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Ruth Kelly: My close shave with death in the French countryside

Ruth Kelly: My close shave with death in the French countryside

Why did I choose to set my latest thriller, The Escape, in the remote French countryside featuring a creepy old house ringed by a forest with no houses for miles around?

They say write about what you know so, I drew on the past. A summer evening that will forever be burned into my memory. The night I was almost murdered.

Okay, that sounds dramatic. But at the time, fuelled by adrenaline and spine-shaking fear, I was convinced I was never going to see the light of day again.

I’ll start at the beginning.

Picture the scene – a reservoir at dusk. A low mist swirling over the still water and a woman out jogging alone through country lanes.

That woman was me and that run was the longest night of my life.

It was mid-summer. A weekend away with friends staying in an idyllic French country house an hour’s drive from the French coastal town of La Rochelle.

It was a beautiful balmy evening, not too hot, not too cold, the air was still simmering with the heat of the day. It was the perfect time to stretch my legs and inhale some country air before we sat down for dinner, for rather ironically, a murder mystery themed evening.

I planned to be gone thirty minutes, if that. The rest of the group were either napping or playing board games or having sundowners. I left my phone on charge and slipped away unnoticed.

I fell into a steady pace, following the road which was wide enough for only one car, down the hill and around as it snaked past a small reservoir.

The sky was filling up with colour. Indigos and reds and flaming oranges as the sun began its journey south to meet the horizon.

There was a crossroads ahead and I took a left, the narrow lane pulling me deeper into farmland, past maize fields, a copse of trees and abandoned sheds. The landscape opening up like a giant watercolour painting.

Half a dozen more turns. A left, a right, another left at the next crossroads and I was in the heart of the countryside. I’d become so absorbed in the raw beauty – the wild flowers, the fresh air, the dazzling sunset – I’d lost all track of time.

I slowed to a stop and made a U-turn, retracing my steps. I’d be a little later home than I planned but there was still plenty of time to get changed into my costume for the evening’s game.

Famous. Last. Words.

After another twenty-five minutes of running past fields that looked identical and sort of familiar, it suddenly dawned on me – I must have taken a wrong turn.

I retraced my steps.

I doubled backed on myself. I tried another direction, confident I’d eventually find the way back if I kept on trying.

But with every turn, I found myself getting more lost. The lanes had become a labyrinth, pushing me further into isolation. No houses for miles around. Only fields and deafening silence.

The sun had sunk behind the hill and darkness was creeping in. I was boxed in by a mass of thick hedgerow. The high-pitched hum of mosquitos buzzed in my ear. All that blood pumping around my body must have drawn them out. I could sense their eagerness to feed off me and I picked up the pace.

My legs were aching, my breath, ragged and uneven.

I had no phone. Nobody knew where I’d gone. It was just me and the vast infinite space.

Why, WHY didn’t I tell someone I’d gone for a run?

I ran and I ran and I ran. I must have covered at least ten kilometres without pausing for breath. I was in full fight or flight. Adrenaline injected into my veins.

And then?

I don’t know how, or why, but by some miraculous stroke of luck, I eventually managed to find my way back to the very first crossroads I’d come to. The French village names were meaningless but I instantly recognised the wonky post. The peeling paint. Relief washed over me, the feeling, so powerful, my legs almost buckled.

Nearly home. Hang in there.

Home – the word shimmered in my thoughts and I couldn’t get there quick enough.

Slipping back down the hill, the reservoir was on my left this time. A final confirmation that I was on the right track. Then a set of headlights appeared on the brow of the hill, full beams on, bleaching out the night. It was the first car I’d seen since I’d set off.

At first, I thought it might be my friends coming to look for me but as I neared the reservoir, the car also slowed down. Coming to a hard stop by the water’s edge.

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It was pitch black; the moon was tucked behind the clouds. A dark silhouette of a man behind the driver’s wheel. Watching, waiting, with the headlights on and the engine running.

What does he want?

I stood stock still. Torn with indecision. Should I hide? Should I run past him up the hill and home?

Then, the engine cut out. The man dressed head to toe in black, got out. He looked in my direction, staring for a beat too long and then he made his way around to the back of the car, opening up the boot.

My heart leaped into my mouth.

I’d never felt so vulnerable – wearing a tiny pair of running shorts and a sports bralette on a lonely dark country lane.

The air was still and deathly quiet except for my heart which was thudding in my ears. A combination of too much adrenaline and a writer’s imagination had me dreaming up worst case scenarios. He’s going to kidnap me. Bundle me into his boot. Chop me up into little pieces. Keep me captive in his basement.

I swallowed. And then came the rocket into my chest.

I ran. No, I sprinted up that hill, my legs pumping, my feet driving into the tarmac and I didn’t look back, not once, I kept my gaze fixed ahead, on the crest of the hill. On home.

Of course, nothing happened, nobody tried to kidnap or murder me, I reached the driveway to our house in one piece, just as my friends we coming to search for me.

But my heart – it didn’t recover for hours. I was buzzing the entire night, high on adrenaline, unable to slow my system down.

It was an awful experience but it taught me some harsh life lessons and I came away with a memory which I was able to draw inspiration from years down the line. The overwhelming sense of fear and isolation I felt that night was doing loops around my head as I wrote The Escape.

So if you find yourself reading The Escape, think about me and that creepy dark evening and it might make you shudder that little bit more as you turn the pages.

The Escape by Ruth Kelly is published by Pan on 7 December 2023

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