If They're Out to Get You
Paranoia doesn’t need the news to fuel it. Paranoia doesn’t require a whisper of conspiracy hidden behind the thick, blackout curtains of international diplomacy to really take hold. It can run very nicely without poisoned ambassadors, murdered journalists or presidential minions sidestepping the more awkward questions by opting for early retirement.
We live in an age of fast acting paranoia. Horrendous car crashes become intricate webs in which to snare a woman who was once married the heir to the throne. Lone gunman become the front for a speakeasy of unhappy assassins. Every mention of certain names or countries on the news can cause us all tense, as the Doomsday Clock ticks over our shoulder. Our dreams are tinted with nostalgia. Our nightmares are shaded in paranoid gloom. A gloom that can be trigger by the littlest of triggers.
The wind rattling your letterbox at the dead of night. A phone call that is only a dial tone by the time you answer it. Or, even worse, the unknown number. Calling your mobile. Over and over again.
We used to get home to find messages on our machine that were just an electronic voice reeling off numbers. A string of numbers. Random numbers, as far as I could tell. I’d only ever play each message once before deleting it. Never sure what it was. Never looking into it. Always laughing it off on the surface, but secretly wondering what I'd stumbled across.
The other week, our new street caught a brief dash of low fi paranoia. It began one morning, as the residents caught sight of a white van patrolling their virgin curbs. Surveying their still fresh front doors.
It first appeared at about six. I was sitting here, writing. My blind open. The street sitting to my left. We’ve lived here just over half a year now. So I know the patterns of this place pretty well, even if I can’t remember everyone’s names. I know which cars and mopeds go out in the morning and I know roughly the order in which they leave. It’s probably a little genetic tick I’ve inherited from my great grandmother. She always made sure she had the window seat and twitched the net curtains every time a car snuck by. I watched her son do the same as he got older and I’ve caught my mother glancing towards the window at the sound of a passing car. I guess it won’t be long before I’m hanging up my own nets.
Here I sat that morning, typing away, when the unknown van went up the road, turned and drove slowly back out for the first time. Looking less like it was lost and more like it was on the prowl.
Now, to give that driver a small bit of credit, our road doesn’t exactly exist on sat navs or maps yet. We’re at that weird point where, if you checked Google Earth, you’d think we’re all living in a field. Which means we get a lot of delivery drivers tentatively entering our road, looking desperately for house numbers.
Still, there’s something about a white van. The anonymous charger of the over-charger. The man who forced a lorry to reverse out of his way and write off our car drove a white van. The man who announced he could fix our kitchen sink and then left us with a small but constant leak that a real plumber had to repair drove a white van. The man who used to park over three spaces in our old road and caused a minor neighbour war drove a white van. They have a reputation. A reputation that can snag your attention at six in the morning.
Things got stranger when the van reappeared again and again that morning. Driving into the road, turning at the top, driving back out. Always leaving it just long enough to let you think they’d finally found they destination. It was strange. It was out of the ordinary. At some point around the third or fourth sighting in less than an hour I caught myself thinking:
Surely no burglar is this stupid.
Around seven, I headed downstairs to get some breakfast. As I opened the kitchen blind, my paranoia suddenly burned a little brighter. The van was parked right outside our house. The driver was inside. Not flicking through a paper. Not sitting on his phone. Just sitting there, looking out the other way. As if he'd just had an argument with our house and was trying to pointedly ignore it. Unease pricked at the back of my neck.
For the next fifteen minutes, he just sat there. He’d clearly chosen us for something. As the last of our neighbours began to leave for work, he stayed where he was. Beached on our curb.
I was trying to tell myself there was nothing to worry about when Sam came downstairs.
“How long have they been there?” she asked, not sounding happy.
Now I’ve always lived with the knowledge that my mind can wander. What do you think this is? Nine times out of ten, Sam will tell me I’m being an idiot and I’ve gotten tangled in my own head again. This time, though, was the tenth time. I hate the tenth time.
There was no ignoring the clock, either. We had to leave for work and, as Sam pointed out, we do own a burglar alarm. Although I’m still not sure how an alarm will stop an actual burglary. I keep thinking that surely it will just give the thieves a time limit on their supermarket sweep of our possessions. Which, if anything, is only going to make sure they go for the good stuff and quick. Surely a good burglar alarm should play soothing music, turn up the heating, offer them a chair and a drink, tell them they have nothing to worry about.
That morning, as we left for work, we kept a close eye on the intruding van. The driver had disappeared, so we couldn’t question him. We headed to the garage, hoping that he'd parked outside the wrong house. Only that hope died fast. He was at the other end of the road, on his phone, pacing around in front of our neighbour’s houses, debating something intensely. This was no good. His voice was shredding our nerves. His van was right outside our door, but we couldn't wait all day. Our paranoia was making us late.
Sam pulled out the road slowly, reluctant to leave. I wrote down his licence plate as we went. Every turn that took us further away from home that day made me tense. At work, I fought the urge to snap at every little clique or chirpy manager we have the pleasure of sharing a building with. I tried not to react to every one of the greatest hits on the dance card of The Office Futility Slow Step. Tried to resist the urge to call the house phone and see if a tense, unknown voice answered.
“Sorry, they’re not in right now.”
That night, we got home late. Later than expected. Thanks to a trip to the shops after work and a snarl up of traffic on an A road posing as a motorway for its kamikaze commuters. We came back to our road in the quickening dark.
The house looked okay. We checked it over. Everything was fine. Everything was still there. The only change was a hole at the other end of the road. Dug through the surface, fenced off with plastic cones.
In the end, the white van would come back to our road three more times that week. The hole widening, deepening and then, finally, filling. A neighbour later explained it was something to do with subsidence, but I’ve still got the van's licence plate on my phone. I can't bring myself to delete it yet.