It’s the end of the night. You’re walking home on your own. Then you hear the sound every woman dreads – footsteps behind you, coming fast. You’re sure it’s him – the man from the bar who wouldn’t leave you alone. You make a snap decision. You turn, you push. Your pursuer tumbles down the steps and lies motionless, face-down on the ground. Now what?
Do you call 999 and wait for the police to arrive – for judgement, for justice, whatever that may be? You just hope your husband, family and friends, everyone you love, will stand by you. Or do you run and stay silent? You didn’t mean to do it. You were scared, you panicked. And no one saw. No one will ever know. If you leave now, if you keep quiet, forever.
Which is it to be?
Read on for the first chapter of Anything You Do Say!
Anything You Do Say
It starts with a selfie. He is a random; we are not even sure of his name. We are always meeting them whenever we go out. Laura says it’s because I look friendly. I think it’s because I am always daydreaming, making up lives for people as I stare at them, and they think I’m inviting them over to chat.
In the frame of his phone screen – camera facing forward, to us – his teeth are white and slightly crooked, his nose hooked.
Laura leans over to press the button on the phone. Her long, slender arm is captured at the edge of the display. It’s covered in bangles and bits of thread and a homemade bracelet. She’s a hippy at heart.
She takes the photo, and now we are frozen on his screen. I wonder if he’ll keep it, that photograph of us that now belongs to him.
‘No filter,’ he says to us.
‘What?’ Laura says.
She doesn’t use Instagram. She feels no need to check into places or share her moments with anybody. She is nowhere on the Internet, and I’m sure her life is better for it.
We break apart from our tableau at the bar but he stays standing next to me. He rocks up and down on the balls of his feet. He’s all in black, except his red trainers.
I turn to Laura. She’s had her hair cut. It’s a pixie, again: messed up, the fringe sitting in her eyes. She looks androgynous, slightly goofy. I could never pull off that haircut. People would mistake me for a child. She never wears any make-up, but doesn’t need to, with straight, white teeth, naturally peach cheeks and dark lashes. Her eyes crinkle at the corners even when she is not smiling. What she wants more than anything is to be an artist – she creates hyperreal paintings that look like photographs – and she doesn’t want to live her life like other people. She’s obsessed with it. She will sometimes say things like, ‘What’s the correlation between wearing a suit and doing a good job?’ or, ‘Why do you need a house in the suburbs and a mortgage like everybody else?’
I would never say such things.
‘Great shoes,’ she says now, dipping her head down underneath the bar.
They’re new. Cream silk, with ribbons that tie at my ankles. Laura favours flats, the sides of her feet dry and hard from never wearing shoes at home. They live on a barge, Laura and Jonty. They moor it wherever they like. I sometimes want to do the same, bored of our tiny basement flat, but Reuben tells me I’d hate it; that I am a fantasist.
‘Thanks,’ I say. I bought them on a credit card, at almost midnight, the other night. I’d forgotten until they had arrived, experiencing a familiar sense of wonderment, and then recognition, as I tore into the parcel.
‘Are they Reuben-approved?’ Laura says.
Reuben is one of the only people she consistently misreads. She converts his shyness into something else. Disapproval, maybe. She might be right. He had raised his eyebrows as I unpacked the shoes, but said nothing.
I shrug now. ‘What’s his is ours,’ I say, though I’m embarrassed by the notion. Reuben works far harder than I do. Everybody does.
Laura’s bony shoulders are out, even though it’s December. Her top is simple, a plain white vest that’s too big for her. It’s the kind of material that doesn’t need pressing. I don’t iron anything. If I ever try to, our iron deposits a brown sticky substance everywhere, and so I have given up. In my head, I call it my Joanna-ness: situations in which I fail where most others succeed.
‘Looks like you’ve got a friend for life,’ she says.
I turn. The man is still standing next to me. I can feel the entire length of his leg against mine as he shifts his weight, trying to get the bartender’s attention.
‘Two more for these ladies?’ he says.
We say yes to the drinks, and maybe we shouldn’t. We are becoming giggly. They arrive, placed on black napkins which dampen with condensation from the glasses. Laura sidles slowly away along the bar.
I follow, but so does he.
‘Your work or mine?’ Laura says, her head bent towards me so that he can’t hear.
This is how our long chats begin. We once joked we should have an agenda, and now we kind of do: work, relationships, family. Then everything else. Whatever comes up.
I let out a sigh, but it does nothing to dispel the knots that have appeared as soon as she mentions work. ‘I did a sudoku puzzle on my lunch break that was more stimulating than my entire day yesterday.’
