Blood Sweat and Fear

27th August, 2005

An unwelcome departure from the usual writing. Published in FT Magazine, 27 August 2005.

The sun has set, but it’s a sticky evening in Washington D.C., hotter yet with a 13-month-old daughter wriggling in a carrier on my back. Together with my wife, we are returning from a trip to buy ice-creams when we hear screaming from across the street. A man is chasing a woman. For a moment, I think it must be in fun. Then she hits the tarmac and he punches her as hard as he can.

My wife yells my name. I tell her to take the baby and then I’m trotting across the street with the baby-carrier flapping behind me.

I’m the second or third man into the struggle. Only up close do I realise what’s really happening. The woman is on the ground and there’s blood everywhere. I look for a knife but I can’t see one. The attacker shrugs somebody off and hits her in the face again. He’s screaming. She’s screaming.

Half-heartedly, I grab him round the waist and drag him away. Someone’s coming in with a chair; I get out of the way and it smashes across his back. It’s like a movie, except the attacker doesn’t flinch when the chair hits. He seems unstoppable. Distantly, I worry about that. Someone’s lying on the woman to protect her. He gets punched because he’s in the way. There must be a knife, but I still can’t see one. Two of us are wrestling with the attacker, but our hands are slippery. I’m not getting as close as I could. I see the chair coming in again and step back. I hesitate and suddenly there are five or six men on him.

I move to the woman. She’s lying face up on the road and she’s covered in blood – her chest, her face, everything is plastered with it. She has a crop-top; it’s easy to see the knife wound to her belly. Two minutes ago there wasn’t a scratch on her.

She looks at me: “Help me. I can’t feel anything.” I am afraid of touching her, and I don’t. I tell her she’s going to be OK (what else?), and the ambulance is coming. A woman yells from a car that she’s called 911. I give her thumbs up, inanely.

The men kneeling on him want the police. The woman kneeling by her wants the ambulance. The victim looks up at me. “My cell phone is over there.” I pick it up and dial. I listen to myself calmly talking.

The operator is asking how old the victim is. She has long eyelashes. Underneath the blood, she’s beautiful. Then her eyes slowly close. I’m shouting now. Police cars scream in from every direction. The ambulance isn’t far behind. A fire engine too.

The police swiftly clear the streets and mark off the crime scene with yellow tape. They try to collect dozens of witness statements, but have no clipboards and few pens. I later find out they’re not used to witnesses: this kind of attack is unusual. Like a schoolkid I ask permission to cross the road and speak to my wife. I tell her to go home. She points out that I’m covered in blood. I don’t think any of it is mine.

Then I notice the blood on the road, the size of a picnic blanket. Some is thick and bright, as though someone had squeezed out a tube of children’s brightest red poster paint. I also see the serrated knife a few yards away. It seems huge. They take the woman away on a stretcher; the flesh on her arm is hanging in tatters. I realise she must have used her arm to protect herself.

Eventually, I get a ride in the police car to the station. I’m still wearing the baby carrier. The police station is quiet and tatty. There’s a television showing Troy. Patroclus is lying, pale and covered in blood, awaiting the coup de grace.

As more and more witnesses are ferried in, I realise this will be a long night. One man is tapping on his laptop. I wish I had a book or notepad. It’s boring here, after the excitement. I begin to realise I hurt my back hauling the assailant off the victim.

The detective shows up and tells us that the woman is still alive but in a serious condition and, if it weren’t for us, she’d be dead. Am I a hero? I was too hesitant. The man who went in first is the hero. Without him maybe the rest of us wouldn’t have joined in. I couldn’t have been the first.

It turns out the victim is a 24-year-old economist who is due to begin postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. The attacker, who didn’t know her, tells the police he had taken drugs to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Eventually it’s my turn for a brief interview and a ride home. My wife has been waiting up for me. She tells me that our baby went to bed without a complaint. “It’s as though she knew that she had to be good tonight.” Only then do I find myself blinking the tears away.

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