Part 1: A Heart of Darkness

Chapter 1

The day of Ellen’s funeral was a living nightmare – but at least, by the end of it, my existence had a purpose.

A group of people from work were attending the service, travelling directly from the office, but I’d decided to take the whole day off (as well as the rest of the week) and so I made my own way there. When the taxi I was in pulled up outside the church, I saw that a crowd had already congregated. I stared at in disbelief; each and every person assembled there was dressed brightly, presenting a riot of colour in the midst of a typically grey, English winter’s day. My attire, on the other hand, was completely black: black shoes, black socks, black trousers, black shirt, black tie, black jacket, black gloves, black hat, black scarf, black overcoat. Even my underwear was black.

For a moment I didn’t know what to do; part of me wanted to ask the taxi driver to turn around and take me straight back home. But then I noticed Joan, my manager, emerge from the gathered host and hurry over toward the taxi (despite being close to retirement she was still fairly spry). I closed my eyes and groaned inwardly, but I knew it was too late to try and escape now, so I paid and got out.

“Why, look at yoursen, Tim!” Joan exclaimed in her heavy Yorkshire accent, laughing. She was wearing a smart sunflower-yellow suit with a fancy broad-brimmed pink hat, and would not have looked out of place at Ascot. “Didn’ yer get t’ message? I wa’ sure I’d told everyun at t’ office what were coming that ‘er mum asked for folk no’ to wear black; she thought Ellie would like ’em t’ dress colourful, like. But then, yer always wear black, don’ yer? So I don’ think anyun’ll mind!”

I wondered how Ellen’s family, whom I had not previously met, would know that I habitually wear black, and therefore not take offence at my disregarding the request not to come dressed in it. I also found it ironic that Joan’s assertion that no-one would mind was falsified by my own reaction as, if I’d known this had been asked, I wouldn’t have worn a single stitch of black, and was horrified that I was, instead, covered in it from top to toe. I’d have rather spent my last penny buying a whole new wardrobe (and I’m none too fond of shopping for clothes at the best of times), than have done anything to upset Ellen or her family.

“Yer no’ lookin’ too grand,” Joan commented as we approached the church.

“No,” I replied, “I’m not feeling too great, either. I think I’ll just go straight in and find a seat – I’m not in the mood for conversation.” What I was in the mood for was a cigarette, but I felt it would appear disrespectful to smoke in the church grounds (and my black clothes were already insult enough for one day), so it seemed best to remove myself from temptation and head inside.

“Aye, get in ‘n’ set down – yer don’ wanna be standin’ out ‘ere, catching yer death!”

I cringed at Joan’s choice of words, but nodded my head and weaved my way through the clustered groups. The church was only marginally warmer inside than out, but at least there were fewer people. I walked down the central aisle between the rows of pews, seeking to get as far away from the door, and the possibility that someone else might try to converse with me, as I could.

With my head bowed, lost in thought, I didn’t noticed that I’d almost passed down the whole length of the church; I glanced up and came to a shocked stop as I saw, directly before me, the coffin, resting nonchalantly on a pair of trestles. It was only a footstep away; I could have reached forward and touched it from where I stood. Abruptly my consciousness contracted so that all I was aware of was that innocuous looking box, wherein Ellen’s cold corpse lay.

Until then the reality of Ellen’s death had not hit home. A part of me had held out the tenuous hope that there had been some kind of mistake or misunderstanding, or perhaps the whole thing was a sick joke that had been taken too far. But, alas, it was true; she was no more.

There was a rushing in my head and everything started to go dark. I leaned against the back of the first row of pews and took a seat in the second, then sat bent double, eyelids squeezed shut.

I remembered back to hearing about the death of Ken, one of my brothers, some eighteen months before. I’d been at work, and Terry, another of my brothers, had phoned to give me the sad, bad news. I was left feeling completely numb by the call, and not sure whether to tell anyone or to just carry on working as if nothing had happened. But I realised that the numbness might go, and I might snap, so I got up and went to inform Joan. She told me to go home; I returned to my desk and finished off what I’d been doing. That done, I set my computer to shut down, and then, while waiting for it to turn itself off, fell into a sort of thoughtless reverie. While sitting there, pondering vacantly, word of my bereavement had spread, and I suddenly became aware of a gentle pressure against my arm. I looked round, and there was Ellen, standing by my side, looking upon me with sympathy and concern.

At the time I had been too distant, too empty and lost in myself, to respond. Now, in the presence of her dead body, I wished that I had jumped up and hugged her, had told her how grateful I was for her kindness.

I was drawn back to the present by people bustling about, taking their places, getting ready for the funeral to start. I reluctantly opened my eyes. Along each pew had been strewn programmes for the service, and I picked up the one beside me. On the cover was a black and white photo of Ellen; she was dressed in a white, sleeveless top, and sat casually at a table, smiling into the camera. As I gazed on the picture my eyes misted with water (which is as close as I can ever get to actually crying) and a fog of grief filled my mind, obscuring everything else.

I could not understand why she had committed suicide.

They say that you don’t know what something means to you until it’s gone. I knew that I had found Ellen to be one of the most adorable, caring, joyful and good-humoured people I’d ever met. Just seeing her about the office, hearing her laughter, had filled me with happiness. I knew that I liked and admired her very much, but what I hadn’t realised is that I loved her, and did so deeply; so deeply, perhaps, that I had buried the fact, had hidden it from myself. For what good could have come of it? Only now, when it was too late to do anything about it, did my mind let me know the truth.

My life, for more years than I cared to calculate, had been scarred by periods of depression and despair, and I was firmly in the middle of one such episode now. Over the last few years my world had become a dismal dungeon, and my faith in humanity had been drained to the dregs. But, after Ellen had started working in the office, some of that faith had been restored. She was – had been – to me a bright lamp shining in a dark place. Despite all this, or, more likely, because of it, I hadn’t tried to get close to her, to become her friend. I told myself that we didn’t have much in common, that our interests didn’t match. And she was (unlike me) a very sociable person who had many friends already, so what could I contribute to her life?

