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The 31 Days of Hallowe'en - An Outside Interest

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  • brent wodehouse
    A n O u t s i d e I n t e r e s t by Ruth Rendell Frightening people used to be a hobby of mine. Perhaps I should rather say an obsession and not people but,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 18, 2011
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      A n O u t s i d e I n t e r e s t

      by Ruth Rendell


      Frightening people used to be a hobby of mine.
      Perhaps I should rather say an obsession and not people
      but, specifically, women. Making others afraid is enjoyable
      as everyone discovers who has tried it and succeeded. I
      suppose it has something to do with power. Most people
      never really try it so they don't know, but look at the ones
      who do. Judges, policemen, prison warders, customs officers,
      tax inspectors. They have a great time, don't they? You don't
      find them giving up or adopting other methods. Frightening
      people goes to their heads, they're drunk on it, they live by it.
      So did I. While other men might go down to the pub with the
      boys or to football, I went off to Epping Forest and frightened
      women. It was what you might call my outside interest.
      Don't get me wrong. There was nothing - well,
      nasty, about what I did. You know what I mean by that, I'm
      sure I don't have to go into details. I'm far from being some
      sort of pervert, I can tell you. In fact, I err rather on the side
      of too much moral strictness. Nor am I one of those lonely,
      deprived men. I'm happily married and the father of a little
      boy, I'm six feet tall, not bad looking, and, I assure you,
      entirely physically and mentally normal.
      Of course I've tried to analyze myself and discover
      my motives. Was my hobby ever any more than an antidote to
      boredom? By anyone's standards the life I lead would be
      classed as pretty dull, selling tickets and answering
      passengers' queries at Anglo-Mercian Airways terminal, living
      in a semi in Muswell Hill, going to tea with my mother-in-law
      on Sundays, and having an annual fortnight in a holiday flat in
      South Devon. I got married very young. Adventure wasn't
      exactly a conspicuous feature of my existence. The biggest
      thing that happened to me was when we thought one of our
      charters had been hijacked in Greece, and that turned out to be
      a false alarm.
      My wife is a nervous sort of girl. Mind you, she has
      cause to be, living where we do close to Highgate Woods and
      Queens Wood. A woman takes her life in her hands, walking
      alone in those places. Carol used to regale me with stories -
      well, she still does.
      "At twenty past five in the afternoon! It was still
      broad daylight. He raped her and cut her in the face, she had to
      have seventeen stitches in her face and neck."
      She doesn't drive and if she comes home from
      anywhere after dark I always go down to the bus stop to meet
      her. She won't even walk along the Muswell Hill Road because of
      the woods on either side.
      "If you see a man on his own in a place like that you
      naturally ask yourself what he's doing there, don't you? A young
      man, just walking aimlessly about. It's not as if he had a dog
      with him. It makes your whole body go tense and you get a sort
      of awful crawling sensation all over you. If you didn't come and
      meet me I don't think I'd go out at all."
      Was it that which gave me the idea? At any rate it
      made me think about women and fear. Things are quite different
      for a man, he never thinks about being afraid of being in dark or
      lonely places. I'm sure I never have and therefore, until I got all
      this from Carol, I never considered how important this business
      of being scared when out alone might be to them. When I came to
      understand, it gave me a funny feeling of excitement.
      And then I actually frightened a woman myself -
      by chance. My usual way of going to work is to cut through
      Queens Wood to Highgate tube station and take the Northern Line
      down into London. When the weather is very bad I go to the station
      by bus but most of the time I walk there and back and the way
      through the wood is a considerable shortcut. I was coming back
      through the wood at about six one evening in March. It was dusk,
      growing dark. The lamps, each a good distance apart from each
      other, which light the paths, were lit, but I often think these give
      the place a rather more bleak and sinister appearance than if it
      were quite dark. You leave a light behind you and walk along a dim
      shadowy avenue toward the next lamp, which gleams faintly some
      hundred yards ahead. And no sooner is it reached, an acid-yellow
      glow among the bare branches, than you leave it behind again to
      negotiate the next dark stretch. I thought about how it must be to
      be a woman walking through the wood and, yes, I gloried in my
      maleness and my freedom from fear.
