It was June, an incredible day. The air was fresh with the scent of leaves, grass, lush heaving boughs and hanging baskets dripping ﬂowers. I felt light and alive as I got ready for work; I was a journalist. I wanted to wear something appropriate for a day I hoped would end in a pavement café sipping a cool beer and eating olives. I slipped on sandals that showed off my red-painted toes and a linen shirt dress that was cool yet professional. I dried my hair, which had been cut into an angular bob and was cropped and French-looking. I felt good.
I was just about to run out the door when the postman delivered a handful of letters. Nothing exciting: the electric bill and junk mail. But then I noticed an envelope that appeared to have a card inside it. I guessed it was an invite to a friend’s wedding I had been expecting. I threw it and that day’s post into my bag and left for work.
For lunch I usually went to Masai’s. It was a hippyish African lentil-and-bean style eatery that reminded me of one I worked in many years earlier, and where this story really begins…. It was warm inside Masai’s. I ordered my usual Thai green curry and took a seat in the café window. Waiting, I decided to read my mail. I went for the card straight away – the bills I would leave for another day.
Inside the envelope I found a beautiful handmade card. It was decorated with a collage of cupid figures cut and pasted from magazines to form the shape of a heart. Shot through the heart was a golden arrow made of thread stitched dexterously into place. Inside the card, I found a message that was hard to read at first. As I slowly deciphered the words I went cold.
This is an invite to your wedding on October 12, 1997 at Halesburgh Registry Office, followed by dinner for two on the Maid of the Vale ferry and a short honeymoon in Lough Castle on the River Tor.
PLEASE DON’T HURT ME ANYMORE.
I was shaky. I felt alone and vulnerable. It was from Saul.
I had been an idiot. Friends had warned me to take action, to call the police about him, an admirer whose behaviour had grown erratic and, now, insane. I was too independent. I wanted to believe it was something I could handle myself. But this, this was out of my depth. He knew my address. Saul (not, by the way, his real name) was – I had to admit it – a stalker. I felt as if everything I had worked for was at stake.
Following my journalistic instinct, I called the registrar. Sure enough, I was down to be married at the time and date recorded on the card. It was odd, the woman I spoke to admitted, that the very polite man who came in to make the arrangements did not know my middle name but he said he would call back to confirm the details. Was there a problem?
It began with a soggy teabag. Some twelve years earlier, I was washing pots in a café, a student summer job. I was scrubbing caked chickpeas from a worn-out saucepan when a teabag landed in the soap suds. Dishwater hit me square in the eye.
I jolted, embarrassed, and turned to see a man laughing. Then, ingenuously, he apologised. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to soak you.’ We laughed, though I didn’t think it was all that funny. After all I was working, missing summer for a few quid, and he was an advertising exec, expensively dressed, who could be drinking at next door’s upmarket restaurant instead of throwing teabags around, irritating me.
Saul was in his mid-thirties. Intelligent, not quite handsome but he seemed amusing. His dark brown hair ﬂopped carelessly over his eyes and he had a smile that often attracted women – though he wasn’t my type.
He was dating one of the waitresses. Kendra was a beautiful woman with really black skin and hair in sculpted braid and beads that tapped together as she walked. By way of contrast, I sweated through that summer in an apron yellowed by assorted dried pulses. My hair was scraped back in a top knot, sleeves rolled up like a ﬂoor scrubber, which I often was. Saul had an eye for handsome women and next to Kendra, I felt second rate. She talked about him constantly. Some of it I didn’t need to know. Like how great their sex life was. He was a sweet soul, she said, but then, he could afford to be. He drove a beamer, and he arrived each lunchtime in a designer suit and expensive shoes, not strictly fashionable but hip in his own way.
He bought Kendra ostentatious bunches of ﬂowers. He would enter the café with another oversized bouquet for his lover and make arrangements for dinner. He was pretty showy. Returning from a trip to Chi-cago, he brought her back a painting that, he said, cost $25,000.
I saw him ﬂirting with other women but it appeared benign; he always went back to Kendra. I was grateful he never tried it on with me. I’d given up batting my eyelids for anyone that summer. I craved solitude and quiet.
I wanted what they had one day – but not yet. I was only 19, and I had a sense of life out there just waiting to be had.
