The Man That Stared

Families are complicated, we all know that. When I was a child my family was large, and though many people in it were not related by blood, which is not unusual, some were not even related by marriage, which is rather less usual. These additions were close friends of my mother or grandparents that had been absorbed into the family structure. Family can be like that sometimes. It can drag people in, like a huge celestial body that even light cannot escape, but sometimes these additions have gravity of their own, and can drag you along roads that you may otherwise never travel. Sometimes those roads have happy endings, sometimes they do not, and sometimes they are best described as very, very odd.

I could present a list of people who are my family who I have no blood relation to. Most of them are men my own age with whom I have shared significant live events, but there is one notable exception to this. Firstly, this exception is a woman, and secondly her honorary inclusion in my family came not from my acceptance of her, but my Grandmothers.

They had known each other since childhood and were of the old-fashioned ilk that would sneer at the extravagance of twin-tub washing machines. They were strong women from a different age, women who were no strangers to the back-breaking labour of handwashing for a family of a dozen or more, and their bond was so much stronger because of it.

I could not have loved Auntie Sheila any more if she had been a real aunt, I cannot remember a time I did not know her, and I cannot remember a time she did not fill me with joy when she walked into the room. She would randomly present me with gifts sometimes, not waiting for my birthday or Christmas – though gifts from her were always ensured on such days – but whenever she saw something that she thought might interest me.

The gifts were not expensive items, sometimes in fact they were particularly odd ones, which was fitting because I was an odd child. The gifts could consist of old tattered books she had found with strange titles, or old pieces of electrical equipment I could experiment on. In short, Auntie Sheila fed my curiosity and creativity, and there was no way I could not love someone who did such a thing.

This is all especially touching to me of course because there was no obligation for her to do any of this, because Auntie Sheila was – of course – not my real auntie at all, but a friend of my Grandmothers.

Another peculiar fact was that Auntie Sheila lived in a house whose garden directly faced our own. So, when I looked out of the kitchen window, I could clearly see the back of her house. I could, if I wished, climb over the fence at the foot of our back garden and walk directly into hers.

Oddly no one ever took this route from house to house, and though I remember my Grandfather once talking about putting a gate in that fence, it never happened, and I can only assume some member of Auntie Sheila’s household refused to allow it, because no one in ours ever did.

So, whenever my Grandmother would visit her house, or – which was much more common – she would visit ours, the person would have to walk around the street in a wide arc, which would take the lion’s share of ten minutes or so to do. Sometimes I would see Auntie Sheila leaving her home, catching glimpses of her between the buildings as she made her way around to the main road that led to our house. By this time, she was already quite an old lady, but she had a live in “friend” that we all understood shared more than just her home. My Grandfather would make mischievous comments about this, then wallow in her embarrassment, but the rest of us never spoke of it.

On one particular day, I was sat reading at the kitchen table when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. It was a fleeting impression, that may have been nothing more than a bird passing between me and the sun, or a change in the light coming through the kitchen window, but whatever it was it drew my attention away from the book and towards the back garden.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you are drawn to do something seemingly of no choice of you own? I think we all have them at times. A need to check that door is locked even though you know you just locked it, or checking just one more time that you have the housekeys on you, though you know you must have because you clearly remember locking that door.

Well, I had one of those moments.

I placed my book down, its pages spread like the wings of a bird to keep my place, and I wandered out into the sun. At first, I could not see down the garden to where the washing line was strung, or the small vegetable patch was planted, because of my mothers’ workshop. But when I moved to a spot between that workshop and my Grandfathers garage, I was faced with a narrow alley that opened out onto a patch of lush green.

And here I saw something that took a moment to understand.

Standing halfway down the garden, facing away from me was a man. His left hand was placed against the prop that held up the middle of the washing line and his right hand hung idly to his side. He seemed unconcerned that he was a stranger standing casually in someone else’s garden, or perhaps he was too engrossed in what he was looking at to care.

