#59: Our Evasive Social Conscience

#59: Our Evasive Social Conscience
4 minutes to read

Something a bit weird happened at 2am the other night. No, nothing conjugal or baby related. This was a social awakening.

I woke up to a series of awful screams, being emitted by at least three different women, somewhere outside. They dissipated, and I drifted back off to sleep. Then five minutes later, more screaming, and men shouting. Again, it stopped shortly after. 

The third time, my husband woke up. “What the fuck is that?” He climbed out of bed and opened the curtain, peering up and down the road. He cracked the window, and the waves of noise filled the room. Blood-curdling, shrieking screams of increasing pitch. More shouting. Swearing. 

“I think it’s coming from down there…” my husband gestured towards the small close, a hundred or so meters from our house. “Mmm.” I replied, not knowing what to do. 

In my head, I’d decided that if a serious offence was being committed, someone else surely must have seen and heard it and would be taking action. I wasn’t going to send my husband out to investigate, because what if he got stabbed? I had my own family to protect. 

Something about the screams made me think it was a gaggle of youngsters, early hours revellers, pissing about. Hanging around in a cul-de-sac, roaring drunk. Because surely, if it was rape or assault or murder, someone else would have woken up and noticed. Plus, attackers don’t let their victims just scream and scream, they silence them. Somehow. Don’t they?Anyway was it for me to action, one person in a vicinity containing an estimated 200 people? Who would I even phone? Could I dial 999 and report unidentified screaming or was it a matter for the non-emergency line?

So we stood, my husband and I, by the window. We waited for the screams to stop, gave it an obligatory ten minutes listening out for a reprise, then went back to bed. 

At 5am I woke again, the baby was unsettled and came in with us. I looked at the local newspaper website on my phone. What was I looking for? A report of a serious assault in a city suburb some three hours previously? Did (as one would expect) seeing a news feed devoid of any such incident mean that nothing happened? Of course not. And what if something had been on the website, what would that have provoked within me? Vindication that yes, there was a fracas, and isn’t it awful that it was on our road? Or guilt, because I heard and ignored it?

I consider myself pretty streetwise. My husband has shown me a few “moves” to execute should I ever be attacked – instead of a knee to the groin, try to administer a jab to the eyes with my nails. Press a thumb in the throat. Just enough to shock my attacker and allow me a split second to run. 

But what if I was attacked, and I couldn’t escape, and all I had was one or two screams? One lungful of air to shout as loudly as I could and alert passers by or local residents that I needed help? What if people heard, and no-one came, for fear of getting embroiled themselves or feeling embarrassed because it was just kids dicking around? What if my life was altered irreparably because someone lacked the courage to stand up and take a risk?

I’m sure that, back in “the day”, people would have flocked from their beds, to see what the hell was going on. Probably, they would shout and admonish the perpetrators if it was just drunken japes. “Don’t you know what bloody hour of the night it is? Folks round here are trying to SLEEP!”

But somewhere along the line, fear of doing wrong AND fear of doing right seems to have clouded our judgement, our respect for the social conscious. How do we get it back? Is it through increased police patrols and a greater sense of community engagement? Is it education around self-defence? A blanket refresh of the neighbourhood watch scheme, once a mainstay of our streets before we stopped knowing and caring who our neighbours are?

I can’t shake the grubby feeling that I heard, I witnessed, I failed to act. Nothing was ever reported in the local press about an altercation or assault that night, but of course that’s not to say it didn’t happen. My nervous optimism wants to maintain that it was nothing. But that’s not the right outlook, is it? It’s not right. 

– SJW November 2016


  1. November 11, 2016 / 8:12 am

    I think that I would do exactly the same, and peer through the blinds and then go back to sleep again. Thinking that someone else would hear it or report it. We’re in London so I wouldn’t be tempted to go outside to see what was going on. But like you I would be checking to make sure that nothing did actually the next day. I did call the police once when there was a drunk man lying on the pavement outside our house. An interesting and thought provoking post. Claire x #triballove

  2. November 11, 2016 / 8:18 am

    The problem is that getting involve often makes it worse (mainly for yourself) this happened a lot when I used to live in London and to be fair it somehow became background noise. It’s a shame really. I have however called the police of a couple of accessions.

  3. November 11, 2016 / 8:54 am

    It probably was drunk students – there are a lot of them where you are!! But yes, people are afraid to get involved now 🙁 xx

  4. Debbie
    November 11, 2016 / 9:22 am

    Could it have been foxes, sounds weird and don’t know if its the time of year they scream but when we lived in Seaford we experienced exactly the same thing. We even rung the police! Sounds like women possibly being attacked and screaming really loudly. Maybe it was foxes and the shouting & swearing was the nearest neighbours howling out of their windows. If nothing is in the press about it then put it down to that and put your minds a ease. xx #mumknowsbest

  5. November 11, 2016 / 12:31 pm

    To be honest I would probably do exactly the same… !

