(Image courtesy of Toonpool)
London’s Hammersmith, where I work, is full of what some might call ‘colourful’ characters. There’s the evangelist who shouts “are you a SINNER or are you a WINNER?” through a loudspeaker at lunchtime, the He-She who bums cigarettes off anyone who hasn’t yet encountered him/her, scoring a big, fat FAIL from those who have, plenty of teenagers with prams and pushchairs (they’re not babysitting), and your fair share of people of working age who do everything but between the hours of 9 and 5.
Most of the time, it’s okay working around here, but sometimes I really do wish I could transport my entire office to a quieter part of town. Take last week, for instance. I was having a typically busy time at work so I popped down to a local deli to pick up a salad box to munch at my desk. “Back in five!” I called to my boss. Little did I realise how optimistic that was.
As I was chatting away to the deli girls, a couple of cars screeched to a halt in true Dukes of Hazzard style across from the shop, their occupants jumping out and breaking into immediate violence. Shouting ensued, attracting our attention away from food (not so easy) and onto a couple of women laying punches into a third who’d been pushed off her feet. Had speech bubbles been hanging in the air around the trio, they would have read “Kapow!” “Whallop!” “Bang!” “Crack!”. Please note: these were NOT teenagers in some petty brawl, rather grown women of some proportion who were apparently quite skilled in the art of beating each other to a pulp.
As one of the deli girls called the police, we locked ourselves in, just in case the thugs ended up punching each other so hard that they landed on our side of the street. They didn’t, thankfully, but we stood, mouths agape, as a valiant passerby attempted to stop the fight, only to have the girl with the strong left upper cut round on him. The poor chap backed off from an unrelenting torrent of verbal abuse until the three women went back in the ring, so to speak, hurling one practised punch after another.
Next, the burly men from the two cars joined the dispute, punching each other, trying to drag the women off each other, then punching the women. That wasn’t enough for one of the guys, who marched up to his chief opponent’s car, punching the windscreen so hard that it shattered. Meanwhile, the singled-out woman was being dragged along the ground by her hair by the two other women, so hard that her trousers were pulled down by her weight. A flash of wobbly, white butt later, she was back on her feet, pulling up her trousers with one hand as she jabbed the air with the other in a continuation of her display of temper at all the others, both men and women.
At this point community officers had appeared in force, encouraging the men to retreat to their cars in an attempt to drive away, but the officers stood in front of the cars to stop them, in spite of the fact that they could easily have become road kill. Then the real police arrived, cuffing the men, one of whom had had his wife-beater vest ripped apart at the shoulder, revealing a very unattractive whale of a belly. These fighting folk were definitely not English; Albanian sprang to mind, as their reputation for domestic and other violence is renowned throughout Europe, but I couldn’t be certain. All I knew was that whatever it was they were shouting sounded Eastern European and one of the deli girls who’s Polish said it definitely wasn’t a language with which she was familiar.
In the deli, we stood glued to the scene outside. Had teeth flown across the street and struck the window, we’d hardly have been surprised, such was the violence playing out before us. In spite of police intervention, the woman who’d been dragged along the footpath was now trying to punch one of the men, the police struggling to hold her back. Sirens wailed, announcing the arrival of yet more uniforms. Before long, the group was under control. Ish. But still I hung back for a couple of minutes, just in case it all kicked off again.
Once back outside I could see that crowds had gathered to watch the unfolding of this real-life drama. Overhearing one bystander tell another that the argument concerned a watch, I hesitated, keen to find out more.
“Yeah, the guys were all shouting something about a watch,” he explained, eyes wide.
“A watch? What, in English?” Now I was confused.
“ No, not in English. Someone over there understood what they were shouting about and said it was a watch.”
Ah, a classic case of Chinese whispers. Unconvinced, I turned away.
“This is what happens when we open our doors to other nationalities,” said another man, stood in my path, nodding wildly,
“You wouldn’t see this on the streets of London if it weren’t for filthy immigrants like that!” he continued, gesturing at The Punch Bunch now being cuffed by police, forgetting that plenty of local crime is committed by born-and-bred Londoners. Just a couple of years back, a sixteen year old was stabbed to death in broad daylight, just down the street from our office, his youngest killers a mere 13 years old. They were Londoners. So were the Krays. Oh, yes, this Ranting Ronnie was doubtless a living, breathing member of the BNP, physical proof that such right-wing opinion is growing in this country. Lips firmly sealed, lest he twig my accent and tell me to go back to wherever it was I came from, I slunk away from the man, leaving two police cars, one police van and a lot of uniforms to get Mr BNP’s so-called filth off to the clink.
The whole episode made me shaky. Back in the safety of the office, I recounted the drama to my colleagues.
“Could’ve been Albanian,” commented one, “I knew a woman who was married to an Albanian once. He used to beat her all the time. Her kids were taken into care and then, years later, I bumped into her. ‘How’s your husband?’ I asked, wondering if she’d seen the light and moved on. ‘In a word? Dead,’she told me, ‘His uncle shot him.’ “
As it turns out, The Punch Bunch were all related, so what we’d witnessed on the streets of Sunny Hammersmith was the latest episode of a long-standing family feud. I can only imagine the amount of polyfilla stuffed into cracks in their walls at home, or how many gummy gaps they display when smiling. For a few days after the brawl, I found myself checking the footpath for leftover clumps of torn-out hair. After all, it’s not every day that you see a woman being dragged along the street by her long, black tresses. I’m only grateful to have escaped being born into a family like that, if you can call it a family…