Eyes at my back. I feel them.
I wonder why I take this route. It’s a short cut, of course, saves about five minutes of an otherwise twenty five minute walk, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. I always feel tense, alert, while I’m walking through the housing estate. It’s not that anything threatening has happened. Nobody has thrown a bottle at me or even said anything nasty to me; or about me, I assume. But nonetheless, I always feel tense, alert. The space between my shoulders tightens, I hunch up, I take my hands out of my pockets, I prepare for flight.
The other route, the longer route, the scenic route, conjures up no threats for me. I don’t feel tense or alert on that path. I walk head up high, carefree. I greet others, they respond; others greet me, I respond. Always cheerful, friendly. Sometimes a comment about weather, petrol prices, the headlines. The newspapers they carry show no sign of red on the front pages. The shopping bags I see are reusable, organic. The dog walkers clear up after their dogs; round-eyed, soft-mouthed friendly dogs, dogs to be petted. Both dog walkers and non-dog walkers place their litter in the pavement bins. They are me, I am them. I am comfortable.
Today, as usual, the short cut offers different. Two women chatting. Smokers’ voices, smokers’ coughs. A pack’s worth of butts in the gutter. At eleven o’clock on a warm schoolday morning their dressing gowns jar. They pause briefly as I pass. Watching. I force a greeting. They say nothing. I feel their watching. Watching the enemy.
Pig-eyed dogs roam seemingly as strays. But the smoking piles on the pavement suggest they are well fed, owned. As do the muzzles. These are not soft mouthed friendly dogs, not dogs to be petted; not dogs to love, but dogs to respect. I avoid them, for fear of being bitten; they avoid me for fear of being kicked. They too are tense, alert. I know dogs, they know humans.
The litter in the gutters and unkempt gardens, the discarded mattresses, children’s bikes, and abandoned shopping trolleys in a wooded space adjoining the bus stop suggest a community out of love with itself. And everybody else. And as I walk I know I am part of everybody else.
I feel them watching. Out of the corners of my eyes, I study windows, doorways, alleyways, hoping to see them, hoping not to see them. They are not my enemy. I am theirs.
Tomorrow, I think, tomorrow I will take the longer route, the scenic route, the polite route. There will be no threats, no need to be alert. No cause to feel alive.