I could not see his face, but he was clearly facing my Auntie Sheila’s house, and he had the attitude of a man lost in thought.

I stood a few moments watching him and then, slightly afraid to step any closer, decided to draw his attention, so I called out to him. Being rather a quiet child, I tended to err on the side of caution with new people, so I was always polite with them. This was not only because of the horror I’d experience from my family if I wasn’t, but also because people forgot you quicker if you were inoffensive. When I was young I never had much of a desire to draw attention to myself, as you never knew what you’d get.

“Excuse me?” I called, and after a moment the man turned and looked at me.

He was a distinguished looking man, probably in his early thirties. When he smiled, it was a kind smile, and he seemed so at ease that in spite of his calming nature I was suddenly quite alarmed.

The fact that he was unconcerned when he should have been was worrying.

I decided not to continue any further, and quickly retreated back into the house and the Grandfather I knew was sat in the corner of the living room, no doubt chatting to one of his friends on his beloved CB radio.

My Grandfather was not a tall man, but he was barrel chested and held an old-fashioned intensity at times that could be quite intimidating. I had little fear that he was a match for the other man, even though the other man would tower over him. My Grandfather was strong, due to years of building work and manual labour, and he was single minded in his duties.

I spoke to him briefly about what I had seen and he followed me back into the garden, my Grandmother at our heels, but when we arrived there the strange man was gone, and I was left more than a little perplexed.

To their credit they never doubted what I saw, and they checked the garden and even called to neighbours to ask if they had seen a strange man in our garden. No one had.

My Grandmother went back into the house, and eventually my Grandfather did too, but I remained. I walked over to the prop that held the line and stood there for a while, in approximately the same position as the man had been, looking out in the same direction. I don’t know how long I stood there, it may have been quite some time, as I was lost in thought, and was startled out of it by my Grandmother calling me back to the house.

Instantly I was struck by a thickness in the atmosphere when I walked in through the door. My grandparents favoured earthy colours and what I would normally consider to be the warm greens and browns of the countryside seemed far less hospitable. The living room seemed more enclosed, and this may have just been a result of my coming in from the bright sunlight, or it may have been that two extra people were now sat in the living room alongside my grandparents. Both of them were aunts, but only one was a blood relative.

I must have been halfway through a smile at seeing Auntie Sheila, but if I was it was cut short by my Grandmother.

“Tell Auntie Sheila about the man you saw.” She said, and I noticed her words were soft, but an edge hid underneath them. I was young, but I was intuitive enough to know there was something I wasn’t understanding about the situation.

So, I told her. I described the scene, down to the way the man stood, what he was wearing and the way he smiled when he looked back at me. I could have said more but I didn’t when I saw the colour drain from Auntie Sheila’s cheeks and my other aunt, the one with which I shared blood, led me from the living room. The last thing I saw was my Grandmother reaching out to her friend, and my Grandfathers look of perplexed confusion.

I was unsettled for the rest of the day, and either my Grandmother made herself scarce or I was distracted from speaking to her about the situation until the following day. For the few hours between I was in something of a daze. Unsettled by the understanding that something was not right, but not knowing what it might be. I tried to read, I tried to draw, two things that I was almost certain to be lost in, but neither settled my mind, and I did not sleep well because of it.

The following day someone spoke to me, it may have been my Grandmother, it might have been my mother. I no longer remember who said the words, but I certainly remember the words that they said.

“She was upset,” they said, “because the person you described was her husband.”

Husband? I didn’t know she was married. I wondered if she had escaped an abusive relationship, or if her husband was mixed up in something illegal. Then I wondered if I would have to speak to the police to give a description and my imagination began to run away with itself, but the person speaking to me quietened those fears, while inadvertently adding others.
They told me that Auntie Sheila had previously been married, that was true, but her husband – the man I had described – had died the year before I was born.

posted by Alan Preece
on April, 27

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