It’s the call every parent dreads. Except that I’d forgotten to keep dreading it. Billie is my youngest child, sensible and cautious, with two far more reckless older brothers.
They’d successfully made it through the teenage party years, barring the odd mugging for a phone, there was no reason she wouldn’t, too.
All those scare stories were just that. Scare stories. I’d become complacent. That was a mistake.
I was reading in bed when my phone rang. It was just after midnight on a rainy Friday night in January 2014. When Billie’s name came up on the screen I assumed she was calling to tell me she’d be late.
Crime novelist Tammy Cohen (pictured) revealed her daughter, 17, was attacked at night in London on her way home from a party
At 17, she didn’t have a set curfew as long as I knew what time to expect her. We’d recently moved to Bounds Green, North London — a mile or two from where she’d grown up in Crouch End, though at that age it seemed like the other side of the world.
When she’d told me she was going to a party that night I was relieved she was keeping up with her old friends.
I couldn’t pick her up as my partner, Michael, had the car, and she refused to use minicabs since hearing horror stories about lone women being subjected to abuse. But the party was only one or two stops on the bus. What could go wrong?
You see? Complacent.
She says it’s the call every parent dreads. Except that she’d forgotten to keep dreading it. Billie (pictured) is her youngest child, sensible and cautious, with two far more reckless older brothers
When I pressed ‘answer’ I knew instantly there was something wrong. There was the sound of rapid breathing and sobs being torn from the back of a throat. ‘Billie?’ I said, panic bubbling up inside. ‘Is that you?’
When she finally spoke, it was in a high-pitched tone so different from her own I barely recognised it. ‘A man attacked me. I’m scared.’
There are moments that divide your life into before and after. That phone call separated the me who believed that if you take precautions and use your common sense you’ll be all right, the me who’d spent her younger years walking the streets of Central London without incident, from the me of today, who knows that crime isn’t something that only happens to other people.
It separated a largely carefree — or careless — family from one who takes nothing for granted.
But it could have been a whole lot worse. The story I got through Billie’s muffled sobs was that she’d been followed off the bus by a man, who’d grabbed her from behind and tried to drag her down a side street, battering her around the head when she screamed.
Only when a man walking on the other side of the road shouted, did he finally run off. And now there she was in the doorway of the locked-up Tube station just 100 yards from the bus stop, alone and terrified he’d come back for her.
We all like to think we know how we’ll react in a crisis. We’ll be calm, decisive, knowing just what to do. I was none of those things.
Instead I flew out of my bedroom in a blind panic, shrieking at my older son Otis, then 21. He was on his bike and heading to the Tube station a few minutes away before I’d even finished my sentence.
Then I rang Michael, who was driving home from work as a restaurant manager. I was hardly coherent, but must have made some sense because he diverted there immediately, arriving at the same time as Otis just five minutes after Billie’s original call.
Tammy said this was no story. This was real life. Her daughter was standing on her own in a doorway while the man who’d attacked her was at large and probably still in the vicinity
I pulled on some clothes so I would be ready to race out of the door if I was needed, while at the same time dialling Billie’s phone, needing to hear her voice.
In the few short moments while the ring tone sounded, every scenario flashed through my mind. I’m a crime writer, used to ransacking my imagination for the scariest outcomes.
But this was no story. This was real life. My daughter was standing on her own in a doorway while the man who’d attacked her was at large and probably still in the vicinity.
I had taken my eye off the ball and this was the result. When she answered the phone I could hear male voices in the background.
For one awful, sickening moment I thought he’d come back for her and the breath dried up in my throat. But it was Otis and Michael, arriving simultaneously.
Back home, I sat at the kitchen table, clutching my phone. Afterwards the police would berate me for this. Why hadn’t I called them straight away? They could have been out there in minutes combing the streets.
The truth was that, until she was home and I could see her and touch her, my phone was my only link to her. What if she tried to call me while I was talking to them?
Having let her down once by being home blithely reading while she was out there needing me, I wasn’t about to do it again. Shock does that to a person, shreds reason into tiny pieces.
And then came the sound of the key in the door and I rushed through to the hallway, throwing my arms around her before she’d even properly had a chance to come inside, feeling her trembling in her wet coat.
Michael was behind her and I could see in his eyes all my raging thoughts reflected back. Was this really happening? Had someone really tried to abduct our daughter in our own neighbourhood?
And underneath it all, under all the pressing concerns about Billie and how she was coping, the question we couldn’t voice: was it somehow our fault?
While Michael called the police, I made Billie tea with sugar, even though she doesn’t take sugar. Funny how we fall back on the things our own mothers did in times of crisis, as if comforting ourselves as much as the person we’re trying to help.
Billie had been followed off the bus by a man, who’d grabbed her from behind and tried to drag her down a side street, battering her around the head when she screamed
She sat on my lap while she drank it, my self-sufficient 17-year-old girl who hadn’t done that in years. And while I stroked her hair, I felt the bumps coming up like eggs under her scalp where he’d thumped her to stop her screaming. Each new discovery felt like someone was grabbing hold of my heart and twisting.
My middle son, Jake, then 19, arrived back from a night out and we had to stop him from going straight back out to search for the creep who’d done this. He’d had a few drinks and seeing his younger sister’s tear-streaked face had put him in a volatile mood.
