I wrote the following story for the Reading Crime Festival. The introduction in italics was set by crime-writer Mark Billingham. Sadly, it didn’t make the prizes but I enjoyed writing it and attempting a female voice……
They say that you always know when you meet the ‘one’.
You’ve seen it in countless films and read about it in books. There’s usually some combination of the mouth going dry, sweat breaking out, the heart thumping like a drum/thunder/the wings of a captured bird etc.
I’d always thought it was nonsense.
That was before he walked into the shop. Before the sweating, the dry mouth and – since you ask – a heartbeat that felt like a racing engine about to tear itself out of my chest.
Before I clapped eyes on the one I was meant to kill.
He shuffles about by the crisps, rocking from heel to toe, the way they always do when they want to stare at those magazines.
His eyes drift over the top shelf. He fumbles in his pockets for change. I know him alright, though he’s changed these two years. He wears a crumpled jacket and his cords are baggy as though he’s lost weight. He’s hunched a little and his body has folded in, like a crisp packet in a fire. I hope it’s the guilt that has eaten him.
He nods at me the way people do in a bus stop or a dentist’s waiting room. His hair is spiked by sleep, fuzzed like fuse wire at the crown. His shoulders and lapels are dusted with dandruff and cradle cap. He stares at me, drinking with his eyes.
I look away, my heart thuds against my ribcage. He takes a magazine from the shelf, leafing through it. Oh, come on. We both know you don’t play golf. His eyes are bloodshot and his complexion is like bleached bone. His wedding ring has gone, replaced by a tell-tale band of pale skin. But there never was a wife, just a cat on a feeder-timer and an aging aunt upstairs riddled with cancer.
He sniffs, watching me from behind his hand. He peeks through the gaps in his fingers, childlike. He picks up a Sunday Times, scratching his head. I take care to look busy, checking the magazine ledger. Amir’s scrawl has scratched and dug into the pages, so the orders are like Braille. He licks cracked, parched lips. His hand hovers, darts out like a lizard’s tongue. He snatches a magazine and clutches it, rolled at his side. There’s a rustle as he buries it inside the newspaper. He glances at the door, aware we’re alone. Amir is at the cash n carry stocking up on cheap chocolate, stuff that’s meant to be Mars Bars but with Arabic scrawled on it.
There’s a squeak in his shoe. He taps a pound coin on the till. His nails are bitten down. He stands over the till, blocking the view of the paper with his body. His cheesecloth shirt stretches over his belly. He sniffs, lifts the corner of the paper to give me a glimpse of his dirty secret. His eyelid twitches. I scan the paper and hold out my hand.
‘You’ve missed the…..’
‘Sorry?’ I say.
He gulps, like a snake swallowing an egg. His throat is pinked with shaving rash. It’s spiteful, I know, but it’s important he knows I’m in control. I flip the newspaper and the contents come spilling out, slapping the floor tiles: the Sport and Culture and Property sections and his dirty little magazine with his bedsit fantasy staring from the cover. ‘Get to know Nikki,’ it says. Nikki has a pneumatic chest and a thong like dental floss.
He drops to his knees, scrabbling around on the floor, gathering the papers. He gathers them tight to his chest and glances up through his flaking eyebrows.
‘Do you want me?’
His forehead is beaded with sweat. He pulls a stained hankie from his jacket and dabs at his temples.
‘You heard me.’
‘No, no,’ he says, shaking his head.
I yawn and stretch, letting my top ride up. He pinches the bridge of his nose.
‘You do want me-’
And I am, almost. But she wasn’t. She was fifteen. His knees crack as he gets to his feet, muttering. He throws a crumpled tenner onto the counter, flustered. I hand him a card. He’s still shaking his head, but he takes the card, pinching it between inky fingers. Scribbled on the back is……
River meadows @ seven
He’s about to say something, but doesn’t. He half turns and stumbles, knocking greetings cards from the rack, sending them sliding across the floor. Amir holds the door open for him.
‘Something wrong?’ he says.
I shake my head. I go through to the back and add a gush of bleach to the mop bucket. I make swirls in the dust. The bleach nips at my nostrils. So, he’s back. It’s been a long time….
