After a short interview I was granted a three-year pass. It was green and white and featured a photo of me grinning madly – that same joyous, covetous smile that spreads across Gollum’s face at the end of The Return of the King, when he finally snatches back the ring. My pass. My precioussss.
I had my card. Now to use it. I arranged a week’s holiday from work and preordered the books online so they would be waiting for me on arrival. On the Monday morning I packed my notepad and pencil (no pens allowed in the reading rooms) and stepped out into the summer sunshine. Breakfast first, in a café down the road. I was on holiday, after all.
I was living in north east London at the time, in what was often referred to as a ‘leafy’ suburb. My flat was a short walk from the café – ten minutes at most. I could trudge along a main road or cut through the park. As always, as I had done a hundred times before, I cut through the park.
I noticed him as I walked through the gates. He was standing on a raised patch of grass a few yards to my right. Some instinct alerted me. Beware. Something in the way he was watching me. We’re hardwired to recognise that look.
Then reason kicked in. It was ten o’clock on a Monday morning, in a park beginning to fill up with young families and dog walkers. I’d lived in this area for over ten years without a hint of trouble. But still I kept an eye on him as I passed. A second or two later I looked back and he was walking off in the opposite direction, back towards the gates. I felt relieved and a little foolish. I sank back into my reverie about the novel I wanted to write and my main character.
I remember this much: I was thinking about empathy and connection. Yes, I have tragic little conversations with myself about such things, particularly when I’m writing. About how novels can help us to understand other points of view. How the study of history shows how little we’ve changed, in essence. How this can be devastating but also heartening, because if we can connect with someone three hundred years ago surely we can connect with someone three hundred yards away.
Then I heard footsteps, close behind me.
Something was very wrong. No one comes up that close for good reason. At the same moment, I realised that I was walking through a particularly quiet, secluded section of the park and there was no one else around.
I half-turned and three things happened. I can never remember the exact order. He put a hand on my arm. He said, ‘don’t move’. And he put a gun in my back.
The human brain is an astonishing, beautiful thing. How long did I stand there, looking down over my shoulder at the gun shoved in my back? Three seconds? Five? And still, I had time to consider the following. There is a gun in my back. We’re alone. I don’t like standing with my back to this man. I want to turn around but he said, ‘don’t move’. If I move he might shoot me. What are the chances of being shot here, in this park, in broad daylight Statistically, very unlikely. And if he’d wanted to shoot me, he could have just shot me in the back. It’s probably a fake gun. Someone’s bound to come along. If I turn around now I might die but I think it’s a tiny risk.
I turned round to face him.
He didn’t shoot me.
We stared at each other. He wasn’t a man, I realised. He was a boy – a teenager. Taller than me. Stronger than me. But still, a boy. I looked into his eyes. I moved. You didn’t shoot me. So what now?
He grabbed my bag. The shoulder strap slipped down my arm and without thinking I crooked my elbow and held on tight. He tugged harder so I slipped my other arm under the strap and pulled back. Should I let go? I should probably let go. But my address is in that bag, and my keys. I don’t want him to know where I live. This will be over soon. I’ll have to call the police but it’s still early. I can still spend the afternoon in the library. There are books waiting for me. I’ll need my library card.
‘Give me the bag,’ he suggested.
I clung on.
‘Just give me the bag,’ he pleaded. This really wasn’t going well.
It occurred to me that I should shout for help. ‘Help,’ I cried, in a tiny, thin voice. And then, much louder. ‘Help! I’m being mugged!’
He was pulling harder at the bag now. The strap scraped down my bare arms, catching at my wrists. I gripped tight. Frustrated, he turned the gun around and smashed it down hard, bludgeoning my arm. ‘Give me the bag.’ Again and again, raising his arm high and slamming the gun into my arms, on to my hands. Ten, twenty times.
That hurts, I thought, distantly.
There was a shout and a man came racing towards us. The boy let go and ran. The man ran after him and I was left on my own with my bag. It slid to my feet.
I looked down at my hands. Oh. Shit. The back of my right hand was swelling up in front of my eyes, topped with a huge egg-shaped mound like something out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. It looked… mangled. People rushed up, mothers with pushchairs, joggers, eyes wide with shock. I took my phone out of my bag but my hands were too swollen to hit the numbers.
Someone dialled 999 for me. My hands were now twice their normal size and there was a weird bulge above my wrist. I was probably not – on reflection – going to the library this afternoon.
Some plain-clothed police officers arrived. One of them was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt. He kept being attacked by a wasp. ‘What did the gun look like?’ he asked, then danced away with a yelp as the wasp came at him again. ‘It’s the yellow shirt,’ I said. ‘The wasp thinks you’re a flower.’
He gave me a worried look.
Then my vision began to fade and I had to sit down on a bench for a while.
Later, in the hospital, a doctor said to me, ‘You’re a very brave woman. And by brave, I mean crazy.’
A police officer came to take pictures of my injuries. ‘Next time,’ she said, ‘give them the bag. Nothing’s that valuable.’
I nodded. I agreed with them both and I couldn’t really explain what had happened, even to myself. Sometimes you run. Sometimes you fight. And sometimes you just stand there, inexplicably frozen, with the bag hooked around your arm. Thinking about your library card.
They X-rayed my hands and arms. Amazingly, nothing was broken. Just deep tissue damage. My five planned days in the library turned into a week on the sofa. My hands swelled until I couldn’t move them. They turned black, then purple, then green. My arms looked psychedelic. I’d show them to friends.
‘Look at them!’
‘You should have let go, you loon.’
They never caught the boy. I hope he’s okay. Things don’t tend to go well for teenage boys with guns, fake or real. It occurred to me, much later, that I’d been wearing my sunglasses during the attack. He couldn’t see into my eyes. Empathy and connection. I could read his expression but he couldn’t read mine. All he saw was a mad lady in black sunglasses, clinging to her bag as if it contained the secret of life. He wasn’t entirely wrong.