SLEEP… PERCHANCE TO DREAM
Malcolm and Sarah Brookdale-Smythe were very much the archetypal conservative couple, living amongst the stockbroker belt of outer London. Both of them were in their middle fifties and their lifestyle reflected sound growth from university to middle management jobs. The promise of the oncoming early retirement would be flushed with flourishing private pensions. Their thirty year marriage had almost produced the ubiquitous two point four children, having to settle for something less in Maurice and Jeanette. The ten bed roomed manor house, equipped with resident gardeners and household staff, functioned admirably, applying all the trappings of upper class living in full splendor.
Nothing much had changed throughout their marriage. It had started with meticulous planning and followed that trend. Although maybe dowdy to some outsiders, it was how the Brookdale-Smythes channeled their lives. Even the family planning had been mapped out to a certain degree; a boy first, then a girl one year later. How the sex of the child had been arranged was possibly down to the one and only time that the couple had felt at the mercy of a somewhat higher echelon.
The move up the housing ladder had been possible by calculated and regimental perusal of salary figures and guidance from an encouraging bank manager; the sort who looked upon the Brookdale-Smythes of this world as manner from heaven. No rash gambles on the stock exchange, no pie-in-the-sky schemes and no mid life crisis to rock the steady monetary boat. All in all, a bank managers dream.
The latest theme to come under the guidance of the family was the ever encroaching subject of old age and medical treatment. Both Malcolm and Sarah were aware of the family history and the somewhat early demise of both sets of parents. Dying at the age of around sixty had become a common denominator and now that the two of them were reaching towards that destination it needed some organization. As in life, they would plan for death. That seemed an appropriate line.
However upbeat the Brookdale-Smythes lives were, there had been times of deep depression regarding their particular parents. Sarah had lost her mother many years previously to a bout of severe pneumonia whilst her father succumbed to a recurrence of malaria, apparently contacted in his earlier years when he was stationed in outposts around the China seas.
Malcolm’s mother died tragically from what at first seemed an innocuous bite from a stray dog whilst holidaying in the French region of Burgundy. The rabid infection took hold quickly and despite efforts from medical staff she died before she could be returned to England.
Perhaps the bleaker death belonged to Malcolm’s father. Whereas the others had not really suffered so much, his father had slowly and painfully wasted away in agony and abject misery over a number of years. It had been difficult to pin point any cause from the number of doctors and experts who had been on the case, but the last year of his life had seen him move away from the world of his family and….for want of a kinder word…he had become a man who no longer existed. Vegetating is a somewhat strong word, but however unkind that sounds, that is what happened. Malcolm’s father had ceased to be alive in the real sense of the word and for that last twelve months of his life there had been no communication. Drip feeding and daily drug intakes had prolonged what had at first been an active and fulfilling life. The family visits to the rest home had become a chore and it led Malcolm into a state of deep depression. The day his father died had brought thanks instead of the usual pity and sadness that should engulf a persons death.
This scenario became the highlight of the Brookdale-Smythes carefully planned world and it was decided that if either of them unfortunately met with this slow and meaningless death, then the partner would try and do anything to lesson the pain. It took a while before any of them could actually say the word, but they knew exactly where they were heading…Euthanasia.
The following years brought the family closer together as their wishes were banded around the dinner table with such mundane subjects as seasonal crop rotation or protracted guest lists for any forthcoming party. It was all in the open. They even sought out the family lawyer who was under no illusion. It would tantamount to murder. Whatever the good intentions, it was illegal. Well, in England.
It surfaced that it could be possible in Switzerland where that country had a more lenient view of death. He quoted Article 115 of the Swiss penal code, whereby it only considered euthanasia a crime if the motif was selfish. The solution, if ever needed, was there. It satisfied the Brookdale-Smythes. They closed hands around each others and smiled. Once more, their lives were clearly chartered with everything in it rightful place.
Many years later Malcolm Brookdale-Smythe arrived in the emergency department of the general hospital. He had kept loosing consciousness but was still aware of his surroundings. His pulse was 42 and respirations 25, whilst blood pressure was 100/56. The vomiting at home had led to the call to doctor Langdon who had not been happy with expiratory wheezing from the lungs. Overnight observation was prescribed but the reports later showed up nothing. Tablets were administered and the situation abated. But that was to be just the beginning.
Throughout that year, (although still on medication and dutiful observation from his doctor), Malcolm Brookdale-Smythe never returned to his former self. He became more difficult to arouse from the constant slumbers of the daily naps. A few months later he had lost all feeling in his body and talk became meaningless. His eyes would glaze over then sometimes clear but he had now become fully dependant on the daily visits from the home care nurse. Sarah Brookdale-Smythe accepted the inevitable with a heavy heart.
Doctor Langdon sadly informed her that there was no way back and, though the drugs kept away any pain, there was nothing more to do than watch him slowly die.
She made the decision there and then. All the relevant details had been in position for months. She would take her son and daughter and transport Malcolm to Doctor Nitschladen in Switzerland. The months of planning and the previous visits to his clinic were now to become a reality; a reality that was about to take away somebody’s life.
