I wrote this a year ago, the night it happened. I wanted to get the details down while they were fresh in my memory, but as it turns out this didn’t matter. A police officer came to my home a few days later, and told me that because the incident had happened off the bus they couldn’t use the bus CCTV to try and identify the man because it would “violate his right to privacy”. The (male) police officer also suggested that the man might have honestly “just been trying to help”. Because of lockdown and my health risks, I’ve not been on a bus since and that’s been the best help in dealing with this. I’ve decided to post it now, though, because of the outpouring of stories women have been sharing since Sarah Everard was killed and because disabled women are at risk too – often under the guise of “assistance” like this.
Two men are facing me, sitting in seats separated by the aisle; it was clear they’d been having a conversation, thrown together by late night commute. Talk quickly turned to the wheelchair ramp, which didn’t want to go back in. We sat while the alarm beeped and the recalcitrant ramp moved a few centimetres at a time towards its goal, sharing weary head-shakes, eye rolls, “oh TFL” sardonic grins, until eventually the bus was able to move off. I learned on the short journey that the man on my right was heading somewhere unfortunately far off the night bus route and not looking forward to the 40 minute walk. The man on my left asked me some questions, none about my disability, which I answered coolly but politely (my age, why I was out so late, if I needed help). It’s ingrained in me not to ignore questions, even from strangers. Say something or it’s rude, but include as little information as possible if you don’t feel like a conversation. Politeness will get you everywhere, including into trouble.
At my stop the ramp deployed properly but then, of course, refused to return to position. The driver got out of the bus, and excused me from trying to assist. Wishing him the best of luck, I got around the corner of my road before stopping for a minute to answer a message on my phone with my dominant hand, the one I use to control my wheelchair. I can hear someone coming up behind me, and move over a bit to let them pass with more room.
To my surprise the man from the left hand side of the bus is walking up to me.
“I just wondered, did you need any help?”
I didn’t remember him getting off the bus at my stop, but maybe since the ramp was taking its sweet time going back in, he had time to come and ask – many non-disabled people offer me assistance like this in the average week, both underestimating the power of my electric wheelchair and the extent of TFL’s accessibility infrastructure (if you’ve never needed to use a wheelchair ramp on the bus, for example, you may presume the driver is about to leave without letting a wheelchair user off, but the doors need to close for the ramp to be deployed).
I said no thank you to his offer of help, and this where most people stop.
“But you must need help!”
Again, no thank you, I explained that I manage this journey into the city and back multiple times a week (slight embellishment for emphasis on my independence) and don’t need help getting into my own home. He changed tack:
“What is your name?”
I couldn’t pretend to be distracted this time. My mind sticks on Elly Higginbottom. “Elizabeth”.
“Elizabeth… Elizabeth, oh Elizabeth…”
the wavering red flag I’ve felt since he appeared on my road suddenly springs upright
“I think you should probably go back to the bus” (although I was vaguely aware of having heard it drive off a moment before) “you don’t want to miss it”
“Let me help you, Elizabeth”
He speaks gently, but as if he’s already decided on the course of action and he’s just asking first because it’s a social norm.
“No it’s okay, I’ve been travelling on my own since I was a teenager, I don’t need help”
“No Elizabeth, where do you live? Do you live here?”
Deflect, deflect, deflect (and lie) “About five minutes away, look it’s nearly 1am I just want to go home and go to bed it’s really late, so…”
“Can I come with you, walk with you?”
At this point, I am acutely aware that the late hour means that most of the people on my residential road are in bed. Footfall is minimal, as are passing cars. My wheelchair has lost some battery over the course of the evening and is now running at a medium-fast walking pace at best. The priority is not to let him know where I live, which means cutting contact with him there at the end of the road.
Direct, direct, direct “No, sorry. I just want to go home, have a cup of tea and go to bed”
This seems to encourage him in a new direction, unfortunately.
“Can I come home with you and have a cup of tea?
“I can stand outside even, not in the house, just a cup of tea”
“No” – no more “sorry”, because the red flag is getting ominously brighter
“No, I just want to go home and go to bed”
“Can I not come for one cup of tea?”
“No, sorry [argh] I’m not going to take a stranger home with me in the middle of the night” (slight lie, ask my second year housemates)
“But I won’t be a stranger soon, we are at the beginning of something”
fifty fucking red flags are waving in my face
Now desperate, and not sure when I went from feeling hassled to actively scared, I try to override my British-Canadian double whammy of natural politeness and the wobble in my voice.
“Leave me alone please. I don’t want you to come home with me and I don’t want to talk to you any more.” Said as forcefully as possible, being very aware to put on an apologetic smile at the end to dampen the rejection. Everything in me is screaming “don’t make him angry” so the urge to just keep him placated is overwhelming, but also things have been slowly escalating in the last three minutes and I am very worried about where they might end up. I start to silently pray for someone to come walking past.
“You don’t need to speak aggressively to me Elizabeth” I think I do
Since he mentioned coming to my home I’ve been thinking of what is open at this hour nearby on a weeknight. Nothing on the parade of shops to the left, the corner shop closed two hours ago. The pub on the right? No one’s in the beer garden having a smoke, so I can presume the doors are locked. I’d have to roll 15 minutes into town to find anywhere open, and he already knows that isn’t my way home.
In utter desperation I use my last card.
“If you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to have to call the police”
“You don’t have to do that, Elizabeth, I am not-“
I see a man on the other side of the road, strolling briskly in the direction of my flat. I immediately cross the road (thank heavens I stopped on a drop kerb) and go after him, occasionally shouting to try and get his attention, but he is wearing headphones and doesn’t hear either me or my high-pitched (and usually ineffective) wheelchair horn. I follow him for close to five minutes, passing my house on the other side, never getting closer than 2 metres away thanks to the reduced battery life, and too scared to turn around to see if there’s a figure in a red hoodie following me. I think about calling the police but don’t think their priority in North London at night is to come to the aid of someone who may or may not be being followed, and in any case the local station closed down years ago and it could take hours. By the time the man with the headphones crosses the road at a point where I can’t follow him, never knowing that I tried to get his attention, I’ve made a list in my head of anyone I know nearby who might be awake (but still probably isn’t). I can’t hear footfalls over the sound of my wheelchair, but I don’t want to stop so I take a convoluted route through the residential side streets, making sure that if he’s still following me I could still be feasibly “going home” (and realising that I am still considering his feelings although I can’t tell if it’s out of tact or fear of angering him). Eventually I stop and look back. Nothing. He hasn’t followed me. My only worry now is that if he was savvy enough he might have gone up and down my road looking for a wheelchair ramp. I call my upstairs neighbour, guiltily aware that I will most likely be waking him up, but after three attempts realise his phone must be on silent. Scanning mentally through the rest of my potential awake people list, I message the neighbour who lives near the end of the road where I had the encounter with the bus man. She is in bed, but says she’ll stand at the window and look out for anyone wearing a hoodie. I know this won’t help if he’s found my house in the meantime, but at least I don’t feel quite so alone. Forty minutes after getting off the bus, I come back onto my road from the opposite end to the bus stop, barrel up the ramp to my front door and put the chain on after it shuts.