When we were 17, my friend was murdered.
After they found her body I was dazed with shock and grief. I remember it was a sunny March day and I walked to the church where people were leaving flowers and messages. I was so addled I couldn’t even find the right door, and I sat in the chilly sunlit church yard. A stranger with a child clutching a bunch of flowers, a neighbour or a well wisher wanting to wish well in an age before social media, paused to check up on me. They just looked at my face and said with compassion, “Oh, you were her friend.”
Even on the periphery of these events it undoubtedly affected the course of my life. In the crawling depth of grief, I could contain both the knowledge that these terrible things can and do happen, and the perspective that they happen very rarely.
So there I was, a teenager, trying to move on and into my life. One of the things, along with the support and understanding of my friends and family, that kept me free and moving forward was the bicycle.
In the early 00s, in my city, it was perfectly normal for 17 year olds to be in and out of pubs and clubs. That was where my friends were to be found. I couldn’t drive, there was no question of driving lessons and getting a car. My pocket money was for cheap beer and entry to club nights – two quid in before ten -, and I didn’t have a job – I could only stand so many weekends at Primark -, so no cash for taxis. So I cycled. Through the night, which had recently demonstrably contained rapists and murderers, I cycled on my pink Raleigh Caprice. Often with a chubby metalhead sat on the pannier rack, but more often alone.
Sarah Everard’s body has been found and a man arrested. The narrative and news cycle feels so familiar to me. The difference this time is social media. I used to be glad that when we were dealing with our horror and grief all we had to worry about was that one twat selling a story to Sugar Magazine. My friend’s face, constantly then and occasionally for years to come, may have looked at me from the newsstands, but it wasn’t delivered directly into my hand or pocket or eyes. But perhaps I was wrong. Social media is roiling with outrage. Vigils are taking place, despite the pandemic and police. People are so angry. At the violence, at the victim blaming, at the world. Not all men, and yes all women. Time for change.
Some people are drawing comparisons between women’s safety and vulnerable road users’ safety, which might be correct but doesn’t feel right. A Labour MP is weaponising women’s safety against low traffic neighbourhoods. Others are talking about how cycling allowed them to feel safe travelling alone at night. Though, as one delightful man put it in my mentions, “if someone wants to murder you, they will”, that perception of safety is valuable. It allows us to take calculated risks, to be a woman out in the world alone.
There is something magical about unlocking your bicycle and riding through the nighttime city alone. It feels far safer than walking, security gifted by speed and anonymity. Door to door transport, there’s no waiting at bus stops or being followed home after being pestered by a pissed up passenger. Someone approaches or something makes you feel uncomfortable, you can escape, bumping onto pavements or sprinting through lights. Perhaps it is because a woman on a bicycle, while being a vulnerable road user, does not fit into the lexicon of vulnerable women.
When I was in Texas four years ago I was told to be scared of the Mexican gangs, but I knew that the greater risk was an American in a F150.
There’s something to be discussed about control in the face of the uncontrollable. For a long time I’ve understood exhortations to be scared as unwelcome attempts to curtail and control. To preemptively shift blame and responsibility. The pandemic has reorganised our personal risk registers, but seems like stranger danger has remained the same. The probability is small, but the consequences are catastrophic. How do we mitigate against someone’s intention to do us harm and ultimately who holds the responsibility? For too long it has all fallen like an unbearable weight on the shoulders of women and girls.
I have been told by other women that they are too afraid to do what I do, whether that’s ride to work or cycle tour alone in another country. My adventures do not amount to much, but they’ve been enough to show me that some people’s risk appetite is far smaller than mine. Is that because I was adjacent to the absolute worst case scenario in my formative years? Am I an amazing bold badass, am I an idiot or is it because I am privileged?
This weekend marks 18 years since my friend was killed. A short lifetime. More years than she lived. This time of year always brings on a reflective mood. And this year more than ever.
Soon it will also be a year since lockdown began. This time last year I was four months pregnant, going for scans with my partner, looking at the signs asking us to wash our hands and if we’d been to Wuhan recently. At work I was helping out at a road harm reduction event and preparing for a big professional qualification. To be in a room with a stranger outside of a clinical setting is a rare thing now. To be drinking tea and eating sandwiches and talking talking talking about how less people can die on our roads with forty-odd people feels incredibly foreign. A lifetime and lifestyle ago.
I secretly wanted a daughter, but I was worried what it meant in a world that seemed intent on at best limiting women and at worse destroying them.
Sometimes the spectre of my own death on the roads haunts me. Stories of car mounting pavements and killing children haunt me. Our cities are dangerous. So many parents seem to passively accept that is an inviolable fact, protecting their child with a 4×4 at expense of everyone. Our cities are dangerous. So women and girls are told to not go out at night, observe an unwritten curfew, don’t even think about walking home alone.
I hope our collective anger can move us towards a world where the blame and responsibility can be correctly assigned. Where both do not fall to those most vulnerable.
Cycling gave me freedom and agency at a time when the world had been proven to be unspeakably dangerous. Still today, in the face of a pandemic which has closed down so many avenues, cycling is a safe way to achieve practical ends and find escape. It is the safest way to push at our horizons without needing to find thousands of pounds for a car. Too many narratives around the pandemic and around women’s safety see the private car as a solution, a strategy that ultimately leads to a more dangerous and unequal society.
I think what I want to write is what I tell myself, what I hope to tell my daughter when the time comes. That the world can be awful and dangerous. Terrible things happen in meaningful and meaningless ways. Violence against women and girls is real. Danger on our roads is real. Protect yourself and those you love, mitigate the risks you can, but don’t be limited by it. Try to understand where the real danger comes from, work with that information, and maybe everything will work out.
But, sadly, sometimes it doesn’t.
This weekend I think of Sarah and Hannah and all women who have lost their lives. Of everyone who has been limited by fear. Of all the instances in my own life that I’ve experienced, discounted and filed away. I look forward to a time when women and girls do not constantly have to plan their lives around the dangerous whims of others. I hope for my daughter. I realised this morning I had written 1500 words on how cycling is just a better way of running away, and I felt ashamed. We shouldn’t have to run away. I write about being able to take calculated risks, when there should be no risk to calculate in the first place.