Returning home from visiting the GP surgery one foggy November night when I was fifteen I heard muffled footsteps behind me. Having seen one too many Hammer Horror Films I had taken the dog lead with me in case of attack by (insert your own fear) but now felt foolish. The person behind me was almost certainly a commuter walking home from the nearby station. Nevertheless I slowed down in order that this person could overtake me, and therefore relieve my “paranoia”. He did not pass me. The last thing I consciously remember is his left forearm holding my throat from behind, his right fist punching me in the back, and an indescribably frightening voice growling in my right ear. My next conscious memory is of finding myself leaning backwards in a privet hedge and seeing a fist coming towards my face. My assailant punched my nose, then turned and ran off into the fog.
The details of how I got home and the reaction of my parents aren’t relevant but I should explain that in those days any kind of psychological “help” was feared as it would almost certainly be assumed that the recipient would inevitably be incarcerated in an asylum.
Likewise, unless there were broken bones to be set (noses don’t count) or wounds to be stitched visits to hospitals were considered unnecessary. I nursed my bruised and swollen face, my painful ribs, and my broken nose in the privacy of the family home.
The next evening a detective came to the house and took a statement from me, and that was the last time the incident was discussed.
Two days later I was cycling to school through the local allotments and a man came towards me on a bicycle. I felt the bile rise in my throat, expecting the worst, but he took something out of his inside jacket pocket and held it up for me to see as he approached. He was a plain-clothes police officer and he asked if I cycled to school on that route every day. When I said I did he advised me to stick to the highways since the previous day a girl had been accosted by a man on her way to school. Maybe this was true. Maybe the local constabulary were merely being hyper-vigilant after my attack (good for them if they were) but whichever is the case it would seem that they were alarmed enough to attempt to either pre-empt another incident or to catch the perpetrator.
Nobody in their right mind beats a stranger in the street senseless for no reason, or for the purpose of rape. Nobody in their right mind causes injury to anybody. But there are many people who are not in their right mind yet walk among us. Sadly the criminal justice system does not appear to acknowledge this and there seems no enthusiasm in any quarter to examine the motives of perpetrators more deeply in order to address the issue.
I could not possibly say that my life was ruined by this horrific attack. It was not. I have led a fulfilling “normal” life. What I can say, without hesitation, is that it made me very, very vigilant – to the point where today, more than fifty years later, seeing people engrossed in their small hand-held screens or depriving themselves of their aural awareness by hearing only what comes through ear-piece or headset makes me shudder. To me – overly-sensitive to the possibility of danger – those people are sitting targets for criminals. In my case it also alerted me to the sad fact that all the defence lessons in the world could not help me. Not for the first time when confronted with a frightening situation I had fainted (there may be a more concise medical term or description for not being aware of what was happening to me, but I don’t know it) so although I may assume that I struggled with my assailant, perhaps striking him with the dog chain, I have absolutely no idea if this was truly the case. I know only that I was not killed, but have often wondered if this man eventually did take a life. Without psychological intervention I cannot see any other conclusion to his behaviour.
I would urge awareness on everyone’s part. Almost everybody carries a mobile phone. Be prepared to use it immediately to telephone the police (NOT to film the event!!!) if you see someone being hurt. If you can do so without risking harm yourself, intervene. Sometimes shouting alone can interrupt or stop an attack. Support any plan to provide psychiatric services for those whose behaviour endangers others – and that means an enormous percentage of the people who come to police attention, whether they are subsequently arrested or not.
Meanwhile, we have to muddle through with the system we have, ever mindful of what we can do to protect ourselves and others.