Driving up to the top of Gloucester Place at night, towards the junction with Marylebone Road, the traffic ahead slows and moves around an obstruction on the approach to the lights. As the car in front of me swerves to the left a man is revealed, walking slowly up the middle of the lane. He has lank, scraggy hair down to his shoulders, and is wearing a long, dirty army surplus coat. Slowly he ambles up to the junction. He’s clearly nuts. The lights are red now and only about ten metres away so rather than go around him I slow to a lost plot loner’s pace and follow him up to the junction.
The pedestrian crossing turns to green and those waiting begin to cross. He’s just standing there, still with his back to me. He’s only a couple of feet in front of me, and I’m thinking, Jesus, this guy is sinister, he’s like something out of a David Lynch film. The handful of crossing pedestrians give him a wide berth. Some stare at him, others look away. A couple instinctively pull together protectively as they pass.
Then he turns around to face me. I look straight into his deranged, lonely eyes. There’s dirt on his face and he’s mumbling something to himself. We look straight into each other.
It’s then that I notice the gun in his hand.
My central nervous system moves faster than a bullet. It’s a physical feeling that explodes in my stomach and shoots up my body to my brain, where it bleeds into thought. Or rather, thoughts. A firework display of them. Time halts.
My first thought is to put my foot down and mow straight on through him. Straight over the crossing, letting nothing get in my way. The man has a gun in his hand and a deranged look in his eyes, and they’re staring straight into mine. This is not a time to worry about casualties. But I do. Next I think perhaps around there to his left, there’s a gap. I can swerve through there, I don’t have to hit anyone.
Then I wonder at the calmness of the other pedestrians on the crossing, passing this deranged lunatic with a gun. I saw them see him, move away, calmly but decisively carrying on with where they are going, not drawing attention to themselves, not losing their heads, evacuating as sensibly as office workers in a fire drill. The other drivers, too, are keeping their cool. Panic hasn’t broken loose.
Perhaps this is the best policy, I think. I take my lead from those around me. If he isn’t turning his fire on them, why should he turn it on me? Nothing has happened yet and perhaps nothing will. He’s just standing there with his gun. Keep still. Play dead. Wait, and be ready to duck, or drive.
This all goes on for the tiniest fraction of a second, but I am acutely aware of the thought processes as if I were meditating over them for hours. The clarity with which my mind moves is astonishing. I’ve never felt so alive. I can feel the blood pumping; I can hear it; I can smell it. The clock has stopped. The whole universe is hinged on this moment, and I feel the weight of it on my bones. It’s an animal, coursing fear the like of which I have never known. Feeling your balance go at the edge of a precipice and knowing there is nothing you can do but fall. Staring a deranged gunman in the eyes at midnight in the Marylebone Road.
A strange little old lady shuffles up the pavement on the right. She walks with a stick and carries a Sainsbury’s shopping bag. She is in make up and her hair is coiffed. She moves so slowly, and with such effort. Where is she going? Where has she been? Where does she live? She seems so far from home. Everywhere seems so far from here. Surely she isn’t safe, she shouldn’t be out on these cold, dark, dangerous streets alone. This is no place for the fragile, the delicate, the vulnerable.
He walks slowly towards me and lifts his hand.
It’s then that I notice it isn’t a gun. It’s a squeegee. He’s washing car windscreens. A squeegee. The thoughts are like mud. I shake my head. Slowly. Firmly. He’s washing windscreens. I mouth “no”. I feel my lips making the circle in slow motion. My heart is still pounding. Apart from my head, I am motionless, but every part of my being, every cell, the hairs on my arms, every capillary, is communicating with him. No. Go away from me. I hate you. I have never hated more.
He idles past on my right side, between me and the car to my right, sleepily waving his squeegee. Helpless drivers try to manoeuvre away from him, trapped in their tiny spaces. Nobody wants that thing anywhere near them.
The lights change. I drive on. I’ve never felt so alive.