On Close Encounters

Now that the parental unit have returned from the depths of Eastern Europe and I am back home, ostensibly safe, I can explain one of the reasons why I disliked London so intensely for so long.

On 6 o’ clock on a Friday evening in early January 2006, five days after I’d returned from my first trip home after moving to London, I walked down the street from the local Costcutter with a bottle of milk.  M, with whom I was living with at the time, was out at a housewarming party of a mutual friend of ours and I, as usual, was too tired to go.  I was going to have a cup of tea, cook dinner, read a book and go to bed.

I was daydreaming as I walked, as I was in a good mood after all the sunlight in Oz, and I was actually pleased to be back in London.  As I walked, I sensed that there was someone behind me and I glanced around.  There was a man behind me.  I also looked across the road and noticed a girl walking on ahead.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

I turned left into the paved area between our block of flats, which held the recycling and garbage bins.  There was a covered way between this paved area and the grassy space surrounded by the flats.  I sensed the man following me but still didn’t think much of it.  I thought, almost unconsciously, that if I could get into the grassy space, I would be fine, as it was in the open.

As I passed under the covered way the man grabbed me.  I screamed, or roared, rather, as soon as I felt his arms coming around me.  A wave of adrenalin flooded my body and it felt as though I was waking from a nightmare, except of course was real.

The man put his man over my mouth to stop me screaming and his little finger got caught between my lips.  I bit down hard, and didn’t let go.  His grip, which had been quite soft anyway, loosened further and I twisted out of his grasp, still biting.  Then he just let go and walked away.  The whole thing was over in less than a minute.

The man didn’t run away, but walked, which suggested to me that he had done something like this before.  He also smelled bad, like he hadn’t had a shower for a month, so it seemed to me that he didn’t have a home.  Also, he couldn’t have known the area as there was nowhere he could have taken me unless he had a flat there, which was unlikely.  So I think he had a screw or two loose.

I stared after him, to try and get a description of him that I could give to the police, but all I could see that he was tall and black.  I remember the pinkness the inside of his hand as it closed around my mouth.  His bad smell was on my skin and his blood was in my mouth.  I spat it out in the sink once I got home, which in retrospect was a stupid thing to do because even if I had spat into a hanky they would have been able to get it analysed.

Then I dialled emergency services and they sent the police around, but they took more than an hour to arrive.  I was desperate to have a shower to get the smell off my skin but I couldn’t risk not hearing the police arrive.  As I sat on the stairs waiting for them, I decided that I wouldn’t allow myself be defeated by what had happened.  I wasn’t going to let some mad fucker ruin my life.

When the police finally arrived they apologised for being late, and said they hadn’t been able to find the flat.  They’d looked for CCTV footage but the camera didn’t reach under the covered way.  They asked if the man had said anything to me and I said that I was deaf but I didn’t think so.  Then they asked if he’d tried to grab my bag and I said no, his grip had been quite soft.  The only unusual thing I could remember was that his hands smelled of sex, but perhaps it was just that they hadn’t been washed for a while.    I asked about the possibility of AIDS because his blood had gone down my throat and the policeman said it was unlikely because it would just pass through my digestive system, where as there needed to be a cut for the virus to get into my bloodstream.  I had an AIDS test anyway and it all came up fine.  Then the policemen said it would be better if I was with someone than on my own, and offered to drive me to the party that M was at, but it was too far away.  When they left I had a very long shower, called my brother who, to his credit, didn’t freak out too much, and got a taxi to the party.  M and Wtk gave me a bit hug when I arrived.  I was wearing a new perfume, by Nina Ricci, and ever since that night I haven’t been able to wear it without qualms.  Recently, however, I gave it to my mother as I’ve since found ones I like more (Prada and Agent Provacateur, of course) and now that she wears it the unsettling associations it brings up have gone.

For the whole time the attack was going on I acted purely on instinct – there was no space in my head  for any thought at all.  I have my brother to thank for that: the many occasions on which I beat him up gave me a chance to practice my fighting spirit.  And as my father pointed out, when I told him, such was my nature that I would never allow anyone to get the better hand.  I would always fight back, every time.

However, the actual incident wasn’t what upset me most.  The reason why I came to hate London so much lay in the two men unloading a van, four metres away, who would have heard me scream but didn’t come to help.  Nor did anyone in the surrounding flats come out.

The police rang me up sporadically in the weeks that followed that to say they hadn’t found anything.  They sent me a victims’ compensation pack but it was too much bother to follow it up and I figured some poor bastard would need it more than me.  I didn’t expect much of the coppers (it’s London, they’re all overworked), though I didn’t appreciate being patronisingly told to calm down on one occasion when I wasn’t even agitated, I just couldn’t hear what I was being told.

It took about a year to get over it and to feel relatively safe walking on my own again, though I rarely went out after dark.  It is to my mother’s credit that I didn’t turn into a racist bitch.  She always said to me, ‘Never use the word “hate”, and never hate other people.’  I remained suspicious of black men, and physically they intimidated me because they’re so big and I’m so small, but every time there was a negative thought I tried to reason it away.  It gave me some insight, however, into hatred, and visceral it is, and how easily it wipes away academic arguments for peace and fairness.  A friend, to whom I described what had happened, said he couldn’t help but note that I had referred to the man as black, and that poverty and discrimination had a lot to contribute to the high incidence of violence among black men.  I replied that I was aware of that, but under no circumstances should a man have the licence to hit or attack a woman, no matter how bad their life is.  He conceded pretty quickly that this was true.

H also paid for me to do a self-defence course (as I was too povo to afford it myself), which I highly recommend, by Debi of Premier Self-Defence. It also, I was delighted to find, had the added bonus of the self-defence moves being demonstrated by one of the hottest Asian men I have ever seen.  I also bought a Weeble from them, a tube of hard plastic in which you can keep your emergency numbers and a pound coin for a phone call, and which can be used to take a urine sample if you think your drink had been spiked, and also to bash someone over the head if they attack you.  As I chose one in pink, M began affectionately referring to it as my ‘personal device’, much to my amusement.

It was indicative of the emotional maturity of the man with whom we were living (ie. 40-going-on-4) that the first thing he said to me, when I told him I had been attacked was, ‘Well, nothing like that’s ever happened to me.’  I thought, Of course it hasn’t you fuckwit, you’re a man and you’re twice as wide and twice as tall as I am.  I moved out after a year, as H was moving to London and I moved in with him, and it was with a sense of relief that I walked about in Stepney, which was a predominantly Muslim area.  Although I have a lot of difficulties with the way Muslims treat women, the atmosphere in the area was far less aggressive than in Hackney.

Ultimately, if I had been able to hear how close the man was behind me, I would have been more alert than I was.  I was immensely annoyed that I could no longer have the luxury of daydreaming, but had to be alert at all times.  However, I was also extremely lucky that nothing worse had happened to me.  It was a wake-up call, and I always tried to be very aware of my surroundings from that point on.  I am still nervous when people are behind me and I can’t hear them, which explains my overreaction in this incident (which also demonstrates I am very far from being a lady at times).

Suffice to say, one of the nicer things about Brisbane is that I don’t have to be so neurotic and nervous whenever I walk about, not least because the abundant sunshine means I can see what’s going on around me, unlike in the dark where I’m at an added disadvantage. The place is just generally less threatening than London – there isn’t that dystopian sense of pent-up anger and hatred, and the brooding, overcast sky, and the buildings stained by acid rain.

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