Inwardly, Malcolm Brookdale- Smythe had become aware of his debilitating illness some months previous. At first he thought it was an overdose of some drug that was being forced into his arm. He had drifted into what can only be called a slightly hypnotic trance. It was that feeling of being slightly giddy after a couple of gin and tonics when you had not eaten all day. But, anyway, that was nothing to do with this moment. His brain had cleared sufficiently to realize that he was sitting at home and that his family were chatting to him. He was unable to answer. It was strange because he thought everything was functioning properly. He could hear Doctor Langdon speaking about no way back.
Some time later, the giddiness returned. He tried to evaluate it and then suddenly there seemed to be a rush of colour filling his limited vision. The pain that had been surging around his body simply evaporated. It was as though he had no body at all. This was surreal. Moments later a sort of tranquility overtook him. There were movements in front of his eyes but only as translucent figures. His brain had seemed to change to another dimension. The months of anguish had all but left his body. It was as if nothing else mattered now except his thought waves. The cumbersome and agonizing dealings he had had with his body were apparently over. Now all he had was some kind of inner vision.
Day after day he drifted into dark and light but this was nothing like the routine of a twenty four hour day. Now he could see images of childhood memories, vivid pictures of his mother and father. There was music in the background. It was as if someone had collected all his favorite sonatas, overtures and choral music and somehow managed to orchestrate them into a wonderful pattern of temperance. His brain fulfilled him like never before. It was racing, yet able to define all things clearly. He saw a picture of his father. It looked like he was on his death bed. He could see his mother gently crying at his side, but his fathers face, (if you looked closely) was at peace with the world. Malcolm now knew why. This wasn’t a death as everybody seemed to know, it was a type of second coming, a recharging of cells that had never been used before. The weighty excess of governing a body had been lifted clear and the brain had gone into raptures of untouched and untapped beauty. Was this heaven? Was this what everybody was reconciled to or maybe it was a state of mind that was given to you before you actually died. Whatever it was you certainly wanted it to go on for ever. Maybe it was some kind of reward or maybe the equivalent of a fireworks display at the end of an outdoor concert. It was beautiful. And he was still with his family. He wanted this feeling to stay and never end.
The log fire flickered and threw some sparks upwards as a piece of wood crumbled in the kitchen grate. Today had been an exceptionally cold day for November. The small gathering gave out an under current of garbled murmurings. It wasn’t the largest of meeting; that had been seen in the local churchyard. This was for close relatives and friends, a time to share memories of a satisfying life. The two Labrador dogs snoozed idly away by the fireside probably unaware that there would be no more manly slippers to nuzzle up against. The soft panting divulged nothing more than canine contentment.
Sarah Brookdale-Smythe kept her back to the fire as she addressed the small assembly. Her eulogy was tempered with obvious sadness even though she tried vainly to add a little humor from their lives together. Her mention of euthanasia caused her voice to break slightly and the words fragmented like the embers behind her. She asked people to raise their glasses and she turned to a picture of Malcolm Brookdale-Smythe above the mantelpiece and ended with the words… “It was what he wanted.”
From childhood you learn to shield yourself from misfortune, cruelty and any abject encounters that will pull you from this cocoon of innocence. I learnt very early. There are no years in my young life when I can ever recall being happy, although, back in those days I knew no difference. The hellish life was all there was. From my maturity now, I have reasoned, assessed and sadly accepted that my position as a stepson to my mother’s partner was the catalyst for the beatings.
The smell of booze on his breath was the first alarm bell that would be triggered in my young head. The shouting downstairs and the smacking of my mother always preceded the oncoming violence. At that tender age, how was I to understand the frailties of relationships? I always heard my mother’s anguished whimpers, declaring her love for this man, but it did little to quell the onslaught I received. I also learnt another sad fact. The more I cried the more he hit me. It didn’t take long before I built up an immune system to lesson the attacks. No more tears, that was the answer. However severe his hands laid into me, there would be no more tears. In my head I would repeat the words ‘and the teardrop wouldn’t fall.’ over and over again. Faster and faster I would repeat the words to my inner self, until his debauchered assault had finished.
And the teardrop wouldn’t fall…thwack…and the teardrop wouldn’t fall…thwack…and the…
By the time I was eight years old I was well into the routine. I had become hardened to life. His fists were tolerated, and the beatings, although painful, decreased, as he gained less and less satisfaction from striking a seemingly lifeless corpse. In fact I actually drew some pleasure from him when he only kicked out at me like a dog instead of the usual tirade of fists.
The shields I had erected for survival, unfortunately, didn’t benefit me in later years. The scars of childhood stayed with me, even when he had left my life and found pastures new.
The early death of my mother is a good example. I was seventeen when I stood over her coffin in that dreary churchyard. Handfuls of dirt fell haphazardly into the pit. Someone nudged me into joining in the ceremony. My memory gave out visions of her soft blonde hair as she nursed me as a toddler, then memories as she looked on as I was beaten like an animal, then a vision of her deep blue eyes before they had become forever cold in her later life. The emotion welled up inside but then the over-riding protection system fell into place…and the teardrop wouldn’t fall…
By the age of twenty I had been advised to go for counselling from my doctor. My short temper, unsociable behaviour and overall attitude had become worrying. The therapy led to hours of reliving my past with conversations with white-coated do-gooders who thought they could unlock my past with help from a textbook. To no avail, and I wasn’t really bothered.
