Warning: not for the faint-hearted!
Someone’s watching me….
As I turn onto Great Russell Street, the whole of Bloomsbury behind me seems to echo with my footsteps. There’s something about frosty nights that seem to make sound travel further and faster and for a second, I am sure that the echo is more than an echo and a second set of footsteps follow at a distance behind me.
The immense bulk of the British Museum looms, oddly bereft without the usual hoard of visitors milling around; a faint odour of old fried onions still fills the air as I approach the gates, but the hotdog seller is long gone and maybe the smell is my imagination, like those footsteps. I consider my route for a moment, and turn back a little and head along Museum Street.
Click clack click clack…my heels would strike sparks if I walked any faster; little Segs nailed into them to slow the inevitable wear. I’ve only got one good pair of shoes for going out and they cost me far too much to let them wear down as quickly as they will otherwise do. I can’t bear seeing girls wearing heels that are half worn and uneven, stumbling because of the poor grip. I’d much rather wear good running shoes but out in my glad rags, they don’t exactly go, if you know what I mean.
It’s also cold and I wish I had worn a proper coat instead of this excuse for a jacket. But you have to look the part, and I hadn’t originally intended to be coming home this late or on foot for that matter. I’m not the first girl to walk home because she’s run out of money for a taxi and I won’t be the last. At this time of the morning, the tube is still shut and I’d never go down there alone at night anyway. Brave I may be but I am not either fearless or stupid. Up here, I can hear anyone or see them before they see me. Or at least I think so. Those footsteps are beginning to bother me but it’s late and I’m tired. I worked a long day yesterday (or was it today when I got off shift? Can’t remember now).
I cut across New Oxford Street and down into Shaftesbury Avenue and think about Shaftesbury the man, and how today’s London would thrill him. None of the dreadful, mind-blowing poverty is left; even our poor are better off than the poor of his day. I’ve gone past the turning for Neal Street now and I curse softly. I want the most direct route and if I continue down Monmouth Street I’ll be funnelled straight down to St Martin’s and Trafalgar Square. If I cut through Neal’s Yard, I’ll be back on track.
Neal’s Yard is eerily quiet and unnerving; the massive potted trees rattle their twigs at me and I shiver as I pass through. At the other side of the yard, I pause, sure I have heard something, but a small black shape races across the gap and I relax. It’s just a rat; you’re never far from a rat in London (or any city) but you seldom see them by daylight.
But daylight is a long way off, and I want my bed and I cut across Long Acre and down into Covent Garden. It’s deserted, as you’d imagine, and silent, how you could never imagine it being in the day. Litter blows across the cobbles and I can hear music somewhere. It’s past closing time for just about everywhere, so maybe it’s someone’s car stereo.
Another rat darts across. Despite the best efforts, food waste attracts vermin and I wait to be sure the rat was alone. Something that might once have been a burger is so mashed into the cobbles; another small black shape detaches itself from its meal and starts to run.
“Nothing to fear from me, mate,” I say, and begin to walk again.
There’s traffic noise now coming from The Strand, but only intermittent and again I am certain I can hear footsteps. I still myself as I walk, willing myself to be calm and to listen. I’m going slower now, even though as my heartbeat begins to race I want to break into a run.
There is indeed someone behind me, maybe thirty yards or maybe a bit more. They are keeping pace with me, keeping out of sight in the shadows. Oh crap. Whoever it is he (or she, because I can’t see them) is very good at this. When I stop, they stop. No wonder I thought it an echo. As I round the corner and come close to the shuttered Jubilee Market, I know that whoever it is will have to cross the open space and be visible, so I take the road next to the Market and walk down very fast till I get to the Strand, where the lights are brighter and there is a little traffic.
It’s not a lot of use really, because as soon as I get there, I know that I can’t even hail a taxi. I have about thirty pence in my purse, and no means of getting more, so I can’t even say, “Take me to a cash point!”. I’ll just have to hope that my follower is slower than I am. I can run pretty fast if I need to, but in these shoes? I don’t think so.
I cross the Strand and take the alley between buildings. I can sense someone behind me, the other side of the road but I’m damned if I give him the satisfaction of turning round to try and see him. The alley is steep and has a flight of steps, and I nearly fall as I negotiate the steps. It’s horribly dark down here and I wonder if I have made a mistake. But Embankment Gardens are at the bottom of this alley and once through those, I’ll be down on Embankment and into brighter light.
At the bottom I realise my mistake too late. They lock the gardens at night. I consider my options. I could climb the railings and cross like that. But I am in a tight skirt and I don’t think it’s going to allow me to do that. Short of taking the damn thing off while I hop over the fence, I’m stuck.
It’s then I make my big mistake. I turn right and start to follow the gardens roughly west. I’ve forgotten that if I turn left, I can cut through and join the Embankment near Waterloo Bridge. I am thinking that maybe one of the other gates will be open and I can cut through. Like I say, I’m tired. Turning right takes me between the Gardens and the backs of the properties in the streets behind the Strand. Once, hundreds of years ago, the Savoy Palace stood somewhere along here and further back in time, the Strand was indeed a sort of beach.
My heart nearly bursts out of my chest; the footsteps behind me have got a lot faster suddenly and like an idiot, I instinctively begin to run, cursing both shoes and skirt as they impede my speed. To my horror, the way ahead plunges into a dark lane, leading to parking garages or something for the buildings that tower above me. Dim orange lamps make more shadows than light and as I stumble, I fall headlong into a darkened corner. I scramble onto my knees, poised like a runner at the start of a race, trying to see who’s there.
I hear breaking glass and the dim lights vanish and I am in almost total darkness. All I can hear is my own breath rasping in my throat and the sudden slowing of footsteps. The bastard has broken the lamps so I can’t see him, and after a second, a bright light appears directly in front of me, ten or so yards away. He’s holding a powerful flashlight, shining it deliberately in my eyes so I can’t see him. I can feel bile rising in my throat and I think that maybe if I throw up on him, then he’ll be so disgusted he’ll let me go. I’m also feeling so angry that I could burst; some anger at myself for letting this happen to me but simple, atavistic fury at the old, old story of the subjugation of women by fear.
Something glints as the light wavers and I know he has a knife. Oh well. The fury passes and I am left with resignation; if I can live through this, then maybe that’s something. There’s nowhere left to run after all. My mouth is so dry but I open it anyway to scream.
“Don’t scream,” he says.
His voice is flat and deliberately accent-less, as if he doesn’t want me to know his origins. That’s good. It might mean he intends me to live. I try to control my breathing but it’s coming out ragged and rough and I retch with fear and I sense him smiling. Don’t ask me how I know that, but when he speaks again I can hear his pleasure in my fear.
“Throw your bag over there,” he says and with shaking hands I comply, fumbling a little.
“Don’t hurt me,” I say, and am shocked. I sound like a little girl.
He just laughs. The torch dips a little and I hear him moving towards me and then I hear the unmistakeable sound of a belt being undone. I swallow hard and brace myself for the inevitable.
The next few seconds are chaos and yelling and even a bit of blood.
But the blood is not mine. The knife clatters across the concrete; I even fancy it sparked a little, and my attacker stares at me in shock, clutching at the side of his head, cut open when I hit him with the torch I retrieved from my bag. But he only has a second to investigate his wounds, before I wrench that arm into a firm hold behind his back and secure it with the other hand in cuffs, and because I am only human, and because my knee is in the middle of his back (my skirt has now ripped beyond repair), I lean over and press his face ever so gently into the dirty floor and whisper,
And I get to my feet and walk away and leave my other followers to drag this animal to the van waiting outside in the street.