Old Man Belfield

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Write about a mysterious figure in one’s neighborhood.... view prompt


Fiction Mystery Suspense

Trigger warning: Sexual assault

I spent nine years on campus, coming and going from that ugly, functional, concrete sprawl. I used to arrive early, the headlights of my car seeking out a space in the almost-empty car park, then shoulder my gym bag and trudge to the sports centre. After a solitary, silent work out, I would shower, return to my car and swap my sports gear for an armload of enormous, disintegrating ringbinders, with sharp edges that cut into the thin flesh of my arms, and my heavy backpack, with straps that dug into my shoulders. Thus burdened like an unusually academic donkey, I would struggle towards the squat, glass cube that was the science block, and hours of lectures later, traverse the campus to the grey, rain-stained library, seek out a spot upstairs, and pore over my notes until closing time. My routine didn’t change much when I returned for my PhD, except the hours of lectures were replaced by hours of labwork and hours in the office, scrolling through spreadsheets and painstakingly adding to my endless and eventually pointless thesis (all my data turned out to be negative). The occasional social event punctuated my otherwise monastic existence, a splash of colour to light up the grey days, keeping me going for another few monotonous weeks. Was I happy? I don’t remember. But I was doing very well, people told me. I was a model student, and I would Go Places.

And as far back as I can remember, you were always there too. You had arrived long before me and you remained there for some years after my eventual departure for the Real World, as I thought of it then. I can’t remember the first time I saw you. Was it in the campus restaurant, where you could be spotted hunched over a tray of free food that the staff gave you, or outside the Student Union shop, a single cup of coffee balanced in front of you? Or was it simply walking, as you spent most of your time doing, along the concourse, around the lake, circling the arts block, the science block, the veterinary building, the medicine building, the engineering block, the business school? I didn’t realise it at first, but after a year or so I noted that your wanderings had a routine, that there was a pattern to the paths you trod. I always saw you in the morning, beside the sports centre, as I returned to my car, and again on the way to my early lectures, when I passed you sitting on a bench in the hallway. Maybe you started to recognise me too, or maybe I was just another featureless face, one amongst thousands of students. I always recognised you, though; everyone recognised you. You looked as if you had somehow escaped from Middle Earth (escaped, or were banished?), with your long, tangled grey hair and beard, your lined and crinkled face, as worn and lined as an old paper bag, your long black coat that skimmed the ground. You never spoke, and your age was a mystery, but you were certainly old, and became more hunched and slower as the years slipped by. No one knew where you slept at night, if you slept at all. You were an anomaly amongst the chatting, laughing crowds of youths, a stark juxtaposition to the blithe hustle and bustle and activity, the excitement, the intangible sense of novelty that hung in the air. You were a full stop at the end of a page.

There were rumours about you around campus, of course. You had been in the army, and were driven mad by trauma after service in the Balkans, or was it Northern Ireland, or the Gulf? Or you had found your wife cheating on you with your best friend, and you were driven mad by betrayal. Or your entire family had been killed in a car crash (you were driving, but survived unharmed) and you were driven mad by grief. Even now, no one knows the truth. I liked to fancy that you came here from another world, you were summoned here from a Hemmingway novel or a Dickens novel (in the part of the library that has novels, not science journals), that you were a shadow from the past, a ghost, a warning, a friend… it varied depending on my mood. There was a fourth rumour, not about your origins, but about why they let you stay, why a wild old man had free range of the campus and was given free meals and cups of coffee, why they hadn’t taken you away to an institution. You had rescued a girl from a rapist, it was said. There was no detail attached to this rumour, and I frankly didn’t believe it, at first. I couldn’t really imagine you rushing into a conflict situation, taking out a marauding predator with a punch to the face or a kick to the groin, or with a knife or a gun or even a wand you kept concealed under your cloak. But something happened once, something that made me wonder.

