Footsteps by Chris Green
You may not have heard of Tregorran. Most people haven’t. It is a tiny hamlet, remote even by Cornish standards. Although I keep hearing that providers are investing millions of pounds to tackle poor reception in rural areas, I have no phone signal where I am staying at Little Wormwood Cottage, a rural retreat, accessible only a long windy track. I only pick up the voicemail message from Unknown Caller when I come into range the next day. There is no spoken message, just a background track which sounds like footsteps in the rain.
I put it down to a phone in someone’s pocket accidentally dialling my number. Although I do not use the phone that much, it could be someone whose number is not in my phonebook, a casual acquaintance for instance or a tradesperson that I have contacted who has saved my number. The odds that the keypad itself could hit eleven digits in the right order to correspond with a mobile phone number are ten to the power of something astronomical.
I think nothing more of it, but to my alarm, the same thing happens again the next day. It is a carbon copy of the first. Both calls were made at 10:24pm by an unknown caller and both times the message consists of footsteps tramping in the rain, lasting for one minute thirty seconds. This really spooks me. It is not something that can have happened accidentally. This is way beyond the realms of coincidence. Something is definitely not quite right.
I listen carefully to the calls several times, playing them back through the car’s speakers. It sounds like a single set of footsteps. The tread is rhythmic and purposeful. There is the suggestion of waterproofs rubbing together, perhaps from a jacket or pair of wet weather trousers. It has been raining heavily on and off for days here in Cornwall. The calls may not have been from Cornwall of course. In fact, why would they have come from Cornwall? I know very few people here. They could have come from anywhere, Alaska, China, anywhere, although it’s fair to say I cannot recall having contact with anyone so far flung. I think I detect a suggestion of light traffic on a wet road in the background, but I am not sure. There are no voices to be heard on either recording.
The man in the dark suit and the Men In Black sunglasses standing outside the village post office in St Mervyn looks distinctly out of place. I give the sinister figure a wide birth but as I walk past, he barks out something in a foreign language. Whether he is addressing me or not I cannot tell. Then I notice another figure in a dark suit with even blacker sunglasses talking into a phone outside the twelfth-century church. How is it that he is able to get a signal around here when I am not? He is pointing in my direction. If that isn’t threatening enough, there is Vladimir Putin mounted on a black horse outside the butchers’ shop. Reason would suggest it is not the Russian leader, but the resemblance is uncanny and he carries with him the same air of menace. He is holding what looks like a hunting rifle.
I don’t aim to stay and find out what these outsiders are doing in this sleepy backwater. I double back over the stone bridge where my Golf is parked and dive into it. It is not a fast car but after some cute manoeuvres I manage to lose the black sedan that I find is following me up the narrow muddy country lanes. I have been here several days and have become used to the lie of the land. My pursuers clearly have not.
Nothing seems to make sense. Why am I being hounded? I have come down here to do some writing. To finish of a story about fly fishing ready for publication next month. And to spend some time with my partner, Jodi. She’ll be here later. She was supposed to arrive yesterday but was delayed. She is in advertising. Precise arrangements can be difficult as project times often overrun with television campaigns and the like.
Perhaps these interlopers, whoever they are, have confused me with someone else. If they want me, why don’t they just confront me directly? Why would they make themselves so obvious? They are just drawing attention to themselves. Are they just trying to frighten me? If this is the case they are succeeding. I am terrified.
When I get back to the apartment, much to my relief Jodi is there. I explain to her what has been happening.
She is not impressed. I am a little disappointed. I was hoping she might be more understanding and supportive.
‘So you had a couple of strange voicemail messages,’ she says. ‘I get lots of them. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is with phones these days.’
‘But the two calls were identical, and at exactly the same time on consecutive nights,’ I protest.
‘Even less reason to be concerned. It’s just a technical hiccup at Vodafone.’
‘O2,’ I correct her.
‘OK. A gremlin at O2. I’m sure these things happen all the time.’
‘What about the men in the village?’ I say.
‘Two men wearing shades. Don’t you feel you are being a little over-sensitive?’
‘But it wasn’t even sunny,’ I say. ‘And what about Vladimir Putin?’
‘On a horse, you say. People do ride horses in the country.’
‘But then they chased after me in the black sedan.’
