I thought I was ahead of the game. Five minutes early to walk rather than jog (unwillingly) to the station, as usual. Be a little bit leisurely, even on a Monday. Instead I spent those five minutes watching a man assault his girlfriend, in the street, out in the open. I watched her apologise, try to protect herself, persuade him not to hit her again. I spent those five minutes conspicuously standing across the street, making sure they could see me, asking if everything was OK, waiting in the silence for a response. Yeah OK, they said eventually, first him, then her. Ceasefire, waiting for me to leave. I didn’t leave. Five minutes early, remember, time to stand and wait. He started again, vocal aggression, ridiculous accusations, leaning in, intimidating her. “There are people here, you know,” I tell him, “people all around. People can see”. I am relieved to be proved right, to see a woman and child appear from an alley nearby, a man pull up in a council van. “People can see,” I say again. I look at the girl, “If anyone needs to walk away.” The man in the van seems to have realised. He stays still and watches too. I am grateful. The woman and child who had hurried down the road turn around and walk back. Coincidence, probably. Again, relief. The boy – did I mention they looked like they were both still in their teens? – realises nobody is going to leave him to it. He tells her to walk with him and she follows. He directs her to walk on one side of the road and he goes to the other. The man in the van gets out and looks at me and nods. A police support officer seems to materialise out of nowhere, walking along the next street. “The guy in the red hoodie,” I say, pointing to his back, making sure she’s looking and listening, “just assaulted his girlfriend, the girl over there. I challenged him and now he’s taking her somewhere else. Please will you follow?” The man in the van lingers, looking too. “Right,” she says, “OK” and she walks in the same direction. A police van approaches as I walk away towards the station. Another coincidence – it’s an area with what I think they call a ‘high police presence’ – but maybe the boyfriend will think it’s coming for him. Maybe, if they’re quick, it will be.
That took five minutes. I caught the train, didn’t have to run. My life went back to normal as though those five minutes hadn’t happened, except that I had tears in my eyes as I walked away. The girl’s life probably went back to normal too, except that normal looks different for her. I feel helpless knowing she is unlikely to end today without experiencing more violence than I saw. That if he’d do that in the street, in a sunny afternoon while people walked by, he would be unlikely to hold back in private. I feel sick that I might have made it worse, drawing attention to it when she had nowhere to go. I wanted her to know that it wasn’t OK, that being hit and threatened and blamed isn’t just part of a relationship. That there is a way out, even if it doesn’t seem like it. That people who walked by today, or any other day, didn’t do it because they approved. Maybe because they were scared or experience the same thing themselves or don’t know what to say or how to change what’s happening. I understand that. I feel the fear, but the anger outweighs it. I have written before about seeing women assaulted in public places. I seem to see it a lot these days. It keeps happening. And it’s not OK. Really, really not OK. I urge you, if you see it, don’t just pretend you didn’t. Call the police. Round up other people who have noticed (I challenged one man pinning a woman to the wall of Bond Street station with his hand round her throat by telling a couple of other people nearby what was happening, asking one to call the police, and approaching in a group). Read up about how you can help, become aware of the signs. Sometimes all you will do is let a woman know that what’s happening to her isn’t OK. Sometimes it’s just a tiny step, but please don’t just pretend you didn’t see.
The National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808 2000 247) is a 24-hour freephone service for women experiencing or concerned about domestic violence, their family, friends, colleagues or others calling on their behalf. nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk
Respect works with domestic-violence perpetrators, male victims and young people. If you are concerned about your own behaviour, or the behaviour of someone you know, it can be contacted on 0808 802 4040, by email at email@example.com, or through its website,