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Copyright Ben Westerham 2018. All rights reserved.
The Price of Envy
“Dinner’s ready, Charles.”
“I really do wish you’d stop being so infatuated with that car. It won’t do you any good, you know, brooding over it like that.”
“Bloody show off. Leaves it out there on the driveway so everyone can see he’s got the damn thing. Nothing worse.”
“Really, Charles, at times you behave just like a small child.”
As his wife, Fiona, made her way back to the dining room, Charlie Mean didn’t budge an inch, reluctant to leave his post by the bay window at the front of the house. It afforded him a largely unobscured view of his neighbour’s driveway and, more to the point, the monstrous, low-set form of Arnold Longfellow’s Lamborghini Huracan. Not that he needed to be at all close to be able to see the bloody thing. You could, no doubt, see its gaudy canary yellow paintwork from the international space station.
Footballers and pop stars, those were the kind of people who drive such appalling vehicles. Tasteless, arrogant and vile. Cars like that had no place in their part of town. Of course, their neighbours were far too well-mannered to say anything, but there could be no doubt that in the three weeks since Longfellow had first arrived home with it, everyone would have been feeling every bit as upset as he did.
It still didn’t seem right the bloody thing didn’t break any planning rules being parked out on the driveway like that, especially as Nigel and Deirdre at number nine had been told they couldn’t keep their modest sized caravan on theirs. Hardly even-handed treatment by the council. One was an eyesore, the other was nothing of the sort.
Mind you, Longfellow’s behaviour since his wife has died, almost a year ago now, had become increasingly peculiar. Ripping up the front lawn and replacing it with gravel, then having his front-door painted yellow. Of course, it was obvious now he wanted the colour of his front-door to match that of the car. And why, for God’s sake, had he taken up running? Christ, the man was fifty-three, not twenty-three.
“Nigel, your dinner will be cold if you don’t get in here now.”
It wasn’t so much a warning as an instruction. Nigel fell in to line and, with one more glance at the Lamborghini, left his vigil and made his way towards the dining room, a scowl etched in to his fifty-five year-old face and his hands scrunched up in to fists.
Sunday morning had started gloriously and continued in the same vein, warm, bright sunshine falling from a cloudless sky. Charlie Mean had risen at eighty-thirty, precisely, just as he always did on a Sunday, allowing himself an extra hour in bed. Fiona had left the house a little after nine-thirty to make the short drive across town to her mother’s, who she spent time with every Sunday morning when they weren’t otherwise committed. She was a dutiful and loving daughter, which was typical of the woman, who always seemed to find time for others, despite having to run the house and hold down a part-time job. No wonder he’d found her such an irresistible temptation all those years ago.
Having waved her off, Charlie Mean turned his attention to the first of his usual Sunday morning tasks, cleaning his Audi A3. He opened up the garage and pushed the car out in to the open air, ensuring he left plenty of room to be able to work his way around it. Hoovering the inside always came first, followed by the meticulous use of a duster and anti-static spray on every reachable surface. His nostrils filled with the familiar pungent smell of the cleaner, which, though a little unpleasant, left him with the reassuring sensation of a job well done.
Spencer Anderson from number fifteen greeted him as he walked past on his way back from the newsagents. Peculiar little man, barely able to see over the garden hedge and why didn’t he do what everyone else did and arrange for the newspaper to be delivered to his home. Probably penny-pinching so he could spend a little more money on that old motorbike of his. Poor fellow, he never could seem to get the thing working properly.
A new sponge having been removed from its wrapper and plunged deep in to the bucket of soapy water, Mean set about washing the Audi’s bodywork, taking care to reach in to every nook and cranny so that not a fleck of dirt would remain in place. The hub-caps were always the trickiest parts of the car to clean, the dirt seeming to cling to them as if glued in to place, but even that succumbed eventually. All that was required was a little determination and effort. Anyone could do it, if they wanted to. It was a shame so many couldn’t seem to be bothered, given the appallingly dirty state of so many of the vehicles seen on the road these days.
