When I first moved to London, my parents were constantly asking me if I was safe. They would ask me about my neighbourhood, what the buses and trains were like, how I got home at night, how many people were around if I was walking home late. They worried. I had lived in big cities before but London is a different beast. I think it’s because it’s more faceless: it’s famous for being a city of individuals who are wrapped up in their own affairs. My mother pictured me getting mugged on a dark street and being stepped over by locals annoyed at being inconvenienced by my body on the floor.
So it came as a surprise to her that the first time I felt truly frightened since I moved here over 4 years ago was on a brightly lit train, at 9 in the morning, surrounded by people.
Photo by @technicallyaaron (instagram)
The internet is full of tongue-in-cheek listicles (hate that word) of the crimes of commuting. Don’t manspread. Don’t hover at ticket barriers. For the love of GOD get on the right side of the escalators. My personal pet peeve is people leaning on the pole designed to be held to stop you going arse of tit onto the poor person next to you. So when I had to angle my arm behind a man leaning on the pole on the tube, I did a silent sigh of annoyance. He was not happy at my ‘intrusion’ and let me know by slowly pushing his weight onto my hand. This escalated: I would flex more, he would push more until I asked him to move. He refused and crushed my fingers with his elbow. I told him he was hurting me. He grabbed my wrist – hard – shoved me backwards and hissed in my face ‘Well move your fucking arm then, you fucking bitch’. The man on the other side of me took a half-step between us: ‘Woah, have some manners’ (a weird reaction but one that was much appreciated, especially as everyone else around us averted their eyes).
I couldn’t move away from him as the carriage was rammed. My legs were shaking so much I could barely stay upright. I pretended to read my Kindle as my eyesight blurred. I dug my fingernails into my arm in order to not cry. I absolutely would not cry in front of this man. 5 stops later I got off the train, as did he. My relief at being off the train quickly turned to fear that he would confront me outside the station. If you’re the kind of man who grabs hold of a woman in a tube full of people, what would you do in a less populated area? He didn’t do anything, of course. He shot me a smug smirk and walked in the opposite direction.
I spent the morning at work trying not to cry. I felt shaky and weak and absolutely terrified. My boss asked what was wrong and it was then that I finally allowed myself to cry. She was horrified, as were other colleagues. One asked if I was going to report him. I don’t know why I didn’t.
Technically he assaulted me. He assaulted me. I was furious. I was furious at myself for not standing up to him, for getting so upset. I was furious that only one person intervened. That more people didn’t seem shocked. At first I felt silly calling it an assault, like I was making a mountain out of a molehill. Quite a few people I spoke to saw it as an unwelcome, but unavoidable, downside of commuting: ‘People get horrible commuter rage don’t they?’, ‘What an overreaction to such a small thing’, ‘This is why everyone hates Londoners’.
More than anything I am so angry that he made me feel scared in my own city. I put off leaving work for as long as possible, as the thought of getting back on the tube made me want to be sick. This happened weeks ago and I still look round the carriage to see if he is there, even though I know the chances of that are miniscule. I’m angry because it brought home to me that I’m incredibly vulnerable and a large part of that is because I’m a woman. I was lucky that it was a minor assault, but it made me wonder what he would have done to me if we’d been on an empty train when I got on the wrong side of him. These are the things that run through your head in that split second when a stranger grabs you and you know in your gut that you couldn’t stop him if you wanted to. I’m about average height and I like to think that my nails could probably disembowel a man, but I’m not at all strong and the moment it happened all of the strength went out of me. It’s a very sobering thought and one I had never allowed to fully form in my head, although I’d be willing to bet that most women have had a similar one at some point in their lives.
I know that there is a fear that if you get involved with someone else’s business that you will put yourself in danger. I am not advocating that. But if one person had asked me if I was okay, it would have made all the difference. It would have shown me that people could see what was going on, it would have made me feel less alone. I would have felt safer. And it would have shown that awful man that what he did was not okay, and that he had been seen. A quick ‘are you okay?’ or ‘do you want to switch places?’ if the person is still near them. You’re not confronting anyone, you’re offering support to a person who needs it. And that is incredibly powerful.
There isn’t much of a point to this blog post. I am basically using it to vent and to try to make sense of what I am feeling. I am shaking writing this and feel unbelievably sad that it happened. I love this city and I feel as though that man has ruined a tiny part of it for me. I worry that I’ll have those conversations ex-Londoners have where people say with a laugh ‘Oh but I bet you don’t miss the commuting!’ and this will be what springs to mind. I don’t want this man in my memory of London and I don’t want him lurking at the darker edges of my paranoia when I step onto the last train home, or walk down my quiet London suburb street. I’m just not sure how to get him out.