By Clifford Thurlow
- 1126 reads
Poppy was dressed in red like Father Christmas. A Christmas gift. He put his arm around her small waist.
'Don't go, Simon.'
'I have to,' he said.
The lift doors opened and they stepped into the amber lights of the car park. The sound of her heels echoed across the cement floor. She pulled at his arm.
'It's only a week.'
'You should have told her.'
'I will. I promise.'
'You keep putting it off.'
She had turned her head to one side and looked like a sixth former as she gazed up at him. He wanted to make love to her. Now. Under the bleak lights. Against the wall. On the cement floor. He kissed her and she sighed.
'Are you going to be all right?' she asked
'I didn't have that much.' He blew into his cupped palms and inhaled, testing for alcohol.
'You are silly,' she said.
'That's why I'm adorable,' he told her, and she smiled. Go back to the party. Things will be different in the New Year.'
She held his arm tighter, their shadows stretching over the damp walls. A black Mercedes, shiny in the dull light, was parked in a reserved space, Simon Torrance printed on the ground in white letters. It gave him a small thrill every time he saw it. He pressed the remote, placed his briefcase on the back seat.
She fell into his arms. 'You'd better. I love you, Simon. I really love you.'
Her body was thin, flexible as a toy. Touching her was painful. 'Poppy, you mean more to mean than…than life,' he said.
'You are sure, Simon?'
'Then you must tell her,' she said firmly. Her solemnity gave him a sense that he'd been sleepwalking and was suddenly awake.
'I love you,' he said.
She remained still, the party glaze leaving her features.
'You've never said that before.'
They stared at each other, eyes mapping a route into the future. He climbed into the car, turned the ignition and lowered the window. She rubbed her nose against his nose and he pulled away. He gave two toots on the horn, smiling at this adolescent gesture as the garage doors opened and drew him into the night. It had just gone eight-thirty and he had more than an hour's drive before he reached home. He was going to be late. Again. They'd argue. Again. He hated Christmas. He hated the eight days he was going to be away from Poppy.
At least the road through East London was clear. Everyone was at home. The engine purred like a cat, like Poppy after they made love. He reached Blackwall Tunnel in ten minutes. As the earth swallowed him up and disgorged him on the other side of the river he felt as if something inside him was crossing over. Life is either behind you or before you. This was his chance. He watched the needle climb to ninety on the motorway and made himself slow down when he turned off. An hour from London and he was hammering through country lanes that coiled over low rolling hills. Mist clung to the treetops like the smoke that had drifted from the factories at the end of the terrace where he'd lived as a boy. His mobile rang. It was nine-thirty. As punctual as the pips on Big Ben.
'Where are you?'
'On the road, Susan.'
'It's Christmas. You're always late.'
'It's always ten minutes, or thirty minutes, or fifty minutes. You don't want to come home, do you?'
'Drip, drip, drip.'
'Do you? she insisted.
'This is the Chinese Water Torture.'
'Why didn't you call?'
He sighed. His eyes were tired. It had been a long day, a long week, a long hard struggle before his name was printed on the garage floor.
'Are you listening to me?'
'I'm sorry?' he replied.
'Shall I wait for you?'
'If you want.'
'What do you want?' She was manic again.
'Whatever you like. I don't care.'
I don't care.
His voice was deep and slow like a recording. There was a flash before his eyes. He heard a soft thud and everything became blurred. He jammed on the brakes. He pulled the wheel one way, then the other, and the car juddered to a halt. The phone had shot from his grasp. He killed the engine. There was silence so total the sudden sound of Susan's voice seemed to come from underground.
'Simon. What's happened? Simon, are you all right?'
He retrieved the machine from the floor, stared at it for a moment, and switched it off. He was shaking and had to take deep breaths before he was able to get out of the car. He saw a bicycle behind him. The wheel was spinning and he watched it turn interminably until it stopped.
Then he saw the body. It was face down on the grass verge, rolled up like someone asleep. He turned the body over. It was a young boy, a teenager. He took his pulse, listened for a heartbeat.
