2012, early October, late Friday. A lengthy, uneventful train journey to Swindon, back to the old town, home for the weekend. A short walk from the station, a few drinks with old friends. We leave the pub, I am invited in for a nightcap, the friend’s house is just up the road. Whiskey and low light. It is sometime after midnight when I gather up my things, the rucksack and other impedimenta, and say goodbye. I have declined the offer of a cab. I am moving a little slower than usual, it is partly the drink, partly the weight on my back. There is more weight at my sides, unevenly distributed, a full carrier bag, the metal frame of an empty shopping trolley. It doesn’t matter. It is not far to my mother’s house. I know this area like the back of my hand. I turn from Victoria Road to Wood Street to High Street, with each turn there are fewer people, almost everything is closed now. I cut through the car park on Dammas Lane, there is not so much light here, it tapers into a narrow passage, the high-walled Masonic Centre on my left, the metal fences of the burnt-out Corn Exchange on my right. The space opens out at The Planks. I pass the old auction house that was redeveloped and split into gated residential properties in the early years of the new millennium. If I catch it at the right moment, if the shadows fall at a certain angle, I can still see the shape of the old auction house. Not tonight. I am at the edge of the park, I don’t know why they fenced this section in the west, the gap is still there, a breach in the palisade. I crawled through it when I was ten. I’d fallen from one of the old manorial walls and broken my arm. I held the arm out in front of me because it no longer seemed to be part of me and I walked around until I found my family and I used my good arm to point at the arm that was broken. I don’t remember what I said to them or if I said anything. I hardly ever think of it now. Here is the junction of The Planks and Old Mill Lane, the darkness thickens at the edge of the woods, it is an old familiar darkness and it reassures me. Here is the short steep slope to Lakeside. I am moving a little slower than usual, the drink has not worn off, I switch the carrier bag and the empty trolley back and forth. I am seven minutes from my mother’s house. I have walked this route since I was small and it has always been the same length except for when they spent a summer re-laying the path and upgrading the streetlights. The path and its lights mark the soft southern boundary of the park. I can see the path ahead of me, below me, it starts where this short row of detached, elevated bungalows ends, the lamplight rising and falling with the hill’s curve, the other side of the light is home, the idea of home. I am in the light, I am between the lights, I watch my shadow expand and shrink in the gaps. I hear voices, somewhere behind me, out of the woods, it is a distance, I can’t be sure. I watch my shadow fall back and overtake. I hear footsteps, somewhere behind me, how many, how close. I decide that they are not close enough to count. There is always someone trailing out of the pub long after the pub has shut, there is always someone lost along the way. Here is the short steep slope to Dorchester Road. The path runs downhill to a little alley that opens into a cul de sac and the cul de sac opens into the main road through the estate. On the other side of the main road is the cul de sac where I grew up. I am two minutes from my mother’s house. Here are the footsteps again. I could take it blindfold from here, the curve and lift and turn of the pavement, it is part of me, it has always been part of me. There are two sets of footsteps and no voices. I wonder if one set of footsteps might be mine, is this what I’m hearing, I cannot know without stopping and I am not stopping. The handles cut into my hands. I cannot turn easily, the rucksack and other impedimenta, I cannot glance back. The street that I think I know well seems longer than I remember. It is narrowing. This is something I have often considered but rarely experienced, what is it, an unfamiliar element in familiar surroundings making everything unfamiliar. I am in the light, I am between the lights, a lengthening, a quickening, how shadows beget shadows. I am in the light and my shadow is on repeat. I step to one side of myself, this happens suddenly and without thought, I am struck by something metal, the right side of the head, a glancing blow. For an almost second I think it is a joke, this is a friend’s idea of a joke, but I have no friends around here and this is not their idea of a joke. I reel and stagger and somehow get myself to the end of the street without being struck again. I stop, is it because I can’t go on, is it because there is no advantage in going on. I turn. There are two of them, white, male, hooded. They are perhaps 20, slightly younger, slightly older, I can’t make out much detail in the faces. I am in the light. One of them steps forward while the other stands back. The one who steps forward is the one who struck me, I know this because he is wielding something metal, or steel, galvanised or stainless, a long steel chain. He says something, something about the chain, something about me, something about the stuff that I am to hand over. I cannot run. It occurs to me that they have followed me from the woods, it should have been obvious, I have always been slow to catch on. I cannot run with the rucksack and other impedimenta, a full carrier bag, the metal frame of an empty shopping trolley. I am in the light. I cannot run so I raise the metal frame of the trolley and make a mad mask of my face and howl guttural threats until hoarse. They run back into the little alley and I shout and swear as they retreat. I look up and then I look around. No one has come to their windows and no one is on the street. I am shaking. The shaking spreads from my chest to my arms and my fingers tighten around the plastic and metal handles. The cul de sac is empty and the main road is empty. I cross the road and I pass the bus shelter and I take a last look back at the road before I turn into the short close that has my mother’s house at the end. I try the keys until I find the right key and the door opens with all its weight on the hinge and I close it and lock it twice over. It is 1am, perhaps later. I leave my luggage in the hallway and go into the kitchen where I find a meal that my mother has left out for me. I reheat it and sit down with it but I cannot taste it. After a while I go to bed. I lie in the dark and leave a space for the thoughts to come. The thoughts are all the same, the thoughts are all of violence, the violence has nowhere to go. I pursue my assailants into the woods. I surprise my assailants as they emerge from the woods. I leave my assailants with lasting injuries. Or worse. All of this takes place in the shadows. Over and over. It is senseless, repetitious, unreflective. I tell myself that it is adrenaline and nothing more and that sleep, in time, will come.
