I flick the indicator, dog-leg the gear lever down to second and ease the car round the corner into the terrace. While my sensible side gets busy scoping the margins for a place to park, another part of me is already soaking in a perfumed bath, a glass of wine by the soap dish, Mozart on the CD player and the sweet smell of oven-baked lasagne wafting up the stairs.
Sometimes, I like to imagine the street’s original inhabitants, those prim Edwardians who’d never have dreamt of an indoor bathroom or a motor at the kerbside, yet couldn’t last a day without a maid to hold the house together. A century on, the servant bells are purely ornamental, but we can all get territorial over the stretch of road alongside our bay windows. Even I, house-sitting while the owners are abroad, want to stake a claim on my few feet of tarmac. So it’s a little jarring when I see the hatchback in my parking space, even if it is such a pretty duck-egg blue.
As I edge nearer, I notice someone in the driving seat, so I slow right down and give them a look that I hope might nudge them to move on. They give me a look back that says I’m not budging for anyone, girl, and, I realise, too late, it’s not just any old car, not just any old driver, it’s you. And you’ve certainly clocked me. Your gaze zips through laminated glass and pressed steel, peels away layers of lycra and organic cotton, till I’m raw and helpless as a baby, bound by your desire. Goodbye bubble-bath and beaujolais. Goodbye servant bells. Goodbye me.
You incline your head towards a gap between a white Transit and a blood-red roadster a little farther down the terrace on the left. Fear fizzes through my stomach and I don’t stop to argue. I line up my car against the van and wiggle the gear-stick into reverse.
I’m not wonderful at parking at the best of times, and my first attempt leaves the wheels a couple of feet from the kerb. I hear a car door slam as I weave back into position alongside the white van. Through the rear-view mirror I see you looming in the road, arms akimbo, your face a strange amalgam of adulation and hate.
I think of how hard I’ve worked to get away from you, the homes I’ve fled, the jobs. I don’t dare look back as I let the car nose beyond the Transit, like it’s a horse and I’m giving it its head. I let it lunge past a battered mini and a pair of motorbikes, and soon we’re careering to the end of the terrace, scooting up the back alley and hurtling onto the main road. I drive like my life depends on it, my sanity, my self.
My hands feed the wheel back and forth between them, my feet depress the pedals and let them go. My eyes monitor the mirror for the merest hint of blue metal, while my mind keeps repeating: My stalker’s back and there’s nowhere to hide. The radio rumbles, but I can’t say if it’s dialogue I’m hearing or an instrumental. There’s not much can penetrate the buzzing in my brain.
Out of nowhere, an angry horn bears down on me. I’m at a roundabout, and it’s not the first I’ve navigated, judging by how far I am out of town, but it’s the first that’s reached my consciousness so far. I screech to a halt as a juggernaut roars across from the right. There’s a race-track smell of cooked latex. I’ve never burned rubber before.
I pull in at an industrial estate a few hundred yards along the road. The car park is deserted apart from a learner rehearsing three-point turns. As I kill the engine, my body starts to tremble, every muscle and sinew rattling out the feelings that reel across the years. I’m shivering at the school gates, abandoned and forlorn, waiting and waiting long after my classmates have been escorted home. I’m cowering beneath my iron bed, assailed by storming voices, willing myself as small and lifeless as a doll.
After a while, I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and lean across to grab my handbag from the passenger foot-well. It’s times like these I wish I were a smoker. A pack of cigarettes is more dependable than a mobile phone.
The screen lights up with an image of a dancing lemur. You’d think me sentimental but, even in freeze-frame, the cuddly black and white sifaka seems buoyed up with the magic of his own existence. Leaping through the forest, long furry arms raised towards the sky, glad to be alive. I had a taste of that joy those two years I spent in Madagascar, despite the deprivations, the poverty. I felt safe out there, secure in the knowledge you wouldn’t follow me that far. Two years of heady freedom until you turned up in the Arrivals hall at Heathrow, ready to resume our bizarre relationship where we’d left off.
I thumb the green phone icon, although there’s no one I can call. The police might be sympathetic initially, but their manners tend to melt away when we get to the crunch: “Do you know the identity of your stalker by any chance, Ms Lytton?”
You bought me this phone, as you no doubt recall. I bet you’ve logged every present you’ve sent me, every letter, every bunch of flowers, every card. The phone came by recorded delivery to the flat I used to rent above the chip shop. When I threw it in the trash it was like I’d ripped out your heart. I held out for three days, although the guilt induced the world’s worst migraine, but when I heard the bin-lorry rolling up the alley at seven the next morning, I crumbled. I sprang out of bed and went down in my nightie, fished out the phone from among the mouldy potato peelings and empty yoghurt pots moments before the truck caught the wheelie bin in its maw.