Simon stood. He cupped his hands and smelled his breath. A shiver ran through him. He looked up the road and down the road. There was nothing. No one. The moon had broken through the mist, lighting the scene, leaving everything beyond in darkness. He blew into his palms once more. How much had he had? Two glasses of wine. Three maybe? The champagne Poppy had given him. 'Let old acquaintance be forgot,' she'd said, and they'd looked into each other's eyes as they drank their glasses dry. A picture of her in the red dress standing in the car park came into his mind and the tears froze on his cheeks.
He checked the front of his car. He licked his fingers and ran them over the rubber bumper. There wasn't a mark. He glanced at the still body of the boy. His thoughts were tumbling about like dice inside a box. What was the right thing to do? He knew what was right and he knew what he was doing was wrong. But Poppy was there with him and together they opened the boot of the car and together they picked up the boy and laid him gently inside. He was surprisingly light. Simon glanced at his watch: 9.35.
He opened the glove compartment and a parcel wrapped in green paper fell out. He'd forgotten to give it to her and cursed as he shoved the package in his overcoat pocket. He put on his gloves before removing the bicycle from the side of the road. He found a hollow in the woods, separated the ferns and hid the bicycle below the dead leaves. As he stepped back on the road he noticed a red reflector glinting in the moonlight. He slipped it into the boy's pocket and closed the boot of the car. The road was empty, silent, the mist hovering in patches. It was 9.40.
Simon and Susan lived at Blackley Lodge, a house approached through an entrance guarded by two crumbling lions that perched on low sturdy columns. He slowed to a halt at the end of the drive. The fairy lights around the door were in deference to Christmas and he wondered why Susan bothered. He rolled forward, opening the garage with the remote. The lights came on and his eyes were drawn to the red tricycle parked permanently in the corner, a reminder of everything that had gone.
When he stepped out of the car, he glanced at the boot as if uncertain what he had done, what he was going to do. He had always planned, been rational, cautious. It had taken almost twenty years to get on the board. He'd got what he'd wanted. Now, he wanted something else. Was there anything wrong in that?
He locked the garage and stood on the gravel path looking up at the lights. Susan was in bed, checking her stocks in the Financial Times, finding solace in the wealth her father had left her. Was that why he'd married her? As he reached for the house keys, his hand fell on the parcel in his coat pocket and he pushed it down deeper as if burying a secret. He stared up into the black night. It was growing colder.
His shoes were muddy. He left them on the doormat. He examined his clothes in the living room for stains. There was nothing. He paused and his eyes fell on the display of photographs below the mirror, Jamie aged one and two and three, running, smiling, riding the red tricycle. Ten years had gone by leaving nothing. There was blood on his hands and he went through to the kitchen to wash them. He took a deep breath before climbing the stairs.
Susan held a tumbler of scotch and picked up the cigarette burning in the ashtray. He watched her lips pucker, drawing in smoke.
'What do you want?' she demanded.
'I just came to say hello,' he replied.
'Say whatever you want. What does it matter.' She glanced down and registered his lack of shoes as if she were observing something faintly obscene.
'Susan, come on. Let's not get into an argument.'
'You put the phone down on me.'
'I didn't. It slipped out of my hand.'
'You're a bastard, Simon. You've always been a bastard, an unkind, uncaring, selfish...'
'Horrible, horrible man.'
He felt his shoulders sagging. 'It cuts out sometimes,' he explained. 'I'm sorry. Please don't let's argue.'
She copied his voice. 'Please don't let's argue. I'm much too delicate. I'm much too special. Was it fun?'
'It was just the office party.'
'Who was there?' She inhaled deeply, her eyes assessing him.
'Julian, Tim Rees, Mrs Goldsworthy,' he paused. 'The girls at reception.'
'I don't know, Susan. I'm forty-five years old. It's ten o'clock. I'm too old for this.'
