Over her shoulder
Clare stood at the front door until she had reached the gate and turned onto the narrow road that would lead her home. Lara’s home was about half a mile away and in flat shoes it would take her less than ten minutes to reach her parents and her little brothers. By the time she got back her brothers would probably have been sent to bed.
Lara set off. There was little traffic and, in front of her, she could see the glow of street lights where the houses started and where her home was to be found. Here, half a mile away, there were fields beyond the ditches that ran next to the road. On the left-hand side a narrow footpath allowed her to step up off the road, safely out of the way of passing cars. Her mother had always told her to walk quickly when she came back from Clare’s and said that she was to ignore any motorists who slowed down as they drove past.
The day had been hot and sunny and the girls had spent much of the time outside. Although it was dark now, the warmth of the day remained, in the heat that came off the road surface and on the gentle breeze that reached her across the fields. The sky was hardly black, more a very deep purple, especially in west where not long before they had watched Clare’s father taking picture after picture of the sunset.
Two cars had gone by. For a moment the breeze grew stronger and brought with it some sweet scent from across the fields. Lara paused for a moment and wondered what it was that could delight her like this. Some flowers, probably.
Somebody coughed. It would have been easy to see anyone else on the road, coming towards her from the houses. This sound, however, came from behind and she felt an urge to move on, to get back home. She hadn’t imagined the noise had she?
Lara half-turned to look back into the darkness but unless another car came along there would be no light to see by. Then, there it was again, a dry husky cough. There was a moment’s silence and then it came yet again, a deeper cough from not far away, but just far enough not to be seen. Someone was following her along the road. She looked ahead again, towards the lights, and set off, lengthening her stride, determined not to hurry, just to move along a little faster.
There it was again, another cough, a little closer perhaps. It was difficult to tell without turning round to look again and again she lengthened her stride. Six, seven paces and there was the cough again, twice this time, and now the sound was definitely closer. Next time she would look round again but in the meantime she had to keep going. If only a car would come along so that she would be able to see.
There were no cars but the lights were growing closer. Ahead of her she could make out the individual lamp posts; the second one marked home for her, where the school bus pulled up in the morning.
Behind her now another sound, of heavy footsteps, of someone plodding along, determined, someone catching up. To break into t run would mean loss of control. Ahead of her a car appeared. Its headlights dazzled her for the moment but soon they would reveal the person behind. There was another cough then, before the car reached the last of the street lights ahead of her it slowed and turned into the driveway of a neighbour’s house. Again the road ahead was empty, and behind her?
Soon, she would have to turn again and face whoever it was, before they could reach her and before she could feel a hand on her shoulder. But how then would she get away, continue her journey and lift the key from her coat pocket as she stood outside the front door?
It came again, closer now, this cough and this person who would not give up, and she turned and peered into the dark. At last, she thought she could locate the cough, over to her right, not on the road, not on the path beside the road, but somewhere along the fence on the other side of the ditch. What were they doing on the other side of the fence? Why were they trying so hard to keep up with her?
Lara was turning now, trying to make progress along the road, moving all the time towards the safety of home, but looking back with each turn to see who it was. There was something else now that she could hear, a regular, rhythmic sound that was also getting closer. It was too much. For a moment she stood still.
Now she could make out the rise and fall of deep breathing. Again there was the cough but now her curiosity kept her still. Whoever it was, they were moving again and now this annoyed Lara. Home was closer now and she waited to see who would appear from out of the darkness.
First there was the whiteness of the face, ghost-like as it emerged from the dark, and then the brown markings of the rest of its body. It drew nearer, towards the light. Opposite her the cow stopped, leant its head over the fence and breathed heavily, as if it had been making an effort to catch up.
For a few moments it gazed at Lara until finally it had made up its mind about her and satisfied its curiosity. Then it turned away, back into the field, and the darkness.
What was the first thing to alarm Lara?
Why was Lara followed?