The man outside my window
My eldest son is petrified of rats. He has seen three in his eight years of existence, and each sighting is branded into his memory and painfully recollected; one in his friend's back garden, one underneath a crisp packet in the bin at his school, and one at the edge of a stream in a park in Dublin. He sleeps in an attic room in our house and he stays up for hours past his bedtime, imagining every little scratch or tap that he hears is a rat crawling up the wall. He needs us near. If we stay in the room with him he will fall asleep around ten. If we try to leave at any point, then he will pad around the house after us, like a small pale ghost, saying “I’m scared”, until he is allowed to sleep in a bed nearer to where we are. In the morning, he is tired and crabby and resisting of the routine. Breakfast, uniform, coat, everything is a fight. He wants to be late for school. It ends in anger from T and I. Outbursts, pointed fingers in faces, him crying, his little face contorted in emotion.
It’s all too much. It has to stop.
I try to rationalise with him about the rats. They’re not interested in humans, they live in sewers, they like damp dark dirty places. I scour the internet for guidance. I read that rather than questioning and dismissing his fears, I should ask him to elaborate on them; shine a light into every shady corner of his imagination until everything is aired.
Then I read that fear can be learned from children watching their parent’s behaviour.
When I was a child, my bed was under a window that looked out over a gabled porch roof at the front of our house. The window was easy to open out and climb out of. I could sit and slide along the red terracotta tiles on my bum, then clamber down the wooden door of the side passage to ground level. It was my fire escape route. Unfortunately, when reversed, this escape route plan fed directly into my big imagination. In my head, there was always a man outside my window, coming to hurt me, and this escape route was how the man would find me, smother my screams, attack me, rape me and then murder me in my bed.
Some of my most vivid memories of being a teenager are of being afraid and most of my fears were based around predatory men. There were things that happened to me as a teenager that justified these fears.
When I was in my mid teens, I went for a picnic up the Tiknock mountain with my best friend Sarah. Tiknock was and still is a popular destination for walkers and hikers alike, and it wouldn’t be surprising to meet other people along the way, but we were off the main drag, in a spot by the side of a dense forest further down the mountain. We spread out our rug and our food and our drink. It was a warm day and everything was bright and clear. We could see the whole city, the piers reaching into the ocean, the Irish Ferry boats crawling along the horizon. Sarah was to the left of me, her back to the forest. As we sat and talked, a man walked up the hill past us. He was tall with brown short hair, in his thirties or early forties, and wearing a dark suit. We said hello, like all Irish people do, thinking it a little strange that this man was coming up the mountain away from the path and in his work clothes. It wasn’t long later that as Sarah was talking to me, I noticed movement in the darkness of the forest behind her shoulder. I fixed my eyes on the movement and saw the shape of him then, the man in the suit, moving towards us. He was masturbating himself. Sarah was still talking and for a few seconds, I couldn’t speak. But on seeing my expression she turned to look behind her and then we both jumped up and ran up the mountain as fast as we could. I can still see it now, the image when we turned around, of this dark suited man, standing over our picnic masturbating, the forest to the left, the mountain meadow to the right, all purple heather and gorse, and behind him, the sprawl of Dublin glistening under the sun. We ran until we found help from another man, a cyclist, who kindly walked us back down the mountain. The police were called but nothing happened.
Another time, I was walking up the lane at the bottom of our road. It was a paved, badly lit lane, a couple of hundred yards long, walled on one side and peppered with residential houses on the other. I was coming home from somewhere, town I presume, and was walking up the lane home, having dismounted the bus a moment earlier. I heard the sound of an engine and turned to see a motorbike drive into the lane behind me. The driver was eclipsed by the light from the headlight of the motorbike, which spotlighted me. I walked to the side of the lane as a gesture to the driver to pass me out but he didn’t. After a few seconds, I realised that the motorbike was slowly and deliberately following me up the lane. I felt a fluttering feeling in my throat. My heartbeat sped up with my strides. I turned again but saw nothing but the light. The engine growled steadily, revving every few moments. My fear became concentrated, raw, panic. I knew it was a man. I didn’t question that part at all. He followed me all the way up the lane, as I walked as fast as I could, too afraid to break into a run because running was confirmation that this situation was a scene from my nightmares becoming real. When I got to the top of our lane, and on to our road, I broke out into a run. To this day, I despise the sound of a motorbike engine.
On Wednesday last, Ireland was rocked by the news of a brutal murder. A twenty-two year old primary school teacher called Ashling Murphy went for a jog an hour after finishing her working day at school. Ashling was a keen musician and camogie player, and wanted to get fit before the new season of games began. She went for a jog along the canal bank at Cappincur, known as Fiona's Way, at around 4pm on Wednesday. Her body was found, having been brutally assaulted. The police were called but she died soon after.
Fiona’s Way was called so in memory of a 25 year old pregnant woman called Fiona Pender who went missing from the same spot 25 years earlier and has never been found.
Sarah, who is still one of my best friends, WhatsApped me to express her sadness and anger about Ashling’s murder. She added
‘It’s a scary world. I jog every Monday morning in the path through the sand dunes here. Sure enough, standing on the top of one of the little hills as I rounded a corner this week, was a bloke with his dick out waving at me. I just ignored him and kept running. But I will run a different route on Monday.’
Last night my husband worked late. My youngest son and I picked up my other son from cubs. The night before, when cycling home from the theatre, I had noticed that at night, you can see the whole of London from the top path of the park. The modular shapes of the city’s tallest buildings are outlined by red lights. I promised my son I would take him to see them after cubs. So we walked into the park. We brought a torch and followed the beam of light careering over the footpath in front. I noticed the silhouette of a man sitting on a bench at the far end of the path. Immediately I was on high alert.
