At two minutes to five in the morning, the lights go out on Powerscroft Road, Hackney, East London. I’m thinking about the people in Viana, who will have begun their daily trek into Luanda city centre. Someone across the street is awake. The front room light is on. Did they leave it like that, or are they up, working? I don’t know anything about those people across the road. They’ve lived there for ten years, four more than me, and they keep almost entirely to themselves. I once saw the woman at a Tai Chi class and she pretended she didn’t recognise me. Maybe she didn’t. Believing strongly in neighbourly communication, I once went over there – I just knocked on the door and said hello – and asked myself in for a coffee. They said that would be awkward, “the kitchen’s in a bit of a mess”, and I’ve never spoken to them since. It still makes me laugh. I once saw another neighbour at the pub. I recognised him, “hello!”, and he stared straight through me. I said, “I’m your neighbour, the person who told you about the guys who were trying to break into your house the other morning,” and he said, “oh, yes, right, hello”. We have also had no communication since. I sometimes think I should have left the burglars alone. They were climbing up a ladder at about this time, 5.30am, at the front of the house. One of them looked a bit drunk. They were in their mid-fifties. They couldn’t reach for the window so in the end they gave up, remarkably casually, and walked off. I banged on my window – forever the curtain-twitcher – and they just gazed at me. Later, I banged on the neighbour’s door and told them what I’d seen. “You ought to be careful,” I said. They didn’t seem in the slightest interested. That also still makes me laugh.
It’s a little windy. The small silver birches are swaying and switching. I can hear a dustbin truck, but no other traffic. No one is awake yet, apart from the Turkish shop on the corner. They never sleep. Two brothers run the joint. One, the fatter one who I like a great deal, speaks barely a single word of English. He’s been here 21 years. Who’s he been talking to? ‘Family. Turkey friends,’ he tells me. We have long conversations in Turkey-English which involve a lot of laughing and me telling him off. ‘Two decades! That’s too long to not speak a word of English.’ Now he wants to go home. I’ve told him he can’t – not until he’s learned more English. I’ve offered free classes. I’m not a fan of the English language per se, but I do like talking to people and I know, if he spoke more English, we’d laugh even more. ‘My brother go home,’ he said the other day. His brother’s already gone home. He spoke even less English, though to be fair he’d only spent 17 years here. The other day in the shop, the remaining brother said to me, ‘Why not you learn Turkey?’ And I thought that was a fair point, even though we’re in London. There are many Turkish people here. It might help my day to day life, particularly given how nosy I am. He also said, ‘Why not go holiday Turkey?’ and then tried to explain to me that Turkey is not like the journalists say it is, meaning it isn’t dangerous and full of terrorists. I told him I was sure it wasn’t. I’d like to go to Turkey. I’d like particularly to visit him and his brother in Turkey, see them in their homeland, laughing, and they could laugh at me trying to speak Turkish. Given how little he speaks it’s amazing how much we talk.
It’s 5.13am. The milkman has just passed. On this long street, I saw him deliver to four houses. I cancelled him when I went to Luanda. I must get him back. Long live the milkman. He uses real glass bottles. He’s been doing the job for years in Hackney. But only four people use him. On Fridays anyway.
At 5.21am, just while I was writing that bit above, I saw a short man lugging a large brown suitcase down the pavement across the road. The first thing I thought was, ‘Is there a body in there?’ What else would you be doing with a suitcase at this time of day? And he was not dressed to travel. Open shirt, jeans, trainers and only a suitcase. Nothing else. Don’t tell me that’s not suspicious. Perhaps he’s a magician.
At 5.25am, the 242 is going by. Four people on board. Two on top, two below. If that bus was in Viana, it would be packed.
For the last 8 minutes I haven’t seen a car or a person. This would never be the case in Luanda at this time. The world and his mother would be passing my door by now. Sebastião will be making the coffee, preparing the toast, burning some of it, and busying himself with his preparations. Here, we sleep. Hang on, no, yes, here we go – there’s a young woman, with pink-orange hair, striding down the street now. She might be Polish. I’ve noticed that lots of Polish girls have pink-orange hair. It’s 5.34am.
Worrying about the balance between character and privacy. I think I’ve overstretched the mark. How much should we say about the people we interview? About the environment in which we meet? Should we mention the state of their toilet?