I must have been about nine years old, perhaps ten. Along with friends from my neighbourhood we would often go for long hikes over the fields close to our home in search of adventure – a stream to ford, horses to pretend to ride, mock bull-fighting with disinterested heifers. The world is an exciting place in a child’s imagination.
There was a disused warehouse where local kids often played, though looking back and now blessed with an adult’s concern for health and safety, I know it was a deathtrap. Lots of abandoned bales of wool just waiting to burst into flames at the first careless flick of a cigarette, unguarded drops, a roof full of rotten beams that we could so easily have fallen through. None of this bothered us, we loved the place. It was our playground, our medieval castle, our jungle, our desert island.
I went there one day with my younger brother and Richard, another boy from along our street. We messed about for a while, and for once we were the only children there even though it was the summer school holiday. We got bored and climbed onto the roof to survey the surrounding countryside. The views from up there were fabulous, I recall. We were spies, unseen, watching what the unsuspecting adults did down below.
A man was approaching, so we watched him for a while. Richard said he knew him, that the man lived on our street, but I told him he was wrong. I knew everyone on our street, this man was a stranger. He was also boring so we soon lost interest and clambered back down to the ground to play some hide and seek thing. The man had disappeared so we just forgot about him.
It was my turn to seek so the two boys ran off. I waited for the obligatory count of ten then started to look for them, walking around the warehouse buildings, peering in doors, behind bales. No luck. Not to worry, my brother could never keep quiet for long. I turned a corner and carried on between two buildings, a space about ten feet wide. I passed a doorway, there was a movement from inside. I stopped turned, expecting to see two small, giggling boys.
The man we had been watching strolled out of the warehouse. I supposed he must have been there all along, though I had no idea why or what he was doing. He spoke to me, said ‘hello’ or some such inane thing. I said ‘hello’ back and asked if he’d seen my brother in the building. He said he hadn’t, did I want him to help me look?
I didn’t. The man wasn’t part of our game. I said ‘no’ and carried on walking.
The next moment I was on the ground, on my back, his hand across my mouth. I was stunned, incredulous. What was happening? Why? What was this deranged man thinking? He shoved his other hand down the front of my trousers, and smiled at me. He actually fucking smiled while he pinned me to the ground and groped me, a ten-year old child.
“Do you like that?” he asked me, wriggling his fingers around in a way I knew was wrong. Just. Plain. Nasty.
I couldn’t answer, I couldn’t get a sound past his hard, heavy hand. I shook my head, all the time kicking and squirming. It did no good, he was three times my size. I was going nowhere. I went limp, desperate, helpless, utterly terrified.
To this day I don’t know what stroke of luck brought my brother and our friend around the corner at that moment. They should have been hiding, waiting for me to find them, but they weren’t. They were there, standing, watching, their faces just two astonished masks. And because they were there, they saved my life, I am quite sure of it.
The man saw them, his grip on me slackened. I watched his face change, the sick smile slipped, became confused, indecisive. I guess he was weighing up his chances of overpowering all three of us.
The momentary respite was enough. I managed to scramble out of his grip. I got to my feet and I fucking ran, straight at the two boys. I grabbed each of their hands and we all three sprinted as fast as we could, as far from him as we could.
“Scream.” I yelled at them as we raced across the neighbouring fields. “All of us have to scream.” I knew we needed to make a fuss, attract attention, make that crazy bastard think we were a hard target, more bother than we were worth.
We didn’t stop running until we reached the streets of houses about a mile away. Only then did I dare look back. He was nowhere in sight.
We went home. My parents were at work, my gran was there. I told her what happened. My parents were called, and my gran took me and my brother to the police station. The police did their best, used tracker dogs, drove me back to the warehouse to show them exactly where the attack took place. The signs of the struggle were there, flattened grass and one of my shoes – I was almost home before I even realized I had lost it. But there was no other evidence, and no sign of the crazy man.
A day or so later, Richard’s mum came to our house to talk to my parents. She told us that her son had told her that Susan’s dad had had hold of their little girl. Susan was my friend, in my class at school. When asked, I was adamant that the man who attached me wasn’t Susan’s dad. I didn’t even know him, but it couldn’t have been him because that was plain impossible. Even so, my mum phoned the police with the information, just in case it helped with the description. The police went to Susan’s house, they spoke to her dad, but of course it wasn’t him so the matter was dropped.
Months later I walked up our street. I was alone, probably headed for the shop or some such important errand. A man sat on the steps at Susan’s back door. He was smoking a cigarette, I recall. I looked up, and I saw him. That same smile. Identical. I stood for a moment, transfixed, staring at his face, then his hands. He was so similar, so bloody similar it was uncanny. Did he have a twin brother? A double somewhere?
I told my mum about it, and again she contacted the police. There was talk now of an identity parade, and I was glad. If the police could see someone who looked exactly like the man who attacked me, then it would be easier to find the real culprit, wouldn’t it? I would talk to Susan about it at school, ask her if she had an uncle…
Susan never came back to school though. The family disappeared, the same evening that I saw her father on the steps. They just upped and went. It was all very odd.
Only years later, and when I was no longer filtering my version of reality with the childlike certainty that adults we know won’t harm us, did it finally dawn on me just what happened. Susan’s dad knew the game was up the moment I saw him in person. He would have been identified, if not on my evidence then on Richard’s because for some reason that little boy saw it straight away.
So the bastard ran. He grabbed his family and he ran.
I had a close call that day, it could so easily have ended differently. If he'd managed to drag me out of sight, if my brother and Richard hadn't got bored of hiding...
To the best of my knowledge my attacker was never caught, though I doubt I was the first of his victims. And probably not the last.