you’re eleven years old. it’s spring, 2002. a weekend. your dad’s workplace has organised a leaving do for one of his colleagues in a hotel one and a half hours away from where you live. instead of driving back at god-knows-when, your parents decide to just stay at the hotel for the evening.
you like staying in hotels. it’s an adventure.
you’re eleven years old. just under five foot. chubby. you get bullied about it, a little, but you try to brush it off. you used to like running, but then you got asthma. your parents never took you to a doctor for it. you were diagnosed by your aunt in med school. nobody told you you could be asthmatic and still run. so you don’t any more.
once you wore a skirt to school and a tall, pretty girl sneered at you and asked you why you even bothered. the implication is clear. you’re fat and ugly. it’s not the first time she’s said it so it must be true. years later, this same girl will smile at you and ask you how your day is. you blank her, because she never apologised. all of your friends think she’s an okay person.
you’re eleven years old, it’s spring, and you’re wearing your favourite skirt. it’s a garish thing, bright pink and orange. floor length, elastic waistband. somebody fashionable could pull it off, but you’re eleven and nobody taught you how to dress. with it, you’re wearing a t-shirt, a white denim jacket you obtained from one of those dodgy wood green clothes shops, your first pair of sunglasses (because you’ve had glasses since you were seven and coloured lenses are expensive) and a massive floppy hat your dad got you cos you have a massive crush on indiana jones and it looks a bit like his.
you think you’re looking great. once your parents have checked into the hotel, your family decides to go out. the party isn’t til that evening and you’ve got the whole day ahead of you. you strut across the lobby in your bright pink and orange maxi skirt and have a fun day out. that evening, back in the hotel, your parents feed you dinner then leave for their party. your mother kisses you on the head and says to phone if you need anything.
you’re eleven, you think. you can handle being left alone on your own.
you have a french essay to write that’s due in the next week, so you start work on that, sitting on your sofa bed with the television on mute. after a little while — you’re not sure how long — the doorbell rings. you frown, cos you haven’t ordered anything up. it rings again. and again. you know you’re not supposed to open the door to strangers, but you can’t stand ringing noises, so after the fifth or sixth time you decide to see who it is. you’re not stupid: you check the peephole first. it’s one of the hotel staff, carrying a bucket with ice in it and a champagne bottle. hotel staff, you think. that’s okay.
you open the door. he looks at you. he’s about five foot five, skinny, filipino. he says, “room service?”
you tell him you haven’t ordered anything and he’s got the wrong room. he seems confused, but he goes away. you shut the door and go back to your homework.
a little while later, the phone rings.
not your mobile phone. the room phone. you’re eleven and you’re confused. you resolve not to pick it up, but it keeps ringing and ringing and ringing. what if it’s an emergency? you don’t know, and you hate ringing noises, so you pick up the phone. there’s a man on the other end.
"hi," he says. he’s got an accent. indian, pakistani. subcontinental. but articulate. "you don’t know me, but i saw you in the lobby this afternoon. what’s your name?"
you’re eleven and you’re confused. and, stupidly, instead of hanging up then and there, you answer his question.
he’s got a few more for you.
"how old are you?" he asks. "where are you from? why are you staying here? are you alone? what are you doing?"
you’re eleven and you’re a bad liar, so you answer his questions. you think you should maybe hang up. a part of you knows this is wrong. but you’re eleven and you’re polite and you’re scared and you don’t want to make him angry. he knows where you are. he could come up any second and if he’s angry he could hurt you. you get your mobile out and try to ring your mum, but she doesn’t answer the phone.
you tell him you’re doing your french homework, and you say you should get back to it. he laughs. asks you what it’s about. you tell him, you can’t lie, not on the spot, not like this, and try to ring your mum again. no answer. and again. and again. all the while he’s on the phone to you and all you can think is you’re terrified.
he reads your mind. “you must be scared,” he says.
"no," you say. your first lie. you don’t know why but you can’t let him know you’re frightened out of your wits.
"why?" he asks. because you’re eleven years old on the phone to a pychopath and you should be scared, and you’re not.
"because you’re hotel staff," you say, "and i know you won’t hurt me."
the conversation moves on. you don’t know what to. you’re trying to ring your mum but she still won’t pick up. and eventually he says, “sara,” and you hate the way he says your name, “sara,” he says, “can you give me a contact number? so we can stay in touch?”
you think about giving him your dad’s. the police’s. but you shake your head even though he can’t see you and say, “no.”
"are you sure?" he asks.
"yes," you say. and then: "sorry." you don’t know why you’re apologising. you shouldn’t be. but you do again anyway and tell him you really need to finish your homework and he reluctantly hangs up the phone and you slide the chain on the door and think about going and finding your parents. but you don’t know where they are and you don’t want to leave the room in case you run into him. you can’t go ask at the lobby because he saw you there this afternoon. you’re trapped. so you try to phone your mum again. and again. and again. she doesn’t pick up. you’re panicking.
then the phone rings again. it’s him.
"i can’t stop thinking about you," he says. you hang up. phone your mum. keep trying. eventually, after forever, she answers.
laughing. “are you okay?”
no, you say, and it’s so hard to admit because you’re eleven and no matter what has happened to you, no matter what horrible comments have been passed your way, no matter how many friends of yours have moved away from you and not stayed in touch, no matter what you’ve always been okay. you ask her to come to the room. she asks why. you tell her to just come and you will explain when she gets there.
when the knock comes on the door you can barely get up to see who it is, but it’s not him. it’s your mum. you let her in and cry and try to articulate what has just happened. how a faceless, nameless man has stalked you and tried to force his way into your life. how you don’t know what could have happened or if he’ll come back.
she asks you if anybody came to the door. you tell her about the champagne, and she shouts at you for being so stupid. “what if it was him?” she says. she doesn’t listen when you tell her they sounded different. but she cries and she hugs you and she phones the lobby and tells them to trace the call. but she can’t even say what happened and you’re not sure if they even can. and then she says she should go back to the party and asks if you’ll be okay on your own. you lie for the second time that day and say yes and make her promise to keep her phone with her. over the course of the past however long you have left her over twenty-five missed calls.
when she comes back later with your dad, he asks you what happened. your mum says, “nothing”. and maybe it was nothing, because the lobby never called you back. you don’t know what happened to your caller. when you check out the next day, you look around to see if you can spot him, but nobody matches up to the image in your head. and you wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t hung up the phone, and even though you’re eleven and naive you nearly start to cry.
and then you leave with your parents and drive back home. and nobody in your family ever mentions it again. your mother probably doesn’t even remember. it was only a phone call. nothing happened. but ten years later you lie awake at night and think about it and think about how violated you feel and how it has impacted your life and your trust and even the way you have been dressing.
and at five o’clock in the morning you decide to write about it once and for all. and you cry.