Slow Poison - Chapter Seven
Stonehouse, December 15th
The temperature was well below zero. No cards had been sent. The Sun and the rest had broadcast the news plainly enough in their two inch type. Even so, Becky was surprised to see so many people at the graveside; notebooks and Nikons prying into private grief, forming an outer ring of strangers who had no place there. There were mates in camphor scented suits and neighbours wives in fifties hats. The freezing wind from the canal cast a spell of silence over the mourners. They conversed in muffled whispers.
The morning was so cold that tears hurt. Tragedy hung about the churchyard. The shutter release and flashguns the press could not resist punctuated the quiet eulogy spoken by the vicar. Such poignant grief was good copy.
Wreaths covered the ground with petals, cards and tributes; “To a solid scrum-half - your mates at S.R.C.” “To Fred, sadly missed - Janet and Glyn.” To our beloved husband and Daddy - Rebecca and Sarah.” Among the many tributes and trite phrases lay a plain white card, tied to a small bunch of tulips. No message, just the one word, handwritten; “MUFFIN.”
The ground in the churchyard was frozen hard. Once the frost set in amongst the tombs it took great effort to reach the required depth What had been saturated soil in spring and autumn, irrigated with canal water, was now a solid six feet of frozen earth. The gravedigger waited at a respectful distance from the large group of mourners. He blew into his hands, a roll-up dangling from his blue lips.
“...as we commit his soul to the grave.”
Tears rolled painfully down Becky’s red and chapped cheeks, rolled down Sarah’s pale face from rose-rimmed eyes, rolled into the frozen earth. Janet clung to Glyn and wept. Another tattoo of shutters and flashes rattled out, drowning the salt tang still of the place. Becky turned to look at the insipid sepia stone of the bell tower, with its twisted demons, tongues lolling from their slavering mouths. A single bell sounded out a tuneless four-beat leaden drone, cracked and as cold as death itself.
Saint Cyr’s, where paths once strewn with confetti witnessed Fred and Becky emerging man and wife, was today a gaunt cheerless place. The reception had been a loud and beery affair in the anteroom of The Ship. Becky had not danced, she had not joined in with the gin and tonics, she was afraid for the baby. She was very pregnant when they had married. Three months at least with the baby due in March.
Fred had taken her to the Art College Christmas Party. They danced all night to The Ravens. He was so warm and friendly and fun to be with.
“You can’t go back to Cheltenham tonight. Not on that scooter. Come on back to our place. There’s plenty of room.”
His eyes were wide and open, a child inside a man’s skin. She had thought his offer so innocent, so well-intentioned. She was a good girl.
They made love in his bed to the roar of the goods trains. He warmed her gently with his kisses and in the stagnant air of his room, he had slipped her smoky, dance-damp dress over her head, had unclasped her bra, fondling her nipples, hardened by the night chill of the room. She had gasped at the weight of him, had not been prepared for that. His coarse body hair raked her glowing skin. He rubbed her moistness with the flat of his big hand through the nylon of her panty.
“Oh, Fred! I’ve never done this with anyone before.”
Her throat tightened with apprehension and then with ecstasy, with his fingers inside her, his tongue inside her mouth. Her hands hovered lightly above his shoulders, brushing hair, afraid of the touch, afraid of the heat. Then he entered her, pushing himself slowly, allowing her to accept him, sigh by sigh. Fully inside her, he lifted her lightly with his thrusting, groaning deeply with pleasure. Slowly they came, climaxing quietly, as though others were witness, as though others might hear, cups against the wall. There were no words. Long kisses replaced them. No words, no light. It was then, after the college dance that she conceived the child. With his release, her future changed. Marriage and motherhood were sudden realities. In the curve of him, his bulk against her, she was overwhelmed with a sense of wellbeing. She could feel his pulse throbbing in the flaccid penis nestling in the cleft of her buttocks. She smiled in the darkness. She was a woman. How good she felt. So warm and wanted. She did not wake him with her gentle sobbing. He was used to the trains.
