The Tall Man

By Louise Wilford

Beckett knew he was being followed as soon as he stepped out of the bookies. It was an instinct you developed after a lifetime in the business – someone in your peripheral vision, standing too still or pausing too often, or the pale flash of a face turned in your direction.  

The instinct could go wrong, of course. He knew all the stories, and there’d been moments over the past few years when he’d wondered whether he was cracking up himself and would end up like Old Frayn, who – he’d heard – was now in a psychiatric ward, convinced that everyone who visited him was a North Korean spy.  

But this time, he knew it wasn’t simply paranoia.

Maintaining his usual slightly dour expression, he walked on, ignoring the urge to look ’round. Two doors down, he paused in front of the plate glass window of Greenberg’s Suits For All Occasions, pretending to examine their array of unimaginatively displayed men’s jackets but actually scanning the reflections to see whether he could spot anyone suspicious. Two people passed along the street behind him – a young woman pushing a pram and a middle-aged man carrying two plastic bags of shopping. Across the street, a couple of women were standing in front of the window of Marks and Spencer, deep in conversation, and three teenagers were lounging on the benches ’round the fountain in the square. No obvious North Korean spies there, he thought, his reflection smiling sardonically. 

Then he spotted what he was looking for – a tall, slender man in a dark coat, who stepped inside Boots just as Beckett’s gaze fell on him. It could have been a coincidence – or it could have been the action of an experienced agent or even a cop. But it wasn’t just his behaviour that snagged Beckett’s attention: the man looked somehow familiar. Beckett had seen him, or someone like him, before, though he couldn’t think where.  

What should he do? So many years after his retirement, it seemed unlikely that someone from his past would be here now to shake his hand and tell him he’d won the jackpot on the MI5 lottery. No one was supposed to know where he was, who he was, what he was. Even his wife, May, hadn’t known precisely what he’d retired from. If this guy was an agent, it couldn’t mean anything good; if he was someone from one of the terrorist organizations Beckett had infiltrated, it would be a great deal worse. And why hadn’t the guy just approached him in the usual way? It was broad daylight, and even spooks knew the rules of normal social interaction.

But maybe he was wrong. Maybe the tall man wasn’t following him at all. Maybe Beckett was succumbing to paranoia. A life like the one he’d led tended to take its toll.

Inside Greenberg’s, an assistant was straightening a jacket and glancing at him suspiciously. A better move, he thought. There’s only so long a man can gaze at a shop window convincingly. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and walked on. Before she died, three years ago, May had tried to stop him smoking, telling him it was bad for him, but he enjoyed it, so he compromised by smoking only outside. It soothed his nerves. 

As he walked on down the street, turning right onto Lowry Road, he desperately wanted to turn his head and check whether the tall man was following, but he knew better.  

There was a café at the end of Hogarth Row, where it joined Lowry Road, crowded at this time of day. Beckett ground the remains of his cigarette into the pavement with his toe, then – cursing himself silently – he bent down and picked up the squashed stub, slipping it into his pocket. Might as well leave a trail of breadcrumbs, he thought, allowing himself a quick glance ’round. He was out of practice. He dodged through the café’s doorway just as a family group were coming out, then slipped between the tables to the back where he knew there were toilets. The place was packed, windows misted with condensation; it reeked of hot fat and bubbling batter, a smell that would have made his mouth water any other lunchtime. The young man behind the counter nodded at him – he was a regular customer – and Beckett tried to force his grim face into a friendly expression. 

He pushed open the toilet door. The sharp smell of disinfectant met the salt-and-vinegar of the restaurant, and a wave of nausea rose in his gullet. The door swung shut behind him. The room was empty, a short urinal on one side, a single cubicle, its door open, in the corner beside a cracked sink. A large sash window, textured glass, half-filled the wall at the end, a twisted plastic Venetian blind doing its best to add an extra layer of privacy. Thank God he’d remembered the window correctly. It was open a few inches, the plastic blind rattling gently in the breeze off the sea. Using all his strength, he yanked it up as far as it would go. It squealed and grunted in protest, but he ignored the noise. It wasn’t much of a drop to the alleyway outside. 

