This is going to be a long one, so you might want to pour a cup of tea and grab a biscuit or three before you begin. Though, truth to tell, it might not be entirely comfortable reading. I'm now about to relate a personal anecdote of a situation from which I was fortunate enough to escape unscathed. Physically unscathed that is, but the incident left its psychological mark on me for many years afterwards and still affects me to this day.
It all began in the upstairs cafeteria of my local Co-op store back around 1973, possibly '74. I had just washed down a plate of beans with a Coke (hardly a good mix) and suddenly found myself in need of a visit to the toilet. While perched on the porcelain, I noticed that the previous patron had amused himself by singeing the edges of the loo roll attached to the cubicle wall. I'd guess it was more out of boredom than a wanton act of arson, by someone having a fly puff in the loo - probably a shop worker, in fact.
It really wasn't worth mentioning to the staff, but, on my way out, I did so anyway - more to demonstrate what a conscientious customer I was than because it was deserving of their attention. (Or perhaps it was merely a simpering, shame-less example of ingratiation in the best Cyril Swot tradition.) Cut to a fortnight later when I was back in the cafe, and I was suddenly detained by two members of staff while the police were called. When they arrived, I was questioned over the events of two weeks before, taken 'round to the local nick and kept in a detention room for an hour or so, then let go. I wasn't charged with anything, but was told that officers would be calling 'round to my house later to chat with my father.
This presented a bit of a problem for me, because my father actually worked behind the desk in that very station. ('Twas his day off that day.) Even though I hadn't actually done anything, I was mortified by the professional embarrassment this could cause him, so decided to side-step the situation by doing a 'runner'. Not being a smoker I didn't carry matches, but was concerned that the mere act of being suspected of 'fire-raising' might be presumed by my father as an indication of my culpability in the matter.
So I hopped on a bus to Glasgow and took refuge in another cafeteria - this time in the basement of a cinema. It was quite a large cafe, so I sat in a far corner and, being weary from the events of the day, I put my arms on the table and rested my head on them. I must have dozed off for a bit, for when I lifted my head, a man was sitting opposite me (at my table), stirring a cup of tea.
Believe it or not, back in the early '70s, most kids weren't anywhere near as 'street smart' as they seem to be today - and I was probably even more innocent and naive than my contemporaries. I wasn't at all comfortable with this stranger's presence, but it was well beyond my ability or experience to conceive, never mind articulate, exactly what his motives might be - and I had been brought up to always be respectful to adults.
Mindful of the fact that I was a 'runaway', and eager to avoid arousing his suspicions and thus betray myself, I politely answered his questions as to my name and where I lived. I lied, of course, telling him that I stayed somewhere behind the Barrowland market and that I was killing time until my father came home from work because I didn't have a front door key. "Glasgow's not a safe place for a youngster to hang around in. Come back to my place for a cup of tea and you can wait there until he's home - it's not far!" he said.
What was I to do? In my over-active, 14 year old imagination, I feared that if I declined, he might devine my status as a fleeing fugitive and hand me over to the 'fuzz'. Although my 'spider-sense' was tingling, my youthful innocence and ignorance meant that I was ill-equipped to determine any specific threat - certainly nothing of a sexual nature - that should've prevented me from accepting this apparently kindly-intentioned stranger's invitation. And so it was that, not too long after, I found myself sipping tea in the bedsit apartment of this 'good Samaritan'. At least it would get me off the streets for an hour or two, I thought.
Well, you can see where this is leading, can't you? (If only I had been so smart.) Laying on a table beside me were some 'soft-porn' mags like Mayfair, Club, & Penthouse, which he invited me to peruse if I so wished. I self-consciously thumbed through one or two, thinking that it wasn't normally an activity in which teenage boys indulged in the company of adults. Surely such pursuits were meant to be solitary, furtive and guilty pleasures? Truth to tell, I found myself more interested in the comic strips, recognising Stingray and Captain Scarlet artist Ron Embleton's distinctive style on a strip called Oh, Wicked Wanda.
And then reality finally, inevitably, intruded. "How often do you see to yourself?" he suddenly enquired - though that wasn't exactly how he phrased it, instead using the 'w' word. I was shocked and stunned. Remaining as civil as possible under the circumstances, I told him it was time for me to go, and before too long, I was on a bus home, prepared to face the music from the earlier episode that day. It was preferable to dancing to the different kind of tune that my 'host' no doubt intended to play.
So why didn't he try to prevent me leaving? It's obvious what his intentions were, but perhaps he salved his conscience by only exploiting youngsters who could be led, perhaps in their confusion or fear, down the route which he tried to steer them. Then, if caught, he could claim that they were 'up for it'. Had he mistaken my acceptance of his invitation as a sign that I was aware of what his 'game' was, and curious to discover what was involved? Had my obvious shock at his question and stout refusal to be drawn made him realise his mistake, and that here was no potential participant?
Whatever his reasons, I avoided a terrible fate that night, but while the individual's predatory behaviour deserves nothing but total condemnation, I used to sometimes wonder if he deserved a (grudging) measure of credit for not trying to satiate his unwholesome desires by force. But no, his reluctance to do so was doubtless nothing other than a shield reserved in the armoury of his own defence lest he ever be hauled to account, not any form of consideration for those he concluded were beyond his ability to 'seduce'.
So, physically, I was unscathed, but for years afterwards, I would sometimes have panic attacks at the thought of what could have happened to me. I'd break out in a sweat and the room would spin; I'd feel as if I was suffocating and gasp for air, while a sense of fear, nausea and impending doom engulfed me. This also happened in the form of nightmares, from which I would suddenly awake as though my life depended on it. Even today, there are certain scenes in some movies that I cannot watch without feeling distinctly uncomfortable, and I can only guess at how awful it must be for those who have actually suffered sexual abuse to see such depictions regularly on their TV screens - all in the name of 'entertainment'.
(I saw a Jennifer Aniston movie on TV recently which had what appeared, at first, to be a rape scene. Even though it later turned out not to be as it seemed, I was quite shocked at the graphic depiction of proceedings and could see just how traumatic the scene must be for victims of such a crime. There must be thousands, even millions, of them. Surely it's time for movie makers to exercise a far greater degree of responsibilty - not to mention sensitivity - when it comes to what they actually show in their productions?)
Anyway, that was my narrow escape. In the more aware times in which we live today, I would have undoubtedly told the predatory paedophile to "feck off" and perhaps even administered a quick kick in the nuts before vanishing over the horizon in a cloud of dust. However, back then it was a different, less informed age, and while I believe that the innocence of youth should be preserved for as long as possible, I'm smart enough to know that striking a balance between the protection of youngsters' mental purity and physical safety is a difficult (and often thankless) task indeed.
My biggest regret over the incident? I really do wish it had occurred to me to boot him right in the spuds. Let's hope that someone else actually did so, eh? Several times over, while wearing size ten, steel toe-capped footwear.