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eports of stalking and harassment in the UK have increased by 31% according to The Office for National Statistics (ONS). Research into the figures show that during lockdown more women felt vulnerable than ever and Paladin, a national anti-stalking service saw an increase of 40% in calls for help from victims during the pandemic. The rise is emblematic of an epidemic of its own right.
I struggled to find helpful sources of information and found even less sources regarding ‘stranger stalking.’ I felt, because I could not define what was happening to me, it meant it wasn't happening at all.
When I tell this story I still worry I get the facts wrong, that I have gotten confused, or in all honesty that I could have made it up. According to the Metropolitan police 30% of people that contact their helplines have experienced stalking for over two years and 13% for over five. It can be a confusing experience and with little support out there, it can take a long time to seek help.
I often downplay what happened to me. But as I was writing this down I recalled of a piece of advice my mother gave me: If your friend was telling you this story as if it were their own, would you tell them what you tell yourself? Would you tell them they are making it up? The answer is no, no I would not.
At first I told myself it was a coincidence. But honestly, what are the chances of seeing the same person on numerous occasions - in multiple boroughs - when the population of London is more than 9 million?
“I slept with a knife under my pillow and tied my scarves together to stop the door from being able to open from the outside. A week later, a community support officer knocked on the door with a collection of leaflets about how to deal with invasions of privacy.”
It started when I was 18-years-old
For context I am now 24. I had moved to London for university. I had over a month to kill before my course started and I regularly visited a cafe local to my halls.
We all know the type: exposed brick walls, mismatched furniture and coffees half the size and twice the price. I liked it because it overlooked a busy crossing connecting four streets. If you snagged a space at the front you could work away and catch glances of the comings and goings through the big Victorian windows.
I remember trying to piece together the lives of the people that wandered past, what they did and where they could be going. It was the perfect people watching spot, little did I know I would become the watched.
It was a cold autumn day the first time he spoke to me. I was at the cafe and smoking a cigarette outside. I didn’t recognise the face of the man that approached and asked where I was from. I assumed it was general chit chat.
He went on to ask for a cigarette, I hesitantly said yes, I remember a sense of unease but I was conscious I had just smoked my own and felt rude. I told him I’d have to go inside to get one but when I walked back outside he had gone.
This was the first time he approached me.
I do not know this man's name and I probably never will. Though I could spot his face in a crowd immediately. His voice bears no real defining characteristics; it has no regional flex, it is standardly southern with a monotonous inflection.
From that moment on I believe this man has been a constant in the periphery of my life. For a while I believed him to be homeless. That would have made everything make sense, except that it didn't make sense at all.
His clothes were always very clean and were similar but regularly changed. Dark jeans, dark hoodies and sometimes a lightly padded jacket. His appearance is burnt into my mind, so much so I think I would be able to spot even his silhouette.
Looking back, I was a very habitual person during this time. I frequented the same pubs, walked the same walks on Sundays, shopped in the same places and got my coffees from the same cafes. It would have been quite easy to know where I was at all times.
One night, out for drinks with friends in Soho, I felt a sudden wave of fear, a feeling I would come to know all too well. I went to the bathroom and returned to find him standing talking to my friend. I remember an instinctual need to warn her. Pulling her aside and saying something like you shouldn’t talk to him, something is wrong with him. I think I am seeing him all the time.
As soon as those words came out of my mouth I recognised in that moment, that they were true. Hood up. Dark clothes. All too familiar. This was the first time I saw him in an entirely different location.
I began to feel constantly afraid, but as the academic year came to a close I moved home for the summer and London melted behind me for a few months. By the time September rolled around I had moved to a new borough and assumed I had left him behind me.
I began to relax, but part-time work meant my weekends were still based in the part of London where it started and I began to notice him once again. He would be standing on the other side of the street or walking in the opposite direction to me, often disappearing quickly.
I didn’t speak to the police - or anyone at all really. I still tried to pin it down to coincidence despite my gut instinct telling me otherwise. I tried to shrink my feelings by asking myself how different is this to seeing the same faces in the shop I worked in?
Enjoying an afternoon to myself, I walked to Camden. My day was destroyed by the same sinking feeling of concentrated panic. Across the street I spotted him staring, unblinking as people pushed past him. He maintained eye contact until I spun round and beelined for the overground station.
My hand reached for my phone but again I did not call. Maybe it was another coincidence, maybe he thinks I am following him. I googled and looked for information but felt I was hitting a brick wall, because there was so little out there.
It fed into my worry that I was mistaken. Why did he never show up at my university or my place of work exactly? Then it dawnded on me these were places I would never be alone. Yet, instead of asking for help I just sat on the first train to arrive and ended up going the wrong direction home.
For a while I found a sense of safety at home - hearing the front door close behind me was a sound met with relief. This didn’t last long.
One of the very, very few times our house was entirely empty, we were broken into.
