Tom is a successful author, but he’s struggling to finish his novel. His main distraction is an online admirer, Evie, who simply won’t leave him alone.
Evie is smart, well read and unstable; she lives with her father and her social-media friendships are not only her escape, but everything she has.
When she’s hit with a restraining order, her world is turned upside down, and Tom is free to live his life again, to concentrate on writing.
But things aren’t really adding up. For Tom is distracted but also addicted to his online relationships, and when they take a darker, more menacing turn, he feels powerless to change things. Because maybe he needs Evie more than he’s letting on.
A compulsive, disturbingly relevant, twisty and powerful psychological thriller, The Closer I Get is also a searing commentary on the fragility and insincerity of online relationships, and the danger that can lurk just one ‘like’ away…
Extract from the book
EIGHT MONTHS EARLIER
‘I’m a writer,’ Tom said. ‘I write novels.’
This was usually the point at which people asked ‘Anything I’d have read?’ For most of the authors Tom knew, the honest answer would be ‘Probably not’. But he was one of the lucky ones. His first novel had been an international bestseller. Rights were sold in forty countries. There was even a film adaptation starring Ryan Gosling, which ensured that while Tom Hunter wasn’t exactly a household name, he did enjoy a certain amount of brand recognition. He also had a level of financial security rare among his peers, and a flat overlooking the river in an area of Vauxhall largely populated by hedge-fund managers.
Success had come easily to Tom. Too easily, his detractors might have said – and there were plenty of those. The critics hadn’t been kind about his second novel, and it had struggled to repeat the success of his first. Truth be told, he was still struggling – though this was something he was barely willing to admit to himself, let alone anyone else.
None of which was of the slightest interest to the woman looking at him from behind the reinforced glass partition. ‘And you’re here to give a statement?’ she said. ‘Perhaps you could start by telling me what happened?’
Tom had thought about this a lot on his way to the police station. Where to begin? What to say? He’d given a brief account to the two officers who visited his flat three days ago. But this was more serious. This woman was a detective. What he said now would determine what further action, if any, was taken. He’d never given a police statement before. He didn’t know what was expected.
He loosened his shirt collar and leaned forwards in his plastic chair. ‘I went through this with the police on Tuesday.’
‘I know. But if you wouldn’t mind going over it again, just so I’m clear.’
Was this a test, Tom wondered – a way of checking whether he had his story straight?
‘I’m being harassed,’ he said.
The detective nodded. ‘I’m aware of the nature of your complaint. The person you say is harassing you – is this someone you know?’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’
‘It’s someone I met online,’ Tom explained. ‘A woman, on Twitter.’
The detective gave him a look which suggested that social media wasn’t her favourite topic of conversation. Tom wondered how much police time was wasted investigating complaints made about comments posted on Facebook or shared on Twitter. Quite a few, he imagined. He was aware, also, that Detective Inspector Sue Grant worked for the hate-crime unit, and was probably used to dealing with cases far more serious than this. Online harassment was one thing. But it was nothing compared to a man who’d been queer-bashed or a woman whose husband was using her as a punch bag.
‘That’s where it began,’ he said, fidgeting in his chair. ‘But pretty soon it started spilling over into other areas of my life – emails, blogs, comments posted on Amazon and various online forums.’
‘And you’ve never actually met this person?’
‘No. Yes. Kind of.’
The detective gave him a quizzical look. ‘Well, which is it?’
‘We met once, I think. At a book signing.’ Tom smiled modestly. ‘I do a lot of book signings.’
‘And do you recall meeting her at this book signing?’
‘Vaguely. I meet so many people. And it was quite some time ago.’
‘How long ago exactly?’
Tom thought for a moment. ‘About a year.’
The detective looked surprised. ‘This has been going on for a whole year?’
‘More or less.’
‘Why didn’t you report it earlier?’
Of course, he’d known that she would ask him this. He’d been going over it in his head since he made the initial phone call to the police, trying to think of how best to explain himself. ‘I thought I could handle it. I thought she’d lose interest. And to be perfectly honest, I was rather embarrassed.’
He shrugged. ‘A man being bullied by a woman – it’s a bit pathetic, isn’t it?’
The detective looked at him. ‘Men can be victims, too. Domestic abuse, harassment – it can happen to anyone.’
