This short story combined with statistical data about sexual assault and violence against women, describes the anxiety of navigating public spaces while trying to stay safe. In a short 20-minute walk, the writer examines the effects of street harassment, sexual assault in taxis and public transport, and the inadequate response by the justice system.
This piece of creative fiction entwined with statistical facts was originally written as a response to one of the themes of the Writing Human Rights module at the University of Warwick. The module confronts human rights themes and develops creative responses to them in writing. Students have free rein to choose the topic and style of their stories. They have written pieces of journalism, short fictional stories, sci-fi, screenplays, comment pieces, podcast episodes and TED talks. We have worked with students to develop the best examples of their writing and publish them on Lacuna (find them here). Mary Collingridge’s story is a response to the #MeToo section of the module. Mary is a law graduate on the LLB degree. Her inspiration for this story about anxiety experienced by women in public spaces, came from the media and public response to the murder of Sarah Everard in 2021, and sexual violence stories covered in the news.
In 10 hours’ time, the sun will thaw the frost that has coated the world in glitter. It will rise after a long night behind black skies. People will leave their homes, rushing to see family, finish last minute shopping, or saying goodbyes on their last day of work. The world will feel safer. Perhaps the terrors who lurk in the dark are scared of the light because it illuminates the lives they ruin.
The walk home only takes 20 minutes. I’ll take the high street, past the shops, cinema, supermarket, chip van, restaurants, cafes; turn right, on the main road, past the taxi rank, petrol station, corner shop, hairdressers; turn left, past the park entrance, down the lane, across the junction; home is on the left. It’s been a good night. No one is going in my direction, so I’ll walk home alone.
Everyone is filing out of the bar – it’s not that late but it’s almost Christmas and everyone is happy and drunk. The best kind of drunk. Someone catcalls and whistles. Four girls are laughing, bantering back. It feels later than it is as the winter fog curls around the road signs. It’s a small town – there’s no trouble here. Twenty minutes and I’ll be home.
The streetlights are casting the town in an orange glow. The shops are mostly dark, their grills locked up. A child’s toy is slung over a bollard. Litter has been blown across the pavements; a tin can is scrunched on the road.
I’ve left the crowd and now the street is deserted. Voices are fading down the alleyway to my right: a couple going home together. Car doors slamming, engines whirring, getting quieter… silence. After a day and night surrounded by people and noise, my ears are now muffled.
I should have worn something warmer. Away from the bar, I stand out in a short skirt, strappy top and denim jacket. I’m not used to walking far in heels and I’m worried I look alone and drunk.
I need to walk faster. I’m cold and the wind is seeping through my jacket. This walk seems much longer at night and I can’t listen to music. What if someone sneaks up on me? It wouldn’t happen, but what if? I don’t want to take my hands out of my pockets anyway. The last few shops are lit with Christmas decorations. Maybe it’ll snow. I have a good week ahead – drinks, food, family, friends.
I can hear the thud of a bass. There’s a car approaching from behind.
Pull down your skirt, hide your stomach, hold your keys tight.
Is it slowing down? Am I being paranoid? No, it is slowing down. I can hear the brakes. It’s stopping…
Nearly half of all women in the UK (41%) say they take steps on a regular basis to protect themselves from sexual assault. One in five women never walk alone at night. Half of the female population do not feel safe walking alone at night even in busy places. The constant threats are not worth a quick walk home. Perpetrators are trained in gaslighting their victims to make them feel as though they’re overreacting.
‘Slut.’ ‘Slag.’ ‘Whore.’ Almost every woman has received these comments. Quite often, they have also described someone else with them. It’s a cycle of misogyny, veiled through jokes. And these jokes lead to some individuals utilising these attitudes for their own gratification. A study found that 55% of men deem women to be more likely to be harassed or assaulted if she wears more revealing clothes. From a young age girls report making clothing choices to ensure they are less vulnerable.
Clothing has no correlation with sexual assault. Women are harassed in jeans or skirts, in winter or summer, bundled up or showing skin. Rape has been committed since the beginning of time, through the ages of petticoats trailing the floor, and impenetrable corsets. The only common theme is the assaulters’ decisions. Clothing is not consent.
I can’t breathe. This is it. What will they do? Why are they stopping? 999 on speed dial. I’m ready to press green. The car is moving again, speeding up, screeching. It’s driving past me – fast. Water splashes my ankles but no one’s honking anymore. They were waiting at the roundabout. Someone wasn’t paying attention. Nothing to do with me. I’m overreacting. I have cramp from gripping my phone. My keys are cutting my hand. I need to relax.
Deep breath. Turn right.
Fifteen minutes to go. The road is getting darker. The council hasn’t decorated this street in Christmas cheer. It’s quieter too. Less traffic… fewer witnesses… Don’t be stupid –I’m almost there. Today’s been a good day. I’m excited for a hot chocolate. Maybe some snacks. My mouth is really dry.
It seems quieter than usual. The chip van is already closed. There’s no sign it was open except a polystyrene carton discarded on the ground. The fog is muting the world. Maybe an Uber is available. It’ll be expensive at this time of year though. It’s only a 10-minute walk… that’s such a waste. Besides, why should I have to pay for an Uber? My guy friends could do the walk for free. I’m being pathetic. I’m not changing my life to appease my anxieties. I’m overreacting. But I’d be out of the cold, and safe in a car…
Six thousand sexual assaults were reported to Uber in the US in two years. UK statistics are unknown. The 6,000 allegations include 235 rapes, 280 attempted rapes and 1,560 instances of unwanted intimate touching. The taxi company has more than 70,000 drivers across the UK. Its busiest day saw more than one million trips. The chances are so small, yet the threat is continuous. A 27-year-old woman was assaulted as she was vomiting. She was at her most vulnerable, trying to get home, yet someone took advantage. What alternative is there? Ubering is the “safe” route.