A decade passed before Saul began to pester me. I had relocated to Edinburgh. After university, I served my time as a trainee journalist on a local newspaper in Lancashire before moving to Scotland to freelance for the nationals. I saw Saul on rare visits home. We exchanged a brief ‘hello, how are you?’ when I ran into him in town. Conversation was limited. He gave no indication of the growing feelings he had for me. I learned of those only later. One afternoon during a chance meeting as I dawdled around the shops, I encountered him and made the mistake of listening sympathetically to his romantic troubles. After talking about his failed relationship with Kendra, now long ago, and other unrequited loves, the conversation changed. He harped on about my work, how accomplished I was in my chosen career, how absorbing he found my articles. I was a little ﬂattered of course but gave it no real thought.
I had no idea that he was becoming a stalker. I now know that his pathology was fuelled by an interest in my job. He had for some time been following my career as a writer, ﬁrst, in the local newspaper, then, in the national press. He saw my by-lines reporting from not only the U.K., but also from Bosnia, Armenia, and South Africa. Out of this he had somehow contrived to develop an attachment. But it was an attachment to a person he had largely invented, a story he told himself about who I was that bore little resemblance to myself. He was, I suspect, less in love with me than he was with an idea of me as a writer.
In his mind I had become a newspaper celebrity who seemed to speak personally to him on a daily basis. He didn’t want quick sex – I knew that. Whatever he felt, it was no fad. He fell in love with a belief that I was bright, that I had talent. But he was deluded. He didn’t know me, and while my journalism was professional, it wasn’t Pulitzer Prize-winning.
He didn’t appear to grasp the difference between registers of writing, between, say, reportage and ﬁction. They were all the same to him and he believed I could write anything. I was as much his Kate Adie as his Hilary Mantel. If I’d told him I wrote poetry, he would think of me as another Emily Dickinson or Carol Ann Duffy. It wasn’t ﬂattering; it was an unfunny joke, as was his notion of who I was. He only knew an idea of me, his idea, not who I actually am. He put me on a pedestal. To him I was a genius, and the fantasy of a love affair with a genius worked powerfully on him – less sex symbol, more status symbol.
You give away a part of your self when you write. A reader may never see the writer’s face or hear her voice, but they can start to feel as if they have some sort of claim on you, on who they think you are. But it is only a part of you, and even then a writer might be playing devil’s advocate or feeling exceptionally kind on the day she writes her column. The reader only knows the words that appear before him in the newspaper. Regardless of the reasons the commentator had for choosing the arguments she made, and the words she expressed himself with, a reader might imagine another set of motives, and see a persona behind the piece that is quite different from the man or woman who wrote it. Most people keep their interpretations to themselves, for dinner parties, or over lunch with their friends. Saul went further. In his eyes, my articles turned me into a literary super-heroine, a wonder woman of the written word. It was absurd, to begin with. Later, frightening.
Before I met Saul, my knowledge of stalkers was limited. I had seen Glenn Close’s famous role as the “bunny boiler” in Fatal Attraction. I had heard about celebrities being pursued by disturbed fans and having to take out injunctions in order to keep their obsessive mania in check. I had also read Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love about the consequences of this pathology for the person who is stalked. I never dreamt I would suffer the same emotional assault as McEwan’s protagonist. Saul presumed on the basis of a brief platonic encounter and my journalism that he had found his soul-mate.
After our conversation in my Lancashire hometown, his behaviour grew more sinister. He found my mother’s telephone number in the directory and called her posing as a friend. She passed on my contact details in Scotland. He called me a few days later. He needed to see me – it couldn’t wait. I had no idea why. Within 24 hours he took a train from Preston to meet me. I had considered saying no, I barely knew him, but being curious and not identifying him as a threat I thought ‘Why not?’ I agreed to meet him in an open space, just in case events took an odd turn. We had a coffee in the museum and we began to talk.
He was moving to Edinburgh, wanted a new start. He was bored with things at home. Did I know where he might stay? We talked through a workable plan over lattes and cake. He seemed gentle and at ease, not grasping and desperate. He would probably be back next week he said – when he had more time to check out flats. He hoped there would be advertising work either in the capital or Glasgow; it was time for a fresh start. I was happy to help and told him to call me if I could assist. With that I walked him back to the train station and he headed home. I was relieved. I was happy in another relationship and thought that was that.
But Saul wanted more. After moving to Stockbridge he invited me to see his new flat. I remember thinking ‘typical bachelor pad’, expensive but nothing homely to take the edge off it. Again, the meeting was peaceful, non-eventful. As I left he asked could he call me again. ‘Sure – no problem.’ It was a mistake.
