This story is about mass riots, dating and porn stars and ends with a startling confession of a true crime.
It has involved extensive use of the part of my brain that deals with obscure anecdotal connections (often a lifesaver on this blog) – otherwise known as going off on a semi-related tangent.
It was August 2011, and London had suffered days of mass rioting, looting and arson. Everyone in London will remember the eerie feeling in the city on those nights, or the fear if they were in an area directly affected, or alternatively the burny/smashy/grabby feeling if they were involved. Everyone outside London will remember texting or messenging everyone they knew in London saying “Everything all right where you are?”, “I know London’s a big place, but does this madness affect you?” or “I saw the news Linda, are you on fire?”
I’d seen carnage in Clapham, in an area where I had spent many nights waiting on a connecting bus home after a late night at Beaufort House in my glorious midweek drinking days. It’s also an area where in more recent years I had enjoyed literally several dates with women.
“Oh you said you know the area, do you want to suggest a place to meet?” they’d say.
“Bus Stop G?”
One date in particular springs to mind, a Hungarian girl, who had suspiciously wanted to meet up very shortly after we started chatting on [miscellaneous dating app]. This is suspicious because these never go well, and generally involve wasted time and cash outlay on my part. The girl usually lives nearby and is just bashing out dates by the numbers. As soon as we met outside Clapham Junction station, I knew. It had not been obvious from her photos but she was super-fit, and by fit I mean in the fitness way. Generally speaking girls like that would not be seen dead with people like me, for whom going to the toilet is a significant portion of my cardio for the day, and for whom the phrase 5-a-day generally is applied to pizza toppings.
Within a millisecond of me having this possibly negative and self-deprecating thought, it was confirmed by the “fuck’s sake” smile she gave me as she arrived. It was as if my profile picture had been of Hunter from the tv show Gladiators. It was not, but a genuine picture of my own face, body and clothes, without camera tricks or bicep padding. “”””Hiiii, nice to meet you”””” she said smothered in about four sets of insincere quote marks. I remember being tempted to invoke a new technique I’d thought of, a money-and time-saving maneouvre where I would just say “Look, let’s be blunt, is it maybe just worth leaving it there and parting ways instead of going through the whole rigmarole?” Despite not getting many dates, I have nonetheless spent a ridiculous amount of time sitting with people who took one look at me and thought “nah”. And then I pay for the privilege. She might have been up for it, but I figured if she was happy to stay and go for a drink, then why not. Let’s just keep it short. I had places to be. At home, for example.
Anyway, we got into the nearest bar, an All Bar One or a Yates or a something similar. One of those huge places with happy hour and one part-time member of staff covering the whole venue. We got in, sat down, and while browsing the menu she was asking about my fitness routine (I am not fucking kidding!) and I was fending her off with jokes. She literally said “you obviously don’t go to the gym, look at you”. She also got one in about how she normally “dates taller guys” and how I didn’t have my height on my profile. Despite the relentless bodyshaming I found her bluntness mildly amusing, and had heard this stuff too many times on dates before to be offended.
“It’s 2-for-1 cocktails shall we get two “Porn Star Martinis”?” she said, almost waiting for me to make pointless date innuendo.
I didn’t bother, “Great idea, I’ll go to the bar”. Off I went as she grabbed her phone and started … making a call(!) I got to the massive bar, there was one other person waiting. Should be quick then.
Couldn’t have been more wrong. The barmaid was with her back to me, making god knows what complex round of 2-for-1s for this guy next to me. Seemed more like a 16-for-8 scenario. Back and forth she went along the back of the bar, shaking glassware, grabbing bits and pieces. About ten minutes later, she turned, and I realised she’d been doing the washing and tidying up. She looked at me and the guy a few feet away, then walked off. Few minutes later she came back “Who’s next”. I did the customary pointing at the other guy, he did the customary “thanks” even though all I’d done was not be a queue-jumping twat. He was indeed getting cocktails. Two by coincidence. The barmaid took another ten minutes to make these.
