Last Halloween, a woman was thrown out of a fourth-floor window in Marylebone. It was 5.15 p.m. and I was heading back to my flat on Chiltern Street with the intention of watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that I had always avoided seeing but which held a gnawing fascination for me…
I walked home from Marylebone High Street, thinking that it was a good witching night, with a deep blue sky, not black – it was more alive than that – and I noticed how festive the streets looked: the red-brick, Victorian buildings were perfectly gothic, complete with gargoyles on the turrets; the shops were decorated with carved pumpkins, and children were already running about in skeleton suits and vampire teeth.
On nights like this, the area seemed as though it were trying to live up to the property developers’ patter about it being a village. It started about a decade ago, after a savvy phrase by estate agents turned Marylebone into a quaint little hamlet, soon to be followed by Connaught Village and Portman Village. I always thought this a fairly transparent bit of branding: these are desirable residences where, the better the ‘village’ life, the higher the value of the properties, which is why Marylebone, owned largely by the Howard de Walden estate, cultivates the local feel. The estate makes an effort to ensure that small, independent establishments, such as Biggles Sausages, famous for its ‘Torpedo’ hot dog, are charged reduced-rate rents because these stores give the area an impression of picturesque intimacy, which is further enhanced by summer and Christmas fairs and a farmers’ market where Alan Rickman can be seen selling his produce.
Yet, while I felt proud of my sophistication in seeing through this estate agents’ contrivance, it seemed to me that the block of flats in which I lived was genuinely encouraging the idea of ‘getting to know your neighbours’ and ‘doing things for the kids’. Portman Mansions are several grand blocks that dominate one half of Chiltern Street at the Marylebone Road end. They are served by an estate office with twenty-four-hour porters, who check each block dur- ing the night, a maintenance team and a gym across the road for those who own their flats. Each building has a shared patio and there are sign-up sheets in the communal areas so that you can choose whether you wish to participate in the festivities, for example, trick-or-treat, and one of the residents even runs a Christmas grotto. With this comes the petty annoyances of neighbours; for example, the old Swedish woman, with a fuzz of blonde hair, who always had something to say about where my boyfriend parked his bicycle. But generally it seemed to be a place of good cheer and goodwill. So, in the spirit of village life, and partial to children in small doses, I was returning home with bags of chocolates for the trick-or-treaters.
I was almost on top of the crowds before I saw them. Then: three ambulances, police tape cordoning the road from traffic, police tape cordoning the pavement on my side of the street, so that I didn’t know if I would be able to get any closer, and I was thinking, What is happening? Is it my building? Will I be allowed in? Having reached the flats, I saw that the drama was not happening there, but next door at York Mansions, a solitary block of flats in the middle of the street. Police tape was tied from my railings to the ones opposite, dividing the road in half and cutting me off from the scene.
Around the perimeter of the tape, crowds stood still, with the air of a vigil, as though watching death. I stood up on the steps of the entrance to Block 5, Portman Mansions, straining to see, wanting to see, not wanting to see. Paramedics clustered on the pavement. The girl standing in front of me turned away, gagging. It was death, I thought. It had already happened. Someone was dead. Then there was a cry, a long, painful moan, and the words: ‘Help me! Somebody help me!’ But no one was moving. The cry for help came again, with what sounded like delirium. And fear. I realized that the groaning came from the ground, where the paramedics were.
I was joined on the steps by a resident, an Australian named Keith. Keith is a grandfatherly man of about sixty, soft-spoken and kind, someone who I thought kept an eye out for me, and who also manages Portman Mansions. I asked what had happened. Keith said, ‘She fell.’ A woman came in from the street, wearing a pair of slippers. ‘She was pushed,’ she said. She told us that she saw it happen and also that the police had taken away a man in handcuffs. Then she unlocked the main door to my block with a fob, and I was surprised because I had never seen her before.
I remained on the street, drawn to watch what was going on, yet to do so seemed fiendish, parasitic. I had arrived after the event, so I would only be adding to the sensationalism of the moment, the spectacle, and I was faced with the horrible knowledge that I wished I had been there to see the whole thing, that in some way I had missed out. Defenestrated. Not a word you use often. Ever.
The injured woman remained on the ground, still groaning, still surrounded by paramedics. Keith was buzzing back and forth and I heard him murmur to his wife that they had to cancel the trick-or-treaters. Of course the children must not see this, and it was a relief that Keith thought of this, that he wanted to protect them, that he was doing his best to take care of all of us. A few minutes later I asked him if it really was pushed. He told me that this seemed to be the truth of it; then he made a dash for the door, telling me that he did not want to get too involved, he did not want to get caught up in talking to the police. And anyway, he said, this wasn’t anything to do with us: the incident had happened at York Mansions. I couldn’t believe Keith could be so insular.
“She was that kind of woman and I was not the sort of girl who would ever have anything to do with women who got pushed out of windows.”