‘Oh come on now! If professionals were tailing you, don’t you think they might have managed to keep up with you on these slow roads? They turned off. They were going somewhere else. The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.’
‘I guess not,’ I concede.
‘Anyway,’ she says, putting her arms around me. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’
‘So, Where are you going to take me? What delights does the back of beyond have to offer?’
I tell her that there is not much going on out of season.
‘I know a place,’ she says. ‘The one that was named after that Daphne Du Maurier book’
‘No not that one, the other one.’
We drive a few miles to The House On The Strand. We take Jodi’s car just in case. No-one follows us. Since we were last down here, The House In The Strand has been converted into a gastropub and has a French chef.
I have Boudin Blanc in Leeks and Mustard Sauce which turns out to be sausages in cream and Jodi has Battered Cod with Marie Rose Sauce and Chick Pea Fries which looks very much like fish and chips. The presentation is nice though and the Pistachio Mascarpone with Milk Chocolate Port Truffle, and the Dulce de Leche Crème Fraiche with Almond are both delicious. The second bottle of Shiraz is even better than the first. While we are trying to decide who is the most fit to drive back, Jodi goes off to the Ladies.
I have almost forgotten about the earlier traumas. Perhaps Jodi is right, I do occasionally indulge a little paranoia. I am looking forward to a few days relaxation with her now. We can wine and dine and make love. We can tour around taking in the beautiful landscape. We can swim in the sea and perhaps hire a boat to explore the bays. We can go to the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens. The Minack Theatre. St Michaels Mount. Cornwall has plenty to offer.
Jodi often spends a few minutes powdering her nose, so at first, I am not concerned when she doesn’t return, but after ten minutes or so I begin to worry. She has never spent quite this long. She has taken her handbag, so I give her mobile a ring. While mine is working fine here, she seems to have hers switched off. My next thought is that, thinking that we were ready to leave, she may have gone out to the car. I go over to the window and take a look outside. Her Polo is still in the car park. She is not in it.
A waiter comes over, concerned that we are trying to do a runner. Frantically I explain the situation to him. He asks me to calm down and offers to send a colleague to the Ladies to investigate. His colleague returns. Jodi is not there. I am beside myself. My paranoia comes flooding back, this time with interest. Perhaps the lady has just gone for a walk to clear her head, says the maître d’, pointing out that we have had quite a lot of wine. And the second bottle was 13.5%. Just then my phone rings. Thinking it must be Jodi, complete with an explanation, I answer it. It is not Jodi. There is no-one on the other end. All I can hear are the familiar footsteps in the rain. It is not raining outside. It is 10:24.
‘Who Is This?’ I yell into the phone. ‘Why do you keep phoning me? What Do You Want?’ The caller does not respond. The footsteps continue, their dull trudging rhythm regular as a metronome.
Everyone in the pub is looking at me. I don’t care. It seems unlikely that the caller will respond, but like a madman, I keep shouting into the phone. After an eternity, the call ends. The display says that the call has lasted just ninety seconds.
I turn my attention back to Jodi’s disappearance. I begin to ask other diners if they saw anything. Having witnessed my behaviour on the phone, they are reluctant to cooperate. Several of them are already asking for their bills. From the few that are still civil, it appears no-one saw Jodi go to the Ladies and no-one saw her leave the establishment. No-one saw anything suspicious. They are of the view that we have had a lover’s tiff, Jodi stormed off and that I called her on my mobile and started shouting at her. The maître d’ is asking me to leave. He is threatening to call the police. There is no need. One of the customers has already done so.
For a rural force, The Devon and Cornwall Constabulary arrive on the scene remarkably quickly as if they have been waiting just up the road. There are four of them in blue fatigues, all built like Bulgarian shot-putters. They issue stock commands from the police lexicon, all of which suggest I should not move. The press arrive. Legions of them. What is going on? Surely the crime rate around here cannot be so low that a small disagreement in a pub can warrant so much attention, but as the officers are putting the handcuffs on and leading me away to the patrol car, the paparazzi are snapping away like I’m a disgraced celebrity.