On a few occasions I’d looked over to do the usual shrug and shaking of the head towards my date, mouthing “unbelievable, one barmaid”, but was usually unable to get her attention as she was deep in conversation on her phone, probably telling a friend “you should fucking see the state of this guy. He’s sort of skinny, but he’s also kind of fat, it’s a biological wonder.”
The barmaid was taking so long to process this other guy’s payment, I had assumed he was trying to pay in Drachma. Meanwhile a young couple came up to the bar on the other side of me. Very early 20s, all giggly and smiley and happy to be together. Now you’d expect me, with all my grouchiness, to hate them and their burgeoning young love. Not true. Not a bit of it. It was a lovely sight and by all accounts had made my night, especially when considering the fairly joyless situation of my own date.
I resolved I should not be grumpy and from now on do everything I could to make this date work out as best it could.
The barmaid finished smelting the gold ingots the other guy had paid with and came back, “Who’s next?” she said, although she was basically just looking at me. She knew. I turned right to look at the young couple. He did the customary pointing at me.
And I pointed back, “this guy’s next!” He protested out of politeness, “No no please, be my guest,” I said. “I am in noooooo rush. I’m guessing it’s a couple of cocktails?” He laughed and his partner confirmed, and they gushed thank-yous in my direction. I was indeed going to do what I could to make this date go smoothly. This couple’s date. My own was beyond saving, but if I could save these youngsters the painful buzz-killing disruption of the bar service, I was doing good. And they seemed like good people.
I might be slightly exaggerating to say I was at that bar for 30 minutes. But you know what, I swear it wasn’t far off. My date was having a great time on the phone, I felt bad eventually interrupting her with the drinks.
I popped the martinis down, and flicked open the can on my Red Bull and poured it into a glass whose ice had mostly melted in the wait.
“What’s that,” she said.
“It’s my Red Bull.”
“Aren’t you having one of these martinis?”
I took a thirsty long swig of my carbonated refreshment, “Nope. I don’t drink.”
“You never mentioned that,” she said. See this is the problem when you arrange to meet someone based on their profile picture and how they spell “Hello” on a text chat. “Red Bull’s bad for you, do you know that. Really bad?”
“Says the girl with two martinis in front of her”.
“Touché. Are you trying to get me drunk?”
“I’m leaving in about 20 minutes, so I doubt I’ll even see that.”
We had some banter, and actually she was OK for a massive narcissist. I was just definitely not going to be her type and really this should have been thrashed out over text chats rather than skipping to a date too quickly. Incidentally, in the short remaining duration of events she also issued the Date Retraction – a common practice, where if a girl doesn’t fancy you when meeting, she tries to backtrack out of the very notion that’s it’s a date, and you were misguided for thinking it ever was. I had made some joke and mentioned “date” and she pounced on it “Oh this isn’t really a date, it’s just a catch-up.”
“Of course it is, I can’t believe it’s been so long since we “caught up”. How. Have. You. Been?” The Date Retraction feels like a petty trick, and I’m not really sure I understand why so many do it. If nothing else it hinders my ability to class these as dating stories on my blog. Catch-up Chronicles? That might work, I take it back.
Anyway, she relished the fact that I was giving plenty back to her jibes-wise rather than getting too riled; and I think sort of liked my carefree attitude to all the snubbing and put-downs. We parted on good terms and I headed back to the bus stop.
Where was I? Oh yes, the RIOTS!
There had been scenes of looting and arson in the centre of Clapham, but so far this hadn’t spread as far as Tooting. Reports that CEX’s window had been done in turned out to be unrelated to the riots and just standard Tooting second-hand tech violence.
But in the final days of the riots, they were surely coming this way. By this stage, the riots were getting scheduled. “Riots tonight are on”, the warning went. “Police unlikely to do anything”, the assurances continued. “Hastily put-on balaclavas likely to be enough in city with the most CCTV out of almost all places,” the progaganda naively asserted, leading to many a jail sentence further down the line. I was hoping they would just wait until I was at least home from work and had done my food shopping.