At twenty-four I was married to a woman who tolerated all my black moods, unruly behaviour and general apathy to life. She didn’t warrant the diagnosis two years later that would put her on life support systems. The days and nights that I sat with her were endless and the constant beeping of the machines at her side were deafening. Yet still I sat there, looking at this wonderful woman who had given her heart to me and all I could respond with would be the coldness of my dark interior and the chilling words stifling my true emotions…and the teardrop wouldn’t fall…
How I deserved the following years I’ll never know. My wife, through the grace of some God, had recovered and also given me a daughter. These were treasures I truly believed shouldn’t have come my way. I watched, nervously, as my fragile child suckled and then stumbled gamely upon its first months of life. Her chubby legs faltered along the path of an unknown future, clearly dependant on me and her mother. And then, that bizarre, never to be forgotten moment when she looked towards me as she opened her arms as if seeking comfort from a strange and bewildering world, the moment that a child looks for help. She mouthed her first words into my inquisitive face.
‘Da, dah… Da,dah.
I picked her up and held her close, so close it was nearly impossible for her to breath. Our cheeks touched, our noses rubbed and two lives became one, and then my life opened up.
‘And the teardrop fell…’
It was the middle of March, nineteen fifty-four and Juan Carlos pulled the thick animal fleece tightly around his body. Above the tree line in the Peruvian Andes, this time of year presented a hostile place to live. The small tribe of people busied themselves, intent on repairing the ravages of the winter storms. The months of rain, sleet and then heavy snow had taken its toll on the wood and earth baked stone of the small dwellings. These on coming weeks usually brought along laughter and singing amongst the mountainous South American folk but this year was different.
Some of the tribesmen assisted Juan Carlos as he steadied his horse, packing a few small bags of provisions to the sides of the saddle. The thickly wrapped dead body of his two-year-old son lay strewn across the haunches of the animal. The double covering of animal hides would hopefully quell the smell of death as he journeyed down towards the civilisation and province of Los Agrimos, a full days ride.
There was a quiet send off as he guided his horse onto the rough hewn out track, which headed away from his people, passed the newly dug graves which entombed three other young members of his tribe. He would follow the stream eastwards and then head down towards the mosaic small farms and irrigated fields and then through the bog lands of lichens and mosses until descending into the town of El Macello.
Years ago, there would have been no sign of other inhabitants, but since the euphoric stampede of mankind’s search for gold along his plateau, things had changed. This was underlined as he surveyed the small billows of smoke and heard the occasional sound of dynamite which was taking place some six or seven miles to the side of his village. He could remember when some of the men folk travelled upstream to within walking distance of the mining area, only to be chastised and abused as they tried to understand the intrusion upon their sacred grounds. Natural surroundings that were now being eroded, all in the name of greed, took on a menacing mantle.
The horse, surefooted, meandered effortlessly amongst the boulders, some still holding onto remnants of snow. Juan could allow his mind to wander as he put his trust in the steed. Times of when he had left his village and spent four years down in the valley with the oncoming progress of civilisation, times when he had witnessed the bitterness and cajoling of these so called forward thinking people. It had taken these years to realise how he missed the village life, but since returning, things had never been quite as tranquil.
Now, with his newly acquired education, his mission was to find out the reasons for the death of his son and those of his kinfolk. Other tribe members didn’t understand his words of autopsy and remedy, but Juan knew something was seriously wrong in the camp.
He spent six weeks in El Macello, first talking to the only doctor there and then waiting for results from further away. Friends that he had known from the last year had moved on, the pace of life had quickened and the inroads that the automobile had made had been a little frightening. The noise and brisk way of life contrasted sharply with the upper part of the mountain.
Yesterdays meeting with the doctor, now armed with reports from higher echelons were conclusive and worrying. The burial of his son, although he would have preferred to have it done nearer his village, was done with dignity in a small plot outside the town. The child was amongst other unmarked graves.
The ride back would allow Juan to have many thoughts and reflect on life. The trail from town offered no type of condolence, only giving evidence of mans scant thought for Mother Nature as he eyed the scars made in the name of progress, but the next mile gave him hope, and once again he could feel his heart lighten as the winter season lessoned its grip upon him and the countryside.
A village elder had once told him, ‘accept life and accept death. Both are equal to each other and as such both should be worshipped’. It was hard to think like that with the burial of his son. ‘Take in the colour and beauty of the world and you will see less blackness in death.’ Wise words but difficult to appreciate at this time.
As he rode through the sodden slopes of the bog lands he noticed the eucalyptus trees ahead and a couple of Pygmy owls intent on daytime sleep. His movement alerted their slumbers causing a mild trill to be emitted. It reminded him of his childs infectious laugh.
These six weeks had changed the whole scene from his downward trek. Now he could see the snow-white daffodils vying for room amongst the crocuses, each trying to push forward their vivid colouring that this new season had blessed them with.
He allowed the words of the elder to swim around his mind as he watched llama and alpaca herds nervously take cover into the shadows of the quehuna trees and he felt the pale sun warm the sinewy leather of his face. The climb out of the forest took him onto the sparsely vegetated meadows and then shrub land, now allowing tufts of moss to pursue life. The higher he rode the more acute were his senses. He could allow the pure air of the mountains to refill his tortured soul and taste the fragrance of the faint tinted tuberose plants as they gifted their perfume to the world.
