I keep moving. I am always moving. I take the stairs, not the lift, never stand on the escalators if on my own, but walk up them instead. I don’t pause to look in shop windows, or watch buskers or the cup-and-ball conmen; I walk on, quickly, with purpose – because I like to get where I am going, yes, but also because I know it’s harder to hit a moving target. If you dart past the rest of the world, allow yourself to be a blur, you’re less likely to be noticed, to attract their attention, get them to question whether there’s something different about you that they either desire, fear, or feel powerful enough to exploit. Experience has taught me perpetual motion is my greatest protection.
But it doesn’t always work. It failed me this weekend, at around six in the evening on Saturday. Saturday had been a brilliant day. I love Saturdays, always have. I got up early, in a decent enough mood, wrote up my regular review of the Guardian Blind Date, had breakfast, then left the house to go to one of my usual places I go when I need to do some work. I got around half of it done, before meeting my boyfriend for a late lunch – steak and eggs, there was a mixup with the order but it was fine otherwise – before heading to the supermarket and grabbing some essentials, then returning home so I could do more work before we went out. So far, so beautifully mundane. Just before six, my boyfriend and I left the house to go into town for a concert. I realised I still had a pair of sunglasses in my coat pocket that I didn’t need, so I ran back to the house and unlocked the door to leave them in the hall. If I hadn’t done that, my night would’ve been different. Oh, all the “ifs” life loves to throw at you; there is an endless supply waiting to be obsessed over for all eternity.
At the end of our road, we turned left then right, just as we have thousands of times before, arriving at the main road that would take us to the Tube station and into our exciting night ahead. We were feeling quite giddy and silly, laughing about something – we laugh a lot. Out the corner of my eye I spied a man, a little younger than us perhaps, it was hard to tell. He was with another man. They were the under the influence of something – eyes a little too red for it to be booze alone, but no big deal, it’s Saturday, live your life. He saw us and made a diagonal across the pavement, aiming for us. He started singing September, by Earth Wind & Fire, coming very close to us and interrupting our conversation, immediately casting a dark shadow over our frivolity. I’ve been around the block enough to know potentially aggressive behaviour when I see it and my trick with this is usually to pretend I haven’t noticed. Looking at my watch is a good get-out, or looking into my phone screen with puzzlement or deep concentration also does the trick. But it was too late; we had made eye contact. We carried on walking, looked away, and very pointedly did not look at one another – it makes them angrier, you are talking to an expert here – and his demeanour changed entirely.
“Smile then, for fuck’s sake. What’s the matter with you?”
My boyfriend, who had been laughing at whatever I was saying, replied that he was smiling. I wasn’t though; I do not take requests.
I am now reminded of the time when I was small and staying at my nana’s and my uncle and his friend came home drunk and tried to get me or my cousin to do some kind of dance or “performance” for them in exchange for 50p. Even the smallest bit of change is like gold doubloons to a child unused to cash, but I refused. My cousin would dance or sing or tell a joke and receive her 50p and that was fine for her, but I didn’t think any amount of money was worth being the focus of their attention. My polite “no thank you” only encouraged them more. Why was I so special I wouldn’t dance for them? Why not just get it over with and take my 50p? I wouldn’t be moved. As it so often does when you refuse to comply with drunks, it turned nasty and I became the centre of attention all the same. The spiteful nickname they had for me was wheeled out – “Quentin”, after Quentin Crisp, I did not know who he was at the time, I was around seven or eight – and they mocked my voice or mannerisms, finally getting a kind of performance from me, which came in the form of my tears, and went unpaid. But I have cried my last tear over men trying to get me to do something I don’t want to do.
I could’ve smiled back at this stranger, and perhaps it would’ve all been over and we’d have been allowed to go on our way. Allowed – that word is doing some heavy lifting there. But I had no way of knowing the outcome. What if I smiled back and he took it as a come-on, or decided he didn’t like my smile, or one of another hundred potential conditions or criteria I had no hope of satisfying. Was I going to die here? Why should I smile back, to order, anyway? What a disgusting compromise to make, to be commanded to brighten someone’s day at the expense of your own. (If you believe this is an isolated incident, ask any woman you know how many times a man she’s never met before has stopped her in the street and told her to smile. It will be double figures.)
So I didn’t smile. Mistake. Just like a baby frustrated not to get the toy they desire, or the drunk uncles after their performance, the man turned resentful, remarking how we’d quickened our pace to get away from him, before going where I’d known from the second I saw him that he would: “Faggots”. Not once, not even twice, multiple times, spat out with venomous precision. “Fucking faggots.” Screaming it now, as he walked by. We hurriedly went to cross the road. The man he was with caught my eye, trying to silence his friend.
I finally spoke. Why should I be mute? “That is a disgusting thing to say.”
“Fucking shut up. Shut the fuck up. You fucking faggot. Fuck off. Shut up.” People stared but nobody asked if we were OK. Fine. I get it, but I challenge anyone who has ever trotted out the “sticks and stones” cliché to take a sustained, threatening attack like that because even if the names don’t hurt, the bile, the intent, the assured poison of their delivery – they are the sticks and stones. And then some.
An older woman was walking a few paces behind the men. She spoke to me as she passed us. “That is my son. I’m sorry.”
Still winded, I managed to say: “He called me a faggot. That’s disgusting.”
She shrugged, not breaking her stride. We held back and watched them walk on, before disappearing into a pub.
I now found myself in a position unimaginable only seconds earlier. I was shaking, frightened, electric shocks going through my body. Both my boyfriend and I looked like ghosts, wracked with energy and shame. I suddenly felt exhausted, yet hyper. We walked on, but I was too distressed to revert to default mode, so we popped into a little bar where the staff are friendly and know us, and sat and had a small glass of wine.
Looking into my wine, then at my boyfriend, then out of the window at the street, I thought about my past and every moment that brought me here, every memory unfurling and whirling round me like a cyclone. And then I thought about the future, and what it would take for it ever again to feel like it actually belonged to me, depended on my own actions, and not the will of a stranger.
Then, when the wine had been drained, we stood up and left, walking back out onto the street where everything was much as it had been before for everyone else – but changed for ever for me. Another chip away at my reserve, another layer of security torn off. Home, but no longer where my heart is. Thank goodness I still have my sense of melodrama – not all power has been taken from me. We walked on, quicker than usual, to the Tube station to take us away, away, away.
We keep moving. We are always moving.
Main photograph: Dominic Ibbotson