  6. Ellen
    November 11, 2016 / 4:26 pm

    Oh mate. It’s such a tricky one. We haven’t had it since we moved but when we lived above the pub we heard and saw things all the time. B just used to put the radio thing on that the door man has to use at the pub, and radio through to the cctv people to watch what was going on outside, or just call the local police. But obviously that’s a little different than being in a residential street. I think you did what a lot of people would have done, it’s hard because as you say you don’t want to get your family involved in a dangerous or volatile situation.


    • November 11, 2016 / 5:34 pm

      Yeah I bet you saw some sights there and know first hand how alcohol can ignite any situation very quickly. Hmmm. Still a thinker. Thank you my darling xx

  7. November 11, 2016 / 7:26 pm

    This is brilliant – and so difficult. We live by a set of stairs that is a known shortcut in the area and we often hear smashing glass or shouting. I am exactly the same and lie in bed waiting for it to stop, too scared to do something about it and like you would never send my OH out to see what’s happened. I think it’s a totally normal reaction to it, to protect your own family. Xxx PS: YAAAY to Mumsnet, so well deserved, this post is so well written!

    • November 11, 2016 / 7:47 pm

      Thank you lovely – it’s definitely a murky one and I’m pleased we don’t live in the most ‘urban’ of our past dwellings now that we have children.

  8. November 11, 2016 / 9:27 pm

    There’s a whole area of psychology which looks at this, it’s called bystander intervention or bystander apathy. It tries to understand why people who witness serious crimes fail to act or intervene. It’s fascinating, you should google it. Often people justify to themselves that other people will intervene and their help isn’t needed.

    • November 11, 2016 / 10:03 pm

      Ooh that sounds really interesting – thank you, I’ll look it up.

  9. Wintersnow
    November 12, 2016 / 8:52 am

    Something similar happened to us, early one morning we heard screaming outside our house, my husband went out and there was a lady in distress, she was in a state saying she had been raped on a nearby field, we took her in and also many of our neighbours came to help. As i was on the phone to 999 it became clear that in fact she had a mental illness and had not been raped. Her husband came to our house and said he had called 999 and they refused to send an ambulance out as they said it was not an emergency, she then ran from their house but as they had small children he was unable to follow her. As I had called 999 both the police and ambulance service came and thankfully she was taken to hospital and she received the correct care and treatment she needed. It was nice to see her a short time later recovered.

    It’s very rare anything happens where we live but on the odd occassion it does the neighbours are more than willing to help.

  10. KathrynH
    November 12, 2016 / 9:03 am

    You failed in your civic duty to do something.
    You only had to ring 101 and let someone know and a Community Support Officer could have been dispatched to investigate. Instead you ignored it and now you will never know of that was the sound of someone being assaulted.


      • November 12, 2016 / 2:35 pm

        Don’t worry, you’ll always get trolls who think they’d have been a hero in that situation. But in reality they’re too busy sitting at a computer slating someone who had the guts to write about it.

        • November 12, 2016 / 3:09 pm

          Thank you so much for this comment – this is my first post to generate a fair bit of negativity so I really appreciate you saying that. It’s certainly thrown up a lot of debate and I probably would act differently off the back of this post…but it’s good to know I’m not a total civil deviant because of the action I didn’t take. Xxx

  11. J
    November 12, 2016 / 10:13 am

    It’s something which us learned from our early years which develops into what was mentioned above ‘bystander intervention’ we studied a small part of in Psychology. Even now I still find myself having to override that behaviour you can teach yourself to ignore eventually. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/04/bystander-effect-in-5-year-olds.html

  12. Clare
    November 12, 2016 / 2:56 pm

    The same thing happened to us one night. I rang the police which took a mere 5 minutes if that, they took it very seriously and dispatched a police car to check on the situation. It costs you nothing. Please don’t think twice next time.

  13. Cherry
    November 13, 2016 / 10:35 am

    I’m an interferer. I can’t imagine ignoring screams & kerfuffle THREE TIMES during the night! My reasons for doing something are all the things you thought about. I’m sure I don’t need to say more.

    The police non-emergency number is 111. Next time you’re faffing around with your excuses for doing nothing, please call it.

  14. November 14, 2016 / 12:05 pm

    well the comments have certainly sparked a debate. This shows that there are many different types of person as we all know. I am sure we all think we know what we would do in the situation but until presented with said situation we won’t actually know which character which has had oodles of research that we actually are!

  15. Robyn
    November 15, 2016 / 10:02 am

    I live in a ‘lively’ area of London. I have called the police on a few of occasions in the last 15 years. I have done the listen by the window on quite a few occasions too. To the OP, try not worry, the chances are it was nothing serious, but if you get that feeling I think you should always call 999. On the occasions I have police are more than happy to send a car round to have a check. They are out and about anyway doing patrols. It takes no time, puts your mind at rest, and of course most importantly, there’s a chance it could provide vital help to someone who really needs it. We need to look after each other.

  16. December 12, 2016 / 7:17 am

    Gosh – that’s awful and your reasons for not acting sound very similar to mine. It definitely made me think and I wouldn’t be quite so dormant if it happened again, we definitely need to change this as a community as if more people were aware and attempted to help, maybe the crime rates would reduce. Thank you for reading and sharing your story too.

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