Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Stalking the streets of London

‘I’m early,’ I said.
‘You’re cold,’ he said.
‘I am?’ I said.
‘Your cheeks are frozen,’ he said, concern scratched on his face.
 ‘I suppose it’s a cold night.  I only walked from Hackney Central. It took no time at all. Far less than I thought.’

I love walking in London at night. The darkness of a city has a totally different feel to that of the countryside.  Black on black against a backdrop (blackdrop) of tobacco yellow. The occasional scream of neon, of electric blue sirens, of staggering headlights. 

Passing strangers and the surprise as I meet their eyes. Unexpected. Unguarded. Unprepared. And in that second, in that moment before they shut down and flick their eyes away, the glimpse of a life, a soul.  A sliding connection.  I imagine and I wonder. 

My friend finds it horrifying, I think (I know), the way I wander. The careless disregard, as she sees it, for safety.
‘Get a cab,’ she says.  I smile and shake my head. 
‘Don’t get your phone out!’ she hisses.  
'Don't get the night bus,' she says.  'Call me.'  But I like night buses.  
Do this. Don’t do that. Do this. Don’t do that.  It’s said with concern, with love, I know but still…

I can’t live like that.  I can’t live in fear. I can’t always think the worst of people.  I never have.  I hope I never will.  Is it foolish?  Should one always look over one’s shoulder?  I don’t know.  I have prowled so many cities; marched carelessly through  supposedly no-go areas.  I have never felt unsafe.  Maybe that’s the clue. I have always suspected that fear gives off a scent.  If you feel (and so look) like a victim you become attractive to predators.  Something in your body language, something in the way you move is alluring, like the bound of the gazelle, the zigzag of the zebra.  It shouts of the hunt. 

But I stalk. When I was young I taught myself to throw a ring of protection around me, a personal moving sanctuary of safety.  It always served me well.  Now I no longer go through the ritual in my mind’s eye; it’s become a part of me, an automatic cape that swirls around me when I step out into the wider world.  

I'm not entirely stupid.  If I do feel unsafe, if the skin on the back of  my neck, my vestigial hackles, prickle and rise, I pay attention.  There have been some places in the world in which I have let caution guide me.  I have taken the cab. I have slid the bolt. I have touched my cape and noticed the small tears, the threadbare patches - and not pushed my luck.  

But not often.  


Cait O'Connor said...

I know what you mean about the cape I have one too :-). I also understabd the don't meet anyone's eyes thing, quite different here in Wales though I was born and grew up in London.

Frances said...

Jane, I found this post so interesting, and find that Cait's introduced the difference between city and country that I was going to mention.

Do you bring your country eyes and instincts with you to London, or do you reach for vintage instincts? I am now so used to being a NYC pedestrian that I wonder if I would feel more fear after dark without all the electric lights, other pedestrians, late night cabs, cars and buses.

Your previous post about the effect of an unexpected return to an old haunt also touched me. I now work a few blocks away from where I once lived some of my finer, younger days. The neighborhood is totally different now, with just about all the memories washed away by real estate developers. It also makes a difference that I've now chosen to work there, not been surprised by the return.


eyeforeignI said...

It must be in the air...I started stalking some of the people I went to school with in a long ago life. My first love has a scary barbed wire motif tattoo on his right forearm. It didn't look like the wash-off variety. The photo was taken on a boat and he was very wet. It made me feel quite... disoriented.

There's a poignant short story by Tessa Hadley in the Jan 21 issue of the New Yorker that deals broadly with moving and moving on. Maybe you can download on the NY'er website. It's called Experience. I loved it.

Take care of yourself, Jane. You're someone special.