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I like to be alone.
That is… I like to be intentionally solitary at times.
Often without warning. The pull of living in the city becomes too insistent, the immersion in a million other lives too acute a sensation, and I want to make a break for the hills.
Not because I grew up in romantic countryside, taking misty early morning walks across the fens like an Austen heroine. Rather, I spent most of my childhood in what was a very modern town for Ireland.
Built in the 1960s, Shannon sprawled its way across former marshland, hugging the estuary of the eponymous river. The tangle of EU-funded dual carriageways ferrying travellers to and from the adjacent airport meant that one did not casually hike out of town and into the surrounding fields.
But I still found my solitude. Our home was just one pedestrian bridge away from an industrial estate, where my nighttime perambulations were only punctuated by the passing staccato of learner drivers, and all overlain by the sheen of the west coast’s ever present misty drizzle.
Sometimes I would sit on the rocks randomly embedded in the hillock behind our council house, and look up at the smudge of the Milky Way — just visible on a cold night.
I could just about feel alone, surrounded by 10,000 people, and a galaxy of stars to remind me of my size.
Those are walks I cannot in a million years imagine taking now.
In a city with a population twice that of my entire home country, time alone is impossible to come by. True to the adage, in London you are never more than 6 feet from a rat. Or a leering drunk.
Of course some of this shift has to do with growing up. While men occupied the physical periphery of my less cautious teenage experience, I found them filling up more and more of my space when I entered London and my twenties. Men spread their way into my tube seat, my academic reading lists and 18% of my salary.
The mathematical acuity I had allowed to grow blunt in my early years of university blasted its way back to the fore with nightly practice of the theorem every woman knows by heart — that of Schrodinger’s Rapist. Every person I pass on the street in the dark who I identify as male has an attached formula.
Distance from me, relative to my distance from home or the tube station. The cut off where my point of safety transitions from the former to the latter. The vector of his current trajectory and where it will intersect with mine, constantly adjusting for a potential change in velocity on the part of either participant. The statistical likelihood of the other man who has appeared further down the street being known to the first, reducing with the addition of each apparently unrelated individual.
Suddenly my walking routes involved more math and more desire for company (in the form of literally anyone who didn’t read as a man) than ever before.
And I learned.
Mainly that so many men lack a basic understanding of how to walk down a street at night (ahead of anyone who does not identify as male, preferably on the opposite side of the road, maintaining the same pace, and not repeatedly glancing back). But also that the street at night was not my space. It was already occupied.
As were empty daytime footpaths, forest walks, canal towpaths… I could stand in the middle of Walthamstow Marshes in full sunlight if I liked, with all the appearance of being alone, but these spaces were already full to the brim with men. Or rather, the potential of men.
My empty spaces vanished. Truly, they were never there to begin with, but the city finally closed them in around me.
I am aware that I am more cautious than some. I can’t pinpoint why this is. My flatmate strides confidently home at 1am with her headphones on, while I scurry away from birthday parties before 11pm, conscious that I may well be misgendering people while I frantically do my survival maths in the dark.
Perhaps it stems from growing up in a single parent household. With a man who beat his wife living in the flat above ours. Waking in the night to find my mother with her hands pressed over my ears. Both of us sitting in ashamed, terrified silence while his partner burst from her flat and rattled down the stairwell, screaming for help. No one ever did help.
But I know I am not entirely alone. It only takes one incident every couple of months to confirm the fear that we’re taught to carry around; cradled close and nursed, unwanted. One late night WhatsApp from a friend who’s been touched by a stranger at a traffic light, one coffee with another who’s been catcalled while walking home alone, one afternoon in Finsbury Park police station filling in a report about the man who followed me off the tube…
Life often provides more, just to make sure. To be other than a cis man is to be constantly engaged, by or against your own will, in a conversation about their dangers.
And I know — now — that seeking solitude is not my business anymore. It is my role to stay within the safe ebb of a crowd, within sight of a main road, and with a door key primed, Wolverine-like, between my knuckles should I find myself lacking in my womanly duty and walking the narrow path home a little later than expected.
As a scientist I know that I cannot test the scenario until I run the scenario. I cannot run the scenario unless I put myself at risk. The degree of risk I’m willing to accommodate is 0%. The scenario will never be the same twice, because I do not control the movements and motivations of other people in public places.
Feeble jokes about women’s poor spatial awareness really fuck me off, when we are NOTHING but aware of the space men take up. All of it. All that empty space out in the world, we are taught, is filled with men. Or the potential of men.
And when a woman and a man walk down the same street alone at night, feeling safe is a zero sum game.