10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally

BY GARETH LANGDON

Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.

FICTION: If you go down to the woods | Part 3

BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN

Fence

Eating bread and drinking wine are interminglings of bodies.

I flip the cell phone over to check the time. It flares its light at me. Five-ten. I’m awake but it’s dark and too cold to get up, so I roll onto my back and lie still, listening to the dark, the sounds of just-before-morning. Parrot the cat jumps onto the bed so I slide my right leg out, feeling for the soft body with my thigh, and then sweep him off the edge so that he lands hard on the wooden floor. No feline delicacy there. If I don’t do this, he’ll edge forward to my shoulder and bat me on the nose with an open-clawed paw. I wait. Parrot complains loudly.

It seems hours later when I turn my head and see the shimmering phone, still there just beyond the pillow. I close my eyes again and rock from side to side, trying to summon sleep back. Parrot leaps onto the bed.

Finally I have no choice. Mouse and Morris are awake now and gearing up, pacing about on their hard nails, waiting for me to make a move. Five-twenty the face of the phone tells me, so I swing my legs off the bed and feel for my clothing with my foot. I slide the pile towards me in the dark and start to dress. Three-quarter leggings, socks, bra, t-shirt, green hoodie from yesterday. When I put it on, I pull the hood as low as I can against the cold, and then I sit for a moment, hearing the morning coming into the dark room. Parrot has gone down the hallway and is calling loudly for food. I lean forward and breathe slowly to ease myself into wakefulness.

When we get into the park it’s five-fifty, too early even for the car guard and most other walkers, or the pedestrian commuters who pass through on their way to work. I head for the woods. A short way into the gloom I suddenly break off the path on a whim and run up the steep slope, pumping my arms and heading for the fence that skirts the soccer fields. I can see my breath vaporising white in the cold air. The dogs hesitate, not sure of the reason for this deviation from our usual route, but then they follow, tearing after me, Morris panting loudly and drawing even as we get to the path. He looks pleased. I bend over to catch my breath and look at him upside-down. From this angle he looks like a shark with a large grin.

We head south along the path and I peer left through the fence and see the lengths of aluminium sprinkler pipes glinting with frost on the soccer pitch that seems grey in the half-light. The embankment drops away to my right, thick with seed-heavy blackjack. The dogs plunge suddenly back down through the weeds and leaves and root around at the bottom of the hill, following a trail—the smell of our own feet from yesterday, or maybe something more interesting. They are about thirty metres away but they keep pace with me and glance up every now and then to see that I am still there. We follow a parallel route deeper into the trees.

The man comes along the path towards me, his head down, as though he’s in thought. I realise with a small jolt that I’ve been half-expecting him, perhaps even looking out for him without really knowing it. We’ve passed each other every morning for about two weeks, in the woods or out on the field on the other side of the stream. The first time was at the extreme south end of the park, near the base of the giant graffitied bluegum. He was coming along from the north side, walking with a long stride across the frosted grass, no dog in sight. A lone exerciser in track pants and long-sleeved t-shirt. At these encounters, we greet in a perfunctory way and I detect in the plumped sound of the l in his hello an American accent. Urban walkers are minimally polite, exchanging a quick acknowledgement and then glancing past each other to check that our dogs have met and passed on without any fuss. Meeting in this context, we have no desire to speak to each other. We draw our privacy close around our bodies newly risen from the musky warmth of beds.

He sees me and by the quick turn of his head I know he’s looking for the dogs he has seen with me before. They are halfway up the slope. They’ve stopped and are looking up at us, but they go on, satisfied.