He bombarded me with invites for coffee and trips to the movies. I had a deadline for some important work and couldn’t oblige. His persistence, however, was unreal. My partner didn’t exist in his eyes. I realised I was his only focus and I became extremely uncomfortable. He wasn’t just interested in a piece of me, he wanted all of me to himself. I began to feel as if he were trying to hijack my life. I was afraid he would stop at nothing to attain his goal. How far would he go? Would he hurt me? Would he hurt those around me?
Many months of extreme behaviour followed as Saul determinedly persuaded himself that I was deeply in love with him and that even in the absence of any real history together we had a beautiful future. He bombarded me with telephone calls and when I refused to pick up the receiver, left scores of emotionally overwrought messages. He left perfectly-packaged gifts and floral bouquets at my work’s reception and sent to my office countless faxes threatening to kill himself if I spurned him.
Still I continued to lull myself into a sense of being in control, of being able to handle something that was becoming too big for me. The situation turned darker. He was now renting a flat 500 yards from the place I worked, The Scotsman building. Saul would call at midnight to say he would be waiting outside for me to finish the late shift. I left the premises escorted by friends and eventually instructed the security guards to tell visitors that I wasn’t in the building. He began writing himself. He penned clichéd poems about the pair of us locked in an embrace in the moonlight or picnicking in fields of flowers, made posters of them, and put them up in the windows of local shops.
His resolve to woo me eventually affected every aspect of my life. Violence was never implicit but a possibility always at the back of my mind. Many victims report serious depression, shame, trauma, anxiety, hopelessness and loss of self-esteem. Filled with fear and dread, I became a nervous wreck. I could no longer go out alone. My confidence was eroded by a stranger who would not let up. Work became a challenge. The drama interfered with my concentration and undermined me. I felt isolated, too embarrassed to confess to more than a handful of people what was happening.
The most terrifying moment was the wedding invite. When I was younger I had a recurring nightmare. I was being bundled into a wedding dress, a huge meringue of a thing by my sister and my best friend. Then rolled, in surreal fashion, down the aisle of a church to land on my feet at the side of my betrothed. As I uttered the words ‘I do’, all the flowers in my hair immediately died. As a kid, the dream unsettled me. Later, when Saul organised the wedding, I remembered the dream, and it felt like a portent for the bizarre drama in which I was enmeshed.
As Saul’s behaviour became more extreme I could only imagine what might happen next. Male friends wanted to confront him – some of them with their fists. My partner was protective of me. He wanted to go and sort out Saul, violently if necessary. I was appalled but understood why. He witnessed me become more and more petrified and wanted to scare him off. I knew this was folly. We rowed and he accused me of enjoying the attention. I would burst into tears at this suggestion but I understood his frustrations. I told them to leave it to me; that the police would be on my side. I was wrong. Despite soliciting their help on a number of occasions they insisted they could do nothing unless he hurt me. I crumpled before them begging for help. They reiterated their stance. Constant phone calls and emails or sending gifts are not per se illegal. Later, I discovered there were some laws that take care of a certain type of stalker – ones who send indecent or grossly offensive communication – but they didn’t touch Saul.
An attempt in 1997 to turn stalking into a crime was abandoned because a parliamentary bill failed to identify the difference between reasonable and unreasonable conduct. ‘Harassment’, however, can be punished with six months in prison. It is recognized as behaviour intended to disturb or upset a person on two or more occasions. This was the case I found myself in but the law was only passed after Saul had been dealt with.
My stalker’s persistence continually amazed me. On one occasion when my mother was staying with me the phone went. Although I had not answered by habit for years, my boss had said he would call and I assumed it was him. It was Saul. My mother was in the kitchen making a dinner – a plate of hot roast potatoes in oil in her hand from the oven. I ran through telling her to turn off all the lights because it had been Saul on the phone and he was surely on his way round; we needed to pretend we were out. Startled, she dropped the plate and boiling hot fat ran down her leg. She had been dangerously scalded and we had to call an ambulance. Then the doorbell started to ring: Saul. I screamed at him to go away. My Mum turned white and was faint; she needed urgent treatment. As the paramedics wheeled Mum out of the house he was following us, still asserting his love for me.
We spent two hours in the hospital. My elderly mother was seriously shaken and I was furious. We returned from the hospital and Saul was standing at the door. ‘I love you,’ he shouted. ‘Let me in.’ I couldn’t believe someone could persist through all this. The next day I called the police again. They couldn’t help. He still hadn’t hurt me – they could do nothing in those days.
It couldn’t continue. I got in touch with my local MP and through tears blurted out the whole story. He was concerned and immediately contacted the police. Within hours Saul was in a cell. He spent a night in police custody but remained unrepentant. Ofﬁcers told me he had been asserting his devotion through hours of questioning.
