I have returned from Norfolk, from my task of retracing Emma Fielding’s last known journey, certain in the knowledge now that I am being followed. At least this was the case while I was there; I am sure of it. And I have the photographic proof.
Although I found very little evidence that Emma was there that night back in November 2015 – first in the remote village of Cley-Next-The-Sea and then running for her life across the heath on foot to that beach hut somewhere overlooking the marsh – I do have proof that someone was tracking me, had probably been following my every move since the time I arrived off the bus in that tiny out of the way village by the sea, until I left four days ago.
I did not stay in the village itself, which is fortunate I believe now, but I spent most of my time there, familiarising myself with its layout, tracing its hidden paths and lanes, hoping to find the place from which Emma began her desperate flight across that heath in the darkness.
It was mid morning on the second day (Sunday) that I began to feel for certain that someone was watching me, and it was a feeling I could not shake. Perhaps something about the village itself can make a person feel that way – regardless of the reason for their visit – nestled not in a cosy way on the reedy edge of that windswept, desolate marsh? Perhaps it is because so few people actually live there anymore, not permanently at least, not year round, for most of the houses there are second homes I was told, visited only in high season and summer days, the rest of the year the place as deserted as Goldsmith’s village, where desolation saddens all thy green (you see? – the place invokes dark thoughts).
But as I say, on that second day, the sense of being surveilled grew ever more intense until I began to feel a grave-walking shiver of fear that chilled my bones, not helped in the least by the gloom of the day and the relentless cold rain that soaked the godforsaken* village in a veil of tears. Twice as I walked from the top of the hill on which stands its titanic church – like an oversized bird in an insubstantial and unwelcoming nest (a picture of it is on this site so that you can see for yourself what I mean) – I thought I heard a tread close behind me and for a second felt my heart leap against my chest, but each time I turned around the lane was empty. I told myself I was being fanciful, a feeling no doubt heightened by the loneliness and isolation of that place (there was no one about and all of the houses on that long lane down into the village appeared shut up and empty) and the pressing reason for my visit. Even so, I hurried on, eager to reach the heart of the village and some sign that I was not left alone with someone (or something? Please God I hoped not) that had me in its sights.
When I reached the houses by the village hall the feeling of being watched dimmed a little and cautiously I began taking photographs of my surroundings, aiming my camera in the rain down any alleyway or lane that looked remotely like the one Emma described when she had escaped from that bus (and from that ‘abhorrent creature’ she believed was pursuing her). The lanes in that part of the village are mostly narrow and high bordered on either side, making gloomy tunnels of them in places. Perhaps that is why I did not notice at first the same car that appeared ahead of me each time I took my shot (but it is there now in each of the photographs I took), nor, as I moved on to the last lane at the end of the village, the shadowy figure that was just standing there, as if waiting for my approach (or for me to turn and run).
Despite the rain on the lens, you can clearly see the outline of the figure in the photograph below. It is the only proof I have that I did not imagine its presence there.
It was then that I began to panic and, much as I ashamed to admit it now (now I am back in civilisation – or at least that is how it feels to me), I ran; and I ran fast, back up that lane towards the church, but swerving quickly right at the last minute up the drive of a large and empty house. I hid myself in its garden behind a tall hedge, my heart racing, my blood pumping so loud I could hear it surging in my head. I crouched low so that my feet were soon soaked through despite my heavy boots. The grass was long and wet and stuck to my clothes as I pushed myself down and out of sight at the base of the privet. I waited for some minutes, hearing nothing at first so I that I began to convince myself I had imagined a shadowy pursuer, my senses stirred to fancy by my intimate knowledge of Emma’s own story. But as I started to uncurl myself, my poor bones in need of urgent relief, I heard the distinct tread of footsteps, slow at first and in the distance, but then gathering pace until they were running fast up that hill, heading straight towards me. I could hear the rasp of his breath as he came closer, and I tried hard to put Emma’s words from my head (… footsteps, unmistakable, getting louder; someone or something is running fast up the path…).
Then everything went quiet. But in an ominous way, as if whoever it was, was listening, just waiting for me to make a move. I held everything in, my breath, the overriding desire to run, my whole body forced somehow into a temporary stillness. Then those footsteps again, but heading away from me now, slowly at first then picking up pace again like before, as whoever it was headed off up that path to the church.
I allowed myself to breathe, but I stayed behind that hedge in some stranger’s garden for over an hour, not daring to show myself, unable to make that short journey back down into the village until I was certain I was entirely alone. Even then, it took a leap of courage to thrust myself out of the cover of the drive and back down that path. And when I finally did it was at a pace just short of a sprint, my heart in my mouth all the way.
I left the village that same day, returning home under the cover of darkness, taking an out of the way route, making sure I was not followed.
I do not think that I was, at least not once I had left the village. But the memory of that feeling, that overwhelming sense of panic and fear that someone or something beyond my imagining was watching me, has not yet fully left me and I need time; time to recover, to assess the evidence that I have and to make a plan for what I must do next.
*I think that at any other time I may have called the place beautiful, but my opinion is forever coloured by the deep anxiety I felt all the time I was there – by the sense that my every movement was being watched.