Make or Break

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“When I married you I had no idea you were such a wet bastard,” Tracey fumed. “I thought you had some get up and go.”

“So did I. I think it got up and went.”

Another day, another row. While my wife Tracey droned on and on I tried to think about something else, mainly the Vauxhall I’d bought whose engine turned out to be shot, and the indecisive customer who was bringing back the Nissan because she found it didn’t suit her after all. Not to mention the mounting bills I couldn’t pay.

“Honestly Simon, I encouraged you to buy the car sales business because I thought you had it in you to be a shit-hot businessman. And what are you? A useless plonker who falls for any hard luck story… Would you rather have your hands covered in grease and oil for the rest of your life, at some gaffer’s beck and call?”

Later, I tried to forget our morning row as my pal Ron dropped me off at the address in the north of town, where the big old Jaguar was for sale. It was a few years old, but Jags really hold their price, and I was confident that if I could get it for a steal then I could possibly, at last, make some kind of profit on the deal, something which I hadn’t managed during the year since I’d been buying and selling cars for a living.

“Come in, son,” said the old man as I entered the neat and tidy flat. He was about eighty years old, short and chubby with sparse white hair and a very friendly smile and a welcoming handshake. For the next ten minutes Donald and I chatted away about the car he was selling, and what it was like for him getting used to living on his own after his wife had died recently. He told me about his daughter Jackie who was getting divorced, “Because,” he told me, “the feller was just no good for her. She said to me, ‘Dad I can’t go on, it’s make or break time and I reckon it has to be break.’ I said you go for it, girl…”

“My wife Helen used to love a run out in the car,” he told me as we went downstairs to the garage, where he lifted the door, to reveal a beautiful looking sleek dark green Jaguar. He put his hand affectionately on the bonnet. “I really don’t want to sell it. There are so many happy memories of the times we spent together in this car, going out on trips, and in the past months going to and from the hospital. Funny thing, but when she was ill, I felt closer to her than ever before.” His voice quavered as if he was on the point of breaking down. “But I’ve got to be realistic. Money’s pretty tight nowadays, living on the pension, and I won’t lie to you,” he went on, leading me round to the driver’s door opening it and inserting the key and switching on the ignition. He revved it up.

“See, son, it’s okay now, it’ll probably be fine for your test drive. But you run it for more than a few miles this warning light comes on, and then it switches into ‘limp home mode’ or whatever they call it, so you crawl back at 20 miles an hour to get home. You’re a motor dealer, so you understand these things, but it seems to me as if there’s something drastically wrong with the engine, and I just can’t afford to get it sorted. That’s why, all things considered, I have to get rid of it.”

“Yes, I understand,” I told him, professionally assessing the vehicle. It was in lovely condition, not a mark on the bodywork, and, so far, the engine wasn’t missing a beat. But I knew from experience that engine parts for Jags cost a bomb, so buying it was a calculated risk.

After the test drive, during which it seemed fine to me, I parked in front of the garage, and got out to talk to him. “How much are you wanting for it, then, Donald?” I asked him.

“Well, I thought, maybe…” He mentioned a figure that was way below the market price for a such a fine car. Frankly, even allowing for costly repairs, I couldn’t lose on the deal, so I quickly handed over the readies, phoned my mate to tell him I wouldn’t need a lift back to the shop, and left the poor old man scratching his head and looking bemused as I drove his beloved car away.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Donald, thinking how unfair it was that he’d had to lose the car he obviously loved because he couldn’t afford to keep it. I thought about Donald’s obviously happy marriage to Helen, and how death had separated them. And how this car was one of the last links to all the memories they’d shared.

Sure enough after a few miles the dashboard warning light came on and the ‘limp home mode’ kicked in as he’d warned, so I took it straight to the big Jaguar dealer in town, and they put their computer analysis machine on it, and to my delight it turned out that it was just one small thirty-quid engine relay that they had in stock, that I fitted in minutes on the spot. I drove it round town for half an hour to check on it, and lo and behold, the problem was solved! What a result!

I thought of how pleased Tracey was going to be that for once I’d bought a car for a fraction of what it was worth, and I was going to be able to sell it for a massive profit. For once she’d be proud of me.

Then, as I was working on an old Ford pickup that afternoon, I got to thinking about Donald, and the look on his face as he’d watched me driving away his pride and joy.

It was 6 o’clock in the evening and I was tired out. The afternoon had been depressing, more bills I couldn’t pay, and yet another customer returning a car, demanding a full refund, that I gave him. I’ve always been a good mechanic, had left a very good job to start my own car sales-and-repairs set-up, and I often missed my old pals at the big works on the bypass, the freedom from worry, the straightforward day, the matey tea breaks. Most of all I missed the satisfaction of doing a job I enjoyed, even if the money wasn’t great.

Tracey rang, and I told her about my good fortune that morning, and how much money I’d be able to make by simply putting the Jag on the forecourt and waiting for the offers. She was delighted, suggesting we go into town for a meal tonight to celebrate. I told her I’d bring the Jag to show her what a beautiful car I’d bought.

But as I was driving the lovely old car home that night, some impulse made me turn left instead of right, back up to the estate I’d been to this morning.

Old Donald looked surprised to see me, and welcomed me inside, offering me a cup of tea, which I gladly accepted. I liked Donald, I really enjoyed his company.

“I hope there isn’t a problem with the car,” he asked anxiously.

“Actually, Donald, there is,” I told him as I sat down on his comfortable sofa. “Look mate, fixing that engine problem cost me just thirty quid. So here’s the deal. Either I can give you more money – a fair price. Or, since I know you never really wanted to sell it, you can take it back. Frankly, it’s a lovely car, the engine’s top dollar now, and you were telling me about all those happy memories you didn’t want to lose. If you can’t afford to keep it on the road long term, I understand, but why make the decision right now? I bet your Helen would want you to keep it.”

“Take it back? Give me more money?” He looked flabbergasted. “Blimey, son, you’re not like any car salesman I’ve ever met before!”

“I’m a crap car salesmen, if you want the truth.” I took one of the buns from the plate on the table. “I’m thinking of packing it in.”

Donald joined in my laughter. Just then the door opened and a very attractive woman came in.

“Dad, did you sell the car then?” she asked him.

“No, Jane. This kind young man who was going to buy it, tells me there’s nothing wrong with the engine after all. So I’ve decided to hang on to it.”

Just then my phone went. I saw that it was Tracey. I ignored it.

“Oh, Dad, that’s really good news,” Jane said to me as she sat down beside me on the sofa, impulsively putting her hand on mine and turning to face me. “I told Dad not to be in a rush to sell it. He and Mum loved that car.”

Donald had gone out of the room to fetch something. Jane was looking into my eyes, and I got that strange feeling, as if the stranger you’ve just met is a really old friend. There was something mesmerising about her face, and I found it hard to look away.

“Not many of you lot around,” she said to me with a grin.

“What?”

“Honest car salesmen.”

“There’ll be one less soon. I’m selling the business.”

“Since when?”

“Since ten minutes ago. From now on I’m a mechanic.”

“Must be good to repair things. Pity you can’t repair marriages.” She frowned, still not breaking eye contact. “With a relationship you can’t just fiddle and tinker with something to put things right. It’s all or nothing. Make or break.”

“A job you hate, a marriage you hate, sometimes it’s better to just face the fact you made a mistake.”

“Exactly,” Jackie agreed enthusiastically. “Sometimes it’s better to just break it off like I did.”

My phone started ringing again, the name Tracey appearing again on the screen.

I switched off the phone.

“Why don’t you take Jackie out for a run in the Jag?” Donald suggested as he returned, picking up the car keys I’d put on the table and giving them back to me. “By the time you get back I’ll have cooked some spaghetti bolognese. I’ve got just enough for the three of us.”

 

 

 

The Death Mask

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“You can just get out! GO ON! FUCK OFF!”

It was Sunday evening, and my wife Jackie had just discovered that I’d been having an affair with Andrea McGowan, an up-and-coming sculptor who was making quite a name for herself in artistic circles. We’d both known Andrea for a while, since we’d met her at a dinner party last year.

I suppose I should have known I couldn’t live the double life for ever. But I had hoped I could keep it up for just a little bit longer, because it really was such fun.

I knew that right now I had to keep things on track, stop my life spiralling out of control. For goodness’ sake, we have three children, a house with a mortgage.

“Please, Jackie, I’m sorry,” I begged.

“I bet Andrea was sorry when she found out what a disappointment you are in bed! That’s one comfort anyway—after all these years, I won’t have to put up with your clumsy fumblings anymore.”