The police took it very seriously. At that stage Billie looked a lot younger than her age. We used to joke that she was like Saffy from Ab Fab, always dressed in sensible jeans and sweatshirts and make-up free. Had he targeted her precisely because she looked so young and vulnerable?
They got her to go through the story from the beginning, how she and her friends had left the party and the rest of them had waited on one side of the road to catch a bus going towards Crouch End, while she alone had got the bus from the opposite stop. She was only going two stops. She could have walked, but she thought it was safer.
Her voice broke on that word ‘safer’. She thought someone might have got on to the bus directly after her, but she wasn’t really paying attention.
Why would she?
She pressed the bell as the bus passed Bounds Green Tube Station, stopping 100 yards further up the road near an intersection with a quieter side street.
Again as she got off she was vaguely aware of another passenger getting off behind her. Then, as the bus pulled away and she set off in the direction of home, she felt an arm hook itself around her neck from behind and a man trying to jerk her backwards towards the darkened side street. When I think of how terrified she must have been, it chills my blood.
She started struggling, and screaming, which is when he battered her over the head repeatedly with his free hand, muttering under his breath for her to stop.
But she wouldn’t. She’s made of strong stuff, my daughter. Finally a man walking on the opposite side of the otherwise deserted street shouted over at him. And eventually he ran off.
The other man didn’t stop. Didn’t even come over to check she was all right. Instead she ran alone to the Tube station entrance, which was locked, but still lit-up.
Tammy says her daughter started struggling, and screaming, which is when he battered her over the head repeatedly with his free hand, muttering under his breath for her to stop
I am grateful to him though, this stranger who must have had his own reasons for not stopping to help a frightened girl.
Without his intervention, anything might have happened. But I don’t let myself go there, to the anything that might have happened. Like I say, things could have been a lot worse.
Fast-forward five weeks and Billie and I were in a special video suite in Wood Green Police station where she was being shown an identification parade video.
As an attempted abduction, the police had been able to allocate enough resources to scour the CCTV from the bus and track down the man captured following her off, who had been recognised by officers at a different Met station.
By this time Billie had already given an extensive official statement, describing her assailant in detail, so I’d built up a vivid picture in my mind: stocky; not too tall; cropped hair; thick, muscular arms as if he worked out.
From my seat at the back of the cramped suite I could just about see the screen over Billie’s shoulder, the succession of men shown from the front and in profile.
Then came one who made my stomach turn. Medium height but powerfully built with a square jaw and strong brows, there was something about the way he stared at the camera as if issuing a challenge.
My reaction was visceral. This was him. I was sure of it. Billie had to watch the video twice, without speaking, before she was asked at the end if she recognised the man who attacked her. I was so geared up to hear a ‘yes’ that it took a moment or two to register that she’d actually said no.
Walking home she explained she’d thought one of them might be a possibility — the same one to whom I’d had such an instant reaction — but she couldn’t be sure.
After that the case fell apart. Our lives went back to normal. Only once did the nightmare come rushing back to the fore — when Billie came home from school some weeks later saying she thought she’d seen him.
The man who attacked her. Or the man on the video. By now the two had blended into one. He was coming out of a doorway close to where it happened.
By this stage she was doing OK. The sighting rattled her, but she refused to dwell on it. She could have been mistaken. She’d only seen him in the dark that first time. She wasn’t about to let the what-ifs dictate how she lived her life. She’s a strong young woman, my daughter.
I found it more difficult to let myself off the hook. What if he really was here, in our neighbourhood, walking the streets she walked every day? How could I protect her? As a parent your job is to keep your kids safe. What happens when you fail in that? What can you do afterwards to make amends?
That mixture of guilt and powerlessness lies at the heart of my latest book, Stop At Nothing, which takes as a starting point an attack similar to Billie’s, but concentrates on the mother’s response and her obsession with tracking down the man responsible.
It’s human nature to want to prove your love when you feel you’ve let someone down, even if that means treading a dangerously fine line between justice and revenge. How far do you go to redeem yourself?
Six years on, the attack is just a short chapter in our ever-evolving family history. Billie has since graduated from university, and travelled alone to Russia and South America. But every now and then I’ll see something on the news that brings it all back.
Someone else whose son or daughter made a series of innocuous choices, the kind we all make each and every day — this side of the road not the other, this route home instead of that one — and who slipped through the sliding doors to a parallel, nightmare reality.
Occasionally I’ll think about him. The man who did it. I think about him being free to do the same thing to someone else’s daughter who might not be able to scream loudly enough, or be ‘lucky’ enough to have a passerby stop on the other side of the road.
Then I feel an awful rush of impotence and guilt, even though rationally I know there’s nothing we could have done differently.
The only thing that makes me feel slightly better is knowing that, if her attacker was indeed the same man captured on CCTV and featured in the ID video, he doesn’t appear to have been a serial offender.
Police told us afterwards that while their suspect had a criminal record, there were no prior convictions for sexual assault and I cling to that hope that this was an aberration, rather than a pattern.
Billie was lucky, but what happened to her underlined the fact that life can turn on a sixpence. The threads that keep us tethered to our normal lives are slender and as easily broken as a spider’s web.
In the end all the vigilance in the world can’t guarantee to keep our children safe, we just have to equip them to deal as best they can with what life throws at them — and keep our own phones permanently switched on.
n Stop At Nothing, Tammy Cohen’s psychological thriller about a mother’s obsession with tracking down her daughter’s attacker, (£7.99, Transworld) is out now.