فصل 15

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فصل 15

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Nowhere to hide

The following week, at about ten o’clock in the morning, Francesca was returning to the house after taking the children to school.

She was nearly home when she noticed the grey Audi on the other side of Brabazon Road. It was just one of many other cars, but Francesca immediately thought of Doug’s. His was a grey Audi, she was certain, but was it the same model? She felt her whole body tense up and tried not to look.

As she turned into the drive of the Thompsons’ house, she couldn’t stop herself glancing across at the car. Was there someone sitting in the driving seat? The sun was reflecting on the glass and it wasn’t easy to see inside. She looked at the number plate. She only dared look for half a second, and she could only take in the first three letters.

With a horrible feeling growing in her throat, Francesca let herself into the house and hurried upstairs to her room. Keeping back in the shadow, she slowly approached the window and looked out. The car was still there, half-visible behind a tree, like a wolf hiding in the wood, a grey creature creeping about, ready to leap. She watched for at least a minute, unconsciously holding her breath. Then the car suddenly pulled away and raced off up the road.

For the rest of the day Francesca couldn’t get the memory of the car out of her head. She couldn’t be sure it was Doug’s. On one hand, she knew very well that plenty of people drove grey Audis, but on the other hand it seemed too much of a coincidence that a car just like Doug’s should be parked opposite her house. But if it was him, what on earth was he doing? The idea that he might be following her filled her with sudden terror. She felt sick as she remembered the day he had given her a lift home. Of course, he knew where she lived.

Francesca’s anxiety grew all day. She tried to occupy her thoughts by keeping busy: cleaning the house with extra thoroughness and making a cake. But several times she went back to her bedroom window to see if the car had returned. And when she went to fetch the children from school, she couldn’t get rid of the feeling that Doug might be there, hiding behind a tree, or creeping along behind her.

That evening Tom had invited Francesca for a meal at his flat. It was the first time she’d seen where he lived, and she could tell immediately that he’d gone to a lot of trouble in order to impress her. He’d obviously been busy tidying because everywhere smelt of cleaning products, and there were flowers and candles on the table.

The evening started well. The flat was full of Tom’s drawings and paintings, and just as Francesca had guessed, they were brilliant - detailed drawings of birds like owls and hawks, aircraft painted against beautiful skies, and then a whole series of pencil drawings of a young girl, Tom’s niece apparently. The expressions on the child’s face were so real that Francesca thought the girl might suddenly come to life and step out of the picture.

‘Have you ever tried to sell your work?’ Francesca asked.

‘I didn’t think it was good enough,’ Tom answered.

Francesca shook her head in astonishment. ‘Tom, you must,’ she said. Then she added more quietly, ‘Would you do a drawing of me some time? I could send it to my family - they’d love it. I’ll pay you, of course.’

‘I’d love to,’ Tom replied, delighted. ‘But if you try and give me any money, I’ll be very upset.’

Tom had made a great effort with the meal, too. For the first course, he’d made a tomato salad - using the very best ‘buffalo’ mozzarella cheese, and then for the main course, a mushroom risotto, which was delicious. Francesca could see Tom felt very proud that the meal had turned out so well, and she liked him even more for all the attention he gave. The more she got to know him, the more she felt that this was the sort of person he was - an artist - and he’d spent his whole life trying to be someone different. Perhaps his father was to blame, wanting Tom to be a copy of himself.

But despite all Tom’s efforts, Francesca couldn’t fully relax. She kept thinking about the grey Audi. Should she tell Tom about it or not? Would he think she was crazy? After the meal, Tom made some coffee and they went over to his sofa. Francesca knew that Tom was hoping that the evening would end romantically.

‘I was just thinking,’ she said, unable to stop herself at last. ‘Do you know what kind of car Doug drives?’

Tom frowned in disappointment. ‘An Audi, I think. Why?’

‘No reason,’ Francesca answered quickly. ‘I just thought I might have seen his car in our road today, that’s all.’

‘But what would Doug be doing there?’ Tom asked innocently.

‘I don’t know,’ Francesca answered. ‘That’s why I wanted to check on his car. Do you know what the number plate is?’ Tom looked at her in confusion.