“Please, listen! Andrea means nothing to me. Honestly, Jackie. If you want to know the truth, she’s been chasing after me ever since we met last year. And we’ve only slept together once—that was the one time it happened.”

“You expect me to believe that?” she snarled.

“Yes! You don’t know Andrea. She’s clingy, she’s halfway round the bend, and, if you want the truth, I think she’s pig ugly. I felt sorry for her, honestly Jackie, great hulking Amazon that she is. In fact I thought she was a dyke when I first met her. She’s not a patch on you.”

“Evidently she is. Otherwise why abandon me for her?”

I didn’t abandon you!” I held her by the wrists, staring into her eyes. “She’s a stupid, ugly, scheming, manipulative cow, and I wish I’d never set eyes on her.”

“You’re saying you don’t even fancy her? When you had an affair?”

“It wasn’t an affair! It was a mistake, an embarrassing mistake. It was simply a very brief few moments that I’ll regret for the rest of my life. Once it had happened I was sick of the sight of her.”

She finally looked me in the eyes.

“In fact,” I went on, trying to press home my advantage, “as I said, I only started seeing her because I felt sorry for her. She talked non-stop, and she kept phoning me, chasing after me. It was pathetic. Andrea’s pathetic. She’s mentally ill, did you know that? And she’s a physical wreck too. You know she had that heart attack not long ago? She’s got a phobia about it, she’s always on about being scared of having another one and dying, especially as she keeps forgetting to take her blood-pressure pills. But she’s mentally ill too. Schizophrenia or something, she really scares me. I swear this is the truth, Jackie: right after we’d had sex for the first and only time, I looked at her and I felt physically sick. I honestly found her repulsive. She made my flesh crawl. I don’t know why I ever looked at her, let alone. . .”

There was a long silence. I hoped against hope that I’d said enough to finally placate her.

“Well, Mike, I’ve got a lot to think about,” Jackie said at last. “It’s too early to tell you how I’ll feel in future, but right now I can’t stand the bloody sight of you. So go. Go now. Before I pick up the carving knife and stab you through the heart. Drive off, and don’t bother to drive carefully. Crash into a wall and kill yourself for all I care.”

“Sure, sure, I’ll give you all the space you need Jackie. But on our children’s lives I swear—”

“—Don’t you dare bring the children into this!” she snapped, rounding on me and glaring at me as if I was something disgusting that was attached to her shoe. “Just do as I say for God’s sake and GET OUT NOW!”

Quit while you’re ahead is my motto, so I hopped it quick and got into the car, driving away without looking back.

I had no plans. Just a vague idea of heading to a motel, holing up there for a few nights, and spending my time going out to a pub and getting hammered. I guessed that time was the best friend I had, and if I let Jackie cool down for a couple of days, I could maybe go back, grovel for a while, and maybe, just maybe, things would be all right in the end.

Just as I’d moved to the middle lane to pass a truck I felt a sudden sharp stabbing pain in the back of my neck. My heart froze as I looked in the rear-view mirror.

Andrea was there, on the back seat. Leaning forwards and holding the handle of what appeared to be a very long sharp dagger, whose blade was sticking into the back of my neck.

“So I’m a psychiatric, stupid, pig ugly cow, who you find utterly physically repulsive, who makes your flesh crawl, whom you wish you’d never met? Who you thought was a dyke when you first met me?” She shouted above the roar of the traffic. “Strange thing, Mike. That wasn’t what you said when we were together all those times. I seem to remember you telling me your wife was sexually frigid and manipulative, evil and sly, and that she hated you and she had never understood you. That your marriage was a sham.”

I swallowed, but the act of swallowing constricted my throat, and it felt as if that action made the dagger stab more deeply. I was petrified.

“So, Mike, you’re now going to drive to my studio and we’re going to have a long talk,” Andrea told me. “My goodness, you do bleed a lot, don’t you? There’s blood running right down my hand onto the seat.”

What choice did I have?

So while I was panicking, s**t scared and frantically trying to remember if there were likely to be any major blood vessels at the back of the neck, and wondering whether I was bleeding to death, I took the next turn-off, to Waldegrove, the village where Andrea has her studio. She’s quite a successful sculptor, and she specialises in making lifelike models of people’s heads and scale models of horses and dogs, all in dark heavy bronze. It’s physically demanding work, and she’s a big strong woman—stronger than I am, as it happens.

“You see, Mike, I didn’t believe you were ever going to leave Jackie, as you told me you were. So I phoned her and told her what was going on between us, then, when you went home today, I slipped in through the back door of your house, and hid in the hall cupboard while you were talking in the kitchen. I reckoned she’d make you leave, so all I had to do was use those spare car keys you gave me to get in, ducked down in the back seat and wait for you to join me.”

“Those things I said,” I began, my voice trembling. “I didn’t mean—”

“—Save your breath, Mike. You didn’t mean them any more than you meant that your wife was a useless drone who stifled the life out of you, and you needed a sexy wild woman like me to help you to breathe.  You don’t really mean anything you say, do you Mike? You’re just a treacherous, useless, turd. A disgusting vile arse-faced little worm.”

“I’m sorry.” I was crying now, weeping unashamedly, wondering if this was how I was going to die. “I’ll do anything, just please let me go. I’ll do anything I can.  Anything you say.”

“Trouble is, I don’t want you to do anything, Mike. You see, in my naiveté I believed all the things you said, about how you loved me, and believed in me as an artist, how you’d back me and finance an exhibition of my work after you left Jackie and we were living together. How you’d miss your children, but you’d always put me first, even before your children.

Pain had begun to kick in where she’d stabbed me. I wondered if I could take a chance and stop the car and leap out.

“If you brake the car sharply, this razor-sharp knife will go deep into your neck, probably piercing right through into your gullet,” she said calmly, as if reading my mind. “I’m not wearing a seatbelt see? Won’t be my fault, I’ll not be able to stop myself tumbling forwards.”

“Oh God, Andrea, I’m sorry. Let me go! I’m begging you!”

“Shut up and drive.”

We parked in the small yard behind her studio, on its own patch of land at the end of a row of terrace houses. To my horror, I could see there was no one else around, no one I could call out to.

However, I realised something suddenly. I had one chance.

Just one.

As I got out of the car, she would have to take the knife away from my neck, and that was going to be my bid for freedom.

“Get out of the car, slowly,” she told me.

I opened the door, and, as I heard her open the door behind, I made the break.

Ducked down, rolled out into the yard.

But as I landed on my back, she was already on top of me.

There was no pain at all as she stabbed the knife into my abdomen. It hardly even bled.

“Oh my God,” I screamed, staring at the knife embedded up to the hilt. “I’m going to die!”

“I doubt it” she said coldly. “Remember Mike? I’m a sculptor, and I’ve studied human anatomy at art college. My guess is that the knife blade has penetrated your abdominal wall and is probably within an inch or so of an internal organ—probably lodged mostly in fatty tissue right now. I might have ruptured the liver. But if I’d punctured a lung you wouldn’t be able to breathe. Although I grant you, you might easily have serious internal bleeding.”

“Andrea,” I begged, “you’ve got your revenge. All this has gone too far. Please, can’t you just phone for an ambulance? I won’t say you did it—I’ll pretend I stabbed myself by mistake—or a mugger attacked me! Let me go, that’s all I ask!”

“Get up onto your knees.”

“Please!”

“DO AS I TELL YOU!”

As I managed to crawl up onto my knees, hoping that the movement wouldn’t open up the wound too badly, I felt her pull my wrists behind my back and snap something across to fasten them against each other, probably a cable tie. Tough nylon. Impossible to break. I felt the plastic cut into my wrists.

The dagger was still lodged in my stomach, and out of the corner of my eye I could see blood welling up around the handle.

“Stand up,” she ordered.

I tottered to my feet and she unlocked the door of her studio and made me go inside, flicking on the switch so the whole area was bathed in brilliant fluorescent light.

I’d seen this room so many times: benches along the wall, with metal armatures on wooden bases, models of people’s heads and of animals in the lovely dark-coloured bronze metal, a pile of brown modelling clay, white plaster crusting over all the work surfaces. In the corner were the large oxygen and acetylene cylinders and her welding kit, and there were hammers and saws and screwdrivers and power tools on shelves. And everywhere there was the chalky, earthy smell of clay and chemicals that I’d always previously associated with our exciting, illicit sex.

“I’m going to do something I’ve always wanted to try,” Andrea told me. “I’m going to make a death mask.”

“W-What’s that?” I asked.

“They used to do it a lot for famous people in the old days. The moment someone died, the sculptor was sent for, and he immediately applied wet plaster to the dead person’s face to make a mould that was an exact replica of his features, so they could then use it to cast a precise facsimile of the dead person’s face, in plaster or metal. But I’ve heard it’s not always that successful, because soon after death the facial muscles relax—you have to do it within minutes. Wait too long and it doesn’t look like the person at all—more like a lifeless corpse.”