The baby, the reason for their marriage, was miscarried. In pain and sadness, with the winds of April whining outside, Fred sat in the kitchen of the council house, unable to bear her cries. An ambulance arrived at last to take Becky away. “For her own good, Mister Farthing.” the doctor had said. The next that Fred saw of Becky was at the other side of a bunch of flowers, and there were still no words to ease her sorrow. Within a few days, Becky was back in their house, the foundation stone of their union gone, flushed away. Her heart sank as she opened the door on the shabby, neglected house. It was within these walls that they would need to build on the fragile boards of quiet passion, discover the core of each other, fall in love.
Becky did not search out her abandoned studies. She was content in her sadness to play house. Her light touch of order transformed the drab house into a neat and habitable concrete shell.
Fred finished his course in early June and slipped into a routine of eight to six on the factory floor, oxy-acetylene flares lighting up his face. They took their holiday, their belated honeymoon, under tropical Benidorm skies. Scotland aside, Becky had never been abroad. Weston aside, Fred had never been on holiday. But now, they had found the perfect spot for two lovers to fall into love. They shared their days under the burning sun and their nights under the festival fireworks, and they whirled through a blur of bumper cars, Sangria and raffia hats. The last night of their honeymoon found them a little in love.
After a year of sparks and welds, they moved from the council house to the other side of the railway crossing. Fred, with his steady job, had no difficulty in arranging a mortgage for the semi-detatched house in Little Australia. Starting from scratch. New walls inside and out. Becky filled her day once more with moving the furniture they owned around the rooms, until she was satisfied with the order of things
She was pregnant when Fred came home, sullen and drunk, at four on a Tuesday, eleven months after they had moved in. He slumped into the armchair without a word.
“Fred? What is it?”
“What’s the matter with you? You’re home so early?”
“Fuckin’ redundant they made me. Fuckin’ redundant!”
He never swore during the day.
“What do you mean?”
“Fuckin’ redundant, aint I?”
“But, you’re one of their best workers.”
“Not any more.”
“You haven’t been fighting, have you?”
Fred sank further into the armchair as she sat on the arm, idly fondling his hair. He smelled of oil and steel filings. He pulled away from her.
“I’m sorry, love. I didn’t mean to be a bastard. It’s been a fuckin’ lousy day.”
“What do you mean about being laid off?”
“It’s not just me. It’s the whole bloody shop.”
“When? You never said anything.”
“Yeah. Next bloody Monday!”
And before she knew it, there he was, around the house, on the dole. His severance pay covered the mortgage for a while, so there was little to claim from the state. Becky, with her hormonal changes, had enough to cope with. The baby was due at the end of August, and her nerves were already resonating with the reasons for their marriage, those thoughts rushing to the top of the pile to taunt her.
Fred did not lie idle. He searched all the wanted ads. At times Becky could not bear to watch him poring over the small print, sprawled across the floor as he did, and she would send him out to the library. But one of his discarded papers caught her attention before she crumpled it into a tight ball. A phone call set up the interview. She didn’t show yet. At ten weeks, her slight figure was still trim. She summoned all her powers of concentration, filed away the clamouring thoughts, as she brushed her hair and dusted her eyelids with pale green shadow. Clear-headed and calm, she made her way toward the High Street. Her quiet charm and unfinished studies were enough to land her the job. Fred was furious.
“You’re bloody pregnant, woman! Ring them up and tell them you can’t do it!”
“I will not, Fred Farthing! Be sensible. We need the money!”
“I’ll find something. Just give it time.”
“Look at me. I’m not even showing yet. I can do it for a bit. It’s not exactly heavy work.”
“I’m doing it, Fred. I’m sorry.”
