Chapter 1: Paula
Paula did not really consider herself to be a stalker. It was just one of those cruel ironies of fate that the flat her ex-boyfriend shared with his new fiancée – the lovely Belinda – happened to be en route to the local supermarket, forcing her to
walk right past his front door every day.
Still more unfortunate that it happened to be situated between the bedsit where she was living and all the local amenities at the heart of Clapham, including the launderette, library, hairdressers and swimming pool.
That Paula lived in Finsbury Park, a mere fifty minutes away, was no reason to stop shopping in Clapham. She couldn’t not shop in Clapham just because Alan lived there: it was vitally important she did not let him affect her life. (The group therapy sessions had been very strong on this.) It was nothing to do with Alan. And so, it follows, that if she just so happens to be passing after a late night tipple in one of Lavender Hill’s trendy drinkeries and just so happens to glimpse Alan’s lit sitting room window through her 90mm portable refractor telescope from up a large tree in his back garden… Well, what could she do? The fact that Alan insisted on transparent Japanese paper blinds on the garden side of his flat was surely tantamount to blatant provocation and absolved
her of all responsibility for anything she might – completely inadvertently – happen to see.
Paula shifted her weight uncomfortably to prevent her bottom being impaled on a particularly spiny twig and raised the telescope up to her face. Her stomach lurched as the indistinct pink blob jumped into view, resolving itself into the familiar, beloved, shimmering circumference of Alan’s balding pate, levitating over the top of the back of a cream leather sofa. It was bobbing. Paula swivelled the scope to catch sight of a comedian on the television. The pate paused for a second and then started bobbing again, like a pingpong ball on the surface of a pond.
Paula felt a stab, as she always did, faced with the changes to her former home. Belinda did not sit around. Gone were the familiar magnolia walls, replaced by a muted palette in a greyish colour Paula found out was known as ‘taupe’. Gone were the faded green sofas; gone the throws and rugs, the moth-eaten posters of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the reproduction Durer’s rabbit, the flea market sampler; the familiar clutter collected over eight years of cohabitation and car boot sales.
Instead, two predatory sleek leather cream sofas prowled a laminate Serengeti plain, whilst above, cool as vultures, arty black and white photographs hovered in brushed metal frames: a nicelooking man in the foetal position, a nice-looking woman in the foetal position, and – for a bit of variety – a nice-looking man with a nice-looking woman. In the foetal position.
Nothing remained of the home she once knew but the ornate egg and dart cornice that had once curled around her cosy life with Alan like a sleeping cat, now warily stalking a reproduction regency chandelier.
She absently raked her telescope over the rest of the flat – kitchenette: monstrous granite breakfast bar like a misplaced ocean liner, American diner-style coffee maker, designer lemon squeezer with legs. Master bedroom (a pang): more taupe. Or was it mushroom? – before returning to the hall in time to catch a tanned, tailored woman with paper-straight highlighted hair letting herself in through the front door.
There she was. Bitch.
The woman carefully hung up her tailored jacket and handbag, running a caressing hand over the latter before making her way to the sitting room. She stood over the bald pate momentarily, hands on hips, before taking the remote control and changing channels. The bald patch stopped bobbing and jerked round. The woman thrust out her neat breasts with a pout. He reached out a hand but her sharp heels were already stinging their way across the laminate towards the window.
Paula jumped to find the tanned face staring straight at her and dropped the telescope in surprise. It hurtled down into the bushes at the base of the tree, sending a marmalade cat yowling across the lawn. Shit.
The apartment window opened with a shriek of swollen wood.
‘Who’s there?’ the woman demanded in a high-pitched bark, craning her neck below. ‘Declare yourself!’
Paula sat as rigid as the novelty owl perched on the roof above Belinda’s head. ‘Alan, there’s a burglar out there!’
‘Don’t be silly darling, it’s just cats.’
‘Cats my arse, I tell you Alan, there’s somebody out there!’
‘Come on, come back.’ Then, in fruity tones, ‘I know a way to relax you.’
The figure at the window hesitated before withdrawing her head and rolling the window down with a resolute bang. Desperately, Paula reached for her emergency binoculars in time to see Belinda’s plucked and pinched face vanishing underneath the designer Japanese blind. Bugger. The lights dimmed. Paula’s eyes were just acclimatising to the light, and beginning to make out the dim shapes through the screen in a way she did not like at all, when the lights went out. Shit shit shit. What was she going to do now? Her mind raced with scenes of impossible acrobatics unfolding behind those paper-thin barriers. Still glued to the binoculars, she sat back on her branch and reached one hand into the small khaki rucksack dangling from a leafy branch above her head.
‘Hello? Prugg and Cartwright’s residence,’ said a female voice; harsh, irritated and suspiciously out of breath.
Paula said nothing.
‘Hello? Hello? I’m afraid I can’t hear you.’ There was a ‘tsk’ of annoyance.
‘Hello?’ Paula said quickly before Belinda could hang up on her. She instantly regretted it.
‘Who’s this?’ Belinda’s voice was sharp.
‘I am…’ Paula hedged, casting around for a suitable identity.
She cupped her hand over her mobile speaker and lowered her voice. ‘…your worst nightmare…’
‘Alan! It’s that crazy cow again!’
Alan’s voice came onto the line. ‘Paula, is that you?’
‘No,’ she said.
‘Look, Paula, how many times...?’
But his voice was snatched away to be replaced by the other, harsh and shrill.
‘Do you know what time it is, you freaky bitch?’
‘I want to talk to Alan.’
‘He’s not here.’
‘I just spoke to him.’
‘Well he doesn’t want to speak to you.’
‘Tell him – ’
‘No, I bloody won’t!’ And she hung up.
Paula sat for a moment, teary-eyed, looking at the reflection of the street lights in the black pools of the windows across the way, and fiddled with her phone.
This time, it was Alan’s voice that answered; she had to make it quick.
‘I love you. Alan. I love you, so much…can’t live without you, I – ’
There was a sigh. ‘Look,’ he mumbled under his breath, trailing off as Belinda’s voice in the background demanded, ‘Is it that bloody lunatic again?’
The harsh voice zoomed into focus, spitting down the receiver, ‘Look, you pathetic little woman. Alan is not yours anymore, okay? He’s mine. Mine. You hear that? Right. Now fuck-the-fuck off!’
The phone went dead.
Paula sat back, winded, staring at the mobile in her hand. Belinda was going to regret that last statement.
It started to drizzle.
The idea of a warming bite to eat from a nearby takeaway threatened to erode her resolve, but Belinda’s parting pleasantry was enough to ignite a fire in her stomach worthy of any chicken vindaloo.
The faded khaki rucksack circled slowly in a gust of breeze. Inside: her notebook, thermos, some pieces of chicken wrapped in foil and a waterproof sleeping bag, which she now removed and carefully unfurled.
Manoeuvring herself inside with some difficulty, Paula wiggled about until she finally found a relatively comfortable position wedged between the trunk of the tree and one of its thicker branches. She reached for her thermos and poured herself a lidful of hot black tea. The drizzle worsened and she cupped her freezing fingers around the lid, steam rising, allowing the feeling in her fingers to gradually return – at first painful with pins and needles, then mellowing to a dull, be-splintered ache. And there she sat, sipping tea, blowing on her hands and gazing out at the windows across the way.
It was going to be a long, uncomfortable night.