There is a song for every human experience. The Chorus of girls ‘Climbing over rocky mountains’ from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance runs through my head as I think of four girls on the brink of womanhood about to set forth into the world. Chattering, giggling, warmed in the sun, free. Light words about boys, clothes, the possibilities of our impending trip, icecream around the corner, which flavour to choose and the way we should take through a light dappled, narrow wood running between two fields.
STOP; a loud, crashing cymbal. A man, covered in soil, with his penis flopped out of his trousers, exposed. Transfixed, had we even seen this before?
‘You can touch it if you like?’
‘No – we don’t want to, put it away.’ My level-headed friend retorted.
Then a step forward, a shriek, ‘flasher’, discordant violins pierce the air, ‘Run!’
Turning, too late, two hands, like steaks slapped against my breasts. With a strength I had never possessed I threw my arms backwards, knocking them off and sprang forwards towards my friends, away from the woods and into the open fields. Running together to reach the main road, a bungalow, a kindly lady, safety, the Police. Looking down, two brown handprints on my chest. I threw the new white t-shirt in the bin.
A lucky escape, that time we got away. The chatter ceased – urgent. We would no longer walk around the south-west coast path. Our trip changed. We confined ourselves to buses and main roads. Not for us the windswept open cliffs, the wild places.
A little later, and wiser, a big city, dark and damp as the winter crept in. 17th November 1980 Jacqueline Hill was murdered near to her student’s residence.
We all phoned home, ‘I’m okay, don’t worry, everyone is keeping each other safe.’
The directive, ‘Make sure no woman goes anywhere alone, not even to the canteen.’
I stopped cycling in to lectures and caught the bus. Sat by a kindly lady, she asked me did I know anyone on the bus to walk me from the bus stop through the wooded fringes of the halls to my house. No, I didn’t. She told me not to worry the bus was full of boys from the men’s hall she worked at and she would ask them to escort me. Horrified I declined – lots of people would get off the bus and head in the same direction as me; I’d be fine. Gradually things calmed down, the nights got lighter and I started cycling again. I realised I was safer on my road bike with a man’s frame and wearing my waterproof with my hood; disguised.
Another city, this one with dreamy spires and warm, ancient Cotswold stone. My first job, a bottom of the rung research technician at the University; I had started on my path. I carried out most of the experiments thought up by the Oxford don I was employed for. I shared a small lab with Mary, a beautiful soft-spoken woman from Lewis, who had just married a chiselled Australian. She had climbed a few more rungs up the ladder than me and was doing post-doctoral research in the same field as my boss. He showed me the techniques, Mary taught me what I needed to know. Working mostly alone or with Mary, the whole department all gathered for coffee or tea twice a day congregating in different corners of the room depending on status with some blurred edges – technicians, postgrads and postdocs, dons. I soon learned that at least two of the other technicians had previously worked in my role. They were friendly, caring, concerned. ‘Had he asked me to pose topless?’
He hadn’t and I laughed because there wasn’t much to photograph. The year swung round. I was bored and was looking for my next rung. Eventually, I got to section and process some material that had been subjected to radioisotopes. Mary was away, so my boss stepped in to show me the next step of the autoradiography process. On a hot afternoon, we went into the darkroom and fumbled around in the red murk of the safelight. We were wrapping slides with the film, so any isotopes could blacken it, showing the location of the substances they were part of. All would be revealed when the films were developed later. I watched his long, white fingers working deftly. Then it was my turn. I was just getting the hang of it when I felt his hand on my bottom and a squeeze. Suddenly tensed, like a compressed spring, I jumped away to the side. What should I do? Open the door? Let the light in? Instead ‘Are we nearly finished I’m feeling dizzy’. I didn’t say anything else, had anything happened even? I sat down, he cleared up and put the slides in a light proof cupboard. I escaped, shaken and quiet, to the tearoom.
Mary returned, she asked had it been okay, I told her. ‘Don’t worry we can do the next stage together.’ Shortly afterwards, an advert ‘experience in autoradiography desirable’; I applied for the job. On my exit interview. ‘Was there any particular reason I had for leaving?’ ‘Yes’, of course there was, ‘It’s a better job!’.
I know I’m a risk-taker. Its not long before I dared to be in the woods or open spaces. I ran – a lot. I hoped I could escape should I come across anyone predatory. I was wary and I carried a spray. Once a dog owner I felt much safer. But underneath, after all those years, there is still the fear. Only a few weeks ago, jogging down to a stream in the woods I see a man emerge from a reed bed nearby. My heart races and that lump rises in my throat, my pace quickens to that not seen since pre-children. Eyes down I dash along before he reaches the path. ‘He’s probably bird-watching.’ I feel guilty imagining potential harm from an innocent man enjoying being immersed in nature. I look behind, I’m all alone and I take out my phone to capture the peace. Then the thoughts ‘You idiot he might catch you up!’ and off I set only slowing when I reach the road.
You might wonder why I am bothering to tell these stories now. I know every woman has stories like mine and men do too. Am I jumping on the band wagon, attention seeking? I hope not. I know there are many with far worse experiences and 99.9% of the time I’m fine. I do what I want without fear. Or I think I do. Habitual and ingrained I’ve accepted this is the human condition. But really is it? We are better than this, aren’t we?
When Sarah Everard was murdered and the outcry for women to feel safe erupted, I wondered why. I thought there will always be people who tip over the edge, the nutters. Then I felt my daughter’s rage. I realise that all of us have been accepting the small intrusions, the unease, the fear, encroaching our safe places for too long. How the acceptance gives the message ‘it’s okay’. Creeping and insidious the small acts of disrespect, these messages, grow and amalgamate to be acts that are life-damaging, life-changing, life-ending. I wish I’d made a fuss; I wish I’d spoken out; but I didn’t. Now I am. It’s time to say ‘It’s not okay’. Let’s stop humming under our breath and raise an anthem. Enough is enough.
Carol is an editor and publisher. She has worked with writers for over 20 years, supporting and guiding them in their work. If you would like to unlock your words, write your stories and speak your truth – just for yourself if you wish, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, send her a message or join her Facebook group ‘Editors’ and writers’ hub’.