“Y-you’re going to kill me?” I asked, my voice quavering.

“Oh no, Mike, what do you take me for? Of course I’m not.” She touched the handle of the knife, tweaking it slightly, creating a sudden barrage of agonising pain. “I’m going to do it while you’re still alive.”

That was more than I could stand. With hands still tied behind my back, I ran towards the door. But she was ready.

It was easy for her to trip me up. And when I fell I couldn’t put my hands out to protect my face. And when I hit the floor, the knife handle hit the floor too, forcing the blade inside me even deeper.

I was sweating with fear. I’m not ashamed to say that I couldn’t stop my hysterical weeping.

That was when I realised that all those lies I’d invented about Andrea—that she was a psychopath, insane, a freak, well I hadn’t realised it when I’d said them, but I could see now that they were all true. And I hadn’t even realised it at the time.

Andrea knelt beside me on the floor and gave me a sip of water. I’d suddenly become dreadfully thirsty for some reason. I wondered if it had something to do with blood loss: a steady pool of blood was oozing down from where the knife was embedded in my stomach, and I had a feeling that the wound in my neck was bleeding badly too.

I caught a whiff of myself and nearly retched. Hot fresh urine, the coppery smell of blood and overall the hard salty-sweet stench of my sweat.

“Right, climb up here,” Andrea ordered, leading me across to the couch in the corner of the studio. “Don’t worry. Your punishment is nearly over. Only a matter of minutes really. When I’ve finished the mask, I’ll release you and call an ambulance. You haven’t lost that much blood, and I haven’t punctured any of your major organs. You’ll be okay.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” I asked.

“Isn’t it obvious, Mike? You told me that your wife was a vile disgusting monster, and I overheard you telling her the same kind of things about me. That’s no way to behave, is it?”

Although I was crying and whimpering, I realised that she was telling me the truth. I simply had to put up with this final humiliation, whatever it was, and she’d let me go. Strangely enough, I didn’t think of Jackie, but of my children: Becky, aged ten, Jack, just seven, and little Ricky, the baby of the family, only two. They seemed to be the only thing that mattered in my life. How I longed to see them again.

So I climbed onto the couch, and laid flat on my back as Andrea told me to. I began to panic again as I saw her fastening large leather straps around my chest and legs, but there was nothing I could do to stop her. Besides, I had to cling on to the fact that she’d promised to let me go.

Then she smeared some kind of grease, like a kind of Vaseline, all over my face, telling me first to close my eyes. After that she went away, and I could see her adding white plaster powder to a small tub of water and mixing the plaster with her fingers.

“Now this is the tricky part,” Andrea said calmly as she returned. She produced two long cardboard drinking straws and then carefully inserted one end of each up each nostril of my nose. “You see I’m going to put wet plaster all over your face, so you won’t be able to breathe through your mouth,” she explained. “So you’ll have to breathe through your nose instead. Now don’t worry,” she went on. “Close your mouth and your eyes again.”

I’ve never been claustrophobic, but suddenly the very idea of what was about to happen hit home.

“My eyes? C-Close them?”

“Obviously!” She sounded mildly irritated. “For heaven’s sake, I’m going to put wet plaster all over your face—if it gets into your eyes you’ll be in agony and will probably go blind! Do you want that?”

I closed my mouth. I closed my eyes.

Then I felt the freezing cold wetness as she spread wet plaster onto my cheeks and over my closed mouth and also all around my nose and to surround the shafts of the straws. But the very worst part was when I felt the wet weight of the cold creamy paste on my closed eyelids.

The feeling was literally that of being buried alive.

I could hear, that was all. I couldn’t smell, I couldn’t taste anything. I couldn’t see. It was for all the world like being entombed in a coffin.

And then the most terrifying feeling of all.

I wanted to sneeze.

Eventually the urge subsided, but the awful craving yearning to suck in a huge lungful of air and sneeze it out, was so overwhelming that my chest burnt with agony. And with the urge to sneeze came another terrifying sensation.

Catarrh in my nose.

An hour before, my nose had been clear as a bell, but with my recent weeping, my nasal passages were beginning to block up.

I tried to raise my hands to tell her, but there were strapped behind my back.

I fought to break away from the straps holding me to the table.

I couldn’t.

I yearned to scream.

I couldn’t.

My heart was beating fast enough to burst. And in that moment I knew how it must feel to know that your end is inevitable. That moment when the medics tell your relatives in that blasé way they have that ‘the organs are shutting down’. And coupled with that terrible, terrible unearthly panic was the growing feeling of the heat of the wet plaster and the gradual sensation of tightening and increasing heaviness it had, pulling as it did against my skin.

“The plaster’s going hard now,” Andrea calmly explained. “That’s why it’s feeling hot, it’s the heat of the reaction. It’s already semi rigid now. Soon it’ll clamp tight around your face, and after that it’ll cool down. Don’t worry, not long to go now. When it’s rock hard I’ll pull it away from your face.”

She was going to release me?

Oh God, the joy of that thought!

I tried to cry fresh tears, but with my eyelids sealed shut and the plaster, that was getting heavier and heavier by the second, forcing them downwards, crying was impossible. Nor of course could I speak. My mind was a screaming blank void of panic. I yearned to have studied something like yoga.

I wanted to pray, but God help me, I don’t know any prayers, I’ve never bothered with church or religion. But in those seconds I believed in something, I prayed to some higher power to help me.

So I just said over and over again in my mind: “God help me, God help me, God help me.”

“There is just one thing,” Andrea said after she’d been silent for quite a while. “It’s quite interesting actually. As the plaster solidifies, it actually contracts.” She gave a nervous little laugh. “And I’m afraid that means that as it contracts around where the straw passes through it, the drying plaster sometimes tends to squeeze the soft card material of the straw.”

It was true. I had been able to breathe passably well, but on one side, the right, it was getting harder and harder to draw breath.

“Oh yes, I can see it’s happening,” Andrea said, giggling again to herself. “On the right-hand side, anyway. Looks as if it’s practically blocked. Oh well, the left-hand side one looks okay. At the moment anyway. You don’t want me to stop things now, do you Mike? The whole mask would be spoilt if I pulled it off now and I’m sure you can hang on for a few more moments until the plaster’s completely dry and I can release you.”

“Well, Mike,” she said after a few more seconds, which felt like hours. “I think you’ve suffered enough. I’ll take off the mask now, then I’ll set you free and I’ll call an ambulance.”

A massive wave of relief swept through me, coupled with the panic as I felt a noticeable decrease in the air going into my left nostril. I can’t describe the joyous relief as I felt her fingers prizing between my chin and the bottom of the mask.

Then suddenly those clawing fingers stopped moving. I couldn’t feel them against my skin anymore. Then I heard a crash and a gasping sound, as I pictured her falling to the ground.

“Oh God!” I heard her screaming. “My chest! C-Can’t breathe . . .”

For a few seconds I could hear her laboured breathing. That’s when I remembered her telling me about her heart attack of a year ago, how she’d been warned to avoid stressful situations, or she might have another one, possibly a fatal one the next time.

I heard the laboured ghastly straining sound of her breathing. Then a harsh rattling sound as her breathing suddenly came faster. My chest got tighter as I tried to breathe myself.

I fought for breath.

I fought and strained and struggled.

Until the darkness came.

* * *

I wrote this story, using my imagination to envisage the last hours of my poor dear friend Mike Edwards, who was found a week later in the studio of sculptor Andrea McGowan, who was dead on the floor beside the couch he was strapped onto, with a so-called ‘death mask’ on his face.

The inquest concluded that Mike’s death had occurred as a result of some kind of bizarre sexual fetish practice that had gone horribly wrong, when his ‘torturer’ died herself of a heart attack, and was unable to release him from the breath-restrictive mask.

That was the official verdict.

But we know different, don’t we?

 

Crossed Lines

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“No, don’t worry, he doesn’t suspect a thing,” my wife Tracy said to the man. “We can meet up this weekend while the old sod is away on business. The boring old fart is so stupid he has absolutely no idea what I get up to.”

I gulped as I held the phone to my ear. I’d phoned my wife, but instead of getting through I’d got a crossed line, and was, apparently, listening in to her conversation with someone else.

“So I’m not your first boyfriend since you married him?” the man asked her.

“Not even my third!” She gave a hoot of laughter. “But the others definitely weren’t as sexy as you.”

“Do you really hate it when your husband comes near you?”

