Tuesday evening, 11:48 p.m.: This is where – in my admittedly privileged position of narrator – I get to tell everyone just how brave, how dashing, how brilliant I can be when the going gets tough and the tough need to demonstrate just how brave, how dashing, just how brilliant they can be. Here’s what happens:
I leave Dave from accounts in the Ship and try to hail a cab but somehow there aren’t any around. It’s raining so I keep walking, thinking that one’s going to turn the corner at any moment, until eventually I’ve reached the end of Tottenham Court Road and I’m standing close to Warren Street Tube Station in the drizzle. For the first time that I can remember I’ve had a day that has been completely nondescript: nothing unusual happened at work… no one was sacked… no one accused me of feeling them up… there was no trouble with Louise: she wasn’t what you could call over-abundantly friendly but there were no moods or silences with which to blight my day; we spoke when we needed to speak, we both said good morning to each other at the appropriate juncture… Oh, the sweet panacea of routine, what comfort there is to be found in your tender breast.
The walk from Wardour Street to here must have taken about fifteen minutes but I’m so lost in my thoughts that I’ve barely noticed the passage of time. Experience, however, has taught me that this part of town is a particularly bad place to be stranded if you’re hoping to catch a taxi. By this time of night most of the cab drivers will have headed off to Oxford Street and the clubs around Piccadilly, leaving this area resembling a sort of Bermuda Triangle of taxis. Which is why I think for a moment and decide to take the tube, and also the reason why I end up bumping into Carol and saving her life.
I say think for a moment because taking a late night tube is not actually my idea of fun. If I had any easy way of finding a cab I would but I can’t be bothered to walk back the way I came and fight it out with the mob. People often laugh when I explain my aversion to tubes, but I would rather be buried up to my head in sand in the blazing sunshine of a Japanese prisoner of war camp than sit in a crowded tube train surrounded by groups of over loud, over drunk young men waving cans of Stella about in the air… or under age, over leery herds of pre-pubescent schoolgirls showing their knickers and using the f-word like it has just been invented. Perhaps I’m alone in my unease in such a situation but I suspect not. Don’t misunderstand me: I get the tube into work in the morning like a good nine-tenths of London’s population; I’m not exactly over the moon about having to do this but I’m not wealthy enough to afford an alternative: parking in town’s out of the question and a taxi ride at that time of the morning would cost a small fortune. But evenings, especially late evenings… well, if I can do anything to possibly avoid this kind of suffering I will.
Here’s a case in point: had I have caught a cab tonight instead of the tube nothing would have happened. I’d have endured the usual stilted conversation with the driver, redirected him when he got lost in the Islington back streets, paid the fair, settled into a seat in my Marie-less living room, poured myself a drink, lit a spliff and generally chilled out. Instead I find myself being jostled by hordes of drunken football supporters at the exit to Highbury and Islington Tube Station. They’re all decked out in the red and white of Arsenal and wearing expressions of general unhappiness, presumably because their team has lost or whatever.
This is where the action begins: I clear the congestion around Highbury Corner and head off along Upper Street in the direction of home. This is when I see Carol: she’s sitting in her usual spot beneath the cash dispenser surrounded by about four really mean looking blokes. She’s desperately clinging onto the lead of her dog and one of the men is trying to snatch the ugly pooch away from her. She’s yelling at him and the other three men are laughing, sipping at cans of beer. Passers-by seem to be stubbornly ignoring this tawdry scene.
This is where my SAS training comes in handy: there’s only one thing for it. Muscles flexed like a panther, I creep stealthily towards the men. “Leave the girl alone,” I command, in my best, deep and booming, Sean Connery in Thunderball voice.
The men seem not to have heard me at first. Then, one by one, they turn to face me, looking a little startled for a moment or so, then slowly starting to grin. The nearest one, who is black and wearing some kind of bandanna around his head, moves towards me menacingly. He’s a little taller than I am and probably about ten years younger. He’s not expecting what happens next: as he edges forwards, perhaps intending to grab me by the lapels of my Colombo coat, I duck under him and seize his right arm; then, with a majestic twist of my body, I throw him to the floor.
The move has the desired effect: my attacker lies in a puddle of oily rainwater on the pavement nursing a cracked skull. His three companions stare at me nonplussed; Carol stops shouting and looks over at me in amazement, too. Even the dog seems shocked. Now another of the men moves towards me but before you know it I’m kicking out at his shin with all the force I can muster. “Aaaarrgghh!” he yells, comically hopping up and down on one leg, rubbing his injured leg.
The two remaining men stand silent for a moment, first looking at me and then at each other. Then, just as I’m getting ready to believe that they’ve decided to make a run for it, the pair move towards me in unison, one reaching into his pocket and pulling out a knife.
You may not be aware of this but the most common injury sustained during a knife attack is invariably to the hands. I, however, am – which is why I’m backing away and pulling the scarf off from around my neck and wrapping it around my right fist. This action has a two-fold purpose: just as the scarf will protect my fingers from my assailant’s flashing blade, it will also cushion my hand when I strike him, lessening the chance of breaking a bone during the impact.
The man with the knife moves closer to me: I can see the steam of his breath rising in the frozen breeze. This one must be about my age: balding, hideous pock-marked skin – a real bruiser. His knife skills, however, evidently hail from the West Side Story school of bladesmanship; like George Chakiris engaging in a mock battle with the Jets, my opponent aimlessly jabs the knife into the air a few times, giving me ample opportunity to slam my big, fat, scarf-protected fist into his big, fat ugly head. He goes down like he’s been hit by a truck, a nerve in his leg making it judder like an over-sexed rabbit.
