This will be hard to read, for some. It was hard to write, harder still to experience. But I want to say one thing loud and clear: My attacker was never caught. Many are not. He did not actually rape – and, therefore, his actions were seen as, in some way, less serious, less damaging. This angers me still.
I write this in order to use the harrow to plough over the fear, churn that bitter soil into something of goodness and potential nourishment.
The man whose actions triggered panic the other night has made me think – and remember. Not him. He is not at fault. Simply, his movements took me back. Only this time, the man – a dark, wiry shape exuding menace – was approaching me along a narrow street, late at night.
Do you know: After all these years, I can still remember what I was wearing: A flowery longish skirt in shades of cream and crimson; a white blouse and a crimson fluffy cardigan. Thirty years old, I was, pretty, slim – and drunk, though not incapable.
Normally, these pavement passings lead to one person letting the other through, or a brief nod of acknowledgement.
Did I feel the energy within? Yes. It was acidic, deranged (or drugged), barbed wire instead of muscles; it was chemical scent and blackness. But I was still unprepared for the pounce, cat upon a dozy mouse; I was still in innocence when it came to hard fingers, with sharp nails, prodding and poking beneath the waist line, into territory I had, previously, associated mainly with pleasure. The thought that someone could press fingers hard enough into my breasts to leave marks, bruises, which stayed for ages, would never have occurred to me. The punch to my face, which left a bruise and cracked a tooth, was completely outside my experience.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing of all was that this man was not aroused, in any normal sense. It was not about sex. It was about anger, violence, the need to hurt someone.
But at least – as some people said, as if I had been making a huge fuss about nothing – he did not rape me. True. But not the point.
Fast forward a few days – though, muffled by trauma as I was at the time, it could just as easily have been months – and, calling a taxi, I made my first trip into town: I had run out of food, did not drive in those days. I asked – then, and for some time to come – for a female driver.
I can remember standing on the bottom step of the side entrance to Weston-super-Mare’s Tesco, shaking, cotton wool in my head, trying to get the courage to take that first step, literally and metaphorically.
A dishevelled man, rough, smelly, swaying, chose that moment to stagger out of the store. He was mumbling under his breath, swear words a vomit-like stream being puked out of his anger-bag. I can see now that he was mentally ill, that his life of decay was, in all probability, not his fault; that the system had let him down. More to be pitied than censured, in other words.
Then? He was lurching in my direction, clearly not in control.
I froze. Breathing accelerated to a frantic gallop. The space where my brain was, where control arose, dissolved into an echoing cavern. I recall it vividly still. Legs and arms began to shake. Tummy was prodded with terror’s sharp and painful sticks. Light-headed, I was certain I was having a heart attack and would die, right there, in front of this guy – and maybe, at some level, this is what I was hoping.
All thoughts of food and shopping abandoned, I ran, crying and jagged of breath, certain that he would catch up with me and hurt me.
He didn’t. I did not figure in his tormented inner landscape; I doubt he even saw me.
That was where it began. And yet it wasn’t and didn’t. For there were other contributory factors which, buds in themselves, only flowered in the aftermath of that early September night in 1988.
I am not writing this for attention, or pity, or because I am a Drama Queen (all of which have been levelled at me at some point); I am tracing the present by accessing dark parts of the past. I am attempting to gain control of my current panic by going back to the origins.
The man in the Assembly Rooms the other night, battling his own demons, inadvertently pulled out the stopper of the bottle which holds mine. His lurching walk, his aura of barely-suppressed rage, reminded me of my attacker.
But maybe this unknown man in 2017 has done me a big favour. Maybe that bottle needed to be smashed open, in panic’s flailing around; maybe I needed, once again, to face that night and see the attack again.
Maybe I needed to experience what is now beginning to rise: Rage at my unknown assailant.