‘That’s good to hear,’ Tom said, then quickly corrected himself. ‘I mean, it’s good that you take this stuff seriously, Detective.’
‘We take all crime seriously.’
Tom smiled and nodded. ‘Yes, of course.’
The detective tapped at the keyboard on the desk between them, rolled her eyes and rose from her seat. ‘I’m afraid we’re having a few problems with our computer system. So, if you’d like to follow me, we can go and make a start on your statement.’
She instructed the officer at the reception desk to buzz Tom through, and escorted him into the interior of the police station, opening each successive door with a swipe of her security pass. As they waited for the lift, Tom’s eyes were drawn to a poster on the wall. A woman’s bruised and battered face stared back at him. ‘Domestic violence is a crime’, the text stated. ‘Report it!’ Not for the first time, he wondered if he was doing the right thing.
Then he recalled Emma’s stern words on Tuesday evening: ‘She won’t stop, Tom. She’s made that perfectly clear. And for all we know she could be dangerous. She’s already affecting your health. You have to do something now, before it gets any worse.’
It was Emma who urged him to call the police and waited with him until they arrived. She’d offered to accompany him tonight, too, but Tom had insisted that it really wasn’t necessary. There was no way of knowing how long this would take. Some things he was better left doing alone.
The lift groaned as the doors closed, prompting a sharp spike of anxiety. Tom wasn’t good with lifts at the best of times – a hangover from the days when he first moved to London and lived on the ninth floor of a tower block in Kennington, where he once found himself trapped in the lift for over an hour. At least this lift didn’t smell of urine, although there was the familiar whiff of fast food. He wondered about the eating habits of the woman standing next to him. She caught his eye and he quickly averted his gaze. The lift stopped on the third floor, where she led him along a windowless corridor with harsh strip lighting and into a large open-plan room with carpet the colour of weak tea and rows of desks and computer terminals, most of them unoccupied. As they entered the room, the detective exchanged greetings with a couple of uniformed officers and a tall, stern-looking man in plain clothes with his shirt sleeves rolled up – her sergeant, she explained in a hushed voice.
She led Tom over to an empty desk, pulled up an extra chair for him to sit on and took out her pocketbook. ‘Perhaps you could start by telling me what you know about this woman…’ she checked her notes ‘…Evie?’
Tom nodded. ‘Eve Stokes. She calls herself Evie.’
‘When did you first become aware of her?’
‘She’s someone who started following me on Twitter.’
‘And you said this was about a year ago?’
Tom shrugged. ‘More or less. It’s hard to be exact. I have a lot of Twitter followers.’
‘I see. What else?’
‘She started by tweeting me, saying she was a big fan of my work. She has a blog where she writes about books. She’s clearly educated and often quite insightful. But there’s a lot of anger and frustration there. Some of her blogs are quite extreme.’
‘Extreme in what way?’ ‘There’s a lot of upper-case invective.
The detective looked at him blankly. ‘She uses capital letters a lot, for emphasis. And she can be quite vicious. She writes like a disaffected teenager who’s read a few books on literary criticism, but she’s in her thirties. She clearly hasn’t done as well in life as she thinks she ought to have, which is probably why she spends so much time on Twitter, sniping at newspaper columnists and other writers. She lives in East Dulwich with her father. He’s not very well, or so she says.’
The detective raised an eyebrow. ‘For someone you’ve barely met, you seem to know rather a lot about her.’
Tom smiled grimly. ‘Well, you know what they say – know your enemy.’
‘I thought you said she was a fan.’
‘She was, yes. But fandom is a funny thing. It’s never really about you – it’s really about them. Fan is short for fanatic, you know.’
The detective gave him a look that said she wasn’t born yesterday.
‘It really is a form of fanaticism,’ Tom continued. ‘Almost a disorder in some cases. Certainly so in hers. That’s the thing with social media. All sorts of people have direct access to you. And when you’re in the public eye…’ He paused and gave a modest smile. ‘When you’re known, even in a small way, you’re bound to attract a few oddballs. Twitter can be a real vipers’ nest at times. But it’s good for book sales, so…’
‘And you run your Twitter account yourself ?’ the detective interjected.
‘You don’t have someone who could do it for you?’
‘I can’t afford staff.’
‘But presumably your publisher can?’ Tom coughed.
