The bookshop was the scene of drama yesterday. I was making tea for the three of us on shift that morning and chatting to my manager in the back of the store, when she was called away to the front desk. This often happens, I thought nothing of it. But when I came into the store myself, carrying our tea, I saw that something unusual was up. My manager was in a huddle with a group of people, a couple of them rough-looking, another dispensing some sort of practised authority. The elderly lady who has been working for the bookshop for longer than anyone can recall and who seems to have her finger permanently on the pulse of community life in our little area was also there, looking anxious. Then, with one accord they disappeared out of the front door. I asked the other volunteer minding the till what had happened but she wasn’t sure; some sort of break-in, she thought. So we sat there, sipping and ringing up purchases and all the time waiting.
After a quarter of an hour or so, our manager returned. The Indian restaurant next door to us had been closed for renovations for the past couple of weeks, or so we thought. It seemed that a few days ago, it had been broken into and trashed, with a thoroughness and a rage that spoke of personal vendetta. The floorboards had been broken up, the toilets had been smashed, the lights ripped out. The place stank of sewage and was in complete disarray. What to do first? Our manager knew she had to contact the police, but also wanted to be assured the restaurant would be made safe and boarded up; would the police do that? Should she ring the council? She went off to make phone calls while a stream of concerned locals trooped through our door. The lady who runs the Salvation Army a few doors up the road appeared to see if she could help. Her job had necessarily put her in contact with the police, and she suggested the city’s environmental offer be alerted. Our manager reappeared: the police weren’t answering the phone, always reassuring in a crisis, no?
‘It was so horrible in there,’ our manager said. ‘You could feel the violence in the air, the anger and hatred. I kept expecting us to find something any moment.’
We knew she meant a body.
‘It has to be closed up properly,’ the Salvation Army lady insisted. ‘It’s an environmental hazard as it is.’
‘I know,’ replied our manager. ‘The place is full of wires hanging loose.’
‘So someone was hoping it would catch fire?’
I think it was only at that point that the other volunteer and I both realised the seriousness of the situation. If the place had been rigged to go up in flames, it was not good news for the large pile of kindling we represented, sitting right next door to it.
It turned out that the restaurant hadn’t been closed for renovation, but because of some sort of court case pending. Rumours began to fly around about the owner of the place, who was supposed to have issued death threats, and to have tried to run a man down in his car. At this point, an Indian man, short, squat, powerfully built, charged into the store, a bunch of keys in his hand. ‘She’s in the back, is she?’ he asked, and without really waiting for a reply, headed off for the office where our manager sat. I hopped off my stool and ran after him; we were startled and the purposeful way he was walking was unsettling. But when he opened the door, our manager (still on the phone) waved and greeted him by name, and I thankfully peeled away. Quite what good I could possibly have been in a confrontation, I have no idea. When he walked past us again on his way out he smiled and thanked us cheerfully, completely transformed.
Eventually the police arrived; one little homely looking officer in a bulky vest strapped about with walkie-talkies. I revised my opinion of how well I could do in a confrontation after a brief comparison with him. He was not exactly helpful. Having ascertained that a crime had been committed, no one was allowed to enter the building until the police had conducted their research. Quite when that would happen, no one knew, and until then, the restaurant would continue stewing in its sewage and broken fittings and loose electric cables.
This was not the only plotline, as it were, unfolding in the bookshop that morning. While we waited to hear what had happened next door, an attractive young Frenchwoman turned up with leaflets for us all, informing us of the details of a funeral that would take place the following day. When she said the name of the woman it concerned, we made the connection to an article torn out of the local press that had been left on the counter. This woman had been primarily responsible for organising the Winter Fair that closes the road for one day in the run-up to Christmas. I’d been told about this, because I hadn’t witnessed it myself, and assured I was in for a treat. It’s a special occasion, when the traders set out stalls and the street performers come and entertain the crowds, one of those genuine moments of community in a part of town where ethnic minorities co-exist uneasily, where the students and the down-and-outs cause colourful trouble, and where many small businesses scrape a living in scruffy stores (you should see ours). For that one day, the road is transformed with decorations and festivities and goodwill.
To honour the woman who founded this, it had been decided that the hearse should be diverted to travel the length of the road, so that the traders and the residents nearby could come and pay tribute in the street as it passed. If customers weren’t talking about the break-in, they were talking about this, and doing so with tears in their eyes. How much it would mean to the family, to see the gratitude and respect their lost loved one had inspired, what a chance it would be for the people who knew her, even just a little bit, to pay their respects and to say goodbye.
It is strange for me, to find myself staking a tiny claim in this part of the town where life is lived with so much more naked emotion than the other places I have been. It is all on the surface here, love and hatred, violence and celebration. I felt there was a strange, natural balance at work, that nothing could prevent or diminish the horror of that vandalised restaurant, or the sadness of death, but that they cancelled each other out, or at least, they demonstrated once again that there is always more to any situation than one story. When we watched the riots across London on the late news last night, it felt horrible, but also so unreal after my experiences that day. This is the trouble with the media and the way we take in information; all we were shown was the hatred and the violence, without a glimpse of all that would be happening around it, all sorts of stories of love and sorrow and reparation and rescue that would forever be hidden. Nothing can justify those riots or make them any less appalling, but people are not just bad, communities are rich in every kind of human resource, we know how to work together and heal and mend. The bad stuff is so much easier to believe, but we do ourselves a disservice to focus on it exclusively, or to lose faith in the power of what’s good.