Once a week, I take EldestGirl to Rainbows. It’s about a 15 minute drive from us, and as Rainbows is only an hour long, it’s not really worth going home, so I tend to kill the time by a wander down past the canal, into Waitrose for a quick scoop-up of anything with a yellow sticker on, grab my free Waitrose coffee, and sit in their seating area reading a book until it’s time to collect EldestGirl.
Thsi week’s excursion was a near-perfect execution of this plan. EldestGirl was successfully delivered to the appropriate Scouting hut. The wander along the canal was all the nicer for the lighter evenings, and I managed to get some yellow-stickered strawberries for 59p. So far, so good. I grabbed my free latte and sat down in the seating area on a stool overlooking the canal. There were ten or so seats in a row, and nobody else sitting down, so it didn’t seem discourteous to put my shopping next to me on the table.
A minute or so later, I was conscious of someone wanting to sit down. With ingrained London Underground behaviour, I moved my bag away from the seat, almost subconsciously, without really making eye contact. Only a few seconds later did I wonder why the person had chosen that particular seat when there were so many others free. I assumed he was waiting for someone at the checkout, and the seat he had chosen was nearer the exit.
“Have you been to Bicester Village?” he asked me by way of introduction.
“Yes, a long time ago.” I was coldly polite.
“I went there with my girlfriend earlier today.”
I didn’t answer.
“I spent an absolute fortune. Did you like it?”
“Not really my thing,” I replied. Again, I was cold, bordering on rude. Anyone at this point should have taken my verbal and non-verbal cues of “I’m not interested, please leave me alone.” To emphasise the point, I became incredibly engrossed in some admin tasks on my phone. The man continued to sit there. I continued to ignore him, for ten minutes or so.
It was almost time to go and collect EldestGirl. I pushed my chair back, and conspicuously did not acknowledge him as I grabbed my bags, and left.
As I exited the store, I heard… I thought I heard the sound of his chair also being scraped back. I ducked back into an alcove so I could see if he came out of the store, so I would be able to make sure I walked in a different direction to him.
He did indeed come out of the store, but as he walked past the alcove, he spotted me, stopped and then wandered back to the front of the store, and started smoking a cigarette. I now couldn’t get out of the alcove without walking past him.
I went back into the store. I went to the customer service desk and explained what had happened. The assistant looked unsurprised and told me that he had made some staff feel uncomfortable previously too, and did I want to wait there until he had gone? I explained I couldn’t wait for long, as I needed to pick EldestGirl up from Rainbows.
The customer service assistant then asked me if I wanted them to call the police. I didn’t – the man hadn’t done anything wrong really. He was probably just lonely, or maybe had some mental health issues. He had no claim on my time and I was under no obligation to listen to him or to give him my attention, and I certainly didn’t want him to follow me, but he hadn’t done anything illegal.
At this point it turned out that the police were already in the store buying coffee. And that, dear readers, is how I ended up getting a police escort out of Waitrose.
Long story short: despite the fact I was wearing no make-up, was in a coat thick enough to double up as a duvet, and hadn’t showered for nearly 24 hours, I’ve still got it going on. I can attract as many stalky-nutters as I want. Go me.
More seriously, as a feminist, I’m angered by this. The situation I found myself in is so unlikely to happen to a man, and feeling physically afraid of men, of strangers (and in especially sad cases, of their own domestic partners) is something so many women have to deal with every day. It is why I find it so difficult to articulate to male acquaintances that “female experience”, of needing to be constantly aware of your surroundings, of noticing if you’re being followed, of thinking what you might have to hand as a weapon (in my case, it was a cup of almost-still-hot coffee that I would have thrown into his face if I could have got the lid off in time), of then wondering if this situation happened because of something you said, or some unconscious body language you gave out, or something you were wearing. Maybe you shouldn’t even have been outside by yourself – especially in the evening.
And then – because you are socialised as female – feeling that you ought to be polite to people, to allow strangers (men) to talk to you, to “cheer up, love, it might never happen”. You are damned if you are polite and respond in a friendly manner to men (you’re leading them on, you slag) and damned if you don’t (you’re a frigid bitch).
The female experience is being conscious you are near a canal, and could be pushed or thrown in. Of being conscious that there aren’t many other people around to hear you shout. Of being conscious that if something did happen it and it were reported in the newspapers, it would almost certainly be construed as your fault, somehow, by some people.
And whilst you’re thinking all these thoughts, and risk-assessing all these situations (and, although not in my case, potentially wondering if you can run away whilst wearing heels which literally, literally hobble you) you’re also likely to be paid up to 50% less.
Next time I’m coming back as a bloke.