As he clambered through the gap, the door between the restaurant and the toilet swung open, letting in the noise of conversation and the gurgling coffee machine, and again the pungent odour of frying fish. A boy about thirteen stared at him in astonishment, his mouth falling open to reveal multi-coloured braces on his teeth. Beckett put his forefinger to his lips. The boy continued to stare at him. Then, with an agility unusual in men his age, Beckett slid through the aperture and dropped carefully and quietly to the ground. Glancing up and down the empty alley, he made a rapid decision to head towards the seafront. As he began to run, he heard the window behind him rattling. Someone was leaning out, but he daren’t look back to check whether it was the boy with the braces or the tall man.

“The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.”

The alley led out onto the promenade, not far from the pier. It became a different place here, the sober Victorian town centre giving way to grubby bunting, garishly striped awnings, and kiosks piled high with boxes of fudge, kiss-me-quick hats and sugar dummies the colour of old-fashioned prosthetic limbs. Beckett skimmed the street, taking in his surroundings swiftly. Every third shop seemed to be a newsagent’s with racks of postcards in its doorway and inflated beachballs hanging over its windows. The pavements were crowded with strolling families in flip-flops and shorts, holding ice-creams and plastic buckets and spades. Hot, sugary smells – doughnuts and candyfloss – drifted above the sour scent of seaweed, making him feel nauseous again. Bursts of pop music from the arcades accosted him, a bingo caller’s amplified voice reverberating from across the street (‘Are you ready, ladies and gents?’) – and he could hear a more distant, older cry from the fairground further along: ‘The louder you scream, the faster we go!’.  For a second, the world felt uncanny to Beckett, like he’d stepped into an old Joseph Losey film, or the dislocating cacophony of a Graham Greene novel.

And there, standing in the shadow of an old lifeboat across the promenade, was the tall man, dropping a cigarette stub on the pavement and grinding it out with the toe of his shoe, as if in mockery of Beckett’s earlier actions.

He was staring straight at him.

But how could he be there? Beckett knew the man hadn’t passed him. If he’d taken a different route, how had he anticipated where Beckett would go?

At least there was now no doubt that the man was following him.

He felt himself trembling. He’d never been a nervous type; it didn’t go with the job. But there was something about that long-boned figure that made the hairs on his neck rise, digging out memories he’d rather stayed buried. 

His training took over. He looked away, glanced down at the floor, stuffed his hands in his pockets and fell into a casual amble, threading through the crowds that spilled off the pavements into the road. When Nash Street branched off at a crossroads, he took the left turn, down the main high street in the town, then darted across the busy road and headed off down Turner Lane, a narrow, cobbled alleyway between a mini-mart and a pub. He knew this was a shortcut to Dadd Street, which ran ’round the edge of the Old Town, parallel to the high street, and he could dart into one of the quiet shops there before his pursuer could get down the alley. 

On Dadd Street, moving quickly but not quite running, he crossed the road to a small gift shop with a dark interior. The door tinkled as he pushed it open, and an old man reading a newspaper behind the counter looked up, without interest, and muttered a brief greeting. There was no one else in the shop. It was a dusty, gloomy sort of place, shelves holding second-rate souvenirs and cheap children’s toys, mugs decorated with photographs of the seafront, little ships and miniature lighthouses made out of painted driftwood. Pretending to examine the dreary merchandise, Beckett lurked behind a display of plastic ships-in-bottles and fake Scrimshaw near the window, inspecting the street.

Though he knew he was right to think the man was tailing him, it was still a shock when the tall, slim figure emerged from the mouth of Turner Lane, scrutinising the street quite openly now. He was the kind of man you’d expect people to notice, with his exceptional height and that skinny frame, but no one on the street seemed to give him even a first glance. Beckett had a sudden feeling that maybe only he could see him, but he dismissed this idea immediately. No point in giving in to such ideas. His next impulse was to confront him, to step outside, walk across and ask him what he wanted, what he was doing here, why he was following him – but he knew this was just the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He’d learned years ago that, sometimes, there are moments when it feels easier – when it feels like it might even be a relief – to give yourself up rather than endure a second more of excruciating terror. These are the dangerous moments, the ones you need to guard against. The moments when you need to regulate your breathing, focus on the task at hand. Fear is the killer. 

Besides which, he had no weapon, not even a knife. When he left his house that morning, to visit the bookies and pick up a newspaper, he hadn’t expected his past to creep up on him in the street, on its spidery legs. He’d thought he was free of all that. And, anyway, he suddenly knew, with a shivering certainty, that he could never voluntarily confront this man. There was something about him that was quickening his heartbeat and making the gooseflesh rise on his arms. 

