1980

He smiled at me. That’s the thing I remember most clearly. And the pain and the blood.

It was a Saturday afternoon. We can’t have had rugby that day because I was out in my school uniform. It must have been Saturday because the town was rammed with boys our age, after a fight. Or that’s the way it seemed as we walked through the shopping centre, trying to look nowhere in particular but noticing the groups of white kids and black kids. None of them wore the navy blue and white that marked us out.

No one I knew had ever actually had any trouble with these boys. And for all I knew, the opposing lines were more likely to attack each other. But it felt dangerous. Once inside the department store, I became braver, knocked a cigarette out of the pack and placed it to my lips. No one here to see me or stop me. I sat for a while with my friends, passing the time with a cup of tea and a game of brag. Then it was time to get back.

I wanted something special to wear that weekend. A sharp suit with narrow lapels, narrow legs. There was a charity shop on the way back to the boarding house, so I slipped in among the rows of clothes. I hadn’t really noticed anyone else in the shop; they were just other bodies. But as I browsed a rail near the front door, I felt a figure standing next to me. I turned to look at him. He was about my age, my height, white, with closely cropped brown hair. I was able to recall this much when the police interviewed me later that day.

And he smiled at me. I hadn’t expected that, nor had I anticipated the hands on my shoulders. For a moment, he seemed friendly. I have little or no recollection of how his forehead came into contact with my nose, but it was quick and sharply painful. I’d had my nose broken before, in fights. This was different. Pain pulsed through my cheekbones and blood gushed onto the floor. I had expected the two elderly ladies who converged on me to help me; instead, they pushed me to the open door and out of their shop. It was the blood, I suppose.

My attacker had gone. Two police officers were helping me to staunch the blood and clean myself up. They told me that they’d take me to the hospital. That was reassuring because I knew the break was a serious one. While everything was numb, the view from each of my eyes was now different: my nose was skewed to one side. I was shaking. I felt colder than the day.

“Before we take you to the hospital, we’d just like to take some details about the attacker,” one of the officers said. I told them all I could remember. They said nothing for a moment. Then one of them replied, “You’re sure about that? You said he had short, brown hair. Could he have been black?  Take your time.”

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Fifteen years later

“Hello,” he said, sniggering. His eyes were empty; this was the drink talking. The room was dark, though light leaked in around the crowd of men at the open door. Roused from sleep, I sat up and clutched the bedding to my naked body.

This was my weekend away. My stag weekend, on my terms. We’d walked, we’d talked, we’d eaten and we’d drunk. It was late, I’d had my fill and I had made my excuses before climbing the stairs to my hotel room. This wasn’t what my best man wanted. He wanted me blind drunk, a figure of fun for the group. He’d made this clear before I’d gone up. But I’d had enough of binge drinking when younger and had no wish to be humiliated.

The figure towering over my bed was my fiancée’s cousin. A group of my friends, family and colleagues stood beside him, complicit. I looked from the vacant eyes and stupid smile to his hands. In one, he had a razor; in the other, there was a can of shaving cream. It was now obvious what they wanted to do. Time slipped back to when I was 10, stripped and scared in a darkened room at my boarding house. Then it was 12 and 13 year-olds tormenting me; now this was grown-up.

Back in the present, I remained calm and said, “Go to bed.” The figures looked at one another, smiling. “We just want a bit of fun,” replied my fiancée’s cousin. “Leave me alone,” I said. Putting down the shaving cream, he pulled at the bottom of my bedding. It came away, revealing my legs. “Just go to bed,” I repeated. He said nothing in reply, but pulled the bedding further off me. My crotch was now exposed.

By far the most sober person in the room, I knew I had to be adult about this. “Don’t do that,” I said, as clearly as I could. “Or what?” he asked, the drunken smile still visible. “Or I’ll have to hurt you,” I replied. He either didn’t believe me or didn’t care, because he bent forward and brought the razor down to my groin.

Without hesitating, I swung my right fist into his face. Hard, to make him stop. He fell back, clutching his nose. Then, with a roar, he tried to throw himself onto me. The others held him as he lurched at me, shouting, “I’m going to kill you!” There was another bed beside mine: I held the sheet to myself and jumped onto it. He tried to follow but was now pinned down. The lights came on: there was blood everywhere and my bed had collapsed. They left the room, their arms around him. My room-mate helped me clear up.

The next morning, the stag party gathered in the hotel dining room for breakfast. No one said anything. As we sat and drank tea, he walked in. His nose was at an angle and his face was bruised. He looked at me and smiled. “Hell of a night, that was,” he said, then sat down beside me and ordered a coffee.