In one year, there were more than 400 reports of criminal offences by taxi or private hire drivers in London alone, with 126 accused of violent or sexual offences. Only one in six sexual assaults is reported. 300,000 taxi journeys per day in the UK. A minuscule chance, but not impossible.
You could be unlucky. This one trip could ruin your life. It could end it.
Don’t sit in the front seat. You are making yourself available to the driver. It might be seen as an invitation. You wanted the attention. You wore a short skirt and sat next to him. Don’t sit in the back seat, you won’t be able to get out if he puts the child lock on. It was your own fault – you didn’t think it through. Why did you even get in the cab? It was a short journey, there was no need.
Two options: make the short walk home or order the Uber now. It’s quicker to drive but I’m halfway home already. It’s a quiet road – no one will be out at this time. I’ll freeze waiting for the car and my phone battery is low. I’ll brave the cold.
There are no more streetlights. The fog is settling, dampening the world and illuminating my torchlight like a movie scene. My heart is racing. Either the cold or my pace is making me breathe loudly. The shadows look like people. The world is still, except me and the darkness that follows me.
Eight minutes to go. The town centre has dissolved into darkness. There’s no traffic anymore. Everyone is inside, safe. The lights are off in all the houses. I’m the only one awake. My phone pings.
“Home safe, see you all soon xx” “Great night! Going to bed!”
“Omg how COLD was that walk!!! Night x”
Everyone is home. No disasters – not a surprise. It’s too cold to type – I’ll reply later. We all turned our locations on before we left – just in case – so they know where I am.
Headlights. The road is lit up. It sounds bigger than a car. A lorry? A bus. The bus! I have my pass with me. It’s fate. I need to run the final few steps. In one stop it will drop me right outside my door. Safe and sound. I’ll go inside, turn the TV on and watch something before bed. I’ve got the blankets down, hot drink, some chocolate…
It’s pulling over now. There’s no one on it at all. Just the driver. He looks fine, but what does ‘fine’ look like? It’s only one stop. Is it a bit weird that he’s pulling over even though I’m not at the stop yet? I’m sure it’s fine… he’s fine… everything is fine…
Murat Tas. The name of a bus driver who searched social media for details of a teenage girl who had boarded his bus, before sexually assaulting her. No one else was on the bus. There were no witnesses. He got 200 hours of community work and 60 days rehabilitation, as well as being ordered to pay £500 court costs and a £140 victim surcharge. £140 in exchange for lifelong recollections. £140 in exchange for being too scared to take public transport, petrified of it happening again.
Gulam Mayat. The name of a bus driver who sexually assaulted a female passenger on the night bus, waiting for her to be alone, moving the bus to obscure them from view. She tried to move away but he persisted.
The report said she had been drinking alcohol earlier – why does it matter? It was 4am. She was trying to get home.
Mark Spalding. The name of a bus driver who committed a string of sexual assaults on passengers. He locked two young women on the bus. He groomed two young girls, stopping in secluded areas to assault them. The girls and their parents trusted they could travel home safely, without being traumatized.
It really isn’t far. The bus takes a longer route, I can go down the lane and be home within minutes. I’ve done the scariest part, no need to get the bus for a single stop when I can walk.
“Sorry, my bad” I put my hand up as the bus door opens. “No problem, have a good night.”
I watch the bus engine restart and steadily trail down the road. He seemed nice enough… My feet are aching now.
Down the lane…
Somehow, it’s even darker here. The trees are bare, so bare you can see the sky through their silhouettes. Thousands of stars, so high and bright the fog doesn’t obscure them. Most people would be scared here, but I can walk this avenue with my eyes closed. No one comes down here, not at this time.
On the left. Finally, I’m here. My hands are so cold I’m struggling with the key. As I open the door, I can feel the heat. Home and safe. It wasn’t even a bad walk. Refreshing. I knew it would be okay.
I’ll put the TV on, make a hot chocolate and find a film to watch before bed. Maybe a Christmas film. The blaring TV cuts through the night silence. Background noise is comforting after the quiet. The forecaster is predicting snow tomorrow. My blankets are ready on the sofa. Maybe I’ll boil the kettle for a hot water bottle too.
“A woman, aged 20, has escaped a man who followed, raped and threatened to kill her. Police are examining CCTV footage and carrying out enquiries. They are asking anyone with information to contact them immediately.”
This is our local news. That man is still out there. That woman could have been me. I’m so lucky. I’m lucky that I was the one who got home safely tonight. One town over, one hour earlier. God, that could have been me.
Over 70% of women in the UK say they have experienced sexual harassment in public. 25% of women have been sexually assaulted. Only 4% of sexual assaults are reported to official organisations. 5 in 6 rapes against women are carried out by someone they know. And 5 in 6 women who are raped don’t report.. Why? Embarrassment, fear of being humiliated, fear that no one will help. Why do women feel this way?
- ‘As the gentlemen on the jury will understand, when a woman says no she doesn’t always mean it.’
- ‘The victim in this case, although she wasn’t necessarily willing, she didn’t put up a fight.’
- ‘Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together’
These three statements were made in court by judges during rape trials – in the UK, US and Canada.
- ‘Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.’
- ‘If a woman is wearing provocative clothing, the change needs to come from her.’
- “We know you are making this up.”
These three statements were made by police officers – in Canada, Egypt and US.
So, how would you get home? Would you feel safe to walk alone in the dark? If not, you’re not alone, even if you feel it.
All illustrations by Oreofe Morakinyo.
All illustrations by Oreofe Morakinyo.