Switching off on Stamford Hill

I had the route from the bus stop to my destination memorised: Diagonally across Clapton Common – take the road to the right of the church. – then go down, down until you pass the boathouse. It was the  nice-ish part of town on a grey day that was becoming a particularly unpleasant evening; the air was opaque like steam and nightfall, together with the unrelenting rain, extinguished the possibility of seeing anything beyond the feeble streetlights. The rainwater charged downwards and distributaries lapped up against my shoes. My only pair of casual shoes, in fact, which were already on the cusp of disintegration. My socks began to squelch and my hair clumped across my forehead. I hunched over to protect exposed skin from the stinging wind and stared down at the ground to divert the rainwater over my head.

I sloshed down the sloping roads and I studied the hairstyles of my fellow ramblers. I wondered if they worried about their couplet of ringlets falling out in the rain. I wondered how inappropriate it would be to nudge the nearest person (chuckling at the irony) and joke that ‘we could use a bit of Moses and his staff right now, eh, eh, eh?’ Maybe it’s one of their things; their cultural version of ‘it’s bloody Baltic’. Instead it would be: ‘No chance of a burning bush today’.

I lumbered along, dwarfed by the dense, terraced houses that had been artificially widened or had extra floors dumped up on them. All the lights were out and, by the time I crossed Clapton Common, I was alone. I strained to hunch my body further, this time like prey crossing open tundra.

It must be nonsense that waifs, strays and hooligans aren’t found in goodish areas like this. If I were to cause trouble I’d want a more elegant backdrop than the near-by Tottenham. I’d want to beat the throng (and indeed the competition) of the high street and take the twenty-minute ball  – the one I was taking now – and do it with a canal-side view. With swans as my witness and become a waif in the wind; tipping over dustbins and sticking out my tongues at passers-by. I’d kick my beer cans in the water and block the foot-way with my bicycle. I’d do it instant and be gone.  Where they’d least ex –

“Excuse me”

There one was – for real – a waif! And heading straight towards me. She was wan, almost skeletal. Her body rested in a permanent slant – as if she was propelling herself towards me by simply leaning. My hands – already scrunched up my pockets  – clutched hold of my keys and my wallet. Just to be safe. Realistically, she was more likely to request some loose change rather than threaten life and limb. There was always a possibility she might have been one of the nutters that gashes her own scalp and pleads with you for £2 for a bus fare to the hospital. In the seconds that I waited for her to waft over to my direction I did a mental calculation:

Which hospital was the nearest hospital? Was there a direct bus route to it? I totted up the likelihood that the average waif would have memorised all the local bus routes. Most people just sort of, you know, end up at the hospital. Anyway – that sort of thing – the shallow cuts and desperate need for the hospital – was a duplicitous ploy for money.  The robbing of the suspicious Samaritan.  Nevertheless, I have a phone, I could call an ambulance. A non-emergency, but the sirens would come.

Ah-ha! But there’s a sting in the tail. They’ve thought that one through. Some vagabond with malign intent would go looking for the just-wounded-enough person at the nearest hospital. I inputted some more calculations to assess if they could get to the next-nearest hospital by one single bus. How much was a bus fair nowadays anyway?

‘Excuse me?’ The present-moment waif interjected my postulations. I stood still and waited for the exposition; the bruises; the need for a convenient amount of money an unsuspecting passer-by would be most likely to have at their disposal.

‘It’s my Sabbath day’ she began.  I took my hands out of my pockets as she came into focus. Her navy blue head garment tightly hid every wisp of her hair. The headpiece seemed to continue down to cover everything up to her ankles and wrists, save for the short interruption of an angular and waxen face.

‘It’s my Sabbath day and one of my children accidentally turned on a tape. Would you please come in and turn it off?’  She gestured over to an open door. Freshly rebuked children huddled in the entryway.

“It’s my Sabbath today” She reiterated – not seeming hopeful, but not altogether reticent.  And their day, I thought, looking at the children. It’s yours and theirs and everybody else’s in this sloping neighbourhood. It’s everyone’s here. But not mine. I’m an interloper who hopped off a bus.

“Of course.” I said, and waited an awkward moment for her to lead the way to the wayward electrical.

She slid over to the doorway and the hushed children shuffled their formation to make way for the stranger.

I gave my soaked feet a scrupulous wipe, looking compulsive rather than polite. I was greeted by a sight I always found quite perturbing: half a dozen or so children – all the same height – and seemingly belonging to the same family. There was an interfering drone of white noise wafting through the house. I was gestured towards the back room, towards the source of the obtrusive babble – and caught site of a neatly laid dinner table lit by candlelight in a room off the passageway. I followed the cloying noise to a vacant playroom and spotted the offending cassette player in the corner of the room. Above it row after row of shelves held a legion of dormant toys. All battery operated. I crouched down and located the plug socket embedded into the skirting board.

Click. I stood up to attention and half-expected that I would be enlisted in some other task. Instead, I received a reserved thank you from the mother and another formation made a path for my exit.

“No problem.”  I strained a smile and began to retrace my steps out on to the street. I turned to wave ‘goodbye’ once again but the door was already closed. The rain had stopped and I could see the warm glow of candles hovering in the windows of the all the other houses.

I had had the route from the bus stop to my destination memorised. Diagonally across Clapton Common, the road to the right of the estate. Then down, down until I saw the boathouse. My head was muddled with thoughts about stretch marks and duty. I continued down into the darkness.


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