I started work on the mobile library bus because I loved it so much as a child. I loved choosing a fat, new stack of books to read that week. I loved the nooks and crannies and finding my brother hiding in the thriller section. But, after six years in the job, that isn’t enough any more.
‘Mmm.’ She sucks in her bottom lip, looking thoughtfully across the bar.
We hate our jobs in completely different ways. I have no idea what I would like to do. Laura knows exactly what she wants to do, and can’t do it.
‘You need a Thing. I need not to have a Thing,’ she says.
‘Yep. That’s about it.’ Nobody else could say something like that to me, except maybe Reuben. ‘I’m one-dimensional,’ I say to her.
‘You’re too smart for your own good,’ she says back.
‘No. I’m the thick Murphy.’
My brother, Wilf, went to Cambridge, and now owns a whole host of London properties, and none of us can ever forget it.
‘You’re a very bright Joanna,’ she says. ‘Oliva or Murphy.’ Oliva. Reuben’s surname.
I look down at my drink, stirring it with the black straw whose end I’ve chewed. Reuben says I should just forget it. Stop torturing myself. Nobody truly has a Thing.
‘Er,’ Laura says, looking at a spot just above my head, as though she’s seen a spider on the wall.
I turn, and the man is leaning over me, a protective arm right behind my shoulders. Now I know he’s there, I can feel every molecule of him. His arm lands across my back like a heavy rucksack, and I wince. I try to shrug it off, but he claps it down on me. It’s weighty, unpleasant. My body is against his, unwittingly, and his armpit is warm and sweaty against my shoulder. He smells beery, of that sweet alcoholic scent usually reserved for the morning after the night before. A kick of mint behind that. I see that he’s chewing gum.
‘Haven’t even introduced myself,’ he says, interrupting my thoughts. ‘I’m Sadiq.’ His dark eyes appraise us. He holds a hand out to me, then to Laura.
She ignores it, but I take it, not wanting to offend. He passes me a business card, in his hand, as swiftly and smoothly as a spy. Sadiq Ul- Haq. I don’t know what to do with it, so I tuck it into my purse, barely reading it.
‘Thanks. I don’t have one,’ I say back.
‘Thanks for the selfie, but we’re good now,’ Laura interrupts. ‘Just catching up. Alone.’
Even this does not put him off. ‘Baby, don’t be cold,’ Sadiq says.
I can’t help but look sideways at him. I can’t place his lilting accent.
‘We’re not cold. We want to speak to each other, not you,’ Laura says.
It’s typical of her. All through university, people would underestimate her. She was softly spoken, small-boned, would sit, almost huddled, with her arms folded right across her middle, so people thought she was meek. But she wasn’t, not at all.
She wordlessly picks up her drink and we walk across the makeshift dance floor, squeezing against bodies that jolt unpredictably. The only place available is right next to the speaker, which is pumping out a dance hit I would have loved five years ago. It’s thrumming in my ear, the bass reverberating in my sternum. Opposite me, I can see a couple standing close to each other. The woman has an Afro, a slim waist exposed between a black top and trousers. His hand is on the wall behind her. He’s talking softly in her ear. I wonder what their evenings look like. I bet they listen to indie music on the radio while cooking from scratch. Or maybe they paint together, every Sunday: a weekend ritual. Abstract art. It would get all over their clothes, their walls, but they wouldn’t care.
She catches me looking, and for the millionth time in my life, I am pleased that nobody can read my mind. She draws a hand up to her hair, embarrassed. I look away, but not before noticing that her nails are painted a jewel-toned plum; glossy and perfectly even. Ah. She is one of those. A Proper Person, I call them in my head. Proper People have well-fitting clothes and neat hair and glowing skin. You can break it all down into its component parts, but the thing is – they just look… groomed. They are doing something right. Something intangible. I wonder if they’ve all been told, like some rite of passage, and I haven’t.
‘What?’ Laura says, following my gaze.
‘Oh, look,’ I say, as the couple embrace again.
‘Oh to be young and in love,’ she says.
I look curiously at her. I realize that I no longer see Jonty kiss her. Their relationship seems pally, somehow; more about teamwork than romance. No doubt she thinks the same of Reuben and me. Reuben seems reserved, remote, dismissive. Until the door closes behind us, that is.
‘He was a weird one,’ Laura shouts, pointing with her drink over to the bar. ‘Sadiq.’
‘Oh, he’ll leave us alone now.’