“Yuck, he makes my flesh crawl!” Tracy made a mock vomiting sound. “I was planning to divorce him one day but I reckon I need to stay married a bit longer, so I can be sure of skinning him in the courts for all he’s worth. But I decided I can’t wait around that long. Which is why I’ve decided to have him killed.”

“Shut up, Tracy, for God’s sake—”

“Why not?” My wife laughed again. “When the old bastard dies I get all his money, not just half of it. A neighbour I had in the flats is on the case already as it goes. He’s an ex-soldier, he knows what to do. Of his trolley he is, had a head injury, mad as a box of frogs. My poor old hubby won’t know where and he won’t know when…”

“Are you all right Mr Lassiter?” my secretary had asked me as I sat in dumb astonishment when the call had ended.

“Yes, fine, Sally. I think I’ll just go out for some air.”

“Right you are, sir. I’ll field any important calls.”

Outside on the roof balcony I took a lot of deep breaths, trying to suppress my tears, wondering what to do, thinking of my wife’s ominous words about my forthcoming murder: “He won’t know where and he won’t know when…”

I’m a hedge fund manager. What it means basically is that I invest on the stock exchange on behalf of my company and I’m very good at it, and consequently I’m tremendously rich. At fifty years old I have all the trappings of the good life: a huge stately home in the country, a town house in Chelsea and several lovely cars. I also own a block of flats that I let out to tenants, and a year ago I had met the girl who wanted to rent one of the flats on the top floor, and, after a whirlwind romance, we had got married. Tracy is quite a bit younger than me, but the age difference hadn’t seemed to matter, at least not to me. I had visited her many times at Flat 8A Tennison Court, fallen in love with her and married her six months ago, and she’d moved out of the flat and moved in with me. Tracy was a real ‘party girl’ and when I was with her, she made me feel alive and vibrant. I thought back to those passion-filled afternoons in the bedroom of 8A Tennison Court.

How had it all come down to this? Now the thought of Tracy made me feel like crawling under a stone.

How had I made such a fool of myself?

Standing there in the stunned silence as I looked out over the glass-and-steel skyline of Canary Wharf, I contemplated my wife’s lover, whom she’d been talking to on the phone. I pictured some young dark-haired Lothario, much taller than my five-foot six-inches, with a six-pack torso, film-star good looks, probably with black designer stubble, smouldering eyes and huge muscles. I looked at my reflection in the plate glass window beside me, and my flabby jowls and doleful eyes put me in mind of a good natured warthog. That’s when I thought of my mother’s words: “Not everyone is handsome, Harold. But the nicest people make the most of their personalities, and a nice personality is much more attractive than any pretty face.”

I like to think I’m not exactly heartless. I give thousands to various charities, and I’ve set up several food banks in deprived areas, and when any of my tenants get behind with their rent, I never allow the managing agent to take action against them. Okay, you’re saying that with all his money, he can afford to be generous. But I’m telling you this, because I don’t want you to think I’m a just a rich bastard who doesn’t give a shit about anyone else.

“Mr Lessiter?” I jumped as I heard the voice from behind me. I recognised the huge powerful frame of Arthur, one of my tenants at Tennison Court. A year ago I’d been very upset to learn that he’d had a head injury and had had psychiatric trouble ever since, and lost his job as a result. He hadn’t been able to pay any rent, but, as I’d chatted to him and liked him, I’d let him stay on rent free since that time. After all, I reckoned that having the accident wasn’t his fault, was it? So I felt I owed him some help. Now I remembered something about him being ex-special forces, SAS I believe, one of those so called ‘trained killers’. I’d also heard that his head injury had made him dangerous and violent, prone to mood swings where he got into fights.

Trained killer? Oh my God! I remembered Tracy’s words: “My neighbour when I lived in the flats is gonna do it. He’s an ex-soldier, mad as a box of frogs, he’ll know what to do.”

“Hello Arthur,” I said in surprise, my voice trembling. “How on earth did you get past security?”

“Old soldier, I know lots of tricks,” he told me, tapping his nose and meeting my gaze head on. As I looked at his face, with a sinking heart, I remembered that he’d been friendly with Tracy. Then I realised the hopelessness of my situation: my assassin was much bigger and stronger than I was.

“Mr Lessiter, I just reckoned I should let you know, that your wife offered me money in return for me killing you.”

As he stepped closer I gulped, wondering if I’d be able to overcome him. Over the balcony was a huge drop, and he’d have little difficulty throwing me over.

“I pretended to agree, because if I hadn’t, the evil cow would only have gone to someone else to do it,” he went on. “But I solved your little problem, same way as you solved mine, when you listened to my problems and let me off paying any rent. You’ll never know how much you helped me by doing that.” He looked at his watch. “I threw her off the roof of Tennison Court about an hour ago. Hope you’ll agree I did the right thing.”

Looking Back

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One vicious little boy held the head of the other boy inside the toilet’s pan and flushed it. He heard the screaming and crying and watched the snot mix with tears as he emerged. That’s not all he did: he took every opportunity to lead the others in tormenting him, the odd one out, just for the sake of it, and always took pleasure in his misery.

Looking back on my schooldays I am deeply, deeply ashamed of myself. Bullies are disgusting creatures. The trouble is, many boys are bullies – perhaps it’s some kind of unchecked cruelty that diminishes in later life. If any boy is different from the others, has a strange face, a funny walk, a club foot, anything at all, other boys make fun of them, they make their lives a misery. I thought with shame how the master with the funny walk was jeered at, and the misery of the boy who stuttered in class.

My shame was one of the reasons why returning to St Boniface school, after all these years, was such an effort. Because the place apparently now regards me as one of their ‘success stories’, the headmaster had asked me to give them a talk today, on the school’s Founders Day, some little homily to advise the boys on how to make a success of their lives.

I should know. The brutal and vicious regime of public school had equipped me well for the hustle and bustle of life. After a short career as an officer in the army, I took various jobs in business, eventually ending up as a multimillionaire. My motto for business life ‘dog eat dog’ has served me well and I’ve never looked back. Because the truth is, the winner really does have it all, and the loser is always forgotten.

It took a lot of courage to come back here, to face the place where it all started, and where I behaved in such a shameful way

The day in fact went fairly well. I gave my speech, there was a lot of clapping and ‘three cheers’, and the headmaster, a fussy little man called Prenderghast, shook my hand warmly.

There were quite a few other ‘old boys’ there from my year, and it was surprising to see how little some of them had changed, as we pottered about chatting about our various careers, families, politics and so on. Most of us fortyish men still have our hair, but many of us have put on weight and a few have acquired a faintly comical air of self-importance.

It was late on in the afternoon that I spotted him: my nemesis, the boy who I was ashamed to remember. John Maddock, whom I’d always called ‘Maddock’, just as he’d always called me ‘Archer’ – we always used just surnames in those days. Maddock was apparently now, of all things, a bishop. I asked the headmaster about him, and he waxed enthusiastically about him, how Maddock sat on all sorts of committees and had led all kinds of movements helping the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill. He was, according to the headmaster ‘a truly good man who’s achieving some truly great things.’

And I looked across the crowded room at him. He hadn’t changed that much. Still small, weedy with a pasty face and a nose like an anteater. Now his narrow shoulders were hunched, and the clerical collar circled a scrawny neck, making him look like more like a turkey than ever.

I realised that I had to go and talk to him. I had to clear the air. We’d each spent a lifetime doing our own things, and we’d each achieved a lot, albeit in our own different spheres. He was clearly a ‘good’ man, whatever that may be. And me? Well, that’s for others to judge.

I caught up with him in the lavatories, or ‘the bogs’ as we used to call them when we were children. We were on our own. He was standing at the urinal, his back was to me, and he had no idea I was there.

“Maddock?” I called out to him. “Do you remember me?”

He turned round, zipping up his fly, a half smile of recognition on his face until he saw me and froze.

“Archer!”

I could see the fear in his eyes, just as I remembered it from when we were both ten.

“I want to apologise,” I said to him, tears forming in the corners of my eyes, as the years fell away and I remembered, in this very room, all the tortures and the pain and humiliation.

I came closer to him.

And then, as he looked up at me, I kneed him in the groin. And as he was doubled over in pain I smashed my fist full in his face.

“That’s for all the times you made my life a misery, you bastard!” I spat in his face. “All the times I let you bullied and beat me and I never fought back! I’ve been ashamed all these years of not fighting back when I should have done. But I also wanted to thank you. Because of you, every time I came across a bully in my life, I’ve always fought back, whatever the odds. And do you know what? I always won.”

