I’ve travelled the world solo. Jumped on flights to unknown countries on my own, wandered city streets at night taking in the sights and sounds of new surroundings. I’ve been surrounded by groups and crowds of people I don’t know, I’ve hitch hiked, I’ve talked to strangers with whom I’ve had the most incredible conversations and people have called me brave for going to the other side of the world on my own.
I never felt unsafe though. Yes I might have been a bit nervous at times, my senses might have been a heightened because I’m in a new environment, and I’ve had to remove myself from situations, but I’ve never felt unsafe.
Until last night.
And I wasn’t in a grotty, dodgy area. I wasn’t in an unfamiliar place. I wasn’t knowingly putting myself into a setting that was potentially dangerous.
I was in Leeds. I was in the city where I live. In a city that I’ve known all my life.
I’d been out for a couple of after work drinks with some colleagues from the office. We’d spent an hour or two catching up, relaxing after a long week at work and just enjoying Friday night.
The guys decided to move on and I went out to meet my Dad at Leeds Christmas Markets, one of the busiest places to be in Leeds at this time of year. I wasn’t quite sure where he’d be so I stood myself near the corner of the market where the crowds were flooding in to enjoy the festivities. I sent a text and tried calling too just to let my Dad know where I was. I waited a little bit, phone still in hand in case my Dad called, a group of people asked me if I knew of a nearby alternative cash machine. The one at the Christmas market had a huge queue like usual. I directed them towards Park Row and that’s when I saw him. I saw him just staring at me.
And it wasn’t my Dad.
I didn’t know this person. I’d never seen this person in my life.
I glanced at my phone, wondering if my Dad had got in touch. He hadn’t. And that guy was still there. He wasn’t looking at me now but he was walking closer and I seemed to be his destination. I wandered a few paces further up to the Christmas market, I thought it best to keep moving and to surround myself with people. That’s when I turned around and he was there. Right there. Looking at me.
I kept moving. Staying around people. Hoping he would go away. Hoping that I would lose him.
Walking away from the Christmas market, I thought he’d gone. I was walking against the flow of people now. It might not have been the smartest move but I just wanted to get out of there. My heart was starting to beat a little faster and my eyes were scanning the crowd. My Dad still hadn’t called and I had 1% battery left on the phone I was still clutching in my hand.
My tense body relaxed a little as I couldn’t see any sign of this person anywhere. But I still carried on walking. I walked past the few stalls that hang outside the official Christmas market, some others were walking in the same direction too, clearly full of too much mulled wine and 7pm in the evening. And that’s when I saw him again, directly parallel to me, with a few people in between, walking in the same direction.
What was he doing, why was he just there?
I picked my walking pace back up. As did he. Then he started cutting through the crowd, getting closer until he was right next to me. I managed to get just ahead before I was blocked by a couple of slower walking people. That gave him chance to catch up and cut my own path off. Suddenly he was just there, right in front of me. Looking at me but not saying a word. He was wearing a grubby looking blue hoody and I could see that had a distinctive burn mark on his face. All I could think to say was “Stop following me”. It was clear that’s what he was doing by now.
I took a step to the left and crossed the road to head to the crossing. It was a red light and the traffic was freely flowing on the road. I couldn’t go anywhere. He was still right next to me. The light turned green and people started crossing the road. I hung back a bit, trying to walk slower in the hope that he would just get lost and be on his way.
But he didn’t. He hung back too. Looking at me. Like he was daring me to make my next move. What was I going to do now? I knew he was following me. He knew that I knew he was following me.
This time I weaved behind him, trying in any way to lose him. But it didn’t work, I yet again got caught up in a crowd of people and he was still there. Except now he was rolling back his dirty sleeve, trying to show me something in his hand. It crossed my mind he was begging for money. I didn’t care. I again, told him to stop following me. Louder this time in the hope people might hear.
I eventually got past the crowd of people and so did he. I crossed another road, and so did he. He was walking at the same speed but just a couple of steps behind by now. It was then I started to feel really on edge. I felt unsafe. In my home city, on a street I walk every day, where I’m surrounded by people, I felt unsafe. It was a completely alien feeling to me.
I carried on walking. To where I don’t know. I headed further towards the city, trying to stay with the crowds but he was still there. Yet again, I said “Stop following me”, I saw the green light which abled me to cross over The Headrow with ease. I looked behind me and all of a sudden, he wasn’t there. He’d just gone. I kept looking behind me, I kept thinking every brown haired man I saw was him. I couldn’t relax. My Dad hadn’t got in touch with me and there was no way I was walking home on my own. Not after that. Walking home on my own is never something I think twice about but last night, I felt uneasy. What if he could still see me?
Walking down Park Row, I headed to Greek Street, and walked towards the bar where I prayed I would find my colleagues. I could feel my hands physically shaking and even though it was freezing outside, I felt hot with panic. The bouncer gave me a much needed friendly smile and I walked in and scanned the room, this time in search of familiar faces. I found my colleagues, propping up the bar and ordering in a round of beers.
Even after I’d stood with them, told them what had happened, I still kept looking around just in case. Just in case that guy was there. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he might just appear. He didn’t thank goodness.
After reassuring words of, “You’re alright now, kid” and “If you see him again, you tell us”, I could feel my shaking hands start to steady and my heart beat slowly started returning back to normal.
It’s weird. Out of everything I’ve done, out of all the carefully considered precautions I take to make sure that I’m not unnecessarily going to be in danger, the first time I really feel unsafe was where I live. In a city I know and with people all around me.
Why it happened, why he was following me, I just don’t know. What I do know is that I never want to feel like that again.