He was gripping his fists to control himself. Susan sipped her drink, eyes bright with odium. It was her father who had brought him into the company and his slow rise through the ranks was her success, not his. She folded her hands together. They were getting old in spite of all the creams and treatments.
'Look, I'm a little later than I expected,' he said. 'I didn't put the phone down. It just cuts out.'
'I thought it slipped out of your hand.' He didn't reply and she continued: 'Simon, you don't look well. Did you have too much to drink?'
'Yes. No. No, I'm okay. It's been a long week.'
'Yes, it has. It has been a long week. And last week was a long week. Weeks should have only five days. Not seven. They'd be shorter. And you wouldn't have to spend those tiresome weekends with me?'
She lifted the newspaper and started reading. 'BP's down,' she said.
Simon returned to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator but his stomach was in knots and he couldn't eat. He poured himself a brandy and sat staring at the clock. It had just gone ten. He was still sitting there at midnight. The stairs creaked like old bones as he made his way back to the bedroom. Susan was sleeping. He could see the rise and fall of her body in the hall light. He shut the door and went back downstairs. He put on a pair of Wellington boots and found a torch. He collected the spade from the tool shed and shoved a black plastic bag in his pocket. Outside the fence that marked the end of the garden was a stretch of National Trust woods that climbed the hills and ambled into miles of unspoiled countryside. No one used the land adjacent to the garden and he felt safe digging a hole close to his property, the closer, he thought, the better.
The earth was frozen and it took almost an hour to dig a shallow grave. He was damp with sweat, but wasn't tired, not in the normal sense, rather he felt the rush of adrenaline that comes from having made a decision and then acting upon it. When the hole was deep enough, he gathered the boy from the boot of the car and shouldered him in a fireman's carry back up the garden. As he pulled the plastic sack over his head the knots in his stomach untangled and he was sick. The sour smell of chemicals made him feel faint and he drew deep on the cold night air. He thought about Poppy to steady himself.
In a short time he'd filled the hole and covered the area with dried ferns. His breath made flowers of mist that hung over the grave. The landscape was milky white. He stood there wondering what to do next. It had been an accident, not his fault. He should have gone to the police but he hadn't been thinking straight when he put the body in the boot of the car and, having done so, he had to complete what he had done, cover his tracks. We get one life, one chance. To go wrong and not change course can truly be described as going wrong. It would be madness.
'Forgive us Lord, for we know not what to do.'
He whispered the prayer then returned to the garage. He took his briefcase from the car and locked up.
He awoke to the sound of a tree branch brushing against the window and thought for a moment he was in the hotel room in Paris, a whole weekend before them. His throat was dry and his eyes felt raw. He pulled the curtains back. It was his own tree. He was in his own room. Their room. In Susan's house.
Bare trees and rolling meadow stretched to the horizon, a great emptiness that made him feel like a lone traveller on an unending journey. He wanted to call Poppy, hear her voice. Everything that had happened from the moment he'd left the car park came flooding into his mind like a wave surging from the sea, sweeping everything before it to oblivion.
He took a deep breath. He would get through this. He didn't care about the money. The big house. He'd leave everything. He only wanted Poppy. They'd get a flat in East London, go to the theatre, have a baby. He thought of Jamie. He would have been thirteen now, at his grandfather's boarding school, home for the holidays. He shook his head. He had to keep his mind clear. Make a plan. He put on his dressing gown and followed the smell of coffee down to the kitchen. He paused at the entrance hall. There was mud on the doormat. His shoes had gone.
The shoes were standing on a sheet of newspaper on a table in the kitchen like an exhibit in a museum. The coffee was bubbling in the glass pot on the stove. A choir sang Silent Night on the radio; wrong time of day, he thought.
'Working late, Simon?' Susan asked.
'Yes, just a...'
'Good morning, darling.'
'...a couple of things. Good morning.'
He kept looking at his shoes and noticed she was looking at him looking at his shoes.
'Sometimes I think you love the office more than me.' She drew on her cigarette aimed a stream of smoke at the ceiling.