Stepping back inside the garage, which seemed like a dark cave in contrast to the brightness outside, to retrieve the polish and leather cloth, Mean froze as he heard a familiar sound, the ear-splitting, threatening roar of the Lamborghini’s engine. It surged and bellowed, echoing in the close confines of the garage, even managing to cause the smaller tools hanging from their wall hooks to rattle.
That thoughtless, selfish bastard, Longfellow, he was driving that hideous pile of metal out of his garage, doing his best to ruin the peace and quiet for all of them. Determined to yet again remind them how he was so very, very much better than the rest of them. Oh yes, only he could afford to buy such a car. No one else. Look at me, he was saying, as he revved the engine time and again. Even the birds buggered off as fast as they could. If there’d been any children living in the street they would, no doubt, have run home crying.
Mean stayed deep in the shadows of his own garage, backing in to a corner where even less light reached, until the noise of the Lamborghini’s engine ceased with a final deep rumble. The heavy thump of a car door closing was followed soon after by that of the front door of the house clicking shut.
Was that it? Had the man made all that noise and disturbance just so he could leave his car there on the driveway all day long for all and sundry to see? He’d a mind to knock on the man’s door and insist he returned the vile thing to its garage right away, but Fiona had made her views on that sort of thing very clear indeed. He took a deep breath, told himself not to allow the man to get to him. He was better than that. Yes, he was better in every way.
But as he stepped back out in to the sunlight, squinting a little at first, there it was, unmissable in all its bright yellow horror, an enormous, brooding hulk that even a blind man would have struggled to miss, sitting in the middle of Longfellow’s driveway. Mean tore the lid from off the polish, turned towards his Audi and sprayed a single straight line down the entire length of the car’s roof, his teeth grinding and his hand trembling.
Fiona returned home a little after twelve, bringing with her news of her mother’s latest minor mishap, to which Mean listened as best he could. The poor dear had taken a bit of a tumble off the step at the back door and her right hand was bruised and sore. Despite Fiona’s insistence, her mother had refused point blank to visit A&E so they could make sure she hadn’t broken anything. Yes, the mother-in-law might be eighty-three and irritating company, but there was no denying she was made of sterner stuff than some.
Husband and wife enjoyed a light lunch of soup and bread on the garden terrace, sheltered from the brightness of the sun by the umbrella over the table. The roses, thought Mean, really did look magnificent, especially the Iceberg whites, which seemed to have especially benefited from the generous mulching he’d applied with great thoroughness during the spring. The lawn could perhaps do with a bit of a trim and the clematis on the far fence needed a little dead-heading, but otherwise the garden was in fine fettle.
The two of them were, however, soon driven back inside the house by the appearance of a persistent and menacing gang of wasps, who found the remnants of lunch irresistible. Fiona attended to the washing up, while Mean retired to one of the floral patterned armchairs in the living room with a cup of coffee and the home finance section of the newspaper.
There was a rather lengthy report on an expected sizeable hike in the cost of home insurance, the result of rising levels of crime and the horrendous storm that had swept across most of the country late the previous winter. This was not welcome news. Why should they be expected to pay increased premiums as a result of the anti-social activities of house-breaking drug addicts in the less prosperous cities of the north? It really was an outrage forcing other people’s troubles upon well-behaved and respectable people like themselves. Extra effort would be required, come renewal time, to ensure they got the best possible deal.
The back of the home finance section also happened to include the sports pages, which provided a far more encouraging read. The England cricket team were on top in the latest test match against the Ozzies and, with just three wickets left to take over the remaining two days, they looked well set for victory. Splendid stuff.
And then he heard that sound again. That damned, blasted roar of the Lamborghini’s engine. It was probably still hundreds of yards down the road, but it was unmistakeable. And as it got closer, so the throbbing cacophony grew in intensity. Mean threw the newspaper on to the coffee table and was on his feet, standing once more by the bay window just as the yellow painted heap of jagged metal turned on to Longfellow’s driveway.