My positive perception of Ellen was clearly shared by many others – I looked around and saw the church was packed. The grief was palpable, and barely a moment of the service went by without the sound of a suppressed sob coming from some part of the church. The eulogies were heart-rending; it was clear that during her life she had inspired much love and brought much happiness, but then, by her ending it, she had caused such pain and brought such distress. The world had been a better, more wonderful one whilst she was upon it; now she was dead, it seemed mundane and meaningless.

The funeral lasted for what felt like several life-times. I endured it stoically, barely paying any attention, just copying what those around me where doing – standing when they stood, sitting when they sat, kneeling when they knelt. When it was finally over, I staggered outside, struggling through the throng, desperate to get out into the air and under the sky. It had clouded up during the service, and now a soft rain fell, as if the very heavens wept in tender lamentation.

I quickly put the programme into my largest over-coat pocket for safe-keeping. It was the only image I had of Ellen, and, so far as I was concerned, it was the most precious thing I owned. But I did not hide myself from the rain-drops; the physical sensation of them striking me was a welcome distraction from the dark thoughts that mustered in my head.

I wandered off of church property onto the pavement by the roadside, where I rolled a cigarette and stood smoking. But I didn’t have peace for long; Joan turned up again. “Are yer comin’ for a bevvy?” she asked. “Frank’s about t’ set off, if yer wanna lift.”

“Sure,” I said, desiring nothing so much as to get away from the church, and the mute coffin it contained. But, when we got to the pub, I felt just as uncomfortable there. Every time I caught sight of my reflection in one of the many mirrors hung up around the bar-room I was reminded of the inappropriate hue of my garments. My skin crawled, trying to avoid contact with the offending cloth.

There were around dozen staff members at the funeral, but only five of us – Joan, Frank (from IT), Emma (an admin officer), Milena (the office cleaner) and myself – went on to have a drink, rather than return to work. I, with nothing to say, sat sipping at my pint, until something Emma said caught my attention.

“I’m surprised that Tony wasn’t at the funeral,” she commented. “I thought the pair of them were close.”

“Don’ yer know?” Joan asked in a whisper that was loud enough for the whole pub to hear. “’Er family told him never t’ come; they blame ‘im for Ellie killin’ ‘ersen. ‘E’d moved in wiv ‘er, told ‘er he was gonna divorce ‘is wife – but then ‘e changed ‘is mind, went back t’ ‘is missus!”

“No!” said Emma, shocked. “When did that happen?”

“Couple of months back. She were devastated, as yer can imagine. But no-un realised quite ‘ow badly she took it.” Joan shook her head mournfully. “Such a shame. They ‘ad some ‘istory, yer know – when they were both young; they went tut same school, or some such. She mustta been carrying a torch for ‘im for all those years.”

I was so stunned that I nearly dropped my pint. I carefully put it down, and absorbed this new information. I now had a reason for why Ellen had taken her life; it was because Tony had broken her heart. The feelings of grief and loss that gripped me were suddenly burnt away by an eruption of anger and hatred.

I stood up and, as casually as I could, said, “Thanks everyone, but I’ve got to go.”

“You must be joking, mate!” Frank exclaimed. “You live miles away. Wait up for half an hour and I’ll drop you off.”

“Nah, you’re alright,” I responded. “I could do with the fresh air, and the exercise!”

“Fresh air? Freezing air, more like!” Joan remarked. “Why, ’tis perishing out – ’twill be like goin’ out on Ilkla Moor b’aht ‘at!!”

“I’ll walk quickly, then,” I replied. “See you all later.”

Outside it was dark, and even colder than it had been earlier. The rain had given way to snow, but I didn’t much care; I marched on, defiant. I can’t recall most of the journey, but of one thing I am certain: by the time I reached my front door, I had made a decision.

I was going to kill Tony.

Chapter 2

I woke up the next morning feeling calm and decisive. I had booked the rest of the week off work (it was now Wednesday), originally with the idea of going on a massive three-day binge and well and truly drinking my sorrows away, and then considering, very carefully, whether or not I too should take my own life. This was not the first time that the idea of committing suicide had come to me; that had happened when I was twelve years old, and it had re-occurred many times again since. But I had always in the past persuaded myself that it would be wrong, selfish and cowardly to do so, because it would cause suffering to my family and those people who cared about me. If I was just patient, if I just stoically persevered, nature would eventually do the job for me. I could only justify killing myself if, for whatever reason, my continued existence was itself a cause of suffering to others or would likely become so (if, for example, I started to go insane and thereby became a source of concern for, or danger to, others), or if I had done something utterly disgraceful, that had caused unforgivable unhappiness and distress. Then suicide would be the only honourable course of action left to me. However, Ellen’s suicide had challenged all this; I couldn’t condemn her, accuse her of selfishness or cowardice. And her death had resulted in so much more suffering and anguish than mine ever could – it was laughable to consider the two side by side. If my life ended today, I wondered, how many people would attend my funeral? I estimated about a dozen; my remaining family members and two or three friends. There had been at least twenty times that number at Ellen’s service. So, if Ellen could kill herself, why couldn’t I?

All this was now irrelevant; obviously, once I’d murdered Tony, I’d be guilty of an unforgivable act, and therefore my sense of honour would demand my death. That would tie up all the loose ends; Ellen and I would both be at peace, and the villain would be slain. The whole sorry sequence of events, it seemed to me, would be transformed into a tragedy, and bring a dramatic end to my otherwise humdrum life.

I didn’t think it would be difficult to dispatch Tony. Until a few years previously, I had been a keen martial artist, and had practised a number of different styles for various lengths of time. If I attacked with surprise, I doubted Tony would be able to effectively defend himself against me, and, assuming I could readily knock him unconscious, or otherwise incapacitate him, I’d be able to choke him to death fairly quickly. Things might get complicated if somebody tried to interfere while I was about my task, as I didn’t wish to hurt anyone else, but it would be easy enough to arrange a one-to-one meeting with Tony to discuss some work issue. There was an interview room which would be ideal for the purpose; out of the way, with thick walls, a fire-proof door, and a heavy table which could be used as a barricade.