How did you find me this time? How? I’ve laboured so hard to cover my tracks. No one you know knows where I live now. No one knows where I work. I suppose when you’re determined, you find a way.
I changed the number, of course, opened up the back and slid in a fresh SIM card. I told myself I’d be a fool to turn down the offer of a top-of-the-range phone. A fool as well to keep it: you never gave me anything I felt was truly mine.
I touch the contacts icon and scroll down the list of names. Who can I call who hasn’t heard it all before? In the beginning, friends would listen patiently, murmuring empathically in all the right places. They’d offer opinions, advice or a bed for the night. They’d pick apart your personality, analyse your motivations, compare your behaviour with stalkers in books. But, as the years went by, they grew weary. My friends had relationship issues of their own: self-absorbed husbands; stroppy teenage children; ailing mothers greedy for their time. Now, if I mention you, they’re brusque and dismissive. They think I should’ve dealt with you by now.
I go to the photo gallery and thumb through snaps of autumn trees and seaside sunsets all the way back to the start. To the picture you’d set as wallpaper when you sent me the phone. I’m sure you’ll remember, it’s that old birthday photo where I’m sitting on your lap, your arms wrapped round me like you’d never let me go. I stare at our expressions, searching for some sense within the torment. Was that love in your eyes or possession? Fear or devotion in mine?
The sky is leaching its light as the learner-driver exits the car park. Time to make up my mind what I’m going to do tonight. Should I stay away: check into a travel lodge and go to work tomorrow in today’s stale clothes? Should I try for home: sneak down the back alley, scale the yard wall and break in like a thief through the kitchen window? Even if I phoned a friend, I’d be no nearer a solution.
“She just wants to talk to you,” Jane would tell me. “Can’t you spare a few minutes of your precious time?”
“You’ve got to stand up to her,” Sue would say. “If you don’t want her in your life, tell her to leave you alone.”
Appease or confront you: they’re equally impossible. Much less complicated to scramble in unsuitable shoes over a seven-foot wall without a ladder. Much less violent to smash a window and risk triggering the alarm.
My phone beeps and a message stamps itself across the photo, warning me the battery’s running low. My thumb jumps to the dustbin icon and the screen flashes back: Delete image? Yes? No? I’m still hovering when the screen blacks out.
Perhaps I won’t have to see you this evening. Perhaps you’ve given up and gone home. Renounced your claim on me after all these years. Given me the greatest gift of all and let me go.
I turn the key in the ignition and the engine purrs. As I drive, I fix my mind on the road, earnest as a learner, no headspace in reserve to fret about what I’ll do if you’re still parked outside my door.
The street lights are limbering up as I trundle down the terrace past the duck-egg blue hatchback on the right. I reverse into the space between the white van and the red roadster, not caring any more if I’m too far from the kerb. In the twilight, I can’t see what you’re up to, but my teeth are chattering as I walk across the road. I focus on the green front door like an athlete on the finishing line, kidding myself its sanctuary could soon be mine.
With every step I’m amazed you don’t accost me, and a little bit confused. I should just keep centred on the soothing green door, but I can’t help it, I have to check on you. You’ve reclined the seat and pushed it back, stretched yourself out behind the wheel. Your eyes are closed and your mouth hangs loose and, through the window, I fancy I hear you snore.
I could steal indoors without you knowing, run my belated bath and warm up my meal. These walls are so thick I could even risk the Mozart, so long as I kept the volume low. I could leave you out in the street and you’d be none the wiser, festering in your car while I’d be tucked up cosy in bed. Yet when I see your grey hair splayed across the head rest, when I trace the shape of your nose that’s the exact spit of mine, I can’t do it. To hell with my feelings and a life of my own, you’re a lonely old woman and I’m all you’ve got.
It isn’t love I feel as I crouch down and tap on the window, but it’s the nearest to love I’ve ever known. There’s a familiar comfort in duty and resignation, in opting out of a battle I’m programmed to lose.
You come to with a jolt but you recover quickly. You wipe the drool from your chin and wind down the window. “Oh, Alice,” you say, “I was worried I’d never see you again.”
I open your door and offer you my arm. “Come in and have a drink, Mum,” I say. “You’re an awfully long way from home.”