      Then I saw the girl coming. She was walking along
      the path from Priory Gardens. It came into my head that she would
      be less wary of me if I continued as I had been, marching briskly
      and purposefully toward Wood Vale, swinging along and looking
      like a man homeward bound to his family and his dinner. There was
      no definite intent present in my mind when I slackened my pace,
      then stopped and stood still. But as soon as I'd done that I knew I
      was going to carry it through. The girl came up to where the paths
      converged and where the next lamp was. She gave me a quick
      darting look. I stood there in a very relaxed way and I returned her
      look with a blank stare. I suppose I consciously, out of some sort
      of devilment, made my eyes fixed and glazed and let my mouth go
      loose. Anyway, she turned very quickly away and began to walk
      much faster.
      She had high heels so she couldn't go very fast, not
      as fast as I could, just strolling along behind her. I gained on her
      until I was a yard behind.
      I could smell her fear. She was wearing a lot of
      perfume and her sweat seemed to potentiate it so that there
      came to me a whiff and then a wave of heady, mixed-up animal
      and floral scent. I breathed it in, I breathed heavily. She began to
      run and I strode after her. What she did then was unexpected. She
      stopped, turned around, and cried out in a tremulous terrified
      voice: "What do you want?"
      I stopped too and gave her the same look. She held
      her handbag out to me. "Take it!"
      The joke had gone far enough. I lived around there
      anyway, I had my wife and son to think of. I put on a cockney voice.
      "Keep your bag, love. You've got me wrong."
      And then, to reassure her, I turned back along the
      path and let her escape to Wood Vale and the lights and the start
      of the houses. But I can't describe what a feeling of power and -
      well, triumphant manhood and what's called machismo the
      encounter gave me. I felt grand. I swaggered into my house and
      Carol said had I had a premium bond come up?
      Since I'm being strictly truthful in this account,
      I'd better add the other consequence of what happened in the
      wood, even though it does rather go against the grain with me to
      mention things like that. I made love to Carol that night and it
      was a lot better than it had been for a long time, in fact it was
      sensational for both of us. And I couldn't kid myself that it was
      due to anything but my adventure with the girl.
      Next day I looked at myself in the mirror with all
      the lights off but the little tubular one over our bed, and I put on
      the same look I'd given the girl when she turned in my direction
      under the lamp. I can tell you I nearly frightened myself. I've said
      I'm not bad looking and that's true but I'm naturally pale and since
      I'm thin, my face tends to be a bit gaunt. In the dim light my eyes
      seemed sunk in deep sockets and my mouth hung loose in a vacant
      mindless way. I stepped back from the glass so that I could see
      the whole of myself, slouching, staring, my arms hanging. There
      was no doubt I had the potential of being a woman-frightener of no
      mean caliber.
      They say it's the first step that counts. I had taken
      the first step but the second was bigger and it was weeks before
      I took it. I kept telling myself not to be a fool, to forget those mad
      ideas. Besides, surely I could see I'd soon be in trouble if I made a
      habit of frightening women in Queens Wood, on my own doorstep.
      But I couldn't stop thinking about it. I remembered how wonderful
      I'd felt that evening, how tall I'd walked and what a man I'd been.
      The funny thing was what a lot of humiliating things
      seemed to me at that time, between the Queens Wood incident and
      the next occasion. A woman at the air terminal actually spat at me.
      I'm not exaggerating. Of course she was drunk, smashed out of her
      mind on duty-free Scotch, but she spat at me and I had to stand
      there in the middle of the ticket hall with all those tourists
      milling about, and wipe the spittle off my uniform. Then I got a
      reprimand for being discourteous to a passenger. It was totally
      unjust and, strictly speaking, I should have resigned on the spot,
      only I've got a wife and son and jobs aren't easy to come by at
      present. There was all that and trouble at home as well with Carol
      nagging me to take her on holiday with this girl friend of hers and
      her husband to Minorca instead of our usual Salcombe fortnight. I
      told her straight we couldn't afford it but I didn't like being asked
      in return why I couldn't earn as much as Sheila's Mike.
      My manhood was at a low ebb. Then Sheila and Mike
      asked us to spend the day with them - Carol, Timothy, and me. They
      had been neighbors of ours but had just moved away to a new house
      in one of those outer suburbs that are really in Essex. So I drove
      the three of us out to Theydon Bois and made my acquaintance with
      Epping Forest.
