Alone in a crowd

“It’s easy to stand in the crowd but it takes courage to stand alone”

Mahatma Gandhi

Content: child sexual abuse. Sexual assault.

I’ll never forget the horror of being in danger, in public, and the sickening realisation that no one was noticing. I was too frightened at the age of fourteen to reach out to anyone at all. I felt an insane mix of terror and loneliness, on a bustling high street on a Saturday afternoon.

The worst thing about this terrible situation I found myself in, was that I felt it was my fault. I had instigated this meeting between me and the man who had sexually abused me throughout my childhood. I still feel the flush of shame when I think about that.

The abuse ended for a while when I was ten years old. Life was better. There was a sense of relief; the world seemed brighter. I felt like I could breathe again, at first.

When he wasn’t there anymore I felt this sadness inside me, because for the first time I began to dwell on what I’d lost. I looked carefully at my friends’ relationships with the men in their own families, and I began to miss it, which made no sense because I hadn’t ever had it. Our relationship was only ever about abuse. There was no kindness or love, just fear and shame.

I convinced myself that if I could see him again, it would be different this time and not as I’d remembered. I pushed away all thoughts of abuse, placing them firmly behind the Big Black Door in my mind – the one that held memories too painful to acknowledge at all, including perhaps the most painful – that I was unloveable enough for him to have done these things in the first place.
I was determined that I was wrong, that I’d got it, and him wrong. I refused to believe that it could happen again. That was then and this was now. I wasn’t a child anymore (I thought) I was older, wiser, nearly a woman. Someone he would be proud of. He would look at me and question how he could have walked away. He would love me when when he met me again. I imagined the relationship we might have. Trips to the cinema. Maybe a holiday by the sea, where we would walk together, like normal people, and do what normal people do.

This thinking, this fantasy became my comfort blanket. I convinced myself that it would be true because I craved a normal relationship, and I made the fateful error of picking up the phone and calling him. Despite the fear of my mother who told me to forget it. Forget him. There was one big problem though; my mother didn’t know about the abuse. It was hidden. Covert. It had mostly taken place in my house, more or less under her nose. Whilst she knew he was someone to be wary of, feared even, she didn’t know exactly what he was capable of. No one did. Apart from him, and me. I was fourteen, and angry. I remember looking at her and thinking if you don’t say what you’re really frightened of, and I don’t talk about it either, then there can’t be anything wrong at all. I think I shouted the words that teenagers often shout, something along the lines of “You can’t tell me what to do!” and before long arrangements had been made and I was on my way to meet him.

What happened next was so traumatic, it became part of my nightmares to be re-lived in thoughts, flashbacks and dreams for many years. It culminated in an attempted abduction that felt like one of the most dangerous situations I’d ever been in, yet must have been perceived by others as one of the most normal sights: an older caring relative, taking a young girl out for tea, on a Saturday afternoon.

The Big Black Door opened when I was on my way to the coffee shop and out tumbled a tsunami of flashbacks and body memories that took my breath away. I was horror-struck at what I’d done but was unable to verbalise my terror and back out. After all, I was the one who had convinced my mother to let me go. I was the one to have set a chain of events in motion. I was the driver of the freight train, travelling at 100 mph towards a nightmare with no break to pull and no means of calling for help.

I was powerless.

I detached from the events as they unfolded and watched on from afar, aware of my anxious mother and her strict instructions to not, whatever happened, get in his car. She made me promise, and I did, knowing I’d have no choice, no voice and no hope of keeping myself safe. I couldn’t say the words, “I want to go home”, because I was mute with fear. It was just too late.

And then, suddenly, there he was. The monster I’d forgotten. The same emptiness behind the eyes. The eyes. How could I have forgotten them? They filled me with panic. They always had. There was nothing there. A blank darkness. Years later J.K. Rowling’s description of the Dementors would bring him to mind and I would wonder if she’d known a monster in her own life too.

“Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

These eyes were looking at me once more. How could I have been so stupid and what would it take to get out of this?

I remember the shock of his tongue that pushed quickly inside my mouth as he leaned in to give me a kiss. We were in a crowd of people but no one noticed this brief assault. This was a deliberate reminder. It was a do you remember me?

I quickly ascertained that being in public wouldn’t necessarily protect me. He must have seen my fear and frozen state and he began to play with me, like a cat with a mouse. Steadily, relentlessly, with amusement. We sat in a cafe, surrounded by other people who didn’t seem to notice his unusual behaviour.
The caressing of my hands came first, whilst proclaiming loudly for the others in the room to hear, what a wonderful day this was! How wonderful to see me after all this time! How happy I’d made him!
And he held my hands in his, turning them, rubbing each finger, then my wrists, then my forearms.
He then moved on to commenting on how much I’d grown, whilst staring at my chest, I was unable to cover because he had my hands. Then he caressed my face. He rubbed his fingers over my eyebrows, my cheeks, my lips. It felt like a violation, and so painfully familiar, like a rape. I sat, glued to my chair, unable to believe that not one person seemed to notice. My skin crawled, sweat trickled down my back and my face flamed bright red. My hands and body shook with fear. I could barely look up from the table. I was screaming out for help because I knew where this could lead but no one heard the silent cries inside my head. Except one. One man, who sat on his own, reading his paper.

I looked at him and he looked at me. Then he looked away, looked back again and I could see the look of puzzlement on his face. He’d noticed that something was wrong with this picture. He kept glancing at us and I stared at his eyes, desperate for him to do something, anything, to help me, but he ignored my silent plea and looked away, in the end.

I often thought of him, the man, with his coffee and his paper, and I wondered if he thought of me too. I wonder if he felt any guilt for turning away? He should have, because he knew. He could see that there was something really wrong. He looked into my eyes and saw my terror and he looked the other way. I think about what I would do if I was in his shoes. Would I listen to my instinct and step up? Step in and confront? Would I ask the question, are you ok? or do you need help?

Or would I do the easiest thing of all – normalise and rationalise what I was watching because the alternative was a little bit too much trouble. Because it made me uncomfortable, awkward and embarrassed? Because, what if I was wrong and I was shouted at, or worse? What if I made a fool of myself? Would my courage fail me? After all, it was nothing to do with me: it was not my business.

I’d like to think I’d do better.

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