Before I emigrated to the US last month, I lived in England. I worked in Birmingham, a 90-minute train commute from London.
I work as a university professor and after a long day of giving lectures and meeting students, I'd get back on the London-bound train, inevitably exhausted. With the warm air and comfortable seats, I'd often drift off into the realms of a post-work nap.
It was on one of my commutes home that my attacker struck. At Birmingham, I watched people trickling onto the 8.30 pm London-bound train. I saw the tall, thin guy in the woollen hat with dark, beady eyes get on.
Over time, you get to recognise your fellow commuters and I’d seen this guy before. He often paced the carriages as if deciding where to sit.
As he passed my seat, I could smell his dirty jeans and musty scent: a strange mix of engine oil, sweat and mothballs. He gave me a half-smile so I smiled back. I imagined he’d had a long day too, probably working at a garage or a construction site if his work-boots were anything to go by. Like me, he just wanted to get home. The musty smell continued as he settled in to the seat behind mine.
This should have been a warning sign. There was no one else in the carriage and he could have chosen any seat he liked.
But I didn’t notice this sign. Instead, after marking some student assignments, I began to doze off. I was half-asleep when I felt a vague, fleeting sensation that my hair was wet. I didn't realize it was the cold from the scissor-blades that briefly touched my scalp when he poised them underneath my half-ponytail.
The wet turned into a slight pulling. I was dreaming that my hair was caught in the gap between the seats. I batted at the back of my head, irritated to have been roused from my little bit of peace. I fumbled around for my phone, checked my emails and texts and realized the train was pulling into my station.
When I got off the train, the man behind me smiled. This time it was a full-on, creepy smile. It was pretty dark in the carriage,and I realized I felt uncomfortable.
He was sweating under his woollen hat and made a gasping noise without breaking eye contact. In my rush to pass him, I glimpsed the Barbie Doll he was playing with on his lap. Its long, blonde hair was sticking out from under the rucksack he had on his knees.
As odd as it sounds, I wasn’t overly bothered by this sight. I used to commute on the London Tube and you see some pretty strange people every day. I just felt sorry for the guy as I got off the train—he was clearly mentally ill—but slightly freaked out that I’d sat there alone with him the whole journey.
It was late when I got home. My husband had made us some food and was sitting watching TV. We were both really tired. I curled up with him on the sofa and we soon went to bed.
The next day, I was working from home. I slung my hair into a topknot when I showered and set about getting all my work done. At about 4 pm, my husband got in. We were going out that night and I went into the bathroom to get ready. I pulled my hair out of its tangled topknot and looked in the mirror.
There was something wrong.
My hair was all one length, but now there were layers at the back. Thick, bushy layers that stood up on end. I picked at the strands and moved closer to the mirror. My hair was falling out. I must be ill. Vitamin deficiency. Stress. Curling iron overuse? I panicked and checked the pillow in the bedroom, expecting to see some hair. There was none there.
I called my husband. He came into the bathroom and looked at the half-mullet, half-bird's nest thing I had going on.
“You cut your hair,” he said, trying not to laugh.
“No, that’s the thing. I didn’t.”
“Who did then?”
We looked at each other and my hair. What the hell had happened to it? It wasn’t broken off, it had been cut. It looked like one of those styles Edward Scissorhands did. I couldn’t help but laugh in disbelief. Where had my hair gone? Why just the top layer?
Then I realised. The man on the train. The cold, the pulling, the creepy smile, the "Barbie" hair in the guy’s lap. It all made sense now. The bastard had cut my hair.
I thought of him seizing his chance, the blades close to my skull and me all alone with him in the carriage. I’d read about it happening to other women but I couldn’t believe it had happened to me.
How didn’t I realise? My hair was in his lap, and I thought he was playing with a doll. I’m glad I didn’t realise at the time. I don’t know what I’d have done.
My husband and I went to the police the next day. They were intrigued. Turned out they’d had two similar reports 18 months before. Same guy. Same train. He’d been doing it all that time and gotten away with it. It was assault, the police said.
I wondered why he did it. It had to be sexual. A quick Google search told me human hair fetishism-tricophilia-is more common than people think; a sexual paraphilia which rarely becomes something more sinister.
Most people with it content themselves with touching hair or feeling it against their skin, but not my guy. He’d cut it clean off.
I thought of my ponytail in his lap. Did he want me to see it? Was that part of the arousal? I wondered what he’d use it for and imagined his bedroom; a little dungeon full of women’s hair in all different colours.
When I first contacted the police, I felt sorry for him. He needed psychological help, not locking up for assault. Now I felt angry. I felt violated at the thought of him sitting there, probably masturbating with my hair (yes, it’s "a thing" apparently). I thought of him singling me out, waiting for me to fall asleep. He could have done anything.
He had seemed so normal, making his way between the packed rows of commuters. When he took ages choosing a seat, he was probably stalking out potential victims. How many times had he done this?
The police couldn’t answer. They were understanding, but couldn’t do much: The guy had the sense to elude every single CCTV camera. They told me to dial 999 if I saw him again.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I never saw him again but every time I got on the train for the next month I was nervous that he’d be there. I didn’t dare to fall asleep again.
Two weeks after my "close shave," I went to the hair salon. They tidied it up a little but it’s only really just grown back properly.
But I’m totally able to laugh about it. My mother had chemotherapy and lost all her hair. All I lost was part of my ponytail that, luckily, I can kind of disguise. There’s also something hilarious about it: A stranger gave me a totally unwelcome, impromptu haircut to satisfy his strange sexual desire and I had to go round looking like the lovechild of Rod Stewart and Tina Turner for 6 months. I had to lecture and go to conferences like it. Not a good look.
But there are worse things he could have done. In a way, I’m glad it happened. It made me more vigilant on public transport. I’m also glad I reported it.
It wasn’t crime of the century but for all I knew he might be dangerous or have a history of other crimes against women. That’s how crimes often get solved. One woman comes forward-bam-the whole puzzle falls into place. But I never heard anything back from the police, so I assume he’s still out there.
In the meantime, I console myself with the thought that, yes, he probably is in a darkened room somewhere sniffing at my hair and making breathy noises, but at least I didn’t wash it for three days before he hacked it off.
I only wish I’d had lice.