      There are sixty-four square miles of forest, lying on
      the northeastern borders of London. But when you drive from the
      Wake Arms to Theydon along a narrow road bordered by woodland,
      stretches of turf and undergrowth, little coppices of birch trees,
      you can easily believe yourself in the depths of the country. It
      seems impossible that London is only fourteen or fifteen miles
      away. The forest is green and silent and from a car looks unspoiled,
      though of course it can't be. We passed a woman walking a very
      unguard-like dog, a tiny Maltese terrier . . . That gave me the idea.
      Why shouldn't I come out here? Why shouldn't I try my frightening
      act out here where no one knew me?
      Two days after that I did. It was spring and the
      evenings stayed light till nearly eight. I didn't take the car.
      Somehow it didn't seem to me as if the sort of person I was going
      to be, going to *act,* would have a car. The journey was awful,
      enough to deter anyone less determined than I. I went straight
      from work, taking the Central Line tube as far as Loughton and
      then a bus up the hills and into the forest. At the Wake Arms I got
      off and began to walk down the hill, not on the pavement but a few
      yards inside the forest itself. I didn't see a woman on her own
      until I had reached the houses of Theydon and begun the return trip.
      I had gone about a hundred yards up again when she came out of one
      of the last houses, a young girl in jeans and a jacket, her hands in
      her pockets.
      It was clear she was going to walk to the Wake Arms.
      Or so I thought. For a while I walked, keeping step with her, but
      unseen among the hawthorn and crab apple bushes, the tangle of
      brambles. I let us get a quarter of a mile away from the houses
      before I showed myself and then I stepped out onto the pavement
      ahead of her. I turned round to face her and stood there, staring in
      the way I'd practiced in the mirror.
      She wasn't nervous. She was brave. It was only very
      briefly that she hesitated. But she didn't quite dare walk past me.
      Instead she crossed the road. There's never much traffic on that
      road and so far not a single car had passed. She crossed the road,
      walking faster. I crossed too but behind her and I walked along in
      back of her. Presently she began to run, so of course I ran too,
      though not fast enough to catch up to her, just enough to gain on
      her a little.
      We had been going on like that for some minutes, the
      Wake Arms still a mile off, when she suddenly doubled back,
      hared across the road, and began running back the way she had
      come. That finished me for chasing her. I stood there and laughed.
      I laughed long and loud, I felt so happy and free, I felt so much
      all-conquering power that I - I alone, humble, ordinary, dull *me* -
      could inspire such fear.
      After that I took to going to Epping Forest as a
      regular thing. Roughly speaking, I'd say it would have been once a
      fortnight. Since I do shift work, four till midnight just as often
      as ten till six, I sometimes managed to go in the daytime. A lot of
      women are alone at home in the daytime and have no men to escort
      them when they go out. I never let it go more than two weeks
      without my going there and occasionally I'd go more often, if I was
      feeling low in spirits, for instance, or Carol and I had a row or I got
      depressed over money. It did me so much good, I wish I could make
      you understand how much. Just think what it is you do that gives
      you a tremendous lift, driving a car really fast or going disco
      dancing or getting high on something - well, frightening women did
      all that for me and then some. Afterward it was like Christmas, it
      was almost like being in love.
      And there was no harm in it, was there? I didn't hurt
      them. There's a French saying: it gives me so much pleasure and you
      so little pain. That was the way it was for me and them, though it
      wasn't without pleasure for them either. Imagine how they must
      have enjoyed talking about it afterward, going into all the details
      like Carol did, distorting the facts, exaggerating, making themselves
      for a while the center of attention.
      For all I knew they may have got up search parties,
      husbands and boyfriends and fathers all out in a pack looking for me,
      all having a great time as people invariably do when they're hunting
      something or someone. After all, when all was said and done, what
      did I do? Nothing. I didn't molest them or insult them or try to touch
      them, I merely stood and looked at them and ran after them - or ran
      when they ran, which isn't necessarily the same thing.
      There was no harm in it. Or so I thought. I couldn't see
      what harm there could ever be, and believe me, I thought about this
      quite a lot, for I'm just as guiltridden as the rest of us. I thought
      about it, justifying myself, keeping guilt at bay. Young women don't
      have heart attacks and fall down dead because a man chases them.
