Burnaby Road, Portsmouth, was supposed to be well lit. It was a broad, quiet, back town street with pavement slabs, as opposed to tarmac, all the way across its width: if you drove through between its smart houses – formerly Officers’ Quarters for the Navy – you were supposed to do so at a respectful, slow pace.
But Burnaby Road – at that time student accommodation for the University of Portsmouth – had a design flaw: the siting of its lamp-posts and its street trees coincided, leaving most of the ground in darkness for the nights between mid-May and the end of October.
And that may – or may not – have contributed to_
“Have you got the time on you?”
I pushed up a sleeve and looked at my watch. “About five past ten.”
Normally people just walk off after such an exchange, but this one didn’t: he followed me from the brightly-lit High Street into Burnaby Road.
“D’you live round here?”
“No.” Thank God – otherwise I’d have the type of bloke who follows you into a dark street knowing where I live. As it was, I was on the way to my then-boyfriend’s house – past a second house in the street where I had, in fact, been living the previous year.
More questions followed. The darkness hid my blushes at the abject lies I concocted. At the age of 24 I just wasn’t practiced at this stuff.
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a student.”
I thought I heard the words “I’ve always wanted a student…” as my feet went from under me and I started to fall…
By now the sharp-eyed among you may have recognised the incident: it’s the one Verity recounts in ‘The Price of Time’ as part of her answer to Mills’ question about life without constant fear. It is also a vignette of real life: it happened to me in the late spring of 1987. As you can imagine it left a bit of an impression, even though I scared the man off with a scream before anything worse happened.
But the most interesting part of the night was yet to come.
My boyfriend had gone out, leaving the house deserted. Desperate, I banged on the door of my former place. The tall redheaded lad who answered_
Geordie-Man, one of my old housemates!
“I’ve been mugged. Can I come in?”
We went through to the kitchen. The rest of the lads, all of whom I remembered, were there. I was the only other northerner – the only one who didn’t think Geordie-Man needed subtitles when he talked.
“Sh’a get y’a cuppatea?”
“Oh yes please, that’d be great!”
I watched, puzzled, as Geordie-Man walked out of the front door and away. Perhaps he’d seen they didn’t have any milk. I didn’t notice the four-foot-high poster of Karl Marx in the next room until someone carefully detached him from the wall, rolled him up and stashed him in the cupboard under the stairs. Perhaps they were having a bit of a tidy-up.
For a while nothing happened_
Someone banged on the front door fit to break it, and a commotion broke out in the hall. A split-second later four burly Police walked in the room. They all looked at me, the only woman.
My wits came to. That was the question Geordie-Man had asked me: the Police. Not tea. I’d misheard.
I stood up. You needed something to show for it in these types of cases, or nobody would believe you.
“Yes. I can show you the bruises if you like.” I could feel them where I sat: they must be belters.
Nobody wanted to see the bruises.
They wanted a statement instead.
No note-pads appeared.
A statement meant going to the cop-shop with the four burly officers. As we got into the car the chap in the passenger seat leaned to his colleague sitting next to me in the back and said, “We’ll get Kate.” My seat-mate warmed to the idea, “Oh yes: Kate can interview you. She’s been on a course!”
There’d been cases in the papers. Genuine rape victims being given a gruelling time of it, giving their statements: having to put up with snide remarks implying they were at fault.
Kate didn’t do any of that. My respect for her hasn’t dimmed over time. She got 3 solid hours’-worth of detailed information out of a shocked civilian with famously poor visual memory, about a 20 second incident that took place in almost total darkness.
How she did it, why I happen to be recalling it right now, and the implications for the history of one country and the future of another, are for the posts to follow.