Yesterday I enjoyed the usual Tuesday late-afternoon meetup, which involved a couple of drinks and a jolly good chat at the pub. It was warm and sunny. Even by 8.00pm it was quite unnecessary to wear more than a summer dress. K--- had prepared a tasty 'stew', and I willingly accepted her invitation to join her at home for an evening meal. Just she and me. With Schubert tinkling away in the background, we discussed many a topic while we consumed the 'stew', over which K--- had clearly gone to much trouble. People who really like to cook always do take pains, even over the simplest dish. It was delicious. And she had a fantastic choice of wine to go with the meal. But then, in her earlier life, K--- had been the Wine Columnist for a Well-known Newspaper, and she knew her stuff.
So a great evening. Time flew. Midnight came and went, but neither of us felt tired, and the conversation never flagged. But as 1.00am approached, I said farewell and stepped out into the night.
K--- had suggested a taxi to my car. Fiona was parked about a mile away, and I would have to walk southwards through the North Laine, then east past the Dome Theatre, then up lonely Edward Street. I said no to the taxi: the cost for such a short distance, at that time of night, would be outrageous. Miss Independent! It was a fine, dry Tuesday night (well, early Wednesday morning by then). The Friday and Saturday night rowdies wouldn't be around. I was not going to walk up or near St James's Street (notorious for late-night encounters with dodgy characters). Edward Street, which ran parallel, might be lonely, but it was wide and well-lit and I'd be passing close to the Police HQ. I was confident that it would be a trouble-free walk.
And yet after the first few yards, I began to regret my decision. I felt very much the Woman On Her Own, an object of speculation to anybody else abroad at that late hour, in a way that I wouldn't have been with a companion beside me. In similar situations - walking back to the car late at night - I had always had someone with me. This time, not. And it was rather later than usual.
I have friends who go to late-night gigs, or parties, and think absolutely nothing of tramping home, on their own, at 3.00am or later. They have so far survived unscathed. And indeed, central Brighton does not have a bad reputation for muggings and attacks and street nuisances after dark, at least if you know your route, if you keep to well-lit parts, and if you don't stagger around like a tipsy butterfly in high heels. Their experience bore that out. But I still felt keyed up, and watchful for problems.
The streets were not by any means deserted. The ordinary shops were of course shut up for the night, but here and there people were still coming out of a pub or restaurant that stayed open late. I passed one pub that at 1.15am was still in full swing, with a lively mixed group milling around outside, somewhat worse for wear I thought. But mostly it was a case of walking from one bright pool of light to another, trying to keep 'sensible' people in sight if possible - that is, people who looked OK, and who might respond to an appeal for assistance. I carefully scrutinised the men walking towards me on their own. None made me uneasy as we came closer; but it did no harm to stay alert and ready to react. On the other hand, to stare at everyone I encountered would be a sure signal that I was nervous; I needed to be surreptitious about it. I tried to radiate a relaxed but purposeful air, as if I knew exactly where I was going, wasn't going to stop for conversation, and was thoroughly used to walking empty streets at night.
So long as I was in the North Laine, this approach worked perfectly. But as soon as I turned east to walk past The Dome my heart sank. There were groups of young men about, crossing and re-crossing the road aimlessly. The restaurants opposite The Dome had closed for the night, but at least two still had their front doors wide open while the staff stacked chairs and cleaned up for the night. I could duck inside if necessary. Then the groups of young men seemed to coalesce on one side of the road. I tucked in behind a guy walking on the other side, on his own. For all I knew, he was also watching the same drunken idiots, and thinking to himself that, statistically, he was a likely victim if they decided to mug him. There were enough of them to seem threatening to anyone. Fortunately they didn't call out to either of us. He went one way, I another, and I was alone again.
Then it was across The Steine, and up Edward Street. This is a straight road that slopes gently but relentlessly uphill. Meaning that it gradually makes you short of breath. Unless pretty fit, you end up puffing and certainly not in a state to run away from anyone. But, as I have said, it is well-lit. And normally you can see far ahead (and behind), and can evade any potential trouble simply by nonchalantly crossing and re-crossing the road. Unfortunately they have been digging the road up, to put in posher kerbstones (rather a waste of money, if you ask me) and the road was full of contractors' machines and fencing to channel motor traffic and pedestrians. You couldn't see far ahead at all. The route for pedestrians was diverted this way and that between those fences, and it was impossible to cross the road or see any alternative places to walk, not unless you were prepared to leap fences and other obstacles. I didn't feel up to that in my summer dress.
And it was at this point that I encountered two guys not far ahead. They were ambling along slowly, and I couldn't help catching up with them. They started to talk to me. 'Hello, love, where are you off to, then?' - that sort of thing. I kept quiet. They weren't drunk, just curious. At night, all cats are grey. At a casual glance, I was indistinguishable from any other woman on her own. But most women try not to walk alone at night, certainly not at 1.30am. So they were naturally inquisitive. They adjusted their pace so that they stayed just ahead. A couple more jokey questions were directed at me. I stayed silent.
Then the pedestrian route became ambiguous. It seemed to veer left, up the forecourt of the Magistrates Court building. Or perhaps not. It was confusing. Which way? We all halted, uncertain. I think it was at that moment that they realised that I was not a late-night good-time chick ready for a bit of fun, but a nice, slightly-worried middle-aged lady who just wanted to get home. Their tone changed. 'Sorry, love, we didn't want to frighten you.' And with that, they climbed a fence, crossed the road, and disappeared from view, much to my great relief. I tried the forecourt: yes, it was all right, that had been the correct way.
Fiona lay up a side road only two hundred yards ahead, and I wasn't sorry to open her door, flop in, and press the 'lock all doors' switch. I texted K--- at once, to say that I'd made it to Fiona, and was now safe. Once I'd got my breath back, I fired her up and drove home.
The odd late night is unavoidable. And from time to time, a walk across the town will arise. Next time, I'll try not to do it alone. I was OK last night, as it turned out; but one shouldn't always rely on luck.
If there were an incident that became awkward, what exactly would the outcome be? I haven't the strength or technique to fend off a determined abuser or attacker. Ironically, height might be a wonderful visual deterrent in such situations: an assailant would reckon to have much more trouble intimidating and subduing me (or any moderately tall person) than a young girl six inches shorter. I would have a longer reach, and (for instance) be able to knuckle them in the eyes. So walking tall is plainly a good strategy.