Three down and one to go: but this one’s having none of it. This one has a thick moustache but that’s not the only thing he has in common with Michael Johnson as he sprints away down Upper Street, abandoning his beer can as he flees. Out of nowhere, I hear a burst of applause and look around to see that I’m surrounded by about twenty or so passers-by who have been watching my performance wide eyed.
I find Carol and stand over her as she cuddles her dog. “My God!” she exclaims.
“And you think that partworks are a waste of time?” I say proudly. “Don’t you know you’re dealing with the former editor of Practical Street Fighting? Now who’s wasting their life?”
“My God,” says Carol again.
“Get up,” I say. “You’re coming with me.”
Alright. What actually happens is this: I leave Highbury and Islington Tube Station and fight my way through the football hooligans and spot Carol sitting in her usual place being hassled by an old drunk. He’s about half my height and four times my age; he’s trying to snatch that dog of hers away with one hand while holding a beer can in the other.
I move up behind him and forcefully ask him what’s going on. It is only when he turns around that I realise that he’s actually a lot younger than he looks – probably still in his twenties; broader in build than I first thought, come to think of it. “Who’s this?” he says in a Scottish accent. “Your dad?”
“Oh, hi John,” says Carol sheepishly from her position on the pavement.
“You know this guy?” asks the Scot.
“It’s John,” says Carol helpfully.
“Well John can fuck off.” The man moves closer to me. I notice that he has a really bad skin complaint. “Can’t you John?”
“Are you all right?” I ask Carol, ignoring the little creep.
“Yes, thanks,” says Carol meekly.
Now the Scotsman is frowning. “Did you not hear me?” he asks. “I told you to fuck off!”
“I’ll leave when I’m sure that Carol’s alright,” I say self-consciously.
“Oh will you now? Did you hear that, shit head? He wants to make sure you’re all right… Are you fucking him or somethin’?”
“Oh Brian, don’t be so uncouth,” says Carol.
“Don’t be so uncouth? I’ll be as fucking uncouth as I like…” says Brian.
One or two people in the street start casting concerned glances at this little tableau as they pass by. None of them, however, seem in any great hurry to stop and see if they can assist. Then Brian moves even closer to me.
“You looking for trouble?” he says. “Is that what you want?”
“No,” I say, trying to keep calm, “I just want to check that Carol’s okay.”
“Well she is… so fuck off.”
“Is he a friend of yours?” I ask Carol.
“Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” shouts Brian, waving his arms about theatrically in the air. “You’re talking to me – not her.”
“Look…” I say. “Just leave her alone and I’ll be on my way.”
Brian laughs: a great big foamy snarling laugh: “Go away granddad,” he says dismissively.
“No… why don’t you!” I reply, a sentence that is intended to sound resolute and possibly menacing, but instead ends up sounding like a discussion one might hold in the school playground.
Brian laughs again.
Then Carol speaks: “Leave it, John,” she says. “It’s alright – he’s just drunk.”
Since I last saw her, Carol’s bruises have faded slightly; even so she still looks like she’s been attacked by a Doberman. I pull myself away from Brian and stoop over her: “Is he the one who hit you?” I ask.
Brian places a greasy hand on my shoulder. “Hey! Hey! Hey! Get away from her – what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Stop it, Brian,” says Carol.
“You are fucking him, aren’t you,” says Brian, putting two and two together and coming up with seventeen hundred.
“Hmm… no she isn’t…” I interject. “I’ve got a girlfriend… we’ve been together six years, you know…”
Brian laughs even louder. Then he backs away from the Carol and me, looking at us suspiciously. “All right… ten quid,” he says.
“Shut up, Brian,” urges Carol.
“Pardon?” I say.
“Ten… no… fifteen quid… give us fifteen quid and I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.”
“Oh, stop it…” snaps Carol.
I reach into my inside pocket and pull out my wallet: there’s only twenties inside and I hand one over to Brian. “I’m only doing this so that you’ll leave her alone,” I say weakly.
“Yeah, yeah, granddad,” scoffs Brian.
The other man takes the twenty and reaches down to stick it in the inside of his sock. “I haven’t got any change,” he grins smugly. “Will you take an IOU?”
“Have it on me,” I mumble submissively.
With that Brian disappears into the orange lights of Upper Street in search, one assumes, of the last hour at the King’s Head or whatever. I watch him amble away, delighted with his good fortune. Finally, I turn to face Carol, still sitting on the wet pavement. “Sorry about that,” she says glumly.
“Was that your boyfriend?” I ask.
“Sort of… not really,” replies Carol.
I’m shaking, I realise, as I look at my watch: it’s getting on for twelve o’clock. My teeth are chattering, too. “What on earth are you doing here at this time of night?” I ask.
“Oh… you know,” she shrugs. “People are on their way back from the pubs – it’s as good a time as any.”
I shake my head: “How much have you made tonight?”
“About six pounds fifty – well… that was until he came along.”
“You mean he took your money?”
“Oh… he doesn’t mean it. He’s all right really… you know… he just starts drinking…”
“And what do you plan to do now”
“Back to the squat, I suppose…”
“Oh, Carol,” I say. “You’re such a fool…”
She laughs weakly but it is only later that I understand the joke.
I think for a moment. “Listen,” I say gently. “Why don’t you come and stay at my place tonight? There’s a spare bed and it looks like you could do with a little home comfort.”
Carol says nothing: she just stares at me warily.
“It’s not what you think,” I add hastily. “Come on… you don’t know me very well but I think you know me well enough to know that I haven’t got anything like that in mind… really… honestly.”
Carol still says nothing.
“Look, I’ve got a girlfriend for Christ’s sake… come and stay the night: have something to eat…sleep in clean sheets for a change… get a hot bath… I’m not going to bite you, you know… I’m trying to be nice.”
“Okay,” says Carol softly. “…Thanks.”