It’s him again. And I’m pretty sure he’s following me. I mean, I can’t be a hundred per cent sure, but I’ve seen him here three times already this week, and he was there at the corner shop on Monday, and yesterday at the garage.
‘Mummy,’ Joe says, tugging on my arm. ‘Mrs Landry said my picture was the best in the class.’
‘Wow,’ I say, taking his small, sweaty hand in mine. ‘That’s fantastic.’
‘Well, maybe not the best in the class,’ he admits. ‘But she said it was really good.’ Joe lets go of my hand again and leaps into the tempting pile of yellow and brown leaves that has drifted up against the school fence. He stamps his feet, a grin on his face, enjoying the crackle and crunch of autumn. I can’t believe he’ll be eight soon – I still think of him as much younger.
The man is about a hundred yards away, on the other side of the road. He has a scruffy, sandy beard and he’s wearing one of those awful sea-captain-type hats. He looks like a homeless person but I don’t think he can be very old. I’m sure he’s not a parent because I’ve never seen him with a child. Maybe I should report him.
‘Don’t go running out of sight,’ I call, as Joe spies one of his friends up ahead and abandons the pile of leaves.
‘I won’t!’ he yells back, his sturdy legs stomping off down the pavement.
The man has dropped a little further away from me now, but he’s still there. I know it. My skin prickles. I feel his eyes on my back. I curb the urge to turn and double check. I don’t want him to know I’ve noticed him. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. He probably lives somewhere around here. He could be just an eccentric millionaire or something.
‘Joe!’ I yell. ‘Wait for me at the bottom of the hill!’ I stride a little faster, squinting in the late afternoon sunshine. I should’ve worn sunglasses.
Joe has stopped. He’s chatting to a tall blond-haired boy on a silver scooter. My heart lifts knowing he’s managed to make friends quickly. He’s only been at Cerne Manor Prep school for two weeks and yet it feels like he’s been here forever. He already loves it. My husband Jared was right – this place is perfect. Okay, it costs an arm and a leg, and we’ll be skint forever – finding the termly school fees is going to be a challenge, but Joe is the happiest he’s ever been, and that’s what matters.
‘Who’s this?’ I ask Joe, finally catching him up.
‘Tyler. He’s in my class.’
‘Hi, Tyler. Where’s your mum?’ I ask.
He points behind me, up the hill. ‘Talking to her friends, as usual,’ he says, rolling his eyes.
I swivel my head to see a group of glamorous mums clustered around a white four-wheel drive vehicle. They’re laughing and chatting in a haze of colourful dresses, scarves, shawls and bangles. That’s the other thing about starting a new school – it’s almost worse for the parents. I’m the new mum on the block and I don’t feel quite up to talking to them today. My nail varnish is chipped and I’m sure I must seem dowdy in boring jeans and a plain blue shirt.
My four-year-old niece, Megan, comes here, too. She finishes half-an-hour earlier than Joe, so I never get to see her or my sister, Beth, at school pick-up, which is a shame. It would be nice to have someone to chat with. To not feel quite so much of a newbie.
‘Well, it was nice to meet you, Tyler,’ I say. ‘Have a lovely evening.’
‘You, too,’ he says politely.
Joe takes my hand again, and we cross the road. I steal a glance behind me, and sure enough, the man is still there following slowly at a distance, his head down. Joe and I turn left down a side-road.
‘Okay, Joe,’ I say. ‘How about you and I have a little race?’
‘I thought your knee was bad,’ he says. ‘When I wanted you to come on the trampoline yesterday, you said—’
‘Well, my knee is bad,’ I say, feeling the joint twinge in anticipation. ‘But I can probably run to the end of the road. Winner gets an ice cream.’ That’s all I have to say to get Joe to move like there’s a stick of dynamite under him. He’s off. I follow him at a jog. My knee aches, but I ignore the pain and keep going. If that guy really is following me, I don’t want him to see where we live. I catch Joe up and we run along the pavement together until we reach the next road. I let him win by a head.
‘Yessss!’ He pumps his little fist into the air.
‘Let’s cross over,’ I say, putting a hand on his back.
My heart drops as I turn and see the man at the end of the road behind us. He’s speeding up now. Not quite jogging, but walking pretty fast. I can hear my heart beating, whether from the run or from anxiousness, I can’t tell. Should I call someone? The police? Jared? And say what? No. It’ll be okay. Joe and I can lose him. We’ll have another ‘race’. But what on earth is going on? Is this guy really following me?
Joe and I cross the road. There’s no one else around other than a few cars whizzing past far too quickly – late for school pick-up, no doubt.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Ready, steady…’ He’s off again, his rucksack banging against his back, his feet slapping the pavement. I limp along behind him, my poor knee clicking and grinding.
‘Does that mean I get two ice creams?’ he asks when I finally catch him up again.
‘Only if you want to be sick.’
‘I won’t be. I could have two different flavours. One for dinner, one for pudding.’
I take his hand and we turn into another side road.
‘This isn’t the way,’ he says.
‘We’re going a different way, today,’ I reply. We jog across the road and turn right and then left. I throw another glance behind us, but I can’t see the man any more. The sun has dipped behind the houses and a couple of street lamps flicker on. I shiver even though I’m warm after the thumping of my terrified heart.
Finally, we leave the unfamiliar side streets behind and come to Penn Hill Avenue. It’s busier here and so Joe and I head towards the crossing. Joe is still chattering away. I’m too preoccupied to pay him any proper attention. I usually love our walk home. It’s a chance to catch up on everything he’s done that day. A chance to chat without the distractions of TV or video games. But that creepy guy has unnerved me.
The green man flashes at the crossing and we stride across the road, leaving the leafy glamour of Lower Parkstone and heading through narrower streets to our characterful three-bedroom house at the top of the hill. My knee is throbbing. I can’t wait to get in and sit down with a cup of tea.
‘Mummy, do you want another race?’
‘You go ahead. I’ll time you. See if you can reach home before I count to ten.’
My phone pings. I pull it out of my bag and swipe the screen to see a new text message, number unknown:
Hi Louisa! Darcy here – Tyler’s mom. I got your number from the class list. Wondered if you guys wanted to come over after school tomorrow. Tyler can’t stop talking about Joe. We can have a cuppa while they play xxx
I text her back:
That would be lovely. Thank you. Can you text me your address? Louisa X
I smile. Maybe the mums here aren’t as snobby as I first imagined.
Even better, I haven’t spotted that creepy man again. I’m starting to feel a little silly for worrying about him. Perhaps this move to a new house and a new area has made me more tired than I realised. It’s been a lot to deal with. Anyway, why on earth would I have a stalker? What would anyone want with me?