‘I’m between publishers at the moment.’
‘A friend, then?’
‘There’s nobody I’d really trust to do it properly. It’s a lot to ask of someone.’
‘But it would give you a break. Sometimes these things die down when the person realises they’re not getting through.
Tom shrugged. ‘If only. If you ask me, she needs sectioning.’ ‘A person can only be detained under The Mental Health Act if they’re deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.’ The detective consulted her notes. ‘You say you met Ms Stokes at your book signing. Is that the only time you’ve seen her in person?’
Tom thought for a moment. ‘There was one other occasion – at the farmers’ market at Oval. At the time I put it down to coincidence. Now I’m not so sure.’
‘But you recognised her?’
‘It was more a case of her recognising me. She looked over and waved.’
‘And did you speak?’
‘I acknowledged her and moved swiftly on. I didn’t wish to be drawn into a conversation.’ ‘Why was that?’
‘I don’t know her. My gut instinct told me that something wasn’t quite right.’
‘I see. And has Ms Stokes ever made direct threats against you?’
‘It depends what you mean by threats.’
‘Has she ever threatened to cause you physical harm?’
‘Not directly, no. But she’s hinted at it. After she turned on me, she made veiled comments on Twitter about getting back at me in some way. “Don’t get mad, get even” – that sort of thing. I don’t know what she’s capable of. She could be a knife-wielding maniac for all I know.’ Tom smiled weakly.
‘What I do know is that she’s obsessive and relentless, and clearly very angry with me.’
‘And why do you think that is?’
‘Honestly? I think she developed a crush on me, and she can never have me.’
‘Because you’re attached?’
‘Because I’m gay.’ Tom searched the detective’s face for some reaction, but her expression remained impassive.
‘I see. And was she aware of this?’
‘I didn’t lead her on, if that’s what you mean.’
‘I’m not saying you did. I’m just after the facts.’
Tom sighed. ‘I don’t make a secret of it. I’m not one of those professional gay types. I don’t shout it from the rooftops. But it’s not something I’m ashamed of. It’s part of who I am. It’s not all that I am.’
‘But if she knows you’re gay, surely she—’
‘We’re talking about someone who isn’t quite right in the head,’ Tom said, more irritably than he’d intended.
‘In her mind, she probably thought it was some minor obstacle to overcome. There are women like that, you know. They see gay men as a challenge.’
The detective smiled tightly. ‘You say she turned on you. What did she do exactly?’
‘Her emails and tweets became more aggressive. She started using homophobic language.’ Tom paused. ‘That makes this a hate crime, doesn’t it?’
‘Possibly. First we need to establish that a crime has been committed. Do you have copies of these emails and tweets?’
‘Some of them, yes. I deleted a lot of the emails. And some went into my spam folder.’
‘Can I ask why you deleted the emails?’
‘Just out of instinct, I suppose. They disgusted me, so I deleted them.’
‘Well the more you can find – the stronger the weight of evidence – the better the chances of the CPS pursuing the case.’
‘Do you think it’s likely that they will?’
‘It really all depends on the weight of evidence. I believe my colleagues asked you to bring in as much supporting evidence as you could find?’
‘They did,’ Tom said. ‘And I have.’
He reached into his leather messenger bag and took out a manila folder bulging with sheets of A4 paper. The detective looked slightly taken aback. She logged onto the computer in front of her and opened up a template headed ‘Witness Statement’.
‘Right,’ she smiled professionally. ‘Why don’t we make a start?’
About the Author
Paul Burston is the author of five novels and the editor of two short story collections. His most recent novel The Black Path, was a WHSmith bestseller. His first novel, Shameless, was shortlisted for the State of Britain Award. His third novel, Lovers & Losers was shortlisted for a Stonewall Award. His fourth, The Gay Divorcee, was optioned for television.
He was a founding editor of Attitude magazine and has written for many publications includingGuardian, Independent, Time Out, The Times and Sunday Times. In March 2016, he was featured in the British Council’s #FiveFilms4Freedom Global List 2016, celebrating “33 visionary people who are promoting freedom, equality and LGBT rights around the world”.
He is the founder and host of London’s award-winning LGBT+ literary salon Polari and founder and chair of The Polari First Book Prize for new writing and the newly announced Polari Prize.