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Beckett pulled his head back into the shadows, but he was sure the man had spotted him, as he had begun to look for a gap in the traffic so he could cross over to the shop. Seeing the man’s angular features clearly now, a newly-lit cigarette cupped in one bony hand, Beckett realized where he’d seen him before. He’d been there when O’Leary was killed. He’d been standing a little behind the gang leader, off to one side, in the shadows, when Beckett shot the sadistic bastard in the chest and then in the head, just to make sure. Presumably, one of O’Leary’s entourage, though not one he’d recognized. A new guy, perhaps. He’d darted away, deeper into the shadows, before Beckett could shoot him too. When Beckett chased after him, he’d vanished into the shadowy alleyways ’round the docks. The other agents said they hadn’t seen anyone running away in that direction, but they hadn’t been as close to the gang. Beckett remembered that gaunt frame and that cruel face – small, deep-set eyes peering out from beneath a bony brow, above prominent cheekbones. A large, hooked nose and solid, heavy jaw. He looked like he’d been carved from granite. In fact, Beckett wasn’t sure, now, how he could ever have forgotten that face.

O’Leary’s death had been just over a decade ago. His final undercover mission. He retired soon afterwards. Infiltrating the IRA cell had won him a commendation. Later, after he discovered that the man he’d killed hadn’t actually been responsible for the kidnapping and torture of two fellow intelligence agents, as he’d been told – that in fact, he’d killed the wrong man (though a man who surely deserved to die nonetheless) – his previous certainties had crumbled like sandstone. Beckett had killed a lot of people in his career. Still, even though he knew how much of a scumbag the Irishman had been, he’d never quite shrugged off the unease he’d felt when he pulled the trigger that last time. On some level, he’d known they’d got the wrong man. He’d killed him out of fury, a reckless sense of anger and a desire for retribution, punishment for all the sordid brutalities committed by men like O’Leary that had discoloured Beckett’s world.

It had faded over the years, this sour lump of disquiet in his gut. Still, he sometimes dreamt of that winter evening, in another, much drearier, seaside town, so far away from here. That greasy wharf, the creak of the sea against its struts, pushing the tied-up boats up and down in the darkness, casting peculiar moving shadows. The look of surprise on O’Leary’s face when a man he trusted put a bullet through his chest. He dreamt about it sometimes.

And he remembered, with a sick sense of inevitability, that the tall man had been in all those dreams.

You could never really shrug off the sort of life Beckett had led. It always followed you, close as a shadow; however, many years passed by.

The tall man had almost reached the shop’s door. Beckett stepped back towards the counter, pushing the shopkeeper’s newspaper aside so he could look straight at his outraged face.

‘Is there a back way out?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘A back door? Is it through here?’

‘You can’t go back there! That’s private, that is!’

Beckett shouldered the man aside, pulled open a door behind him, and stepped into a tiny kitchenette. Thank God it wasn’t just a storeroom. There was an external door at the other side of the room, with a cat flap. To Beckett’s relief, the door was unlocked, though it was stiff and took some tugging before it opened. He half-fell down a short flight of concrete steps that led into another cobbled alley. A black cat scooted behind the tall dustbins which stood at either side of the steps, overflowing with junk. Beckett could hear the sound of the tall man following him through the shop, through the back room. Panicking, he decided to head right. He knew that way he’d be close to the promenade and the pier, again – lots of people around, potential safety.

However, before he reached the end of the alley, he heard the tall man’s feet on the cobbles behind him. And suddenly, he was engulfed by a giddy black sense that it was all over. Instinctively, he felt for the gun he no longer carried. Why would a grandfather like him need to carry a gun?

Slowly, he turned.

The tall man was standing only a few feet behind him. Beckett could see now that, beneath his long black coat, he was wearing threadbare jeans, patterned with dark stains, and a loose-knit woollen sweater with holes in it. The coat looked new, and it flapped around the man’s long, thin legs, in the wind tunnel of the alley, with the noise a flag makes in a strong breeze. A black beanie pulled low over his forehead accentuated the sharp ridges of his bone structure. Except for the coat, which Beckett remembered him wearing when he’d seen him standing behind O’Leary – so it couldn’t be new, after all – he looked like a weather-beaten fisherman. It was almost a caricature, a fancy dress ‘seaside town’ outfit. But he was too thin, the thinnest man Beckett had ever seen. He looked like a man in the late stages of cancer, but he also looked – somehow – immensely strong.

