I had braced myself for a volley of expletives, a violent demand for money or, at the very least, an aggressive 'what you looking at?' - but not an apology. Few people apologise for their behaviour in King's Cross. I watched in fascination as she scrabbled for the rest of her stash, and asked, naively, if she had seen a doctor. She said it was too late, that she was forced to pick up 'fat, disgusting scum' to feed her habit.
I have lived at the southern end of Caledonian Road, in the heart of 'The Cross', for five years. I thought I was immune to most things - shrivelled condoms on my doorstep, shouts of 'how much?' as I hurry home from work, car doors flung open with a leer. But coming face to face with such despair left me shaken and depressed.
I have seen her since, waiting for a trick in the bitter cold, haranguing her pimp on street corners and buying cigarettes from a local newsagent. Squeezed into a crotch-high miniskirt, flimsy bomber jacket and plastic slingbacks, she cannot be more than 30, but her face is grey and bears the hallmarks of hard drugs and poverty.
Sex has never been so cheap or so rife in King's Cross. At one time girls working the station rarely strayed on to residential streets, but repeated police clean-up campaigns have driven vice deeper into the community. Prostitutes now ply their trade in full view of homes, offices, shops and schools. Business is brisk. Between January and August police issued more than 1,000 cautions for kerb-crawling and soliciting in the area.
Cruisers are easy to spot. They hug the pavement in squeaky Vauxhalls and flutter their headlights expectantly. As far as the drivers are concerned, any woman under 50 walking after dark is on the game.
The fashion designer Pam Hogg, who has lived and worked in King's Cross for 10 years, has her own way of putting them straight. 'I stick my head through the car window and bellow 'fuck off' or I whack the bonnet,' she says with relish. Or she pretends to take down the registration numbers. 'That really scares them off.'
Women quickly forget how to saunter here. In King's Cross, we stride and avoid eye contact. Men also do well not to linger. Friends who call round are approached by girls as soon as they step off the bus or Tube - 'tenner for a blow job or pounds 20 for the works'. Locals run the gauntlet of mottled thighs every day. 'I can't walk round the corner without being accosted by a girl with her tights wrapped round her neck,' complains a neighbour.
Those who do partake are not choosy about when and where they do it. I have seen a girl on her knees fellating a man old enough to be her father, only yards from the bustling King's Cross concourse. The house opposite, once home to a group of mentally disturbed men, was closed this summer after becoming a haven for prostitutes, punters and dealers. Although the property is now bricked and boarded, the derelict garden is still in use. Last week I watched from my kitchen window as a young girl wearing leather boots up to her armpits steered a silver-haired, distinguished-looking businessman over the rubble and sodden mattresses for a quickie behind the wall. A few hundred yards away a group of mothers gathered outside the primary school to collect their children.
Violence and petty vandalism are facts of life here. Not long after I moved in, a lunchtime drink was interrupted by a brick thrown through the pub window which narrowly missed the head of my companion. I have also had a bottle lobbed through my own window for no particular reason - it was 4am and the man who threw it was drunk.
After dark, the junkies and pushers begin to congregate around the snack bars and takeaways on Pentonville Road and York Way. Returning home from a night out, I have been offered speed, smack, crack, ecstasy, dope. Drug paraphernalia - needles, balloons, foil, spoons - litter the streets and there is a threatening edge to the glassy-eyed packs who prowl the area looking to score. 'It's like New York,' shuddered one neighbour after witnessing a brutal skirmish.
Winos are less sinister. They brawl in doorways, urinate in the gutter, cadge cigarettes and change, but it rarely gets any worse. I know a few by name because they soak up the estimated pounds 5 I part with each week, and they don't spin me a line.
Despite this grim underworld, normal life does exist in King's Cross. The parade of shops on Caledonian Road would not be out of place in a leafy suburb. Florist, bookshop, optician, craft shop; there is even a health food store and an Italian bistro. In the last few months alone an art gallery, a stylish sandwich bar and a hairdressing salon have all opened for business a stone's throw from a shady porn cinema and sauna.
A short walk reveals some glossy media names, enticed by cheap rents and up-
market expectations. Some of them have been disappointed. 'King's Cross is a shit hole,' says Alasdair Ritchie, managing director of the advertising agency TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie. Jane Scruton, director of the design consultants Wolff Olins, is more generous. 'We quite like the quirkiness,' she asserts. 'We've always had confidence in alternative areas; we're not wimps, you know.'
After five years, I have no illusions about King's Cross. I am accustomed to sympathetic glances when I mention where I live. I no longer get riled by taxi drivers who drop me off late at night with a knowing wink. I even sleep through police sirens and bottles shattering outside my window. And funnily enough, I feel safer here than I do walking around more tranquil areas of London. Whatever the hour, you are never alone. As Pam Hogg says: 'King's Cross isn't everyone's idea of bliss, but at least it's alive.'
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