The Best Friend – Shalini Boland

It’s him again. And I’m pretty sure he’s following me. I mean, I can’t be a hundred per cent sure, but I’ve seen him here three times already this week, and he was there at the corner shop on Monday, and yesterday at the garage. ‘Mummy,’ Joe says, tugging on my arm. ‘Mrs Landry said my picture was the best in the class.’ ‘Wow,’ I say, taking his small, sweaty hand in mine. ‘That’s fantastic.’ ‘Well, maybe not the best in the class,’ he admits. ‘But she said it was really good.’ Joe lets go of my hand again and leaps into the tempting pile of yellow and brown leaves that has drifted up against the school fence. He stamps his feet, a grin on his face, enjoying the crackle and crunch of autumn. I can’t believe he’ll be eight soon – I still think of him as much younger. The man is about a hundred yards away, on the other side of the road. He has a scruffy, sandy beard and he’s wearing one of those awful sea-captain-type hats. He looks like a homeless person but I don’t think he can be very old.

I’m sure he’s not a parent because I’ve never seen him with a child. Maybe I should report him. ‘Don’t go running out of sight,’ I call, as Joe spies one of his friends up ahead and abandons the pile of leaves. ‘I won’t!’ he yells back, his sturdy legs stomping off down the pavement. The man has dropped a little further away from me now, but he’s still there. I know it. My skin prickles. I feel his eyes on my back. I curb the urge to turn and double check. I don’t want him to know I’ve noticed him.

Maybe I’m just being paranoid. He probably lives somewhere around here. He could be just an eccentric millionaire or something. ‘Joe!’ I yell. ‘Wait for me at the bottom of the hill!’ I stride a little faster, squinting in the late afternoon sunshine. I should’ve worn sunglasses. Joe has stopped. He’s chatting to a tall blond-haired boy on a silver scooter. My heart lifts knowing he’s managed to make friends quickly. He’s only been at Cerne Manor Prep school for two weeks and yet it feels like he’s been here forever.

He already loves it. My husband Jared was right – this place is perfect. Okay, it costs an arm and a leg, and we’ll be skint forever – finding the termly school fees is going to be a challenge, but Joe is the happiest he’s ever been, and that’s what matters. ‘Who’s this?’ I ask Joe, finally catching him up. ‘Tyler. He’s in my class.’ ‘Hi, Tyler. Where’s your mum?’ I ask. He points behind me, up the hill. ‘Talking to her friends, as usual,’ he says, rolling his eyes.

I swivel my head to see a group of glamorous mums clustered around a white fourwheel drive vehicle. They’re laughing and chatting in a haze of colourful dresses, scarves, shawls and bangles. That’s the other thing about starting a new school – it’s almost worse for the parents. I’m the new mum on the block and I don’t feel quite up to talking to them today. My nail varnish is chipped and I’m sure I must seem dowdy in boring jeans and a plain blue shirt. My four-year-old niece, Megan, comes here, too. She finishes half-an-hour earlier than Joe, so I never get to see her or my sister, Beth, at school pick-up, which is a shame. It would be nice to have someone to chat with. To not feel quite so much of a newbie. ‘Well, it was nice to meet you, Tyler,’ I say.

‘Have a lovely evening.’ ‘You, too,’ he says politely. Joe takes my hand again, and we cross the road. I steal a glance behind me, and sure enough, the man is still there following slowly at a distance, his head down. Joe and I turn left down a side-road. ‘Okay, Joe,’ I say. ‘How about you and I have a little race?’ ‘I thought your knee was bad,’ he says. ‘When I wanted you to come on the trampoline yesterday, you said—’ ‘Well, my knee is bad,’ I say, feeling the joint twinge in anticipation. ‘But I can probably run to the end of the road. Winner gets an ice cream.

’ That’s all I have to say to get Joe to move like there’s a stick of dynamite under him. He’s off. I follow him at a jog. My knee aches, but I ignore the pain and keep going. If that guy really is following me, I don’t want him to see where we live. I catch Joe up and we run along the pavement together until we reach the next road. I let him win by a head. ‘Yessss!’ He pumps his little fist into the air. ‘Let’s cross over,’ I say, putting a hand on his back. My heart drops as I turn and see the man at the end of the road behind us.