This birth of a new season spawned its way into the troubled wanderings of Juans mind, taking away some of the darkness. The village elder had chosen his narrative well.
It was maybe half a mile from the village when he rested at the bridge that crossed the majestic chasm of swirling white water. His thoughts went back to the streams and hot thermal geysers, which ran by his home. The Andean Condors glided high above him as he took the paper from his pocket, which diagnosed his son’s death. He cursed the loud bang of an explosion from the mining camp, the one upstream that emptied its waste into the once fresh waters of the rivulets; the ones that the young folk drank from.
The purple bushy Rima Rima flowers bent slightly with the weight of two Sierrien finches as they twitched tail feathers at each other. Nearby amongst the foliage of pink and white lupins, a long tailed mocking bird warbled for a mate. The beauty and blackness entwined as he thought of the polluted water. Maybe the irony was lost on him when he saw the changing seasons; thoughts of Spring Fever meant only one thing.
THREE’S A CROWD. (Suspense story)
It takes maybe a couple of minutes to regain my thoughts. The hysterics have not helped. It was now time for rational thinking. The wide adhesive tape across my mouth gives off a pungent smell, mixed with what I guess is fresh blood and mucus from my battered nose. The shock of a man hitting a woman so violently has triggered off the shakes in my body. The ripping of my blouse as he manhandled me up the stairs gives credence to the severity of the attack. I take stock of the situation, sensing that I am now alone in the bedroom. The nauseous tape is around my ankles and hands, firmly holding me in the dressing table chair. The blackness is down to the heavy binding of more tape across my eyes. It presses into my sockets causing that sensation you get when you rub your eyes firmly with a hand after waking. The translucent colours form a background against swirls that remind me of bacteria under a microscope. My senses gain a foothold as the pumping of adrenalin, which had overdosed my body, subsides. I am aware of the wetness of my underwear. The staining of the woven fabric on the Chippendale chair takes precedence for a moment, but is quickly dismissed as I curse myself for prioritising that situation. Gerald, he is my main concern now as I gather the pictures in my mind of the evening’s events. The casual talk over cheese and biscuits as we tried to thrash out our domestic problems seems light years away. Alone in our country house retreat we discussed the past year and the inevitable outcome of our twenty year old floundering marriage. Then we heard the screaming shouts, reminiscent of some wailing banshee, which shattered the calmness of our conversation. He appeared from the hallway with one of those grotesque Halloween masks across his face, but the focal point turned to the gun in his hand. All the time I watched the gun, mortified, as he mumbled through the mouthpiece of the gargoyles latex features. Gerald said something as he rose from the table. The intruder swiftly brought the firearm down across my husband’s head. Then the eyeholes, black sunken orbits intent only on destruction, fixed rigidly on mine. The fist struck forcibly against my face.
I calm myself further, imprisoned on my chair, as those thoughts begin to chill me. My breathing is uneasy. I can’t take deep breaths. The passageways in my nose are becoming blocked. Un-lady like sweat forms somewhere across my brow as I wrestle with the damned tape. I force myself to try and free the globules in my nose by pressing air downwards and then flinging my head from side to side in order to free the blood and snot. There! In my mind I have called it snot, but these are no times for ladies etiquette. The breathing becomes easier as I manage to discharge the stuff and then sniff chunks of it upwards. Voices, I can now hear voices downstairs. Gerald must have recovered. My head screams out ‘give him the cash, anything he wants…please.’
Then I calm myself again. Pieces of the jigsaw come together. Gerald is a bank manager. That’s what this is all about. We’re hostages. Voices again. I can hear the words from Gerald, something about a time lock on the banks safe. God! I inwardly despair. Tell him you can override it. The voices stop or go quieter. My mind wanders and then wayward thoughts gain control of me as I think of fragmented conversations before the upheaval. Back to years ago when we had decided (amicably) that if we ever split up, I would have this house and Gerald would have our savings. Such has been this last year that Gerald’s little pile has gone down the tube with his irrational stock gambling. I come back to the real world. Go to the bank Gerald, take the intruder, do what he wants…and help yourself to a bag of the stuff. If it were possible I would laugh at my thoughts. Maybe this is shock setting in. I try and make some more sense of things, and then another thought comes up. Why didn’t our alarm system go off? How did this chap get into the house? Did I leave the door open after watering the potted plants in the vestibule? Surely not? Voices again. One raised, one calm. I can’t really make out which ones is Gerald’s. I feel dripping onto my knees. Blood, I think, from my nose. Maybe I’m loosing more than I should. This would explain the illogical thoughts I’m now having. Am I about to pass out? The faintness comes and then passes as I rock my head in a circular motion. My mouth becomes free from the tape as I do it again allowing me to gulp in precious air. Then movement and thoughts stop abruptly. A gunshot erupts and echoes ominously around the house. More questions compound my mixed up mind. Delirium makes nonsensical mischief of my plight. Is this some kind of wicked plot from a destitute husband? Does he rob the bank with an aide from the nether world, or maybe he has me killed off in a bungled house robbery, thus getting my share of the house? Or maybe…more blood splatters onto my legs. I’m fully conscious again because now I can hear movement. The footsteps tread purposely up the stairs. The door opens and I weakly implore ‘Is that you Gerald?’ My head turns so that my ears are homed into the space between us, waiting for the relief of sanctuary. The silence stays for a moment and then stays for an eternity. Salvation or murder? Relief only comes with the involuntarily soiling of the Chippendale once more. ***
I suppose it would be unfair to use his full name, although why he should be protected is anybodies guess. Still, we’ll refer to him as simply Alan.