As I kicked him one last time and turned to leave, I caught a glimpse of my face in the cracked mirror over the sink. The huge bright pink birthmark that covered my features, my bulging eyes and strangely protuberant ears were every bit as horrific as they had always been, and they were the reason why Maddock and the other boys used to call me ‘the elephant man’ and bullied me mercilessly, and I just took their beatings and humiliation without fighting back.

But Maddock had done a lot for me.  He had taught me to fight back.

“Sorry mate.” I turned back, knelt down and offered him my hand and helped him to his feet, putting my arm around his shoulders companionably. “I really am sorry.”

Luckily, life had also taught me to be kind.

Good For Something

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“I’ve got you!”

We were touching, chest-to-chest. I could smell his sweat. The whites of his eyes and the ebony black of his skin were an inch away from my face.

And I was scared stiff. I knew beyond any doubt, that I was a few seconds away from death or serious injury.

This was in 1962. I was a ten-year-old schoolboy, jumping onto the number 3 bus at the busy roundabout at Crystal Palace, London, at the height of the rush hour. Late for school, stupid and reckless, I had dashed on to the rear platform of the bus (in the days long before safety doors), misjudged my step and was teetering backwards. In that ‘all too aware’ stage of prescient danger I felt myself falling out of the bus and onto the road. I was going to crack my skull on the pavement, then fall under the wheels of whatever speeding car was behind me.

And there was nothing I could do to save myself.

It didn’t happen.

Because at the very moment when the bus suddenly accelerated, tipping me backwards to oblivion, the quick-thinking bus conductor grabbed my lapels and literally hauled me back to safety. My feet had actually come off the platform, one was already scraping the tarmac. I have this vivid memory of being hauled forwards and upwards through mid-air, about eight inches, being pulled up against his body, the bus’s grab-bar, which acted as his anchor, being the only thing stopping him being dragged out of the bus by my weight.

I was young, stupid, embarrassed and confused. And scared. I’d almost been killed. And black people were a mystery to me, in fact I’d never seen a black person up so close, nor had anyone saved my life before.

And, to my eternal shame, I never even thanked him. I just walked shakily into the bus, sat down, didn’t even talk to him, and pretended it hadn’t happened.

To my eternal shame, I didn’t even thank him. And I didn’t tell anyone about it. If I’d told my mother, I know categorically that she would have gone to the ends of the earth to find out the name of bus conductor no. 50462 (I still remember his number) from London Transport (before London buses were run by TFL) and thanked him personally and made it her business to make sure his employers and colleagues knew what a hero he was. Giving him money would have been crass, perhaps an insult, but, as she always said to me, “All people want is to know that they are appreciated, and that the good things they’ve done have not been forgotten.”

Now that I’ve retired, my children are grown up and my wife and I have parted, I’ve got plenty of spare time and more than enough money for my needs. So I decided to embark on what would obviously be a wild goose chase, and try to find the man who’d saved my life, fifty-four years ago.

The person in the media department of TFL turned out to be a young, delightful and enthusiastic chap, by the name of Jack Paradine. Jack told me that this was his first job after graduating in modern history at university, and he thought that my story was fascinating. He went on to say that black bus conductors of the 1960s were amongst the first wave of people who’d been encouraged to come to this country from Trinidad and Jamaica, to provide valuable labour. He promised to contact the ‘historian’ who kept the archives of the old London Transport, and, with any luck, he said there was a chance they might find out who bus conductor no 50462 was.

The next day he phoned back, full of enthusiasm. My conductor had been Sammy Adebayer, and he had his address in those days. Since, by Jack’s estimation, Sammy would be ninety-four now, the likelihood was that he had met his maker, but, Jack encouraged, “you never know. Good luck in your search.” He advised me to try the services of a private detective, as he’d told me they had access to electoral roles, censuses, and all kinds of other data that others could not reach.

The detective wasn’t hopeful, but within a day he phoned me back, sounding surprised. “Your Sammy Adebayer, according to our records, seems to be the same as the one I found, who matches with the census of 1961,” he told me. “He died ten years ago, but I do have a current address of his son – it’s in Birmingham.”

Having come this far, I thought, why not go all the way, and take the train up to the Midlands?

But my luck had run out. A neighbour told me that Fergus Adebayer had left that address last year, but they had the phone number of his wife. Passing on my mobile number to the helpful neighbour, the wife rang me ten minutes later, telling me that her husband had left her and she had no idea where he was. All I can think of, she told me, “Is to give you the address of my son Gary – he’s a good boy, he still keeps in touch with him.”

Feeling more and more despondent, trudging up the steps of the grim-looking block of flats, I wondered why I was doing all this. The man who answered the door seemed wary at first, but when he heard my story, he was welcoming and friendly and invited me inside, where his wife and children were bustling around the overcrowded living room.

“My grandad?” he said in surprise. “I can’t believe it! He saved your life? You’re kidding me.”

“No, it’s true,” I told him.

His face broke into a huge smile. “All my life I’ve heard nothing but what a no-good bastard he was. How he abandoned three wives and lots of children! How he ran around with gangsters and never held down a job for long in all of his life. If it hadn’t been for his brother, Jonny, this family would have been finished. Jonny died years ago too, but he was the great hero. Jonny looked after my mum and her brothers, apparently, he was the rock of the family, was my great uncle Jonny. Sammy, my granddad, I’ve always felt kind of sorry for him. He was supposed to be a really useless bastard. A waste of space. Good for nothing.”

“Well,” I told him, “he was certainly good for something. He saved my life, or maybe saved me from something possibly worse – being seriously paralysed or brain dead. And I’ve been a doctor in a London hospital all my working life, so, in fact, he made all my work possible too, when you think of it that way.”

“No kidding me!”

We chatted a bit longer. And, to my relief, he accepted my cheque for £20,000. He was over the moon, telling me that, added to the couple’s savings, meant they now had enough for a deposit on a flat in a decent area, where his children could go to a good school and have a fair start in life.

“It’s not just the money you’ve given me I’m grateful for,” he told me as I was shaking his hand at the door, promising to keep in touch. “It’s the knowledge that, scoundrel that Sammy obviously was, I accept that, but now I know that my grandad did at least do one good thing in his life that we can all be proud of. He wasn’t just a good for nothing waste of space like everyone says. And that means a lot to me. The money means everything, of course it does, but knowing grandad Sammy wasn’t the complete arsehole that everyone says he was means a whole lot more. I can tell my kids that although their great grandad from Trinidad did lots of bad things, he did do this one good thing in his life. You’ve given us all a good memory of him. Can you understand?”

A couple of weeks later, I got a photo of my erstwhile saviour: Gary had sent an old black-and-white snap of his grandad, Sammy Adebayer, wearing a suit and smiling at the camera. I put it on the mantelpiece in pride of place.

Next day, my new friend Jack Paradine phoned me at home.

“Peter, I’m so so sorry, but there’s been a mistake.”

“About what?”

“Well, it seems that Alistair, my friend who looks after the archives of London Transport, has muddled things up. Bus conductor no 50462 wasn’t Sammy Adebayer, it was in fact his brother, Jonny. To double check, Alistair tracked down the personnel records and it seems that Sammy Adebayer was sacked at the end of 1961. Something to do with stealing money, attacking a passenger or something. Brother Jonny is the good guy who saved your life. Looking at his work record it seems that Sammy was pretty much good for nothing.”

“No, Jack,” I told him, smiling at the black-and-white picture of Sammy, who was beaming at me from beyond the grave, as if our shared secret was a great joke. “Everyone is good for something.”

Sticks and Stones

landscape-1866579_1280I pushed my friend from the first floor window ledge. His screams rang in my ears as I ran back home, crying my eyes out.

It had all happened sixty-five years ago, and now, having returned to England after a lifetime in Australia, I was revisiting my old haunts.

Incredibly, the derelict house in the forest was still there. Of course now most of it had collapsed, and where my eight-year-old self and my friend Guy had been able to climb up to the first floor window, now there was no first floor, in fact the roof and first floor had crumbled in, leaving just part of the ground floor. In the 1950s, small boys could play unsupervised, unlike today.

I still remembered the day it had happened. I was upset and tearful because the following morning Mum and Dad, my sister and I were leaving England forever to start a new life in Sydney, Australia. All the usual clichés had been trotted out, how “you’ll make new friends there”, and “We’ll be able to go to the beach every weekend”, made little difference to how I felt. I really didn’t want to go.

We lived in a small village in Cambridgeshire, and my world was my family, my friends at school, and grandad and grandma. I didn’t want to make new friends, I didn’t want to go to the beach all the time. I wanted to stay here and play in the woods, kick the football around the school yard. Most of all I didn’t want to leave my friends, especially my very best friends, Guy and Richard.