My planning didn’t get much further than this, as I couldn’t think of a sure-fire method of committing suicide that would ensure I died quickly enough not to be found and revived. I thought of a number of options, but they all left the door open for someone to find my unconscious body and get me to a hospital before I was actually dead. I’d considered suicide many times in the past, and thought I knew how to do the job properly, but I’d always envisioned I’d be able to choose a place and time when I would not be interrupted. I doubted that I’d have that luxury in the office; I didn’t think I’d be able to kill Tony silently or swiftly enough that nobody would notice, even in a sealed interview room. I briefly thought about somehow making my way to the top of the office building to hurl myself from the roof (as the office windows couldn’t be opened), but there was a chance that I’d land on some innocent passer-by. And, even if that didn’t happen, I’d make a god-awful splat on the pavement, which some poor soul would have to scrape up. A final, but far from inconsequential, factor was the distress I would cause to any witnesses; such a horrifying sight I would not wish to inflict on anyone.

So, I decided not to worry about it. The worst case scenario was that I’d get captured by the Police and taken into custody. But even then, I was sure I could find a way to kill myself, starving myself to death if necessary. It might also happen that, while incarcerated, I’d find some other good-for-nothings who deserved to die – such as rapists and child molesters – and I could kill them too. I laughed hysterically at the idea of becoming a mass murderer.

I turned my thoughts away from the future to the present. I had the best part of a week to prepare myself for death, and put my affairs in order, and I decided that the best way to begin would be by tidying and cleaning my home. After popping to the shops to get some supplies, I started on the ground floor, which included the living room, kitchen and bathroom.

Not normally house-proud, I was filled with a strange sense of tranquillity as I mopped and scrubbed, washed and vacuumed. I looked forward, with an odd satisfaction, to leaving behind me an immaculate and uncluttered house. Only occasionally during all this activity did I remember the reasons behind what I was doing; then pain would squeeze my stomach, and grief and anger would battle in my heart.

By the end of the day I was weary, dusty and sweaty. Too tired to cook, I had a sandwich and settled down to listen to some music, have a few cigarettes, and drink a couple of glasses of red wine – and then a couple more.

In an old photo-frame I’d placed the funeral programme bearing on its cover the picture of Ellen. I toasted her, and she smiled statically back at me.

Later, when the bottle was empty and I was good and drunk, I turned out the light. “See you soon,” I said into the darkness, staggered upstairs, and dropped into bed.

* * * * * * * *

I get up.

This is not my bedroom. Or, rather, it’s the bedroom I had when I was a child. But there doesn’t seem anything odd in this, and I go downstairs.

I find myself in my kitchen; from the next room I hear a woman wailing.

“Mum? Are you okay?” I query, opening the door which should lead through to my bathroom, but find instead the utility room of the house I lived in when was a teenager – although it now does, somehow unsurprisingly, contain a bath.

An unkempt woman kneels between the washing machine and the bath-tub. She holds an armful of blood-soaked clothes, over which she weeps.

“Mum?” I repeat, though this woman is obviously not my mother; she’s too short and slim for starters. “Are you okay?”

Ignoring me, she gets to her feet and, in a sudden frenzy, starts to fling the sodden garments into the bath.

I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to leave this crazy woman – whoever she is – to her sorrow. But her pain is distressing to me, and I want to do something to relieve it, so I ask, “Can I help?”

This gets her attention; she turns on me, snarling venomously. “Out, damn spot!” she screams, and hurls an item of clothing into my face. It is a long-sleeved shirt with a collar, and although it’s drenched red, I somehow recognise it. It belongs to Tony.

I recognise the woman also. It’s Ellen.

* * * * * * * *

I woke up, gasping for breath, my heart racing and my skin clammy.

“Just a dream,” I muttered to myself, and repeated this mantra until my breath and heart rate had returned to normal.

My thoughts, however, took a little longer to get back under control. The dream had been very vivid, and just recalling it I felt an urge to duck when the blood-soaked shirt flew towards my head.

The words the nightmare Ellen had shouted at me, “Out, damn spot!”, I recognised as a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; if my memory served me rightly, it’s a line spoken by Macbeth’s wife, after she had persuaded her husband to murder the old king. Once the deed had been done her conscience drove her mad; she believed she had a blood-stain on her hand that could not be washed off – this was the ‘spot’ she wanted ‘out’.

There was an obvious interpretation; I was being warned that if I carried through my plan to kill Tony, I would regret it, and would not be able to live with myself. But I knew this already; I had no desire to ‘live with myself’ even at the present, let alone after taking another human being’s life, and my plan was to commit suicide after I had committed murder. The dream’s message, therefore, was hardly revelatory, and lacked any real insight, which I found surprising in itself, and I wondered if I was missing something, or drawing the wrong conclusion.

Then I decided not to bother thinking about it further; the nightmare had just been a dark fantasy created by my mind. It reflected things going on inside my head, and had no more meaning than that. I shouldn’t read anything into it, nor, indeed, worry about it at all. Considering recent events, and what I was planning to do, it was natural for morbid fantasies to disturb my sleep – even though I don’t usually remember my dreams at all.

I didn’t question my intention to kill Tony. The code of honour I lived by demanded nothing less than his death. Adultery by itself I considered deeply disgraceful and repugnant, but to deceive a lady, lead her on and then abandon her – that, in my book, was pure evil. And for causing such a person as Ellen to kill herself? Death was not punishment enough.

But it would have to do. I may not have been the most forgiving person around, but, every now and then, I could be merciful.

Re-assured, I returned to sleep.

Chapter 3

The next morning, after a judicious lie-in and a cup of coffee, a couple of slices of toast, and a cigarette, I continued with my house-cleaning. With the downstairs already completed, all that remained was the stairs and upper floor, where could be found my bedroom, a spare room and the landing. I thought it best to leave the stairs and landing until last, which left me with a choice of the two rooms. Of these, the spare room would undoubtedly require the greater effort to clean, so this seemed the best place to begin.