He was probably what you would call a lovable rogue, but his charm and usual good manners had worn extremely thin. This latest deed had definitely shown him in his true colours.
Sometimes I feel ashamed to let people know that he is actually my brother . I have grown tired of forever making excuses to other members of the family, especially Mum and Dad, who are actually quite old now. He thinks he can wrap them around his little manipulative fingers, even though he has just done a spell in one of Her Majesty’s prisons.
This recent escapade happened as he once more decided to grace us with his presence sometime last year. He had sauntered into London, letting us know that he was arriving at one of the main railway centres. Forever the individual, he proceeded to worm himself into our society.
At first everything seemed cosy. He had managed to get himself a job in the bank nearby and we all thought that for once, Alan had seen the light. Maybe at last he would settle down and behave with a bit of maturity. He smarmily manoeuvred himself into a position of trust whereby all around him had implicit faith in his character They trusted his judgement and never once questioned his new found authority. More fool them! Was there only me who could see what he was doing?
His head was probably turned on that particular day when he escorted me around the city. He seemed to be overwhelmed by the wealth of some parts of fashionable London. His head was forever swayed to the luxuries of life.
“One day I’ll own property like this” he said as he gazed at the high-rise apartment blocks. I remember laughing in his face. I also remember that mean twisted look that contorted his narrowing eyes. It was then that I knew that Alan was on a slippery slope to nowhere.
As time went by he began dealing in property. Nothing big to start with, just little bits of old derelict slums. He would brag to Mum and Dad about how he was going to be a big tycoon. I hated the change in him and wanted to tell everybody that he was up to no good.
I couldn’t at first understand where he was getting the money from to finance his deals although he always had a ready answer. At one time I suspected that he was actually, somehow, getting it from our parents although this proved to be unfounded. I knew Mum and Dad didn’t have the sort of money he was now trading with.
It was apparent that the money was coming from somewhere else. I had always been taught by my parents to be honest. Why could they not see that their younger son was caught in the underworld of crime?
There was only one thing left to do. I resolved to keep an eye on all the activities of my brother and then confront him with my findings. Was it possible that I could get him back on the straight and narrow? I calculated how much legitimate money was coming his way from the bank. I then inspected his portfolio of property rentals and mortgage payouts.
It seemed to take ages but I was determined to get to the bottom of it.
I noticed that he liked to take great risks as though he wasn’t bothered about loosing his ill-gotten gains. He also had a certain amount of luck that all would-be criminals have. He even managed to be fortunate with small windfalls from competitions that he went in for.
There was no way that any of this accounted for his improved wealth.
It so happened that all my close scrutiny of him came to nothing. For a time I thought I might as well give up but it was then that Lady Luck decided to go against him.
His gambling had reached new heights and it was this that proved to be one of his downfalls. Not that it curtailed his seedy transactions. But the cards had well and truly turned against him.
Suffice to say that he found himself in jail for some trivial going-ons.
We all visited him and Mum and Dad even proposed buying his town house off him. He just smiled and resigned himself to his fate.
“I’ll not be in here long” he sneered as if he knew something we didn’t.
True to his word he was out in no time. The only difference now was that I had managed to find out where the money was coming from.
I decided to keep quiet until the appropriate time, the time when I could show the world what a mean and corrupt person he really was. The only problem was that I was going to shop my own brother . Mind you, I wouldn’t say we were very close, even if there was only a few years between us. I knew he’d do the same to me.
In no time at all the opportunity arose. I stood up in front of Mum, Dad and Alan and blurted out the words.
“He’s been stealing from the bank for ages!”
Mum and Dad stared at me in disbelief. It was so out of character but the truth had to come out.
Alan dropped the two five hundred red notes to the floor.
“That’s the last time I’m being Banker” said six year old Alan as he pushed over the Monopoly board and stormed out of the living room!
Last week my wife died.
I can’t honestly say how many years we’d been together. Does that sound bad? It was over forty, I know that. This autumn evening is the first time I have returned to our home. The moonlight dodges in and out of the clouds, reflecting haphazardly onto the first glistening appearances of Jack Frost. The front gate creaks eerily, whilst the rustling leaves of the sycamores hang tenuously to their last remnants of life. In the fading light I twist the key into the lock and push the front door ajar. It resists vainly for a moment, as my weight forces the mound of mail on the floor to one side. A flick of the light switch reveals little of change. Everything is the same as it was. Except of course for one thing. I stifle the words of ‘I’m home,’ and retrieve the mail. The smell is the same as though we had just returned from holiday, although this time I’ll be the one to search out the air freshener. Or maybe I wont. The smell doesn’t really bother me. It did her.