The man breaks his stride when he’s about five paces off, as though meaning to step to his left to let me pass. But then he stops. I keep going and when I get to him we stand looking at each other. In the soft moment that has opened up around us, I feel quite sure of what to do, though it has not occurred to me before now. I can see he is about to say something so I reach across and touch his hand, which is flattened against his thigh, the fingers pointing downwards. He has one foot off the path, in a clump of blackjacks. A sudden, vivid memory of plucking the slender burrs off school socks and trousers is immediately present and then gone. I lift my left hand and feel for the fence, hooking my middle finger through the diamond mesh next to the steel pole. I look across the soccer fields. When I move my head slightly to the right and back again the light from the sun just coming up over the clubhouse on the other side of the pitch is like a camera flash in my eyes. I do this for a moment, as though I am entirely alone. The dogs are out of sight at the bottom of the slope. They have gone to the water where the rocks offer a bridge to the other side. I hear Mouse barking at Morris and I imagine her, lying flat on the bank above the stream, arse in the air, stump of tail wagging, watching Morris who is trying to decide whether he should come out of the water. If he does she will lunge straight at him and the chase will be on. He’ll be gathering the energy now to plunge up over the lip of the bank and take off across the cold, hard grass with Mouse snapping at his sphincter.

The man doesn’t move, doesn’t pull away. He is waiting. So I close my whole hand around his and he balls it up into a soft fist and settles it into my palm. He waits. I dip my head to the right to feel the flash of light on my eyelids and as I do this I pull his hand to the base of my stomach, just above the wide seam of my pants below my hoodie and t-shirt and hold it against my skin. He opens his hand flat and waits.

I hold the hand and swivel to face the fence. When I stop, his hand is in the small of my back and now I can only just reach it, I reach to the small finger and then I drop my head forward onto the fence and shift my pelvis back towards him so that he knows. I feel him step back onto the path and move into me and he says something that I don’t catch.

Against my forehead I feel the diamond mesh of the fence. It will make an imprint I realise. I hold a pole with each hand. The steel is cold, like dry ice, the paint flaking. I open my legs slightly and wait for him. He is unhurried. He puts his left hand over mine on the fence pole and runs his right hand over the curve of my arse, taking my pants with it and I feel the cold air against my skin. He keeps the hand going, down to the warm envelope of flesh, and now he shifts his weight forward. I feel him move up into me, looking for a place to plant his feet firmly. He holds the pole through my hand to steady himself and under it I feel the cold of the steel press into my palm, where the fold of the thumb is.

His cock follows his hand, searching until it meets the soft resistance of skin and then he rotates slowly, weight going from one foot to the other so that he can push forward. He is being careful, feeling his way, finding where the resistance is and shifting slightly to look for a better angle, and then suddenly he is inside me and I feel a burst of pain, the sensation that seems to be hooked to my breath so that when he pushes into me I inhale sharply, my breath sucked in to meet him.

I fold my pelvis into him and we move together, finding a rhythm against the fence. His head comes down to my ear and he breathes heavily. I flatten up against him and feel the burning in my calves from the strain of holding myself to his moving body. His hands are folded over mine on the poles, gripping hard, squeezing my palms into the steel. I can feel him shift gear, his breath coming quicker and shallower and he moves hard up against me, so that I sense the desperation coming like a train down a tunnel forcing a huge warm pillow of air ahead of it that catches things up as it speeds by, papers and cigarette butts and empty cardboard cups.

 

The sun is bright through the trees now as I head back up Beyers. Mouse is watching me in the rearview mirror. The day is opening up. I get to the intersection and decide to turn left and take a long route home, skipping Main Road and bending through Emmarentia and Melville.

The light is green, but there’s a car coming from the front, so I wait. The indicator clicks. Mouse jumps up onto the back of the seat, tucking her rear legs delicately and balancing like a bird. The back of Morris’s rock-still head, which I look at for a long moment, is a hard-tender crown of bone under fur. Four men on recyling trolleys come around the bend up ahead, rushing towards the light, one foot extended off the fronts of their trollies to brake if the light turns red. One of them sees that I’m about to turn and he moves the trolley expertly so that it passes by me, inches from the window. The man is wearing a balaclava but it’s pushed back onto his forehead, bunched up above his eyes. As he comes abreast of the car he turns his head and looks at me, nodding almost imperceptibly in greeting—a slight uptilt of the head—as he flies by, the clattering sound of his trolley deafening us for a moment and then rolling away down the hill.

