I had just moved to my current flat in Raynes Park, Southwest London, and was still fairly unfamiliar with the area. Now my current bosses and supervisors know that I am still fighting a losing battle with the underwhelming reliability of Southwest trains and as a result have less than reliable timekeeping when it comes to arriving to work on time. A battle I had hoped to circumvent with the purchase of a bicycle. Sadly though, all too often the London weather and my inherent idleness jointly conspire to once again force me to take the trains to and from work. While some people are more than aware that the trains keep me from arriving at work on time, not many of you are aware of the troubles I have returning home. That is to say, I have many a time found myself stuck at Clapham Junction with no train to take me back to Raynes Park. In these circumstances, I have to take a bus to Wimbledon Common and walk the remaining three miles on foot. It is actually quite a pleasant walk, London doesn’t have many hills If I walk along the Ridgeway you can actually occasionally catch a nice view.
True, it is of Croydon, but a nice view nonetheless.
Now, to call Wimbledon Village a privileged area would be an understatement. The driveways are home to sports cars and luxury utility vehicles. So you can imagine I have very uneventful walks home. I rarely see anyone on the trip about from the odd older couple, perhaps walking home after a late dinner party, or even a person walking their dog. The neighborhood is quiet, and it gets to bed early.
And that night was just like the others, initially.
I had gotten off the bus at the war memorial, walked through the village center, and turned onto the Ridgeway. My phone’s batteries had died somewhere between Wandsworth and Southfields so I had to do the walk without music, and this always made the walk seem longer. My usual practice was to walk along and look at the houses, try and guess what the people that lived in the houses would be like. Fast car, business types. S.U.V and toys still in the front yard, larger family. That kind of thing.
I was playing my game and decided to have a cigarette. So I stopped. I was searching for my lighter and looking around when I noticed that I was not the only one on the street. Now, this was unusual but hardly alarming. What was strange, however, was that the person wasn’t the sort I had grown used to seeing. It was a young lady, she appeared to be drunk, or tired perhaps. I light my cigarette and paused for a second, just a quick second to judge if she would be capable of making it home by herself, or perhaps maybe she would need me to see if I could call someone for her.
It was at this point I realized that she was crying. I started to walk over to her to make sure she was alright. She stopped walking immediately, frozen. I noticed she was in some sort of Halloween costume, a schoolgirl in fact, and as I got closer I began to realize that she was in fact around the age of 15-16. She was deathly white, her make-up must have been professionally done, or she had spent an incredibly long time preparing it. I began to decide that perhaps her friends had made fun of her costume and she had run off from whatever party she had been at, drunk and upset.
I began to start feeling a bit unnerved when I noticed that she was staring directly at me as I approached. I can assure you that in a city the size of London we have an unspoken rule of avoiding eye contact with strangers at all costs. It was at this point I assumed she was under the influence of something other than alcohol, and I decided to be a bit more cautious. I stopped about four or five feet away and spoke to her.
“Are you ok? You seem a little upset, are you in any sort of trouble?”
Nothing from her apart from that stare.
“Have you had a little too much to drink, maybe some smoke?” (Yeah right, I know hallucinogens when I see them.)
“Do you need a taxi home? Do you remember where you live?”
At this, the girl began to cry again, but this time she was absolutely wailing. I could feel her raw sense of despair; I actually flinched at the sound. It was positively unbearable; she was dancing on the border of hysterics, perhaps even putting one foot along the line to see what would happen.
I was stunned, I wanted to console her and run in equal measures. I wanted to comfort her and chastise at the same time. All I managed was a meek, “Why are you crying?”
She must have heard me somehow because she began to draw herself back from the edge of what can only be described as a complete breakdown.
She was still heaving and sobbing but once again she brought her eyes up to mine and said very softly, “Because you’re going to die.”
Now, I have been unfortunate enough to witness death first hand on more than one occasion. Suffice it to say, these events had always left me with a lot to think about, and I, in fact, had come to terms with my own mortality quite early in life. It struck me that perhaps, like too many of us had, this young lady had someone quite close to her die recently. Perhaps she was going through the same dark realizations that follow being in the company of death. The same thoughts that can keep children up at night, and the pews full at churches. I wanted to let her know that everything would be fine, and that death was simply a part of life.
All I managed, however, was a slightly incredulous, “I know….”
At this, she seemed slightly taken back, almost angry. She responded, “You are going to die, and he is going to kill you!”
