and Damian Lewis on the other.  Strange but true.

Yet alongside the gardening groups, the nearby farmers' market and the friendly cries of 'good morning!', I have witnessed some rather more unsettling things happening on my own doorstep over the past couple of years.  Walking along the road to the bus stop, or heading out to the Holloway Road for a bit of shopping, I have heard plenty of shocking things behind closed doors - a vicious slapping sound followed by quiet crying, blazing rows, spat insults.  I have seen badly behaved dogs reprimanded with a smack delivered with a level of force which didn't seem entirely necessary.  Small, confused children have been spoken to using words with which I wouldn't refer to my worst enemy.  But all of this local anger, hostility and sadness weaves in and out of daily life which also contains a great deal of kindness, amiability, and generosity.
Back last summer, one hot city night, as everyone on the street flung open their windows to coax in a minimal breeze, filthy screaming rent the street's customary 9pm-9am silence.  It awoke me at around two in the morning and at first I tossed and turned, hoping I was still bleary enough to block out the noise and fall asleep again.  But the yelling continued - a male and a female voice - and I was now very definitely wide awake.  The argument appeared to be over which of the two participants was the most selfish individual.  As more and more of the street awoke to listen in, general opinion appeared to be that this pair achieved a dead-heat in the selfishness stakes.  Angry expletives were hurled down from another flat, demanding the arguing pair shut up.  I dragged my sleepy self to the window and looked out.  A shoeless woman, clad in a dirty sun-dress, handbag on the pavement next to her bare feet, shrieked drunken slurs at a man in a doorway a few houses down.  "I've called the police!" contributed another annoyed neighbour, to the gratitude of the whole rudely awakened street. 

Ten minutes later and the road was filled with police cars and a riot van; their blue flashing lights illuminating darkened bedrooms all along the street.  Several policemen in shirt-sleeves hopped out and calmly approached the woman.  The door she had been screaming at had been slammed shut as the cops approached, and she was left alone in the formerly peaceful street.  As the police attempted to find out what the trouble was, the woman began to panic.  "I've not done anything wrong! I'm fine. It was him. He hit me!".  The police officers attempted to pacify her, clearly thinking "Oh great, another Saturday night drunk" and enquired politely as to the whereabouts of her shoes.  The woman, still shrieking, gestured towards the firmly shut door.  A few calm enquiries later and the shoes were retrieved.  The woman was sent off on her way and the police headed back to the station, looking reasonably relaxed about the whole thing.

A further half an hour and the screaming started up again however.  Having once more abandoned her shoes - and more worryingly given that she was still yelling in the middle of the street, her underwear - the drunk woman began pounding on the door of her debating partner.  Within minutes the police van had zoomed back into view, and the now somewhat fed-up-looking cops hopped back out and headed over to the cause of the street's sleepless night.  Playing a blinder, they suggested she might like a little sit-down in their nice, cosy van.  I fervently hoped they might offer her a nice, peaceful sleep back at their place (i.e. in a cell in Holloway Police Station).  As the woman climbed into the back of the van clutching her shoes to her summery dress she wept like a child, grubby and scruffy, chaperoned by several smartly uniformed policemen.  The incident which seemed like a minor annoyance when it began in the middle of the night now seemed rather sad and pathetic.  Who knows what had really gone on between this woman and the man behind the door, but imagining what might have transpired sent me back to bed feeling somewhat depressed rather than irritated.

The day after my neighbour's house was so publicly declared a crime scene I walked past it on my way into town.  The blue and white tape was gone.  So was the police officer.  The house looked just as it always did.  As I neared the front path I noticed a sticky puddle on the pavement.  It was red and shiny and could quite conceivably have been blood.  Whether the puddle was anything to do with the mystery of the previous night I had no way of knowing.  It could just as easily have been caused by a leaking bin-bag attacked by one of our bold, greedy urban foxes.

Here in the middle of our huge, multi-faceted, densely populated city either the wildest, most upsetting or tragic things can happen as frequently as the most dreary and mundane.  Good and bad things happen on the opposite side of town from each other, or right next door.  Maybe it is the concentration of life and people in a city which brings together the good and the bad of people in such close proximity.  But here in London is real life, writ large on even the smallest of scales.
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