I rarely entered my spare room; it was quite small and very cluttered, being full of things that I either no longer needed or for which I’d never found a need in the first place. The room was dusty, and deeply dim as the curtains were drawn and the day outside was depressingly dull. I turned on the light and surveyed the chaos. Against one wall was a bed, covered by a mound of spare linen and clothes that I either didn’t wear any more or which were not mine to start with but had nonetheless ended up in my house. Beside the bed was a small table on which was a fair collection of old electrical items, including a lamp with a tatty shade, a computer keyboard whose ‘e’ and space bar failed to function, a digital alarm clock that produced no alarm, and a small stereo system with a sluggish tape deck and an erratic CD player. In the corner was an old wooden chair on which sat a shaky stack of board games – Risk at the bottom, Scrabble at the top, and Monopoly nowhere in-between. Cardboard boxes loaded with paperwork were squeezed beneath the table and the chair, and along the wall by the door were several towers constructed from countless issues of New Scientist magazine. The rest of the remaining floorspace was occupied by columns of books, some piled up as high as my waist.

I sighed, my spirits dropping. In order to clean the room I’d first have to remove everything and work out what I was going to do with it all. What was still serviceable could go to a charity shop, the rest would need to be recycled, scrapped or binned. The task appeared Herculean, and hardly seemed worth the effort. But I girded my loins; this was my mess, and I wasn’t going to leave it for somebody else to sort out.

After dusting and wiping (so that I didn’t transport dirt around the house) I set to ferrying the books down to my living room. This took numberless trips, and I was getting very weary by the time I’d finished, but I pushed on regardless and brought the cardboard boxes down as well. This done, I stopped for lunch. While waiting for a cheese and tomato pizza to heat in the oven, I had a cuppa and a cigarette, and, as I sat enjoying these on my sofa, I couldn’t resist opening one of the boxes to inspect its contents, and pulled out a handful of papers to flick through. There were pages covered in metaphysical speculations and philosophical theories, together with a couple of short stories, the outline for a novel I’d never got around to writing, and a collection of morbid, adolescent poems about pain, rejection, loneliness and loss, with titles like Darkness and Why?

My mood turned sour. I knew there was no point in going over this stuff; all my thoughts, my creative scribblings and my idle musings, were soon to be completely irrelevant. Once, I had hoped to build a career along the lines these papers represented – to be a philosopher and a writer, a man of ideas and letters. But it had never happened; perhaps due to a lack of courage or confidence, or, more likely, simply because I was too lazy, too much of a procrastinator.

A sense of bitter self-reproach took hold of me. “I’ve wasted my life,” I said aloud. “I’ve completely wasted it! What an arse-hole! What a miserable, useless wanker!”

Disgruntled and surly, I suddenly wondered why I was bothering to clean my house – who, after all, was going to thank me for it? And was this really how I wanted to spend another of my few remaining days on earth?

No, I decided, cleaning my house was not what I wanted to be doing, not by a long shot. So, what did I want to do? The answer came without pause; get drunk. And how drunk did I wish to get? Very drunk!

I rejected the idea of getting a load of beers in and drinking them in my home; I would get drunk sure enough, but I might also get pathetically maudlin or destructively angry and end up doing something stupid. No, it would be better to get out of the house and seek some company to distract me from myself.

And I knew just the fellow to contact, a guy I’d known for the best part of a decade. He had not, to the best of my knowledge, had a job during that time, and probably not had one before that either. He survived on unemployment benefit (or whatever they were calling it these days) supplemented by selling potent home-grown marijuana, known commonly as skunk. And, as tradition demands that someone who sells drugs is not to be called by their actual name but by some peculiar nickname, this friend was known to me as Dicey.

How Dicey had come by this moniker was a matter of debate. Some said it was just because he had, in bygone days, been in the habit of using the term at every opportunity, and so it became natural to refer to him by it. Others, that it was because he ran table-top role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, which require a variety of different dice to play. A third group maintained that the word had been applied to him in an ironic sense, as, despite his drug dealing, he was generally very laid-back – not at all edgy or paranoid, as many dealers become. I didn’t know which to believe, and didn’t see a need to choose in any case; a rose by any other name, as the bard said.

I checked the time; it was coming up to two pm, and I figured Dicey would probably be up and about by now. I sent him a text: Hiya mate – hope all’s cool. Are you about? Would be good to see ya. Cheers!

While I waited for him to get back to me I ate some pizza and ran a bath (if I wasn’t going to finish cleaning the house, I could at least clean myself). I relaxed in the hot water and thought about things. As today was Thursday, and I was due back at the office on Monday, I had four days; if I used this one to get drunk – to get absolutely slaughtered and utterly wrecked – that would leave me with Friday to recover, then the weekend to do anything that I really needed to do. That worked for me.

I got out of the bath, and, as I rubbed myself dry with a towel, stared at myself in the mirror. My eyes, unscreened by my glasses, looked slightly larger than usual, and somewhat lost, peering out from beneath shaggy, over-hanging eyebrows. I considered my face with a degree of both good-humour and self-contempt; it simultaneously amused and disgusted me. It is a face I found it hard to connect with; I didn’t see how it was a reflection of me. Its length always surprised me, for one thing, which was a characteristic it shared with my body in general; they both seemed unduly elongated, as if they had been stretched beyond their natural shape. The condition of my skin is poor; it is mostly too pale, but affected by psoriasis, which causes red, flaky patches to appear. My forehead is unremarkable save for a slight indentation roughly in its middle (where I had, when a self-hating teenager, stubbed out a cigarette). My ears have detached lobes and don’t stick out much more than they should, but they do get rather full of wax. My nose is a bit too big, and slightly bulbous; it is also has a noticeable purple tinge – a result of excessive drinking, I assume. My mouth is wide, but not large, and that’s all I can say for it. My chin is weak and usually covered in tiny spots, but these facts are mostly hidden by a straggly beard, which encircles my mouth to join with an equally unkempt moustache. It is, to put it bluntly, not a handsome face. One might go so far as to call it ugly. And, I thought, it’s one which the world will be far better off without. By ending my life, I would, effectively, be increasing the attractiveness of the population – but by killing Tony, a fairly good-looking fellow, I would have already made it uglier. Swings and roundabouts, I told myself.

