By Clare O’Dea
To the untrained eye he was just a man checking his bicycle but Kelly knew the signs. She stopped dead. These men could be old or young, fat or thin, dark or fair but they all radiated ill intent. You could read it in the line of their shoulders, the way they stole a glance at you or the way they affected not to look your way. They moved too slowly; they were bad actors.
The dogleg shortcut halved the journey time to school – and there he was just at the bend, waiting. If she took this route she could be there in 11 minutes door to door, just in time for assembly. Going down to the main road, over the bridge and back through the park would cost her precious minutes and Kelly could not afford to be late for school today. Mrs. Kearney would be at the door taking names as usual and that would be her second poor punctuality mark this week. She just couldn’t do detention on Friday. Missing the inter-schools match was out of the question.
Kelly looked up and down the footpath but there was no-one around. Cracked chestnuts littered the ground at her feet, revealing their gleaming russet hearts. Treasure like this should not go to waste. If only she could gather them up, go home and skip this day. But no-one would understand; she was locked into the routine. The heavy schoolbag weighed down on her bra strap and she shifted it further out to the edge of her shoulder.
He was wearing a navy tracksuit and his hair was red – a young one. Kelly stooped to tie her shoelace, giving him a few more seconds to move on but still he fiddled with the bicycle chain. You’re not fooling anyone you bastard, she wanted to shout. The girls would never forgive her if she missed the match. She was in top form, playing the hockey of her life.
The flashing wasn’t so bad, it was creepy and ugly but it was over quickly. The bad part was the fear. What if this one reached out and grabbed her? The thought of being overpowered terrified her. Most of the time you could ignore the fact that men were stronger, it wasn’t relevant. But in this case it was all too relevant – a fact that squeezed her throat tight, stung her eyes and set her heart hammering.
One step down the lane meant danger, one step down the footpath meant disgrace. And then she remembered her hockey stick. Without being aware of her decision she began to advance down the shortcut. Behind the high walls on either side of her were back gardens. No-one would be gardening in this weather at this time of day. She slipped the stick out of its cover and held it loosely in her right hand like a spear.
Thirty more steps, twenty – the man straightened up and turned towards her. Kelly couldn’t look behind her for help; she didn’t want to show fear. Part of the trick was to behave normally. Treat him like a normal passer-by there’s a chance he’ll behave like one. She wouldn’t know until she reached him whether there was anyone coming in the other direction to save her. He started tugging at his waistband. Kelly felt a chill running up her back.
Hurrying down the steps into the school building, Kelly heard the bell ringing inside. She opened the door just as Mrs. Kearney came out of her office. “Are you on the warpath Kelly?” Mrs. Kearney seemed amused. “Pardon?” Kelly stopped and stared for a moment. Then she noticed she was still gripping the hockey stick with both hands. “You look like you’re going to hit someone with that stick dear.” “Just getting into the zone for the match,” Kelly answered, walking past the vice principal.
She went straight to the cloakroom to change into her indoor shoes. Anita was there. “So Kelly, what’s the strategy for Friday? They’re a pretty strong team,” she said, unwinding a long colourful scarf. Kelly sat down on the bench to unlace her boots. She felt a cold new energy circulating in her veins. “I’ve been thinking about it and I reckon it all comes down to one thing – attack is the best form of defence. They won’t know what hit them.”