This is the third part of If you go down to the woods. Read the rest of the story:

FICTION: If you go down to the woods | Part 2

BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN

Slope

Sorcerers have always held the anomalous position, at the edge of the fields or woods. They haunt the fringes.

I step on it a little, edging over eighty down Beyers. It’s late to be walking, but we’ve missed two days in a row and Mouse and Morris are starting to annoy one another, so here we go, we can get in forty minutes, maybe, before the gates are closed for the night. Morris is standing, which is unusual, turning around restlessly in the back of the car. Maybe he needs to pee.

People are leaving when we get to the parking lot, shoving dogs into cars, paying the guard, heading home to the safety of houses. By the time we’re out of the car, leashes on, there are only four cars left. Morris stops at the dustbin, sniffs, lifts his leg. When we get beyond the gate, I slip the leashes off and Mouse is away, heading left, to the big field that runs down to the rowers’ dam. That’s her favourite route because the picnickers leave trash there on Sundays. But it’s mid-week and I want to go straight down the hill, where there are still a few people. I call her back and start running so that she’ll get excited and chase me. The trick doesn’t always work but this time she’s after me and I keep going till we’re almost at the dam and she’s latched on, snapping close to my heels.

Morris stops to defecate discretely under a bush. He’s good that way. Doesn’t just dump it in the middle of the path but finds a spot where nobody is likely to step on it. I pick it up anyway, weighing the pros and cons. A pile of shit under a bush where it will decompose after a couple of days, or a plastic bag with a warm steaming parcel in the dustbin and then to the city dump where it will be take seven years to degrade.

There are a few stragglers on the field, people I know only from the park, whose names I have never learned, though I know what their dogs are called. We are urban walkers, grateful for this open zone in the city to which we all hasten, as though our lives depended on it, at the beginning or the end of the day.

When we reach the dam, the sky is dark orange and blackening above the water. It’s suddenly cold. I turn south and head towards the woods, calculating as I go, rationalising my decision to head to that end of the park at this late hour. Two people with retrievers are coming out of the trees as we get there. I imagine they are the last. The dogs don’t hesitate so I plunge in with them. They are in front of me, on the path, heads down, Morris’s tail up, Mouse’s stump waggling happily. We head between the swamp cypresses along the concrete embankments of the spruit, into the pine and ash and oak, our American and European sentinels that have greened the city for a hundred years.

I tell myself that muggers, men waiting behind trees or bushes to jump me, won’t stick around at this hour because all the walkers are gone by now. Waste of time to wait around in the dark and the cold for a victim with not much on them but a bag of poo and a dog leash. Better to head to other likely spots in the suburbs for a bit of thieving and thugging. Then there’s Morris. He’s never been tested but I imagine he’ll come gamely to my defence. I have little doubt that Mouse will go ape shit and rush at my attacker, little razor teeth bared, and then Morris will lunge with those huge jaws and that impressive chest, and no casual urban park mugger will stick around. Unless they have a gun and think that they can shoot dogs too.

Halfway through the forest I stop to look around me. This is what I do most days when I’m here in the woods at this spot, where the trees open out a little and I can stand on the path with my back to the stream. I look north, the direction we’ve come from. Nobody there. I turn slowly and look up ahead, to where the path splits around a giant bluegum and you have to watch your step because the roots have been exposed by the hundreds of human and dog feet passing weekly through the forest. Every now and then one of the big trees on the slope topples over after a rainstorm, when the topsoil has been worn away and the roots are standing well above ground, bared, looking for purchase. The park gardeners come in with a chainsaw after a few days. They cut only the part that is across the path, leaving the trunk on the slope to rot slowly.

I stand for a minute, straining to hear above the noise of the water. Polluted or not, it chatters over the rocks like any country stream. I look up the slope and see that the floodlights on the soccer field have been turned on, and light is coming over the lip of the hill. There is no noise of a game yet.

