Before I get to the horrible bit in this blog – I mean the bit on that dark lonely street in Birmingham – let’s start all nice and innocently, shall we?
September: season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, according to Keats. Children and teenagers back at school, summer almost over. Another year in the cycle of annual routines that catapult us along life’s fast-track lane, tossing all regrets and warnings out the window, out into the high-speed wind that snatches them up and throws them still further away. Out of reach of our past.
“I wish I could re-live my last two years of school,” my recently-graduated daughter mused aloud the other day, probably inspired by the hordes of Polish students who were shuffling along in scattered groups through the centre of Krakow, smartly dressed and loudly chattering amongst themselves as they made their way to school for the first day of term.
But my daughter wasn’t musing in a fond, nostalgic way. No, it was more in the vein of: I would have done things so differently, had I known then what I do now. A very older-and-wiser sort of musing.
How many of us haven’t been assailed by those kind of thoughts as the years snatch us along, prodding us forward, laughing at our pathetic struggles along the way? Is there anyone out there who doesn’t wish that they could impart their older-and-wiser knowledge, their accumulated experiences, upon their younger selves, barely touched as yet by life’s bruises and learning curves? Wouldn’t it be terrific to be able to stand behind our youthful counterpart – invisible, of course – and give a gentle tap on the shoulder, guiding, advising, admonishing, warning…
I wouldn’t do that, if I were you, you could say to your fresh-faced, parallel self, who isn’t listening, of course.
No, I wouldn’t go upstairs with that 17-year-old guy. He might be drop-dead gorgeous and know all the right things to say at the teenage party you’re at right now, but if you go upstairs with him, as he’s urging you to do, in search of a quiet place – maybe that small spare room where all the coats are tossed in disarray on the floor, and … NO! I said do NOT go in that spare room! This will NOT end well; you’ll only feel wretched and humiliated at school the next day, wishing the floor could swallow you up next time he passes you by in the corridor without so much as a “Hi there …”
Why oh why didn’t you listen to me? Why didn’t you listen to your older-and-wiser self? Did you really think it was true love? At sixteen? You green, simpering IDIOT! Sorry, but it has to be said. Next time, be more careful, okay? Promise? Especially before accepting any marriage proposals.
Or bigger, more sinister warnings. Much, much more sinister.
Like when I was on my way back to my Hall of Residence in Birmingham, having just survived my first full day away from home. My brand new life as a real grown up student! And then I spotted that lonely phone booth over there, on that equally lonely side street. At nine o’clock on a Saturday evening in late September. Why did I choose that particular side street to walk down, at that time of evening, all on my own, at the tender age of eighteen?
Oh, yes – I wanted to phone my mother, that’s why. Like a good, caring daughter. I wanted to let her know that everything was fine, that I’d had a really nice first day as a student of music in the big, towering, scary city of Birmingham.
Scary? Hah! I didn’t know the word existed, back then. Until entering that phone booth.
NO! I want to cry out to you now, to my innocent, wide-eyed, smiling younger self. Don’t go in there! Don’t go in that phone booth! You don’t know what’s going to happen to you if you do … for God’s sake, Wendy, just go back to the main road, back to your hall of residence … DON’T GO IN THAT PHONE BOOTH!
But you didn’t listen to me.
I yelled and yelled at you … but then I got swept along the highway right back across the miles and the years, back to 2018. So I was forced to abandon you, my poor younger self. Here I am, safely back at my desk in Krakow; and there you are, stuck in Birmingham on that desperately dark, quiet side street, about to go into that badly lit, urine-smelling, forbidden phone booth…
So you went in.
“Hi, Mum,” you said cheerily, smiling at the grubby receiver as your mother – that is, our – mother picked up the phone at the other end of the telephone line, way across the miles in Preston. “Everything’s fine, don’t worry about me. I’ve had a great day! I even managed to – ”
And then the door to the phone booth jerked opened.
Your shock was palpable when you saw him. I can still feel it. When you saw the looming, shadowed face, the wild whites of the eyes, glinting in the mid-evening dark.
“What the hell – ” you spluttered, trying to be brave.
But then you saw the second one. Even taller. Even meaner. And the knife. Oh, God, that sleek, gleaming, glistening, beautiful blade, about to become the ugliest thing you had ever encountered thus far in your unscathed little life…
You turned to stone. That cliché is perfect for such moments. No apologies.
“Wendy? Wendy, what’s going on?” our poor mother shrieked into the redundant receiver that swung on the end of the cord, banging into your knees as it danced back and forth, slapping against your shins, your pretty bare calves, exposed to the chilly September night, indifferent to the two dark intruders who stared without mercy from the open doorway, about to step inside, knife still brandished, threatening, crowding your no-longer sanctified space.
And this is where I stop. This is where I gladly yank myself back to the bright, safer lights of 2018. No point in reliving the past when it evokes terror rather than pleasure, right?
Oh – and in case you’re worried about my younger counterpart, don’t be. I can tell you that she survived. I survived. I wasn’t murdered – I’m still here today, as you can see. And I wasn’t raped. But I was assaulted, badly, with a knife teasing places I shudder to think of, and I said goodbye to the honey-sweet innocence of youth on that late September evening, as I stood on the threshold of my future adult life.
Why didn’t you warn me? I can still hear my younger self wailing at me through her petrified tears, across the miles and years that divide us.
I DID! I wail back. I DID warn you, but you didn’t listen! You don’t EVER listen! For God’s sake, Wendy, when WILL you start listening?
When will any of us start listening?
I guess we all know the answer to that.