I got dressed and checked my mobile; Dicey’s response had arrived: All IS cool. Come over and bring some cans!

I sent him back a message to let him know I’d be on my way shortly, scoffed another slice of pizza (leaving the rest for later), had a glass of water, got on my shoes, coat, hat and scarf, and headed out. The weather was cold, but the snow that had fallen on the night of Ellen’s funeral hadn’t lingered for long, so the streets were mostly clear and dry.

The walk to Dicey’s was through one of the less salubrious sides of town, but I wasn’t worried; in my current mood I might have relished a confrontation. Who’s Dicey today? I asked myself.

En route I went into a convenience store that sold booze and purchased four four-packs of Red Stripe lager (Dicey favoured variety). I figured that would be sufficient to last us through the afternoon and evening.

I arrived at Dicey’s place; it offered an unappealing prospect to the street, its paintwork dirty and flaking, but most of the other houses along the row were in much the same state. I knocked on the battered door – three sharp raps, a pause, then two more.

After waiting a while (for Dicey never rushed) the door swung wide and there he stood in his faded jeans and lumpen jumper. “Hey, man. Come on in.” He moved aside to allow me ingress.

I crossed the threshold, which delivered me directly into the sitting room, and rapidly relieved myself of my coat, hat, scarf and shoes. I then followed my friend up to his bedroom.

“So, how’s it going?” he asked, sitting on the edge of his king-sized bed.

“It’s been better,” I admitted, pulling a can from one of the four-packs and offering it to him.

“Thanks,” he said, accepting it.

I broke a second can free, cracked it open and took a long swig, before settling into a monstrous, fluffy brown bean bag that inhabited a corner of the room.

“What’s up then, man?” Dicey asked.

“This and that. I went to a funeral a couple of days ago, and I’m still dealing with it.”

“Shit, sorry to hear that, man. Was it for that lass you worked with?”

“Yeah, Ellen,” I replied, then added after a pause. “She was a good woman.”

“Isn’t it always the way?” Dicey remarked with a wry grimace. “The good one’s end up dead before their time, while the bastards thrive and prosper. There’s just no justice, man.”

“No, not much of it, not in our society at least – which isn’t a surprise. When you have a small minority of people controlling all the resources, and doing all they can to ensure the rest are either deluded, downtrodden, or both, justice doesn’t really get a look in.”

“You’re right there,” he rejoined, then leaned across with his can outstretched. “Here, a toast – to Ellen.”

“To Ellen,” I agreed, knocking my can against his, then taking another long swig.

Our conversation stalled, and we sat for a bit, quietly drinking and musing over our thoughts, until Dicey spoke up again. “Ruth should be over soon,” he told me.

I didn’t know how to reply to that; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see Ruth, Dicey’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. They had first got together some six years ago, and the three of us used to hang-out regularly. All went well for a year or so but then things kind of exploded between them, and the situation was very acrimonious for a time. During this difficult period I conceived a pathetic affection for Ruth, and a month after their break-up appeared final, I asked her out. She rejected me gently, and we remained friends, but it had still hurt terribly. A couple of weeks later Ruth and Dicey had healed the rift that had grown between them and were back together. I, on the other hand, didn’t recover, and as a result of this episode had decided to never again seek a romantic relationship, and to actively avoid the company of women to whom I might become attracted. Ruth and Dicey had continued to have their ups and downs since then (they seemed to fall out every month or two), but my resolve had remained firm and true. This was probably another reason why I had not tried to become Ellen’s friend; I had feared falling for her. All this left me somewhat conflicted where Ruth was concerned. I did like her, but she called to mind unpleasant associations. Her sense of humour also sometimes grated; playing on my prior infatuation, she couldn’t resist ‘accidentally’ exposing herself – usually her breasts, but on occasion her whole body – to me, nor did she waste any opportunity to make a shamelessly suggestive remark or an outrageous double entendre, causing me endless embarrassment. Dicey, knowing the score and finding it fantastically funny, conspired with her to compound my chagrin.

“How are her grand-parents?” I asked, as much for something to say as out of any real concern.

“They’re doing fine. She’s over there now.” Ruth’s grand-parents were both into their eighties and, although they managed to carry on in their own home, required a certain amount of care to keep their independence, which Ruth provided.

“And how is she?”

“She’s alright – probably got something to complain about, but she wouldn’t be happy if she didn’t.”

I finished the can. “Wannanuva?” I asked, getting up.

“Sure, thanks,” he answered, tipping his head back and draining the dregs from his.

I extracted the last two from the first four-pack, threw one to Dicey and returned to my semi-recumbent seat with the other. “So, what’s it all about then, Dicey? Has life a meaning, a purpose? Or is it all just a joke?”

“Damned if I know, man,” he replied, and turned the question back on me. “What do you think?”

“You know what? I thought I knew, once. I thought that life didn’t have a meaning, as such, but yet it was inherently meaningful, if you lived it right. I thought the point was to do something noble, or great, or simply useful; to make the world a better place in some way. I thought that just by loving someone, and making that one person happy, that would be enough. But none of it worked out for me; I tried to live a worthwhile life – no, I wanted to live a worthwhile life, but it didn’t happen; I never answered my calling, because I couldn’t figure out what that calling was. I couldn’t even find one person to love me. So, now, none of it makes sense. It all seems pointless, mate; totally pointless.”

“I understand where you’re coming from, man; it can all get you down at times, especially when someone you care about dies. I don’t know what it all adds up to, but I do know that reality is strange and mysterious, and there’s shit that goes on out there that nobody can explain – nobody I know of, anyway.”

“’There’s more in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’ eh?”

“Something like that, but it’s a bit early in the day to be quoting Shakespeare.”

I recalled my nightmare of the previous night, with its line from MacBeth, and considered mentioning it, but decided against doing so – it could result in my letting slip my murder-suicide plan, which I most definitely didn’t want to do. Instead, I went for a humorous reply. “You can say what you want but, whether you like it or not, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

“Geez, man, why you gotta bring the Danes into this? What have they ever done to you?”