The front room is tidy except for a few of last week’s newspapers on the coffee table. They can stay there, dating the scene in their own little way. The telephone has the intermittent red light flashing. Looks like a multitude of messages. I pass by and go to the kitchen. She would have sorted the messages.
The patio windows are allowing a low whistling to reach a crescendo as the winds roll menacingly from the moors beyond the back garden. I remember her asking me to fix the errant locking system, that’s where the noise is coming from. Maybe next week. Didn’t I say that to her a month ago? I wish I could now.
Next doors cat is visible outside through the dusk, scurrying to find shelter. She would have let it in for an hour or so. It glances at me and decides on searching out some other refuge. My unfriendly voice never offered encouragement.
The wind begins to drum out a tattoo of fearful melancholy, intent on welcoming me home to this cold retreat. The flowers in the hanging basket outside rock to and fro. I can’t recall when I last bought her flowers. Except of course at the funeral. That doesn’t count. I sit at the small pine table, gaze through the window and wish I could walk in from the back garden and give her a handful of roses. I should have done that so many times, but you don’t do you?
I walk upstairs, feeling the banister rail, subconsciously trying to entice some kind of warmth out of it. I turn on the bedroom light, it misses a beat. The wind laughs outrageously across the eaves. The bed is huge as I lay down fully clothed, arms outstretched feeling for succour. I restlessly rise and go and open her wardrobe door. The sensation is overwhelming and compels me to sit inside, slowly caressing her clothes. My senses peak in expectation of a last solitary smell of her body. ‘I love you Mary,’ I murmur to myself. I can’t remember the last time I told her that, apart from in the hospital when she was in a coma. Again, that doesn’t count. The noise of the mocking wind subsides and I move into the foetus position. Tears take precedence in this now silent world. Why do we take things for granted?
Last week my life died.
THE WEB OF INTRIGUE.
FORTY THOUSAND YOUNG FROGS IN A LARGE PACKING CASE. MAN NEEDS HELP. That’s what the advert said. It certainly got my attention, as I suppose hundreds of other voyeurs. I was desperately searching, (and that’s not too strong a word) the personnel columns of my local paper. Being a twenty eight year old unmarried woman with no immediate prospects of romance on the horizon, I was prone to do this ritual each week. I’d even divulged my statistics on the FIX-A-DATE pages. Professional lady, cheerful outlook, non smoker, likes reading, theatre and holidays abroad.
Now, let’s be honest, would that really ensnare a potential partner? I couldn’t allow myself to give away my profession. I mean, who would seriously consider dating a woman who does autopsies in a morgue? I’m pretty sure, in those intermit moments, that a man might just allow his mind to wander about my day’s activities. It’s bad enough getting him aroused to my plain features, let alone having him think where my hands had been.
But the advert intrigued me. At least he’d given some thought to grab people’s attention, and at the bottom was one of those e-mail addresses. I think it was something to do with FaceBook or whatever they call these new fangled web pages. I’d never been one of those people who needed to seek solace in emptying their heart to hundreds of people about how they’d spent the weekend.
So, it was me that started the encounter, every few days offering up tit-bits about myself and receiving equal amounts of info from the Frog man. He didn’t actually sign himself as that. He carried the rather distinguished moniker of Gareth, a name that I’d once come across in my youth, but I mentally still referred to him as the frog man. It somehow lightened the situation.
Then of course after a few weeks, the dreaded phrase appeared on his emails.
“We’ll have to arrange a meet somewhere.”
I knew sooner or later it would come to this but I still wasn’t really prepared. Other relationships over the year had come to nothing and if I was really truthful with myself I was only playing around with this cyber space chat we had built up.
It was my best friend Georgina who giggled and taunted me about my new found acquaintance, telling me to take a chance in life and using tried and trusted expressions of “you never know what the future holds,” and “this could be Mr Right.”
The weeks went by and the imploring got steadily more intense from the amphibian. It eventually got down to a description of himself and a suggestion that he would wear a flower in his button hole so I’d recognise him. This was getting sillier. Surely this only happened in womans’ magazines. But, with Georgina egging me on more and more and my imagination getting the better of me, I resigned myself to a rendezvous at the city centre pub called the White Hart.
I’d reconciled myself that I would have a get-out-of-jail card for this meeting. Although I had given a pretty good description of myself, I told Georgina that I was going to change the colour of my hair, shorten it in length and use heavier make-up than normal. We both laughed at the idea, but at least I could view the Frog man from afar and, if I couldn’t go through with the meeting, I could quite easily walk away from the scene. It made me feel safer. It also gave me a feeling of being in charge of the situation. City centre pubs were full of every known character from business men to down right villains; not that I thought my e-mailer was anything but a stalwart figure of society. Who was I kidding? My line of work gave me no authority on the people outside the morgue. If I told myself that I was street-wise I’d be fooling myself and making out to be somebody I’m not. Even Georgina was happy with my safety first tactics, especially as I’d insisted on going alone. Neither of us had been outgoing at school, in fact, quite the reverse, although it can be said that Georgina had found a much more confident attitude over the last six or seven years.
