Tall and dark eyed he walked, surrounded by shadows like a ghost; stopping only when I stopped, making no sound other than that of his footsteps. Looking down at the ground, he spoke to no one, ignoring the occasional "Good morning, sir." directed towards him from by-passers, all gentlemen of higher class. He was, in many ways, a phantom; heard by none and seen by only a few.
Had I not glanced back I myself might never have seen him at all - and certainly not realised that he was indeed watching my every move, if ever so discreetly. I still, to this day, struggle to describe him accurately, for it is surprisingly difficult to do so. Not because I do not recall anything about his appearance, but because I recall exactly everything. With my upbringing came not only suspiciousness towards strangers, but also the fact that I was, and still am, a great observer of people. There is not a lot that escapes my notice, not a subtle move or action, not a raise of an eyebrow or curl of a lip. I am particularly good at memorizing faces, and the face of this man is not one that I will easily forget. Possibly, it is a picture that will stay with me for as long as I live, resurfacing each time I recollect these events.
So what makes it so difficult to describe him, one might wonder? Surely, if I remember it all so clearly, I should be able to do so without much difficulty, recount each detail without hesitation, without so much as a shadow of a doubt? Yes, that would be the expected result of the aforementioned ability to observe. However in this case, it is not, and I believe the main reason for that is that this man could be described in so many different ways, all at the same time. The only conclusion I could reach for sure was that he was tall, taller than average one might say, and dark-haired. His eyes were dark also, beaming with a curious light shining from within; one that I could not read or understand fully. He wore a long, black coat with silver buttons, and brown boots that appeared to be made out of leather or something similarly exclusive. In one hand, he carried a newspaper (The Times, I believe it was) and in the other nothing at all – open and bejewelled, it swung slightly as he walked. Apart from this, I can no longer say anything for certain. He was neither young nor elderly, neither dark nor pale, and seemingly of average build. I assumed him to be English due to his peers addressing him as thus; however had I been one to guess, I may not have been so certain. He appeared, in my eyes, to be one of those people who might travel from one country to another without ever standing out too much from the crowd - his appearance was such that it may well fit in anywhere, at least to my limited knowledge. This thought did not intrigue me as much as it frightened me; for who could really know what intentions such a person might have? I should like to point out that I had never been one to judge by appearance; instead, I was suspicious of everybody until proven wrong. Following my gut feeling to determine whether or not a person could be trusted, I occasionally found myself a little too quick to pass judgement, however most of my assumptions turned out to be correct. It was a fine art that I had taught myself over the years, or perhaps always known and then finally mastered - I could not be sure which. But this gentleman was something quite different. Had someone paid me to analyse his persona I could not have done it. It seems incredibly strange to me, how those eyes that expressed so much could tell me so very little. I had no clue. And this, I think, was what frightened me most of all.
Stubbornly fighting the fear rising within, I tried to think of perfectly logical reasons as to why he would be following me, to use common sense before jumping to conclusions for once in my life. Perhaps he was simply going the same way; perhaps I was only being paranoid? The sun had risen now, after all. Would anyone attempt anything in broad daylight? As much as I would have liked to successfully convince myself no, it could not be done. Having witnessed with my own two eyes how young women suffered at the hands of powerful men, I knew all too well that the time of day did not matter. What may change the outcome somewhat was whether or not there were other people nearby, and during the day this was usually the case. But this street was nearly empty.
Whether he knew that I had seen him or not, I could not be sure - he never looked directly at me whenever I dared glance back over my shoulder. In hindsight it might (perhaps not in this situation, as it would turn out, but generally speaking) have been wiser to make it clear that I was bothered by his presence; however, at that time my first and only reaction was to pretend I did not notice – and therefore, that was what I did. Talking to Sailor as if he were mine, I continued walking, looking forward and focusing on the road ahead of me. The idea of interacting with the dog was, of course, to give the impression that he was my pet; my pet that would save and protect me should I suddenly be under attack. It then occurred to me that Sailor had not actually reacted to the man in any way; although he had surely seen him too, although he must also have heard the heavy footsteps. I knew nothing of dogs and their senses, nothing of their loyalty towards humans; if they were at all capable of feeling this, but still the lack of reaction struck me as rather odd. Were animals not usually very aware of their surroundings? Were they not constantly on guard, looking out for danger and people whom should not be trusted? I watched him for a while where he trotted, staying close to me while his gaze flickered in many different directions; landing eventually upon a couple of birds sitting on a fence we would soon be passing. Whimpering slightly in anticipation, he watched them intently as if he was about to bark; his instincts clearly tempting him to hunt them down. I frowned slightly as I pondered what he might be thinking, what sense he might be making of the world around us. Never before had I really wondered what it might be like to be a dog, but at that very moment, I genuinely wished I could understand more of what went on inside his mind. Why was he not reacting to the assumed pursuer? Had he sensed something that I had not, or was he simply unaware?