- Look there they are, I said, pointing at the red lights twinkling in the distance, cool right? Okay now let's go.
But they didn’t want to go. So I picked them up and showed them the semi-circle of lights that make up the London Eye and the cluster of lights to the East that make up the city. And all the while I kept my eyes on the man on the bench. He stood up to leave and started walking in our direction. His strides were intentional and fast. I said,
- First one to the gate wins!
We all ran back to the gate and as soon as we were in the car I locked the doors from the inside. Back home after a bowl of cereal I declared that it was bedtime and just before we reached the kitchen door, I turned and said
- Oh, I need to check the back door;
- Why do you need to check the back door?
Said my oldest kid.
- To make sure it’s locked
- Why do you need to make sure it’s locked?
he asked. The man outside the window. The man outside the window.
- For security.
- Security, he rolled the word around in his mouth and continued, What’s security?
- It’s the feeling of being safe
Meanwhile, the news of Ashling Murphy’s death spread like wildfire. There were vigils all over Ireland and one announced for 4pm on Saturday afternoon in front of the London Irish Centre in Camden.
On Saturday I cycled over, locked up my bike and joined the large throng of people gathered outside the building. I lit my candle from another woman’s and we all stood quietly and settled into ‘vigilling’. It was a sedate affair. A traditional Irish band played mournful songs on the steps. People signed a remembrance book and left flowers under a blown up photo of Ashling. In the photo she is gowned and capped and clutching her rolled up certificate of graduation, looking sideways at the camera with a smile. A woman declared a one minute silence and afterwards, the mic was passed to another woman who sang a rendition of Danny Boy that was so pure and perfect that it hurt to hear it. The band started up again, and after a while I felt an energy rising up around me from the crowd. Everyone was humming. I joined in. No one knew the words but we all knew the melody so we hummed, and it was quite something, the sensation of hundreds and hundreds of people humming at the same time. Afterwards, as I mounted my bike to leave, I nodded at a man who was looking at me. He nodded back and said
- Take care.
Initially, I felt warmed by this, but as I cycled home across London I thought more about those two words, Take Care. As if I haven’t been taking care my whole life. As if every time I have walked home late at night, every single fibre of my being hasn’t been screaming in resistance, to watch out, look around, cling on to your keys, be safe. Be safe. Take care. All women have ever been told to do is take care. And as I cycled over the Finchley road, and whizzed down the hill into West London, I thought, I’m tired of taking care. I want to learn how to be unafraid of fear. I want to take risks.
I remembered then, an old friend of mine, we’ll call her Niamh here. I lived with her in a council flat in Southwark for a year when I was twenty-three. Niamh sucked her ecstasy pills instead of swallowing them because she said it made her come up faster. Niamh was meeting me off the tube somewhere in London. The tube carriage I was in was about a third full. There was a man reading a newspaper directly opposite me. I didn’t look at him closely at first but for some reason my eyes were drawn back to him and that’s when I realised that as he held the newspaper over his face with one hand, he was masturbating himself with the other. His newspaper obscured his genitals from most people on the train, but I was in prime position. This show was just for me. I froze. There were people all around me. All I had to do was shout, but I couldn’t. Instead I got off at my stop and when I realised the man had got off too and was following me, I felt the same raw panic that I had with the motorbike in the lane years earlier. He was behind me on the escalator. I rushed through the ticket gates, found Niamh and told her what happened. She made me point the man out to her, and as he walked past us she stared at him and shouted really loudly, for everyone in the packed foyer to hear,
- Oi! Mister! Show us your dick!
I’ve never seen anyone move so fast as that man in that moment.
Niamh reminded me of a song on the album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ by Self Esteem called ‘I’m Fine’, which samples a woman describing how she wards off male attention by barking like a dog, because “there is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged”. Apparently Self Esteem gets all the women to bark like dogs and howl like wolves at her live shows. This sounds like a fun night out to me.
Take care. I pedalled through the darkness and thought of my strong smart friend Sarah who works in a high flying job and has always been the only woman at her level and spends her free time doing military style workout challenges for fun. The idea of Sarah having to be afraid when she runs through the dunes from now on, made me livid. I thought of my heart thumping in my chest as I raced out of the park with my boys so I could get my kids away from a man who was doing nothing but walking towards us. I thought of my gentle husband and my sweet little sons at home, and the idea of them being objects of terror to anyone is laughable. But they will grow up to be men, and the very shape of them will determine women’s fear. It’s learned fear. It’s here to stay, with good reason. But how to not let it consume us?
And then it occurred to me as I turned onto my road, that I’m going to be an occasionally reckless and deranged middle aged woman. I’m going to channel Big Niamh Energy.
I’m going to behave how I want. Choose what I want. Leave when I want. I’m going to dress how I want. Walk and jog where I want. Dance how I want. I’m going to live fast sometimes. I’m going to bark like a dog and howl like a wolf. I’m going to shine light into the darkest corners of my fears and share the man outside my window with you, in the hope that if we all talk about him enough, something might happen to take the onus off the women always having to take care.
Yes. I’m going to take risks, and I’m going to take them for Ashling and Sabina and Sara and Biiba and Nicole - and every other woman whose life has been cut short or compromised at the hands of a predatory man.
And for my scared little son. I don’t want him to learn fear from me. The rats and the men. We have to believe that we won’t let them get us. We’ll still lock the door at night though.