I turn to look for the dogs but don’t see them right away. I strain into the soft gloom amongst the trees. There they are, just up ahead on the path, waiting for me, wondering why I’ve stopped. Or are they are analysing the source of some movement in the gathering dark? Perhaps they smell something they can’t yet see. We stand, the three of us, not moving, listening to the woods. There is a slight wind, and the tops of the pines and bluegums have started their sighing.

Then I see something. I try to separate it from the tree that it is next to, try to decode the shape of what I’m looking at. The dogs have not moved, but they’ve not seen what I’ve seen. They’re watching me, waiting for me to decide. If I give them some signal they’ll see it too, so I stand rock-still. Then it moves, out of the shadow of the pine and slightly up the slope. Soundless. Suddenly it is in the light spilling over from the soccer fields. Still the dogs are oblivious. I hold my breath, and hear my heart in my ears. It hasn’t seen me yet. It stands, listening too, enormous head turned to look up the slope. It’s a kudu bull, fully grown, its horns spiralling up into the darkness. The head turns slowly towards me. The horns start right in the middle, between the big twitching ears, then curve outwards, and do two graceful twists to end in sharp points. I see the white fur that runs across the face, below the ridge of the brow. The floodlight is caught for a second in the liquid eyes. They turn iridescent green until he shifts his head slightly to look at me and then the eyes lose the light and blacken. I feel sure that he can see me now. He is looking directly at me, ears swivelling back and forth. I see the delicate white stripes that come down to the flanks from the crown of his spine, down to his belly where they fade to a soft brown. He is breathing deeply, his sides moving up and down. His body is facing up the slope and his head is turned in my direction, the big ridge of fur behind his head standing up straight, moving slightly in the breeze.

The wind, coming from behind me, from the north, will have told him of our presence, so he knows, he knew long before I did. Perhaps he can’t make out what is there, exactly, but the fine follicles in his nose will pick apart the strands of scent that are coming to him on the wind, sorting through the library of his deep knowledge, looking for a match to his experience or to some buried instinct carried in his DNA that will tell him what we are and how to respond to our presence, here on the slope in the urban woods.

The dogs are moving now. They are bored of waiting and turn to go on, along the path and deeper into the woods. The kudu hears them and immediately he breaks, lunging up the hill, shattering twigs underfoot so that the stillness that enveloped us is torn apart as he thrusts through it. He passes me, close enough for me to reach out and touch him, moving swiftly, fluid as water over a rock, and I turn with him as he goes by. He is through the gap between the trees and crashing into the thick bush beyond. Then he is gone and a wave of silence flows back on me, carrying a faint scent of something wild and charged with fear. The forest closes behind him and the noise of traffic drifts to me from the lights at the corner, just beyond the end of the park, where two dense streams of traffic intersect. I start to breathe again, big ragged breaths. The dogs have come back. They heard the noise of his passage, but it was too sudden for them to figure it out and so here they are at my feet, panting and excited by something they can sense but don’t understand, not giving chase but seeming to ask me what it is, what has just happened.

I bend down to pat their heads, my hands trembling slightly, and then we walk on. For a few paces I can’t feel my feet on the path and when we get to the big gnarled roots of the bluegum I trip and lunge forward before regaining my footing. I hear, suddenly, the shrill blast of a whistle and the sounds of a soccer match on the field above me, the muffled leathery thud of boot on ball, men running and calling to each other under the bright lights.

This is the second part of If you go down to the woods. Read the rest of the story:

FICTION: If you go down to the woods

BY BRONWYN LAW-VILJOEN

Check

Racism never detects the particles of the other.

Just before six. So. A good hour. The traffic coming up Beyers is a trickle. It will be backed up all the way from Judith by the time I’m headed back, but that’s then. The park and the dogs are now. I can ease into my skin, regard the day first. I glance in the rear-view mirror. Mouse has her front paws up on the back seat. She’s watching me—her eyes are sucked brown sweets—making sure I know what I’m doing, that I’m going the right way. Morris is hangdog. I look at the back of his knobbled head. He’ll have that glazed expression that makes people in the other cars smile. The journey to the park is a rude encounter with cold that he doesn’t like, until, that is, we are in the park.