When, by the time we were almost halfway back, I still heard very clearly the footsteps behind me, I could no longer ignore my fear. Growing stronger every passing second and sending violent shivers down my spine, like ice cold water threatening to drown me any minute, it took over my thought process entirely. Soon, I had convinced myself that I was about to meet my fate at last. Perhaps I was not meant to live a day longer, and because I had been so fortunately saved the night before, God, or the devil most likely, had sent for this man to come and drag me away to the abyss where I belonged and always had belonged. As utterly bizarre that very thought appears to me now, and appeared to me only a short while later, it made complete sense then and there. My destiny was to die and there was no escaping it; having once again been denied any opportunity to make a living, there really was no hope. This man, or whatever he might then be, had appeared with the sole purpose of taking me with him to the underworld and this I had to accept, or I would be punished. Yet I could not stop, yet I could not surrender. Not yet.
The streets had now filled up with people running errands, going about their lives like they did every day and would continue to do until, like the wind blowing in the trees, things took unexpected turns for the better or worse. Suddenly, I felt someone tug at my sleeve and startled, I looked down to see a little girl of around six or so, awfully thin and with big blue eyes, staring at me with her mouth open while she nervously played with her own hair.
Although normally I might have spoken to her more kindly, the distress I was under left me unable to think about anything else and thus, I could not find the patience. "What!" I automatically exclaimed, my heart pounding; annoyed at the child for bothering me when all I wanted was to keep walking, so that the man would eventually give up trying to follow and lose track of my whereabouts. She could not have known that, the poor soul, but in my state of desperation and fear I reacted on impulse, without much thought or consideration. "What do you want?" I therefore asked vexedly.
Her eyes growing even wider, the girl flinched as if I had just slapped her across the face. With a gasp, she shoved a penny into my hand and ran off as fast as her little legs could carry her, glancing back at me with an expression of horror on her tiny heart-shaped face. Confused, I immediately reached into my pocket. There was a hole in it. Only four pence remained and the fifth, which I now held, must have fallen out.
Finding no time to dwell on this, I simply kept on walking. There would later come a time when I felt incredibly guilty for my harsh demeanour towards an innocent girl who would probably have needed the money much more than I did, and still intended to return it to me. I watched her from a distance for some time until she took a right turn and disappeared up Westfield Way, the red pony-tail bobbing up and down as she quickly vanished out of sight. For all I knew, that one penny may have saved her life, may have stilled whatever hunger and pain she was feeling; an innocent child with a heart so sweet and pure. Guilt would come in time, relentlessly as it always does, and when a while later I heard the story of a little girl having been found starved to death by a church, I desperately hoped that it was not her.
I was frightened out of my mind, like a prey animal being stalked by a predator waiting to strike. My heart beating fast, I nearly forgot to breathe; and once again I felt lightheaded, nauseous on the verge of collapsing, desperate on the verge of tears. In the corner of my eye I saw something that glimmered, and upon further investigation it became clear that it was a police uniform, its bearer standing quite still on the sidewalk ahead while he looked rather uninterestedly at the bypassing crowd. My reaction to this very sight is, without a doubt, what truly demonstrates my fear; for whereas I would have normally avoided going anywhere near any men of the law, I now found myself running across the street in his direction. "Sir!" I shouted once close enough, "Sir!"
As he leaned back, the constable tactlessly spat out a pinch of tobacco with such force that it stained my shoes. "Talking to me, miss?" he said emotionlessly.
"Indeed I am, sir." I said breathlessly, shaking from head to toe. "I...I need your help."
At these words he let out a loud snort. "Look." He said, "I'm here on official business. Unless you have information that might help me catch these godforsaken criminals..." he pointed to several newly added posters on the wall behind him, "I've neither got the time nor interest to spend on riffraff such as yourself. For all I know, you could be one of them."
"No, sir, please listen." I pleaded, unable to fully process anything he had just told me. Glancing over my shoulder again, I easily spotted the man where he had seemingly stopped to look at some items in a shop window. "I am being followed by a man I do not know. All the way from Bow!" I continued.
"And you're afraid he might attack?" he interrupted, grinning as he held his hand up to silence me, "That's one story I heard a hundred times. Listen dearie, if you're so awfully concerned about that, I suggest you get off the street. That sort of thing happens all the time, you see. Nothing I can really do about it. Go away!"
