The Riverman (part 1 of 2)
Without her, he was hollowed out.
On the street, in the shops, in the pub, visiting his mother in the care home, they all saw much the same man as before. A body dressed in clothes, a face with eyes and nose and mouth all in the correct places. Sometimes, even a smile. Only he knew that inside there was nothing, just a space where she used to be.
His wife had died suddenly, sat on the sofa watching the news channel, eating a slice of toast. He’d always chastised her for eating in front of the TV, but she rolled her eyes and did it anyway. His half-serious, half-playful grumbling about crumbs on the cushions became a daily ritual, one of a thousand secret communications contained within their marriage.
By choice, they had no children. Audrey had recently retired her teaching role, and Terrance was rapidly winding down his carpentry firm. He had no jobs that day, so he was in the garage, working on his bike, when it happened. He came in around lunchtime and found her sat upright, a half-eaten slice of toast resting on her lap. A reporter on the TV spoke about another missing woman from Kent, then they moved on to an interview about a trade deal. Outside the front window, on the street, people passed, going about their daily business. Terrance held Audrey’s hand while waiting for the ambulance, knowing she was gone but pretending they were watching the news together, just as they always did.
There was a period after her death when Terrance spent entire days and nights, sat in the same spot on the sofa, watching the same news channel, thinking only of her distress at the end, believing that if he sat there long enough, he would glimpse the world as she had seen it in her final moments. After a while, a neighbour saw him through the front window and knocked on the door. Terrance did not move, not even when others came to the window and cooed him to respond. So the door was bashed in and the professionals were summoned to examine him. He had to go to a hospital for a while and they decided he was experiencing an extreme form of grief. They even gave it a name: ‘complicated grief disorder’.
As he lay in his hospital bed, zombified by drugs, the doctor explained that Terrance had developed an extraordinary level of empathy with his wife, and so it was hardly surprising he was unable to cope with her loss.
He was prescribed more medication and counselling and allowed home to look after himself once more. Terrance still slumped in front of the T.V. news for longer than he should, but now he was careful to draw the curtains against prying eyes. Most days the weight of her loss pinned him there, but he usually managed to shamble to the shop once a day for food, to make a cup of tea, and eventually, recommence his weekly visits to his mother.
At first, he just sat with her in silence. To the casual observer, it might have been difficult to tell which of them was resident in the care home. But as the weeks passed, he returned to his habit of reading to her from the newspaper and telling her about his days. Terrance found that, whereas once he could report on trips taken with Audrey or his bike riding exploits, now he had little to tell her. His only acquaintances were Audrey’s friends, and they’d not been in touch since the funeral. How do you dramatise sitting on a sofa or walking to the supermarket?
So he lied. He told his mother about imaginary conversations with his neighbours, trips to the seaside and the theatre with friends, even of a robbery he witnessed in the park. He noticed how she began to perk up at his stories, adding occasional grunts of approval, even the odd word of encouragement for more information. She’d not done this for years, not even with his stories of excursions with Audrey.
But still, he returned home and sat in Audrey’s spot on the sofa with the news on the TV. He didn’t really watch or listen. Most of the gabbling from presenters, politicians and talking heads completely passed him by. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, one recurring news story began to take his notice.
Watching DCI Culshaw felt like being switched back on, as if he’d been asleep and now a new version of himself was suddenly seeing the world afresh.
On the T.V a policeman was talking to the camera sat behind a shiny Formica topped table covered with microphones. Cameras clicked and flashed each time he moved his head. A red banner beneath the policeman’s torso said, “Assistant Chief Constable, Robert Culshaw, Kent Police”. A ticker running across the screen read, “Woman’s body found near River Ouse, Beeston, Kent. Possible sixth victim ...”
In his life before, if Terrance had ever been forced to pick a side, he’d defend the agents of law and order against those seeding chaos. But these old truths had been slayed by Audrey’s passing. Matters did not seem so simple anymore.
Inspector Culshaw, Terrance surmised, was of the older school variety. “A proper copper”, his mother would have called him. Pinked cheeks, nascent jowls and thin greying hair. He said, “We believe he lives in the south east of England, speaks with a soft Mancunian or Northern accent and drives a large SUV type car, probably dark blue in colour. I would urge . . .”
