I first moved to Archway in North London almost exactly three years ago now (March 2008, I estimate) and used to post the occasional blog about it on Myspace (remember Myspace?). Haven’t written anything about the neighbourhood in ages because either nothing eventful has happened, or I’ve become used to the dysfunctional freakiness of Archway after living here for so long. Until last night ...
Friday night around 6pm after work I was cutting down Marlborough Road (off Holloway Road) on way home from work with my iPod cranked up loud. I noticed a teenage boy walking directly ahead of me. He was only noteworthy because he was strikingly scrawny and unwell-looking: hunched little shoulders, pasty complexion, red-haired, wearing an oversized baggy grey tracksuit that hangs off him.
As I overtake him (I walk fast) he glances back at me and makes burning eye contact, which felt strange and made me almost flinch. Marlborough Road forks in two directions: I walk down Hatchard Road, he stays on Marlborough Road.
But the next thing I know, when I’m almost home, he’s caught up with me and is walking fast to keep pace with me. It feels genuinely odd and almost threatening: he’s right next to me, invading my personal space in a way that brings out the primal skin-prickling fight or flight instinct. Even though he’s an emaciated runt I almost expect him to attempt to mug me, or pull out a knife. I immediately think of the dwarf in the red parka in the film Don’t Look Now ... just because someone is small doesn’t mean they’re innocuous.
I’m naturally a fast walker and keep staring straight ahead and he is really struggling to keep up with me. Finally, he reaches out and taps me on the shoulder to get my attention – which makes me shudder. I stop and turn around. By now am really curious what he wants. I turn and take out my headphones.
Boy: Do you live around here?
Me: (Am so stunned, I answer truthfully) Yeah, on Sussex Way (straight ahead).
Boy: Do you live alone?
Boy: Because I have nowhere to go. Can I come over for an hour?
Me: (Putting headphones back in and walking away) No. Sorry, buddy.
He looks disappointed but doesn’t pursue it. What a strange, David Lynch-ian experience: sexually propositioned on the street around the corner from where I live by this creepy, damaged teenaged waif straight out of a Dennis Cooper novel. It actually felt eerie. He seemed doomed: If he keeps up this kind of behaviour his decomposed remains are destined to be found in a tip or wasteland somewhere.
In a way, it was a flashback to another encounter I had on 11 April 2008. Cutting and pasting from Myspace blog ...
Am still getting accustomed to living in Archway after about five years of living in Finsbury Park, which is only a ten minute walk away but feels like a whole other world. Finsbury Park was pretty impoverished but buzzing and multicultural; Archway seems so defeated, so dysfunctional. Walking home from work last night I estimated every other person I passed on Holloway Road seemed to be either a mentalist or some kind of meths drinker. Most notable was an apparently suicidal, haunted-looking black guy wearing one of those hats with ear flaps who kept wandering into oncoming traffic; he'd stand on the curb until a bus was coming towards him, then turn around and cross the street again, testing his luck. A motorcyclist had to honk at him and swerve.
Tonight after work was cutting down Fairbridge Road to get to Sussex Way and noticed two men walking in the opposite direction across the street. I made the major mistake of making the most fleeting of eye contact with one of them. Sure enough he shouts after me, "Hey! Hey!" and runs across the street to catch up with me. He is compact (shorter than me and I am only 5'6) but tough, Irish and obviously a bit nuts. He is smiling as if he is really pleased to see me. "It's me! I saw you at Mary's last week!" I say, "I don't think we know each other …" and he keeps insisting we do. I was thinking, there are always the alcoholic regulars at The Kings Head on Holloway Road, which is the new venue for the monthly Virginia Creepers rockabilly club. Maybe he saw me there?
He tells me his name, as if reminding me. I instantly forget it because all I can concentrate on is that he is standing too close, he's invading my personal space and rousing that "fight or flight" instinct. He's outwardly friendly, even childlike but volatile, mercurial. He suddenly flings his arms around me and hugs me hard. I brace myself in case he tries to pick my pockets. In a rush he admits he's drinking again, I know what it's like, he's just come out of prison after 11 years. He's got to go meet his probation officer and only has £1 (he holds out his hand with the one pound coin to demonstrate, as if I've asked him for proof), he needs another pound to get there. I thought, I knew that was coming, it was inevitable. He was just setting up the context.
I actually only have small change in my wallet (which is true), which I explain to him as I get my wallet out of my back pocket. He suggests, "You can hit me if you like" and he tilts his head, offering me his jaw to punch, as if this is a fair exchange for him asking me for money. I tell him, "That's OK" and give him handful of small change (maybe 50p). While my wallet is out he clocks that I have a wad of pound notes (my What Katie Did wages, which is what I try to budget to live on during the week) and asks, "Can I have ten pounds until next week?" (As if it's a loan between friends and I will see him again next week), I say "No" and mercifully he bounds off, seemingly happy enough with the small change I have given him.
Am still wondering why he singled me out and stopped me: did he genuinely think he knew me and mistook me for someone else? Was it because he assumed I was a fellow Irishman (people assume I am Irish all the time) and would be sympathetic? Do I look like a soft touch? Anyway, let's hope he isn't a neighbour I bump into on a regular basis.
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