I have for so long imagined little scenes in my life as they might have turned out, but as they never do for anyone, because everyone is reticent and risk averse – unless of course they’re completely wasted and staggering around Covent Garden in London so drunk that they walk into a glass door at full pelt repeatedly (“What’s wrong with this doorway?”), and then take the giant risk of jumping into a random taxi when they get out of the tube they were sick on at Stockwell. It was a not-so-memorable incident of my twenties, which fortunately had no consequences except a pretty hideous hangover.
If you don’t live in London, you probably only know Stockwell as the scene of the ignominious shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, but back in 2002, it was just one of the more dangerous parts of South London, particularly at 2 am. I was joking with a friend the other day that if you spent a few nights hanging out on the Number 2 night bus, you’d easily have enough material for a rip-roaring gang crime thriller. Its route goes around Brixton, Tulse Hill, Stockwell and West Norwood, all of which have a lot of column inches usually relating to homicides or drug busts.
I used to take that bus to Brixton tube station every day. One day I arrived at the bus stop outside the tube to find a pile of bloodstained clothes, and a lot of police tape – turned out some schizophrenic had forgotten his medication and stabbed some random people who had the misfortune to be standing next to him in the bus queue. I moved to cosy Northwest London not long after that, partly because I kept imagining myself standing at that bus stop, and wondered what would have happened. It was always full of crackheads anyway, so the guy probably didn’t stand out among the melee of people talking to themselves or scratching their arms. I would have studiously ignored him like everyone else probably did that day. Of course, I like to think I’d have been super quick-thinking and courageous, like people are in movies, and would have helped a tall dark and handsome stranger to take the knife off him, but in my limited experience, these situations always seem to happen so fast that before you realise what’s going on, it’s already happened – and you spend the next few years frustratedly imagining that you could and certainly should have put up more resistance.
Anyway, so those are the lurid, negative”what-ifs” of big city living, but mostly I imagine nice, pleasurable things I might do if I wasn’t so chicken – interesting people I might strike up a conversation with, and the lives and thoughts of strangers I observe going about their incidental business. I’m sitting in Starbucks, I’m flipping through the people; looking at the guy who clicks his fingers in time with the music in a cool way. Much cooler than the really affected tapping of feet or nodding head, or worst of all, the jiggling knee. He was sitting clicking his fingers under the table, managing to liven up the boring bluesy melody a little in the process, not looking as if he wanted anyone to notice. Then there’s a prim-looking girl in a cream fluffy jumper. She’s not prim-looking because of the jumper (although it helps), but because she is typing on her laptop with a little too much focus, and her back ramrod straight against the bench. Some grubby-looking fat guy marches in looking flustered and asks to use the toilet, and I’m relieved I already went. I reckon Starbucks is full of junkies or sex addicts with nasty diseases. It’s the only toilet apart from the ones in London parks where I do bother hovering over the seat. An incredibly pregnant woman in Ugg boots and a cosy brown throw is accompanied by her mother, and no sign of a ring. For all I know, it’s not what it seems. Maybe it’s her second child, and her husband is at home looking after the first one and avoiding his mother-in-law, and they just don’t believe in bourgeois symbols of possession. Can’t help thinking my first assumption might be right though, from her general demeanour.
This being Westbourne Grove, a part of London that affects faux-proletarian roots (complete with faux London accents) but is these days very patrician indeed, there was a steady slew of thin posh girls getting takeaway lattes and pretending they’re fat and penniless – “noooo money….gotta get the skinny with my thighs”….whatever honey. I kind of fancy the guy behind the counter pouring the coffee (I won’t say barista), and I imagine striking up a conversation with him, which of course I never do. He smiles at me.
It reminds me a bit of when I was working as a waitress in Germany, and we were all sitting around after work at midnight, having a free drink and figuring out which club to go to. I had a major crush on a fellow waiter called Andreas. He impressed me, mainly because he was so efficient in his work, but also because he was studying biotechnology, which I’ve always thought is a great combination of vocational and intellectual for a degree. It helped that he had steely-green eyes that always held my gaze, and dashed about in a purposeful and decisive manner – even if he sometimes overdid it and looked like he was trying to be Tom Cruise in Cocktail.
So this one night, he asked me what I wanted to drink, and I dithered, wanting him to make a suggestion. He suggested a Campari and orange, “my mother’s favourite”. Hmmm, not quite the plan, a middle aged drink. I accepted it, but couldn’t think of anything witty to say in reply. There were about five of us inside the empty cafe, sitting on the red velvet benches – it was done up in a kind of fin de siècle style which I quite liked. We were listening to the local radio station, Radio Regenbogen, and I decided to put on a CD. I got up and went behind the counter. The stereo was stored in a cupboard underneath the coffee machine, and I had to crouch quite carefully underneath it to avoid bashing my head on the edge. It was 1999, and I thought the Jennifer Lopez album (embarrassing, I know) that was lying around would be perfect, given the limited selection. Waiting for Tonight was nice and snappy, bit of a vibe for the party mood. Iwas kind of curious about the A Train, some sort of blurb about the New York subway lines on the sleeve, and I was so busy reading that I didn’t notice Andreas slip down behind me. He came in really close, resting his chin on my shoulder and unnecessarily reaching his arms right around my body to flip the Play button. He asked me something about the music. I was absolutely consumed with the desire to turn my face towards his. The images going through my mind were not for public consumption. It was a moment of total abandon, in which I did precisely nothing, and never turned at all. He got up fairly quickly, bashed his head on the coffee machine, swore a bit, and as so often before and since, that was the end of that.
I’ve thought about how good that moment was for the last 12 years, and imagined hundreds of scenarios of how the scene might have ended. But I don’t regret that it didn’t go anywhere, that I took no action. The anticipation of pleasure is so much more enticing than the messy practicalities of real life. After all, cupcakes don’t taste half as nice as they look.
- London’s Hippest Neighbourhoods (hotelclub.com)
- Schoolboy ‘killed in attack planned on Facebook’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Boy stabbed in revenge killing, court heard (mirror.co.uk)
- Stockwell shooting girl Thusha, 5, leaves hospital bed for first time since attack (mirror.co.uk)
- London’s Streets of Rage (thedailybeast.com)
- London riots: In Brixton last night, hooded, smiling boys hung around – waiting for something to kick off (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)