Laura raises her eyebrows but says nothing. ‘Jonty is acting strangely,’ she says after a moment.
I look up in surprise. ‘Really?’
‘He said he didn’t like my latest project. He’s never said that. He’s never cared.’
She rakes her fringe back. It snarls, sticking up slightly before drifting down. She puffs air into her cheeks.
Lovely Jonty; he’s been sacked from every office job he’s ever had because of lateness. He often forgets he’s going on holiday and has to be ushered to the airport in surprise. Posh and affable and a bit hopeless: what he wants more than anything is a quiet life, a G&T in his hand. I like to consider what everybody I meet truly wants. I started doing it when I was a teenager, and I haven’t been able to stop.
‘What’s going on with him?’ I say, frowning.
He has been temping, recently, painting perfume bottles with glitter for the Christmas season. He says it’s quite meditative.
‘I have no idea. Do you?’
I am often asked for advice about people. Nothing else, of course. Nothing highbrow. I am never asked for my opinion on medicine or law or planning permission or transfer deadline day or the war in Syria. Just people, and the things they do.
‘What’s he saying to you?’
‘Nothing. Just – talking about the future more, maybe.’ She shrugs.
She doesn’t want to discuss it any further, I can see.
‘How’s that master’s?’ she adds.
‘What master’s?’ I ask absent-mindedly.
‘The cultural theory one.’
I frown. It does ring a bell. ‘Oh, still pending,’ I say vaguely.
I am forever applying for master’s courses and grants and pitching articles to the Guardian and thinking maybe I would like to be a coffee-shop owner. Maybe I will farm cocoa beans in South America? I will WhatsApp Laura. You burn too easily, though, she will send back. Maybe wheat in England instead? And even though it’s endless, my career pondering, and must be tedious, she takes each and every whim as seriously as the first.
‘Good luck,’ she says with a smile. She looks like she’s going to add something else, but then her gaze drifts to just behind me, and she never starts her sentence. Or rather, she starts a different one. ‘Okay, leaving time,’ she says.
I look behind me, and there’s Sadiq. I shrug, irritated, and move away a few feet, but he follows, an arm reaching out.
‘Leave us alone,’ Laura says.
‘You don’t want to be talking to me like that,’ he says.
My head turns, and the song stops, leaving a beat before a new one starts, during which time I can hear blood pulsing in my ears.
And suddenly, it’s not funny any more. A frisson of fear moves through me. Images pop into my mind. Images of women followed down alleyways, coaxed into passenger seats, dismembered in car boots.
I move further away from him, towards the wall, away from Laura. I think of the couple I saw earlier, and how happy they looked, and I wish Reuben were here. He wouldn’t say anything; he wouldn’t have to. He has a presence like that. People seem to behave for him, like naughty children.
Sadiq follows me, blocking me in. Behind him, Laura’s eyes are narrowing so they are almost entirely closed. And now he is squaring up to me, right in front of me. I walk away from him, dodging around him, but he grabs me, pulls me back, and grinds into the back of me, his hands either side of my hips – either side of my bum – like we are in a sex scene.
I stand completely still for a second or two. Shock, is it? Whatever it is, it’s two seconds during which I can not only feel his hands, his breath on the back of my neck, but his erection, too. Hard against the back of my thigh. I can’t help but imagine how it looks. The thought intrudes in my mind like an unwanted Internet pop- up, and I wince. I haven’t felt another man’s penis in over seven years. Until now. What would Reuben say? He’d call him a fucking dickhead, that’s what he’d say. The thought comforts me.
I move slowly away from him, smiling awkwardly because I don’t know what else to do, the shock of being touched against my will like jumping off a pier and into the sea. I can still feel him. The warmth and hardness of him. My teeth start chattering. I don’t say anything. I should, but I don’t. I just want to be gone.
Laura is taking the drink out of my hand and trying to find a surface to put it on. In the end, she places it on top of the speaker – she can only just reach – and she grabs my coat, and my arm, and we turn to leave.
He grabs for me again. A catlike swipe. He catches just my finger, as I’m leaving. I try to pull it away from him, but he’s stronger than me. I could shout, but what would I say? A man grabbing a woman’s hand in a bar hardly feels like a crime, though maybe it is. Instead, I am complicit, almost holding his hand. Nobody knows it is against my will. Nobody knows what’s going on in my head. His hand is momentarily like a manacle around mine.
He squeezes hard, enclosing my hand in the whole of his palm. He releases, and squeezes again; a kind of sexual threat. And then he lets go of me entirely.