He’s speeding up now. Not quite jogging, but walking pretty fast. I can hear my heart beating, whether from the run or from anxiousness, I can’t tell. Should I call someone? The police? Jared? And say what? No. It’ll be okay. Joe and I can lose him. We’ll have another ‘race’. But what on earth is going on? Is this guy really following me? Joe and I cross the road. There’s no one else around other than a few cars whizzing past far too quickly – late for school pick-up, no doubt. ‘Okay,’ I say.

‘Ready, steady…’ He’s off again, his rucksack banging against his back, his feet slapping the pavement. I limp along behind him, my poor knee clicking and grinding. ‘Does that mean I get two ice creams?’ he asks when I finally catch him up again. ‘Only if you want to be sick.’ ‘I won’t be. I could have two different flavours. One for dinner, one for pudding.’ I take his hand and we turn into another side road. ‘This isn’t the way,’ he says. ‘We’re going a different way, today,’ I reply.

We jog across the road and turn right and then left. I throw another glance behind us, but I can’t see the man any more. The sun has dipped behind the houses and a couple of street lamps flicker on. I shiver even though I’m warm after the thumping of my terrified heart. Finally, we leave the unfamiliar side streets behind and come to Penn Hill Avenue. It’s busier here and so Joe and I head towards the crossing. Joe is still chattering away. I’m too preoccupied to pay him any proper attention. I usually love our walk home. It’s a chance to catch up on everything he’s done that day.

A chance to chat without the distractions of TV or video games. But that creepy guy has unnerved me. The green man flashes at the crossing and we stride across the road, leaving the leafy glamour of Lower Parkstone and heading through narrower streets to our characterful three-bedroom house at the top of the hill. My knee is throbbing. I can’t wait to get in and sit down with a cup of tea. ‘Mummy, do you want another race?’ ‘You go ahead. I’ll time you. See if you can reach home before I count to ten.’ My phone pings. I pull it out of my bag and swipe the screen to see a new text message, number unknown: Hi Louisa! Darcy here – Tyler’s mom.

I got your number from the class list. Wondered if you guys wanted to come over after school tomorrow. Tyler can’t stop talking about Joe. We can have a cuppa while they play xxx I text her back: That would be lovely. Thank you. Can you text me your address? Louisa X I smile. Maybe the mums here aren’t as snobby as I first imagined. Even better, I haven’t spotted that creepy man again. I’m starting to feel a little silly for worrying about him. Perhaps this move to a new house and a new area has made me more tired than I realised.

It’s been a lot to deal with. Anyway, why on earth would I have a stalker? What would anyone want with me? TWO I stand at the edge of the school playground on my own, waiting for Joe. Darcy and a group of other mums are chatting to the sports teacher, clustered around him, laughing. But it is clearly Darcy who draws everyone’s attention, with her willowy figure and honey blonde hair. She has a natural magnetism. She catches my eye and smiles. I feel as though I’ve been caught spying. ‘Louisa!’ she calls. ‘Come over.’ I dip my head and smile back as all eyes flick over to me and instantly dismiss me as not worthy.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. These people don’t know me yet. ‘Guys,’ Darcy says, drawing me into her circle. ‘This is Louisa, Joe’s mum. They only just started this term.’ I notice Darcy has a subtle American accent. ‘Oh, hi.’ A woman with a sleek, chin-length brown bob smiles at me. ‘I’m Tori. Louie has been talking about Joe all week.

Says he’s a great football player.’ I recognise the name Louie. I think Joe’s mentioned him once or twice. I smile back. ‘We’ll have to get him playing some matches,’ the sports teacher chips in. ‘Joe’s really impressed me so far.’ I can’t remember the teacher’s name. I’ll have to look it up on the school website when I get home. I’m pleased he’s noticed Joe. ‘Your husband does the drop off in the mornings, doesn’t he?’ a woman in sports gear asks.

I nod. ‘Yes, Jared. It’s on his way to work.’ ‘Lucky you!’ the woman says. ‘He’s hot.’ I blush, not quite knowing how to respond. ‘Thanks… I guess.’ Everyone laughs, and I join in, my cheeks burning. Sometimes it’s annoying being so fair skinned. ‘Here they come,’ Darcy says, checking her watch.

