A novelist on being targeted by one of New Zealand’s worst sexual offenders. Warning: sensitive content

In Stockholm, mid-2020, contemplating moving back to Aotearoa, the very first thing I did was google if **** was still in prison. **** being the serial rapist and murderer who’d targeted me.

Let’s not print his name. This isn’t his story. It’s barely even my story. It’s more the story of women and all those microaggressions and macroaggressions that can still drive us today.

Let’s go back. It’s 1995. Young women from, say, 18 up, move out and share crumbling villas or converted commercial spaces in a dance called flatting.

Usually, the most drama occurs around housework, boys, behaviour: Where’s the Draino – someone’s hair clogged the shower? Who rudely had people over to watch Blade Runner at 2am? Don’t invite that loser over for sex! Okay, if you must, here’s some condoms, don’t screw loudly. Don’t invite that idiot to our party. Okay, you did, at least serve him the shit box wine not the precious Lindauer we drained the flat account to procure. Was it you who broke the bathroom sink at SPQR bonking?

We’d do anything to protect and also hold each other accountable. We were raising each other.

I’d been in a few flats before Wallace Street, Herne Bay, the 1910s bungalow where **** snapped the metal bathroom lock and stole in. Hunting us.

He wasn’t in and out in seconds. He lingered

Wallace Street was different: grown-up compared to my first flat (a converted public office at Three Lamps where cockroaches scuttled, the boorish guys threw three-day-long parties and I had to kick randos out of my bedroom when I got home). At Wallace Street, I flatted with two incredibly smart, sassy women I met while at uni. We worked hard. Unframed art adorned our walls, not posters. We got in a weekly fruit-and-vege box.

December 1995 was hot. Our landlady contracted to get her driveway redone – garish brick tiles the colour of sunburnt white girls. Backbreaking work. We didn’t know **** took jobs like this to scope potential victims.

Christmas Eve, I was up the road on Islington Street. Dinner at a friend’s, with my sister who was staying over. “Stay, too! You can have the couch.” “Nah, it’s okay, it’s a 10-minute walk home.” My flatmate, Jessica, had a spookily similar offer after attending midnight mass on the North Shore with a friend. “You’re welcome to sleep over or I can drive you home now.” Jessica chose the lift home. She had plans for Christmas Day.

My third flatmate, Helen, was in India for three weeks with her boyfriend. “Be careful, hon!” we told her before she left. “India might be dodgy!” We couldn’t imagine Herne Bay as dodgy.

I walked home around 11pm down Jervois. A tall, solid presence dogged my steps. I passed the BP station, crossed the road. He carried on. I threaded my house keys through my fingertips and kept side-eyeing him, until I reached Wallace Street and turned down. Fewer streetlights. Glances over my shoulder….The tall guy creeping in my footsteps had disappeared. He didn’t follow me down my street. He didn’t need to. He knew our address. He knew our driveway. He knew who slept in which bedroom. He knew Helen was away and he hoped I’d be home alone that night.

He broke in between 1am and dawn. Bathroom window lock spun across the floorboards; 2cm-thick metal snapped like a wishbone. Telephone cord beside my bed severed. My bag tipped over the end of my bed as I slept. Sifted through. Phone card nicked. Cash taken. Olympus camera stolen off my dresser – the only thing I had of any value.

In the hallway, the telephone cord snaking into Jessica’s bedroom cut, too. Stereo lifted and all of Helen’s CD collection. He wasn’t in and out in seconds. He lingered. Left the front door ajar. To let the cold in. To leave us in shock.

The shock, though, morphs through time into many things. There’s the initial shock –the Christmas Day of tears and calling the police who come and take fingerprints off windowsills and everything else, examine the vegetation outside the bathroom window for shoe prints.

There’s the not wanting to sleep in your home anymore so decamping to a friend’s – Jessica carting her PC’s hard drive as the only copy of my thesis. There’s the vodka you drink on Christmas as you cry all day and explain it on the phone to people and fucking cry some more.

Then there’s the wobbly months where Jessica and I struggle to get along – struggle with everything. I get all the extensions possible for my thesis. I go out late. Then later. I can no longer sleep in my bed. The walls move in on me. We move out of Wallace Street by March. Something’s gripped us by then. Even before we learn it was **** who burgled us.

A detective calls and you’re shown a range of guys to ID the guy you saw on Jervois Road creeping past the BP

Drifting off to sleep becomes a whole thing. If I don’t reach the state of dropping exhausted into bed – if I try just lying there – I have panic attacks where my limbs feel like elephantine mitts, huge and useless, my breathing goes all wonky and all air seemed siphoned through the eye of a needle, as if I don’t deserve that air. I feel I’ll never deflate to real size.

Then there’s Helen doing some very cool super sleuthing – at the Takapuna fleamarkets she sees her entire CD collection and her stereo, calls the police with a description. Another tall, solid guy. Does this help? The wait to hear if it helps.

Yeah, it does. There’s the phone call from a detective – maybe April – and he gives you a card and mentions Operation Harvey and you’re shown a range of guys to ID the guy you saw on Jervois Road creeping past the BP. You pick number 8. You’re told nothing further.

Late May, you’re told the burglar and guy number 8 is ****. So there’s the shock all over – it rushes back at you with icy claws. The cut phone cords. The snapped lock. Realising how close Jessica or I came to being victim #toomany. Twigging how he cased our place.

But we can contribute to the case building to swallow the fucker, put him away. Helen testifies at the court case – by then I have split for a job working 24/7 in Southeast Asia. She tells me **** appears with cuffed ankles and wrists, armed police outside the courts, in case anyone tries to break him out during the trial.

The shock is a groundswell that rose up after Christmas Eve, 1995 – it carried us off to wash up far, far away. Jessica, Helen and I all left New Zealand within a few months or at the latest 1999, and not one of us has returned. Until I came back. Googling first.

The thing is with the **** thing: it’s something virtually nobody knows about me. Almost attacked by “one of the worst” a remorseless, violent monster who would have ruined my life. Yes, almost. Nothing to write home about. And in fact, I downplayed it immensely because a dusted-off letter from my dad on the other side of the world says, “What does the NZ Police expect of you in this? Not to testify I hope.” But it’s how your trust in men leeches out of you, how your confidence fades. It’s your tendency to drink more than you should, your tendency to embrace rash decisions.

So, the way out? I wrote a hallucination of a novel in the year after **** targeted my flat. It was vivid yet plotless. Nothing happened because so much had happened that I couldn’t articulate anything. I worked on it stubbornly, never acknowledging what bubbled underneath, until early 2021 when I said it out loud in a writing course: It’s about a woman whose trauma makes her flee her bed to stay safe by Staying. Out. All. Night.

Now it made sense. I could add some murder (not of women, no women are harmed in my novel – only men), add a pair of impaired-yet-determined amateur sleuths, flip the script so it centres on female agency and ownership. Recast the rapist. He is not explained fully. He’s not worth your time.

Does this story make sense yet?

You see, I am loath to put my hand up and say anything about ****. The many, too many, women who suffered his attacks are the voices that should be heard, not his, not mine. I only took my own shock and trauma and turned it back into what we had before it happened – back to the drama we should have been able to keep: who broke the sink bonking, who drank the last of the Lindauer, who clogged the shower with their long hair.

Polaroid Nights by Lizzie Harwood (The Cuba Press, $37), winner of the inaugural NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize, is available in bookstores nationwide.

Lizzie Harwood grew up on Aotea Great Barrier Island and won the inaugural NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize with her debut novel Polaroid Nights. She has a site at https://www.lizzieharwood.com.

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