I’m there just after seven. He’s leaning against a weeping willow, heels dug in the turf, reading a tatty paperback with a smoking cowboy on the front. He sees me, lowers the book and coughs.
‘What am I doing here?’ he says.
‘You tell me.’
The willow trunk has been carved and hacked with penknives.
Steve 4 Paula; Brian & Michelle;
There’s a scorched-out phone number. I take his hand. His skin is cold and damp. He shivers.
‘Let’s go for a walk.’
He takes a few strides and snatches his hand away. Some old dear walks past with a Yorkie. She wears a rain bonnet with little umbrellas on it. I stare daggers at her and she walks on.
‘What’s this all about?’ he says.
We’re under a huge Scots pine. Cones thud to the floor.
‘Look,’ I say. A stone needle pokes from the shadows beneath an ancient yew. ‘It’s a monument to the fire-dead.’
‘Who are the fire-dead?’
I tell him about the fire at the town workhouse; the ones who were left to the flames.
‘That must have been a long time ago.’
He’s twitching, wondering – as well he might be – that this strange girl who came onto him hasn’t taken her top off, but is instead talking about Victorians burnt to toast.
‘Listen to their names,’ I say.
I lean in so my cheek brushes his jaw. He’s wearing cheap after-shave. I imagine him buying it, awkward and embarrassed. I breathe on his neck and he gasps. He closes his eyes and I begin to recite the names….
‘Thomas Haynes, Peter Cobbett, Nathaniel Spooner, Edwin Boon…..’
His mouth opens and he leans in to kiss me.
‘Katy Whistler,’ I say and step back.
He stares at me.
‘You know that name, don’t you?’
I take the gun from my bag and point it at him. I aim for his chest, like I’ve been taught.
‘That was nothing to do with me,’ he says.
I crouch, watching him all the time, and tug a coil of rope from my bag.
He swallows. ‘It was an accident.’
I throw him the rope. There’s a noose tied, ready. I wave the gun at him.
‘Loop it over the branch.’
He does as he’s told. I tell him to climb up onto the monument, but he won’t.
‘Last chance,’ I say.
He doesn’t move. I fire between his feet and he stumbles, scrambling back in the leaves and pine cones.
‘Someone will come now,’ he says.
I shrug and lump against the Scots pine so he knows I’m in no rush.
‘How long do you think it’ll take firearms to get the call and get here?’
He paws at his temples with bunched fists.
‘Until then you’re on your own, Neville.’
‘I’m not Neville.’
‘What did you do to her, Neville?’
He doesn’t answer. I poke the gun under his chin till he lifts his head.
‘You knew she wouldn’t tell anyone. But you were wrong. She told me.’
His jaw trembles.
I wave him for him to climb the steps. This time he does as he’s told. I motion for him to climb higher and he grabs hold of the stone angel, begging for forgiveness.
‘Now put the rope around your neck.’
He ducks through the noose, tears streaming down his cheeks. I take the end of the rope, tug it firm and knot it round the trunk of the Scots pine. I take out the tape deck and set it down on the steps.
‘Tell me you’re sorry. Tell me what you did.’
He begs for his life. I point the gun at his head.
‘She was late or something. I don’t know. It was pouring down with rain, chucking it down….’
I sit among the pine cones and needles while he blabs. I’m not listening. I’m blinking away tears. When he’s finished, he’s sobbing uncontrollably. I tell him to take his clothes off. He unbuckles his trousers, kicking them off. I rip his shirt, tying his hands behind his back. The noose is taut and he’s wobbling, sweaty and pudgy, milk-white flab breaching his waistband, struggling to keep his balance. I hit stop on the deck, pocket the tape and walk away.
I could kick his legs away, let him swing, but I don’t. I let him wobble in his stained pants, trussed up like a turkey. The sirens are getting louder. I wipe the tape and slip it in an envelope marked ‘Vice Squad.’
From far away on the marsh I watch through granddad’s binoculars. He’s cut down by the cops. His hands go to his nipples and he shuffles into the trees. The questions have only just begun for Neville.