The Scars You Can't See
It's winter, January 2014. I'm living in a flat in a French secondary school and the year has not been the amazing time of my dreams, as I was told it would be. In fact, I feel isolated and lost, with just my flatmates and my genuinely wonderful pupils keeping me sane. Everything is so much harder in your second language, particularly feeling low.
I've come a long way, since living in that little flat. In a sea of uncertainty, that small corridor with its tiny kitchen was my rock. We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving there in October and grew ever angrier with our useless toaster oven. We squished ourselves round around its classroom tables for meals and crammed its inadequate fridge with too many groceries. We decorated the flat for Christmas and drank wine on the floor of each other's rooms. We laughed. We cried. We laughed some more.
Then came the week my flatmate T came home and walked into her bedroom to find a complete stranger was stood behind her wardrobe. A man she had never seen before had crept in while she was in the shower, and positioned himself so he could only be seen once she had walked fully into the room, letting the door shut behind her.
He turned to her. He smiled.
She screamed and ran for her life.
When people ask me about my time in France, it is this incident and the horrific way it was handled that stands out... More than the police officers who saw us as idiot foreigners, and told us they weren't going to do anything, and more even than the headteacher who, smiling, manipulated us into staying silent to save her reputation, what lingers is the fear of what happened to us.
For a while, I struggled to realise that the incident had left me traumatised. T was the one who had screamed, and was so afraid that she couldn't sleep alone. I was out of the flat at the time and I wasn't physically hurt, or worse. How could I be a victim too?
But we realised I had found the same man in my room weeks earlier after he had told me he was there to perform maintenance on our flat. He made his way into our kitchen, and I had walked out some time later to find him stood in my room. At the time I had assumed he was lost, looking for my flatmate C's bedroom, but I will never forget how I found him stood, hands in his pockets, looking at my things; quietly taking in the art on my walls, the clothes in my open wardrobe, the blankets on my bed.
The fact was that he was in my flat too. In my bedroom, too. He looked at my things too. He invaded my space too. I say this not to lessen T's horror, but to acknowledge my own.
Because he didn't touch me physically doesn't mean there aren't still scars; they're just not on the top of my skin, where you can see them. I cannot explain what it feels like to lose the sense of being safe in your only haven. For the two years afterwards, I walked into every empty room thinking he was waiting for me. I'd pick up my clothes, wondering if he'd touched them. Even when a sea and thousands of miles divided us, part of me feared he could find me. I wondered if he would come back to finish what he started when he opened the door to my French home.
Part of me wants to tell you that, if this happens to you. give them all you've got . Tell everyone who will listen. Get those who failed to keep you safe fired. Tell the papers, if the police will do nothing. Kick up a fuss, fight. Don't back down.
Another part of me wonders why it's so hard to be heard in the first place. Why do we have to fight? Why didn't the police do anything to keep us safe? Why did the headteacher put her reputation before our lives? Why were we gaslit? I think the answers paint a picture of a bigger picture than just the walls of that tiny flat in a French secondary school.
I'm just amending this to let you know that I am now much recovered from this experience; though it was awful at the time, since then my fears have hugely subsided and thankfully I no longer walk into rooms afraid that someone will be there. I wanted to share this experience to help draw a line, and gain closure, from what was a horrifying event.
I can think of only one way to end this post, and that is to acknowledge the five beautiful people whom I lived with. I would not have finished that year without you. You made me laugh and gave me the kindness during even my lowest lows. You were wise, thoughtful, funny and above all, amazing friends. Thank you.