Of the many things I’ll never forget about that life-changing day in November 1993, the feeling of the cold steel against my throat remains the most visceral. And while a knife at your neck is not the sort of thing one would willingly invite to happen, this experience, which could’ve ended my life, turned out to be the thing that irrevocably changed it.
It happened in Johannesburg, South Africa, one of the world’s most violent and dangerous cities. It was a place I had gotten to know well during the 10 years I lived there while married to David, a South African I had met when he was visiting my hometown, London, in 1989. I was in my 20s, working as a copywriter and loving my busy life, my cozy flat and wonderful friends. For David, London was just a stopover, another touch-down during a yearlong, round-the-world trip. So when we met at a friend’s party, a relationship was the last thing either of us was looking for.
From the beginning, ours was an intense, volatile, magnetic attraction between polar opposites: He was an action man who spent all his free time out in the South African bush. He loved hiking up mountains and sleeping under the stars. I was into the arts and addicted to the buzz of city life.
Our relationship started as a no-strings-attached fling but quickly spiraled out of control. We fell in love. A year later, I left London and the life I treasured and moved to South Africa to be with him.
In a way, things worked out better than most of our friends had expected: I came to adore the bush, with its wide open spaces and big-game reserves where we spent weekends. Our trips into Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya were among the happiest times of my life. Out there, our differences melted away and we rarely argued. Unfortunately, back in Jo’burg, the fighting almost never stopped.
The problem was, David expected me to shape-shift and fit snugly into his life without him having to change anything. I did my best — even moved into a cottage in the middle of nowhere when I would have preferred a flat in town — but increasingly I grew to resent it. Our arguments became power struggles that left us both emotionally and physically exhausted. The relationship had become a roller-coaster, and after 10 years I was ready to jump off.
So I returned to London and attempted to pick up my old life, but I desperately missed him, so a year later I was back in Jo’burg to see “where we were at.” Which was, I quickly discovered, in the eye of the storm — again. Reunited, we reverted to form. After three draining weeks, I admitted defeat and, my flight home already booked, I was all set to go home to England the next day — this time, for good. Except … I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to. Maybe I could stay a little longer and see if things could improve? I was still trapped in a “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” tape loop.
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My Money or My Life
The morning I was supposed to leave, I was a tense, emotional mess, and I knew I looked it. I was late for a lunch appointment — my last in South Africa — so I had taken a shortcut. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I quickly regretted it. The area I was walking through was rough — a muggers’ paradise — but I had been there umpteen times and knew if I kept to the rules, I’d be OK. Those rules were: Don’t wear anything flashy, especially jewelery; avoid troublesome spots, like the bus station; and, most important, look confident and never, ever, show fear.
But that day I felt anything but confident. I wasn’t a local any longer and felt out of place, conspicuous. I was a little lost, so I stopped and looked around and realized I was near the bus station. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “I shouldn’t be here,” feeling more than a tinge of fear. I immediately reproached myself. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve been here before loads of times, and nothing has ever happened to you.”
That thought had barely crossed my mind when I felt something cold and smooth on my neck as my arms were being pinned behind my back. I didn’t panic. I knew I was being held at knifepoint, yet I was weirdly calm. I knew the conventional wisdom in these circumstance is to not fight, but I was determined not to let my two assailants win. The odd thing is that although I was fully aware of what was going on, it didn’t seem real.
Quick as a flash, I analyzed the situation. It was close to midday on a Friday. There were people milling about, walking past us. All I needed to do was to attract attention — I needed to gain time. So I bellowed for help, shrieking that I was being attacked as I fought to break free. But nobody came to my rescue, no one was willing to risk his life for a stranger. And I can’t say I blame any of them.
I was still screaming when the knifeman, keen to get the mugging over with, jiggled the blade that had been flush against my neck and made a cut. It was slight but enough to jolt me back to reality. This wasn’t a movie or a bad dream — it was my life I was playing with, so I stopped fighting. The mugger ripped off my gold hoop earrings and watch, but when he tried to grab my bag, I resisted like a lioness defending her cub.
I couldn’t let go — not that bag. That bag was much more than a purse to me — and besides containing my passport, credit cards, cash and plane ticket, was full of mementos of my time in South Africa. My passport, thick with stamps from obscure African border posts, chronicled the previous 10 years of my life. Granted, it was a diary in which only the good bits had been recorded, but I knew I wasn’t ready to let go of that life. I struggled with renewed strength.
Then he cut me again, deeper than before. I immediately realized this was, literally, a matter of life or death. I didn’t see my life flash past, but somewhere inside me I heard the words “Let go or you are going to die.” This time I knew it was for real. I had to let go of the bag and everything it represented to me. I had to release the past if I was going to have a future.
And the second I did, a man came charging toward me, shouting and trying to rally help as my attackers fled.
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A New Beginning
After that, everything happened at lightning speed. I called David from a nearby shop, and together we went to the police (luckily, I didn’t need stitches). We both knew the relationship was over, though, and he didn’t try to stop me from returning to London. In no time I got temporary travel documents and a new ticket and left the following day. I knew that this time, there would be absolutely no turning back.
I felt as if a huge chunk of me, personally, had been stolen, but I knew those thugs had done me a tremendous favor. I needed to see my “treasure trove” of memories as a noose that bound me to David and my self-destructive past. I’ll never know if I would have been able to let go of it because the muggers did it for me.
Building a new life wasn’t easy. I was free, but freedom felt desperately lonely. Little by little, though, I did. I found a flat and started working as a journalist for small magazines, as I had done in South Africa. I got back in touch with old friends and made new ones. I still love Africa passionately, but Europe, with its own rich history and culture and modern-world busyness, is where I truly belong.
Julie Carbonara is a London-based freelance journalist who writes frequently about business, travel and food.