The young woman popped her collar up and quickened her pace, leaning into the wind.
Quiet, she thought, for this time on Saturday.
Usually at this time, this strip was packed with Trendy Young People. People who, in five years (or less), the woman thought, will be looking at the thousands of pictures they are now taking of themselves and say “Whaaaat were we weeeaaaaring?”
Tonight, though, an eerie calm made her hesitate. Stopping for wine, she exchanged pleasantries with the shopkeeper and rolled her eyes at the look and expressions of the youths who trooped in after her. She literally thought she literally heard the word “literally”, literally a fucking hundred times in the two minutes she took to choose a bottle. Literally. They used it like punctuation.
Stepping back out into the blustery, uninviting evening, she was struck again by how quiet it was on the street. Suddenly it dawned on her: term hasn’t started yet, there are no students around. God, the haircuts will be even worse next week. At least most of the students are too young, too polite, to leer at her like the arseholes outside the ‘Pub & Pizzeria’. That place used to be a pub, she recalled, that would be routinely called ‘Alternative’, the kind of place where you could get a stern lecture - and maybe even a slap - for staring at a woman the way two blokes were now, casually assessing her appearance. All the way down and then all the way back up. It was only when she held their gaze with a raised “whatthefuckdoyouwant” eyebrow that the eyes un-glazed slightly, as if startled that the body they had been appraising also had a face. The shy romantics then looked away.
“Fuckin right”, she thought, “you’re not on the waterfront now, sunshine.” All the really aggressive sexual predators would be down there right now, but not here. The place hadn’t changed that much, just yet. The previous week, she had over-heard someone say, referring to the street she was battling down now: “I ain’t goin’ down there, it’s full of blacks and students.”
“What a blessed relief”, she’d thought.
Wouldn’t be long, though. The process (or “progress”, if one preferred political terms) that had turned this place a from sketchy techno night/class A-dealing/pick-pocketing scourge of naïve non-natives to a Shoreditch wannabe/Hipster clusterfuck would eventually turn it into another bland, town centre neon nightmare. It was only a matter of time.
For a teenager, this had indeed been an exciting and scary place. But that was twenty years ago. Moving back to the area ten years ago, she had been struck by the change; it was still rough and ready, but in a more deliberate, confident, more colourful way. And the wine cost a quid a glass more than it should, which was a sign of what was to come. All the work to improve the area, her local friends told her, had (of course) been done by local residents; careful, dirty, thankless work that was now capitalised on by anyone with an interest in a saturated market for over-priced coffee and hip tat.
For a twenty-something, it was great, it had to be admitted. Plenty of places to go and shout over the kind of awful music young people pretend to like, and look cool (she was thankful not to be that young anymore, although she did look pretty cool, by anyone's standards).
The Epicentre of this hideousness was the only place on the street that was busy. In fact, she had to step all the way into the street to avoid the large crowd outside. The smoking ban really fucked up the pubs round here, now that half the people there go outside for half the night, and most of the other half follow them to keep the conversations going.
Her friends had been mugged round here, years ago, held at knife-point and forced to hand over cash and jewellery (not that they had much of either – they were a poor target for a mugging, but the desperate guy with the shifty eyes who wielded the knife seemed not to mind). These days, of course, he’d be after their phones or laptops or whatever, but in them days, youths couldn’t afford these things. If they even existed.
As the woman reminisced fondly on all of this, recalling the days of muggings, dirty pubs and dimly-lit clubs that seemed Very Adult but would let the youngest-looking fifteen year-old girls in, a youth with a massive beard threw back his head to laugh, and in doing this, accidentally knocked her shoulder sharply with the back of his head.
“Woah, sorry” he said, spinning around, rubbing the point of contact on the back of his head.
“Alright, never mind” - without even stopping.
At least they’re polite, she mused. She didn’t glance back over the now-sore shoulder, hearing a few muffled voices, presumably discussing her appearance (if experience was any kind of guide).
Back at her flat a few minutes later, the woman patted down her pockets, the way everyone does when looking for a lighter, or their keys.
“The little shit!” She thought – “he’s had my bloody purse away.”
She buttoned her coat and headed back out the door.