      Young women aren't left with emotional traumas because a man
      stares at them. The oldest woman I ever frightened was the one
      with the Maltese terrier and she was no more than forty. I saw her
      again on my third or fourth visit and followed her for a while,
      stepping out from behind bushes and standing in her path. She used
      the same words the girl in Queens Wood had used, uttered in the
      same strangled voice: "What is it you want?"
      I didn't answer her. I had mercy on her and her little
      ineffectual dog and I melted away into the woodland shades. The
      next one who asked me that I answered with professorial gravity:
      "Merely collecting lichens, madam."
      It was proof enough of how harmless I was that there
      was never a sign of a policeman in that area. I'm sure none of them
      told the police, for they had nothing to tell. They had only what they
      imagined and what the media had led them to expect. Yet harm did
      come from it, irrevocable harm and suffering and shame.
      No doubt by now you think you've guessed. The
      inevitable must have happened, the encounter that any man who
      makes a practice of intimidating women is bound to have sooner or
      later, when the tables are turned on him. Yes, that did happen but it
      wasn't what stopped me. Being seized by the arm, hurled in the air,
      and laid out, sprawled and bruised, by a judo black belt, was just an
      occupational hazard. I've always been glad, though, that I behaved
      like a gentleman. I didn't curse her or shout abuse. I merely got up,
      rubbed my legs and my elbows, made her a little bow, and walked
      off in the direction of the Wake. Carol wanted to know how I'd
      managed to get green stains all over my clothes and I think to this
      day she believes it was from lying on the grass in a park somewhere
      with another woman. As if I would!
      That attack on me deterred me. It didn't put me off.
      I let three weeks go by, three miserable yearning weeks, and then I
      went back to the Wake road one sunny July morning and had one of
      my most satisfying experiences. A girl walking, not on the road, but
      taking a shortcut through the forest itself. I walked parallel to her,
      sometimes letting her catch a glimpse of me. I knew she did, for,
      like it had been with the girl in Queens Wood, I could sense and
      smell her fear.
      I strolled out from the bushes at last and stood ahead
      of her, waiting. She didn't dare approach me, she didn't know what
      to do. At length she turned back and I followed her, threading my
      way among the bushes until she must have thought I had gone, then
      appearing once more on the path ahead. This time she turned off to
      the left, running, and I let her go. Laughing the way I always did,
      out loud and irrepressibly, I let her go. I hadn't done her any harm.
      Think of the relief she must have felt when she knew
      she'd got away from me and was safe. Think of her going home and
      telling her mother or her sister or her husband all about it.
      You could even say I'd done her a good turn. Most likely
      I'd warned her off going out in the forest on her own and therefore
      protected her from some real pervert or molester of women.
      It was a point of view, wasn't it? You could make me
      out a public benefactor. I showed them what could happen. I was
      like the small electric shock that teaches a child not to play with
      the wires. Or that's what I believed. Till I learned that even a small
      shock can kill.
      I was out in the forest, on the Wake road, when I had
      a piece of luck. It was autumn and getting dark at six, the earliest
      I'd been able to get there, and I didn't have much hope of any woman
      being silly enough to walk down that road alone in the dark. I had
      got off the bus at the Wake Arms and was walking slowly down the
      hill when I saw this car parked ahead of me at the curb. Even from
      a distance I could hear the horrible noise it made as the driver tried
      to start it, that anguished grinding you get when ignition won't take
      place.
      The offside door opened and a woman got out. She was
      on her own. She reached back into the car and turned the lights off,
      slammed the door, locked it, and began walking down the hill toward
      Theydon. I had stepped in among the trees and she hadn't yet seen me.
      I followed her, working out what technique I should use this time.
      Pursuing her at a run to start with was what I decided on.
      I came out onto the pavement about a hundred yards
      behind her and began running after her, making as much noise with
      my feet as I could. Of course she stopped and turned round as I knew
      she would. Probably she thought I was a savior who was going to do
      something about her car for her. She looked round, waiting for me,
      and as soon as I caught her eye I veered off into the forest once
      more. She gave a sort of shrug, turned, and walked on. She wasn't
      frightened yet.
      It was getting dark, though, and there was no moon.
