In memory of Sarah
Don’t walk home alone, not at this time of night, my friends say, waving at me from a table of empty cocktail glasses, flapping like a gaggle of geese. I’ll be fine, I say, I’ll text you when I’m home. Are you sure? they ask, but it’s more a way of allaying their own fears. Yes, I’ll be fine.
I walk out of the bar, keys in hand, each one pushed between my fingers — a miniature Edward Scissorhands — EarPods in, mobile phone clutched in the other hand. I wore flats, because that’s what you do when you might need to run. It’s normal, except that it’s not. Normal is wearing what you like, not thinking about when you might need to run or who you would need to call, it’s not turning the music down in case there’s a Come over here, Love. Oi. You. I’m talking to you.
Normal is a regular heartbeat, a regular pace to your stride. It’s not hovering under a streetlight where people see you before crossing the stretch of darkness. It’s not scanning a route for places to hide, or rounding a corner and sprinting like a triathlete because the footsteps behind are picking up speed.
The girls will go home later in a taxi, but I need to get back for the babysitter, pay her, get into my pyjamas and sleep, having kissed the cherubs on the forehead, checked their breathing. Every parent checks the rise and fall of their child’s torso, especially when it is still.
Like the still of the sea without wind, nights like this make me nervous, nights where I get followed or shouted at with no one around, where the air is thin, where small sounds ricochet through the darkness. These are the nights when men get too close, gaze for too long, howl like a pack of hyenas.
I cross the road and the footsteps follow, get closer, feel louder. He is behind me now. As he passes I breathe out fear. He is a man trying to get home after a long day, wants to kiss his wife, have dinner with the kids, talk about the office. I remember he is most men, like the men in my life who listen to my questions, tell me it will all be ok, fix the loo seat or play football with my son.
A car pulls up. There is no one about now, the street deserted, the lights casting shadows across the pavement. A lone driver, well dressed and wearing work uniform that I can’t make out, is pulling over in his blue Audi. I imagine he wants directions. This is usual in the day.
It is nine thirty in the evening. He asks me how to get to the hospital and I feel relieved. This should be easy. I point down the road. Turn left, take the next right and pull in by the pizza place on the corner, I say.
He thanks me.
Another man jumps out from the back seat. I had not seen him until now.
The car follows.
He is pulling me into the car.
I don’t remember anything after this.
I see my name in the papers alongside the words ‘kidnap’ and ‘murder’. I know I will never see my family again, not in the flesh. The men will face trial. The nation will watch.
Women begin to tell their stories, incidents that they have been too afraid or ashamed to share, or stories that have been ignored, stories like mine, but in different places with different men. They talk about being followed, shouted at or touched. Some will ask the bold question of why this has become normal, why stories like mine, resulting in death, are ok, stories that some will have forgotten by next week.
Tomorrow, people I barely knew will talk about me, my time at university, in the office or at primary school, about how I was kind and inspiring, how I helped out at the soup run and the night shelter. This won’t bring me back to life — my breath, the memories.
People ask what it will take for this to stop, the loss of women’s lives each week, the idea that he might have been mentally unstable or had a bad childhood.
No one has any answers.
Men feel shamed or shocked, some ask what they can do, others are understandably defensive.
Some ask when they will stop selling cars with women draped across the bonnet, as though she might be sold along with the car as a commodity, or why they sell papers with topless women to keep the ratings up. It’s too late for me to ask these questions. Someone else is asking now.
The future I planned with my boyfriend has come to an abrupt end, the house we wanted to buy, the wedding we talked about, the children we hoped for. He will find a way to go on without me, like all of the others who are learning to navigate loss.
I watch as they plan my funeral, close my bank accounts and pack up my belongings, a lifetime of memories scattered through the lives of others; trinkets end up on shelves inside the homes of friends and family. My picture will remain on mantelpieces, a memory of my life.
Everything has changed.
And at the same time nothing has changed. Men will do this again to another man’s girlfriend, daughter, mother or wife.
They are holding a vigil. Its is silent, yet small sounds ricochet through the darkness.
F.C. Malby is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People’s Book Awards. Her short fiction has been longlisted in The New Writer Magazine Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes and Reflex Press, and won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster Fiction Competition. She was shortlisted by Ad Hoc Fiction, Lunate Fiction and TSS Publishing, and her work has been nominated for Non Poetry Publication of the Year in the Spillwords Press 2021 Awards.