“Do you know where I can find girls?” The man in the black Trilby hat asked me. His coarse cut moustache overhangs his lips as his smile widens and he waits for my response …I should have run. I should have kept running until my legs ached. But I didn’t. Dont hurt my baby..
I am 10 years old. It’s July, we are in the middle of an unusually blistering and sticky English Summer heat wave. My brother Dave and his best mate Colin are fishing off the banks of the River Wensum. I am with them. Bored, I haul my red bike up off the gravel and pedal off along the bank. A big oak tree overhanging a park bench stops me. The welcoming shade beckons as I drop my red bike in a fashion that reminds me of my mother’s heed; that I do not look after my things. I sit down on the bench and the coolness immediately relaxes me. I am tall for my age, but still my legs dangle off the floor. I glance downstream, squinting through the warm light and watch as my brother yanks his line with another slippery eel hooked from the depths of the brown water.
In the same direction a man walks slowly up the bank towards me. I think he looks odd in his black hat and long overcoat. I think he must be very hot. I expect him to walk by. I expect his Golden retriever or whatever dog he must have to appear by my side – surely that is why he is approaching me. He still is smiling. I think he must be smiling at me as there is no dog and no-one else around. I expect him to keep walking by. I want him to keep walking by. He stops. He sits down. He is still smiling at me. I don’t want to smile back, I don’t know him. I don’t think I like him. I turn away from the man sitting next to me and watch my brother and Colin. They do not see me. Instead they are kneeling on starched grass bank, one each side of the keep net laughing as they hoist the green cage to inspect their swirling and interlocking mass of black, wet ,eel. I wonder briefly if they plan to let the creatures go free. What I really want is for them both to see me and come over to this bench. I want an excuse to leave. I don’t have one. So I smile back at the man, who is still smiling and staring at me.danger bench
He asks me his question. “Do you know where I can find girls?” 12-year-old me relaxes. He is lost I think. Or he just needs to find someone.
“Have you tried the pub up there?” I notion towards the red building behind us; someone told me once it was a gay bar, but I figured he might get lucky all the same.
“No.” he said “I tried there. There are not any girls there.”
“Oh.” I say. That figures I think. “What about the River restaurant. Or the maybe the shops?” I offer with a little more enthusiasm. I am helping him after all. It’s in my nature to be helpful and kind.
“No, I don’ think so.” He says and I am sure he has moved a little bit closer to me. “Will you show me where I can find girls?”
I look at his face. His moustache is very ugly. I don’t like this man. Something in my head is telling me to walk away. But that would be rude wouldn’t it? My brother and Colin are almost packed up now. They have pulled on their huge backpacks and picked up their bikes off the ground. I hope they have not forgotten I am here.
“That’s my brother and his friend down there.” I point with some vigor, to underline what I am trying to tell this man. I know what I am trying to articulate. I want him to understand that I am not alone. I know what this is, I think to myself. I think I know what you are. I don’t look at him again as he walks back the way he came.
Nearly 30 years later and still I remember that day with vivid recall. I don’t think I ever talked about it. Maybe I tried. But what was it? Even now, a grown woman in her 40’s with my own little girl to be fearful for I wonder who that man is. Did he try to succeed with another girl? Did he rape another girl? Is that girl still alive to tell her story? Did I get lucky that day or was I just about sensible enough; old enough to get out of what I knew might be happening? Why didn’t I go to the Police? Why didn’t I tell someone, make someone listen? The aftermath is fuzzy now. I think maybe I have blocked it somehow. But I do understand how it can happen. No matter what you tell your kids, how much you enforce stranger danger and talking with people you don’t know – I still think that there is manipulation of the innocent mind to contend with and that is the source of doubt that is used in these situations, by those that seek to hurt our babies.
With this in mind, where do we draw that line? At what point do you stop with the scare tactics and protection of your child and let them make their own choices? Do we continue to body-guard them until they turn eighteen and over? When do we allow them the right to figure it out for themselves and when do you know they are ready? Already I struggle with the fine balance of a nurturing a friendly open and loving little girl and teaching her about her own and others personal space. She is like me you see – she will talk to anyone and sees the good in everyone; she has no fear of strangers. This is my fear.
So I strive on, with 12 year old me in my mind’s eye; sitting on the banks of the River Wensum, trying to figure it out. I will teach my little girl and guide her as best I can. I might even tell her what happened to Mummy that day. I will protect as best I can but I will not and should not be with her 24/7 forever. The day will come, all too soon I suspect when her need for independence will outweigh my need to protect her. I just hope the time in between is enough to give her the knowledge and confidence to see her through.