It had happened on that last day. Richard had gone home early, leaving Guy and me playing in the woods like we did most days after school. But I knew that this would be the last time I would ever play in the woods with Guy.

Even though small boys aren’t known to be sensitive, Guy was being particularly obnoxious, as usual his sense of humour overriding his finer feelings. He seemed to think my enforced leaving was all a great joke, and kept repeating “Sidney is going to Sydney”, proud of his pun. Suddenly all my pain erupted, and as we sat on the window ledge we’d just climbed up to, and he chanted that phrase again and again, I leaned across and pushed him so hard that he overbalanced and fell.

I don’t remember everything that happened after that, time has a way of glossing over the details. I know that I was crying and never looked back. But soon after I’d got home I realised what I’d done, and was afraid that Guy might have been hurt badly, and I should have stayed to help him. However when I raced back to find him, he’d gone.

So I thought no more about it, joining in with all the things that had to be done on our final evening, the excitement of the long journey somehow ameliorating my sorrow. I assumed that Guy must have got up, dusted himself down and gone home, none the worse for his experience.

Next morning everything was happening in a rush, all of us keyed up and nervous, yet excited about our impending journey. After breakfast, Mum asked me when I’d last seen Guy, because his mum had just phoned to tell her that Guy had had a bad accident in the woods and was in hospital – he’d broken both his legs and was seriously injured in intensive care, and his mum was in pieces.

I was terrified, and while Mum was of course upset about Guy’s plight, nonetheless she was preoccupied with our new life. I told her I’d left him in the woods, and didn’t know he’d had an accident. My first lie, and my first and worst experience of terrible shame and guilt. When I burst into tears, she naturally assumed I was worried about poor Guy and was still emotional about leaving England, so she cuddled me, and I remember thinking how utterly wicked I was, and how if Mum had known the truth, she’d have smacked me and shouted at me, as I deserved.

Afterwards I pushed the terrible incident to the back of my mind. Had Guy lived or died? I had no idea. And when I was a newly settled ‘pom’ in Australia, all my energies went into my new life, which, as it turned out, was pretty good. I trained to be an engineer, grew up and got married, had three children, and almost forgot I had ever been English.

However now that my children had children of their own and after my wife died unexpectedly last year, I had the sudden urge to go back to my roots. Things had changed in Australia, I no longer liked the hot climate, and, since I had a good pension and plenty of money behind me, I decided to sell up and come home to England. I realised, at this late stage of my life, that I longed to return, at first for a long holiday, perhaps forever.

I strolled through the village, looking at all the new buildings and roads, the many changes. I wondered what had happened to Guy. After all these years, my guilt was as fresh as ever, and I longed to apologise to him for what I’d done on that day. Maybe he’d died? Maybe I had killed him? I just didn’t know.

And then I stopped short. I was in the oldest part of the village, which was more or less unchanged. There was the same old shop that I remembered from my childhood: Ivanbryth and Son, Ironmongers.

That was the shop that Guy’s parents had owned and where they’d lived. The very same premises where I’d go with him after school and Guy, Richard and I would play games in his back garden, usually cowboys and Indians, as I remember.

On impulse I went into the shop. There, at the counter, was an old man. When he turned towards me I recognised him: the stooping old bald-headed fellow in brown overalls wasn’t an old man after all! It was a small boy in an old man’s body. It was Guy! He’d obviously taken over his father’s shop.

“Sidney!” he said in delight as he turned towards me, his face breaking into the smile that I remembered from all those years ago.

“Hello Guy.”

Where were the words to tell him how sorry I was, how the guilt of pushing him from the first-floor window and not even fetching help, had eaten away at me over the years? My mouth went dry. I felt as if I was going to cry.

“All these years,” Guy said to fill in the embarrassing silence. And then I remembered one of the reasons I’d always like him so much. The slow smile, the ever-ready kindness in his eyes. “Sidney, oh my old mate, as I live and breathe! You’ll never know how guilty I’ve felt all my life about what happened when we last saw each other. I was such an insensitive little bastard, taunting you and teasing you when you were so upset about leaving England.”

“But I pushed you off the window ledge, Guy. You were injured, and I just ran away—”

“—yes, but afterwards I saw you come back to fetch help. I remember, as the ambulance was just pulling away, I saw you racing along from your house going back to the woods. That’s why I pretended I was on my own when I fell. Mates don’t sneak on each other.”

“We’re still mates? Guy, all you did was tease me, whereas I could have killed you! What was that phrase people used to say at school: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

“Sidney, that was bollocks then and it’s bollocks now. Physical pain fades away with time, but words can hurt you forever. I knew you never meant to hurt me, but nothing can excuse me tormenting you as I did. Will you forgive me, mate?”

The Sharp End

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I met Barry one evening in the Dog and Duck.  Here’s his story:

I stood in the queue with all the other down-and-outs, wondering whether the food tasted as awful as it looked.

It was a pretty dispiriting scene: a large church hall, stinking of unwashed bodies and misery. We shuffled forwards slowly, coughing, burping and grunting to each other.

I’d made a few friends today. Max, who’d been a roofer, until he’d fallen from a height and injured his spine, so that he forever walked with a limp and was unable to climb ladders. Losing his work meant that he’d soon lost his flat and then his marriage went by the wayside. And Bob, who used to work in a bank but had a problem with alcohol, so that he lost everything that mattered to him apart from the occasional shot of booze.

I’d soon learnt that my comrades and acquaintances who were euphemistically were referred to as having ‘no fixed abode’, weren’t all at rock bottom because of alcoholism, drug addiction or just sheer bad luck. A very few of the others had actually adapted well to the life to the extent that it was almost second nature, and they’d probably have found ordinary living and a nine-to-five job, more of a struggle than life on the streets.

And you know there really is quite a network of good people who help us. It always warms my heart to see a new face behind the steaming tea urn or the boiling pans and food-filled plates. Sometimes it’s a youngish person, mucking in and doing the humdrum duties, often it’s the silver haired ladies and gents, the newly retired I like to think, rolling their sleeves up and doing what they can to help us unfortunates. The nicest ones call you ‘mate’ or ‘love’ like they mean it, and you can almost bask in the warmth of the kindness in their eyes as they beam at you.

I’ve been to all the different places in town: the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters, the food bank, the Salvation Army hostel. Word gets around amongst us about the places to go for a warm-up or a bite to eat. Because, believe it or not, most of us who’ve experienced life at the sharp end have got to know pleasures many people never know about. Mainly it’s the joy you get from sharing the little you have with others, whether it’s buying a few cans when some kind punter has dropped a tenner your way, or putting the word out about a new shelter that’s started up when the rain’s begun to pelt down. Most of us look out for the youngsters and the vulnerable ones – especially the young girls. Many’s the time I’ve put the frighteners on some bastard who’s tried to force his attentions on some poor defenceless kid, and other guys have done the same.

What I disliked most when I started on this lark was the bad hygiene and the smells and the squalor. Who would have thought that the use of a private bathroom would be an impossible-to-attain luxury? I like being clean, me, I used to be fastidious about cleanliness in the old days.

All the volunteers are friendly, but there’s often this invisible barrier when they talk to you, know what I mean? Some of them might ask you about your circumstances, but you’d never dream of asking about theirs.

Funnily enough, it wasn’t like that with Molly. I liked her the moment I first saw her, stirring a large pan of stew. Molly looked to be in her sixties, about my own age, with lots of hair, lovely freckles, and the kind of great big genuine smile that warms your heart.

Molly and I got chatting that same evening she first arrived at the soup kitchen. After a while I felt as if I knew her well. She even told me all about the replacement hip operation she’d had in the summer, and how well she’d recovered from it.

“I’ve never lived in an ordinary little house or a flat,” I didn’t mind admitting to her. “In fact I don’t usually stay in one place for long.”

“Not like me then. I’ve been a real stick-in-the-mud. My husband was a solicitor,” she confided in me. “We had a comfortable life really – I worked as a secretary in London until I retired. Hugo was quite a bit older than me, so I suppose we both expected him to die first.”

“You’re not like the others, are you?” I said to her. “They never tell us about their lives, I suppose they think we’d be jealous of your good fortune. But it isn’t like that. You have your life, we have ours. We don’t get jealous. In fact some of the guys here enjoy living on the street.”

“Do they?” she said.

“Yes. There’s companionship at least.  How many rich widows and widowers do you reckon there are, living alone with all the money they’ll ever need, but no one to talk to?”

“That’s very true,” she agreed.

And then we began to chat about all kinds of things: our families, my divorce, politics, history, current affairs, putting the world to rights. Molly and I met up the following day, and all the time she had for her breaks she spent with me. Same happened next day and the day after. I got to look forward to our chats. In fact talking to Molly was the highlight of my day.