An appearance before magistrates, however, sobered his intent. He pled guilty to charges I am still not aware of and pledged to stay away from both me and my mother for so many months. I didn’t attend the hearing, I couldn’t face it and so much of what happened in court still remains sketchy. But my nightmare was over. I haven’t seen Saul since. That was over 12 years ago.
Did he recover his sanity or go on to plague some other unsuspecting soul? I have no idea. All I know was that I am glad to be able to leave the house each day without constantly looking over my shoulder, happy to be able to pick up the phone without fear or resentment.
Why am I writing this? Am I not afraid that Saul might read it? Won’t becoming a protagonist in something I have written serve only to restore his hunger to be part of my life? I am writing about it because I have the right to talk about it. Why should victims of stalking remain gagged by a potential threat? Silence still surrounds the subject and continues to inﬂuence lawmakers who remain apathetic and ineffectual when it comes to enacting measures that protect the victims of stalking. For more than a decade I have mufﬂed my hurt and anger and sat back for fear of reprisal.
But I’m also writing about my experience because so much of it continues to puzzle me. Even as the matter drew to a close two years after it began I still knew little about Saul. Was he always this way? Knowing next to nothing about him led me to ask broader questions about human nature. When does a crush that was at first irritating or even mildly flattering become pathological? When do the stalker’s private obsessions become your ever-present fear? Against your will, their obsession causes you to become obsessed, but from another angle: you’d do anything not to see him. It’s a looking-glass world, where the stalker thinks it is the victim who has the power. They see their life as having become perilously dependent on you, your words and actions. At least, that’s how they play it on the surface. In fact, at some level they must realise they have what you might call leverage. They can dupe and blackmail and threaten in a game that goes beyond brinkmanship. Legal threats cease to have meaning and all that matters is you.
While stalking remains a relatively rare phenomenon, I wonder if the impulse that leads to it isn’t more prevalent than you’d think. The fetishisation of romantic passion obscures the reality of love, its difficulties as well as its rewards. A notion has taken hold of “the one”, the lover who will save us from ourselves. A redemptive figure whose mythology dictates they can only ever appear but once in our lives. Suddenly the stakes are raised higher. Some start to feel their future is predicated on finding then holding onto such a rare creature. Popular culture often largely feels as if it is dedicated to propagating this theory. Pop songs are more often than not celebrations or commiserations about winning or losing the one, the only one. The climax to many a film pivots on the protagonist pulling off an extravagant gesture that wins his only love’s heart. The behaviour of these heroes is, if looked at coolly, oddly similar to moves practised by stalkers, only here it’s played for laughs or even seen as romantic. When a court of law has difficulty discerning the difference between reasonable and unreasonable conduct, should we be surprised that certain, confused people also don’t get it?
If we’re honest, the thought of being overpowered by love is a compelling concept for many of us. It is that same obsession with pride and ego that makes you chase a relationship after it is dead. It’s not unconnected to crushing what remains of a love affair by holding on ever tighter when we realise it is being taken away. How it hurts – how can you ever let go? How hard is it not to pick up the phone and take another kick in the teeth just to hear him one more time?
I had a teenage crush on a teacher at school. It was gauche and foolish but a rite of passage. Mr David was bearded, Christ-like even with his careless dark curls and a gentle manner. When he smiled at the class I knew he really smiled just for me. So what if he had a wife and children? I was 13. But then I matured and saw my folly. Boys my own age began to attract me. Eventually Mr David grew invisible and when I thought of him, it made me blush. I’d grown up.
There is something about stalking that remains adolescent. Terrifying, yes, but at heart, childish. We all colour our lives with dreams and fantasies; it makes life bearable. Sometimes we embarrass ourselves when we lose sight of the difference between what is real and what we wish was real. The point is – we get embarrassed. We vow it won’t happen again. Saul was unembarrassable. He never learned, could never hear a word no one likes but has to swallow: ‘No’. His reality, he felt, was stronger than mine and he was bent on proving it.
I’ve had no contact with Saul since he was evicted from my life and I never want to again. And yet despite everything I went through, the sleepless nights, the constant tension, I don’t harbour ill feelings towards the man. After some time I understood that he was sick, that he needed professional help. His fate now is as ultimately mysterious as the reasons that caused him to go after me in the first place. But then life is a coming to terms with mysteries, and when you deal with the human heart, you are exploring territory still only partially mapped. And when the heart belongs to a stalker, there is no map at all.