September 2009: the torch man
I’m back from a month in Cornwall. Only now am I able to process what went on and to turn it into a kind of story. By doing this I make it a little less terrifying. Here’s what happened.
The lane dropped steeply, turning in a hairpin bend round the house. It was perfect: a converted barn hidden in a valley with a door opening onto woods. A secluded path ran beside a stream through dense woodland to the sea. I’d have a month of isolation – days writing and walking, nights listening to the owls.
There were two or three houses just along from the one I’d rented – but they were all holiday homes and at this stage empty. I wasn’t use to being on my own and from the very first day felt apprehensive. So tense had I been in the preceding month that my therapist had suggested I call her regularly on the phone while in Cornwall to keep her in touch with my state of mind. There was no land-line. The signal for my mobile was almost non-existent. I would be able to ride my bike into the village and call her and my family from there; but down in this dark valley I truly was alone.
There were no curtains on the skylights in the bedroom. I worked out immediately that if you stood on the lane rising behind the house you could look in at me sleeping. There wasn’t a soul in sight all day long in this lone stretch of countryside and yet I was haunted by fear of a peeping Tom. I searched hurriedly for anything that might make the bedroom a little more private, but gave up, defeated; the barn was kitted out in Spartan fashion and the owners were clearly used to clients who liked to live as much in the wild as they could.
If Martin had been with me we would doubtless have looked forward to lying in bed gazing up at the night sky. We would have kept the large barn door open in the evenings and enjoyed the sounds of innumerable birds calling and animals scuffling in the woods outside. But here I was – on my own, already worrying about the night to come. I settled myself in as best I could indoors then did a small amount of work on Edward Thomas, sitting at the kitchen table. As evening fell I was already beginning to regret my sought-after solitude.
On that first night, when the wood had become a hutch of darkness, I locked the big barn door, ate some supper and went to bed. A piercing light shone directly onto my pillow. I shifted uneasily. It wasn’t a moonbeam – far too thin for that. It seemed to find me out, even when I turned on my side. I’d have to sort out some curtains in the morning; meanwhile I got very little sleep and woke un-refreshed.
In the morning, fortified by coffee, I found that the skylights were out of reach even when I was standing on a chair and that there was no ladder anywhere on the premises. I could see no way of making my bedroom private. I must accept it, and make the best of it. I had twenty-seven days to go and a large piece of work I needed to complete. I would spend the mornings writing, then tire myself out so thoroughly with afternoon cliff-walks that nothing – not even this disconcerting light – would keep me awake after going to bed.
The days were warm and irrelevant. Each day I was unable to forget the coming ordeal, even though I enjoyed my walks and even though I succeeded in maintaining a steady routine of work. Each evening I tried to read or watch television, but sat bewildered by the sensation that I was in a boat rocked by light pouring in through the top of the barn. The walls swayed sickeningly. Each night, below my duvet, I cowered under the searching beam. There was no let-up, no release. Here’s a fragment of verse I wrote at the time:
The barn rocks like a boat at sea;
but what pours through the skylight?
If it were the moon it would be more diffuse;
I would feel bathed and blessed.
If it were the moon I would sense its tug,
but not this sickening sway.
It probes, it probes, it probes –
toxic, invasive. I’m defiled.
I had become convinced that the light must be shining from the road above; and I had come up with an explanation that made sense. It was a man with a torch, standing on the road above the barn; he could see me sweating under the duvet. He wasn’t a murderer, though there had been a murder in this valley a few years earlier. He wasn’t a rapist or a burglar – if he were one of these, he would surely have broken in and been making noises downstairs? No, his object was nothing less than the possession of my mind and retrieval of my secrets. His beam of torchlight reached into my thoughts. It was piercing like a laser; it sorted through the contents of my brain as if they were emails in my inbox.
Martin (as well as my therapist) had foreseen that I’d need support while I was away from home and I did call him on the phone from the village regularly. It was hard, though, to explain how very real my fear was, or to feel other than annoyed when he pooh-poohed it. After nearly three weeks of struggling to overcome my embarrassment at asking for help I finally called the police. A young and friendly sergeant turned up to inspect the premises. He agreed that the layout was ideal for a peeping Tom and gave thin reassurances. He suggested putting a piece of cotton across the space where I believed the Torch Man to be standing all night: if it was disturbed in the morning this might mean something... except that a fox could also disturb a piece of cotton. I felt he was laughing at me but rigged up the cotton all the same.
That night I moved the bed so it faced the other way. The light swayed on the wall as the Torch Man adjusted his position. It was then that I became convinced the Torch Man had been hired by College with the express intention of driving me to distraction. They wanted me out of my job. They were sick of me. They had somehow worked out where my holiday house was and had sent a specially trained spy to look into my brain with his laser beam and reduce me to madness.
That night my terror reached its peak. I tried lying in bed with a screen of pillows propped all round my head to prevent the penetration of the beam. This seemed to madden the Torch Man who walked up and down the path above, angling his light so that it reached me over the top of the pillows. Sweating and shivering with fear I went down into the kitchen and retrieved the largest bin liners I could find. With some Sellotape I managed at long last to rig up a rudimentary blind across the appropriate skylight. I slept fitfully, aware that light was shining in round the edges of the bin liners.
Only a week to go. The kind sergeant returned; we inspected the piece of cotton together and agreed it had not been moved. We sat outside and drank tea while he explained why he’d come back to see me. He’d been looking at maps, working out coordinates, and had realised that the light I was seeing must be Jupiter shining strongly and directly across the fields from the sea. I cross-questioned him, an immense feeling of grateful relief welling up in me. So it’s the same old story, then: a lone woman ravished by God? We laughed uncomfortably.
How ironic that I had believed Nature would provide me with an escape from my turmoil. Even now I feel bitter about that. I had gone on my working holiday carrying with me the precepts of Richard Mabey’s great book, Nature Cure. I had gone, moreover, to write about Edward Thomas, whose Nature philosophy now seemed very empty. What had happened to me for four weeks, night after night? I’d been terrorised by a planet and now it was time to go home.