Taking the long way home
6.45am Morning and it’s dark. I have a partner who is warm. He gets up and puts on jogging clothes. I don’t. It’s still dark. I could run along the main street, with the cars and the concrete, but I’m reluctant to jog around the park or down to the Merri Creek by myself and I don’t want to go with him – he’s fast, I like to ramble and puff. I don’t like the way he slows down to wait for me under the bridge; it feels as if I’m being minded. I do some stretching on the bedroom floor until I realise I’m not stretching, I’m just lying there, thinking about Eurydice Dixon. It’s Friday. She was walking home two nights ago, through another park, right near where I used to live. I didn’t know her in life, but in death she is all I can think about.
When my partner, Joe, gets home I remember to tell him about the man who grabbed me, out of the blue, in the city a few weeks back. Completely crowded mall, he just reached out and grabbed me. He slurred, “Hey, baby.” I had been on my phone to Joe, who was overseas. We’d just finished talking and I guess I was distracted. Some guy took his chance.
Joe is shocked. “What did you do?”
“Nothing. I just shrugged him off. There was another guy who was going to step in to help, I think. Then my tram was coming. So.”
It’s an everyday story. A nothing story. Nothing happened. But a young woman with friends and family and a life was followed, raped and murdered by a man in a park. These half-forgotten, everyday stories, these nothing stories, keep rising to the surface.
8am We used to keep our bicycles out the back of our block of apartments, in a badly lit concrete alleyway, but they attracted men. Well, at least one man and a boy. They stole our lights, then our bike covers, then our empty plant pots. I wrote a note saying, “Dear arsehole, please don’t steal our shit”, and stuck it above our bikes – and they stole the note. It wasn’t the stealing – though that’s fucking frustrating – it was the sneaker-soft footsteps I could just hear walking past the window while Joe was still asleep.
Even without the bikes, we woke to a guy outside our bedroom window the other week, casually casing the neighbours’ cars. I went outside to confront him and he didn’t blink, just strolled off into the shadows. I wouldn’t say he made me scared, just uneasy in my home. The security lights are broken; the landlord won’t fix them. It got better when I stopped thinking of the area outside as my space and left it to them. I don’t use the back door anymore. Haul my bicycle out the front door, double check I have keys and my phone, turn on the porch light and ride to work.
8.15am Women say it’s such a relief to hit 40 because the attention wears off and you’re just ignored. It’s only partly true. The street attention slows, but it doesn’t stop. I’m a white, cis, overeducated woman, living in an inner-city suburb with a man and don’t face the racism, homophobia and other daily horrors that some friends do. Still, I’m wearing the wrong clothes today. It’s cold and I’ve put on an old woollen dress. It’s short and it rides up my stockings when I cycle. I hop off my bike at the lights to try to delay the fabric creep. The tram driver, also paused, stares.
1pm I’m at a meeting that I don’t want to be at. It’s unpaid and I’m a casual employee and I want to earn some money to pay people back. My bike was rear-ended by a guy in a ute a few weeks back. He screamed at me for 10 minutes, then didn’t pay for the damage. Kind friends and parents did. Even after the cops told me he was “known” to them, a “fascist”, that I’d never get a cent, I tried to meet him to get the money. Not at my house – never give them your address – but in the parking lot of a well-lit 7-Eleven with my friend Kate. Safety in numbers, I thought. My partner was away; it was hard to find a time when Kate was free to come with me; she has her own busy, complicated life. Another friend, Mark, offered, too. The ute guy didn’t show up anyway.
The meeting drags on, because an older man keeps talking over every woman and person of colour in the room, interrupting their questions. I speak up, yelling at him instead of the ute guy, and I guess I’m also yelling at Jaymes Todd, who has been arrested and charged with the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon and will face court in October. The older man shuts up but glares at me for the rest of the meeting. My voice is squeaky; I feel embarrassed.
3.45pm I was 15, in my school uniform, trying to call a friend in a phone booth with a bunch of coins. It was 3.45pm, blisteringly hot. A group of men had come out of a pub nearby. A big group. They seemed old to me, but were probably only in their 30s. One entered the phone booth and just pressed himself against me. Then, from the other side, another man. The others crowded around, pushing into the glass of the phone booth. They were quiet, weirdly quiet, just … pressing. Then they left. They didn’t say a word.