“Nothing personal, but you can’t forget the Danelaw – those bloody Vikings, coming over here and stealing our jobs.”

“That was a thousand years ago, man! Let it lie, won’t you? Who you gonna pick on next, the Romans?”

“The Romans?” I exclaimed. “Why not the Romans? What have they ever done for us?”

“No,” Dicey said pleadingly. “No, not Monty Python, I’m begging you.”

“Okay, okay, no Monty Python,” I said, then added under my breath, “Splitter.”

“Hey, just remember that blesséd are the cheese-makers. And I’ve got some serious cheese right here,” he said, holding up a bag of skunk, and I inferred that the particular strain he was growing at the moment was one of the ‘cheese’ varieties.

I tutted. “Can’t even stick to his own rules.”

“It’s my house, and I make the rules – but that doesn’t mean I have to follow ’em.”

“Anything you say, boss.”

“Whatever, man. I just don’t need any distractions right now – I’m doing something creative.”

He was rolling a joint. “I’ll not say a word,” I promised.

“You don’t need to go that far,” he protested.

“Boring conversation anyway.” I muttered dismissively.

Dicey groaned. “Now it’s Star Wars.”

“You just can’t please some people.”

“And other’s are beyond help.”

“Touché,” I said. “By my reckoning, that makes the scores about even.”

“You’re not counting this,” Dicey said, holding up the now completed spliff. “I get double points.”

“The house always wins,” I moaned.

“You better believe it,” he replied, sparking up. After a deep inhale he leaned back, then lifted his head and blew out a great plume of smoke.

I glugged lager as Dicey chuffed away, and silence returned to the room for a while, before being broken by the sound of someone walking up the stairs. The door opened and a tall, shapely woman with bushy ginger hair entered; Ruth. She noticed me, smiled and said, “Hiya, Tim.”

I returned her smile. “Hi, Ruth.”

She bent and kissed Dicey, and he held out the joint to her.

“No thanks, I’m going to have a shower first,” and she glanced over at me. “I might need someone to scrub my back; Tim, are you free?”

I blushed. “I’m sorry, Ruth – I forgot to bring a towel with me. I’m sure Dicey will oblige.”

He grinned at me. “No can do, man – I’m busy!” he said, indicating the joint. “And we’ve got spare towels you can use.”

“Well?” asked Ruth, looking at me inquiringly. I turned away from her gaze, and she grumbled peevishly, “you’re no fun.”

“Hey, sweet-thing, can your shower wait just a minute?” Dicey asked, “I need to take a piss.” He then looked over to me, holding out the reefer. “Man – do you want some of this?”

Ruth plucked the joint from his fingers and said, “If you’re going to make me wait, I think I’ll have a bit now after all.”

“Sorry, man,” Dicey apologised to me. “It was intercepted.”

“No worries,” I replied. “It’s probably for the best – I’ve not had a toke in ages, so I’d be completely stoned in all of about five minutes. I’ll have some later.”

Dicey left the room, and Ruth took his place on the bed. “Did you finish work early today?” she asked (it was round about four pm at this point).

“No, I’m on leave. I was at a funeral earlier in the week and figured I’d have a break from the office for a few days.”

“That’s rough. Anyone close?”

“Not close, exactly – a colleague. But one I admired and respected a great deal. She was a wonderful woman.”

“That’s such a shame. What happened? Had she been sick, or was she in an accident?”

I shook my head. “Suicide,” I said.

“No! That’s awful,” she said with feeling, her eyes suddenly welling up.

I envied her those spontaneous tears, and a surge of emotions – pain, anger, resentment, and bewildered bereavement – burst within me. “Yes, it is awful. It’s fucking awful, in fact. It’s one of the most fucking awful things I can think of ever fucking happening,” Nearly choking, I tried to calm myself, but could not resist a final comment. “I wish it was me that was dead, not her.”

Ruth put the joint down in an ashtray, got off the bed, rushed over and threw her arms around me (which was no easy feat, as I was lodged somewhat lopsidedly in the bean bag). I hugged her back, all teasing and embarrassment forgotten.

“She was a lovely person, Ruth,” I explained. “Too good for this world.”

“I’m sorry, Tim,” she murmured sympathetically, then went to retrieve the joint. “Are you sure you don’t want some of this?” she asked.

“What the hell?” I replied. “In for a penny, in for a pound!”

She passed it over, then picked up a lighter and gave me that too. “You’ll need to re-light it.”

“Thanks,” I put the spliff in my mouth, applied flame to its end, and drew in a lungful of thick, pungent smoke. Coughing, I expelled it again. “This is the stuff,” I said.

“Dicey only grows the best,” was Ruth’s response.

As if summoned by the mention of his name, Dicey’s heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs. He entered the room and, noticing that I was smoking the joint, remarked gleefully. “Gave in to temptation, did we?”

“Yes, he did,” Ruth interjected, a saucy smirk on her face. “In more ways than one… and now I really need a shower!”

My flushing cheeks and pained expression were enough to make Dicey bellow with laughter.

* * * * * * * *

Dicey and I continued our banter, becoming steadily more inebriated as we did so. As I had predicted, the skunk hit me quick and hard; the room span and my brain melted. By the time Ruth had finished her shower and re-joined us (fully clothed, I’m happy to report), I was giggling like an idiot.

The evening disappeared in a haze of booze and smoke. Too drunk and stoned to walk home, Dicey called me a taxi. When I got in I was suffering with a severe case of the munchies, and was overjoyed to discover the remains of the pizza I’d cooked for lunch. This I demolished, then stretched out on my sofa and fell asleep.

Chapter 4

I came to the next morning feeling predictably rotten, and also a little disorientated by finding myself lying fully dressed on my sofa. But fragments of the previous evening floated slowly into my consciousness and I was soon able to piece together what had happened.

Aching and hungover, I rose and made myself a coffee. I thought about having a shower but lacked the energy, and decided instead to go to bed until I recovered somewhat, and there I dozed through the afternoon.

