Please excuse me for persevering with my account of the events that took place at Elmfield House last Friday, but a number of unusual incidents occurred that afternoon and the peculiar nature of the day continued long after I left Elmfield House...
There was an electric charge in the air which suggested that the heavy rain would soon intensify into a thunderstorm, so I sought refuge in a corner of the bus shelter and watched the wind blow the flimsy glazing of the shelter in and out like the sails of a ship. Only a few minutes had passed when, mercifully, I spotted the headlights of a bus approaching as though it had been waiting on cue around the corner. Flustered by the sudden appearance of the bus, I fished around in my bag for my travel pass as it pulled into the stop and hurried on with Leonard’s umbrella under my arm, my bag half open and my pass hanging from between my teeth. I stumbled down the aisle and collapsed heavily into a seat and took account of myself and my belongings. Thankfully my pride was not too irrevocably damaged by my inelegant arrival as the bus was empty, expect for a young man staring vacantly out of the window and wearing the most enormous headphones and two elderly ladies with armfuls of supermarket carrier bags balanced on their laps.
Scraping the damp tendrils of hair from my face, I tied my hair back into a ponytail and struggled to fasten the strap on the wet umbrella. I was rummaging in my bag to find a tissue to dry my hands when the bus came to a halt once again, so I paid little attention to the passenger who boarded the bus at the next stop. In my peripheral vision I saw a tall figure in a long trench coat step onto the platform and I heard the clink of coins and the whirr of the ticket machine, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. However as he passed by and took his seat behind me I was instantly repelled by a thick acrid stench that filled the air. It was a horrible smell; a stomach-wrenching combination of the worst human odours like putrid sweat and the accumulation of filth but with strong chemical top notes much like the disinfectant smell in a hospital ward. Since the bus was empty the man’s decision to sit in the seat directly behind me raised my suspicions and I was overwhelmed by an unpleasant feeling, the exact cause of which is difficult to explain. He just didn’t feel right. I have experienced a similar feeling of uneasiness in the presence of a stranger once before and, as I have mentioned in previous posts, that encounter has left such a mark on me that I find it difficult to forget.
The bus pulled violently away from the stop and the driver hit the brakes when we met with the heavy traffic on the main road, causing me to pitch forward in my seat and a soft drinks can to roll the entire length of the aisle upstairs and rattle noisily between the seats. The roar of the bus engine settled as we joined the main flow of traffic and I listened intently to the man seated behind me. But no sound came from him. He was deathly silent. I turned to catch sight of him in the window but his reflection was distorted by white tributaries of rain that streaked down the glass. Dismissing my curiosity in the stranger, I pulled my bag further up onto my lap and continued fiddling with the umbrella strap, but no matter how deliberately I preoccupied myself I could sense the piercing stare of the man boring into me from behind and a tremendously suffocating feeling of self-consciousness was slowly beginning to creep over me.
Around five or ten minutes into the journey I found myself distracted by the other passengers that had boarded the bus and I had almost succeeding in forgetting about the stranger, but as time progressed I became aware of an odd sensation, almost tangible enough to describe as heat, that seemed to radiate from behind me and make contact with the back of my neck. At first I thought that the man seated behind me was holding a cigarette lighter near to my neck, not close enough to burn the skin but close enough to gently heat it, but I could see from the reflection in the window beside me that there was nothing near my head. It was not an uncomfortable feeling, in fact the warmth was actually quite pleasant and, rather than being alarmed, I allowed myself to relax and ease back into my seat and soon afterwards I felt a discernible pressure growing against my neck like a warm hand massaging and delicately teasing the knots from my tight muscles. My whole body was being gradually drawn into a submissive state and I was surrendering to it willingly. I endured the pleasurable but unsettling experience for the entire bus journey, all the while praying that the man would stand up and leave the bus at each stop but at the same time slipping deeper and deeper into a passive, dream-like state and hoping that the journey would never end.
Streetlights whipped past like bright beacons punctuating the darkness and illuminating houses at regular intervals and I fought desperately to maintain concentration and identify passing buildings so that my stop was not missed. Then, as my stop approached, I forcibly roused myself from my stupor and waited until the last possible second to hit the red stop button to alert the driver. I cursed as the bell chimed loudly throughout the bus, then grabbed my bag and umbrella and hurried clumsily out of my seat. As I held tightly onto the rail and waited for the bus to stop, I heard the commotion of someone moving and then the slow thud of heavy footsteps made their way down the centre of the aisle and came to a halt directly behind me. My heart began to pound as the bus turned sharply into the stop and I searched in the windows to catch a reflection of the man behind me, but all that I could see was a black figure silhouetted against the bright, fluorescent bus lighting. As the doors snapped open, I glanced to my side to thank the driver, taking care to ensure that we made eye contact.
Please remember my face.
If anything is to happen to me, then please remember my face.
I stepped out onto the wet pavement and took a firm grasp of the umbrella as it was whipped up by the fierce wind and headed through the dark alleyway into the main residential area. Above the sound of raindrops beating on the umbrella I could hear the counterpoint of heavy footsteps following behind at an unhurried and calm pace, yet maintaining a menacingly close distance so as to alert me to the presence of my pursuer. The heels of my shoes made a hollow sound on the pavement and no matter how delicately I placed each step the noise echoed around the surrounding houses like a loud signal overhead revealing my location. I picked up my pace and took a detour up the hill towards safer ground on the main street, but it seemed that no matter which direction I turned the footsteps followed behind and, in mockery of my increasingly desperate state, my progress slowed with each step that I took up the steep hill and my legs became heavier and heavier as though I was wading through a thick viscous liquid.
Fearing that the man would soon catch up with me, I took one hand from the umbrella and thrust it into my coat pocket to search for my keys. I located the long church key on my keyring and gripped it between my first and middle fingers to make a weapon in case I needed to defend myself. Surges of adrenalin flooded through me as my fight-or-flight impulses kicked into gear; could I actually bring myself to do this? I even considered which part of his body that I would lunge for first. But then, just as I was preparing for the worst, the rhythm of our footsteps was interrupted by a third sound. It was brighter, faster and closer to me than the footsteps of the man following behind.
I took a sharp breath because I recognised this familiar sound within seconds of hearing it. There was no mistaking my identification of it, however it was much louder and faster than I was accustomed to and I had certainly not heard it in public before. It was the sharp, staccato clicking of Hooter’s long nails on Leonard’s kitchen floor. But how could this be possible? Had the dog followed me out of Elmfield House? Surely not. Leonard insists that Hooter never ventures beyond the garden gate...
Whether the dog was following behind or not, the familiar sound was very reassuring and my pace slowed considerably upon hearing it. The footsteps of the man gradually died away as the lights from the main street came into view and they were replaced entirely by the rhythmic ‘clack-clack’ sound. And that too had faded away by the time that I reached the main street. Only then did I dare to glance over my shoulder, partly because I dreaded catching sight of the man and partly because I feared seeing Hooter. The sight of either would surely have terrified me.