And there was something else odd about him.

‘Who are you?’ asked Beckett, his voice thin with stress. The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.

Then Beckett realized what it was about the man that looked wrong.
The sun was shining on Beckett’s face, making him squint a little and stretching his own shadow out over the cobbles behind him.
But there was no shadow in front of the tall man.

“his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett.”

Panic overwhelmed Beckett. Stumbling slightly as he turned, he fled down the alley, desperate to getaway. He moved now like a hare fleeing from a fox, giving no thought to others, his mind a swirling chaos of terror. His training deserted him as he sped along the promenade, clattering down a flight of wooden steps onto the beach, scrambling across the expanse of pebbles that marked the edge between manmade and natural, past groups of astonished sunbathers. He could hear the scratchy rattle of the stones as he ran, and slipped, and ran again over them, then a kind of silence as he reached the edge of the screen and his trainers slapped against the smooth wet sand by the sea’s edge. All he could think of was escape and sanctuary.  

After a few minutes, with no evidence of pursuit, he began to calm down, the worst of his panic subsiding and rational thought kicking in. Feeling exposed on the sand, he cursed himself again, dodged ’round two children staring into a rockpool, and began to slow down. The crowds were thinning out at this end of the beach, where the tide seemed to be coming in a little faster, waves foaming over the sand like fingers clutching at a life-raft. Beckett fell into a brisk walk, glancing around and behind frequently. Eventually, he forced himself to stop, to turn slowly, scanning in all directions. Off to his left, back along the beach, a child was throwing a frisbee for a border collie to chase, and a family group was packing up their deckchairs and windbreaks. Further inland, a young couple were strolling arm in arm, and three bikini-ed women were lying side by side like steaks under a grill. The gaudy noise of the seafront had receded to a background hum, like a fading recollection, and the smell of the seaweed draped along the sand in dark green strands was more intense.

The tall man was nowhere to be seen.

Half-sobbing, half-laughing with relief, he looked out over the grey-blue waves and tried to pull himself together. He made a conscious effort to slow his breathing, steady his heart rate. He’d kept a low profile in this town for ten years, so he didn’t want to draw attention to himself now by galloping over a crowded beach like a madman being pursued by demons. A lone seagull swooped through the air above the sea’s edge, screeching loudly, the sound filling Beckett’s head with images of screaming children. He gritted his teeth and shook these thoughts out of his mind. Got to get a hold of myself, he thought. Get my bearings. His hand went to his forehead, pushing his sweaty hair from his face as he peered around desperately, then down at the sand around his feet, like a man who’d lost his wallet. Scraps of sweet wrappers, crisp packets, lollipop sticks embedded in the sand; the straw from an empty orange juice carton; glossy pink shells and rounded pebbles; sea glass smooth as a jewel. 

Beckett looked up, squinting against the sun. Between the beach and the road, a familiar higgledy-piggledy collection of black, clinker-built fishing-net huts stood. He’d seen them often on his walks, and he’d always found them slightly disturbing. They were unusually tall and thin, and he always felt they might topple over and crush him, their horizontal black weather-boards filling his thoughts with distorted images of endless parallel lines. As he stared at them, the tall man stepped out from the narrow, shadowy space between the closest two. He took a long inhale of the cigarette held between his lips, tendrils of smoke curling out of his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett. 

Beckett heard his own voice muttering ‘No, no, no!’ and felt water slosh over the tops of his brogues as he stepped backwards into the waves. Soon the sea was above his knees, but he continued to stare at the tall man, who maintained his unhurried stride towards him. 

Then, with a sudden terrifying movement, Beckett turned, splashing through the deepening water until his feet felt only the movement of the sea beneath them – then swimming, with wild, determined strokes – then, at last, breathless and hopeless, waiting for the current to carry him to freedom.

Louise Wilford lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her poetry and short stories have been widely published, most recently in Bandit, Failbetter, Jaden, POTB, Makarelle and English Review. In 2020, she won First Prize in the Arts Quarterly Short Story Competition and the Merefest poetry competition. She was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a fantasy novel.

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