By Anna Montague*
It was the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I was studying for my history PhD at home, in my basement flat in Hackney, London, and my partner was at work. After lunch I sat down at my desk and was reading a survivor’s account of 9/11 in The Times, when I heard a clattering coming from the front of my building. Somebody had pinched our garden pots a few days earlier. “Maybe it’s the same person,” I thought. I closed my two black Cocker Spaniels, Jessie and Hal, into my study, so that they wouldn’t bark, and went into the hall to find out what was happening outside.
A man’s face appeared through the windows of my front door. He was peering in. I felt a surge of outrage and thought “how dare you look in my home?” I opened the door to tell this person to eff off, but at first I couldn’t see anyone. Then he appeared from behind the door. He was in his late twenties, hair shaved close to his head, scruffy and wild-eyed, with scabby pale skin like a crackhead. Before I had time to react, he started through the door.
“What the f*** do you think you’re doing?” I shouted.
That’s when he punched me in the chest. So I grabbed him. I knew it wasn’t wise to fight, but I thought he was coming in to steal my stuff, and I absolutely couldn’t just let him. We fought in the narrow hallway, locked in a kind of embrace, me trying to push him out of the door and him trying to push his way in. He was reigning blows on me.
Then I saw the knife and realised that I wasn’t being punched, I was being stabbed – over and over again. I didn’t feel pain, just a tremendous pressure with each blow to my thigh, my back, my chest, my neck, my skull. It seemed to go on for a very long time. I thought, “I wonder when I will die.”
He left me lying on the ground, stepped over my body and had a look around my flat. Then he went, leaving the front door open behind him. I was able to close it and stagger to the phone, which was in the hallway, and dial 999. I was gurgling from the blood in my lungs. After I spoke to someone, I called again, unable to remember what I had just done. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t put the moments together. When I was convinced someone was on their way, I crawled to the kitchen and lay there on my back. I felt no pain, but it was so hard to breathe that I assumed I wasn’t going to make it.
I am told that the ambulance arrived in a few minutes, though it felt like hours. I thought about what it would be like to die, and cried, not for me but for the people who loved me. I was able to open the door for the paramedics, and then I let go of everything that was happening and they bundled me up and drove me away.
Later, when they were stapling up each of my knife wounds, I found out that I had been stabbed 25 times. One of the wounds had narrowly missed my heart. I was very lucky to be alive and in hospital for only two weeks with a punctured lung. Once it was drained, the function returned, and today I have only short scars on my chest and back.
They found him in the end: a few weeks later, somebody on a train from London to Bristol overheard two men talking about a series of robberies one of them had committed. This person phoned the police straight away, so that when the train arrived at Bristol Temple Meads station, they were waiting to arrest him. One of the things this man had stolen was a decorative, Turkish knife with a short blade which about matched my wounds. I must have inflicted some damage in the fight, because the forensics were able to prove he was my attacker from a spot of his blood on my trousers.
There was also a lot of blood in the study which wasn’t mine or his; it turned out to be from one of my dogs. I didn’t realise at the time, but he stabbed her too. It’s funny, that’s the bit that triggers me getting upset, when I think about my dog Jessie being stabbed.
When I finally saw him again at the Old Bailey, over two years after the attack, he looked much younger than I remembered, and vulnerable. At first it was upsetting to be where he could look at me; that felt like a new violation. But it was better to realise he wasn’t the threatening figure that loomed large in my hallway. It helped me learn to let it go.
He was cleared of attempted murder but convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with intent, a string of other burglaries and handling stolen goods. He was sentenced to eight years, which, if he behaved himself meant he was probably going to serve half of that – four years. I thought to myself, “that’s not very much, but at least he’s been convicted”. I wasn’t going to let myself go through the pain of being angry about it.
These days I’m embarrassed when it comes up in conversation. I’m a university lecturer now and my students often Google me and ask about “the horrible thing”. I tend to giggle and joke that I’m a have-a-go-hero. That’s the only way I can deal with it. Maybe I did the wrong thing, standing up to him, but the alternative was too awful.
As told to Helena Blackstone.
*name changed to disguise identity