On Fearlessness and Terror
How One Night Can Change a Personality
I grew up in the countryside. When I say countryside, don't imagine one of the charming settlements most English people call a village. What people call a village where I'm from, geographers would, I think, after some minutes of head-scratching bafflement, declare a hamlet; possibly.
I walked a mile home from school when I was six, and so did everybody else. We had stranger-danger and the green cross code drummed into us like anyone, but there was scarcely any need for it.
As I got older, I stumbled up and down the lightless hill to my house at any time of night. The danger was potholes, not people. I nearly missed my secondary school dinner dance, the greatest event of the year, because a nasty fall had ripped layers of skin from my knee. I suppose I carried a torch after that.
Like all sensible country teens, I fled for the city as soon as I was able. My behaviour didn't change one bit: I ambled up and down streets that could be fairly termed 'dark alleys' without noticing. I walked home from late nights out to save the taxi fare. Twenty-four-hour shops were invented for absent-minded night owls; liberated from the need to plan food shopping, I abandoned the concept of a list and bought my dinner at 1 am.
Maybe the lucky upbringing stunted some fear gene or other; nipped some sense of terror in the bud. Maybe it was my show-off solid grasp of statistics, trotted out whenever a surprised work colleague offered to pay my bus fare home, assuming that poverty was the flaw in my psychology: women are much less likely to be attacked in the street than at home; less than 10% of sexual violence against women is perpetrated by strangers (I always assumed, having watched too many horrifying Crimewatch re-enactments, that this was what they were worried about). Men, I opined, should be careful on their way home, being twice as likely as I to be attacked by a stranger.
Maybe it was simple stupidity.
I made it nine smug years. Last August, my best friend and I had just returned from a joyous few days in Spain, spent drunkenly setting the world to rights. I remember telling her about the unfairly bad reputation of my area. As we reached my flat, I breezily decided to get us a pizza. She offered to come with me. I said, "Don't be silly, stay there. I'm always wandering around here at this time." It was midnight, perhaps half past. There was still sand in my hair, and I felt deliciously baked by the sun.
The ATM I've visited a thousand times is two or three minutes' walk. I ask it for my last £40 (if you come home from holiday with proper money to spare, you're doing it wrong). A shadow moves beside my ear. "He's a bit close." I think. I turn.
I know that he'll hit me before his weight slams into my shoulder, but I also know he definitely will not hit me. Considering he is about 16 and the little part of his face I can see is baby-skinned, he knocks me to the ground extremely easily. My head thumps against the pavement, not even hard; my cry is not pain, but request: don't do this, that is not yours, don't hurt me. A childish plea for empathy, which, needless to say, is not forthcoming. He runs.
I lie there.
Two other boys, young enough that I suspect they should have bedtimes, run over and gawp at me.
"You bitch," one says. It is oddly without malice. I am not even sure it is me he is insulting.
They run after the mugger, who I suppose is their friend after all.
I stagger towards home. On the way, I am accosted by a man in a car, parked outside the pizza place I was going to visit.
"Hey, have they just robbed you?"
"Yes," I reply, vaguely, breathlessly. I am not really sure I am speaking, or, in fact, awake at all. The sun's leftover warmth has deserted me. He calls them a name, tells me to report it. I am not sure this sage advice was worth stopping for.
My best friend is aghast. My boyfriend is horrified. I am struck by the hilarious irony of this happening tonight, when I have point-blank refused an offer of company that I don't usually get.
A police officer comes, he writes the things I tell him into my statement. He reads it back to me, and I think that no-one who has ever met me would believe I said these things. This would never stand up in court.
"I don't talk like that. Look at this grammar. Would I say this?" I complain to my friend, later. She clearly believes I am worrying about the wrong issue. I am sure I am not. He stays until 3 am and we never get our pizza.
I sleep surprisingly well. People are nice to me. My boyfriend will not let me go to a cash machine alone. The kind man in the post office looks after my parcels. He has seen the CCTV and thinks I might not feel well enough to be out much. He would be right, if I was sure it had happened. I think I still think it was a dream.
It is a week or more before I start jumping at noises. Once, I am stranded, missing a bus that was early, or maybe I was just late, and I start walking. It is not late in the day, but it is late in the year and dark.
IamfineIamfineIamfine. A crisp packet is blown along the street a few metres behind me. I leave the ground. I actually leap into the air and realise that 'jump out of your skin' is not an amusing idiom but something that really happens.
Shadows begin walking towards me. The wavering silhouettes of tree branches are stalking me. People are always behind me. I feel them creeping up on me while I am sitting, back to the wall, chatting to my ESL students about Japanese politics.
I am constantly sizing up young men in the street, wondering if I will see him. I am sure that I will recognise him and certain that I won't. I do not see him, and I do. I am constantly perplexed by his ridiculous youth.
The CID telephone to say that the CCTV footage shows that they followed me from my street to the ATM.
"We can see everything happened just like you said it did."
The CCTV is too poor to identify anyone.
"There is nothing more we can do. Is there anything you think we should be doing?"
Perhaps you could try being the police, I think.
"No." I say. "Thank you."
I dine out on this for weeks. I tell everyone I know about how the police phone victims of crime to ask them how to investigate. Everyone is amazed. Chinese people, Brazilians, Russians, are duly informed of the absurdity of the British police. I besmirch their name all over the planet. This will be an international scandal, on a small scale.
The little robber boy goes on barrelling into people at cash machines, presumably. I think I am less angry with him than with the sweet-voiced young police officer on the phone. Everyone in this story is an infant. I feel ancient at twenty-seven.
This story is very small. I am furious about how these thirty seconds have destroyed my personality. I used to worry about spiders, now I worry about being attacked in the street, which everyone knows doesn't really happen. Except now it does. The foundation of my personality has had holes poked in it. Every so often I fall through them. Terrible people constructed by my subconscious attack me with knives in my dreams. I wonder why I am so feeble. I stop reporting my panics to my boyfriend, who I am unfairly sure will tire of my melodrama. I never tell my mother, who is mildly surprised when she visits and I rail at her for walking a little way up the street while I am at an ATM.
And then, I begin to get better. I will never visit a cash machine at night again, but I stop jumping quite so high when I hear noises. I realise that I have stopped scanning the faces of young men to find the one who made off with my pizza money and my bravery. I sit up all night writing a very long account of this experience, because for some reason, after I have put pen to paper (I am very old-fashioned that way), the story will not stop coming. I empty a pen and blunt a pencil along the way.
All the way through, I am unsure of my conclusion, and then I realise that it is simply to tell you this, if you are one of the nearly two million people mugged in the UK alone each year, or the presumably hundreds of millions more elsewhere: you will not be scared always. The person who ran off with your peace of mind cannot keep it, and the body's ability to heal extends to the mind.
It is daylight as I finally stop writing, and the shadows are disappearing.
About the author
I teach English, watch Bollywood, learn Hindi, herd cats, and don't buy new clothes. Follow me on the Spinstress for sarcasm and snacks; MovieJaadoo for Hindi film. :)