We pull into the lot at three minutes to. It’s darker than yesterday, winter creeping in, holding onto the night longer and longer. The burgundy Cherokee is there, but no sign of the German woman with her nine rescues given to aggressive pack behavior. They are to be avoided. But not because of Morris, who for all his rock jaw and brick-shit-house body, is not a fighter, but will stand wagging desperately to announce he’s cool—cool man—while the pack rushes him. It’s Mouse, no flight dog, all seven kilos of her ready to punch way above her weight.

I coax them out of the car, and as he touches ground the bull terrier is ready, shoulders squared, line of fur rising along his spine, on his toes in that swagger gait. Mouse is off to the dustbin to find old bones or something rotting, her docked tail erect. The car guard watches us. The park is still.

I walk into the cold and wonder if I have too little or too much clothing on, notice the chill on my ankles above my socks. At the bottom of the hill the dam lies breathing. Our vapour rises into the dark. I check the moonbag—keys, leashes, turd bags and two half treats. I swing the bag around, pick up the pace.

The dogs are all ears, stopping to piss for a moment and then off, noses to ground, Mouse running ahead to find a scent and track it all the way to a pile of discarded KFC, Morris heading left to pick up a trail he found yesterday, angling back across the path to check on me, and then off the other way, his haunches bunching to a stride that’s more bounce than trot, feet high, ears up, his whole body present. His reserves gathered in sleep now squeezed into his veins and his big heart so that he’s on all cylinders, looking for something.

Mouse heads back and suddenly the two of them are off at a sprint, the Jack Russell after the bull terrier, nipping at his arse so that he wheels around in full flight to throw her off but she’s at him, barking and biting at his tender sphincter displayed under his lifted tail, soft grey muscle that contracts when another dog approaches or just before he needs to relieve himself, and irresistible to Mouse. It’s a ritual of tag that circles around my walking until they split apart and pick up a scent, bouncing away at the end of the invisible bungee cords that tie us to each other. Off they go. My thoughts unravel with them in loose threads of dreams and morning.

I settle into a fast-paced rhythm, swinging my arms high, breathing deep to match my stride. We know the routine, fall into it easily, the dogs off and back, off and back, my body working itself into a sweat in the cold air. I focus on my feet and the path ahead and look for signs of movement. I think of Joel, and the list.

 

So you are out walking your dogs in the park and you see me walking towards you, well not me, but a guy, walking towards you. What happens in your head? How does this checklist work?

Okay, a guy like you, thirties, black, slightly taller than me, alone, no dog, no bag. Do you have a backpack, are you carrying anything?

No, no backpack.

And what are you wearing?

Jeans, t-shirt, jacket.

Hoodie?

Jeez, that’s a cliché.

Humour me.

Is it cold? Okay it’s cold, so yes, I have my hood up and my hands in my pockets, and I am walking, head down, no backpack.

Do you have anything in your hands, a packet, say, like a shopping bag?

At six in the morning? No. Just me, hands in my pockets, walking towards you.

Okay, which part of the park are we walking in? That’s important—where we are. In the woods, where it’s still dark at this time of the morning? Or near the dam, which is out in the open and I would have a view in all directions?

You decide. You know the place.

Okay, we’re in the forested part, and we’re walking along next to the stream on the path. The dogs are ahead of me, and you come along.

Okay, so give me the checklist. What plays in your head?

 

I watch Morris head into the bushes. He’s after something. Human faeces, maybe, so I run to catch up, calling him out before he can eat it. He comes running back, big grin, looking for the head pat. Mouse is on her mission amongst the trees, but she’s close enough that I know she’s going to come when I call. The cord is slack.

