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You like to walk. It’s a beautiful evening. Home is only a mile away and the streets are still busy so you walk even though it’s one in the morning. You leave the bar and head up towards the High Street where night buses pass you every few minutes. You could easily take one, but there are other people inside, people you don’t trust not to ruin your private glow of whisky and laughter. It’s been a good night. You’re happy and grateful.
You like to walk and so you let yourself – up the high street, under the bridge, past that long string of Vietnamese restaurants. You’re walking along, breathing it all in, but part of you is still in the bar and part of you is at home already. It’s this talent for being in different places at once that means it takes longer than it should to notice: no-one’s around and the streetlights are dimmer.
Fear never waits to be invited. Outside you’re the same, but inside you’ve shrunk to the size of a pinhead. Blood roaring, heart clawing, running up the street as fast as you’re able except that your legs are hardly moving, it’s your eyes that are sprinting – darting from doorway to doorway, checking every bush, bus stop and railing for what feels like must be an inevitable danger.
Breathe, you say, but your body won’t listen.
You’re safe, you say, but the animal in you knows better because while your eyes have been racing your ears have picked up on a noise that’s unmistakable:
Footsteps. The heart-sinking sound of a person behind you.
You were thirteen the first time you were mugged at knife point. Other things had happened before that, but thirteen was the first time you were alone and old enough to understand what was happening. Wet hair hanging down your back after swimming practice. His angry eyes and darkening sweat pits. You were walking alone then too – how have you still not learnt that lesson?
Do what they say. Don’t fight back. Give them whatever they ask for. Those are the rules of survival you’ve always had drilled into you. Don’t scream, stay very still, wait until it’s over. It’s those rules as much as the violence that have left you fully grown, but with blurry edges.
A complicated message, especially for a woman.
The footsteps behind you are getting closer.
You keep walking, keep walking. You like to walk. You have always liked walking. You could walk across the road but then he’ll know that you’re frightened and you don’t want him to know anything at all about you so you pretend that you’re okay, you pretend that this isn’t happening, and pretending is how you turn yourself invisible.
Easier for some than for others. You are not a good girl. You weren’t built for obedience. You feel a surging dizziness and the sharp taste of raw instinct. All he sees is a woman, quietly walking. He doesn’t know that you’re wild. He can’t see that you’re animal.
“Wild is wild,” is what a friend always says to you.
You visited her once at her family home in Namibia and she told you about how her uncle had been killed by a lion that he’d raised from a baby. At first the animal was tame and obedient. Loving even, according to how the family tells it. Then one day, all of a sudden, the fully grown lion attacked and killed him.
Her family killed the lion because that’s how it goes with these things, but you silently wished it could’ve been different. No one should lose their life for being true to their nature.
Part woman, part beast, animal ears hearing everything. Keys stuffed like claws between your fingers. You try to remember your sporadic Krav Maga and self-defence classes, but it’s all theoretical. You’ve never been brave enough to do any of the things you learnt in an actual real life situation. It scares you to think you might have to. It scares you to think you might want to.
Fight, flight or freeze – the flavours of fear you’ve already tasted. Once you fought, but mostly you’ve felt frozen. Flight doesn’t work anymore because it implies somewhere safe to run to and the truth is you’re always scared, you just don’t always admit it.
It’s okay. You’re alright. The private mantra you’re never not repeating.
And then you hear it – the low hum of a tune that’s so well-known even you can recognise it. And even though you’re terrified, you’re doing the kind of thing that makes you blame yourself for so much of your long history with violence:
You’re turning around. You’re making yourself look at him.
You’re sizing him up just long enough for your voice to pivot from frightened to friendly
– about your height, not too well built, long dreads that might mean he’s a bona fide Rasta.
Animals don’t smile, but that’s exactly what you’re doing.
“I love that song” is what you hear yourself saying to him.
The man keeps pace and pretends to be nice to you.
You pretend too even though you suspect he knows what you’re up to.
At first, he returns your small talk about music but it doesn’t take long for him to figure out that that one song is the extent of your knowledge of reggae. Words taper off into silence. When he goes back to singing you tell yourself everything’s going to be alright, that if there’s a soundtrack to violence it probably isn’t Bob Marley.
The man tells you he’s a DJ who’s just finished a set at a club in Hoxton. He’s on his way to meet friends at a bar you know in Dalston.
It’s good to have something simple in common.
He won’t hurt you if he knows you. Fuck the statistics.