I have not been in this position before, but police custody is probably the same the world over. You are bundled into a cell, probably drunk, by burly officers, and subjected to maximum indignity and discomfort for the duration of your stay. The cell probably has concrete floors and walls, with bars on one side so the duty officer can keep an eye on you and a wooden bench for you to sober up on. It probably smells of urine, body odour and vomit. In all these ways the one in which I find myself at a remote location in Cornwall might be seen as typical.
What may be different here is that there is country and western music playing, loudly. Very loudly. This cannot be with the motive of settling the prisoner in. It can only promote thoughts of self-harm or worse. Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is followed by Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December and Dolly Parton’s I Will Forever Hate Roses and then the daddy of them all, Jim Reeves’ He’ll Have To Go. God! This music is awful. Tennessee must be a living Hell.
The pounding in my head makes me think I may have had more of the wine than Jodi, and, didn’t I start off with a pint of beer? This is not the time to be listening to Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart and I do believe they have turned it up. Do they know how much I hate country music? Is this a special programme for my benefit? Eddy Arnold’s Make The World Go Away is now playing, over and over. They must have left it on repeat and buggered off. Why would anyone want to listen to this, even once? The potential damage to the brain from earworm is unimaginable. This is surely a tried and tested technique from Guantanamo Bay. If introduced in prisons here the threat of 24/7 Eddy Arnold I imagine would significantly cut offending rates.
To add to my suffering, I can’t help but be concerned as to what might be happening to Jodi. She must have been abducted and if I can be detained in this manner, then perhaps she is too. God forbid! Jodi likes her creature comforts. I like her to have her creature comforts. I do my best to ensure she has her creature comforts. I love Jodi more than anything in the world. But to get back to my situation, if she too is being held, she is not going to be available to bail me out. How am I going to get out of here to help her get out of wherever she is? Will I ever see her again?
Fuck me! what is happening to me? Everything is escalating out of my control. I lie down on the bench to try to temper the bouts of nausea. Hard though it is, I try to arrange my chaotic thoughts into those of reason. My captors didn’t seem concerned with charging me so much as just banging me up. This is odd. Police like their procedures. Perhaps they are not real police ….. but villains …… although this does seem like a real police station. But surely real police wouldn’t just abandon me doomed to listen forever to a loop of the Tennessee Plowboy. This is not the kind of professional behaviour one expects from modern officers, it is more like the antics of pranksters.
My mind keeps returning to the footsteps. That haunting repetitive sound keeps thumping away in my head. What is it about those footsteps? From somewhere at the back of my consciousness I dredge up a faint recollection of an advertising campaign that Jodi was involved with a year or so ago. Gradually I am able to build up a picture of a series of television adverts. They are filmed in black and white with a retro man trudging home through sludgy snow late at night. He is looking forward to his cup of hot drinking chocolate and as he does so a red glow forms around him. There are no words or music on the ads, just the hypnotic sound of the footsteps and logo of the company in the corner of the screen.
Could Jodi be responsible for my present situation? Could she have made those phonecalls from an unregistered phone, arranged the men in black, the Vladimir Putin lookalike and the car chase? She would know the effect that these things would have on me. She would know that I have a tendency to blow things out of all proportion. It would then be easy for her to get me drunk and then disappear. She is in a position to recruit actors to be paparazzi and brutish policemen. It would be like casting an advertising campaign. But here’s the coup de grâce. More than anyone, Jodi knows how much I hate country and western music. But then, why would she do this to me?
Oh! My! God! Might Jodi have discovered that I slept with …… her sister, Suzi, when she was away at that conference last year? I wondered what she had the hump about when she came back from Pilates last Thursday. Pilates normally relaxes her. I heard a while back that Suzi’s friend, Amy had started going to the class. I am aware that Amy can be spiteful. She must have dropped a hint about our clandestine liaison into the conversation somewhere.
Jodi must have realised that tackling me about it there and then would have met with my denial. Nevertheless, she must have thought, no smoke without fire. Keeping her discovery to herself then would then have given her chance to quietly plan her revenge. To further humiliate me, she may even be making a film of my entire Cornwall escapade. I am in all probably being filmed right now. Movie cameras are so inconspicuous these days, indistinguishable from the CCTV cameras we are so used to seeing every day as we go about our daily lives. And they can be panned and zoomed remotely. The police station has the look and feel of a film set. Isn’t that a film camera over there?
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved