I saw a young boy this evening walking alone in the dark. My instinct was to worry even though it was only 4.30 and a month ago I wouldn’t even have noticed him.
It reminded me of the fear that was drilled into me at school about the dangers of walking alone after dark and of the dreaded strangers.
I used to go to French classes one evening a week led by someone’s mum. Sometimes she would take us all home afterwards. I remember one night, she had to park round the corner from someone’s house so she walked her to the door, leaving the rest of us in the car. She was careful to lock all the doors and talk sternly about not opening the door to ANYONE under ANY circumstances because there’d been a ‘stranger’ in the area recently and we had to be careful. We waited in the car rigid and terrified.
Another time, I was at a sports day organised by the Scouts. One (or perhaps both) of my brothers were involved with the Cubs or the Beavers at the time and were taking part. For some reason, I went back to the car which was in a car park out of sight of the field. On my way back, a man (who I cannot picture now, except that I think he was wearing a suit) called out, ‘Little girl!’
I remember the feeling in my chest as my heartbeat raced and my muscles tightened. He called again: ‘Little girl!’ So I ran; I ran as fast as I could until I reached my mum.
It was like the colour had been put back in the painting: a bright summer’s day, children playing, parents cheering, cake stalls and the like; it was as though the last five minutes had happened in black and white, a horror movie stillness brushed over the excitement of the field. I can’t actually remember if I told my mum what had happened or not; certainly she will not have known how scared I was. As soon as I was back in the field though, I felt silly, as if I had imagined the whole scene. Later, I thought I saw the man standing at the front with the event organisers. Seeing him made my heart thud again, but I was calmer this time. I was with my mum and he didn’t seem as suspicious when I wasn’t alone in a car park with him. Looking back, I think he probably just wanted directions to the field.
We were taught to be terrified. I’m not sure if we drill the same fear into our children now, although we of course teach them the ‘don’t talk to strangers’ bit. Perhaps they are simply so over exposed to the notion of dangerous people and the hysteria that whips up all he adults that they don't take any notice anymore. Certainly the same fear is not evident in any of the children I know.
Being predisposed to neurosis, I was probably more terrified than my peers, but nonetheless, a certain amount of fear was shared. Perhaps it was useful: certainly, we did get the message. But it was something I was constantly worried about (that and my mum going out and not coming home again) and I do wonder if the whole thing mightn’t have been taken a step too far.
The neurosis is still with me now. Watching that boy walk home today sparked my old fears easily. I wonder what went through his mind as he walked; is he scared of strangers, or is he just sensible about them?
And more to the point, did he get home safely?