He poured coffee and went to refill his wife's cup. She put her hand over it.
'No, no more. I don't want to get too excited.'
'Stop it, Susan.'
'Presents and turkey, the tree full of lights.'
'I'm not in the mood today. Let's try and...'
'Try and be pleasant.'
'Ah, I'm unpleasant now, am I?'
'I didn't say that.'
She glanced around the room, at the shoes, back at Simon. 'Christmas Eve and you're stuck here with this unpleasant woman.'
'Stop it, Susan, stop now. Don't upset yourself.'
'Stop it, Susan, stop now. Don't upset yourself,' she mimicked.
She started crying. It was part of the ritual. They were two actors from the Mousetrap playing the same roles over and over again.
'Don't do this, Susan,' he said.
He stroked her hair and she let him. The carol on the radio had come to an end and the voice entering the room sent a chill down his back.
'This is EKFM from East Kent with a news update. Police today are searching for a thirteen-year-old schoolboy who failed to return home last night. Jonathan Rogers left the home of his grandparents in Wingham at about nine-fifteen...'
He hit the off switch, killing the sound. His hands were trembling. The blood fled from his face.
Susan was staring into his eyes as she crossed the room and turned the radio back on.
'Leave it,' he said.
'I was listening to that.'
She turned up the sound.
'...he makes this journey by bicycle every week. According to Inspector Macquarie, Jonathan was last seen as he left the village in the direction of Staple. Police have begun their search at the homes of Jonathan's schoolfriends. Anyone who has further information, please contact their local police. Quick word now on the weather: bookmakers are giving two to one that it won't be a white Christmas. You're in tune with EKFM...'
'Simon, you've gone white.' Susan paused; there was a faint smile on her thin lips. 'Is it in empathy with Christmas?'
She turned off the radio and went to stand behind the table containing his shoes, staring at him in such a way that he had to look at the shoes in order to look back at her.
'Bit of a hangover?'
She was studying him, judging him, he thought, and he recalled all the times when she'd been out riding how he'd prayed for her to have a fatal fall.
'I'm okay, really,' he said.
'Staple. That's in Goodnestone Park, isn't it?' she asked.
'Is it? I don't know.'
'Yes, Simon, you know it is. It's about ten miles from here.'
'If you know it so well, why are you asking me?'
'I'm only making conversation, darling. It's Christmas Eve,' she reminded him, stepping away from the table again. 'What do you think happened?'
'How should I bloody know?'
'Just idle gossip, dear,' she said. 'That's what couples do. They chat.'
'Accidents happen at this time of year. It always happens.'
'An accident, you think?' she said. 'They didn't say so.'
'It's obvious, isn't it.' He had raised his voice again.
'You're getting excited.'
'I'm not getting excited. You're getting excited,' he said. 'Why don't you take a Valium.'
'Why don't you go to hell.'
She was softly spoken. Authority has no need to raise its voice. She refilled her coffee cup and he felt her eyes on him as he removed his shoes from the table and took them through to the annex where he cleaned them, the mud falling into the deep sink and splashing the sleeves of his dressing gown. Susan appeared behind him and he felt like a child, like her child, as she rolled his sleeves. 'There, that's better,' she said. 'We don't want to clean up one mess by making another, now do we.'
They stared at each other. Ripples broke across Susan's brow in that look she had when they were walking in the country and he was sure the path went one way and she was sure it went the other.
Although it was a large house he always had the feeling that she was just behind him. Even in the garden, picking up leaves and putting them in a plastic bag, he was aware of her staring at him through the window. She had dressed in a black skirt and a red sweater with wide shoulders she didn't know had gone out of style. Susan was fifty, five years his senior, and five years on a woman is like ten years. A prison term. He felt closer to Poppy. Her small slippery body beneath the sheets was like being in touch with the eternal. Poppy in red made him think of Christmas. Susan was another cocktail party among majors and country matrons with conversations like the dialogue in a Noël Coward play. At the end of the garden he stood looking over the fence. He couldn't see the grave. The wind was still bringing dead leaves from the trees, covering his traces, covering everything.