Francesca shook her head. ‘No, of course you wouldn’t. That was a bit of a stupid question.’

With that she changed the subject. Doing so made her even angrier with herself than she was already. She knew that she ought to tell Tom the true reason for her concern; this was the perfect moment to get the whole business out in the open. But for some reason she couldn’t. The more time went on, the more difficult it was.

After a while, Francesca asked Tom to take her home, complaining of a headache. Francesca could see that it hurt him badly and was a blow to his confidence, but he was too much of gentleman to say anything.

Francesca was silent on the way home, full of anger with herself for spoiling the evening. If only she’d never begun lessons with Fastwings! If only she’d never met Doug!

Tom kissed her sweetly when he dropped her home, but Francesca ran inside before he could see the tears rolling down her cheeks. She couldn’t believe what was happening to her. This was the second time she’d cried in less than a month.


The following Tuesday George sent Francesca off on her first ‘landaway’.

‘What’s that?’ Francesca asked.

‘You go off on your own to land at another airfield, and then, with a bit of luck, you come back,’ George replied cheerfully. ‘I want you to fly down to Beccles just like we did last week. Go into the office, get Stan to sign your logbook, then fly straight back here. Sound simple enough?’

Francesca couldn’t wait to get into the air. The last three days had been a nightmare of anxiety - checking the street for signs of Doug, trying to decide what to do. When she’d arrived at the airfield earlier, she’d resisted the temptation to go straight to look for Doug’s car and check the number plate. She would try to do it after her lesson, but now she needed to concentrate on flying. Soon, she thought, she would be up in the air and all those fears would melt away.

But as she approached the runway, she felt as tense as ever. Was Doug at the airfield now? Was he listening in to the radio calls? Did he know she was there?

Once shed taken off, however, as if by magic, her anxiety began to slip away. She climbed steadily to 3000 feet, then turned south-east and headed for Beccles. It was a beautiful day, the colours of the sky and fields below intensely clear and bright. Looking down the length of the wings, she had the sensation once more that they might be her arms. She moved the control column left and right very gently and watched with delight how the wings responded. It gave her a huge sense of freedom. She was untouchable up there in the sky, completely out of reach!

The landing at Beccles went well, and Stan was friendly when she went to get her logbook signed. She loved the little airfield with its grass runway and handful of light aircraft. It made her feel connected to all the aviators of the past, taking to the skies in wooden aircraft and open cockpits.

Refusing a cup of tea and saying she ought to head home, Francesca climbed back into the plane and very soon took off. As she turned towards Norwich, she radioed back to Stan below and said a cheerful goodbye.

It was about five minutes later, when she’d reached 3000 feet, that an odd sensation came to her. Performing her regular check of the sky around, she caught sight of something over her shoulder. Immediately, she looked behind. A plane - another Cessna - was flying very close to her, perhaps ten metres below and as many metres behind.

The shock almost made her let go of the control column. It was Doug in the Fastwings Cessna. She glanced behind again and saw him quite clearly; he was looking out of the cockpit window and staring directly at her.

Francesca wanted to scream. A terrible panic rushed up through her body, paralysing her for a minute. Suddenly, she didn’t know how to fly the plane, or what any of the controls were for. She didn’t want to look round, and yet she couldn’t stop herself. But every time she did, Doug was still there, his sunglasses staring blindly back.

She felt helpless, with no idea what to do. All of a sudden she realised he must have followed her to Beccles, then circled somewhere overhead until he heard her make her take-off calls. Then he’d come swooping down out of the sky, just like a hawk. But what did he want? Was he just trying to scare her or would he try to make her crash? She flew on, her hands shaking on the control column, trying to imagine what would happen next.

And then, just as suddenly as he’d appeared on her shoulder, he was gone. The next time she looked round, there was no sign of the aircraft anywhere. She searched the sky, but the plane had simply disappeared.

When she finally landed back at Norwich, George and Tom were both waiting for her.

‘How was it then?’ Tom asked.

‘Fine. Just fine,’ Francesca answered weakly.

‘You look a bit pale,’ he went on anxiously. ‘Do you feel all right?’

Francesca didn’t say anything. Without another word, she hurried through to the toilets at the back of the hangar and was violently sick.

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