I live in a quiet area of west London. It's multicultural, has good links to public transport, and is an ideal place to raise a family. But you know the cliché: there's always a battered, murky house at the end of the road where the witch lives. She's old, grumpy and lonely, and she scowls at kids who run away from her because they know, should they stray too close, she'll abduct them, cook and eat them. Well there's one such person who lives near me. They don't live in a cobwebby, crumbling mansion, though, they live in a small group of flats, the one in the far corner with ply wood nailed to the door. And it isn't a she, but a he. And this guy is very, very scary.
One Sunday morning about three years ago I was on my way to work, and up ahead of me was a bald, mixed race heavyset man wearing jogging bottoms and a hooded tracksuit top. The hood was down and the back of his head was lined with deep creases. You might call him fat, but that isn't the right word. He was simply huge, bulky, a heavy goods vehicle of a man. Anyway, I was in a rush, so I marched on ahead of him, my headphones blearing music, but as I passed, his voice began to seep through. At first I thought it was a glitch in the electronics, that there was no way he'd be talking to me. But the voice kept coming. And now he was shouting. Finally, I turned. His arms were stretched out and jerking up and down, his mouth was in overdrive, so I took out one headphone to hear what he was saying. And he was saying... everything.
Every swear word and insult and threat and invitation to a fight that would not only put me in hospital, but would most likely put me in the grave.
My heart thundered and my feet hurried on (I really had to get to work). Thankfully, he did not give chase, just kept flapping his arms and shouting.
Who was he? Why had I never seen him before? And was it really necessary to go on like that just because I overtook him?
I didn't see him again for three months: this time he was coming the other way. Surely he wouldn't remember that time before, surely he had better things to think about, and it had been three months since the last time! But no. There he went again with his flared arms, the terrifying scowl, the sneered lips contorted in contempt, the most vile and threatening words spat out in hate, the invitation to a fight which would no doubt leave me unrecognisable. See, thing is, in that three month period the memory of him had grown into something nightmarish. But not only did he now live up to the nightmare, he was worse.
I started taking another route to work.
Eventually I was able to figure out that he lives in that corner flat with the ply wood nailed to the door (he must have been raided by the police so many times the door was no longer worth fixing). With this in mind it was inevitable I would see him again; and soon after I did. Again, the same thing: the hurling of abuse like terrible rocks, the terror and threat of violence. One good thing, however, the thing that made him so scary to begin with, was his sheer bulk. If it came to it I could always outrun him.
Yes, I could always outrun him. And thinking about this, and that, despite the torrents of abuse and threats, he'd never actually done anything. Yes, he'd scared the crap out of me, but it seemed if we were to fight, I would have to step up to him. There was also the distinct chance that, having now seen him go crazy at other people, he had mental problems.
But this is the guy... This is the guy who smashes your nose with the butt of his rifle when you fail to show your papers.
This is the guy who steals your bread, yanks off your fur-lined boots to bet them in a game of cards, the guy who oversees your labour in the arctic logging camp.
This is the guy who guards your cell door, who takes every pleasure in administering beatings as his evening entertainment.
This is the guy who tears you from your family and laughs while he rapes your wife.
This is the guy.
And when you read about totalitarian states, about the fear that compels ordinary people like you and me to behave in the worse possible ways, even while we're classifying them as monsters, we're always forced to admit there's something human about them.
And although I am not heavyset, do not live in the corner flat with the ply wood nailed to the door, do not hurl threats at random people, I do, however, walk the same streets as him, see the same sights as him, pretty much share the same genes as him.
And so I ask myself: Am I the man who hides in the shadows?
(note. Despite my thoughts on prison labour camps at the end there, I still see that man now and again, and I'll keep you updated on further developments.)