Now that he was finally watching and listening for real, Terrance noticed so much more than before. Every twitch and gesture from the policeman, every tilt of the head, seemed contrived and insincere.
Terrance had trusted people like Culshaw all his life. If you played by the rules, they said, everything would be fine. He spoke out loud at the TV, a rasping, caustic edge to his voice, “Fucking liar.”
The surge of anger was sudden and visceral, an uncontainable wave of hatred. If he could have reached his hands through the screen and clutched Culshaw’s neck, Terrance would have gladly done so. Instead, he sat there letting the news story finish and other news stories follow, all the time picturing the policeman in his mind’s eye - The Liar, talking, talking, talking.
Terrance turned off the TV and stared at the blank screen. For the first time since Audrey’s passing he felt the need to be around other people, to share certain thoughts with others. He stood, grabbed his coat and keys and left the house.
He’d never been a big drinker, but there was local where he and Audrey sometimes ate Sunday lunch when they were feeling too lazy to make it themselves.
The place was perhaps a quarter full, a clientele of mostly elderly men, sat talking or watching a football match which played silently on the wall mounted TVs. Terrance took a table next a fruit machine and watched. He zoned his hearing into the conversation of two men stood at the bar. They spoke in Southern Irish accents about a child that needed to be removed from the care of a father, then about an aunt back in Ireland who had cancer.
One of the men was well-dressed with neatly cropped grey hair and a full, ruddy face. The other was smaller and less appealing, with pinched piggy features which reminded Terrance of a cartoon from his childhood.
Without introduction or précis, he spoke loudly towards the pair, breaking their conversation and turning both men towards him. “Terrible business, isn’t it?” he said
The well-dressed man looked back at his drinking partner, then at Terrance. “Hello there, sir. What business is that?”
“This killer in Kent. Murdering all these girls.”
The pair shared another look and a momentary smile passed between them. They picked up their drinks and carried them over to Terrance’s table. The neatly dressed man offered his hand “Lester Donahue,” he said, “Landlord of this here establishment. This is my mate Frampton.”
Terrance introduced himself by his father’s name, Lester, without really knowing why. The two men sat down on the other side of the table.
“So, what of this business, then?” Donahue said. “You’ve a special interest?”
“I’ve been following it, on the news.”
Frampton shook his head, “Another psycho whose daddy didn’t hug him enough. They’ll catch him soon enough.”
Terrance bit his lower lip. This wasn’t how he imagined the conversation. “They won’t. Six dead, all women, all found at the edge of a river. He’s sticking to his method, taunting them. He’s confident.”
Donahue shuffled in his seat, “And what makes you so sure of that?”
“Just now, I was watching the news, listening to the head honcho cop. I have a sense for these things. He’s coming across all confident, but he hasn’t got a clue.”
Frampton said, “Well, let’s hope you’re wrong.”
Terrance didn’t like the way his piggy mouth said the words. He understood that this man thought him unhinged or eccentric and was trying to tease him in front of the landlord.
“He’s already killed again, you know.” Terrance said.
“And how would you know that?” Frampton asked.
“I told you, I have a sense for these things.”
Frampton laughed, “I’ve got a sense for the gee gees, but my tips never come in.”
“I’ll tell you now,” Terrance said, leaning forwards on the table and fixing his stare on Frampton. “There’s a seventh one out there already, he’s already covered her with dirt, he’s standing over her shallow grave, right now, in a wood, somewhere in Kent, and he’s pissing on it, relieving himself on the soil which covers her body.”
The landlord sat back, frowning, “That’s a lots of detail there for someone who’s just following this on the news.”
Terrance felt dizzy and suddenly unsure of why he’d said all that.
A collection of shouts went up from around the bar, some cursing some smiling and cheering. A goal had been scored. Somewhere a glass smashed and a woman cursed.
Frampton and Donahue both stood together and returned to their place at the bar. “Nice talking to you, Terrance.” Donahue said over his shoulder, “See you again soon.”
