Stamford Hill Railway Station, north London. An unprepossessing place, typical of the grimy, slightly run-down north London boroughs. It doesn’t look like much, and it isn’t, really. It would be just another nameplate on the railway line to Enfield Town, as far as I was concerned, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was there that I was, as the Metropolitan Police so charmingly put it, “a victim of an assault on 15th May at or around 17:00 hours”.
I was on my way to Ridge Avenue in Enfield to meet a new student at the public library there, and the easiest way seemed to be to take the train rather than a series of buses. I was about halfway through exams, and was therefore carting both books and laptop around in an effort to get some work done on the journey, which was about an hour. Bethnal Green station took some finding, being tucked away on a little side road behind a series of endless car workshops with what seemed like half of London’s population of black cabs parked on the pavement and under the railway arches. This was already a slightly seedy district, away from the light and shops of Cambridge Heath Road – not somewhere you’d want to be caught late at night, definitely. But then again, much of the East End is like that when you get away from the main roads, so I thought nothing of it.
I sauntered in, bought my ticket, and settled down to wait. The train was a few minutes late, and I got into a sparsely populated carriage about halfway down the platform. I had revision to do, and had my laptop open with past exam papers, to save paper and expense by printing them out. I wasn’t paying much attention to people coming and going – a few people got on, and I noticed them out of the corner of my eye, but they didn’t really make much impression. I do know that there was a group of boys that got on, and one of them crossed into the next carriage, while a friend stayed in this one, and they were signalling to each other through the closed door. I only noticed this because of the movement of his hands, or else I’d have no idea they were there beyond the vague impression of seeing someone standing there, to be forgotten in the next moment.
As the train drew into Stamford Hill, the one in the next carriage opened the connecting door and the two of them started walking past me, and then it all happened very fast. One of them grabbed the open laptop (ah, poor Shadowfax!) that was on the seat opposite me while I checked some papers, and as I reached out to stop him, in a half-second of sheer incomprehension, I got a punch in the side of the face. Then they were out of the open door and away up the platform. I still have no idea who did what, or even what they were wearing, or any idea of what they look like. It was far too quick for me to have more than a confused impression.
In the time it took me to gather my things and get after them (I left my jacket on the train, I later realised) they were almost at the stairs that lead to the street, and I didn’t have a hope of catching them. Not that this was the wisest thing to do at the best of times, but the adrenaline had taken over, and I was just giving in the to call of the case. I did slow down and check the stairwell carefully, but of course they’d gone out into the street and split up. No hope of catching them. A Jewish gentleman standing on the platform pointed out the direction they had taken, and I called the police. We cruised around for a while, but in the end they admitted it was pointless, and I took the train home. The injury turned out to be a mild black eye and a cut under my eye where the edge of my glasses had been driven into my cheek, but nothing serious. I had it looked at on the advice of the police, but the doctor peered at it for a moment and said it was nothing to worry about.
I’ve been over that moment several times since – for the official statement, which the police came home to take, later on, and then again when I was telling the story to people, and it’s still a confused impression without any clear images. I know they were young, and black, and wore black, but beyond that… nothing. Definitely no way I could identify them even if they were caught.
In a way, they’re more victims than I, although I’ve never been called a victim so many times in my life. The police were marvellous and efficient and polite, and took statements and photographs and sent letters, and I still cling to a faint hope that the CCTV evidence might show up something worth pursuing, but it doesn’t look likely. I’m not really worried about the laptop itself, although in the middle of exams was the worst possible time it could have happened. It would actually have been a lot worse if they’d taken my bag with all the lecture and revision notes, so that’s something to be thankful for. It could also have been a lot more violent – they were far more interested in getting away. I could have been knifed or worse, so I think I got off very lightly in the circumstances.
It was an interesting and rather sad sociological stereotype, though – young black inner city boys doing the deed, predominantly white police officers. Sad reflection on crime in inner-city England.
Anyhow – it happened, and what’s done can’t be undone. I have a guardian angel who’s given me her old laptop, which will do after a memory and hard drive upgrade, so I’ll survive until I can make my first million and get a better one. I’m not terribly upset or damaged, and if you’ll excuse me, I need to go have tea with Elizabeth to round off the London experience. Yes, that Elizabeth. The queen.