Mean cast a glance at his own car, which, despite its recent wash and polish, seemed almost to disappear in the shadow cast by the bigger, brasher vehicle. His stomach tightened and he dug a thumb nail in to its neighbouring index finger as he watched Longfellow clamber out in to the sunlight. He saw Mean and waved briefly, a broad, sickening smile on his face. All Mean could manage in return was a brief, tentative nod of the head.
“Honestly, Charles, will you come away from that window. You really need to get a grip of yourself and stop all this nonsense.”
Fiona was standing in the doorway, her shoulder-length blonde hair framing a look of intense annoyance. He knew she was close to shouting at him, something she did only rarely.
“Why can’t the man have a normal car, like everyone else? The noise from that bloody thing is awful. It even makes the china in our cabinet shake.” That was a little bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but only just. “Still, I suppose he feels inadequate and is trying to make up for it by driving round in that football player’s car.”
“I think the only one feeling inadequate round here is you, Charles. And it does you absolutely no good, you know.”
“If that’s all you’ve got to say on the matter, I’d rather you didn’t say anything at all. Don’t you have some washing up to do? Or maybe some ironing?”
“Carry on like that and you can make your own bloody dinner. Now leave that man alone and find something useful to do.”
“Most useful thing I could do round here right now is put that man in his place. Make it clear to him that car of his is damn right anti-social. Would be doing us all a favour.”
“Honestly, you can be pathetic at times.”
Fiona left the comment hanging in the air and her husband to continue his brooding. But there was a thought. Why not do something about that car. Perhaps Fiona was right, although not in the manner she intended. Perhaps he was being pathetic. Pathetic in not taking action. What he needed to do was ‘fix’ that Lamborghini so the problem would go away, ideally permanently. All he needed to do was weigh up his options and decide which one was best. Yes, that would be a very useful way to spend his afternoon. He smiled as he returned to his armchair, filled with the warm sense of a fresh new purpose.
Monday had turned in to something of a stressful affair at work for Mean, office manager for a modest-sized firm of financial consultants. One of his two members of staff had called in sick, which left just the two of them to produce the end of month reports for the senior management team. He’d barely found the time to eat the lunch he’d taken with him and left the office almost half an hour later than normal, an unwelcome interruption to his routine that had resulted in him being delayed by heavier than usual traffic as he made his way home.
A long-haired youth on a push-bike had spat on his window when he suggested he might leave a little more room as he squeezed his way past Mean’s stationary car at one point. He would have got out the car and given the youth a piece of his mind, if not for the fact he feared the response might be violent. He didn’t like violence, did Mean. Never had. Even sport at school had been too violent for him, as well as being a source of much amusement to his class-mates.
As he turned, at last, in to their road, Mean felt the day’s stress begin to lift from his shoulders and the tension start to ease from his body. A little pre-dinner drink was in order and had been well earned. He waved a hand at old Mrs Reaching, pushing her shopping trolley along the pavement. She ignored him. Probably her eye-sight, which he knew was less than perfect.
It was only as he slowed to turn and take the Audi up on to the driveway of their house that he remembered. A little frisson of excitement coursed through him like an electric charge. Yes, he’d been busy the previous evening, before retiring to the pleasing embrace of a hot bath. His knowledge of motor-cars, largely acquired as a young man when money had been in short supply and repairs and maintenance of his first few cars had needed to be done by himself, had come in very handy indeed.
He smiled as he recalled the ease with which he’d carried out his mission. Longfellow had left the yellow monstrosity parked on his driveway all evening and their street always was very quiet. So he’d bided his time until, as the light began to seep away with the encroaching dusk, he’d slipped over the fence, a careful selection of tools in his hands. It had not taken either a great deal of time nor much effort to punch a hole in the brake pipework. It looked like the kind of thing that could have been done by a stone or other solid obstruction left in the road. Perhaps the driver simply failed to notice it and in so doing it had torn at the pipework as he drove over it.
