By the time they reached their teens Johnny (or John, as he now liked to be called) and Jenny (who now answered to Jen) had changed. They were still close, in part because they still lived on the same street, but John was now a slave to rugger, whereas Jen had shed her tomboy persona like a snake sheds its skin, and was now partial to more traditionally feminine pursuits like ballet and book club.
But one Saturday in the autumn of 1984, everything changed. John was walking home from rugby practice through the local park. The late afternoon sun easily penetrated the thin canopy of skeletal trees above his head, settling on the piles of crisp orange leaves at his feet. He kicked them up as he walked, swinging his gym bag as he went.
When he looked back on that day – as he was prone to doing in subsequent years, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it – he often wondered if he had been humming a tune. It sometimes tortured him not being able to remember, though he knew it was of no significance at all.
The first scream stopped him in his tracks. He looked about him, briefly wondering if he had imagined it. Then he heard the second, and this time there was no doubt in his mind. Someone was being attacked, and they were close by. John threw his gym bag to the ground and spun around in a desperate attempt to locate the sound. To the left of the path was a dense thicket, and when the scream – by now more of a whimper – rang out again he ploughed straight into it, mowing the thick foliage down with his powerful legs.
It didn’t take him long to reach the girl. She was lying in a clearing, her face pressed into the mud. She was naked from the waist down, her white cotton knickers lying several feet away and flecked with blood. Her shoulders were shaking – through cold or fear he couldn’t tell – and she was sobbing with such intensity she sounded more like an animal than a human.
Instinctively John removed his coat and covered the girl’s modesty. She bristled at his touch but didn’t turn towards him. Her hair was wet and stuck to her head in muddy strands. Buried amongst the strands was a piece of material. John gently tugged it out. It was a red ribbon. His blood ran suddenly quite cold.
The girl turned her head then, and looked at him. Her face was so thick with mud she was almost unrecognisable – almost, but not quite. “John?” she whispered as her tear-soaked eyes found his.
Writing this reminded me of a guest house I stayed in when I was in Vashisht in northern India. It was a squalid place which with the benefit of hindsight I should never have stayed in, but I was taken with this view from the rooftop and my little attic room and so I did. The owner was a creep who preyed on vulnerable lone female travellers. i managed to evade his clutches despite his best attempts to get me on my own but the day after I left a girl confided that he’d tried to get her drunk and go into her room. I confronted him and we had a slanging match on the street, with him accusing me of being racist (which I’m absolutely not). With hindsight that was also inadvisable, but sometimes emotion gets the better of you. That day I saw the darker side of travelling alone.