The village I grew up in was small and isolated — there was a pub, and one single shop. All my friends, bar one, lived in surrounding villages that were on main roads and bus routes or surrounded by houses. But for us, every time we needed to get home from school, or college, or a late shift at work, it meant facing this road. There was a big farmers field on one side, full of long grass and a stretch of woodland on the other. Whenever I was walking on it alone, I’d count on the fact that the final house before the emptiness and my street were only a half-mile apart and I could run if I needed to. Or I’d message my mum and tell her I was nearly home. Sometimes me and my friend would meet each other if we’d been out separately, just so we didn’t have to do it alone. Houses have been built there now, so on the occasion I’m walking back late at night to the house I grew up, it feels far less ominous. But it’s never really about whether there’s houses around you.
When I moved to a city, the feeling of anxiety about walking at night alleviated. To me, danger was in the alone — it couldn’t possibly be in London, where shops were open until midnight and there was always people around. I used to stumble home up the 15 minute walk to my house, far more worried about getting home and dealing with mice or the horrible bathroom. Thinking about someone age 18 doing that now makes me feel sick.
When I got a bit older, I started to feel very aware of being alone and what could happen. There are a couple of things that changed this — one was when I was in Dublin and a man threw a firework from his balcony on a dark street near Smithfield. It landed on the street and sparks hit me and another woman on the legs, luckily doing nothing more than scorching a hole in my tights. Or another time soon after when my phone died on a night out and I couldn’t find the people I was with late at night. Or when my housemate came home and said she’d been followed by a guy and was worried he was still outside. Or after a 10pm trip to get a McDonald’s near where I was living led to a man following me saying: “I won’t hurt you, you look like my sister”. Or when I got stranded in Brighton after a busy event, meaning I had to walk 40 minutes in an unfamiliar place at 3am. Even though I was surrounded by people I felt alone and scared. Nothing significant happened, I arrived in all these places in one piece. But I think as a woman, you can’t rely on being safe one time as the rule.
It’s likely that every woman has stories about how now-benign situations seemed like something much other. From my housemate getting an Uber home religiously after 8pm to making friends with the owner of the 24-hour corner shop just so you have someone to check in with. Hearing a stranger behind you and calculating where your phone and keys are or how fast you can run to the nearest safe place. Swapping carriages on the train when it pulls into the next station to discourage that stranger from talking to you. The friend that bought a near-floor length winter coat to stop heckles from the pub at the end of her road if she dared to wear anything form fitting.
We all have things that make us feel better, too. Whether it’s keys between the fingers or calling a parent until the door closes behind us. Pretending to be on the phone as a stranger passes. Mentally mapping the points we know on a road — a manned station, a 24-hour Asda, the house of a friendly-looking woman. A gym open late with big lights or the knowledge a bus runs a circular route nearby should you need to get on.
I just hope that one day we can walk home in the dark.