It was late August after the third year of my undergrad, and I was on campus doing a research project for extra credit. I had to pull a few late nights towards the end, trying to get my results written up in time for the deadline. I left the library late one night; it must have been almost ten pm. It had been a hot, humid day and a thin mist shrouded the concrete buildings, transforming them into strange, abstract shapes in the half-dark. A few stragglers exited along with me: Staff or post-grad students or sad little undergrads like me who spent their summers clocking up extra hours of study. I visited the bathroom before I left, then spent a good five minutes in front of the washbasin, rooting around in my various bags and pockets for my car keys. I often lost things like keys, notes, books, bags. It was difficult to keep track of mundane physical objects while simultaneously trying to retain the vast amounts of information dictated to me by my professors. But I finally found them, and I remember catching sight of my face in the mirror, pale even though the sun had been shining, a hint of bags under my eyes.

By the time I left the building, my fellow stragglers had dispersed into the gloom, and campus was empty and still. Until I noticed him: a figure lurking in the shadows outside the closed-up coffee shop, just a few metres away. I don’t use words like “lurking” lightly. The man had a distinct air of lurkiness about him. He didn’t seem to be leaving anywhere or going anywhere. He just stood. Lurked. Was he waiting for someone? Nonplussed at the sight of him so close, I halted.

“Excuse me.” His voice was measured and calm, emerging from the shadows. His face was dim, but I didn’t notice anything special about it. He could have been aged anywhere between forty and sixty. I didn’t notice his hair, his clothes, if he had glasses or not. He was just a man, although I felt, somehow, that I had seen him before. At the gym? The library? Just… around? “Where’s the 46A bus stop?”

A strange question. Anyone who frequented campus should know the answer: it was the main route to the city, and the bus stop was beside the big dual carriageway right outside the university’s main entrance.

“Em.” It had been hours since I had exchanged words with another human and my voice sounded unfamiliar. “If you follow the path to the right of the lake, go down the steps and across the pedestrian crossing, its right in front of you. Just outside campus.” My bag was slung over my arm and my car keys were clutched in my fist, but I gestured clumsily to point him in the right direction.

“Thanks.” He sounded polite, but disinterested, as if he didn’t really care where the bus stop was. As if he had just wanted to hear me speak.

A response seemed unnecessary, so I started walking in the opposite direction, towards my car park. It was a big campus, and the journey took ten minutes at the best of times, more if a heavy bag with a laptop weighing was weighing you down. I was deep in the canyon formed by the Agricultural Science building on my right and Physics on my left when I realised a second set of footsteps were echoing after mine, the sound reverberating quietly between the concrete walls. A glance over my shoulder confirmed what I already knew. He was following me. A plethora of thoughts exploded all at once in my head. He wasn’t following me, he had simply changed his mind about the bus stop and happened to be walking in the same direction as me. That would be pretty weird though. Why would he do that? Why had he even stopped me? Did I know him from somewhere? Was he planning to kill me for my ancient laptop with a cracked screen and a broken spacebar? Or was it the four euro sixty-five cent in my purse that he was after? Of course, the most logical conclusion was that he planned to rape me. As a woman (in my early twenties at the time), the possibility of being raped had arisen on several occasions. There was the time a drunk man insisted on sitting next to me on an empty bus and stroked my thigh, and the time a friend of a friend had climbed into my bed after a house party (while I was asleep), and the time a teenage boy had followed me into the girl’s toilets after a concert. Thankfully nothing had come up these situations other than me feeling briefly terrified and very uncomfortable. But I had thought long and hard about each of these scenarios and their hypothetical outcomes. Would I have gone to the police? Would I have told my parents? What if I had gotten pregnant? All of the above questions started coursing through my head at breakneck speed, spurred on by the echoing footsteps behind me. I’m not a naturally fearful person, I try to focus on facts as opposed to what-ifs. But that moment, that night, a sense of dread crept up my spine and tickled the back of my neck and sent its tentacles weaving through my hair, caressing my face. My abdomen felt suddenly heavy and my mouth went dry, and I couldn’t help but notice how difficult it felt to breathe. I knew, from multiple lectures on the subject, that epinephrine had been released from my adrenal glands and was causing these perfectly normal physiologic effects, but that didn’t offer me much comfort. There was nowhere to run, no one to call out to, my phone was somewhere in the depths of my backpack, the battery dead. But I sped up a little, just to see what would happen, and the footsteps behind me sped up to match my pace.