 

So let’s say I have about fifty paces to do this. Here’s the list. Male, young—not too young, but, say, twenties, thirties—in the woods, alone, no dog, dark clothing, hoodie, no bag. Actually ‘no bag’ comes after ‘no dog’ and before ‘dark clothing’. You have no bag, so that means you’re not going to work. If you were you’d have a backpack and maybe a lunch bag, Pick ’n Pay usually.

Christ, you know the brand of the bag?

Pick ’n Pay is easy—red, blue and white. That’s for your lunch, otherwise why else would you have that kind of bag in your hand at six in the morning? And definitely a guy with evil intentions is not carrying a Pick ’n Pay bag. Remember, this is a suburban park, surrounded on all sides by houses, streets, shops, small businesses. We’re not in the bush here. Technically, we’re in the city. Or very near.

Okay, so you start with male. Are you sure? Doesn’t black come first?

Well I’ve thought about this a lot, trying to assess the level of my prejudice, but no, if you’re male, young, white, alone, no dog, hoodie, no bag, I’m just as worried as I would be if you were all of these and black. So no, it’s definitely male that comes first. A woman coming along the path who checked every box except the gender one wouldn’t worry me. If she were black I’d only wonder a little because mostly it’s white women walking in the park and only in the last several months have I encountered black women walking, but then it’s black women in their late thirties with a dog or a child, or both. Middle-class black women. A young black woman would surprise me, except if she were in running gear. A young guy walking alone in the park would make me start checking the list.

Okay, so first gender, and then age, and then race?

Well, I have to admit that I’ve not been able to test this theory because I’ve never encountered a young white male on his own, walking, in a hoodie, in the park at six in the morning. So there’s that.

Okay, so you’re hoping, in a way, that if you did, you’d be afraid. Because that would reassure you—in respect of your prejudice I mean. You’d be afraid but at the same time relieved to find that your reaction to a young white male was the same as your reaction to a young black male?

If you follow that logic then, yes, I guess I would be afraid and relieved, though the relief might only come later, when I had a chance to go through it. At the moment of encounter, it’s fear before anything else, and some calculations about what to do next. Though, I have to say, not fear, as such, but caution, high alert, hair on the back of the neck, an increase in heart rate. A hard breath in. Fear is what I’ve felt only in an actual attack, in the two that I’ve experienced. Something I’ve felt in no other event, at no other time, in my life. And I didn’t know this until those two attacks, and the second time it happened the feeling was bizarrely and instantly familiar, directly related to the first time. A clear, fearful connection to only one other incident in my life. The same flavour. Two moments linked by exactly the same emotion, except the second time around it was attached to a memory of something, whereas the first time it was unprecedented, instantly known as a new thing, like a screwdriver in my arm. Do you see? So no, we’re not talking fear, which is very different to the feeling I have when I see someone coming along the path towards me, before they’ve done anything to make me afraid, except be there. In the park. At six in the morning. Walking.

 

I watch the dogs up ahead as we enter the woods near the dam, crossing the little concrete bridge and turning south towards the reeds that run along the watercourse. I watch their body language, trusting them to tell me what’s up ahead that I can’t see, or in the trees beside the path. What they can smell, who might be coming. They’re intent on everything, sniffing and testing the air, but relaxed and eager, so I walk on without breaking my stride.

 

Oh, there’s something else. I have to admit that I’ve never encountered a man in a hoodie in the park—black, white, young, old. So that’s just in my head from movies I suppose. Would you really be wearing a hoodie? Do you even own one?

I have one, actually, but if I were out walking in a park on a cold morning, I’d probably be wearing a beanie. Is that on the list?

I haven’t thought about beanies. A beanie would worry me less, I think, because everyone wears them. They don’t come with an age or gender category. Hoodies do. Maybe guys know about this hoodie fear, and so if they’re out there, walking in the park they think to themselves, Maybe I won’t wear the hood now, just in case that woman sees me and kaks herself.

