The flowers on the lamppost outside remind me that Wednesday last week marked three years since a young woman was murdered on the square where I live, opposite my flat. Not that I was likely to forget, because I witnessed her killing.
I cannot remember which film we were about to sit down and watch that Sunday night in February 2013. I can remember the screams outside, and drawing the curtains back because they did not sound like the kind of drunken screams we hear fairly frequently, living in the centre of Brighton. I remember seeing a figure on either side of her, and I remember the figure on her left raising his hand. I remember the glint of the blade in that hand.
Maybe you have asked yourself, as a thought experiment, what you would do if suddenly you found yourself in the middle of an extreme situation. How much of a hero you would be. We all probably like to think we would be heroes – that we would run into the burning building, jump into the waves, knock the gun out of someone’s hand.
Here is what I did. I lunged for the phone and dialled 999. I did that pointless thing of telling them to hurry the fuck up (I might have been more polite – I am usually polite), whilst I watched the man starting to stab the woman, who was on her knees by then. I put down the phone and ran outside, in my slippers. I stood four, maybe five yards away from them. I did not jump in to save her. Her attacker looked possessed as he stabbed her and stabbed her and stabbed her. Frenzied and savage, I think the coroner’s report said. I sobbed, hysterically, in a ‘please make him stop oh god please stop’ kind of pointless manner. Then I went inside again, picked up the phone which was ringing, tried to answer the emergency services’ questions (‘How old is she?’ ‘Is she breathing?’). I went back outside, with the phone, feeling utterly useless as I said that I thought she was in her twenties and that I did not think she was breathing, or at least not much. Her skin was grey. The square is on a slope and her blood ran down, slowly and thickly.
The police were there at that point, and a young female officer was trying to resuscitate her. Her attacker had made a feeble attempt on his own life in the mean time, stabbing himself in the legs and arms, and was seated, bleeding, against the office building opposite our flat whilst two male officers restrained him. I later found out that her friend – the figure on her right – had tried to intervene and sustained cuts to his hands. The ambulance turned up, finally. Crying still, but no longer hysterical, I asked the emergency service operator if I could go back inside now.
We watched at our window, silently, for what seemed like at least 10 minutes while they tried to revive her. We both knew she was not going to make it. After a while I fainted.
The woman died in hospital about an hour later. She was 24. Her murderer, 26, was her estranged husband who had lost his mind after she’d become close to a male friend and left him. The knives he used to kill her had been a wedding present.
I was no hero. I don’t think, honestly, it even occurred to me to jump in. It probably would have been foolish to do so, of course. But a little part of me, afterwards, did wonder whether perhaps I could have saved her. I might have sustained a few stab wounds, but she might have lived. Might have. Maybe. It’s these types of thoughts that send you insane, though. Out of self-preservation, therefore, I told myself that I probably would not have been able to save her and that jumping in had never been a feasible option. It helped that the police officer who came round that night, said the same.
Even as a witness I was pretty hopeless: ‘What hand was he using?’ ‘What clothes was he wearing?’ ‘Did he say anything?’ ‘How would you describe him?’ None of it I was certain about. I think I was too wrapped up in the horror of it, in my own horror of seeing it. Thankfully I did not have to go to court, or even make a formal statement, because they had enough witness accounts that corroborated each other.
The next morning, I called work to ask if I could have the day off. I wasn’t in a state, exactly – I think I just needed time to work out how I felt. Something had shifted and I needed to recalibrate. Our square looked like a set from The Bill, complete with little numbers and people in white suits. We had to duck under a police ribbon and sign out each time we wanted to leave.
There was one night, maybe a week after it had happened, that I was alone and started reading the articles in the local newspaper, and looking at her Facebook page and his Facebook page and the memorial page they had set up for her, and had to eventually come up for air and tell myself to stop. I wanted to know who she was, who they were, and to comprehend, somehow, why she had been murdered. I tied flowers to the lamppost, and I donated some money to her family for her funeral, and I sent them a short message but resisted any further dialogue. In the end, my prevailing feeling was that this was a very private and very desperate tragedy that just happened to play out on my doorstep on a Sunday night in February. I had no part in it, other than as an accidental spectator.
I went back to work. I did not have nightmares. I did not, and do not, feel unsafe on the streets of Brighton. Of course I still think of her as I do my recycling just feet away from where she lay dying. Seeing the fresh flowers this week, I think of her a little more often. Writing this brings back a faint echo of the nausea and lightheadedness I felt at the time. I have often wanted to write about it but until now, I never have. I never put anything on social media afterwards, feeling it would be disrespectful towards the victim and her family and friends – it is a slightly ‘sensational’ story to tell and perhaps it is not really my place to tell it publicly. (Incidentally, in writing this I found out that Channel 5 made a distastefully trashy programme about the case last year, which I could not help myself but watch online. Thankfully, the ‘reconstructions’ were badly acted and, when it came to the actual incident, mostly inaccurate.) I don’t entirely know why I am writing about it now – perhaps I wasn’t quite as ‘done’ with it as I previously thought. I think somehow it has helped me to go back there and order the events into a narrative to process the experience.
I still cannot quite categorise my feelings about the murder. It seems both incredibly profound and significant and sadly, desperately trivial. I feel a deep sadness about the senselessness of it: a young life stopped in its tracks for no reason. Many other lives derailed. I think of her parents, of his parents. How will they ever make sense of it? But I recognise that my sadness is not personal – how can it be? I did not know any of the people involved. It is more like another piece of evidence shored up of the brutality and unfairness of this world, and of the fact that often things make no sense at all.
I think, ultimately, I can forgive myself for not being a hero that night. But it is a sobering experience when you are put to the test like that and find out that you are at best average, at worst pathetic. The flowers outside, wilting quickly in the winter air, serve partly as a reminder of that.