‘Aren’t you scared?’
Private tuition, easy money. A new family. They nest in the canopy of London, high up the leafy hills looking down on the smoke and traffic below. This isn’t my London.
I’m on my way to Hampstead, into the winding backstreets behind Whitestone Pond. On the underground, I think about the postcode desires that drive the ambitious, the acquisition of that perfect combination of letters and numbers. In this city, we are all afflicted. When the dream postcode has been acquired, what do people do then?
Maybe that’s when the fear takes root.
The wealthy hill-tribes of Frognal, Highgate, Hampstead, Muswell Hill, hiding in their gated communities, manifest their guilt with locks and barriers. Their wilful segregation is something to aspire to. We want to be like them.
Cameras, private security and thick metal barriers leer and grimace at me, reminding me of what I do not have and what, I am told, I should want. It makes me consider that what I have, others do not. Up here in the canopy of London words like deserve and earn are laughable. No one gets what they deserve.
The family I’m working with are Russians. I work with a lot of Russians. They have money and I wonder where it comes from. That little voice in my head that I can’t shut up screams words like exploitation and trafficking and you’re a sellout.
But I don’t know. Maybe the father made his fortune honestly. It is, I suppose, possible.
Locked gates say someone wants to take what lies within, that they resent it, want to destroy it. A self-perpetuating cycle: if there’s a camera, a gate, there must be danger. If there’s danger, then a camera is needed, a gate and a guard. The voice says Hampstead is all
Russian gangsters and fucking crooks and 11 year old schoolgirls paying for clothes on the family debit card.
I can smell the fear.
Yesterday, being dragged slowly underground by the escalators at Angel, a Crimestoppers ad entreated the crowds to inform on people thought to be financing themselves through crime. It seemed like a bad joke, and I can’t get it out of my head. Rates of mugging in Hampstead are high; there’s more to steal. This is where I head to work and I feel like I’m letting somebody down. I need to apologise but there’s no one there.
London kills me.
Walking the city’s streets these five years. I’ve seen a cyclist smeared scarlet across a busy junction; a trio of magpies plunging bloody beaks into a wood pigeon, amongst crisp packets and leaky discarded condoms; groups of teenagers going at each other with pool cues and baseball bats; a police baton crunching into a sixteen-year old’s face; an old bearded man with rags for shoes, screaming to no one and spinning in circles on a Tuesday afternoon in Londis. A drunk Irishman wishing me ‘merry christmas’ in July.
But I don’t know how to live anywhere else.
In Hampstead Japanese knotweed is invading the homes of the wealthy and I admire the plant’s lack of class-consciousness. In the end the gates won’t hold the invaders back. I daydream of lying in a knotweed forest, letting its bamboo roots consume me and accepting my support to the war it wages on the city.
In London’s canopy huge flocks of green parakeets screech across the sky above the knotweed infestations, bullying the weaker bird species, startling the grey squirrels. Feral cats watch hungrily. No one walks these streets, except me. I do not own a car.
Today, I haul myself up the hills from Hampstead station and pass Whitestone Pond, the traffic streaming round it in the noisy rush of the end-of-day school run and the beginning of rush hour. A solitary grey heron stands motionless among the small patch of reeds. No one else is on foot and I watch the bird for a while before pushing onto the family’s house.
I arrive and the student’s grandmother answers the door, as she always does, and greets me in Russian and I say hello in English and neither of us understand each other. My student is nine years old. Today we will be working on adjectives and adverbs, with the aid of Wizard Whimstaff and his goblin assistant Pointy. He seems surprised when I arrive, he’s dressed up like a lad of twenty about to hit the town, designer clothing and shiny black shoes.
‘Oh I thought you weren’t coming today? I have my friend’s birthday party to go to.’
I sigh. ‘Oh, OK. No one told me but that’s fine, we’ll pick the lessons up tomorrow.’
‘My driver can take you home after he’s taken me to the party.’
The grandmother beams.
‘No, no, that’s fine, I’ll just go home on the train.’
‘But my driver can take you.’
‘Honestly it’s fine. You go have fun at your party’
‘But my driver can . . . ’
‘Aren’t you scared?’
‘I don’t understand? Scared of what?’
‘Being on the streets on your own.’