Archway is an area of North London populated with Irish people like me. It’s almost home in two senses. It’s not far from where I live and there’s so many Irish centres and pubs that it feels like a walk down the Falls Road. It lies at the foot of Highgate, which is a vast hill upon which expensive houses perch and old churches bleed light into winter nights. It’s quite an ugly, depressing place. Some social climbers refer to Archway as “Lower Highgate”, when it is in fact the far less fanciful, “Upper Holloway”. (I was wrong: The name Archway derives from the arch built between Highgate and Hornsey in 1896.).
Standing outside Archway station requires a person to dig their feet into the concrete in order to avoid being blown into oncoming traffic. It is perpetually windy and cold, an urban moor of a place, wuthering heights. Nobody smiles. And standing craven beneath a bus shelter with wind bellowing in my ears is where I saw the man, or more accurately, the boy.
The man was probably in his early twenties but seemed like a boy in his rodent thinness and anemic awkwardness. His hair was cropped and he was smoking nervously, one after the other. He had no-one with him, in fact, I don’t think he was even waiting for something, or for anything. Two girls were talking to each other, the usual teenage things, and he stood near them, his head turned as if listening, not in a sleazy or strange way, but in an attentive, polite way. On first look it might have seemed if he were with him but their cynical, rather rude rolling eyes at him betrayed otherwise.
I was tired and freezing, I surreptitiously turned my music down so that I could hear what was going on.
He put his hand out in a friendly way and introduced himself as Martin. The girls turned away from him, hand to face. He then smiled rather tightly and stepped back, clocking a man sitting behind the girls. He offered up a grin, but the man carried on ignoring him.
He then almost danced across the road, expertly weaving through traffic and I thought he was gone. I resumed my reverie, pulling my coat tighter around me. Sunday buses are terrible. But then he reappeared and seemed to be at the shop door one second and at the bus stop the next, with no beeping horns or exasperated drivers cursing him.
From his coat pocket (one of those sports coats, with a tear in the sleeve), he produced four lollies. He handed one each to the girls, then another to the man, and one for himself, explaining apologetically to me, “Sorry, I could only buy four”, to which I just smiled and carried on pretending to listen to music. Then he resumed his rather jittery hovering, but was studiously disregarded. The girls didn’t even say thank you.
The bus pulled out and almost from nowhere came a great swell of people, pushing and shoving and shivering. I turned to look for the boy, but he was already walking away, with his hands in his pockets.
Some people might have thought he was a weirdo or predator, but that’s not how I saw him. He was utterly nonthreatening, he didn’t bristle with aggression, he didn’t seem to have that spring coiled up inside him.
I am one of those people who worries if she feels she’s “said too much”. It is very difficult to become my friend. I have armour thirty feet deep.
Everybody is lonely. And everybody is haunted. But there’s a certain kind of loneliness that is terrifying in its obviousness. The eyes hungrily devour the most throwaway of attentions. Every glance is begging for acknowledgment.
This boy emanated pure, naked need. And the whole time I was watching him I was reminded of those lonely children in the playground who stood close to others in conversation so that they could pretend that they had friends. Like me.
Perhaps I should have spoken to him.