Outside, the winter air puffing out of my mouth like chalk dust, I can still feel his body against mine. I am imagining it, but my thigh feels wet. I reach a hand down to check. It isn’t.
Laura hands me my coat. ‘Jesus,’ she says. ‘I’ve not had to leave a bar because of a nutter for a while. Are we twenty again?’
She’s making light of it, and I’m thankful for that. I can still feel him between my legs; that pressure, the feeling of fullness. Was that a sexual assault? I guess it was. But maybe I am somehow to blame. I shudder, wrapping my coat around me to try and keep the rain out.
‘You alright?’ Laura asks.
I nod, not lifting my head again, looking at my cream-ribboned shoes. I don’t want to discuss it. Like the congestion zone charge I ignored until it was too late, and we had to pay double, and Reuben got cross, I sweep it away into a back room in my mind.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘I’m grand. It’s not a Friday night without a nutter.’
‘Okay,’ she says, still looking warily at me. ‘I had a bad feeling about tonight.’
It’s a very Laura thing to say, and it’s another reason she and Reuben don’t get on: her mysticism, his vehement logic.
She tugs at a scarf that’s wrapped around the handle of her bag and puts it on. Over the road, two restaurants have their Christmas lights out; champagne-coloured fairy lights are wound around potted trees.
‘So that’s Little Venice,’ I say.
We like to explore the hidden parts of London. We always go somewhere new. Our rent is too high to endlessly go to the same places: it feels like we are making our money back, somehow.
‘Maybe we won’t do it again,’ she says.
I check my watch. It’s too late to go on anywhere else. I’m enticed by the thought of Reuben at home in our living room. He’ll be wearing soft clothes. He’ll have the lights dimmed. The television on low. A glass of red on the arm of the sofa, the stem held between his elegant fingers. He likes wine; will even drink it alone. I drink Ribena when I am alone.
‘Which way you going?’ Laura says to me. She points with a thumb behind her.
‘Warwick Avenue,’ I say. ‘That’s the easiest.’ I see a dark figure dart behind her, in the awning of the bar we’ve just left, but it disappears before I can get a proper look. Maybe it’s the couple, moving as one, off home, I think. I look over my shoulder again anyway, just to check. There’s nothing.
Laura smells of cologne as she reaches to hug me. She’s wearing a maxi skirt and biker boots. ‘WhatsApp me when you’re back,’ she says.
I nod. WhatsApp is our medium. Tens of messages a day. Newspaper articles. Tiny snapshots of her art. Beers consumed in the middle of the day with Jonty. Screenshots of funny memes. Selfies from me, bored at work. We love it.
I set off towards the canal, crossing the bridge. It’s wrought iron, blue. It reminds me of the playground at school. My fingers trail over the bars. It’s ghostly out here. There’s nobody around. The rain gets slightly heavier and a wind chills me.
That’s when I hear it. Them. The footsteps. Surely I’m imagining it? I stop. But no. There they are. A heavy tread.
I could turn around. Go back to the bar. But is the bar safe?
What do you do, I find myself thinking, when you think somebody is following you down a deserted strip of canal? When you could become a statistic, a news piece, a tragedy?
Nothing. That’s the answer. You carry on. You hope.
I never thought something like this would happen to me. I suppose that’s what makes me behave as though I’m in a film: I have no idea what else to do. I stop, for a moment, testing him, and his footsteps stop too.
I start again, this time faster, and I hear him begin too. My imagination fires up like a sprinter off the starting blocks and soon I can’t tell what’s real. Is he right behind me – I can’t look – and about to reach for me? The pounding of his footsteps is consistent, slapping against the wet concrete, but I can’t tell any more than that.
I will call somebody, I decide.
I turn left down a side alley I would never usually go down. Just to see what he does. I walk past white houses with balconies. Millionaires’ houses. The occasional bay window is lit up, little orange squares in the night, tasteful Christmas trees glowing amber like fireflies. I would usually peer in, invent lives for them, backstories, but not tonight.
He has followed me. Five more steps. His footfalls thunder along behind me. I can’t look over my shoulder. I am frozen.
I start to plan. I could call Laura. Could she get over here quickly? No. I break into a little run. These stupid shoes.
I could knock on a door. But… am I definitely being followed? They’d think me mad. It is strange how much I think of people’s opinions, their perceptions of me, right now, just like I did in the bar when I didn’t cry out when he grabbed my hand. I want these people, these strangers, this collective unconscious, to like me.