She spoke so quietly that Fred knew that further argument was futile. He stormed out of the house, slamming her behind him, heading for the pub. He couldn’t bring himself to spend the money on a pint. He knew just how they were fixed. Becky was drying her hair when he returned. He encircled her with his big arms and kissed her damp neck. Her hair smelled of Breck.
“I’m sorry, love.” he whispered, “I think you’re great for doing this. I can’t help feeling bad.”
“It’s all right, Fred. I know it’s not your fault.”
Becky was glad to get out of the house again. She had almost forgotten about the rest of the world. Bellamy and the Son were situated in the High Street, so she could easily walk the half-mile from Little Australia. She had the rest of the spring and some of the summer before her and the work suited her. Alan Bellamy had missed Fred at school by a few years, was nearer Becky’s age, but knew of him, had puzzled, like many, of the two of them together. Fred never came into their conversations, the animated discussions about modern architecture as they sped from village to village in the comfort of the Range Rover. Silence never entered into it. Alan might have fallen had Becky not revealed so candidly her pregnancy, He might have brought the Rover to a halt one afternoon in spring green lay-bys of Cranham Wood, might have allowed a manicured finger to brush at cashmere, follow nylon, trace tweed, might have allowed the heady scent of her to meet his lips half way in kisses he so desired. He let his passion dissipate in the tapping of beams and scratching at plaster that was their task. If she noticed his other interests, she never allowed it to show. His eyes were blue and pale, caught between sandy hair and a hounds-tooth jacket. Her marriage was not the problem. How could he compete with those dark eyes.
“No problems at all, Mrs. Farthing.”
Doctor May removed the stethoscope from her stomach and wrote something on Becky’s medical record sheet.
“But after the miscarriage, aren’t I more susceptible?”
“Is there a history of miscarriage in the family?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Then we need not worry unduly. I think we can regard each pregnancy as a new beginning. You’re far enough along, my dear, for me to be reasonably sure.”
Becky left the surgery in a bright mood. She was full of the news, but felt shy of sharing it with the secretary at Bellamy” and to tell Alan would not be fitting. Fred took the wind out of her sails with his own surprise.
“You’ve got an interview?”
“Better than that! I’ve got a job!”
“Oh Fred, that’s wonderful! When do you begin?”
“Well, I’ve known about it for a week or two. Glyn drove me up last Thursday, and then this came today.”
Fred waved a letter under her nose.
“Oh, Fred...that’s so far away.”
“No,” he went on shakily, “that was where I went for the interview.”
“So where is the job?”
“The job’s in Saudi.”
The foetus turned a full circle inside her, stretching every muscle.
“Fred. Are you serious?”
“They’ve sent me a contract.”
Becky grabbed at the letter and read it. As she did, her pulse rate increased and she leaned on the sideboard for support. She couldn’t rely on Fred.
“You’ve signed it! This is a copy! Fred, how could you?”
“I had to, love.”
“There’s no need to go so far away.”
“There’s nothing round here. I’m going crazy.”
“Have you thought for one moment about me? What about me?”
“I’m doing it for you.” he mumbled.
“What will happen to me? When are you supposed to be going?”
“The end of August.”
“The end of August? That’s when the baby’s due, Fred.”
“But you shouldn’t have to work anyway.”
“But you won’t even bloody be here!”
Becky collapsed onto the settee, sobbing into her hands. Fred tried to comfort her, but she pushed him away. Fred left for the pub. This time he would buy the round. He was a man. How good he felt; warm and wanted. She would not bother him with her sobbing. She was used to the pain.
Becky could not watch as he went. The anger had gone, but her body was pushing the baby closer to the edge and she could not face the pain of watching him leave, of looking for tears in those eyes, the feeling of weightlessness she sensed would come. Let the baby come and fill her days and nights, the empty space.