The next day I get up and make breakfast and take a cup of tea to my mother. I didn’t hear you come in last night, she says, no, I was out late with friends, I say. How was your journey, she says, it was fine, I say. I spend the morning looking for ways to make myself useful, it is something I like to do when I visit, perhaps I will clean the windows, perhaps I will vacuum the stair carpets. In the afternoon I volunteer for errands. I take the shopping list that my mother has written out and I leave the house and I set off, distractedly, I set off into town. After a minute or two I come to the spot on Dorchester Road where I stood the night before. It looks very ordinary. It looks as it has always looked. There are some rubble bags tucked between a garage and a low brick wall and a few pallets stacked next to the rubble bags. I search the pavement, what am I expecting to find, there is nothing to see and nothing further occurs to me. I conclude that the spot has no power and so I walk on into the little alley. The little alley looks the same and the path into the parkland looks the same. A few hours later I come back the same way, I think that it might be different this time, the short walk through the little alley and the cul de sac, but it isn’t, it is already reverting to the short walk that I have been taking for years. I am almost disappointed. The weekend passes, usefully and unremarkably. I pack up my things, I say goodbye to my mother, I walk to the station and catch a train back to Sheffield.
In the days and weeks that follow I share the story with a few friends, in cafes, in pubs, the story of what happened, it comes out after a drink or two, the story that I haven’t shared with my family. Soon it is almost slick with the telling. I let the stress fall on chance, the role of luck. I say that luck, not instinct, spared me worse than a glancing blow, I say that luck, not wit or mettle, decided my reaction, I say that luck, not strength or courage, decided the outcome. I say all this and I also say without saying that I overcame the odds. That I faced down two assailants who lost their nerve and turned tail. That I stood my ground. I say this without saying it. The shape of the story changes with the telling, it depends on whom I share it with, it starts to warp and sag. It is harder and harder to see what I saw in it. After a while I lose interest in the story and I put it away.
I put it away, but I don’t put it out of my mind. I put it on a high shelf with the other small stories that I rarely take down. The stories are shelved in no particular order so I put it next to the story of the broken arm, a story that didn’t seem to be happening to me when it happened. It happened around me. After I found my family we got into the car and my father drove us to the hospital. It was not far to the hospital but I don’t remember the car moving at all, heat haze on the back seat, a whiteout in stationary traffic, though we must have moved, somehow on that Saturday afternoon we found our way to A&E. What I remember of that afternoon and evening is what my mother remembers and that I, in turn, have misremembered. We spent a long time in A&E waiting for a bed or waiting for a consultant. The afternoon had gone and most of the evening had gone. There were drunken men in A&E, large men, they were drunk and they had injured themselves. They were swearing and complaining. Eventually a staff nurse or administrator took them to task, there’s a little boy with a broken arm over there, she said, he’s been waiting here for hours and he hasn’t cried once. I was moved to a ward, then theatre. Surgery in the small hours. The bone was reset and the arm cast in white plaster. I was commended for my bravery. I went along with it, I didn’t turn from the attention, but I knew I wasn’t being brave. I was in shock. The arm remained in plaster for six months and it became its own story, the loosening and tightening cast, cracked and grubby and scrawled. It was strange to see it go, to feel the weight of it lifting, the arm without its armour.
A few weeks pass. I continue to stroll the city streets by day and night. I walk from Hull to Spurn Point alone in unfamiliar darkness. I take early trains and late trains, I am unaccompanied and unwary. I forget about the incident. I forget about it because there is nothing to learn from it. I don’t change or vary my routes. I don’t change the hours that I keep. I don’t lose ground. I don’t lose sleep. It is not until some years later that I start to think about the reasons for this. That I couldn’t imagine a different outcome. A worse outcome. That I didn’t think about it because I didn’t have to think about it. The best of outcomes. I continue to think of my self as neutral, my thoughts as neutral, my body as neutral. Two good arms. Two good legs. Default or design. The space I move through is designed around me. It is designed for me, or someone who looks like me. A white body in a dark plain. The path unmarked and unlit. The vast salt flats to the east. The mind and its longing, its onward vigil, eased out of vigilance.
I can only speak for myself. The design of my life did not change. There is no before and after. The incident takes up no space in my head. It takes up no space in my world. Not an inch. I can walk anywhere. At any time. I can walk out of Easington at 3am, on the slow road to Hull, an East Riding patrol car idling in a layby, I can pass the patrol car without acknowledgement or consequence, untroubled and unguarded, the mind as blank as the lane. I can ask myself, as a thought experiment, as a means of passing the time, what it might have meant, how it might have gone, if I was a young black man walking out of Easington at 3am. I can board a late train to Barnetby, take note of the lads with bottles and cans in the middle of the carriage, sprawling from their table seats and blocking the aisles, I can withdraw to the next carriage, biding my time. I might observe that there are no women travelling alone, I might not, it is unremarkable, I might decide not to get the map out, not to draw attention to myself, to wait until the journey’s end, to make myself small, so that my world does not become smaller.