After the weekend I went the soup kitchen, looking forward to seeing her, but she wasn’t there. I was really disappointed. But I reckoned that she’d probably got bored and found some other voluntary activity to occupy her time.

That’s when I decided to pack it all in.

What on earth was the point in going on at my age? Might as well give it all up now, for I’d suffered long enough. End it all. Take the easy way out.

But as I was leaving, never to come back, having made the momentous decision to end it all, I saw her in the distance, rushing up towards me.

“Barry!” she called out, slightly out of breath. “I’m so glad I’ve caught up with you. I left that place. I didn’t really get on with the others. They told me I was too familiar with our ‘clients’, and I had to ‘maintain a distance’. I told them to stuff their job.”

“Good for you.”

“But I’ve been thinking. In our chats you’ve made me realise how unfair life is. That you can’t get a job or claim benefits if you haven’t got an address, and you can’t get a room if you haven’t got an income. Well, the thing is, I’ve got a spare room, if you’d like to stay with me. It really upset me when you were telling me about the indignity of life, not being able to keep clean. You’d have privacy. Your own room, use of kitchen and bathroom. And with a proper address you could claim the benefits you’re entitled to.”

“That’s really kind of you, Molly.” I felt so choked with emotion that I found it hard to speak. “But I won’t be taking you up on your offer.”

“Oh!” Her face fell. “Why not?”

“Well the thing is, you see, I really can’t accept your charity.”

“But it’s nothing to do with charity!” She said angrily. “I want to help you because I like you. I like your company!”

“And I like yours. But I’ve made my decision.”

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely. Oh Molly, by the way, what make of hip replacement did you have?”

“Hip replacement?” She was still angry, the twin red spots on her cheeks still prominent. “I think they said it was a Winterhalter unit. A newer type apparently. Why?”

“It is one of mine then! From the way you walked so well so soon after the op. I can always tell.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“I retired as a consultant orthopaedic surgeon six years ago to produce the hip replacement units I’d invented, and you’ve got one of mine. They sold rather well all over the world. I became a multi-millionaire and retired, but I wanted to do something worthwhile with my money, so I spent this year researching the best charities to support and work with. I reckoned that the best way to really find out which would benefit best was by testing them out at the sharp end. And I decided just now that I’ve learnt all I’m ever going to.”

Molly’s mouth fell open even wider.

“So thank you Molly, but I don’t want to move into your spare room, because I’ve already got a rather embarrassingly large detached mansion of my own. It’s strange but in addition to researching exactly how best to use my money when I sell it and move somewhere smaller, I rather hoped I might also be lucky enough to meet a nice woman to share my life with, who likes me for myself and wasn’t just interested in my money, like all the others. I think perhaps I’ve succeeded on both scores, don’t you?”

The Wrong Coach

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(This is my friend Paul’s story.)

Working as an ‘extra’ on films can be fun, and years ago I tried my hand at it.

It was an unusual film, and the director was an unusual person. He was an over-the-top American, and it was a story about a Scottish village that was taken over by lunatics. Walter J. Harrison insisted on authenticity to such a degree that he was filming it in the Scottish Highlands in a tiny village, where he’d paid locals to have the use of local beauty spots and the pub and church.

Also, not content with having actors portraying the parts of mentally deranged people, he had done a deal with a psychiatric hospital in Inverness, and arranged for any of their patients who wanted to be in the film to do so. There were problems with Equity, I think, but he managed to sort it all out. The idea was for the psychiatric people to ‘behave naturally’ and act out the kind of outlandish behaviour that came naturally to them, something he was sure that ‘normal’ people wouldn’t be able to do authentically.

The psychiatric hospital was in Inverness, and this was where we, and most of the actors were staying, that town being the closest to our location, the village of Haggisburn (yes that really was its name). The logistics person had organised coaches to take us (few) extras, plus all the actors to the village every morning and return us back every night. It was a bit unnerving on the morning of the third day when we knew that, for the first time, the mentally-ill people would be making the same journey as we were. Extra coaches had been laid on, and we were late arriving at the despatch post, and there was a certain amount of confusion about who was to go in which coach.

Which was why my fellow extra Derek and I ended up on a different coach from our usual one that morning. This was probably because with the extra influx of patients from the psychiatric hospital, things were even more chaotic than usual, and we knew that at least two extra coaches were due to be going in the convoy to Haggisburn, and everything was at sixes and sevens.

My first feeling of unease was when I saw the man sitting in front of us – a distinctly odd looking character with a completely bald head – put a pipe into his mouth, with the bowl facing downwards. He sucked and pulled at the thing as if it was the right way up and full of burning tobacco, occasionally taking it out of his mouth to prod at the bowl’s imaginary contents with a stick as he stared out of the window, simultaneously sticking his tongue out and making his eyes bulge dramatically.

Behind me I could see a woman who was taking her clothes off. Aside from the fact that the weather was freezing cold, this behaviour was made even more bizarre when she proceeded to remove her top and began to unfasten her bra, to finally release its extremely large contents. All the while she was muttering to no one in particular, a mumbled angry diatribe of indecipherable words.

A man nearby was singing to himself in a peculiar falsetto tone, his voice rising up to a crescendo as he closed his eyes, because he was obviously so moved by his emotions. He couldn’t sing at all, but clearly thought he had the talent of Alfie Bow, and the sound was absolutely embarrassing and quite dreadful. Two women nearby were having a blazing row, shouting at each other so loudly that I wondered if they’d come to blows. One of them had a wild maniacal gleam in her eyes as she glared at the other woman, and I was glad she was several feet away from us.

Derek and I looked at each other in surprise when we noticed that a man and a woman were half undressed and had begun to copulate on the rear seats. The ‘pretend pipe smoker’ in front of us noticed our surprise and told us:

“Don’t worry. Eric and Jean can get a bit carried away sometimes. You see they’re both married to other people, and they don’t often get the chance to be together. Live and let live, eh? I find it’s best just to turn a blind eye.”

Derek and I nodded grimly, wondering what else was going to happen.

“I’m forever blowing bubbles,” sang out another, quite beautiful, male voice from somewhere near the back of the coach. “Pretty bubbles in the air. . .”

He finished his rendition, then produced a child’s bubble-blowing kit from his pocket and proceeded to produce clouds of lovely bubbles that filled the coach. As one of them hit a lady nearby she started screaming and batting at her hair angrily. She went on screaming and shouting for a long time.

Derek was deep in conversation with a woman in the seat behind him. She was telling him that a man had proposed marriage to her the previous day but that she’d warned him off, telling him that it would be unwise, since “madness runs in my family – if we had children they might be idiots.”

I was certainly glad to reach Haggisburn, wondering what other insane things were going to happen. Derek and I staggered off the coach, relieved to see our nice ‘organiser in chief’, resourceful bespectacled Alison, who was cuddly and kind and always did a grand job. She was busily checking our names against the list.

“It makes no odds now, but you two took the wrong coach,” she said, smiling. “Didn’t you realise that?”

“Of course we realised it!” Derek told her, appearing to be shell-shocked. “My goodness, what a surreal experience! Blimey, I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”

“Oh well, no harm done.” Alison looked down her list and up at the coach that was fast approaching behind ours. “Things could have been a lot worse for you. After all you might have had the bad luck to have found yourselves travelling with the psychiatric patients. Luckily you landed up in the coach with the doctors and nurses who are looking after them for the day.”

The Zeus Virus

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My clever friend Alison told me this story. This happened to her not long ago, and it’s a cautionary tale…

Attention, you have the Zeus virus! Do not shut down this computer! You must contact Magasoft Technical Department immediately for help on 0800………

When the message appeared on my computer screen, accompanied by a voice shouting out the same sentiments, I panicked inside. I froze.

It was one o’clock in the morning. I was already tired out and desperate to finish my work.

My heartbeat kicked up sky high and I burst into tears.

I had barely two hours left before the deadline for emailing the final documents for my postgraduate thesis, and missing this deadline would mean possibly years of work wasted. All my documents, the result of thousands of hours of painstaking research and analysis, was almost ready to send, stored in my computer desktop, yet now the screen was frozen, the thing was making noises, and if I touched any key nothing happened except a horrible beeping sound.

What’s the golden rule, I thought?

Ah yes. Shut it down and restart, then, hopefully that should fix the crash.

But what about that message on my screen? If you shut down this computer, on restarting, the Zeus virus that is inside your hard drive will destroy everything, all your documents will be irrecoverable. And it also said that the virus would also automatically be sent on to everyone in my address book, to infect their computers.

