The girl hobbled gingerly past the Cromwell Crown Hotel, shoes in hand, feet rebelling at the cold 4am touch of the paving slabs. But, as her friend beside her spoke, she swung her hair and laughed and it was clear that the afterglow of a New Year's party was keeping her warm.
The pair were a small part of the rag-tag drift of humanity trickling out of central London last night as I drove home from the Isle of Dogs. It was a pretty quiet night at work and I probably could have got away just after midnight if I'd really pushed myself – but what was the point of that? My route home takes me along the Embankment, packed with revellers watching the firework display, and then into Trafalgar Square, traditional home of London's New Year knees-up.
So instead I took my time and left at 3.30am, by which time the roads out of London's heart were lined with tired, happy party-goers, most of them not even bothering to look for taxis as they meandered home.
By half way along the Embankment I was thinking the city had emerged from the party almost unscathed, with very little evidence that only hours before thousands had been on the streets celebrating. And then I caught up with and passed the Westminster Council clean-up crew beavering away – and entered another London. Empty bottles rolling in the gutters, paper blowing, discarded shiny party hats, sparkles of broken glass dusting the road. A few hundred yards further on, heading up Northumberland Avenue, I met the other clean-up crew coming the opposite direction and was back in spotless Olympic-bid London. But for some minutes, it looked like a bomb had gone off.
Trafalgar Square was surprisingly quiet – plenty of police, but not a lot else – but Birdcage Walk had a nasty surprise lurking in one of the patches of gloom between the pale street lamps. The whole width of the road – and it's a wide road, designed for pomp and ceremony – was blocked by crowd control barricades that loomed up without warning. There was just one gap, where one barrier had been moved aside, and there was nothing to suggest whether or not you were allowed through. Not an academic question, either, since dodging through when not permitted would take you on a collision-course with the police patrolling Buckingham Palace.
Except there weren't any – presumably they'd decided that on New Year's night any Fathers4Justice loons would have better things to do than storm the walls. And so I crept past and off into west London, along the Cromwell Road where the shoeless reveller hopped and laughed, and into Chiswick, where five police motorcyclists hurtled past me like a swarm of wasps, sending the speed cameras into a rage of flashing madness.
Finally at home at 4.30am, mouth dry from carolling along with the radio, I found the neighbours still having a party – a quiet, polite party where the music was turned low and the voices were hushed. Sleep beckoned, and I wasn't going to argue with it.
2005, huh? Bring it on.