Do you ever wonder about the near misses? Those times throughout your life where you might have crossed paths with a killer and not known, or driven past a car that would later go on to smash into someone else? I think about these a lot, the ‘sliding doors’ moments that might so easily have taken me out of the world as I know it and plunged me into a new, alien reality. I think about how the threads that keep us tethered to our normal lives are as slender and easily broken as a spider’s web.
One bitterly cold night in January 2014, I received a phone call just after midnight as I lay reading in bed. It was that call. The one all of us dread. The one that runs through your head on those nights when you can’t sleep and anxiety floods your brain with the worst what-if scenarios involving the people you love most. It was my daughter’s number, but when I answered I didn’t hear her voice. Instead there was the sound of rapid breathing and muffled sobs.
She had been followed off the bus, she told me when she could finally speak. A man had tried to drag her off the main road and hit her repeatedly when she struggled. He’d run off after someone had shouted at him from the other side of the street. But now she was on her own and terrified.
I think about how the threads that keep us tethered to our normal lives are as slender and easily broken as a spider’s web.
My partner and older son were there in minutes. Funny the things you do or don’t do in those situations. I didn’t call the police. Not until she was safely home. Afterwards that’s something they brought up again and again. If we’d called the police immediately they could have driven her around looking for him, maybe caught him before he tried again and this time succeeded in carrying out whatever he’d been planning in his twisted head.
That was always there in the background from then on. What could have happened. If there hadn’t been someone on the other side of the road to scare him away. If my daughter hadn’t put up such a struggle. If. If. If. The course of our lives is mapped out by the roads so nearly taken, that parallel train that draws up alongside your own, so close you can see the expressions of the people in the neighbouring carriage, the lint on their clothes, the titles of the books they’re reading. What if you stepped inside? Might you meet the love of your life, or a dear friend? Or someone who is looking for a victim, and they don’t care who that person is?
CCTV footage was taken from the bus, followed by a police ID parade, where I sat in the back forbidden to speak while my daughter watched a video on which a succession of men turned this way and then that in front of the camera. One man, who I glimpsed on screen over her shoulder, provoked such a visceral reaction I almost threw up. Yet when they asked her at the end if she recognized the man who’d attacked her, she said no. The case fell apart. Our lives slowly went back to normal. Only once did the nightmare come rushing back to the fore – when my daughter came home from school some weeks later saying she thought she’d seen him. The man who attacked her. Or the man on the video. By now the two had blended into one. He was coming out of a doorway close to where it happened, about a five-minute walk from where we live.
That was always there in the background from then on. What could have happened. If there hadn’t been someone on the other side of the road to scare him away. If my daughter hadn’t put up such a struggle. If. If. If.
By this stage she was doing OK. The sighting rattled her but she refused to dwell on it. She could have been mistaken. She’d only seen him in the dark that first time. She wasn’t about to let the what-ifs dictate how she lived her life. She’s a strong young woman, my daughter.
I found it more difficult to let myself off the hook. What if he really was here, in our neighbourhood, walking the streets she walked every day? How could I protect her? As a parent your job is to keep your kids safe. What happens when you fail in that? What can you do afterwards to make amends? It’s human nature to want to prove your love when you feel you’ve let someone down, even if that means treading a dangerously fine line between justice and revenge. How far do you go to redeem yourself?
Five years on, the attack is all but forgotten, a short chapter in our ever-evolving family history. But every now and then I’ll see something on the news that brings it all back again. Someone else whose son or daughter made a series of innocuous choices, the kind we all make each and every day – this side of the road not the other, this route home instead of that one – and who ended up on that parallel train, rattling towards that alien, nightmare reality.
Life can turn on a sixpence. All we can reasonably do is keep on loving the people we love and try to stop holding ourselves responsible for things beyond our control. There’s so much we don’t have a choice in. So much chance, so many near-misses. We owe it to ourselves to make the choices we do have count.