The child had been worth the pain. Vague remembrances of Sixth Form La Salle scratched at the back of her mind, but beyond the simple breathing exercises, she was once again unprepared for the immensity of the fact. When her mind let go and her body took over, events moved swiftly. She would remember the dilation, the soft head pushing hard at the taut ring of her vagina, stretching her to the limits, and then the sudden release, almost a bowel movement, and there was the tiny bloody baby, little fingers already grasping at the harsh reality of the breathing world. Soon she would be Sarah Louise, but for the first few moments she was completely unique and nameless.
Sarah Louise was a lovely baby, with a feathery dusting of dark hair, and pretty things; little toes and fingers, all dimples and creases, and Fred’s eyes. Unmistakably Fred’s eyes. Deep and dark and brown they were. And so knowing. When Becky had first held Sarah Louise, she had looked into those eyes. Old eyes. So wise. As though this strange baby wanted to share the secrets of the womb with her. But without the power of speech to explain, the vast store of knowledge would fade and slip away and when the words were there, in the years ahead, all of the wonderful places would become so many lost map references, the secrets deep within those eyes.
Tentative snowflakes circled down like late sycamore seeds, dislodged from the overhanging branches. The cracked iron bell chimed on. The coffin lowered into the ground was seen through tears and Nikon lenses, through unbelieving and dispassionate eyes, through the whirling ash of the first snow.
The phone rang. Outside, the day was dark and the old year was rapidly running out. Within that year of loneliness and normality was the worst week of Becky’s existence. She looked at the time. Not yet six. Sarah was playing quietly in her room. The phone rang again. There had been so many calls. So much to arrange and so many questions to answer.
“Is Rebecca there?”
A shudder. No one called her Rebecca.
“Who is this?”
Silence. A pause.
“Is Rebecca there?”
Becky listened for one more heartbeat.
“Is Sarah still in her room, Rebecca?”
Becky slammed down the receiver and raced up the stairs. She threw open the door to Sarah’s room.
“Mummy, look at this!”
Sarah held up a little paper doll she had snipped out of an old copy of Twinkle. She sat amid the scraps of paper she had cut out from the printed clothes she hooked over the ragged shoulders of the doll.
“Daddy will like her, won’t he, Mummy?”
Becky hugged the girl to her, bending paper limbs, weeping on to the scraps.
The phone rang again. Becky’s heartbeat drowned out the sound.
“It’s the phone, Mummy. I’ll get it. It might be Daddy.”
Before Becky could protest, Sarah had broken free and was down the stairs. Becky listened from the sanctuary of the bedroom. Sarah was silent for long stretches. Downstairs Becky watched her from the hall, afraid to go in. Sarah was nodding her head wordlessly, with a serious look upon her face. Becky suddenly summoned up her courage and ran to Sarah, wresting the phone from her grip. Sarah screamed out and Becky shouted at her to be quiet.
“Sarah? Are you still there?”
“Oh, god, it’s you, Jan.”
“I’m sorry, love. What’s wrong?”
“It’s okay. Nothing.”
“Why wouldn’t Sarah answer me?”
“She doesn’t understand that you can’t see her. She was nodding and shaking her head.”
“Love, it’s about tomorrow. Will you change you mind and come over. We don’t like to think of you being on your own.”
Christmas Day. Tidings of Comfort. And Joy.
“I don’t think so, Janet...I don’t know if I’m ready for it.”
“Shall we drop in then? For a few minutes...we’ve got some bits and bobs for Sarah.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow, Jan...thanks for asking...I don’t know.”
Becky was still shaking from the other call. Rebecca. No one called her Rebecca.
The doorbell. Becky went cold. Rigid. The bell again.
“Mummy, there’s someone at the door. I’ll go.”
A blue shape behind the frosted glass. Not another policeman. No more questions. Please. Not that. The jangle of the security chain. The door open to the night.
“Special delivery. Will you sign.”
Becky signed a crumpled form.
“Cheers! Happy Christmas..!”
