It took place over a middle-aged lady sitting on a pavement. I was walking along Marine Parade. A bright, warm late-summer morning. The day: Tuesday. The time: approximately 7.30. Early for me, but I was on my way to the museum to catch up on some paperwork. Strolling along, thinking how pleasant it was to enjoy the quiet and the solitude, vowing to get up an hour earlier every day, I saw a car – a cream Ford, I’m sure it was – nudge the wheel of a bicycle. Just gently. There was a slight delay before the bicycle wobbled enough to tip its rider, hands splayed, legs tangled with wheels, on to the pavement. The car drove on regardless, leaving me to hurry over to the woman in distress.
By the time I reached her, she was sitting up on the edge of the kerb, so I knew there was no serious damage. She looked to be in her forties, and her basket and handlebars were loaded with bags of all types – string, paper, some kind of canvas construction – so it wasn’t surprising that she’d lost her balance. I touched her on the shoulder and asked if she was all right.
‘What does it look like?’ she barked. I took a step back. Her voice had venom in it.
‘You’re shocked, of course.’
‘Livid is what I am. That bastard knocked me off.’
She was a sorry sight. Her spectacles lopsided, her hat askew.
‘Do you think you can stand?’
Her mouth twisted. ‘We need the police here. We need the police, now!’
Seeing I had no alternative but to go along with her wishes, I dashed to the nearest police box on the corner of Bloomsbury Place, thinking I could call from there, leave her with some obliging bobby and get on with the rest of my day.
I’ve never had much patience with our boys in blue. Have always despised their brutish little ways, their stocky bodies squeezed into thick wool, those ridiculous helmets rammed on their heads like black jam jars. What was it that officer said about the incident at the Napoleon, where that boy was left with half his face carved away from the bone? Damned pansy’s lucky that’s all they cut off. I think those were his exact words.
So I wasn’t relishing the thought of coming face to face with a policeman. I steeled myself for the evaluating glance up and down, the raised eyebrows in response to my voice. The clenched fists in response to my smile. The chilled relations in response to the cut of my jib.
But the young man who stepped from the box as I approached was quite, quite different. I could see it straight away. He was properly tall, for a start, with shoulders that looked like they could take the weight of the world and yet were exquisitely shaped. Not a hint of bulk. I thought immediately of that wonderful Greek boy with the broken arm in the British Museum. The way he glows with beauty and strength, the way the warmth of the Mediterranean exudes from him (and still he manages to blend perfectly with his British surroundings!). This boy was like that. He wore his awful uniform lightly, and I could see at once there was life pulsing beneath the rough black wool of his jacket.
We looked at each other for a beat, he with a serious mouth, me with all my words vanished.
‘Good morning,’ he said as I tried to remember what it was I wanted. Why it was I’d sought out a policeman in the first place.
Eventually I stammered, ‘I need your help, Officer.’
My actual words. And God knows I meant them. My plea for help, my cry for protection. It reminds me, now, of when I first became friends with Charlie at school. I went to him in desperation, thinking he could help me stop the bullying. And he did teach me not to care so much. Charlie always had something so nonchalant in his manner, something that made them back off – something so fuck you, is how he’d put it – and I’ve always loved that. Loved it and wished I could have it myself.
‘There’s been an accident,’ I continued. ‘A lady’s come off her bicycle. I’m sure it’s nothing serious, but—’
‘Show me the way.’ Despite his youth, he managed to sound very capable. And he walked with great energy and determination, frowning slightly now, asking me all the necessary questions – was I the only witness? What did I see? What make of car was it? Did I get a glimpse of the driver?
I answered as best I could, wanting to give him all the information he needed as I followed his great strides.
When we reached the woman, she was still sitting on the pavement, but I noticed she’d gained enough strength to gather her bags around her. As soon as she saw my policeman, her demeanour changed completely. Suddenly she was all smiles. Looking up at him, eyes ablaze, lips newly licked, she declared herself quite all right, thank you very much.
‘Oh no, Officer, there’s been a misunderstanding,’ she said, without glancing in my direction. ‘The car did come close, but it didn’t hit me, I just slipped on the pedals – it’s these shoes,’ she displayed her scuffed black courts as though they were Hollywood dancing heels, ‘and I was a little stunned, you know how it is, Officer, early in the morning…’
On and on she went, chattering away like an excited sparrow. My policeman nodded, his face impassive, as she gabbled her nonsense.
When she’d run out of steam, he asked, ‘So you weren’t knocked off?’
‘Not a bit of it.’
‘And you’re all right?’
‘Right as rain.’
She held out a hand for him to help her up. He obliged, face still expressionless.
‘It was lovely to meet you, Officer.’ She was mounting her bicycle now, beaming for England.
My policeman granted her a smile. ‘Mind how you go,’ he said, and we both stood and watched as she cycled away.
He turned to me, and before I could begin any explanation he said, ‘Batty old bird, wasn’t she?’ and gave a small grin, the like of which I’m sure young police constables are meant to have knocked out of them during their probationary period.
He had total confidence in what I’d told him. He believed me, not her. And already he trusted me enough to insult a lady in my presence.
I laughed. ‘Not exactly a major incident…’
‘They rarely are, sir.’
I held out a hand. ‘Patrick Hazlewood.’
A hesitation. He considered my outstretched fingers. Briefly I wondered if there were some police regulation forbidding all physical contact – except the forcible kind – with the general public.
Then he took my hand and told me his name.
‘I have to say I thought you handled that very well,’ I ventured.
To my great surprise his cheeks went a little pink. Hugely touching.
‘Thank you, Mr Hazlewood.’
I winced, but knew better than to ask for first names at this early stage.
‘I suppose you get a lot of that sort of thing? Difficult people?’
‘Some.’ A moment’s pause, then he added: ‘Not so many. I’m new. Only been at it a few weeks.’
Again I was touched by his immediate, unquestioning trust. He’s not like the rest. Didn’t once give me the evaluating stare. Allowed no shadow to pass over his face at the sound of my voice. Didn’t close down. He was open. He remained open.