6pm Sometimes I leave work a bit too late to go up to the big supermarket on the bike path that curls off Princes Park and threads into Brunswick. It’s dark already, whole sections unlit. I nearly wiped out a family and their dog along there once – they were invisible. I go on the side streets instead and it takes me 10 more minutes. I often take the longer route to go anywhere anyway. Ten more minutes each way, Monday to Friday. One hundred minutes a week.
6.45pm The porch light is off. I can see from all the way down the drive the dark cave of our balcony, the alley beyond. Did I leave it off or did Joe come home and go out again? The cheap fairy lights that I’ve put out, in an attempt to cheer the winter, glow faintly. I did a self-defence course when I was 14 and learnt how to break someone’s finger, I learnt about the power of keys wedged between fingers as blades. I still use the old key trick now. Of course, when it comes to it, people are rarely prepared enough to use their house keys in self-defence: most attacks happen in the home, from people you’re meant to trust. But not always.
I think about another story. There is always another story. It was 2 or 3am at a wedding in the middle of nowhere. I was the only sober one in a hundred-strong room, nursing a tea on the couch, laughing at the dancers stumbling around in their finery. The tall, intense dude who had been bugging me all night was at it again. Joe and I had been swatting him away – he was at least 10 years younger, his fiancée was there and he seemed more insect-like irritating than serious. By 2am he was shitfaced. Joe left to go to the toilet and the dude was there in an instant, “playfully” dancing above me as I sat on the couch. I told him to go away. He frowned and grabbed a pillow and pushed it into my face, over my eyes and nose and mouth. I tried to move the pillow, couldn’t. Tried again, but due to shock – or lack of upper body strength – I couldn’t budge him. This young, strong dude, whose actions seemed effortless, made me realise that it was nothing for him to smother me. It would take everything for me to make it stop.
He must’ve got bored, because he removed the pillow and danced away without looking at me.
There’s no one waiting for me on the black balcony by the door and no one inside when I finally find my keys. Of course there isn’t.
7pm The next night I cycle to my friend Mark’s house for drinks. Go the back way to avoid the traffic, and get lost. Bloody Brunswick. Weird streets that don’t say “no through road” but lead to dark alleys. I could risk it, keep going and get there sooner, or I could backtrack. It’s freezing. I push forward into the blackness, bumping on the cobblestones, feeling stupid and terrified and defiant and also tired. None of this is new.
9.30pm “Did I tell you about when I was 11 and it was World Day at school? We all got assigned countries; mine was Liechtenstein. My Grade 6 teacher saw me dressed up in my Liechtensteinian skirt, apron and plaits, and he said: ‘I wish you were 18 right now.’ ”
Kate bursts into mortified laughter.
We’re outside her house after the birthday drinks, under a streetlight, talking about Eurydice Dixon and Qi Yu, another woman allegedly murdered just this week. Even though Kate is tough – she used to work with victims of domestic violence, she’s heard it all – I still insist on escorting her to her door. All those years of drunk cycling alone through Carlton and Fitzroy, we say to each other, falling off bikes in empty dark streets. Weren’t we lucky? And what about when I finally forked out for a taxi and that cab driver felt me up? Ha. Weren’t we lucky.
I was lucky not to have been molested as a child, like so many of my friends were. Or to be part of the one woman who dies every week in domestic violence statistic. And let’s not even talk about the teenage years, safe at home with the boyfriends – was it rape and did he hit me or was it all a mistake, a misunderstanding?
10.30pm I’ve written something on Facebook about Jaymes Todd, and a sweet old friend has responded with an ill-timed post, explaining that most victims of violent crime are male. Another friend private messages me about it. We’re upset but still we angst over how to reply. I don’t want to hurt the poster’s feelings – he’s such a nice guy – but she finally decides she must. She must say something. Her reply to him is gentle and diplomatic, and I’m relieved.
11pm “You know, any time you want to walk through the dark by yourself, I’ll go with you,” Joe says.
We both laugh bleakly. But what if we had a fight some time, and I wanted to go out and cool off? What if I wasn’t in a good relationship but a bad one?
What if I had had too much? Could I go and have a good cry by myself, in the darkness, by the Merri Creek?
No. Not good to be upset or distracted out there, or wearing the wrong clothes, or to be a teenager or young or even not that young. I stay at home. These tragic events start it all up again, but it doesn’t end.
Names have been changed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Taking the long way home". Subscribe here.