‘They’re a little late out, today.’ I glance over to the double doors to see Joe’s teacher, Mrs Landry, followed by a neat line of boys and girls. It’s completely different to the sprawling, raucous exit made by the children at Joe’s previous state school. The children shake their teacher’s hand and are handed off to the parents, one-byone. Joe’s face lights up at the sight of me and I feel a familiar rush of love. He’s surrounded by his new friends, Tyler at the forefront proudly proclaiming that Joe’s coming to his house tonight. ‘Where are you parked?’ Darcy asks. ‘Do you want to follow me back?’ ‘That would be great,’ I say. She tells me her address just in case we get separated, and we make our way back to the cars. Fifteen minutes later, we’re following Darcy’s silver Bentley through a set of electric gates.

A workman looks up and winks at me – cheeky sod. He and another guy are painting the eight-foot high boundary wall that seems to run on into infinity. It doesn’t even look as though it needs painting. The driveway is so long I haven’t glimpsed the house yet. We pass gardeners and groundsmen on our slow cruise. ‘Does Tyler live in a castle?’ Joe asks from the back seat. I stifle a giggle. ‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘Let’s wait and see.’ We round another bend and finally spy the house up ahead.

I had assumed it would be a tacky McMansion, a tasteless pastiche like so many of the other properties in this area. But it’s actually a super-modern wood and glass house. Although the word ‘house’ is somewhat inadequate. ‘Residence’ is probably more fitting. ‘It’s like a sci-fi castle,’ Joe says. ‘It’s way bigger than our house. Not as big as Hogwarts, though.’ I mentally make a note never to invite Darcy over to our house for a playdate, and then shake my head inwardly at my insecurities. Who cares if I live in a normal house and she lives in a glass castle. Darcy pulls up outside a row of 4 garages.

I park my eight-year-old VW Golf next to her gleaming Bentley. Jared would die if he saw this place. I can’t wait to tell him about it. Joe and I get out of the car and follow Darcy to the front door. ‘Come in,’ she says. ‘Let’s get that kettle on.’ The boys charge ahead, chattering to each other about football. There’s no awkwardness or politeness between them, they’re just excited to have one another to play with. ‘There’s a plate of snacks on the counter!’ Darcy calls to them. ‘Help yourself on your way outside.

’ ‘We probably won’t see them for the rest of the afternoon,’ I say. ‘Not if they’re going out to play football. Joe’s obsessed.’ ‘Tyler, too.’ We grin at each other and I follow her through to the most magnificent view I’ve ever seen. Forget that the place is designed like a palace, ahead of us stretches a wall of glass with a view out over the ocean. This is Sandbanks Beach as I’ve never seen it before. Not from this angle anyway. ‘Great view, huh?’ she says, as my mouth hangs open. ‘Gorgeous,’ I say.

‘We moved here a couple of years ago. There was an older property on the land and we demolished it and rebuilt. But I know it’s all about the view. Let’s go out on the deck and watch them play. Marianna will bring our drinks out. Tea?’ ‘Please.’ I nod, noticing a dark-haired woman in a maid’s uniform at the far end of the huge kitchen diner. We step out onto the terrace and sit at a chunky, wooden, square table. Below the deck lies a vast area of emerald grass where the boys are playing football. Beyond that, a white wall, and then the beach.

The evening sun is warm on my face, we’re perfectly sheltered from any stray breath of wind. ‘Are you from America?’ I ask. ‘Uh huh. Is my accent that obvious? My US friends say I’ve lost it. They tell me I’ve gone all British.’ ‘It’s only slight,’ I say. ‘It’s pretty, though.’ ‘Thanks.’ She raises her eyebrows and turns her gaze to the boys. ‘So what do you think of Cerne Manor School so far?’ ‘It’s amazing.

Joe’s adapted really quickly. He loves it.’ ‘Tyler, too.’ ‘Tyler’s really helped him settle in. It’s great they get on so well.’ I hear a noise behind me and turn my head to see Darcy’s maid bringing a tray of tea things – a teapot, china cups, and a plate of biscuits. At my place, she would’ve got a couple of mugs and a shared teabag. Okay, maybe a teabag each, but still. ‘Thanks, Marianna,’ Darcy says without looking at the woman. ‘Thanks,’ I echo with a smile.

