The night had been fun. Old friends gathering in the heart of Soho for food, drinks and laughter. Such a wonderful night; it was a sadness when it eventually had to end. We’d promised to do it again soon and I’d headed home.
The train pulled into my station around midnight, an unremarkable little town in the middle of the Sussex Downs. I’d always thought that a funny name for a collection of hills, surely Ups would be better, but who was I to argue with tradition. The night was clear and warm so I decided to walk off the wine and food in readiness for the empty bed that waited for me.
The walk was uneventful, to begin with, the streets dead at this time of night, the buildings thinning out as I progressed towards home. I lived at the far end of town, out beyond the High Street, past the green and the church, then up the hill to my cottage; my peaceful idyll away from the rat race.
It was a pleasant stroll, just myself with the moon for company, the reassuring clips and clops of my footsteps on the cobbled pavements, echoing slightly each time my heel struck the stones. Unhurried and relaxed. Clip..clop..clip..clop..clip..clop.clop..clip…
I wasn’t sure if I’d heard it at first, that rogue sound mingling with the familiar rhythm of my gait. I carried on, slightly quicker this time, imagining the air to be colder around me. Another few strides and there it was again, the unmistakeable sound of someone walking behind me. I calmed my thoughts for a second and realised I was being foolish. It didn’t matter if there was anyone else there, it wasn’t as if I had a monopoly on moonlit walks through the town. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop me glancing behind me just to see who my anonymous companion was.
There was no one there. All that was around me was the empty road and the edge of the town green, ropes pegged out in the centre to mark the cricket pitch. I chuckled to myself, a nervous little laugh that chastised me for an overactive imagination fuelled by one too many drinks earlier in the evening. Still, I quickened my pace.
And there it was again, that extra footstep, slotting in with my own. I turned again but there was still no one. So, who did I believe, my eyes or my ears? My feet kept moving as I debated what to do. I knew I was being foolish but I wanted the safety of my home. I didn’t realise I was doing it until I was past the first gravestone, the moon shining on the grey, moss covered stone. This was my usual shortcut when the sun was high in the sky, through the graveyard, past the church and then home. It had a different feel at night, more intimate, if you could ascribe such a word to a graveyard, but I wasn’t bothered about the vagaries of the English language at that moment. All I cared about was the protection afforded by my house, the comforting familiarity of its walls. This way would get me there quicker, this way was one that surely no one else would brave at night.
It was there. I wasn’t imagining it. I definitely wasn’t. Screw dignity. I ran, fleeing past the gravestones to the gate at the rear. As I ran, I could hear the steps behind me quickening too, chasing me down. My right shoe worked its way off as I dashed forwards, half stumbling as it flew free, but I didn’t care, I just kept on running, a lopsided flight with one shoe off and one shoe on, diddle diddle dumpling, my son John.
I sped past the rear gate of the church, out into the open space beyond and the path leading to my cottage. Driven by fear and adrenalin, I sprinted up the hill, all the time listening to that extra footstep clipping along with me. I fell face forwards, hitting the dirt of the path. My feet scrabbled in the dry earth and I pushed myself forwards, driving towards the sanctity of my home. Metres to go, pushing myself on.
I slammed into my front door with a full force, stopping dead and panting furiously. I fumbled frantically in my bag for my keys. The metal clasp on my bag clipping against the leather as I searched, the same clip that might sound like footsteps as it bounced beside someone with an overactive imagination fuelled by one too many drinks. I laughed, that same nervous laughter as before and let myself inside. I kept chuckling to myself as I removed my solitary shoe and put it aside. I only stopped laughing when I heard the creak on the floorboards upstairs.