She stood in the open doorway clutching the parcel, all holly, robins and snow. The parcel was small, but heavy. As the Post Office van drove away, Becky closed the door and carried the parcel through into the front room. Sarah had been sitting pouting, upset at Becky’s anger. She brightened up at the sight of the parcel.
“Can we open it now?”
“Tomorrow. We’ll open it with all the other things, tomorrow.”
Becky placed the parcel under the small Christmas tree Glyn had brought them.
“Can we put the lights on now, Mummy?”
Becky reached behind the tree and plugged the lights in. Sarah stood before the tree as if transfixed. Her face lit up with the rainbow lights, little tears sparkling on her cheeks.
“I wish Daddy would come home.”
Becky walked over to the phone and took the receiver off the hook.
“Severnsound News brought to you every hour, on the hour. The news headlines at seven o’clock on this chillsome run up to Chrissy Eve. Major denies knowledge of Iranian arms deal. Bird to sever connections with the BBC. The killer of a local man sentenced today in Amsterdam. Your news reader, John Lusty.”
Den had felt sick during the hearing. His father had brought him a suit to ‘smarten you up, you little scruff!’, but the trademark crop put him along with all the other troublemakers. Most of them had long been shipped back to face the tunes of English justice. Den and the other three - Kev, Mart and Ritchie - were still there, waiting out their time in the Biljmer Bajes. The Bajes were a group of tall white towers on the outskirts of Amsterdam, bordered by the routes to freedom; the railway lines, the cycle paths and the motorways to Arnhem and beyond. The view from the window; other towers, prison blocks with high rents, where crime raged through the lift shafts, along the balconies and in the underground car parks. Den and the others were safer in the Bajes.
Koning had done his utmost to bring justice down on the side of the four, but there was a bad smell in the Amsterdam air. Examples had to be made. The hoodlums must be taught a chastening lesson.
The reconstruction had proved nothing new. The confusion that had reigned, the animosity and nervousness of The Victoria staff had coloured the absolute truth. They remembered what they thought they had seen, reported what they were sure they had heard. The jabs of the blade in the cramped stairwell, the jagged wound caused by a drunken hand, the initials stamped into the handle, undisputed evidence. And they HAD been drunk, the four, The Six, the mob at large. Forensically, statistically, unequivocally pissed.
Den protested his innocence to the last, but the evidence against him was overwhelming. Mister O’Rourke watched Den in exasperation as the sentences were passed. He had seen it coming.
“Kevin McClure, Martin Eavis Roberts and Joseph William Pearce, you are hereby sentenced to three years confinement in one of Her Majesty’s prisons for your part in this despicable crime.” The magistrate enunciated his English carefully, savouring each word. The three stood with their cropped heads bowed, numbed to the bone.
“Dennis Michael O’Rourke - your part in this vile and utterly unprovoked attack is obvious. The evidence has been carefully evaluated and the testimony of the eyewitnesses leaves this court in no doubt of your part in the killing of an innocent man. I therefore sentence you to the maximum sentence of eight years, to be carried out in one of Her Majesty’s prisons.”
Koning looked deflated. He had held out no hope for an acquittal, there were no possible grounds, but these sentences would do his reputation little good. Mister O’Rourke sat in the visitors” gallery with his head in his hands. Den was not quite sure if he had heard the judge correctly.
“I DIDN’T FUCKIN DO IT. I DIDN’T! ON MARY’S SACRED HEART I SWEAR I DIDN’T. DAD, TELL ’EM! I DIDN’T FUCKIN DO IT.”
Den was carried screaming from the courtroom, Doc Martens scuffing the marble tiles, his protestations echoing through the high corridors that led to the holding cells.
The three were taken to Scheveningen. Den was taken to Veenhuizen. Private cells. One each. ‘Bloody Butlin’s’ Mart muttered as Christmas began. They accepted grudgingly their part in Den’s crime. As Den began his new year, he sat in his cell, withdrawn and morose. He was, after all, completely innocent.