Two additional factors convinced me Tooting was on the hit-list for tonight.
1) Tooting rhymes with looting. Fact. Perhaps I had been one of the early ones to spot this (another benefit of the overactive anecdote connection neurons), but word was going to spread, partly because I’d been telling everyone for days. The headlines in the local papers would be hilarious. It couldn’t be missed.
2) Right opposite the station, there was a shop … called LOOT. Yes a shop, called Loot, in Tooting, during the riots. Foregone fucking conclusion. Riots tonight were on.
As I slunk out of the station and into the Sainsbury’s next door about 6pm, there was a spooky atmosphere. I tried to ignore everything that was around me. There were no youths with petrol bombs, no-one had balaclavas. Riots weren’t on yet. It was just shopping. As was the way, I immediately scouted the checkouts to see if my Polish sweetheart Ilona was working – she wasn’t. This was just as well since my last encounter with her had left her surrounded by broken glass, so she probably got given the riots off in case she got flashbacks.
I did my shopping, continuing to detect something fishy about the place, and I don’t mean the deli counter. It wasn’t until I joined one of the suspiciously short queues with my basket that I began to realise what was off.
People weren’t paying.
As I was standing waiting at the checkout conveyor, people were walking through behind me with stuff. All across the store, people were skipping the checkouts and casually walking out.
Not yobs, not hooded ne’er-do-wells, not opportunist thugs, not renegade ransackers, not pock-marked pillagers, not [fun game, try to insert some of your own]. Just normal, average, three-bed-semi, glass-of-wine-with-dinner types. EVERYONE was stealing. They were walking round the shop as normal, getting their normal shop, and walking straight out the door with everything. “Riots day, innit Audrey”. It was a staggering example, not unlike the classic Stanford Experiment, of just what regular “law-abiding” people will do, if they think they can. It was a middle class heist. Thousands of pounds of goods were walking out of the shop under the arms of suit jackets, short-sleeved shirts and blouses.
It didn’t deter me from my position in the queue. I was buying my stuff with money. Because if I didn’t, then I was a looter. Nothing more than a polite thief. I did consider shouting after one gingham-shirted accountant type “You’re not going to get your Nectar points on that stuff you know,” expecting him to race back, but I didn’t want to antagonise the well-heeled rabble in case they turned.
When I finished packing and paying I half-expected the checkout man to grab my wrist, look me in the eye and say “There is still good in this world.” But he didn’t he just passed me my receipt and shook his head as over my shoulder he saw a man walk past carrying 8 baguettes.
I left wondering if Ilona would hear of this. “Ilona you know that guy who likes you? The one with the t-shirt. And the sexually suggestive vegetables. He was here the other night, and he paid in full. Even though it was Riots. Think how noble his children would be. Especially if they were also your children. Think about that. Take as long as you need, I’ll cover the checkout.”
My daydream was interrupted by a sudden thought. I was walking briskly out of the shop in my usual way. Hang on, I was walking faster out of this shop than the people who were stealing! What a topsy-turvy night. I had a quick look round the corner. No riots yet. Loot (the shop) was still intact. I was safe for my walk home.
In the end, I’m not sure much riots came to Tooting that night. They were fizzling out and this was sort of the final night. There might have been some commotion, but the mass theft in Sainsbury’s seemed like the main event, and judging by how the drinks section had been cleared out, maybe this had all just been a supply run for the molotovs elsewhere.
About five years later, I’d made the switch to online shopping, partly because I don’t drive and I was sick of almost severing my bony fingers three times a week carrying heavy bags home from the Sainsbury’s by the station. And partly because without Ilona there, there was no point. And partly because Ilona now worked at Tesco Express down the road, which is coincidentally where I’d started going for my odds and ends.
But I couldn’t get my cigarettes from Tesco, lest Ilona find out I smoked and frown upon this. I still went to Sainsbury’s in the morning for smokeys on my way to work, and this is where I [fell off]/[rolled down] my moral high [ground]/[horse].
And with that clumsy indecisive metaphor, the story continues in Part II…Read on