He talks about music in general and reggae in particular and you’re so grateful he hasn’t hurt you yet, you’re practically floating.
The English language is full of empty phrases: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t; time heals all things; choose to be happy. As if violence is something that doesn’t always stay with you. Burrowing into your spine and restricting your movements.
People who say those things have never had anything meaningful forcefully taken from them.
A male therapist once suggested that you ask yourself:
‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
He realised his mistake as soon as he said it. The way you shrank back in your chair, eyes wide, looking at him like he was crazy.
You’ve got yourself this far.
The man carries on next to you and part of you marvels at how easy the night is for him – small talk, singing, the simple luxury of being authentic.
The more he talks the more you think he probably is a good person and all that authenticity starts to wear you down a little. You tell him about your night and that you’re heading home now.
“Where do you live?”
His words physically hurt you.
You wave vaguely in the wrong direction.
He asks if you want to come to the bar.
You say no thank you.
Once upon a time bad things happened every six months like clockwork. You were thinking exactly that when a man cut off your jogging route around the reservoir. He demanded your phone and pointed a rusted knife in your direction and all you could think was how small he was and how, if you grabbed his wrist just right, you could twist it and make him stab himself before he realised what was happening.
The man you’re walking with keeps trying to persuade you.
You say no again. No. No, thank you.
You don’t like to repeat yourself.
You don’t like to risk what confrontation brings up in you.
He doesn’t have that worry. He doesn’t have to worry about anything.
“Wild is wild,” you hear your friend saying.
You cross the road and turn left. The man carries on and doesn’t follow you. You know because you check and check again, then again just to be certain.
You’ve turned two blocks before you needed to and the route ahead is even darker than the road that first scared you.
You tell yourself you’re okay.
You remind yourself that nothing’s actually happened.
He didn’t do anything to you, but there’s something in the nothingness that’s still upsetting. Nothingness stacked so deep you can barely keep walking because violence is always physical unless it’s soft and seeping and dank and insidious.
Even nice guys only have to be nice for as long as they choose to.
Sometimes you fantasise about being an ass-kicking assassin. Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or Angelina Jolie in just about everything. You’d slice through violence as if it was nothing. You’d flick flack through a room full of men who won’t listen and use their language of force to teach them a lesson.
And even though you know it’s not real, even though you know it’s all lights, camera and action, you like to see women fighting men and winning. Seeing is believing and you need to believe that somewhere, women are winning.
The street you’re on has opened into a dark square of rippling shadows. You don’t want to be there so you use the only superpower you have – disassociation. You walk, you keep walking, you have to keep walking, but you’re not there anymore, you’re back with your friend, deep in the desert in Namibia.
The desert is like the dark in that it’s so vast it takes time for your eyes to get used to it. You might think you’re looking at the horizon, but look again and you’ll find that the end of the world has stretched itself out even further.
The sun slices clear lines between lightness and darkness and it’s too hot for anyone to do anything except exist very gently.
You concentrate on that unbreathable hotness. The feeling of letting go, giving in, the simple act of enduring. Mind shutting down. Body taking over. This is how you’ve always soothed yourself – by taking yourself away, by sinking into your memories.
There’s no desert to be found here in the city. Hardly any nature at all or at least, nothing wild and unmanicured.
And that’s when you see it: A fox.
Moving down the middle of the road just ahead of you.
Eye contact isn’t a thing people do in London, but the fox looks over his shoulder and stares squarely at you and its animal gaze takes you back to how good you felt when you first started out walking.
You remember being happy. You remember feeling grateful.
It’s not the route you would have taken but you follow the fox and its civilising rhythm – passed the church then right for two blocks, across the road and up the diagonal. It makes you feel safe. Not just safe from fear, but safe from pretending.
The fox walks in the middle of the road, you walk on the pavement. You walk together, sharing looks, one survivor to another and there are no words because the fox already knows everything the desert has taught you:
That time isn’t linear; that you’ll never not be a young girl with a man looming over you; that you’re not as weak as the world likes to tell you; that you have your own stubborn rhythm that carries on despite everything; that it’s possible to be both wild and civilised; that you’re barely human at all, but rather animal and grateful.
You walk with the fox all the way to your doorstep, through the city and over desert, sharing a night that is only that night but also all the other nights that came before it.
Mish Harris has a creative writing MA from City University. In 2020 she performed her nonfiction piece 'Peggy Sue Doesn’t Live Here' for the Power Of Women festival and had her short story 'The Fog' shortlisted for the Thanet Writers Prize.