The dreaded Friday arrived. The butterflies were rampant in my stomach, although I’m sure this was supposed to be the highlight of our brief but heavy correspondence. The black high heel shoes tightened with every step I made towards the White Hart, the loose fitting coat swished noisily as it rubbed against an altogether too high skirt whilst my hastily dyed blonde hair seemed to alienate my face. I was somehow conscious of my contrasting dark eyebrows; all rather silly really, as Georgina had complemented me on my choice of colours and demure outlook.
I know it still seems crazy to some people, but I am still nervous of entering a pub on my own. It really can’t be down to lack of confidence as I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a loner, so I should be used to going in and out of places, but the stigma of a woman on her own still lingers. Maybe it is something handed down from my strict upbringing from my parents. Their values were deeply rooted into an older generation.
It’s now ten minutes passed the rendezvous time. I’ve done that deliberately so that the Frog man… no, I can’t keep calling him that, not on our first date to be… I’ve done that because… Gareth… may be watching the door. I now become just a woman coming into a pub looking for her girlfriends. My attitude actually seems better now.
On a Friday night at this time the pub is always bustling. Thankfully I can meander slowly towards the bar. Is he really going to be stood around with a flower in his button hole? The thought makes me laugh inwardly as I struggle to the far side of the pub. The barman quickly catches my eye and I mouth the words half a shandy. I’d kill for a double whisky at this stage but I keep my sensible head on slowly trying to avoid any eye contact yet straining to see my would be beau. I hand over some change as I try to decipher what the barmen said over the general noise of the pub. He takes the coins and doesn’t seem to want to proffer any change. I now rather foolishly hope upon hope that Gareth has failed to turn up. What seemed a good idea on the computer screen now seems a little foolhardy. But then it happens. For all my discretions my eyes meet his. He’s there, about twenty yards away with the same amount of people between us. I can see the flower. His eyes then look away. It must be the blonde hair. Then my heart misses a beat as something registers in my brain. I put both hands around the glass of shandy and hold onto it for dear life. I can’t bring myself to look at him again.
“A double whisky ” I call to the barman. I watch as the glass is moved up to the optics then placed in front of me. I give him a fiver and seek comfort in the Highland brew. My head is awash with thoughts from everywhere but most of all the words from the dating advert. Forty thousand young frogs. The name Gareth… the name that is from my past, and the significance of the young frogs. Tadpoles. Innuendo. My mind moves on again. Sperm. Now the barman pushes some coins towards me. I pick them up, finish the whisky in one gut wrenching swallow and head for the exit.
It took more than that double whisky to settle me. In fact, back home, I’d finished maybe half a bottle of a strong mature malt. Gareth Larkins name reverberated around my head for the rest of the night spewing forth those long forgotten memories from my last few weeks at school; the day when he had followed me out of the school gates and down the narrow footpath of the local canal towpath. I still shiver when I remember in all my innocence that first kiss he planted on me as he stroked my hair and took me out of sight behind the dilapidated outhouses. The feeling I had as I returned the kiss, naively believing it to be a form of friendship. Nothing more. Then that horrible force of his body as he pushed me amongst the decaying grey walls and the feel of his hand across my mouth as he spread me amongst the loose gravel like some ranch-hand about to brand a calf. It was exactly that…animalistic. He actually laughed at the end of it insisting that I’d always wanted it. I never returned to school for the last week of term. The place held dirty memories for me.
There was more to follow when I had related the whole episode to Georgina. The look on Georginas´ tormented face jogged my memory back to those schooldays when I remembered the bullying he had dished out to my best friend, although it was vastly different than my circumstances.
The whole ugly incidents, and the feeling that he was now preying his deeds on a wider media, left the two of us disgusted. It also led to the disappearance of Georgina. The echoing words of “time to show this guy some retribution” rang loudly in my ears. I felt alone, hoping that nothing rash was going to happen. Georgina was a changed person from the one I knew in our schooldays.
The intercom buzzed loudly down in the morgue. I pressed the button and recognised the broad northern accent of detective John Bennett.
“Sorry love…” I hated that terminology, even though I knew it to be some sort of endearment. He’d known me for years yet still referred to me like that, never ever using my real name. His words began to fragment, due to the old paging system. I caught the words body, then something about a pretty young thing, and then I’m wheeling the body in now…catch you in a minute. The sound system crackled and went off.
I cleaned a space on the sterilized table cursing the timing of this late entrant. The sound of trolley wheels outside sent me to open the doors. He pushed the body towards me and uttered the words of “My boss needs a quick autopsy, anything in the next half hour. We’ve got the bloke responsible, but he needs to know more facts.”
I nodded, feeling more tired than usual, but my job never kept regular hours.
“And also,” carried on the detective, “this one’s a bit weird…” His phone bleeped with some meaningless music. “Yes…Yes…OK.” He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said “got to go.” And with that he left me to go about the business of back-tracking some cold body and trying to catalogue a series of events. As I said, It’s my job.
I pushed the trolley to the side, donned the rubber gloves and proceeded to do a general overhaul of somebody’s relative or friend. All routine, as usual. But not this time. I pulled back the zip to unveil the face. It was heavily battered with streaks of dried blood around the nostrils. After brushing back the tangled hair from the face, I realised who it was. Missing for two weeks and yet I hadn’t really worried. Now the words of “show this guy some retribution” came hauntingly into my head. Georgina would have known she’d have the upper hand on this bloke, but it had obviously gone tragically wrong. Meeting up with Gareth Larkins would have been a different encounter now than those far off schooldays.