It was hunger that eventually forced me to get up again; I hadn’t eaten properly since the day before Ellen’s funeral. I went into the kitchen to take stock of what food I had. Rummaging through my cupboards I discovered the following: a potato and an onion (both of which had seen better days), two packets of curry-flavoured instant noodles, a box of long-grain rice (unopened) and one of conchiglie pasta (almost empty), and a selection of tins (including baked beans, tomato soup, and tuna chunks). In the freezer was a bag of frozen sweetcorn and a plastic container full of some darkish matter the origin of which I could not recall.

I decided to have some noodles as they required a minimal amount of effort, but, once they were done and I’d put them in a bowl and taken them into the living room to consume, I could only manage a few mouthfuls.

The box of papers I’d started to look through the previous day still sat beside the sofa. Its presence taunted me in a subtly sinister fashion. When my house had been built (some hundred years ago) it had been furnished with fireplaces, but these had been sealed up long before I’d bought it, no doubt at the same time central heating had been installed. If they had still been accessible, I might well have burnt all those papers there and then.

Depressed, agitated, and still hungover, I decided to return to clearing out my spare room – as much for something to do as out of any commitment to the task. So, throughout the early evening I occupied myself by bringing down all the old issues of New Scientist. My living room was now looking somewhat untidy with all the boxes, books and magazines, undoing some of my efforts of the first day of cleaning.

Tired out, I sat down again and tried to eat some more noodles, but they’d gone cold and were completely unappetizing, so I pushed the bowl away. Unable to think of anything else to do, I switched on the telly. This distracted me sufficiently to while away the rest of the evening, but when it came time to turn in I realised that I no longer felt queasy and that my head had cleared. I climbed into bed feeling more awake than I had at any point during the day, and consequently couldn’t sleep. The hours crawled by, and I tossed and turned frustratedly.

Eventually, I gave up on sleeping. I decided to read instead – although it was hardly the time to begin a novel (I might not get the chance to finish it), I’d noticed a slim volume of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, called ‘A Universal History of Infamy’, amongst the books I’d transported downstairs the day before, which I must have purchased at some point and forgotten about. Slipping into T-shirt and underpants, I got out of bed and went to fetch it.

Returning to my bedroom, book in hand, I undressed again and snuggled back under the covers. I spent the rest of the night absorbed by Borges’s tales of assorted legendary villains – which, in the circumstances, I deemed apt company, for was I not soon to be a murderer (however briefly)? True, the crime I was going to commit was motivated by a sense of justice, to punish a wrongdoing and prevent its recurrence, rather than by greed or glory-seeking, yet all the same I did not consider it ‘good’, only ‘right’. There might be some people who would see my intended action as courageous, but I would not allow myself to hold such a self-serving conceit.

After several hours of reading, my eyelids started to drop and my concentration wavered. I put down the book, turned out the light, and went to sleep.

* * * * * * * *

On Saturday I awoke late in the afternoon. At first groggy, the realisation that I probably had less than 48 hours (either of life, or of freedom) remaining to me soon brought me to full alertness.

I got up and, while drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette, considered what to do with the day. I decided that cleaning my house was now a secondary issue; my priority must be to sort out my affairs, to make things as easy as possible for those who would have to deal with the aftermath of my actions. A key issue was that I didn’t have a will, and had now left it too late to correct this deficiency. But perhaps this was not so much of a problem; as I was unmarried and without offspring, all my meagre goods and chattels would pass to my mother (my father already having died). I could therefore just leave some instructions for her as to how I wished things to be divided between the surviving family members.

So, I sat down to write a letter to my mother. At first I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but after a couple of sentences I rejected what I’d written and started afresh. The second attempt didn’t go so well either, nor the third. Two hours (and half a dozen sheets of paper) later, frustration and hunger persuaded me to take a break. With limited food stocks, and not wanting to cook in any case, I made the decision to get in a take-away. I dug out a menu of a local curry-house, called them up and ordered for delivery a chicken madras and three chapattis. I then put down the phone, put on my shoes and coat, and headed out to the off-licence – feeling that a quick breath of fresh air and a stretch of the legs would be beneficial, and that a drink might loosen my mind a little and help make the words flow more easily.

I picked up some ales (beer, to my mind, being the proper accompaniment to curry) and returned home. I opened the first bottle straight away, and had almost finished it when my food arrived. I paid the man, unpacked my dinner and started eating, not bothering with either crockery or cutlery.

Once I’d had enough (which wasn’t much, as I have a small appetite) I licked my fingers and sighed with contentment. I put the remaining curry in the kitchen, re-sealed in its container, washed my hands, cracked open another beer, and returned to my task.

It was after midnight by the time I felt I’d produced a satisfactory letter:

Dear Mum,

I write to you with a very heavy heart, for I have some awful news. Something terrible has happened; a grave wrong has taken place, and I feel duty-bound to take drastic action in response. The situation is this: a woman I loved has committed suicide because a man broke her heart. The man in question is an adulterer, an egotistical, self-serving scoundrel, and I do not think it right that he should be allowed to simply walk away, so that he may go on and repeat his crime. Therefore, to prevent him causing further injustice, and to avenge the death of a sweet, kind and caring lady, I have decided to take matters into my own hands and do away with this worthless individual – and then, myself.

It is not a decision I have made lightly. It is with a great deal of sadness and grief that I venture on my chosen course, but I do not know what else to do. The death of this woman, Ellen, has destroyed what little light remained in my life. I don’t know how aware you are of the depression that has, for the most part, been my lot since I was a boy. I did try my best to persevere, to weather the storm, but nothing ever worked out for me. I feel cursed; all my efforts have been in vain, and I can see no reason to continue this charade I call my life. I had hoped that, by being patient and philosophical, by adopting a stiff upper-lip, I would have been able to carry on going until after you had passed on, for I know that my death will be a cause of sorrow for you. Out of love for you, and a wish not to cause you harm, I have continued living, year after year, decade after decade, in despair and anguish – but I can do it no more. I had hoped to do something useful and constructive with my life; it is a great shame that, instead, I should end up murdering a fellow human being, and then myself. But these are the cards I’ve been dealt, and I’m not going to waste what little time I have left by complaining about things. I may have regrets, but this does not mean I have to indulge in them.

