It was New Year 2020. I was at Tristan’s old place on Cambridge Park Road. Me, Lyndon, my nephew Campbell and Tristan were outside, drunkenly and enthusiastically talking. I reckon they must have been smoking and I just went for the conversation. I still find myself doing that twenty years after I gave up smoking. You have the best chats in the smoking area.
It was a mild night for New Year. Probably about 1.30am and we were outside happily. Four lads on the street in loud drunk conversation. I’m not even sure why we ended up so far from the recessed doorway of the flat – out beyond porch and front lawn. Most likely we were worried about noise and neighbours. So we were on the public road with tinnies at about 1.30am on New Year’s Day.
She was wearing heels so we heard her coming. Thirty something, professional. New Year tipsy, but with an extremely alert mien and walking fast tall and visible. She’d clearly been at a big party and she was walking home alone – maybe from the bus. We all instinctively cleared space for her to walk by, while pointedly continuing our conversation with one another. We moved in silent concert so she could pass without going between us. She changed her route actively and walked through our conversation. I saw she had her keys in her hand. As she cut through this expanded group of drunk tall men she didn’t say anything to us, and we said nothing to her, but for the briefest moment she shot me a look that I didn’t understand. It was a mixture of attack and a request. “Behind me,” it seemed to say, without it really even being clear she had communicated anything at all. “Behind me. Fuck off. Behind me. Fuck off.” That’s what I read in that deliberate split second of contact.
I might not otherwise have really noticed him at all, that grey haired shuffling man. With his smart hat and dark suit like he was a ghost from ages past, but very much made of flesh – wiry and short and hard in the face.
He was following in her wake, about four car lengths behind, matching her pace, pale eyes fixed on her with something like hunger. Immediately weird. He literally put the hairs on the back of my neck up, like he was Nosferatu. We took our cue “Evening mate! Happy New Year. Lovely night, isn’t it? Good sign for 2020.” We all engaged him in friendly chatter and politely blocked his path a moment. Just niceties. Enough to slow him down and make it clear to him that we had seen him. He tipped his hat. His vowels were clipped. He could’ve been a magistrate, or a justice of the peace. My own RP vowels. Vowels we have somehow been encouraged to trust. A relic of times past but still an active Pavlovian signal. The vowels they use to lie to us every day.
By the time he was through our group she had gained some distance from him, and yet we didn’t stop him for long. We delayed him momentarily with our politeness. Meanwhile she had abruptly turned right into one of the big blocks with gardens and was out of sight.
We remained there, one of us still talking as I processed this strange moment. Clearly he had been following her for some time and she had been very aware of it.
I tuned out my friend’s monologue and watched his back as he shuffled away from us. Would he walk past the place where she turned? Was he just insensitive and going home? What could I do without making the situation worse? Was it my place to even think that?
When he was level with the path into which she must have gone, he stopped. He turned to face the house. And he remained standing there, stock still. Ten seconds. Twenty. The houses on that street are big and divided into flats, with multiple entrances.
He stood. It was like all his senses were on high alert. Tiny hairs in his ear primed for even the tiniest sound. Nostrils flaring. Breath all but held. Thirty seconds. A minute. He froze like a sniper, all of his focus on the place he had last seen her. Two of the lads with me had gone right back to talking, and the rise and fall of their alcoholic blither underscored his silent watching. It was fucking weird, this man dressed in the skin of respectability, sniffing after this woman like a nazgul after Frodo. My skin was crawling. I half expected him to suddenly move with supernatural speed. Did she live there? – Or had she ducked into the garden to finally shake this tenebrous creature? Was she standing behind a bin waiting for him to go? He must have stood for three minutes with barely a movement – hard full focus on empty space, unaware of our equal focus on him. Then he wheeled back ninety degrees and continued to walk away from us at last with a different gait – less of a shuffle. Going home. Fun over. “That guy was fucking weird,” I remarked, and swept back to the drunken friends. We went back to our friends. He went home. The only person with their evening ruined was her.
It stuck in my mind. It surprises me how clearly it all comes back to me considering how much I would’ve drunk by that stage. But it was weird. And yet, depressingly, it happens every night.
What did he think he was doing? I learnt as a young man to be aware that if there was a woman walking alone late at night she might be feeling unsafe. I try to cross the road away if I’m walking faster, or make a phone call on my mobile to a friend so I’m easily audible, or choose a slightly different route just because why be part of the problem. Because it IS a problem. Because of creepy fuckers like that old guy? Yes but more. Much more. And I’m part of it.
I’ve seen it in young men too. “You’re cockblocking me,” shouted a guy maybe 23 on a night bus, chest out at me after a woman I didn’t know suddenly sat next to me as I was heading home happily reading my book. “Pretend you know me,” she shot in under her breath. I understood and two minutes later I had a twenty year old trying to pick a fight with me. “You don’t know her. You’re cockblocking me!” To even use that phrase openly – what was he thinking when she had gone to a stranger for help? He clearly understood I didn’t know her, so evidently she was actively trying to get him to back down and he wasn’t and wasn’t and wasn’t. In a strange irony, I ended up having to walk her to her door – she lived near me. “Are you sure you’re ok with me knowing where you live after the night you’ve had?” “You’re fine. I’ve got an instinct for this. It’s not my first time doing this.” I think she even took my number and messaged me the next day to say thanks. This was like fifteen years ago… Just pings back to memory. “It’s not my first time doing this”. How often? And I’m not saying whoopee me here. She made the whole thing happen. I just got swept up.
MEN. WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?
Seriously. If you’ve ever been that guy. Stop it. And we all have. We all are. Have some respect for yourself and for others. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. What you feel is not what others feel… That’s an important lesson generally – (useful in acting as well). Just because you fancy somebody and you’re horny – it really doesn’t follow that they either fancy you or are horny. (Just because you feel sad it won’t make people cry.)
This is of course in the light of this godawful news story about that poor woman in South London. With the home secretary having to say “every woman should feel safe”. They should. And we as men must help by taking responsibility, each and every one of us, for our behaviour. The old creepy guy, if pinned down, would try to make out like he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was though, even just by failing to take into account how uncomfortable he was making another human being. And by being oblivious to his free power in this world, where whatever happened with poor Sarah is still happening and we are all too aware of it. It makes my blood boil. How do we teach these boys, these men, these creeps, these successful professionals? Me? Grrr
So that’s just poured out of me. I’ve been driving all day. 400 miles of it with radio 4. It shot by. Would’ve been nicer with Lou in the sputnik seat but it was all done and done and dusted anyway and I just had to think lots. And I thought about those women, that situation, and the question of how do we actually genuinely teach men of all ages to understand the generational stuff they’ve got for free? And I’m not free of it. I’ve fucked up before, misread signals, failed to see past my desire, let my balls do the thinking for too long. I can do better. We all can do better. And I’ve got as much work to do as anybody.
It was International Women’s Day this week and it looks like a woman in South London just got murdered by a cop on her way home.