I stared at the ground, my eyes filling up with tears as the realisation slowly sank in that there was no help to be given. Perhaps he thought I was speaking untruthfully, or perhaps he just did not care, but either way I was to be left to my fate. My safety was not deemed important enough and my pleas were, somehow, completely unheard. Such was the plight of unfortunate women; their cries rarely listened to although loud clear as any. What did it matter if they all should die? Avoided by all and missed by none, why should they be salvaged? Let men of the town lust themselves, let them rape and murder, for the traces would not linger, the guilt would not last. Who was she? A street girl, a prostitute? One less to worry about.
Only one less. That was all I would be, that was all this police man saw me as. One less human being to ignore mercilessly when winter came. One less pair of hollow eyes to not look into and one less out-stretched hand to not give any alms.
One less. That was all.
Quickly drying the tears with my sleeve, I briskly walked away; having already given up when I once again felt the man's presence behind me. Come what may, I thought to myself; I was becoming too tired and hungry to continue in any case. Perhaps now would be the time when I surrendered at last. Having tried and failed to escape my fate, perhaps it had now cornered me. My heart was pounding still, my emaciated body ached increasingly with every movement. I decided to stop once I got back to Sclater Street, which was only a few more minutes walk away at that point. At least, then, if anything happened it would be in familiar surroundings. And there was always a chance that someone would walk by and interfere, if I sat down to rest in an open crowded place rather than a dark alley, for instance. Or so I thought. Of course, I could not be quite so certain of this when only a day earlier I had lied collapsed on a street for an hour without anyone bothering to help. But that was different, a hopeful voice inside my head insisted. That was near Westminster Street. A valid point indeed, because the well-to-do up north could not care less and "Sclater" was a different matter entirely. I knew people around there, people who would not stand by and watch so long as they were able to help. It was there that I had grown up and it was there that I had the best chances of avoiding trouble, if ever there existed such a place in the East End. As I have mentioned, I frequently witnessed crimes taking place in my quarters and while the Old Nichol Street in particular was quite infamous for this, the most brutal violations oftentimes occurred elsewhere, where one might expect it slightly less. I suppose in the end one could never be safe anywhere, and as a woman especially, it was important to always be vigilant. I had not been completely spared from encounters with suspicious men even until that very day; it had happened a few times that they had approached me, dark intentions glistening in eyes filled with madness and desire. There is one that I recall particularly vividly, because I believe he was Irish. Bearded and about twice as wide as he was tall, I scarcely dared to move as he spotted me from across the street. Paralysed with fear I had stood there, closing my eyes as he came closer, however once I felt the cold hand slowly unbuttoning my dress and making its way underneath the fabric onto my very skin, my survival instincts resurfaced once more and raising my fist, I promptly gave him an almighty punch in the face. As I fled from the scene I heard him shouting and swearing, calling me all sorts of foul things - some of which I could not understand at all due to his heavy accent. At first I had only run blindly, like an animal fleeing in panic, still terrified beyond belief; but as I calmed down I had felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction at having been able to defend myself. I, who could barely lift a water bucket on my own, had knocked a man half unconscious. How it had happened I did not know, for I acted on impulse only, although that hardly mattered. The fact still remained that I was not nearly as defenceless as I had always thought, and as I realised this, I thought of mother. Not only had she been the one to teach me never to give in, I in return had made a promise to her many years ago that I would never let anyone take my virginity unless it was out of love. Love in a romantic sense, I had never found the time for; my entire existence was occupied with the daily struggle to survive and thus the opportunity to feel such a thing never presented itself, leaving only the avoidance of forced love for me to fulfil. This had, at times, been more difficult than expected, like when all of the girls my age became prostitutes to earn their own money and I was still confined to begging or stealing. I have stated earlier that I had never once thought about joining them and while this is true, there was a part of me that certainly envied their new privileges; their fancy dresses and the fact that they all had a bed to sleep in at night. Of course it occasionally did cross my mind that I could have all of that too, if I sold myself like them. But that was something that I simply could not do. My mother meant the world to me, and the promise to her was one that I intended to keep for as long as I lived. In fact, I would rather die a virgin than break it, and since I knew in my heart that I was never going to love and be loved, this seemed a likely scenario. Even today, I still do not think I have ever properly loved a human being in a romantic way. I have never felt lust or desire, never longed for the warmth of a lover's embrace. This aspect of life, simple to some, is another that I have never quite understood. It does not interest me. There are so many, far more important things in life than marriage and children, and I have always felt that a lot of young women fail to realise this until it is much too late; until they reach a point in life where they realise that their freedom is forever sacrificed. How do I know this, one might ask? A very good question indeed, that will be answered in due time.
The sun warmed my face as it lit up the blue sky; its beams embracing the entire city into a golden glow that appeared, as it shone upon the piles of red leaves, to set everything on fire. Sitting down on the sidewalk, I deeply inhaled the chilly air as I gazed up towards the corner. I waited. But nothing happened.
He was gone, the man with the long, dark coat who had followed me all the way from Bow.