It was going to be a blog piece about the Spring Equinox and hope and plum blossom. That’s what was agreed. But then this week happens. It starts with an International Women’s Day and ends with a Mother’s Day and in between you learn the name Sarah Everard. First the posters with her face on them. Increasingly desperate social media pleas for sightings. You know straight away she is dead. Then it’s confirmed. A brutal abduction and murder as she walked home at 9.30pm in Clapham. It’s not 1am is it? (What difference would that have made to the headlines?). She wasn’t drunk (what difference would that have made to the headlines?) She wasn’t dressed short skirt low cut high heels (what difference would that have made to the headlines?) In Clapham. Which is just up the road from where you’re sitting. And moments from where you used to live and walk home every night. 9.30pm. Not late. Not unreasonable (what is too late, what time does it become your fault?). And then you see a policeman kneeling on a masked woman attending a vigil for her death. A vigil you were at, an hour earlier. Silent, but for a slightly off message bongo player. Sad. Sombre. Masked and distanced. A policeman kneeling on a prone redhead. And now you can’t write about Spring and blossom and hope.
It starts early, with smiley old men in the church hall after mass, who want you to sit on their knee. Pretty much insist on it. And even though they smell of cigarettes and bad breath breakfast, you do. Because you’re a polite well behaved girl. And as they jiggle you up and down you know you don’t like it. At all.
Men smile at you and look you up and down in your school uniform. There is a constant commentary as you go through the turnstiles at Wimbledon station or get on the bus in Southfields. A couple of times, more than a couple, they slow their cars right down and the wheels scrunch alongside you as the window is wound down. They have to really reach to do that because this is before electric anything. Hello. Where are you going? Do you want a lift love? No thank you heart pounding feet moving fast but not running. Never running because then they will know.
Your piano teacher takes you down into his windowless basement for music appreciation. In the dark. Door shut. Just you and him. You can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Rachmaninov is so loud your ears feel achy. These sessions happen three times before you ask if they can stop because you don’t like them. They cease without a beat’s hesitation. Which is weird. If they were important for your musical progress, there might have been some back and forth right? You stop playing piano a few months later. It’s a shame as you’ve won a scholarship to the Purcell School. It’s not until your thirties that you remember the red face and the pouring sweat and the big white hanky in his hand when the lights came back on.
Walking up a road in Wimbledon Village on your way to your boyfriend’s house at the top of the hill on a white hot summer holiday lunchtime. You pass a car with the window wound down. A deep emphatic voice from within informs you of what he is going to do with you. In detail. You do a triple freeze take before your brain is able to compute what is happening. Every woman knows it. The gap between the terrifying thing and the realisation that it is in fact happening. And happening to you. The gap that feels like time grinds to a halt and a short circuit disables your muscles. Then a flood of adrenalin and your feet are moving as fast as they can without running. Never running. Running makes it real. Makes it clear that you’re afraid. Aged 15 you already know it’s a really bad idea to let them know that you’re afraid. It’s exactly what they want you to be.
The delayed realisation thing. It takes you until fifteen years after the fact to realise that you’ve been raped. By you’re good, good friend, who you’ve danced with and giggled with and discussed the merits of Ice T with. That he was raping you when he got you so high you could barely move and then undressed you while you repeated over and over what are you doing why are you doing that don’t do that stop. Because for fifteen years it couldn’t possibly have been rape because he was your friend and it didn’t hurt your body. You still feel bad calling it that because there is part of you that believes that unless you’ve died scratching their eyes out it doesn’t warrant the label. What we swallow.
Those are the big ones. Only some. There are more. Some are too hard to type.
It’s the tiny ones that do the real damage. The daily stares, give us a smile love. Can I get a your number? No? You lesbian you’re too ugly to shag anyways. The language is worse than this. The ones that walk too close, that speed up when you do and slow down the same. Getting home with keys out, keys that have been between your fingers. You’re not sure you’d be that good at slashing. Your hands might be shaking too much if it came to it. Please don’t let it come to it. Keys out and hands shaking and door open quick quick and shut behind you and heart pounding and thank god.
And more insidious. Risky talk to about. The lingering hand in the small of the back at dinner parties. The eyes that make you ashamed you wore a low cut top because they never waver from the bottom of that v whilst the mouth is talking to you. The casual slut shaming, victim blaming commentary that passes for polite conversation.
This week another delayed realisation. It’s taken you forty-eight years to realise the reason why you always check the backseat when you get in the car. Why you lock the doors immediately. Why you walk in the middle of the road and pretend to be on the phone if you can’t actually be on a call to someone. Why you know exactly where a man on the street is in relation to you and where you are in relation to some notion of help. A house with lights on. A woman walking towards you. Why you wear that low cut cami to some places, but not others. All of this so automatic that you don’t notice it.
Until this week. When you realise that you’re scared. All the time. You risk assess. All the time. And what you’re scared of is men. Of their violence. Of their judgement. Of their sense of entitlement. It’s not an irrational fear. You’ve been learning the rules of this game since you were a small child.
You try not to let it close life down. You’re the mouthy feminist right? The good value, up for a fight type. But it does. No running at night even if there wasn’t time during the day. No quick nip out to the shop if it’s after dark, it can wait ‘til tomorrow. Even if it can’t really. Type that tweet, then delete it because that egg avatar is a man and what if he finds your address and turns up outside? That happens.
It’s a curfew. A never-ending martial law of sorts. And if you break the curfew and something does happen it would definitely be your fault.
She dies and you cry. For her, and for all the others. Less pretty, less white, less local, who you don’t even hear about. No one does.
And you cry for yourself. For the girl on the lap. The girl in the basement. The girl on that posh Wimbledon road one hot summer day.
You wanted to write about Spring and blossom. But you couldn’t. Because she died. And you wrote on the card you left at the bandstand that you would fight for the rest of your life that it never happen again. And your rage grief came roaring to life.