I remember the day she started pursuing me, when suddenly it seemed that the sun had faded from the city and shadows were everywhere. It was a fortnight to her court case. The final court case, that would free her daughter for adoption.The envelope stood out from the pile of routine patient correspondence, with an orange recorded delivery sticker. It had been signed for by my secretary. On the reverse the flap was sealed with white tape. Printed on it: ‘TAMPERING WITH MAIL IS CLASSED AS AN ACT OF TREASON.’ As I tore it open a black feather drifted out. My heart sank: a weirdo.
It was a rambling complaint from a mother whom I had reported to the authorities for abusing her child. She would make an official complaint to the hospital, she would have me investigated by the General Medical Council; I would suffer, she said, as she and her child had suffered. I passed the letter, with a reply, to the hospital’s legal department.
But the letters kept coming, day after day.
I worked in different locations: the hospital, a community health centre, a special school. It was an inner city area, rife with gang violence, and not the safest in any situation; a nurse had been attacked in one hospital car park by a man trying to steal her car. Staff were told not to park too far away from the hospital building: not easy when arriving for an afternoon clinic with every space in the car park already full.
At every location there would be an envelope waiting for me with an orange sticker and the white tape on the flap. Inside were threats: ‘YOU BITCH YOU WILL SUFFER’. Sometimes the telephone extension on my desk would ring, and there would be silence when I answered.
It was unpleasant to think that this woman knew where I worked; perhaps even where I would be on any particular day? I wondered about going to the police. But how could I get them to act? Perhaps by ignoring the letters they would eventually stop. I started to study the car parks closely to see if I was being observed. I would look over my shoulder while walking to see if there was someone behind me, watch my rear view mirror wherever I drove. I swapped cars with my husband, exchanging my jeep for his more anonymous hatchback.
The day before the court case I found a dead bird in my clinic room. A blackbird, its claws bunched up stiffly, its body limp.
‘How did this get here?’ I asked the receptionist.
She inspected the room unapologetically. The window was open.
‘It must have flown in.’ She picked up the phone. ‘Perhaps it couldn’t get out. I’ll ring Estates and get it removed.’
‘But it was on the desk,’ I said, ‘as if someone had placed it there. In the centre of the desk.’
She looked at me in puzzlement.
’No-one could have brought that in,’ she said. ‘I’ve been here since the doors opened this morning, no-one came in.
The clinic in the community health centre ran late, and I had to dictate all the letters before leaving. I glanced from time to time at the darkening window, wondering if behind the vertical blinds a face was pressed against the glass. I was almost the last person in the building to leave and the sky was dark outside. There were only a couple of cars left in the vast car park, under a single orange light. Between the health centre and the main road were playing fields, a tarmac driveway running past them. I thought I was alone, looking warily around as I stowed my bags in the boot. But as I drove to the end of the driveway and pulled out into the road, a car started up at the back of the car park and another set of headlights followed me out.
Something under the windscreen wiper flapped as I accelerated along the road. A note, in a plastic bag:
I stopped behind a queue at a red light. That car was behind me. In the rear view mirrors I could make nothing of the driver’s face, a pale blur.
Home Time. I thought of my son, whose father would have collected him from school, who would perhaps be eating fish fingers and watching cartoons. The innocence of home. I did not want to lead this pursuer to them. I would shake her off.
I turned right, off my usual route, and sped up, taking a lane that curved out through the back of the suburbs and into open land, partly industrial estates and part empty fields. I took the bends quickly, the hatchback hugging the curves, light and fast, darting out at roundabouts, threading between other cars. Yet I couldn’t out-run her. I went through an amber traffic light; she crossed it on red.
And then on a dark road I hit a pothole, too fast, punched the wheel rim, the impact slamming through the car. Even as I slowed down I felt the vibration of the nearside front tyre that told me it was deflating, the steering going off balance, the car swerving unpredictably as I tried to hold it steady. I would have to stop. Ahead of me were lights, a gap in the trees: a pub car park.
I pulled up and sat in the car shaking, checked the central locking. The wheel would have to be changed. I found my phone and scrolled through my contacts for the breakdown company. Not there. Maybe I had a number in the car, a card tucked into the back of my road tax holder. I leaned across the passenger seat to check.
Her face was there outside the passenger window, her fist circling against the glass, wiping water away so that she could see in. Her forehead pressed against it, her nose flattening, forming white blobs. She was looking at me. I felt sick, my heart pounding. I shrank back into the driver’s seat, the card of the breakdown company in my fingertips.
As I dialled the number, she was gone from the window. Then I heard a scratching sound, a sharp object being drawn along the side of the car. My jaw clenched. I would have to confront her.
As I got out of the car, the phone still in my hand, I realised I was furious with her. I no longer felt afraid. I glared at her over the hatchback roof. She was a dumpy woman, her peroxided hair in an untidy frizz, a black leather coat, gold chains.
‘I’ve had it up to here with you,’ I snapped. ‘Your stalking and sneaking. What gives you the right?’
‘You’re the stalker, you’re the sneak! You and your stories and your so-called evidence. She was all I had. My daughter!’
‘How dare you?’ I was too angry to be afraid, stood my ground. ‘How dare you send me those stupid letters, how dare you follow me about, how dare you try and intimidate me?’
‘You took away my life with your lies. You don’t know what I’ve been through. I’ve never had a proper family. My stepdad tried to drown me in the bath. I was in care. Then I was on my own with the baby. You don’t know what it’s like, begging for rent, queuing up for food banks, nowhere to go, sleeping on people’s settees. The things I’ve had to do.’
‘But it’s not about you, is it? It’s about her. Your child’s my patient, not you.’
‘You took her away. You should have helped me. I needed help.’
My anger flashed up then, at her self-pity, at her vileness.
‘Your own actions led to your daughter being permanently damaged.’ I drew myself up, rigid with anger, yelling over the car. ‘You had a duty to protect her and instead you harmed her. You chose to harm her. So don’t blame me.’
‘You are to blame, you’re all bitches. You and the social workers.’ She lifted her arm; the blade of a knife caught the orange light. ‘It’s all lies. You don’t know what happened to my daughter, you weren’t there.’
I should have called the police. But it was too late. I stood my ground.
’So, how does a baby who can’t even walk get multiple fractures, then?’
‘You’re making it up.’ Her hand clenched on the knife.
‘You can’t deny the evidence. How did she get the brain haemorrhages?’
‘She was sick and you didn’t help her. Your hospital should be closed down.’
I couldn’t stand any more of her lies. Her stories that changed from one day to the next. The days in Court, the lawyers who picked over the evidence, trying to find the tiniest chink, the smallest irrelevance, anything that would save their client.
‘You shook her, didn’t you?’ I was shouting at her now, what I’d been too polite to say in Court, the bitter truth. ‘You shook her. She was crying and you shook her to shut her up. You shook her until she was unconscious, until her brain was bleeding, until she couldn’t breathe.’
She was no longer looking at me, but perhaps seeing an inner vision, a guilt she would carry for the rest of her life.
I was breathless with brutality.
‘You shook her until her ribs were breaking under your hands, you shouted at her to shut up, shut up, shut up -‘
Her eyes went up to the sky and then she turned the knife on herself. I heard a sigh of pain, then she leaned her head forward and rested it on the car roof.
The phone was still connected to the breakdown company. A distant voice asking if anyone was there.
‘I need the police,’ I said, ‘And an ambulance.’