I was 11 and it was a super hot day in June, 1995. I was lazing about the house, watching TV. I had just finished exams and it was the first week of summer holidays and I was still in that haze of being happy that school’s out but at the same time not entirely knowing what to do with myself. My sister was at summer school and my brother at his summer job and most of my friends were abroad so I was kind of at a loss.
I asked my mum for some money for some ice-cream and she was a little absent minded, in the middle of correcting exam papers and she handed me a whole pound. A WHOLE pound! And there was nobody about so I did not have to share it. I could actually buy an Algida Cornetto for 80c and not a Lyon’s Maid for 30c!
I quickly put on a pair of flip-flops before my mum could realise what she did and raced out the door to a near-by grocer.
I chose my cornetto from the chest freezers outside the shop and went to the till to pay. I had been to this grocer many times, almost every day before school in my uniform to buy sweets for all the kids on the bus stop.
But this time I was not in uniform because it was summer holidays. As I paid for my ice-cream and waited for my change, the man at the till said ‘hmmm you like ice-cream, yes?’
I just nodded and wished he would hurry up with the change because the damn thing was melting. I was the only customer so he wasn’t in a rush.
He finally gave me my change and then said ‘bye darling!’ and then reached out and kind of tickled right between my pre-pubescent and very minimal breasts and made a weird cat noise, like a ‘meowwwwrrrr’.
I grabbed the ice-cream and just ran out of there. I ran all the way home. And running in flip-flops was quite a feat. I did not have a house key yet and I had to ring the bell. My parents did not answer right away and I rang again. Then my dad opened the door and was puzzled at my urgency and my red and sweaty face.
I did not know exactly what had happened. But I knew it was not right. Why would anyone want to touch me there?
I was 11 and painfully unaware that I was growing up. It never crossed my mind that a grown man may want to touch me. The nuns at school often warned us about the trouble boys can cause and how we need to learn when to say ‘stop’. But that was about boys. I did not know that men had to be told ‘stop’ too.
It was the 90s and I looked like a stick insect. I was wearing short frayed denim shorts and a halter top. I already had the beginnings of acne and I was very awkward.
In other words, I was a kid.
Thank God, my family are very open and honest with each other and I told my dad what happened, what that shop keeper did. He turned an interesting shade of puce and immediately said he was going to storm to that grocery store, find that guy and ‘give him a knuckle sandwich’. Of course, he didn’t, but he never let me or my sister go there ever again.
After a little while, a large and modern grocery store opened very close by and the owner of this smaller store had to close down. And I never saw that guy again.
But I never forgot him. Because he taught me that I was not a kid anymore. And now men could look at me in a different way. And I had to think twice before putting on a pair of shorts. My pigtails were not cute anymore, they were provocative. And I suddenly had to be careful of how I sat.
Back then we did not really know about the terms ‘rape culture’ and ‘victim blaming’. I was not aware that I should be able to wear what I want and men should learn to control themselves. Because frankly, a lot of men would not control themselves and I only had control over what I could do to prevent this situation from ever happening again.
But it did happen again. Countless times. I had a man put his hand up my skirt twice. I had my breast grabbed once. Once a man in the street grabbed my face and said ‘oh you are so pretty’ and I had to yank myself away. Once a boy followed a girl friend and I, spewing sexual innuendo in a really loud voice behind us.
We were fourteen. I was wearing dungarees.
Now I am 33 and it still happens. I get ‘why don’t you smile’ while I am jogging. Some months ago at the iron monger, the shop assistant tried to touch my boobs twice.
It is everywhere. And I get the feeling that it can happen at any age. Once a man made a comment at my little sister when she was eight years old! Eight! She was a baby! I remember that she giggled and said ‘What a stupid man!’ Hmmm. Stupid was not the adjective I had in mind.
I bet there is not a woman out there who has never been groped or harassed. I am most certain that every woman who reads this blog post can share a story of when they were scared or felt unsafe in the presence of a man.
I am scared of being alone in a taxi with a male taxi driver. I remember when I used to ride a taxi home late with my girl friends; we would agree that the last person left would text someone to say they were safe. I am sometimes afraid to ride the lift alone with a man. Yes, I know that not all men are like that. I know many lovely, wonderful men who would not dream of such things. But unfortunately, all it takes is one man to do irreparable damage.
The nuns did right at school to tell us when to say ‘stop’.
But in the boy’s schools, were the pupils taught that when a girl says ‘stop’ they must listen? And were they taught that if a girl says nothing at all, it does not automatically mean go?
Sometimes I think when it comes to abiding by the traffic lights of life, some are electively colour-blind.