I love you, and I am so grateful to you for all you have done for me. Though I have not had a happy life, still, I thank you for it. If things had gone differently, if I had found a woman who loved me, then I might have been well pleased with my lot. As it is, I look forward to finding whatever peace death provides.

Assuming I’ll carry out my plan successfully, I have enclosed with this letter a number of documents which I hope will make it easy to deal with my affairs. I ask that my house be sold and, after all relevant costs and disbursements for the sale and my funeral are met, the remaining money to be divided equally between yourself, Vic, Terry and Mary. Please say ‘goodbye’ to them all for me, and pass on my love.

Your son,

The letter signed I let out a sigh. On the morrow I’d give it a final read through, but I was done with it for now. I had a final cigarette and finished off the last beer, then retired for the night.

* * * * * * * *

I didn’t sleep well. I drifted in and out of consciousness until I could barely tell the difference between the two states.

Late the following morning I realised that I had been awake for a good while, but my mind was blank and felt oddly alienated from my body, as if the two were strangers whom circumstance had suddenly thrust together without even the courtesy of an introduction. I felt neither happy nor sad, excited nor bored, hopeful nor apprehensive. I was without motivation, had no desires; nominally aware of what was going on around me, but at the same time completely divorced both from the world and myself, unable to engage with anything. This almost trance-like, catatonic condition lasted for a couple of hours. By the time I emerged from it, the sun was setting in the west.

I rose from my bed and got dressed, went downstairs, made myself a coffee and rolled a cigarette. I lit it, took one drag and started coughing and spluttering so violently that I immediately stubbed it out. I had a mouthful of coffee and it tasted so utterly disgusting, like mud mixed with ashes, that I ran to the sink, spat it out, and poured the rest away.

I tried to re-read the letter I’d written the previous night, but found that the words just swum around on the page. I gave up, realising it was a pointless exercise anyway as I certainly wasn’t going to re-write it – I lacked the energy and concentration. Instead I went through my official documents (which weren’t to be found in the boxes littering my living room, but resided separately in a file in a drawer in my bedroom) and extracted those I wished to supply my mother with: my most recent bank and mortgage statements, Council Tax demand, and utility bills (all paid and up-to-date). I found an envelope, wrote my mother’s address on it, and stuffed the documents inside. I added the letter, but then pulled it out again and made one final attempt to check through it, and this time succeeded. I was not completely happy with it, but decided, with one small addition, that it would do, and so I wrote at the bottom:

PS. Mum, I am so sorry for this. I hope you can forgive me.

I returned the letter to the envelope, sealed it and affixed a stamp. And that was that; all that remained was to wait until the following morning, when I would post the letter on my way to work – where I would meet my doom-laden destiny.

I sat back in my chair, not knowing what to do with the rest of the day. None of the activities I’d usually opt to do to while away an evening, such as watching telly or reading, had any appeal to me then. Even the idea of masturbating, which could usually be counted on to produce a spark of interest when all else failed, seemed a very dull, tasteless and unrewarding enterprise. I was completely devoid of enthusiasm, and my mind started wandering without direction. Images and scenes from my childhood, memories I’d not visited in decades, began to spontaneously surface in my consciousness. I recalled a visit to a park which contained a prominent water feature; a gurgling artificial spring, feeding a small meandering stream the course of which took it tumbling over rocks to drop into a large pool. I had assumed the stream was not very deep, and had attempted to find out if I was correct by standing sideways on the bank and lowering one of my legs into it, to see if I could touch the bottom – as I was wearing wellingtons, I didn’t anticipate getting my foot wet. My assumption was wrong, however, and as my leg went deeper the flow of the stream against my welly managed to toppled me in. I saw the sky above me wash away as the water closed over my sinking head. Luckily, one of my older brothers was on hand to drag me out again, so I hadn’t drowned that day.

Another memory; an outing to some outdoor event where I had become separated from my family, then lost in the crowds. After a frantic and fruitless search I had become frightened, fearing that I wouldn’t see my mum ever again, and started crying. My plight attracted the attention of some kindly strangers and I was taken to the event organisers, who put me on a stage and made an announcement, asking my family to come and collect me, and we were duly reunited.

I came back to the present, shook off my recollections of the past. They were not helpful; indeed, they were making me doubtful, and had stirred a sense of unease and anxiety within me. I started to question whether I was, after all, planning to do the right thing. Do I really have sufficient reason to kill Tony? I asked myself, but then my mind turned to Ellen lying dead and buried in the earth, her once beautiful body decomposing, and the brutal pain and injustice this image evoked confirmed that I did.

“Enough cogitation,” I muttered to myself. I decided, like Hamlet, not to waste my time ‘thinking too precisely on th’ event… I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do ‘t!” There was no point thinking about it anymore but, in order not to do so, I needed to find a distraction. My options were limited, but my choice was obvious – it was time for a drink.

I put on my shoes and coat, strode out into the night. High in the sky there was a full moon shinning brightly, and I stopped to stare at it. A sense of calmness and acceptance stole over me, and I continued on my way with a lighter step. But when I got home with my bottle of wine I faced a dilemma. If I got too drunk, I’d wake up with a hangover, which would interfere with my ability to carry out my plan. But if I didn’t drink, I would find it difficult to get to sleep, and a night without rest would leave me feeling just as bad, if not worse, than a hangover. So I decided to drink only half the bottle; enough to get me sleepy, but not so much that it would result in a hangover.

Of course, after I had drunk half the bottle I couldn’t see any virtue in leaving the rest to go to waste, so drank the rest, polishing off the cold remains of the curry from the night before as I did so.

Despite the wine, when I got into bed my body was tense and my mind racing. This would be the last time I slept in my own bed. It might well be the last night of my life, and I had to struggle to stop myself sniggering at this absurdly amusing idea. Eventually, however, I did succumb to slumber, and the world dissolved in darkness.

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