The quickest way to reach my car was my usual route, via the narrow walkway between the sports centre and medicine block. The thought of entering that little dark crevice with a stranger shadowing me was utterly terrifying. But if I kept going, I would have to take an equally dark side path through some trees and bushes to get to the car park, while spending more time listening to the footsteps slowly gaining on me, giving him more time to launch his attack. I decided on my usual route. I would sprint, I decided, dash around the corner as soon as I reached the passageway, throw him off guard. My keys were clutched in my cold, sweaty hand, ready to unlock my car. I’d throw myself into the driver’s seat, slam the door shut and start the engine. Drive home. Escape. The entrance to the passageway was around the corner. It was nearly time. I was ready.

But you were there, as if you were waiting for me. You filled the gap between the buildings, your silver hair ghostly grey in the twilight and your coat melting into the shadows. Our eyes met and you stepped aside to let me through, as if you were granting me entrance to a portal to another world. The footsteps ceased, and I ran, ran like a rabbit from a greyhound, ran through the passageway, out the other side and over the zebra crossing to the car park, my bag pounding into the small of my back, my breath coming in agonising spurts, my clothes sticking to me like glue, to where my little red Ford Fiesta sat, cheerfully awaiting my return. I pressed the button on my key fob and, just as I had planned, threw myself into the driver’s seat. I slammed the door shut, jammed the key in the ignition and started the engine. There was no one following me. Maybe there never had been. I drove home slowly, my shaking hands clutching the wheel.

I returned the next morning (I thought about taking the day off, but there was too much to do), and I nodded at you after my gym session. You ignored me, so I bought you a chocolate muffin and a cup of tea from the café and left it next to you as you held silent court on the bench outside the lecture theatres. You ignored me again. Every Friday from then on, I brought you a little offering, and every Friday you ignored me, like the statue of a god ignores its supplicants. I didn’t really mind; small talk was never my strong point anyway. I never stayed on campus late over the holidays again, though. It wasn’t as safe as I thought it was, or maybe I was just paranoid. It didn't matter either way; I could do my work just as easily at home.   

It was during my PhD that a story came to light, a short tabloid-style article that got shared around amongst my colleagues. “Serial rapist sparks alarm after being spotted on university campus”. There was a picture of a man with short silver hair and a beard, a perfectly normal looking, nondescript man, sitting by the campus lake, an out-of-focus swan in the background. According to the article, he had been renting a room close to the university for some years and liked to hang out in the grounds. There was a predictable, mild outcry, with calls for him to leave his accommodation and get barred from the campus, then the story faded away. I checked his picture again and again, but I had no idea if the was the man who might have followed me that night, years before.

So I’ll never know if you saved me. I’ll never know if your presence on campus was the cheapskate university management’s substitute for hiring security guards and installing some decent lighting. But I’m glad you were there that night, and always. I was sad when I read that your body had been found and you had been buried after a small ceremony held in the campus chapel. I wondered where they had found you, and who, and why you had slipped away from this world. I hoped your final journey took you to somewhere nice, where you could walk and sit and be silent to your heart’s content, where no one stared or made up stories about you. You had no family, according to the article, but I’m sure people turned out for you. I would have, had I not been on the other side of the planet at the time, living my new life in the Real World, where it feels like I’ve woken from a very long dream. But a little part of me will always remain on campus, drifting from the carpark to the gym to the lecture theatres to the labs to the library, crossing paths with you, my old friend.

July 15, 2021 20:37

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