All my documents? All my research work, that I was within minutes of sending off! Years of other work, not to mention my personal photos, my music, the three books I’d started writing, my private documents, all of it! Like a fool, I’d always meant to back up my files, but for ages now I simply hadn’t bothered.

All my hundreds of contacts having their computers infected, their work destroyed too, and all because of me!

What choice did I have?

With trembling fingers, I dialled the number. I was crying with fear and I was, literally, terrified.

“Hello, how can I help you?” said the Asian-accented male voice.

“I’m p-panicking,” my voice was shaking as I spoke, trying to control my tears. “Thank goodness I’ve reached you this late at night. My computer’s frozen. It says I have the Zeus virus. There’s a message on the screen that says you can help me.”

“Of course, do not worry, we will help you. But I warn you, madam, this is very very serious indeed. The Zeus virus is something new and positively catastrophic. Your entire network will be completely destroyed unless we act quickly.”

“Okay, okay, thank you so much. What should I do?”

“Well, madam, you are indeed very lucky to have contacted me. What you must do now is allow me to control your computer remotely. That way I can repair your computer from here.”

“Oh, thank you.” My voice was shaking and desperate, I was trying to stop myself crying. And on top of all this, the clock was ticking. Would I get my computer fixed and still have time to send the files for my thesis?

Would my work even exist in five minutes’ time?

I was already late for my deadline, and Professor Dragfire was doing me a big favour waiting for my material. He’d delayed his trip to Paris in order to help me, and if I couldn’t deliver my papers, that was it. If my hard drive went down…

Oh God, it didn’t bear thinking about!

“Now, madam, will you press the key with the four squares on it?”

“Done that.”

“And at the same time, press the R key.”

“Yup.

“Yes, good, that is fine. Now type in these letters.” He recited them. “And then press return.”

I did so.

“There’s a little screen appeared.”

“Good,” he went on calmly. “Now highlight the key that says you allow me to take remote control and press return.”

I did.

“Thank you, madam. You have now allowed me access to your computer, so we can take over from here.”

“This is so kind of you to help me. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Madam, this is what we at the Megasoft Technical Department are here for. But I am sorry to say that before we start there has to be a small charge.”

“How much?”

“Well, a one-off fix would be $200, but I would recommend an insurance cover for two years. That will be only $499. And for that we are available at any time to help you. Because I warn you, madam, that once the Zeus comes it may come gain. It is a most bad bad naughty virus indeed. By the way, my name is Kevin Wilson.”

The name Kevin Wilson appeared on my screen, alongside the figures for his terms.

“Erm, okay, if you say so. But how can I trust you with my credit card details?”

“I understand, madam. But it is all secure and safe.”

“Well, err, I don’t know…”

He launched into a long spiel.

That’s when I took the small device on my desk and clipped it onto the mouthpiece of my phone. The little light on the back of it was blinking red. I pressed the button and the light turned green. It stayed green for about ten seconds, then reverted back to red.

In my ear I heard Kevin’s sudden agonising screams of agony.

I had already tested the device (illegally, I’m ashamed to say). I had used it on a prisoner in America awaiting his fate on death row, an unrepentant mass murderer. The ultra-high level pulses of sound waves transmitted through the phone and into his ear had caused his eardrum to shatter, and the incredibly fast pulses had penetrated his brain, stimulating the pain centre, instantly causing a reaction that created such agony in the whole of his body, that he stated screaming and literally could not stop.

In fact an observer had said it was as if ‘his brain had literally been set on fire’. He had screamed non-stop for the two days it took him to die.

The screaming was still going on in my ear. Next, banking on the fact that my computer was still connected to his, I plugged the memory stick into the USB socket on my computer and pressed several keys in the sequence I had memorised. I’d tested this piece of software a month ago, when I had made contact with an internet site that published films about extreme violence and child pornography. My device had caused all their computers to not only destroy their hard drives, but for the internal parts to overheat to such a degree that within seconds they spontaneously combusted. The sudden uncontrollable inferno at the firm’s offices had meant that many of the employees had died.

“Please, you are English? I talk English to you?” came a voice in my ear. “Help me, please! All our other phones have gone down, you are my only lifeline! There is a catastrophe here in Mumbai, a fire, a man is seriously injured, we need help…”

I smiled to myself and pressed the button on my gadget again. This second man’s screaming began even sooner than the first man’s had started.

I shut down my computer, let it rest for five minutes before starting it up again, using my malware removal tool to make it safe.

Yes. Why had I become so keyed up and tearful? This final test had indeed worked better than I could possibly have hoped.

Why had I got myself so upset, imagining myself into the scenario that, indeed, must have happened to so many innocent people over the years? I suppose trying to experience what so many poor people must have suffered was a way of forcing myself to go ahead with my rather drastic idea.

All my work was now complete and after this final test I could send my work to Professor Dragfire. My thesis on ‘Computer fraud and how to combat it’ would certainly have some original ideas in it, I could be pretty sure of that.

 

 

The night I strangled my wife

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Martin’s story:

On the night I strangled my wife I realised that this was probably the biggest turning point in my life.

Now there was no turning back.

We’d been arguing more and more in the last few years, and the guest house on the South Coast that we ran together was becoming more and more like a war zone with every miserable day. The guests avoided us whenever they could, embarrassed at our obvious antagonism when we came anywhere near each other.

We shared the hundreds of the various day-to-day jobs, and also Elaine did most of the cooking and some of the cleaning when she wasn’t arguing with me. We ate separately, slept separately, and indeed we hardly ever spoke except to shout at each other, or for her to sneer at me in that whiny sarcastic voice that got on my nerves.

Of course it hadn’t always been that way. And as I thought back to the early years of our marriage, it was hard to remember the beautiful shy timid creature she used to be, the girl who was always ready to have a laugh. Now Elaine, in middle age, was portly, out of condition and the only expression she ever seemed to have when she was with me was one of contempt.

Of course she’d probably say the same about me: I know I’m not the raving Lothario I used to be, and as Elaine constantly reminds me, I’m overweight, I’ve lost my hair and I’ve gathered wrinkles like nobody’s business.

And now we’d almost reached the point where we hardly even argued any more. Our non-communication and silent dislike when we were together had got to such a pitch I could hardly bear to be in the same room as her. And whenever I was angry with her, my anger grew inside, festering and brewing. When I saw her glaring at me sometimes I imagined she probably felt exactly the same way about me.

It was like a horrible chain of hatred that neither of us could break.

Yet we both acknowledged to ourselves that divorcing would mean we’d lose the guest house, so neither of us would have an income, or be able to do the work we enjoyed. That was one thing we were agreed on: getting stuck in to changing the bedclothes, cleaning the bathrooms, organising the comings and goings and chatting to the guests were ploys, ways of keeping ourselves occupied, of not thinking about our situation and putting off the harsh reality that if we hadn’t been bound together by the guest house, we’d have been divorced long ago.

So when she started going to the club in town I was glad to have a bit of peace when she went out in the evenings. I could stretch out and watch telly, even have the odd natter with the guests. I took up playing the guitar again, and wondered about joining the local folk music club, but I never did.

Elaine began going to the club regularly and she seemed to be smiling now and again. It suited me just fine.

It suited me fine until I found out exactly what went on, when I followed her car on one of her ‘club’ evenings, suspicious about what Elaine was getting up to, wondering just what it was that seemed to be making her so happy.

Was it some kind of swinger’s club for sex? A happy-clappy group of Christians who sang hymns to praise the Lord all evening? A witches’ coven with them all standing around bollock naked looking at a goat?

I had no idea.

But I tell you this: I jolly soon found out!

And a couple of months later, as I knelt above her on that fateful evening, it all ran through my mind. The way I’d been so surprised and astonished when I found out what she had been doing. It had been something I’d never have imagined in my wildest dreams!

All evening my anger had been building up to this and Elaine had seemed oblivious to my mood, unaware of my anger, acting as if nothing was wrong.

I had been getting more and more frustrated.

I just wanted to put my hands around her throat and squeeze the life out of her.

So I did.

“Very good, Martin,” said our producer Jenny, as she put a hand on my shoulder. “I told you that psyching yourself up to look angry would pay dividends, didn’t I? It’s what we call ‘method acting’. But let’s take it from the top one more time. Remember we only have this one dress rehearsal, and tomorrow ‘Murder at the Manor’ goes on for real.”

“Okay Elaine?” I asked leaning down to help her up, so that we could act out the entire murder scene once more.

My wife nodded as she smiled. “You know joining this amateur dramatic club was the best decision I ever made,” she said, brushing her hair away from her neck so as to make it easier for me to strangle her next time. “I’m so glad you joined too. Getting away from work and meeting other people has made us talk at last. It’s made all the difference.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “In fact I think it’s probably saved our marriage.”