Virginia Woolf (or perhaps call her Mrs. Seton, Beton or whatever you like really – she says it doesn’t matter) was sitting at the banks of a river, watching the world go by. It was autumn. The bushes had turned golden brown and red as if burnt by fire. The languid branches of the willows hung loose around their shoulders, moping in the breeze as if to say, “Why won’t they text me back?”
Suddenly, like one of the tiny fish darting around at her feet, an idea swam up to meet her. Don’t panic, she might have thought, stay calm. Let’s see where it goes… It zipped about a little more, weaving in and out among the weeds, hither and thither, until suddenly she was upright, patting around in her coat for a pen to catch that thought, quickly, quickly!
“Yes!” She might have said, scribbling it all down, “I’ve got it!”
And she was off: before she knew it, Mrs. Seton, Beton or Woolf was marching across a grass plot, propelled forward by the power of her thoughts.
But they were interrupted by a little man waving frantically in the corner of her eye. Dismay and outrage sizzled on his face. Realising with a fright that the grass was meant for scholars and fellows only, she jumped back onto the gravel path – but the fish was gone.
The first time I decided to go running at night was at 11.30pm on a weekday. I was trying to give myself time away from a script – why did the dialogue jar like that? I knew how I wanted it to sound, why couldn’t I get there? Best to let it rest, I thought. Let it breathe and percolate, at least until tomorrow.
Instead, I spent the evening staring at various stains on the ceiling and lazily thumbing through a booklet featuring an interview with legendary filmmaker Spike Jonze. Halfway through, he began talking about the exact thing I was trying to do – create conditions where ideas could come to the fore.
“I spent a lot more time outside, I guess, in parking lots skating at three in the morning,” he said.
It was as if Woolf’s fish had darted through a wormhole and met me in this new dimension (isn’t that what the film The Hours was about?). Before I knew it I was on my feet, running shoes on, one arm in a jacket, all the while mentally cradling that little fish in a small bag of water, like the ones you get at the pet shop. It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity to the front door. Then came a voice.
“Well, you’re a little dressed up for midnight on a Tuesday.”
Please excuse my housemate – he is a burly American, raised on a naval base in Guam. He speaks in odd clichés and can’t help but sound like the dad from 7th Heaven.
“I’m going for a run,” I said absent-mindedly, frantically looking around for my keys.
“Isn’t it a little late to be going for a run?”
“Well,” I said, still holding on to that slippery fish, “Yeah, but who cares?”
“Okaaaay, well stay safe. Do you want me to stay up for when you get back?”
“Oh my god Zach, I’m going to be fine.” – Shit, shit. What was that last thing I was thinking about?
“Okey dokey,” he said, before drinking custard straight from a carton.
I opened the front door and had one foot outside when Zach’s voice interrupted once more.
“Just kidding,” he chuckled, “You always get so riled up.”
Fucking Zach. I shut the front door behind me. The fish was gone.
“I suggest to people, particularly females, that they should not be alone in parks,” Detective Inspector Mick Hughes said on ABC’s Radio National in 2015.
“I’m sorry to say that’s the case.”
These remarks were made during the investigation following the murder of 17-year-old schoolgirl Masa Vukotic, who was stabbed to death by a random attacker during an afternoon walk.
The rationale of this statement assumes public spaces are an area in which people, “particularly females”, are fair game for killers and rapists: if you are a woman walking into a park, expect to be assaulted and murdered.
Women who die in these horrific circumstances are held up as a warning to others of what could happen to them. Their names have become the face of these Greek tragedy-style narratives: Masa Vukotic, Jill Meagher.
We all know the story. It’s why we say “stay safe” and “text me when you get home” before leaving the bar. We share techniques and tips that give the best chance of withstanding a random attack. Don’t wear earphones, so you can hear him approach from behind. Don’t wear a ponytail, because it’s easy for the killer to grab.
“Someone told me ‘Don’t wear loud shoes at night because people can hear you walk’,” said my friend Jas.
“And I’ve been told that having a lit cigarette is a deterrent because people can see the red end!”
We laughed, not only at the nonsense of such advice, but also because we actually follow it. Who hasn’t held their keys between their knuckles on a walk home in the dark?
“The ‘paradox of fear’ is the criminology term that talks about how women disproportionately fear crime happening to them in public spaces,” explains Lauren Rosewarne, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
“In reality, women are far more likely to be the victim of crime that happens in the home, for example domestic violence or rape from a loved one.”
But crimes committed against women by an unknown attacker, particularly in a public place, are much less common than is thought. According to Facebook group Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women study, 71 women were killed in Australia in 2016. Of the women killed, 50 murder charges were made against people known to the victim – partners, neighbours, relatives and friends. Only eight of the deaths were at the hands of a stranger.*
I had trouble processing the absurdity of these findings. I asked Lauren if this means that I’m safer out on the streets than in my own home.
“Statistically, yes,” she replies.
“But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do things that make you feel safe as an individual. If running at night makes you feel paranoid, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. That said, nor should you adjust your daily routine based on fear that isn’t supported by statistics.”
Despite the scaremongering and moments of paranoia, the solitary nature of running at night can feel more freeing than running by the light of day.
“I could run around in the city, or around during the day, but people leer at you,” says Rani, who runs five nights a week.
“They’ll look at me run, at my butt in my tights and I just feel so distracted by it. Not just men, it’s people in general. They look at you and make a judgement, and I don’t like feeling aware of myself like that.
“I like the streets being clear of people. In the day you’re dodging people getting off trams or grocery shopping, or kids getting picked up from school. It’s my time away from everyone.”
I agree. Not only that, but in the dark one’s senses are heightened. It’s easier to let go of the mindless babble inside my head when the smell of grass and trees is strong. All there is to occupy my attention is the sound of rustling branches and far off traffic, sitting behind the pitter-patter of my own two feet.
“I feel like I’m invisible,” says Rani.
“Not in a broody way, it’s just that no one bothers me, no one smiles at me and I don’t have to smile at anyone. If no one is looking at me, then I can just run.”
She pauses, tongue in cheek.
“…And obviously think about how I’m going to get away from the guy walking towards me if he attacks,” she says, and I give a knowing laugh. I get spooked by shadows too.
“But even then, that’s not most of the time. Most of the time I can just daydream or think about nothing.”
Perhaps that is why a young Spike Jonze decided the dead of night was the best time to go skating. No distractions, only space to process.
Ultimately, I don’t want to be frightened back inside, watching through the window as Spike skates freely towards the 7-11 without so much as a care.
My thoughts turn back to Woolf:
This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.
If the narrative doesn’t change, I will remain here – locked in a room of one’s own.
* The relationship to the killer in the remaining 12 deaths were unclear – either not yet reported or I was unable to find more information through news searches.