The very recent conclusion of the Vincent Tabak trial, the man who murdered Joanna Yeates in Bristol ten months ago, has left me with a heightened sense of vulnerability. And I'm sure I share this feeling with very many women.
Mr Tabak was fixated on Miss Yeates, but she didn't know it. So his invasion of her home was a complete shock. She had caught his attention, and he had fantasised about her. A glimpse of her through a window that fateful evening last December was enough to propel him into her flat with sex in mind. And when she screamed at his advances, he reacted with violence, and dealt out death.
This was an intelligent, confident young woman. She was pleasant and vivacious, but not provocative. She had not drunk too much at the pub. She was in command of herself, and had done some shopping before arriving home. She was not dressed to seduce, only to heat up some mince pies. But none of this low-key ordinariness was a protection. A man she hardly knew suddenly invaded her home and killed her.
And this says that any of us could fall victim in the same way to a man who might be living next door, or just down the street, whom we have never noticed. But they have seen us. Their eyes are on us, every time we walk by. They may even be stalking us, always there somewhere in the background, keeping out of our line of sight so that we never know they are there.
A little while back, I heard a story on the radio called The Octopus Nest, published in 2008 as one of a collection of short stories by a writer named Sophie Hannah. So far as I could grasp the story - because nothing was quite spelled out, and the conclusion was ambiguous - it was about the chance discovery that an unknown woman had been appearing in the family photographs for a long time. She faced the camera, sometimes in the foreground, but on the edge of the shot; sometimes very much in the background, but recognisable once you looked for her. Whether it was on holiday, or at sundry family events, there she was, always there somewhere in the shot, an uninvited stranger that the wife in the story had never noticed before. And she appeared in the family photos for many years past. She had haunted the growing family. And nobody had spotted her. But somehow she got included in the pictures, every time, as if she was meant to be in them. Who was she? And why was she in the photos? It spooked the wife. And then her world was washed away in a deluge of sinister implications when she found that her husband had a vast obsessive secret collection of this woman's stuff hidden away. The story ends at the moment of this terrifying discovery, just as the husband walks in. I was absolutely certain that the poor wife did not survive that confrontation, even though the police were already on their way. He would have killed her, as surely as grasping a high-voltage cable freezes your grip on it. A strangler's grip.
I will confess here that I have a morbid fear of being strangled. So nobody goes near my neck. I will put on my own necklaces and scarves, thank you.
What goes on in men's minds? Why do they have this frightening capacity for obsessive behaviour? And why does it so frequently lead to tragedy? Who is at risk?
Although it seems that no woman is immune from male domination and abuse, murder victims commonly seem to be especially nice carefree persons with plenty of friends. And they are usually young, active, out and about, and under thirty - and therefore at their most physically attractive. Perhaps it isn't so surprising then that they get noticed by men with inadequate or frustrated lives, and a talent for manipulation and control. It's the capture and taming of a free spirit. The theft and possession of something beautiful. The power of being able to destroy it. The ego of thinking that it's all right, that anything is permitted, like invading someone's life and toying with it, maybe even taking it. I've little doubt that Mr Tabak did not understand or want Miss Yeates as a real person, any more than he understood or wanted his own girlfriend. But he had overwhelming strength, and could do as he pleased, and he used that strength to kill when the real Miss Yeates screamed at him and shattered his dream.
How many men like this are out there? Should one be afraid? These are the thoughts that are running through my mind. Because although I am not young, I do have a friendly manner and I behave in some ways that might catch the attention of obsessive men. Should I be careful about smiling and talking and being animated, and enjoying nice meals out in good company? Should I ensure that I'm walked everywhere? Should we all make sure that we're escorted to our cars, or to our front doors, and should we all be totally paranoid about personal security, so that once safely home, nobody can walk in on us? Should we just stop going out?
For the present I'm inclined to accept a 'normal' level of risk, still go out, but be on high alert. However, I'm wondering how wise it might be to get up early, when it's still dark, and walk a brisk mile before breakfast, by way of exercise. Is that really a good idea, even if there are rail commuters about doing the same thing? Should I do it at midday, or in the evening instead? Or not at all?
I've some knowledge of self-defence, but I haven't got eyes in the back of my head, and I can be surprised and done away with just like anyone else. I don't want to become a timid rabbit. I want to live a proper life.
Damn all obsessive men who can't treat woman as human beings.