The morning news was dominated by the discovery of another body, this time beside the River Teise. The reporter spoke directly to camera telling how dog walkers had come across the woman in a shallow grave, next to the river. Behind the reporter, a white tent could be seen enclosing the location of the body. Police and forensics officers milled around outside, their ghost white body suits matching the canvas of the temporary shelter.
Terrance felt an unpleasant sick sensation rising in his chest. He stood up from the sofa and moved closer to the TV. Something had shifted on the screen, like a filter had been applied so that he could see both the live scene of the reporter and the police, but also something laid across it, a mix of black and green and grey shapes. It represented the same place, but at nigh time, with all the paraphernalia of a crime scene removed. In this alternate version, s silhouetted figure stood next to the river, looking out at the water.
Suddenly aware of holding his breath, Terrance released a lung-full of air. At the same moment, the silhouette turned and looked towards the camera. Terrance saw him through the body of the reporter, as if he were there and not there all at the same time.
The figure carried a spade in one hand. It continued towards the camera, a growing blot of darkness on the TV screen. Terrance could almost see a face, but not quite. Each time he thought it would come into focus, the gauzy arrangement of light and dark pixels would scramble and reassemble into some new formation. The figure was in front of the reporter now, the face almost filling the screen. His head tilted, then straightened.
Terrance reached out a hand, his fingertips gently brushing the screen. He felt no fear or apprehension. The presence of the dark figure was exhilarating, a source of wonder to him. He was sure the figure was about to speak to him, to tell him some vital piece of information, when the spell was broken.
The scene next to the river was suddenly replaced by a newsreader sitting behind a desk in a brightly lit studio, promising more updates as soon as possible.
The idea for the tape came when he was clearing out Audrey’s things. There were drawers in the garage where she kept nick nacks and assorted memorabilia from her childhood and teenage years - diaries, pendants, Polaroid photographs. These all went into the boxes for storage, but when he came to her old flat top cassette player and blank TDK tapes still in the cellophane wrappers, he mused on how he might put them to good use.
Before bringing the player through to the dining room he cleaned the table and surrounding area. Terrance spent time on this, tidying away papers and wiping down all the surfaces. Then he bathed himself, put on a pair of leather driving gloves and wiped the player and tapes thoroughly. When he was finally ready, he laid them out on the table, sat down and pressed play/record.
“Hello Dennis, how are you? It’s a fine thing to be speaking to you at last. I suppose you’re wondering what I’m up to and what I’ve got planned next. Well, I’m enjoying myself too much to worry about you. The women aren’t that difficult to pick up, you see. I offer to buy them a drink, or pull up beside them in the car and they just come along. I’m a pretty boy, Dennis, the type they like, silly cows. When they come for a ride with me they get more than they bargained for.”
When he’d begun, Terrance had no intention of changing the way he spoke, yet he noticed now that he’d adopted a convincing Mancunian accent for the recording. Thoughts like this seemed to arrive fully formed now, like gifts sent in the post. The day before, he’d fallen asleep on the sofa and woken up with a stinging pain on the inside of his cheek, his mouth filled with blood. Carefully, he retrieved the piece of jagged metal from inside and washed it off in the sink. A fish hook. Terrance did own fish hooks which he kept in the garage, the legacy of a short lived interest in the sport a decade previous, but he didn’t remember seeing them recently. Had he retrieved one in his sleep and placed it there himself?
He warmed to his Mancunian brogue now, “In case you’re wondering, this is no trick, Dennis. I’m sure you’ve had letters from all the nutters pretending to be me. But I’ll bet none of them can tell you what’s inside their mouths, can they? You haven’t released that to anyone, that’s a secret that only you and I know. Fish hooks, my man. Lovely big fish hooks are my final present for the girlies, just so everyone knows that they were caught by the Riverman. Bye bye Dennis. Sleep well tonight, and look forward to more fishies popping up by the rivers soon. You keep clearing up my mess and I’ll keep making it. Sounds like a deal to me.”
He pressed ‘stop’ on the recorder, took out the tape and placed it into the plastic case.
End of Part 1 of 2