Do you know that feeling when you overtake on a single carriageway and there isn’t quite as much room as you thought? You see the whites of the oncoming lorry driver’s eyes, your foot’s to the floor and your heart is behaving like it’s a totally separate entity. You squeeze back on to your side of the road with feet to spare and think: “God, that was close. I could’ve died there.”
But as your heart returns to a normal rhythm and the fear fades, you remember your psychological security blanket. The one where you think about other incidents in your life where things could have gone oh so badly wrong, but didn’t. The blanket you wrap around yourself and think: “I didn’t die then; it’s not my time yet.”
My stand-out episode happened almost 20 summers ago in 1989. I was picking strawberries along with other students and travellers, who came to that little triangle at the foot of the Malvern Hills twixt Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire for the fruit season. It was a grand life: piece work, paid daily and down the pub most nights.
The farm where we worked was about three miles away from town and we stayed in rough and ready accommodation: a converted barn with mattresses upstairs and a kitchen of sorts occupying the ground floor. Few of us had transport; if no-one was driving into town, we’d start walking or hitchhike.
One afternoon, a friend and I set off down the long farm driveway to the road. We thumbed a lift almost immediately with a middle-aged bloke with dark hair. He dropped us off in town, we went to a café, then when the pub opened, we spent the evening there. By kicking-out time, we’d spent all our money and were resigned to walking home. However, as we crossed the road, we saw headlights and a car pulled up. It was the man from earlier; it was almost as if he’d been waiting for us.
With the foolishness and drunkenness of youth, we accepted a lift. Were we students? Where did we come from? Would we come out for a drink with him sometime? The questions came in quick succession and became slightly unnerving. “Oh no,” we said, “we couldn’t possibly go for a drink with you: our boyfriends wouldn’t like it.”
Feeling uncomfortable, we insisted he dropped us at the bottom of the drive, and we ran. “What a creepy bloke,” we said, then thought no more about it. But the next day, while we were shopping, he returned looking for “the blonde girls who’d promised to go for a drink with him”. The travellers had difficulty persuading him to leave.
He appeared again as we were cooking spaghetti bolognaise in the makeshift kitchen that evening. We hid around the corner. The man was insistent; he would know where we were; we had promised to go for a drink with him. In the end, one of the travellers had to threaten him with the frying pan before he went.
I didn’t see him again until about four or five years later, when I was reading a newspaper article about a man whose first wife and daughter had been dug up from a field in Much Marcle, not far from our strawberry farm. I recognised the photograph immediately. The man’s name was Fred West.