Of course, the resulting loss of fluid would make the brakes practically useless. There was nothing to fear for Longfellow, so long as he was obeying the public speed limit of course. He’d be wearing his seat belt, after all. Sleep had been plentiful and deep that night, something of a rarity in recent times.
As he turned on to the driveway, Mean very nearly hit one of the gate-posts, so distracted was he by the sight of what was parked on his neighbour’s driveway. There, secured on top of a vehicle trailer, was the Lamborghini. And, oh, what a sight it was. A smile grew on Mean’s face and he struggled to hold back a laugh. Every nerve in his body tingled with delight. He could not have asked for more. The vile Italian vehicle was a wreck, damage wrought to practically every inch of its repulsive bodywork, the windscreen shattered and gone, the front wheels locked at a peculiar angle.
Mean couldn’t hold his joy in any longer and, as he brought his own car to a halt, it burst out of him in a belly-aching laugh that made his ears ache. He thumped his fists at the steering wheel and starred wide-eyed at the delightful, wonderful sight on the adjoining drive. God in Heaven above, there was such a thing as justice after all.
Clutching his briefcase so tightly it made his knuckles white, Mean, still filled with joy unbounded, approached the front door of his house, the key in his other hand. But the door opened before he reached it and he knew at once that something was very, very wrong indeed.
“Is there something you find amusing, Charles?”
Fiona’s voice was cold, threatening even. But it wasn’t that which had Mean’s immediate attention. As his wife stood in the open doorway, he took in the sight before him. It was not one he had been expecting. His wife’s face was bruised and cut, to such an extent he wondered if he would recognise her if he was to pass her on the street. Her right forearm was heavy with plaster, held in front of her body by a sling.
A cold shiver ran up his spine. Something was very, very wrong. He stood in silence, his mouth open, but unable to speak.
“Lost for words, are we?”
It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation.
“I… What happened?”
“Do you mean to me or the car?”
Mean placed his briefcase on the step. Words struggled to form in his head. Things had become a fog of confusion, through which he struggled to recognise anything that might provide some clarity, a hint even of where to go. What had happened to his wife? She looked terrible. She looked… No, just the idea itself was too much. He didn’t want to go there. But the notion wouldn’t go away. She looked as though she had been in car crash. The wrecked Lamborghini on his neighbour’s driveway. The battered and bruised wife that stood in front of him, a smouldering cauldron of menace. It wasn’t possible they could be connected. It just wasn’t. Why on earth would Fiona want to be seen in that damned car? Why?
“Well?” she snapped, the sound piercing his confusion.
“Fiona, my dear. What… what happened?”
“I think you know bloody well what happened.”
Her head shook a little as she spoke, as it always did when she was struggling to contain her anger. Mean would have walked away, under normal circumstances. Left the fire to burn out before going anywhere near her again. To stay would be to risk getting burned. This time that wasn’t an option. He leaned back a little, fearful of the heat.
He looked across at the wrecked Lamborghini again, before her could summon up the courage to ask the obvious question, the one he so badly didn’t want to.
“Were you… in there?”
“Yes, I damned well was,” she screamed, the effort and the discomfort bringing tears to her eyes, which she ignored entirely. “And do you know what happened?”
“Why don’t I tell you, even though I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise.”
“Shut up, Charles. You pathetic little man. You’re going to listen to every last word of this.”
He stood there, unable to hold her ferocious gaze, his shoulders slumped, feeling small and helpless as the world closed in. It wasn’t real, he tried to tell himself, but there was no conviction there, no belief in his own lies.