Marianna doesn’t make eye contact. We pour our tea. There’s no milk jug so I guess I’ll have to drink it black. I help myself to a chocolate-chip cookie that tastes homemade. ‘How long have you lived in England?’ I ask. She counts on her fingers. ‘It’ll be eight and a half years now. Mike and I met a year before Tyler was born. It was a whirlwind romance.’ ‘Wow.

Is Mike American, too?’ ‘No. I met him over here, in London. He’s English. He’s also a workaholic, which is why you’ll hardly ever see him at the school gates. Unlike your divine husband.’ ‘What does Mike do?’ ‘Our company deals with commercial property. We buy up buildings and let them out as office space.’ ‘Cool,’ I reply, taking a sip of my tea, which is absolutely delicious. I thought tea was tea. Obviously not.

‘Mm, this is so refreshing.’ ‘Castleton tea,’ she says. ‘From Darjeeling. I’ll give you a tin when you leave.’ ‘No, no, that’s okay,’ I say, mortified she might think I was hinting. ‘It’s fine; I always keep a good supply.’ My eyes keep being drawn by the view, to the dog walkers and joggers on the beach beyond, to the Condor Ferry heading out towards France, the sailing boats like white handkerchiefs in the distance, and seagulls hovering overhead. It’s like being on holiday. How can all this be so close to our house, and yet feel so distant? ‘How about you?’ she asks, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Do you work?’ ‘I write a column in a weekend newspaper supplement.

’ ‘How exciting,’ she replies. ‘Not really. It’s only one small piece a week… but I do love it.’ ‘Do you write about people you know? Might I be in it one day?’ She leans forward, a gleam in her eye. ‘Do you want to be in it?’ I laugh. ‘Of course!’ ‘I write about being a mother – schools and being married and all that stuff.’ She gasps. ‘You write Louisa’s Life’s a Beach!’ ‘Guilty,’ I say. ‘I love that column. So, you’re famous.

’ She reaches out a slender, French-manicured hand to squeeze my arm. ‘Hardly,’ I say, with a swell of pride in my chest. ‘I’d brag all the time if I wrote for a newspaper,’ she says. ‘I write a blog, but it’s not the same.’ ‘What’s it about?’ I ask. ‘Interior design. Hints and tips. That kind of thing.’ ‘I can see you’ve got a good eye,’ I say, gesturing back to the house. ‘Did you—’ ‘Yeah, I designed the house.

Problem is, it’s finished now so I’m twiddling my thumbs again. I do enjoy interior design, but my passion is writing.’ ‘As in books?’ ‘Mm-hm.’ ‘Have you written anything yet?’ ‘Working on a novel,’ she says, tossing her hair back behind her shoulder, ‘you know, like half the world’s population.’ She laughs. I don’t mention that I’ve also been trying to write a novel. ‘Mum!’ Joe calls from the lawn below. I shade my eyes and peer down at him. ‘Tyler asked if I can have a sleepover. Can I, Mum?’ ‘Not on a school night,’ I call back.

‘He’s welcome to stay,’ Darcy says. ‘I have spare toothbrushes, and he can borrow some of Tyler’s PJs.’ ‘Please, Mum!’ ‘Mum, he can stay, can’t he?’ Tyler yells. ‘That’s kind,’ I say to Darcy. ‘But he’ll be too tired tomorrow.’ ‘Really?’ Darcy raises an eyebrow. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure they get to bed by nine.’ I flinch inwardly. Joe’s bedtime is normally seven o’clock. He’ll be exhausted at school tomorrow if he stays over.

Yet I don’t want to be a killjoy. I don’t want to be the uptight mum who’s too strict. ‘I’ll take them both to school tomorrow,’ she says. ‘They’ll have a great time.’ ‘Well, if you’re sure,’ I say, wishing I could just say no. ‘Absolutely!’ Darcy replies. ‘Sleepover!’ she calls down to the boys, standing and punching her fist in the air. Joe and Tyler go crazy, jumping up and down and high-fiving each other. Darcy turns and smiles at me. ‘I love seeing them so happy and excited.

’ I smile back despite my concerns. One late night can’t hurt.

.

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