A porter came over to my building; I asked him if he had more information. He told me that he had seen the woman clinging to the windowsill. Had he seen her fall? He had heard it. A resident poked her head out, rubbing her arms against the cold, and said to him, ‘So you witnessed it then. Did the police ask for your statement?’ He told her that they had. ‘Wow,’ she said, and folded her arms, with a little frown of distaste. Then, with an upbeat shift, she went on to the porter, ‘I wondered if you’d had time to talk to the lady in 5B about the issue over when she takes her rubbish out …’
And this while the paramedics were trying to move the injured woman on to a stretcher. I moved away from the chipper resident and into the street, shocked, disgusted and looking for solidarity. By 6.30 p.m., most of the residents of Portman Mansions had gone back inside, already distancing themselves from the injured woman, even while she lay on the street, struggling to live. The only watchers who remained were a group of passers-by, people who had caught the incident before they began their commute out of central London, and who had been there for the whole time. We watched. The paramedics had to place the woman back on to the pavement, apparently because she had not been stabilised. It took them another twenty minutes or so – I’m not sure of the exact time – to move her on to the stretcher and wheel her into an ambulance. Some time later, the stretcher came back out and into the middle of the road as six para- medics bent over the woman, and there was a constant beep – of what? A heart-rate monitor? I didn’t know, but it sounded out the seriousness of the situation: touch-and-go.
One of the passers-by told me that he had telephoned for the ambulance; another said that the woman had been screaming at the window for about ten minutes, screaming for her life. So these were the people who had tried to help, and we shared a kind of camaraderie: our watching was a ritual, a shared acknowledgement that the event had happened. It was also an expression of hope. This made the indifference of my neighbours stun me even more. Now, the myth of community spirit did not seem so ridiculous, but desirable.
Eventually, I went inside, and when I looked out at ten o’clock the ambulances had gone and only the police tape remained. Keith came to check on me later and said, ‘Best not to dwell on it. I think she might have been into drugs. They do these sorts of things as punishment when you don’t pay.’ In some way, his intentions were good. He meant to reassure me. She was that kind of woman and I was not the sort of girl who would ever have anything to do with women who got pushed out of windows.
I saw Keith the following day. He said that the police had brought flyers appealing for witnesses. I wondered, Weren’t there enough witnesses? Because to push a woman out of a window after she struggled for ten minutes at 5.30 p.m. on a street that had a steady flow of foot traffic took some brazenness. Who was holding out? Keith also told me that it was a domestic incident. ‘The boyfriend was West Indian,’ he said, as though this fact of race were explanation enough. So not drugs, after all. Keith also said that the woman was only twenty-three years old. And that she had a daughter. Where was the daughter last night? He didn’t know.
Keith told me that ‘the woman’ – this is what we both kept calling her – had broken both legs and her spine, and that I should try not to worry myself about it. So this was the beginning of forgetting, made more apparent when I went outside. The street was bright and clean – not a speck of blood anywhere, only the railing was broken where the woman had hit her head against it, and a tiny speck of yellowish, phlegm-like stuff and a red blob. My boyfriend said it was definitely food. Mustard. Ketchup. The police tape was gone. The only eerie symbol left was the open window, a lace curtain blowing in the breeze. A light was on.
A few days later the light went off. A couple of weeks later the window was closed. But I couldn’t forget: it had happened on my street. I telephoned the police but they could not give me information because I was not a family member, although the officer did say that if I were to see her walking around I would know that she was OK. He said this a couple of times and I could not tell if he was trying to tell me that she would be all right. There was hope. Maybe.
Still, I was dispirited and angry: angry with my neighbours for turning away, angry with Keith for trying to protect me by alienating the woman, angry that Portman Mansions had deceived me. Underneath my cynicism, I had secretly believed that there was some reality to the notion of community feeling. I wanted the intimacy to be real, not just something you put on like a good hat, for summer fairs. But here, and everywhere else in the city, village spirit means exclusion. It means living a local life, with festivals in the square, so that you don’t have to leave your own patch of turf. And one of its appeals is who your neighbours are, their status – you don’t have to be friends with them. Marylebone has Madonna. What it does not have is women who get themselves thrown out of windows.
I could have said that things like this do happen here, and that a refusal to acknowledge them was cowardice. And yet I said nothing. Instead, I let my outrage fizzle to silent conformity because this is the London that I inhabit, the London from which the defenestrated woman has been allowed to vanish, and I suppose that makes me as guilty as the rest. Soon after, I moved house. I don’t know whether she can walk again, or what happened to her daughter, or whether she will ever go back to her flat. I don’t even know her name. To some extent I want to know because I don’t want to forget her; but on the other hand, I tell myself that it would violate her privacy to find out, that I would be feasting on her pain. I’m sure that this is partially true. But really, to make my own life liveable, it is easier to shut her out, to forget why the railing is broken and hope that it will be repaired.