Really? Ha! You think a young guy gives a fuck about your fear? An older man maybe, seeing a woman on her own would want to reassure her that he wasn’t planning on jumping her, so he’d wave and smile.

 

Morris has lagged behind and I stop on the path to wait for him. Mouse, up ahead, pauses for us, her body twisted halfway around to keep sight of me and the path ahead at the same time.

 

So, age before race. I encounter quite a few older men, forties, fifties, sometimes older, and I can spot age from some way off. An older white guy is exercising, an older black guy is walking to work and his body language tells me he’s going somewhere with a purpose, he’s on his way and he’s not even going to notice me. There are a handful of older black men out running or walking and mostly the white men are on bicycles or running. Most of the walkers, in fact, are women.

 

Morris has leaped over the stream and is off into the long dry grass in a clearing between the silver birches. He’ll come out on the other side so I press on, keeping Mouse in sight where she’s snuffling along the fence that borders the road. Morris bursts out of the clearing and Mouse, hearing him, tears across in front of me and gives chase.

 

Okay, first gender, then age, then race?

Yes. No. Place before race. There’s a difference between encountering someone on a narrow path in the woods, where it’s dark and you can’t see them coming, and encountering the same person in the middle of a wide-open field where you can see in all directions and there’s plenty of space to run.

Okay I see it, but even out in the open, race comes into it. Because then you’re thinking that even if he’s, what, male, young, black, you can get away, so you have less need to worry?

Well yes, it does, but then I can usually tell someone’s intentions out in the open. And, plus, they are out in the open. Someone walking across a well-used path, the one path that runs from the southeast gate of the park to the northwest entrance, is basically commuting, taking a shortcut to work. He’s headed somewhere. He’s got a bag and a purpose and he’s just going to work.

Or, like you, he’s exercising. And the same guy in the woods would worry you.

Yes, because then I ask myself, what is he doing in the woods? The path in the woods doesn’t lead anywhere. So is he walking a dog? No. Is he out for a six-in-the-morning stroll? No. Is he jogging, in running shoes, track pants?

Okay, but after that, after what it is the person is actually doing—that you can see from some way off that they are doing—comes gender, then age, then location, and then race?

Yes. After place comes whether you are black or white. And black definitely comes before white on the list. I have tried to play it both ways, test it on people I encounter, but I can’t get around it. It’s black first and then white. I put this down to a few things. First, prejudice.

Racism.

Yes, okay, racism. We can’t shake it, right? As you, on occasion, have reminded me. And we can be racist and not assume any reponsibility for it. We can say it’s in our collective unconscious or whatever, so we can’t get rid of it or be blamed for it. It’s there. It’s a function of history, whiteness. All of that. Sort of like saying I have a lame leg and there’s nothing I personally did that makes me responsible for having a lame leg.

 

Morris dashes across the path so close that I have to stop and take a leap back to avoid being mowed down. Mouse has darted off to the side and comes at him from left field, teeth showing in a gnarly grimace.

 

Then I throw in the numbers, statistics, crimes committed by young black men as against crimes committed by young white men. Then I switch to experience, my own, the two muggings I’ve been involved in. The first one, three young black men, on a dark street, with a knife. And the second one, two young black men, in my garage, with a gun.

The only way to test this would be for me to encounter a young white man in the park at six in the morning, on his own with no dog. And I never have. White men are either on bicycles or they have dogs. And young white men don’t walk at six in the morning. They’re at home in bed, because as we all know, young white men are basically lazy, right? Young black men are in the park at six in the morning because they’re walking to work. They’re not walking for leisure or exercise, like I am. Or they mean to mug someone. There it is. I meet a young black guy in the park and in my head I ask him, Why are you here? Why are you walking in this park at this hour? But actually, there’s something else. Something I hadn’t thought about till now. Something that would help me test the order of things on my list.

