82-year-old Nettie still hears the occasional gossiping, but most have forgotten what she did.
Now, living alone in a run-down farmhouse, she surrounds herself with memories of her late husband and estranged daughter Catherine.
When Catherine’s friend James appears out of the blue, Nettie is grateful for the company and keen to learn more about her daughter.
But soon James starts asking Nettie questions she doesn’t want to answer; about some things she can’t remember and others she’s tried to forget.
And if Nettie can’t remember clearly, how can she be certain what they say about her is true?
We All Begin As Strangers
Harriet’s debut novel, We All Begin As Strangers, was shortlisted for the BAMB Readers Awards.
Inspired by a true story, this dark drama tells of a mysterious figure known as The Fox who slips through the homes of a small English village during the summer of 1984. What he wants is unclear – he doesn’t take anything, only leaves finger smudges on photographs or a trace of soil across a carpet.
Everyone panics. In the pre-mobile age, villagers rely on the weekly newspaper and gossip to hear where The Fox has been. A postcard has been moved, a dog set barking down by the Robinsons’ and their newborn baby…
And then one of their own goes missing: Anna, a young woman dedicated to the village.
Alarmed at what might’ve happened to their friend, the villagers set about trying to catch The Fox before anyone else is harmed. But as the summer creeps on, locks picked and video tapes left playing, they become frightened for a wholly different reason: that The Fox will discover their own dark secrets.
We All Begin As Strangers is a story about loneliness and the price we pay to belong.
The True Story Behind The Fox
The real-life Fox was a man called Malcolm Fairley who, between April and August 1984, broke into houses across the area of The Chilterns, UK. A manhunt was launched and vigilante groups formed to hide in barns and patrol streets at night.
Dunstable police brought in a computer which was partly manned by officers from West Yorkshire who had valuable experience after catching the Yorkshire Ripper. At this time DNA profiling was in its infancy and community policing was relied on to gather evidence.
The Fox wasn’t easy to find. He reportedly climbed Ivinghoe Beacon to see which houses had lights switched off and was adept at slipping unheard through doors and windows. One time he even dismantled a central heating system to get into a house.
I was born in Aylesbury in July 1984 and grew up hearing stories of The Fox. After my dad found his shirt stolen from the washing line, he set up a tripwire across the garden. My parents also borrowed a Samurai sword to stash under the bed and kept a pick axe in the cupboard.
For a long time, I believed The Fox merely watched and listened to family life. It was only in the last few years I revisited the story with a childhood friend and she told me what my parents omitted: that although The Fox did often simply watch and nothing more, on some occasions he raped people and one time shot a gun, injuring someone’s hand. Of course my perception of him greatly shifted but, at the same time, I still wondered about all the hours he spent in people’s houses without attempting any form of contact. Maybe a part of him was drawn to the intimacy of private family lives and he wanted to feel a part of that.
I never wanted to hurt anybody,’ Fairley told St Alban’s Crown Court at his trial in February 1985. According to his defence barrister he ‘had no clear idea of right and wrong’. Fairley reportedly said, ‘I wanted to stop it but I couldn’t. When I got the gun I felt I could get what I wanted.’
He was given six life sentences for his crimes and was reportedly released from prison in 2012 under a new identity. His current whereabouts is unknown.