When I was about 14, a woman came to our school to talk about self-defence. She was a lady in her fifties, with sensibly cut white-blonde hair and a pair of plastic-framed spectacles. There was about her a pervading air of kindness and motherliness.
Her homely appearance was distinctly at odds with the rather extreme and frequently violent things she suggested we do to ward off potential attackers. We were shown how to transform a bundle of keys into a makeshift knuckle-duster in order to inflict maximum damage. If that failed, we were advised to go for their eyes with our fingers. All of this was delivered in a kind of soft, fluting voice more readily associated with a demonstration on flower arranging.
But years after this talk, when I first moved to London, I felt strangely reassured. On the odd occasion that I found myself walking home at night from the tube across a stretch of dimly lit parkland, I would remind myself of the bunch of keys in my handbag that I could whip out with lightning speed to deter any would-be mugger. I walked briskly and confidently, flexing my fingers in readiness for a spot of eye-gouging, feeling that I would be quite able to fend off any pursuer with a swift knee to the groin. The longer I lived in London, the savvier I felt. It was not confidence exactly, but more that I began to believe I knew how the city worked. I trusted my instincts to keep me safe—my instincts and my bunch of keys.
It was a Sunday evening in November 2005 when all that changed. I was returning from a work trip and was carrying more bags than usual: a laptop over one shoulder, my handbag over the other and in my right hand, a plastic bag filled with clothes. It was dark by the time I got out of the tube, the air dense with cold.