      I caught up to her and walked alongside her, very quietly, only
      three or four yards away, yet in among the trees of the forest. By
      then we were out of sight of the parked car and a long way from
      being in sight of the lights of Theydon. The road was dark, though
      far from being impenetrably black. I trod on a twig deliberately and
      made it snap and she turned swiftly and saw me.
      She jumped. She looked away immediately and
      quickened her pace. Of course she didn't have a chance with me,
      a five-foot woman doesn't with a six-foot man. The fastest she
      could walk was still only my strolling pace.
      There hadn't been a car along the road since I'd been
      following her. Now one came. I could see its lights welling and
      dipping a long way off, round the twists in the road. She went to
      the edge of the pavement and held up her hand the way a hitchhiker
      does. I stayed where I was to see what would happen. What had I
      done, after all? Only been there. But the driver didn't stop for her. Of
      course he didn't, no more than I would have done in his place. We all
      know the sort of man who stops his car to pick up smartly dressed,
      pretty hitchhikers at night and we know what he's after.
      The next driver didn't stop either. I was a little ahead
      of her by then, still inside the forest, and in his headlights I saw
      her face. She was pretty, not that that aspect particularly interested
      me, but I saw that she was pretty and that she belonged to the same
      type as Carol, a small slender blonde with rather sharp features and
      curly hair.
      The darkness seemed much darker after the car lights
      had passed. I could tell she was a little less tense now, she probably
      hadn't seen me for the past five minutes, she might have thought I'd
      gone. And I was tempted to call it a day, give up after a quarter of an
      hour, as I usually did when I'd had my fun.
      I wish to God I had. I went on with it for the stupidest
      of reasons. I went on with it because I wanted to go in the same
      direction as she was going, down into Theydon and catch the tube
      train from there, rather than go back and hang about waiting for a
      bus. I could have waited and let her go. I didn't. Out of some sort of
      perverse need, I kept step with her and then I came out of the forest
      and got onto the pavement behind her.
      I walked along, gaining on her, but quietly. The road dipped,
      wound a little. I got two or three yards behind her, going very softly,
      she didn't know I was there, and then I began a soft whistling, a hymn
      tune it was, the Crimond version of "The Lord Is My Shepherd." What a
      choice!
      She spun round. I thought she was going to say something
      but I don't think she could. Her voice was strangled by fear. She
      turned again and began to run. She could run quite fast, that tiny
      vulnerable blonde girl.
      The car lights loomed up over the road ahead. They were
      full-beam, undipped headlights, blazing blue-white across the
      surrounding forest, showing up every tree and making long black
      shadows spring from their trunks. I jumped aside and crouched down
      in the long grass. She ran into the road, holding up both arms and
      crying: "Help me! Help me!"
      He stopped. I had a moment's tension when I thought he
      might get out and come looking for me, but he didn't. He pushed open
      the passenger door from inside. The girl got in, they waited, sitting
      there for maybe half a minute, and then the white Ford Capri moved
      off.
      It was a relief to me to see that car disappear over the
      top of the hill. And I realized, to coin a very appropriate phrase, that
      I wasn't yet out of the wood. What could be more likely than that girl
      and the car driver would either phone or call in at Loughton police
      station? I knew I'd better get myself down to Theydon as fast as
      possible.
      As it happened I did so without meeting or being passed
      by another vehicle. I was walking along by the village green when
      the only cars I saw came along. On the station platform I had to wait
      for nearly half an hour before a train came, but no policeman came
      either. I had got away with it again.
      In a way. There are worse things than being punished for
      one's crimes. One of those is not being punished for them. I am
      suffering for what I did of course by not being allowed - that is, by
      not allowing myself - to do it again. And I shall never forget that
      girl's face, so pretty and vulnerable and frightened. It comes to me a
      lot in dreams.
      The first time it appeared to me was in a newspaper
      photograph, two days after I had frightened her on the Wake road. The
      newspaper was leading on the story of her death and that was why it
      used the picture. On the previous morning, when she had been dead
      twelve hours, her body had been found, stabbed and mutilated, in a
      field between Epping and Harlow. Police were looking for a man,
      thought to be the driver of a white Ford Capri.
      Her rescuer, her murderer. Then what was I?



      "An Outside Interest" Copyright © 1982 by Ruth Rendell



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