I pulled the body bag off and looked down at the torn dress and tattered stockings. The bruises were all along the thin legs. I lifted the remains of the dress and saw the ripped panties. They displayed what looked like a savage attack on the nether regions. Georgina had suffered a horrific attack…I could tell from the swelling to the testicles and the blooded penis. This body had taken its last beating in this unforgiving world. It would never have to listen to such words as Puff, or later on in life, Gender Bender again.
A CLEAN START.
Throughout the night Angela had tossed and turned, faced this way and that. Shaking the pillow had made no difference. Pacing the room in the chill of the night air made her even more awake. Hearing the start of the throbbing diesel engines of the London Transport buses outside told her that the dawn was imminent. She reconciled that other people were in the same position as herself. Not quite.
The early morning traffic would soon be at its height, throwing more noise into her tortured eardrums. She had never been able to adjust quickly to sleeping in a strange room and right now the peace and tranquillity of her own bedroom seemed a long way off. Soon the eight-thirty call would summon her.
For the last five years she had never been in touch with her family, a rift that had suited her just fine. The downhill path had spiralled to ever increasing depths, so far down that communication was impossible.
Today, she had reconciled that it was time to start mending bridges. Saving face, eating humble pie, whatever you wanted to call it, she was now mature enough to try and piece together the fragmented life of yesteryear. It was time to be positive.
Having a bad nights sleep was not the best way to settle nerves and prepare for today’s new job she thought to herself. Still, things had to be faced and after all, throughout her young life, she had faced similar circumstances. She could feel the old self- preservation mould beginning to take shape.
Twenty five years old, a patchwork quilt of various odd jobs and now a bleak future in front of her. She had never blamed herself for any of the wrong turnings that life had thrown up in her face, but right now she was inwardly looking for someone to sympathise with her. Self-pity had never been one of her shortcomings. Quite the opposite in fact. An arrogant air had followed her from those torturous schooldays and built a complacent mantle around her alter ego. Nobody knew the real Angela, possibly not even herself. The years had honed her into a streetwise creature and done the job well.
The small hand held mirror in front of her reflected the dowdy image that she had let herself be drawn into. She wished for a total transformation, a move back to the heady days of her youth when her carefree attitude would have signalled self-assurance to all about her.
It was not to be, as she awkwardly patted her dull looking clothes into some sort of fashionable shape on her rather frumpy body. The grey unpretentious skirt was tidy if somewhat bland, whilst the undecorated blouse, neatly placed on the back of the chair, would not turn a head at a fashion show. Her somewhat plain face, unmanageable frizzy hair and a weight problem that would only correct itself if she was two foot taller, kept her confidence at a low ebb.
For some reason she found herself with that rather embarrassing condition of a butterfly stomach, a feeling that had rarely been there before when her courage had been sky high. Mind you, that was a good few years ago. Her teenage years had always found her in a position of leadership, even into her early twenties, but deep down she knew it wouldn’t last. Today was to be a day of reckoning.
How to approach this new job had been paramount in her mind all night. Should she show off her brash exterior, (something that had always been a safe guard against her slight inferior righteous self), or should she drop the bravado and toe the line, becoming a wallflower where people would leave you alone?
The knock on the door brought her thoughts back to the real world. That would be Mrs Gordon. Late last night the message had been passed down that she would accompany her to meet her new colleagues. The butterflies took flight once more.
Another look into the mirror as she hastily slung on her blouse did little to settle the agitation. This was it.
Mrs Gordon was a grim reminder of her old school Headmistress. A dead ringer for that old matriarch from senior school. The one that had caned her more than was necessary. “Teaching you a good lesson my girl”. That’s what they called it in those days! Those words had stuck with her since she was given her final school report, the one she had quickly filed into the nearest dustbin.
That vivid image sent her momentarily back to the days of bad memories and constant bullying.
On reflection, those were probably slightly better times than the ones that had been with her for the last year or so.
Little conversation was made as they both headed towards Room W1. There was to be no turning back now, no chance what so ever. The door at the end of the corridor seemed to appear from nowhere and loomed twice as large as the last time she had seen it. Her steps became laboured, her palms slightly moist as she felt a guided nudge from her chaperone.
Pushing it open, Mrs Gordon ushered Angela forward. All eyes turned to her as productivity momentarily stopped. The warmth of the room was overwhelming. Angela felt a wave of nausea creep over her. It was time to pull herself together and not show anyone her inner nervousness. This was the moment she had been dreading.
She felt the inquisitive eyes run up and down her body, making snap decisions about her. The smile that she had intended to use became quivering, and she only stopped it turning into a sneer by thrusting her head towards the damp looking ceiling. The old survival system had knocked in once again.
The eyes turned away, as if indifferent to this churlish entrance, something they had seen many times before.
Mrs Gordon pushed her charge towards a large mound of towels. She then pointed towards a massive washtub which had the words Pentonville Womans Prison embossed heavily on the side and announced, “Ladies…this is your new worker and inmate, Angela…number 225654”.
(Number and names have been altered)