I don’t remember exactly when we first met him. It’s been twenty-five years now and memory has the fortunate trick of losing those details that are irrelevant or unpleasant.
He was a young chap; slim, active, passably good-looking, with the ability to charm the women and be blokey to the men. Everyone else in our social circle thought he was a great guy and welcomed him into their homes. Right from the start he gave me a feeling of unease that I couldn’t explain so I did my best to be pleasant too.
None of us were well off and most of the group had small children. An evening out usually consisted of sitting in someone else’s house, drinking endless cups of cheap coffee, putting the world to rights and watching videos – yes, it was that long ago. We were more mobile than everyone else because we hadn’t started our family yet but we lived on the other side of town so we were never in the habit of just dropping in on anyone.
We spent many such happy evenings at the home of my oldest friend and her husband. They had three small children and we enjoyed helping them with bathing and bedtime, then settling down for a companionable evening. We were arranging our wedding for the following year and our friends were very much involved. I always phoned ahead though, to check that they had no other plans and that we were welcome.
Occasionally there would be a bit of a party amongst our group, where we all contributed food and drink; liasing with each other beforehand so that there wasn’t a plethora of garlic bread – the must-have ingredient for any social scene at the time but not so enjoyable if there was nothing else to eat.
A few weeks after the young man had appeared in our midst, I noticed that he had taken to dropping in on my friends. No courtesy call, just turning up on the doorstep, sometimes with a bottle of wine or some biscuits, usually empty-handed but always with his winning smile.
We were polite at first; after all, our friends liked him and we had no right to dictate about who came to their house, but he had a tendency to dominate the conversation and there were times when we found that we couldn’t talk freely when he was around. He had taken to repeating things we’d said, to other friends, and always with a little extra added – of his own invention. We laughed it off and said that he must have mis-heard but I was beginning to feel that the young man was out to cause mischief – and we were the targets
I mentioned this to my friend. She laughed and said she’d have a word with him but that she was sure that he meant no harm. I wanted to tell her how uncomfortable he made me feel but I said nothing.
It wasn’t so bad when he turned up mid-evening; we’d already had a chance to spend some time with our friends and their children. We’d often make our excuses and leave earlier than was our habit. Then the pattern changed and we’d arrive at our usual time only to find that he was already there, had helped with bedtime and was ensconced on the sofa, grinning – perhaps smirking – or was that just my imagination?
The only mobile phones around in those days were huge black monsters that made you look ridiculous so I continued to phone from home first before we visited. If my friend told me that the young man was already there, I’d make more excuses and cancel. I felt a distance growing between us; my dearest friend was in thrall to this young man and could see no wrong in him. I made some vague mention about his always being there and her response was full of empathy; how he had nowhere else to go, no family in the area, had no phone so he couldn’t call first and see if they were busy, and how helpful he had been to her, especially when her husband was at work. I said nothing.
A couple of weeks later we attended my friend’s birthday party. Life was busy and it was easy enough to manufacture reasons for staying away in the meantime but we had missed our friends. Missed the children and the late night badinage. We couldn’t help but feel resentful towards this cuckoo in the nest but we said nothing and set off for the party with our wine and garlic bread.
Needless to say he was already in control of the party. Filling glasses, handing round food, chatting as he passed from couple to couple, and always with that charming smile.
Because we hadn’t been round for a while, we were greeted by our friends with even more enthusiasm than usual, and as we hugged, I glanced over my friend’s shoulder and saw the young man staring. His smile had been replaced by a glare of such malevolence that it sent a shiver down my spine.
I spent the evening avoiding him but as we were putting our coats on to go home, he came up to us, all smiles and arms outstretched. He gave me a hug and whispered in my ear “You can’t beat me, you bitch. I always win.” He backed away, still smiling and rejoined the party.
I told my husband-to-be as soon as we were safely in the car. We were due to go away on holiday later that month and decided that this would be a good enough reason to keep out of the way. I felt saddened by the loss of time with our friends and frightened by the evil I had heard in the young man’s voice and seen in his eyes. What was it that he wanted to win? What was the prize? Was it just to have our friends to himself, or had he realised that because I had seen through the unctuous manner to the unpleasant persona beneath, I was a threat to him?
We had a lovely holiday and tried to forget about what had happened at the party. We sent a postcard to our friends and hoped that they were okay.
On returning home we found that the answer phone was full of messages. I rewound the tape.
The first message was from my friend. She sounded strange; nervous giggles punctuated a tale of how she had come down from settling the children for bed to find that her husband had been called into work, and that the young man was vacuuming the front room. Except that he was naked apart from her apron. She said that she laughed, then told him to put his clothes back on, before running back upstairs to her children. She picked up the extension phone to call her husband at work but all she could hear was heavy breathing on the line. She felt trapped and was so terrified that she pulled a heavy chest of drawers across the door and sat huddled on the floor between beds and the sleeping children.
She thought she heard the front door slam but wasn’t prepared to go downstairs in case it was a trick. Gingerly she had picked up the phone and on hearing the dialling tone, called her husband and begged him to come home. She was still upstairs behind the barred door when he returned but the young man had gone, leaving the apron and the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the front room.
Neither of them were sure if it was a joke; my friend had often said that one of her fantasies was to have a handsome young man in an apron do her housework for her, but it was then that my friend remembered my misgivings about the young man. My friend needed to let me know that she understood my discomfort and that was why she left the message on my answerphone.
The next message was from another of our friends. They had come home from work to find all the lights on in the house, and the young man sitting in their living room watching their TV and drinking their coffee. He said that he had come round to see them and thought they were being burgled so he climbed in through a window and checked the house for them before making himself at home. They politely asked him to leave and when he had gone, they found money and some small but treasured items were missing.
There were two more messages from other friends; the first stating that the young man had turned up at their house in tears claiming that we had been spreading rumours about him and trying to turn everyone against him. The second was from a friend who lived alone. She sounded scared. She had forgotten that we were away. The young man was outside her house, banging on the door and screaming at her to open it. She rang off saying that she was dialling 999.
We phoned her first to check that she was okay. The call had been made two days earlier. I felt relieved when she picked up the phone. The reign of terror had begun the day we went on holiday. No one had seen the young man since that evening. He ran off before the police arrived and there were signs that he had packed up and left his flat when the police called there looking for him. The items that had been removed from our other friends were left in the middle of the floor. Just trophies.
Things returned to – whatever normal is – after that. We carried on planning the wedding; no one spoke about the young man again and though I desperately wanted to jump up and down shouting “I told you there was something strange about him.” Was he mad or bad or both? I said nothing.
Several months later my friend received a postcard from the young man. He had moved to another seaside town, changed his name and become very involved with the gay community there. He said that his actions were due to a nervous breakdown and apologised for his behaviour. He blamed me because I had never made him feel welcome. My friend tore up the card and gave me a hug.
Since then I have come across a handful of people who evoked the same feelings of unease. Without exception my first impressions have turned out to be correct, although friends and colleagues have been charmed and chided me for being too judgemental. No one ever says “Sorry, you were right all along” when the person finally shows their true colours.
I know who my real friends are these days and who I can rely on.
Caution is my watchword.
Won’t get fooled again.