Susan was a dreadful cook. He had always meant to tell her, but what's the point? A woman came in from the village when they had guests and when it was just the two of them they picked at the food and threw most of it away.
He had the gift in green wrapping in his pocket. He carefully removed the label and tossed it on the fire in the living room. The metallic paper heated through and as it burned away the name Poppy hovered ghost like above the flames before disappearing.
A silver frame with a picture of Jamie was lit by the lights on the Christmas tree. He was on his tricycle, aged three, hair streaming behind him, his face determined.
'It was on the news again,' she said, entering the room with a tray.
'What?' He looked back at her. She sounded cheerful.
'The missing boy.'
'He was only thirteen.' She was looking at the photograph of Jamie, making calculations.
'They found his bicycle.'
Simon felt the colour draining from his face. 'What?' he said numbly.
'Hidden, apparently. A hit and run driver. Only he didn't run,' she said. 'He stopped and hid the bicycle in the woods. They're still searching for the boy.'
She lit a cigarette and he wondered if she smoked because he didn't. His hands were trembling. He pushed them in his jacket pockets, finding the gift.
'Simon, what are you doing?'
'This is for you.'
He had produced the green parcel. She weighed it in her palms, studied the wrapping. Could she see the faded area on the paper where he'd removed the label? Of course she could.
'Simon, it's not Christmas,' she said.
'I know, I just thought...'
'I don't know. I just thought...'
What was he thinking? He was thinking about Jamie. He knew what it was like to lose a son. But the accident wasn't his fault. It was a problem that required a solution. That's what you do when you're on the board, solve problems. He poured glasses of wine, his hands shaking still. Susan unwrapped the parcel. Inside was a garnet necklace. She approached the mirror, the stones glistening dully in the firelight. He could see the sense of loss in her reflection.
'I thought you'd like them. It took me ages...'
'And you being so busy with work.' She paused. 'And everything else.'
'I know, but...it's nice. It suits you,' he said.
'Are you sure it's for me?'
He smiled. He went to kiss her. 'Of course, silly...'
'Don't lie to me, Simon,' she snapped. 'I'm not a fool. Whatever else you might think.'
She returned the garnets to the box, gave it back to him and left the room. A log in the grate broke and sparks chased up the chimney like red stars. He looked at Jamie.
He awoke in the middle of the night, his body cold and damp. She wasn't there. He got up and saw through the window that the garage door was open, the pebbles on the drive were shiny in the glare of light.
He found her sitting in the car.
'What are you doing?' he demanded.
'I couldn't sleep.'
He was leaning in the passenger door. She got out the other side and opened the boot.
'Leave me alone. It's my car.'
'Look, what's got into you. Take a Valium, for god sake. Come back to bed.'
She ran her hand through the boot of the car and left. He listened to her footsteps crossing the gravel. He checked the vehicle. His hands were trembling again, as if they knew things he didn't.
The sky was very blue, clear and cold. He took a long time in the shower and watched Susan walking in the garden as he dressed, the smoke from her cigarette like a ghost flitting along behind her. Snow began to strike the window. It fell faster, swirling around her as she made her way back to the house.
He heard a car pulling into the drive. He crossed the bedroom and was shocked to see his own car parked outside the garage. There was a frosting of snow coating the roof and bonnet.
Two men stepped out of their vehicle, one young, in his twenties, the other his own age, a heavy set man who peered at the Mercedes as you would a photograph. They approached the house. He heard the bell chime and finished dressing.
They were in the living room by the time he descended the stairs. He remained outside the door listening.
'I hope you don't mind us bothering you on Christmas Day,' he heard; it was the elder of the two, he thought.
'Absolutely not,' said Susan.
'We're making inquiries at all the houses in the area. A boy's gone missing.'
'I heard on the radio. Jonathan Rogers, wasn't it.'
