magpies on the maracas

I know the sounds as I know my own skin. I know which cat has slid through the cat flap and planted its nose in biscuits. I know who is walking down the alley on the other side of the wall because I’m accustomed to their patter. Depending on the force of the kick, I know which group of kids is playing football in the street and whether Nathan is there, or Raoul, or Drew or Kofi. When I hear the acceleration of a car engine and then the squeeze on the brakes I know which household on the adjacent street is going out for a drive. I can distinguish between the postman shoving letters through my box and the boy delivering the local paper every Tuesday. I can even tell when my neighbour is taking an afternoon nap because Radio 3 fades to silence, the regular thudding up and down the stairs stops, and the phone rings and rings and rings and eventually rings out. So of course I also know that something is not quite right when three men, three white English men with Cockney accents and grey tracksuits with hoodies and green trainers, approach my neighbour’s house all together in a group, crowding around the front door. She never has white visitors or visitors  whose first language is English and who speak with an east London lilt. Why are they crowding around the door handle, banging on the window, shouting over and over, Is Anyone in? Is anyone in? Anyone at home? and then pulling out a metal lever and ramming it between the edge of the plastic door and plastic frame, pushing it down and in and forcing the front door to open. Less than two seconds, I reckon. They scramble into the porch — one, two, three — squeezing into the tight space between the pair of front doors while the leader levers door two. Of course I know they aren’t just friends, as one of them claims when I pitch out of my top window and yell as loud as I can, What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m not expecting an answer; I’m expecting them to run. But they turn round and, as soft as you like, the tall one says, We’re just friends. We’re visiting. What, with a crow-bar? I shout back. Is that how you normally visit friends? Get the fuck out of here! Go on! Go! Go! Where is everyone, I’m thinking? Is this a set up? Now they look almost alarmed and start jogging then cantering down the road. I scramble down the stairs and out the front door and watch as they drive away, smoke pouring from the back wheels, spinning off at high speed, all the way to the bottom and around the corner. I’m getting old; I couldn’t read the number plate. My ageing body. For a few long seconds, that’s all I think about. Then a sense of achievement. Frightened them away, didn’t I. Nice work, Pawson.

Back inside. All quiet. Then I notice the buzz of the laptop and from the open window, the magpies start playing their maracas bullying the poor old persian, and Buster the puppy lifts his chin and pines for the whole of London, and the little girl at number two whose mother swears “is gifted” runs her fingers up and down the keys for her afternoon warm-up scales, and the builder working on the house at number twenty-eight which has just been bought by a cinematographer from Highbury pulls out the last bit of tiling around the fireplace, and Shirley at number thirty-one who came from Clapton says that crime is on the rise because the area’s “gone too rich” calls over the fence to the teacher in the playground and complains, I’m still getting cigarette ends in my fuscias, and Wolfie down at number fifty-three rings the council to remind them he wants to move out ‘coz it’s eighty percent muslim and I don’t belong here no more’.