Finsbury Park - with it's multiplex of communities and ghostly Georgian grandeur moldering beneath a smock of wind-blown debris - is more a thoroughfare than a destination, lacking as it does any real point of focus to gather itself around. Even the park feels abandoned. Yet it is host to an eclectic overspill of casual city cool, from Highbury and Islington and other more favorable London locations, resulting in it being a microcosm of Greater London in all it's ravishing ugliness. Classy wine bars snuggle up to rundown news agents. A faddy restaurant services a polished clientele directly opposite a closed-down video shop, its shattered windows poorly boarded over.
And Finsbury Park is also host to a forgotten nation, passing through but never leaving.
I can't recall when I first saw her, three incongruous layers of clothing against the cold, and later, the city heat. Black slithers of hair from under a faded blue headscarf. Plastic sandals over threadbare knee-high socks. Tobacco-stained fingers. Haunted eyes blazing above sallow and sunken cheeks. I never learnt her name, or where she was from. In typical city ignorance I assumed she was a gypsy, an illegal immigrant. Someone of unsavory origin, distant eastern european roots perhaps? I saw her somehow as an entirely different order of being to myself. Not beneath me - my socialist ideals would never allow me to entertain such a notion! - but somehow alien. Somehow other. And in that I was guilty of dehumanizing her, though I would have denied it strongly at the time. I had consistently striven never to look at her, never to catch her eye. Never to fully acknowledge her existence.
"Have you seen them?" She once asked me. "They were amongst the trees..." I handed her a pound that was loose in my pocket and smiled, trying to breath through my mouth so as to avoid her stagnant spicy odour.
"There you go love. Gotta rush..." and in seconds she was a memory, then less than a memory.
For two years she would randomly stumble into my world. Mostly I would be successful in skirting around her, pretending I hadn't seen her. I would conjure up a sudden need to cross the road, squinting earnestly in another direction, even resorting to dropping into the nearest shop and buying a packet of cigarettes I didn't require. But sometimes I would turn a corner and she would just be right there, her dark eyes fixed intently on my own.
"Please, they were amongst the trees..." She would say.
Or "They can't be far. You can help me find them now, can't you?"
Or "They're only very little - but strong!"
Finsbury Park tube station has one exit that takes you out under a high flat shelter for the buses. There is usually a newspaper vendor, often a beggar, and sometimes a busker plying his trade. This time there was a policeman talking into his radio, and at his feet she sat - quite still - knees drawn up to her chest. Hands in tight cordy fists. Her face was unnaturally frozen in an expression of unfathomable loss - or sadness, or inner pain, I couldn't guess what. The eyes were open, but unfocussed. The mouth wide, lips drawn back over decaying yellow teeth. I thought then, absently, she might have been pretty once.
It took me literally moments to realize that she had died - sitting there, consumed by a personal and profound agony. It was writ in every fiber, every molecule of her fragile body.
In her silence she screamed.
"They were amongst the trees..."