I often walk along the Greenway in the early evening. It's the quickest way to walk from my place to BestMate's, so in the spring and summer I walk that way rather than catch the tube. It takes about twenty minutes to get from Stratford High Street to the first street in Plaistow, high above the surrounding houses and water treatment works along the elevated sewer top.
I've been walking this way regularly for the last fifteen years. You meet a lot of 'interesting' folk along the way - joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, can-swiggers, graffiti-sprayers, berry-pickers, the devout on their way to mosque - but never anyone who could be described as scary. Not until last week.
I reached the Greenway entrance at the Stratford end a couple of hours before dusk, and noticed a small group of cyclists hanging around by the pillars. There's nothing so unusual about that, except that these three had their hoods up and what looked like handkerchiefs draped across their mouths. They could have been straight out of EastEnders central casting, or they could have been three teenagers out for a ride. I assumed the latter.
As I swung off the pavement onto the long path I noticed the cyclists were looking at me. I mean why wouldn't they, people out and about do tend to look at one another as they pass. But this lot just stood motionless and let their eyes follow me round... or at least it felt like they did, I had no intention of staring back.
Normally I walk the Greenway midweek, when the path is busy with commuting cyclists whizzing home. I don't normally use it at the weekend, not in the evening anyway, and hadn't noticed how different the atmosphere can be. On this occasion there was absolutely nobody on the path ahead of me, not even in the far distance, so I'd be stepping out into an isolated corridor alone.
I pondered the situation briefly, and wondered how wise I was being in carrying on. Then I balanced this against the fact I'd been doing this walk for fifteen years and everything had been fine, and decided that probability favoured proceeding over paranoia.
I'd got about twenty seconds down the path when I was overtaken. A fourth lad, answering the same general physical description as the three on bikes, had walked swiftly up behind me and then to one side and then ahead. He didn't have a hood or a hanky, nor did he stop and hassle me, so perhaps I now enjoyed safety in numbers with a fellow traveller. On the basis that this was probably good news, I carried on.
But then the fourth lad turned round and looked behind him. This seemed an odd thing to do, particularly when he did it again a very short time later. He shot only the briefest glance at me, and instead seemed to be looking back towards the start of the path... at which point I deduced there was likely a connection between him and the cyclists behind. Hmmm.
I stole a quick look behind me as well. The three cyclists were still back at the start of the path, perhaps circling a little, perhaps preparing to depart. Quickly I looked forward again. The fourth lad was still walking in front of me, but no longer as fast as he must have been to overtake me in the first place, which didn't seem right. When he turned round for a third time, I grew increasingly uneasy.
I considered a plausible scenario. The fourth lad was an accomplice of the first three, and it was his job to get in front of me while the other three rode up behind, preferably when I was a bit further down the path and there was no means of escape. They might want to taunt me, or to request my valuables, or various other less agreeable outcomes. Or of course they might not.
I might be the unlucky chap in the wrong place at the wrong time without much hope of defending myself against whatever four young people might choose to do. Or alternatively everything might be absolutely fine. But if I continued ahead I'd be on my own for the next few minutes, increasingly cut off from potential assistance, and that didn't seem like a good risk to take.
I turned round and started walking back. If I'd thought more carefully I'd have done one of those fake theatrical turns where you suddenly look at your watch, slap your forehead and head off in a different direction. I did think carefully enough not to suddenly look at an imaginary message on my phone before doing an about turn. The last thing you do in these circumstances is whip out your priciest valuable and wave it around.
I hadn't gone far up the Greenway, so the safety of the main road was barely a minute away. But now I had a suspicious person behind me, perhaps walking away or perhaps not, I wasn't going to look round and check. Plus there were still those three young cyclists to get past, and... oh bugger, they were now cycling up the Greenway towards me.
The three of them rode slowly and deliberately across both sides of the path, adjusting their bandanas upwards as they approached. Their eyes remained visible throughout, glinting with a look that said "you'd never pick us out at an identity parade". I've seen enough scenes like this on the telly. It's rather less enjoyable to be part of one in real life.
I steeled myself to have to say something, at least, or perhaps to have to act. But no, they simply wobbled fractionally and rode on up the path, without even a word or a gesture as they went. "Phew, I got away with that one," I thought. "Or maybe I overthunk the whole thing, who knows?"
Once safely back at the start of the Greenway I looked back to see what the cyclists were up to. They'd ridden on at a medium pace, it appeared, and were now playful specks in the distance. As for the extra footsoldier he'd disappeared, which was odd given there were no exits, not unless he'd leapt over something or was hiding somewhere.
Technically my route down the Greenway was now safe, so I should have turned around again and walked all the way to Plaistow. But I couldn't bring myself to head off down an isolated path behind a trio of masked cyclists, because the risk of them changing tack again felt too great, so in the end I walked to BestMate's house the long way round. Better fifteen minutes late than not at all.
That was last week. Last night I went round to BestMate's again, at exactly the same time in the evening, and walked all the way down the Greenway to get there. I've decided not to let one potentially awkward encounter deter me from using a shortcut I've been using without incident since 2002, because past data supports the hypothesis that any risk is very low.
Indeed, I'm encouraged that I was awake enough to spot a potentially dangerous situation and avoid it, even if it didn't turn out to be dangerous at all. Or maybe it would have been dangerous if I'd have walked ahead for another minute or two into a total surveillance blackspot, but turning back promptly saved the day? If I did dodge a bullet on the Greenway, I'll never know.