I had visited my hometown and was tired from the journey. I remember dragging my suitcase into the kitchen and getting halfway through a cup of tea before realising the back door was wide open. I instinctively grabbed a knife from the countertop and began checking the house.
The house consisted of three girls and one boy, the downstairs bedroom was completely untouched including money and valuables. Everything as it should be with the exception of an open window and a footprint on the ledge.
The three upstairs bedrooms had been rifled through again with no valuables taken but books leafed through with pages randomly folded, underwear draws emptied across the floor as well as letters, birthday cards, notes and passports all combed through. Pillows had been rearranged and my bed looked as if someone had been in it.
Again the thought of ringing the police felt wrong, I rang my mother who convinced me to call 111. The police became less and less helpful once they had ascertained I wasn’t in any imminent danger. I spent the rest of the evening outside in the garden waiting for one of my housemates to make it back to London.
That night I changed my sheets, slept with a knife under my pillow and tied my scarves together to stop the door from being able to open from the outside.
A week later, a community support officer knocked on the door with a collection of leaflets about how to deal with invasions of privacy.
“The only professional that directly told me what I was saying was valid was the operator that picked up the call that day. A woman who explained to me I shouldn't have to live my life feeling like this. She was the first and only person to say that.”
Things quietened down somewhat after the break-in. I had shared with those closest to me what I felt was happening and my suspicions regarding the person behind it. I made all of my social media private, untagged locations and removed captions suggesting my whereabouts.
It was a while until I saw him again, this time with my dad who was visiting me in London. I saw him pointing his phone towards me and told my dad who it was. My dad caught him minimising the camera function on his phone and switching to Youtube. He said excuse me and the man responded with I am not doing weird, don't know what you mean, nothing weird.
He walked away quickly as I pulled at my dad's arm, worried about what could happen whilst he disappeared quickly as he so often does.
That evening my dad dropped me off at a friend's house. I deflected genuine questions with humour and shrugged it off, then I drank so much that I couldn’t worry about anything.
Again my life moved on and like most uni students I made another move, again to a different part of town. During this period he started to become more obvious. Making it harder for me to explain the situation as anything less than stalking.
One time, sat on benches just behind Carnaby Street with friends, I looked to my right and he was sitting there, phone pointed towards me. I tried to remain calm and told my friends - who insisted on pretending to take a picture whilst actually capturing him on our phones.
As we moved to get away he followed, making no attempts to appear not to be doing anything but purposefully following. He followed us as we took turn after turn through Soho picking up the pace, eventually losing him in a throng of people in Piccadilly circus.
From then on he started standing closer, he would walk into shops pretending to browse before following me out. He terrified me. This is when I called the police to make a report. They noted everything down and clarified that it sounded like stalking, that I shouldn’t engage with him and I was to call again if I felt in danger.
I couldn’t help feeling like I wasn’t really being listened to. They didn't ask what he looked like in much detail and they all but told me there was nothing to be done about my suspicions regarding the break-in. After years of feeling guilty about wasting their time I actually felt they had wasted mine - I felt no safer than I did before the call.
I contacted the police for a second time after catching him watching from across the street.
The only professional that directly told me what I was saying was valid was the operator that picked up the call that day. A woman who explained to me I shouldn't have to live my life feeling like this. She was the first and only person to say that.
A home-visit was cancelled by the police when I received an email that read: “we are sorry to hear that you have been a victim of a crime. An investigator from the Metropolitan Police has looked carefully at your case and we are sorry to say that, with the evidence and leads available, it is unlikely that it will be possible to identify those responsible. We have therefore closed this case.”
The words that followed included “it is disappointing for us too” and “frustrating” this enraged me as I would never describe my experience as frustrating or disappointing. I felt scared then and I still feel scared now, that is my reality.
The last time I saw him was three months ago. Prior to this, it had been the longest stretch of time, a full year and no sightings. I was out to see a friend perform. I froze when I saw him outside the venue.
I thought he hadn’t seen me but as we waited for Ubers at the end of the night he came back down the street again and this time he looked. My partner jumped up and pushed him, he declared once again “I’m not doing anything weird”. This was the third time I had ever heard his voice.
I still worry, my anxiety is heightened when I am alone and I walk certain paths.
I was sat drinking a coffee as I began writing this down. I sipped away in a cafe not disimilar to where it all began and I thought about my teenage self. A teenage me that I am not entirely sure has processed what happened to her.
I do not want anyone to experience what I did and what, sadly, so many people face. But the reason for writing this piece is that the rhetoric of silence needs to be changed, the invasion of privacy and the direct attack on women's access to the very place they live and work should not be compounded by the behaviours of anyone else, let alone in a threatening way.
I wanted to share my story and of the words the female phone operator told me, women should not have to live their lives this way.
One woman's account of stranger stalking - how a lack of information made her question her own mind.
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