 

We’ve reached the small field between the reeds and the scrubby brush where, so people say, a snake has been hiding for several months. It has killed some dogs, and if I meet walkers here they stop me to check that I know about the snake, that I know to keep my dogs out of that patch of undergrowth. I do the same. We look out for each other, for the dogs. Keep your dog out of that little bit of bush because apparently there’s a snake in there, you say. Oh, ok, thanks, thanks a lot! And then an anxious whistle for the dog who’s gone blundering in.

Each time I have this encounter, the number goes up. First one dog has been killed, then two, now it’s three. And I have no idea if these are real numbers or just the way a story changes in the telling. So now the snake is wanted. He’s a serial killer. They’ve had the zoo people in there, rooting around for him, but so far he’s managed to stay hidden. I’m secretly glad for him. Good for him. And for some reason, Mouse and Morris, who go everywhere there’s something interesting to look at or smell or taste, steer clear of this patch. They skirt the edge, stopping here and there to pee or sniff, but they never venture in.

 

If I were mugged by a white guy, would that make me rearrange my list, do you think?

So now you’re hoping you get mugged by a white guy so you can work out whether it’s prejudice or experience that makes you put race after age, or place, or wherever it goes in the list?

Well I’m not hoping to get mugged by anyone. I’m just wondering. How did I make this list to begin with? What plays into it? What makes me put one thing before another?

It’s pretty fucked up that you have the list to begin with.

I’m fucked up for making the list, or the situation that makes me make a list like this is fucked up?

A bit of both. And you and me, where does that come into it?

That’s you and me. That’s not lists and categories. That’s your body and my body.

And that’s different how?

That’s experience.

But the muggings were experience.

Yes but those were experiences with fear, with violence.

But didn’t you say yourself, when you first told me about them, that the only other time you had experienced the intimacy of those violent encounters, of a person so close you could smell his sweat, was when you were having sex?

 

The dogs are in single file now, trotting along in front of me, Morris first, then Mouse. We’ve scrambled up the steep slope to get onto the path that runs along the fence between the park and the soccer fields. It’s light now and the sun is at that angle, flashing between the fence posts as I walk, so that I have to shield my face with my arm to keep from getting dizzy. I walk along, watching the path ahead and listening for bikers approaching from behind so that I can call the dogs off the path. I’m warm now and I think about stripping off a layer. Mid-way along the path I take my green hoodie off as I walk, in one motion, not breaking my stride. As we turn with the path, bugweed and pine trees to the left on the slope, fence close enough to touch on the right, a young black man appears in front of me. Twenties, alone, no dog in sight, no bag. Thirty paces.

The dogs get to him first and he leans forward slightly to touch Morris’s head and give him a scratch as they pass each other. He looks up at me as he does this, without slowing his pace. The dogs have not missed a beat, have given me no warning of his approach. They stop when they are past him to turn and wait for me.

I am swinging my hoodie around on its sleeves, making it into a tube that I can tie around my waist. As I do this, quite deliberately keeping at the action, the choice presents itself to me with the clarity of a gong going off in my head. There is an opening to the left, between the trees on the slope. Keep walking towards the man. You will almost touch each other as you pass. Each of you will have to step slightly to one side to let the other by. Or step off the path, walk awkwardly down the slope a little way, put the trees between you and him and come back up to the path behind him, where the dogs are standing, watching.

Ten paces to go. Give him the benefit of the doubt, or step off the path? He will know why I’m doing this.

Five paces to go.

I decide. I step to the left and walk down the slope, tying my hoodie around my waist as I go. He sees what I’m doing, of this I’m sure. As I get even with him, the trees between us, we are only two metres apart. He greets me, without slowing his pace. Good morning, he says. And I say the same. We greet each other as though I have not just stepped off the path in an obvious manoeuvre to avoid passing close to him. To within, what shall I call it, stabbing distance?

The dogs are off down the slope now, into the trees and chasing across the dead leaves, and the man is behind me. In my mind’s eye, I see him, heading along the path, stepping aside to let a cyclist by, walking south before turning west and then north again to leave the park by the gate that I came through in the dark.

This is the first part of If you go down to the woods. Read the rest of the story: