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I was lucky. They only took my handbag. Sure, they had to floor me first, because I dared to clutch my possessions.
“Was it at night?” is the question too many people have asked me. More than: “Were you hurt?” More than: “Were you scared?” Despite my resistance, I feel compelled to specify that it was dusk. It was 7 PM, on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Like that’s the point. Like this would legitimize my story, a privilege not granted after dark.
I was 31, a marketing executive, and walking home after visiting a friend. How disturbingly familiar this now sounds.
That evening, walking down an eerily quiet Hatton Garden, I remember feeling a sudden chill in the balmy evening as two men walked towards me. Then, a thud, and my face on the pavement. In that precise moment, I recalled those wildlife documentaries. Here goes a gazelle, I thought, meeting its fate in the savannah. My usual confidence, my sense of trust in the world were nowhere to be found. I was prey to the pack of predators that went for me.
They took the phone I was holding, preparing to make that fake call; they took my handbag. I was still gripping my house keys. What else could they take, I asked myself with numb curiosity, in a sort of out-of-body experience, as the events unfolded. They could beat me, or worse, and I would not find it in me to object. It was over in an instant that haunted me for years to come. instants that lasted a lifetime. They ran off with the loot, and with a lot more.
I got up, body throbbing. I need to get home, I told myself. I was not far, but the longer I walked, the longer the road seemed to stretch before me. I will never get home. This will be me, I thought, limping along, and never getting anywhere.
The insurance company tried to calculate the cost of the damage. An interesting exercise and one I have returned to in the 16 years that followed.
Back then, I listed the contents of my handbag. A Filofax brimming with ideas I could not fully recreate and addresses I could not retrieve. A jumper, the first gift from my boyfriend. My vintage sunglasses. A rare CD I had searched for in a niche store, on that day off. My lipstick, my perfume, a gold bangle I had decided against wearing. You don’t think to leave these things at home in the event of a mugging. Or at least, I did not back then.
My wallet also held a photo of my beloved, and recently deceased grandfather, one I was never able to replace. But of course, the muggers weren’t to know this. They weren’t to know that I was grieving and dealing with other enormous losses on the day we crossed paths. They weren’t to know that in taking my bag they also took the last few scraps of resilience I had in me in the midst of my crisis. How could they possibly have known? I was a woman walking home alone and I was game.
I feel guilty writing my story in the aftermath of another femicide. I made it home. Many don’t.
Still, what was the cost of that evening beside the contents of my handbag? I try to write a list. I start with a hefty bill. The taxis home. In the weeks that followed, I relied solely on cabs to get me home at the first hint of darkness. It became a hard habit to break despite its cost. To this day each fare feels like some sort of victim’s tax, onerous and unjust.
At the end of an evening, or even after a long day at work, I am often confronted with the choice between a financial or an emotional levy. Will I choose to save money, and walk briskly home, on edge, keys in hand? Best not. It’s been a lovely evening, why spoil it? Other times I will “chance it”, possessing the audacity to think it is my right to walk alone; my breath will be ever so strained, my shoulders ever so tense, until I make it through the door.
Amongst many well-meaning tips I was given, there was the suggestion to look at men in the eye when passing them. Apparently, the increased likelihood of getting identified can deter potential attackers. That is, if what they want is only a handbag.
For a while I tried it. In the anonymity of the urban jungle, I looked at men in the eye as I walked. I wonder what they saw. I wonder if they saw the fear, or the rage, or both. Or neither.
And then the other costs. There was the insomnia, the nightmares, the anxiety. The sense of injustice, of powerlessness. The walking home that never, ever felt entirely safe. The fact that the street where I lived was now also the street where I could have died.
Two weeks after I was attacked, I walked past two guys in the bustle of my neighbourhood market. My body jolted with what I think was recognition. They both looked back at me with the same sense of familiarity. The adrenaline, the heart pounding, the cold hands, the reaching for my house keys. Their look of defiant impunity, that seemed to say: “And what are you going to do about it?” Or maybe I was paranoid. Because that’s another cost to add to the long list.
The event prompted me to seek therapy, at my expense, of course. Still, it proved invaluable on all the issues I was grappling with. The CICA (Criminal Injury Compensation Authority) issued a cheque that, although it did not begin to replenish my taxi budget, went a long way to restoring some sense of justice. I found another copy of that rare CD, whilst on a business trip on the other side of the world, and felt that for once a benign god was smiling down on me.
More importantly, I have lived to tell. I was lucky.