Alarms went off in my head. I began to feel more than a little threatened. I decided right there and then that talking this girl down from whatever bad high she was on was no longer my responsibility. Had not the venerable Hunter S Thompson himself warned us of the dangers of underestimating the ability of a drug to take control of the person?
“Good luck,” I said and with that, turned and began to walk away. After about five steps I quickly looked back to see her still standing there. She put her head down and began to audibly sob again. I quickened my pace and shortly had walked along a natural bend in the road, leaving her out of sight.
I had been left agitated; I remember putting my headphones back in my ears and trying to listen to music from my phone, only to remember it was out of power still. I was still two miles away from home, but at the pace, I was walking, I was confident I could cover the ground in less than twenty minutes.
No less than two minutes later was when I first heard the shouting. It was a man’s voice and layered within it was an excruciating sense of malice and rage.
“I AM COMING FOR YOU!”
I couldn’t quite place where the voice had come from but it seemed as though he was at some distance behind me, on the same road, possibly from where the girl had been. I immediately realized that I was to be the victim of some sort of Halloween prank. I didn’t, however, slow down. I imagined that this was the point when I was supposed to get scared and begin to run, and I was determined not to play along.
Again the man yelled, yet this time it seemed to come from significantly closer.
“I HATE YOU!”
Now the voice had seemed to have come from somewhere quite close behind me, that is to say, at that volume, I would have expected to have seen the man addressing me, but I was still very much alone on the street. I was also walking quite fast, so the person yelling at me must have run quite fast. Yet I had not heard any other footsteps.
There was obviously more than one prankster, and they had hidden along with points on the street.
I quickly decided to be rather a poor sport and cut off the main road down Thornton road at the Swan Pub. I hate to admit that their practical joke had gotten the better of me and I did not want to see what they had in store for me next.
I had made it to the front of the second house on the street when that terrible voice shouted at me again
“YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!”
This time the voice seemed to have come from the entrance of the street less than 30 yards away. Perhaps one last chance at scaring me before I disappeared into the darker side streets.
Since these streets were darker I decided that I would lose no pride in starting to jog down the hill. I knew it was all probably fun and games, but the ferocity of the shouting left me worried that I could, in fact, be dealing with a real maniac. True, it would have been interesting to be a part of the most elaborate mugging I had ever heard of, but that voice just left me with the impression of true hatred. I didn’t want to meet the person or people rather, that could mimic and channel such malignant feelings at will.
I had made it to the curve were Thornton Road becomes Thornton road when all of sudden.
“I WILL KILL YOU!”
This time the voice – the same voice that yelled – seemed to be directed to my right. He must have been hidden behind the fence of some house, or perhaps even hidden within the house. I had obviously walked right into their trap. I broke into a sprint at this point, pride is damned. I began to run quite fast and then faster straight downhill.
At this point, I was actually beginning to panic. My mind was playing terrible tricks on me. It seemed as though the voice was all around me, constantly yelling, constantly screaming. Up ahead was the main road, Worple Road to be precise, and it was well-lit and busy. I could hail a cab and be home in minutes. But the voices, the immensity;
“I HATE YOU!”
“DIE, DIE, DIE!”
Every second, all around me, the adrenaline must have been heightening my every sense. I admit I was scared, and it seemed as though for some reason that terrible voice was booming off every surface on the street. It felt as though I was simultaneously running away and into that mad rage. The words felt like gusts of a terrible hot wind, pushing its venomous anger at me.
I couldn’t take it anymore. The voice seemed to make me share that same intense anger, I thought to myself, am I the one shouting? And I felt like a victim. I wanted to kill the people that we’re playing this mad trick on me. I felt hatred.
“TIME TO DIE, COWARD!”
“I HATE YOU!”
I decided I had to give up.
In one quick moment, I decided I would stop running as fast as I could and have a cigarette and wait for these people to show themselves. Come what may I needed answers. And a smoke.
I quickly stopped my run and spun around.
The car beeped as it raced past exactly where I would have run too had I not stopped that exact moment. I felt its air pocket ruffle the back of my hair as it sped past. In my blind panic, I had run past the sidewalk of the main road and onto the actual road. I had avoided running blindly into the road and being run down by inches.
I looked up the road I had come from, darkness, silence. Whoever had been up there, was now gone.
I light my cigarette and took a few moments to calm down.
Smoking had saved my life that day friends. I went home after that. Nothing more happened to me.
But as I was standing there trying to calm down, working through the panic and adrenaline I seem to remember I felt like I heard a soft whisper, perhaps just my imagination. I thought I heard a girl’s voice softly saying, “Not such a coward after all….”
x Alexander McHugh