I turn right, off the side street, back to a main road and cross it. I get out my phone, ready to dial. 999? No, it seems too extreme. I call Reuben instead. He takes an age to answer, which is not uncommon – he hates the telephone, unless it’s me calling – but then his deep hello echoes through me.
‘You alright?’ he says.
I can picture him now. It’s a comfort. He’ll be reclining against the sofa. His hair will look auburn, not ginger, in our dimly lit living room. He will be frowning, his eyes a dark, foresty green.
‘Reuben,’ I say.
‘What?’ he says. He will be sitting forward now.
‘I’m being followed,’ I say in a low voice. I don’t know why I don’t shout it out.
His eyebrows will draw together. ‘By who?’
‘This bloke. From the bar.’
‘Can you just – stay with me? Walk me to the tube – virtually?’ I say.
‘Of course,’ he murmurs.
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘Okay,’ he echoes, but his voice is crackly.
I pull the phone away from my ear and look at it, the light from it illuminating the clouds of my hot breath. Shit. No signal.
There’s a set of stairs in front of me, leading down to a bridge. I dart into the corner where the stairs begin, to see if he follows. I put one foot on the first step, frozen, not able to look behind me.
And now he is behind me, too. And now, it’s not my imagination. I know. He is right behind me. His body ready to hold on to my hips again. To push himself into me, against my will.
I see his red trainer. Oh God. He is here. I am too scared to turn around and look at him properly. I cannot do it.
‘Hello?’ I say desperately into the phone.
Reuben crackles back, and then… the three beeps. Call failed.
I start to sprint down the stairs, and I’m a few steps down them when it happens, as I knew it would. His gloved hand behind me. It lands on the railings like a bird of prey. The gloves are exactly the sort he would
wear, I find myself thinking. Designer. Sporty. He looked lithe.
I hear an intake of breath, and know he is about to speak, to threaten me. Perhaps his mouth is right next to my ear, his body poised to grab mine, to thrust again, and so I reach my hand out to grab the railings. They’re cold and wet; they soak my gloves.
And then I am acting before I know it.
He comes down by my right-hand side, ready to overtake me on the wide stairs. I turn. His hood’s up, but I can tell it’s him from his gait. I am remembering his body against mine again, and imagining yet more horrors – his sweet breath in my mouth, his penis up against my underwear, against my jeans, a full, damp, painful wetness – I bring my hand down on his, briefly, hard. He lets out a surprised cry. And with my right – my dominant hand – I push his body, firmly, squarely, the hardest I’ve ever pushed anything in my life. I release his hand as he falls – I’m surprised he falls; he’s at least six feet – and he tumbles like a stuntman down the concrete stairs to the towpath. He stops there, on his stomach, at a strange angle. I am breathing hard, and I stand, watching him, astonished. That I have done this. That I am safe. That he is lying there, not moving, and I am here, almost at the top.
I start to feel a weird, panicky hotness. I reach to undo my coat, wanting to feel the sharp winter air on my sweat-covered chest. My glove is sopping wet as it touches my skin. My forehead is slick with moisture, from perspiration or the fine mist descending from the sky around me, I don’t know. My bowels want to open, and right in the pit of my stomach I feel a hornet’s nest of fear beginning to buzz. Oh God. What have I done?
One minute ago I was scared for my life, and now I am scared for his.
My mind scans over the time in the bar. Feckless Joanna. I should have ignored him, told him to piss off, like Laura did. I never do the correct thing. I end up in messes. I avoid things and then they get much worse.
I close my eyes. Oh, please let me go back to Before. Before we met Sadiq. Before we left. Before he followed me. Before I pushed him.
But we can’t. I can’t. And now… it is After.
I look down at Sadiq. His left arm is underneath him, twisted strangely. He’s fallen only seven steps, but they’re concrete, and wet. His right arm must have reached out in front of him. It’s landed just to the side of his face. He hasn’t moved at all.
I should go to help him. Call an ambulance. Confess.
Or I should run away, in case he’s about to get up again. Sprint home. Pretend I never did it. Go back to Before, even though I know I can’t.
The street lights are too bright, refracted a hundred times in each drop of misty rain. I can see moisture on the concrete steps like thousands of beads of sweat. I can feel the cold air seeping into my coat. Sadiq is lying still but breathing in and out, in and out, and I look down at him and then around me, and think.
I could run, or I could stay and call him an ambulance.
Now it is decision time.
Enjoyed this extract from Anything You Do Say? Let us know in the comments below!