A Face in the Crowd – Louise de Clifford

I know this part of South London well and love walking across Peckham and Rye Common in the early hours of every morning, absorbing the life of the city; constant traffic and drunken revellers singing and talking loudly. It was dark last night, but not so dark I couldn’t see where I was going, complete darkness is impossible this close to the capital.

 

As I strolled home, from Peckham to East Dulwich, I watched men spill and scatter from their drinking-holes and make their way home or to the next hole. Most nights I received leers or propositions of ‘a good time’, accompanied by hands that tried to help themselves. When I first moved here it scared me senseless, but the bar job quickly turned me from a West Country bumpkin to a London girl; steely nerves and a sharp tongue. I learned how to be safe among so much danger.

 

I’m only 5ft 5ins, 9 stone, not the fittest or strongest, and easily overcome by any guy who decides ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no’. There’s nothing about me that sticks out, I’ve always known I’d be easily forgotten by any ‘witnesses’. So I adapted. I was prepared. I bought a bottle of pepper spray online and held my house keys in my right hand, so each key was separated by my fingers and stuck out of my fist like a medieval flail. It was a trick my brother had once taught me, though I never needed it until I moved to London.

 

Yesterday, I said goodnight to the doormen, told the manager I’d see him tomorrow.

 

He replied, “Get a taxi, it’s not safe.”

 

As usual I responded, “Yeah, yeah.” Then I walked home. Since I’ve lived here everything has become increasingly expensive. I can never afford a taxi, my wages from the bar pay my rent—just— and I live off rapidly decreasing tips. The effects of the 2008/2009 crash still linger and the Brexit vote has made people cautious. They still spend their money, but only on themselves. Tipping is frivolous when the bartend gets at least minimum wage and, everyone assumes, loads of other tips.

 

The common was dark where trees blocked light from nearby roads and shops. In the distance I could see the path that followed the River Peck to the duck pond, the closest thing to ‘countryside’ some Londoners ever saw, and decided to take a longer walk around it. I’d have to walk back on myself to get to my flat, but I was still wide awake from a busy shift. It was a break from my normal routine, but the change felt right.

 

I paced to a song that had been stuck in my head all week, ‘One Step Closer’. It was an angry track, but was playing on the radio when I opened a letter from my landlord – another rent increase. It struck a chord and I couldn’t stop it playing in my head. Sometimes I get so caught up with things stress takes over and my brain goes into overdrive. Thoughts and music spin around my head until I somehow stop it. Walking is good, it clears my mind.

 

As I walked, mentally looping the same verse and chorus, I became aware of footsteps behind me. My awareness grew, my pulse accelerated with the steps and I goose-bumped with realisation; I was being followed. As I walked round the pond I managed a glimpse behind. A dark figure was gaining on me. My mind teased with the song lyrics.

 

Adrenaline surged as my left hand slowly reached into my shoulder bag, fingers feeling for the cold metal canister. Lifting it, it felt almost empty. I must have used more than I realised last time.

 

The steps quickened. My right-handed fist clenched.

 

Spinning, I faced my attacker. He looked up shocked, the light from his phone lit up his face as I emptied the can into his eyes and mouth, immediately choking him silent. The phone fell to the ground. He tried to say something, maybe protest he wasn’t going to do anything, but it never mattered to me what their intentions were. It was my intention that now mattered.

 

He writhed at my feet. I kicked the phone into the duck-shitty pond and the screen flickered and faded. Moving behind him I grabbed his hair and scalp, yanking his head backwards. I swung, striking him repeatedly, the keys between each of my fingers bloodying and pulping his features, his neck opening up like a split Capri Sun and gushing out juice into the darkness. He reached behind him, he tried to grab me, tore at his hair to loosen my grip.

 

The more I swung, the less he fought. The struggle finished, the excitement gone, the song finally ceased.

 

Blinking at the twitching body I felt relief and repugnance. I looked around. No one. Crouching, I searched his pockets and found a wallet. Pulling out a wedge of notes I flicked through them, tens and twenties, it must easily have been £800. Thank God! Cash pocketed, I wiped the wallet with my sleeves and tossed it onto the now still corpse. I didn’t care if I was caught, but who would suspect little me?

 

A five-minute walk back to the safety of The Gardens. No one saw or noticed me. I was just another girl walking home like all the others. I blended back into the crowds of London, just another face.

 

Tomorrow, the next night, next week the same. I’ll work, act sweet and innocent and walk home, hoping for some luck. I’ll meet a dark stranger in the park again. It happens at least once a week now. Then I’ll be able to pay rent at the end of this month. Maybe I’ll start saving, I could move away. I wish I could just disappear.

 

Until then…

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