'That's right. Do you have any children?' It was an odd question, like a trick, Simon thought. He was holding his breath.
'No, we don't,' his wife answered.
'You can imagine the family are, well, frantic, to tell you the truth.'
'Yes, I can imagine.'
'We've found his bicycle,' the man added. 'We just can't find the boy.'
'Buried it in the forest, whoever did it,' said the other man. He had a country accent, more aggressive.
'Yes,' said the other. 'We're looking for any clues, anything at all. Someone must have seen something.'
'Of course,' Susan replied.
'We're looking for drivers who took that route the night of the twenty-third.'
'Through Wingham?' she asked.
'My husband comes that way, from London. He commutes.'
What was she doing? She was feeding him to them. And what was the car doing in the drive?
'What time did he arrive home?' asked the older man.
'Same as always,' she paused. Simon could hear his heart thumping. 'Eight-thirty,' she continued.
'Absolutely. Well, give or take a few minutes.'
'It being Christmas, office parties, that sort of thing,' the man insisted.
'My husband doesn't go in for that sort of thing, Inspector,' Susan told him. 'You must understand, he's a very punctual man. You don't get ahead by getting behind.'
'No, that's right. So he was here at eight-thirty?'
'I remember the clock chiming the half hour, now I come to think of it.'
Simon couldn't understand what was going on and thought it better to go in and face it himself. He took a deep breath and smiled as he entered the room.
'Hello, I saw the car,' he said.
'Ah, Simon, these men are making inquiries about the missing boy,' Susan said.
'Boy?' he queried.
'We heard on the radio,' she added.
'Inspector Macquarie,' said the older policeman, introducing himself. 'This is DC Ryder.'
'The cyclist?' said Simon, as if remembering suddenly. Once more they were in a play. He was acting a part, observing himself.
'That's right, Sir,' said the Inspector. 'We're looking for anyone who passed through Wingham at about half past nine Thursday evening.'
'Terrible thing. I wish I could help. It's the road I take back from London,' he answered. 'I came through Wingham at about eight-fifteen. I must have got here by eight-thirty.
'Eight-thirty? That must be your car outside.' The inspector glanced out the window. The snow was falling heavier.
'Yes,' Simon said.
'Quick, I imagine.'
'Well yes, I suppose.'
'The Superintendent's got the older model. They say this one's a lot better.'
'I really don't know, Inspector.'
'Eight-thirty,' he said again, as if to himself.
'On the dot,' said Simon.
'Well, I'm sorry to have wasted your time.'
'Not at all. I just wish there was something we could do,' Simon said.
'Our hearts go out to the parents,' added Susan. 'It's a terrible thing.' She paused. 'Now, can I get you a nice cup of coffee, a mince pie?'
'No, we should be getting along. You enjoy your Christmas.'
'We will, Inspector. And you. Happy Christmas to you, Constable.'
'Thank you, Madam,' he replied.
She followed the constable from the room. Simon joined the procession through the hall and from the porch watched the two men crunch across the snow to their car. It slipped its way along the drive, turned at the gate, then there was silence.
'You moved the car,' he said.
'Yes, I did.'
She walked out into the drive and took gulps of air. He watched the snow blowing through the trees, settling in white caps on the fence posts, coating the hills in the distance. He followed her.
She opened her hand. In her palm lay the red reflector that he'd put in the boy's pocket. He stared down at it.
'You don't know what to say, do you, Simon?'
'No, I, I...'
'There, you see,' she said. She smiled. 'I'm starving. I'll make lunch. We can have a long walk this afternoon. Like we used to.'
She turned away, then turned back again. From her jacket she produced his mobile phone.
'Here, Simon, you have a call to make.'
He didn't reply.
'Do it now,' she said.
She left and he gazed across the countryside, at the trees at the end of the garden turning white under the falling snow. He remembered how hard the ground had been when he'd buried the boy. It was going to be even harder now.
© 2007 Clifford Thurlow
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