“Arnold took me for a drive this morning, like he’s done so many times before. He always drops me off on the High Street on his way to the golf club. Such a considerate thing to do. Only this time, we never got as far as the shops. As we approached the roundabout on the B3421, Arnold found the brakes weren’t working. He stabbed and stabbed at them, but the car kept on going. There was a bus coming round the roundabout, towards us. We would have ploughed straight in to it if Arnold hadn’t taken action. I probably wouldn’t be here at all now if we’d hit that bus. But Arnold yanked the car to the right. We went straight through the bollard on the island and up over the roundabout itself. Even then we might have been OK, if we’d not hit another car on the far side of the roundabout. I can’t remember a great deal after that. I know the car rolled over, but it all happened so fast it’s hard to recall. I could have been killed, Charles. Do you understand that? I could have been killed.”
She leaned in towards him as she spoke and as she finished she hit his left shoulder. It hurt. He stepped back, a thousand thoughts fighting for space in his head.
“But, you’re not, thank God,” he said in a feeble attempt to placate her.
“No thanks to you, Charles.”
She stopped hitting him and instead held him in place with her piercing stare. He feared to, but made himself look back in to those fearsome, dark eyes.
“I don’t understand, my dear. What did I do wrong?”
He couldn’t stop from trembling. He wanted to grab hold of her and squeeze her, promise it would all be OK. He began to reach out with one hand, but she cut him off before he could reach her, knocking him away.
“Oh, I think you know precisely what I mean. I’ve always thought you to be a mean, nasty piece of works at times. You can’t stand seeing someone else doing better than you. There’s always some reason why they don’t deserve it and you do. Jealousy and envy have turned you in to an obnoxious human being. I look at you now and wonder what it was that made me want to marry you in the first place.”
“But, Fiona, surely you aren’t blaming me for what happened? I wasn’t anywhere near the accident.”
He just needed to convince her it was all an unfortunate accident, something it was utterly impossible for him to be connected with. Surely, it would be too far-fetched a notion for her to really believe he would do something like that. All he needed to do was convince her it was just an accident. Nothing more.
“Near the accident,” his wife snapped. “Of course you weren’t anywhere near it. I’m not an idiot, Charles. We’ve been married a long time, though God knows why. I saw it in your face as soon as the penny dropped. I don’t know what you did but I’d bet my life you did something to make that car to crash. I could have been killed, Charles. I could have been killed.”
His ear-drums echoed with the ferocity of Fiona’s assault, causing him to shrink away again. But he needed to stand tall, prove beyond any doubt that she was mistaken. She must believe it was nothing more than an unfortunate accident.
“I’d never do anything to harm you, my dear. Surely, you believe that.”
He did his best to sound calm and in control, when in truth he was struggling to contain the rising sense of panic that was growing within. He noticed his hands were trembling and a tight knot had developed in his stomach.
“Go away, Charles. Go a long, long way away. I don’t think I ever want to set eyes on you again.”
The door slammed shut, a blast of air hitting him in the face. Charlie Mean stood stock still, staring at the closed door without really seeing anything, still struggling to come to terms with what had just happened. The first stirrings of a deep sense of loss and emptiness began to seep in to his body, alien invaders that would threaten to overwhelm his dessimated defences.
He look again at the wrecked Lamborghini, but it made the pain worse and he turned away, silent and stunned. Those few, short steps from his car to the front door of his house had seen his life change in an unimaginable way. From such joy to such despair. He climbed back in to his Audi and drove away in a state of confusion, hardly noticing the world outside.
It had taken less than three weeks for the estate agent to find a buyer for the house. A family from Exeter had been looking for just such a place and had no hesitation in meeting the asking price, set low enough to attract an early buyer. Charlie Mean had been allowed to make several trips back to the house so he could remove his belongings and this was the last of them. His Audi was parked at the side of the road, weighed down by the last of his things, most of which he had little use for now, but Fiona had insisted he remove nonetheless.
He stood at the bottom of the driveway, a hand on the cold metal gate, and looked up at the bedroom windows. Theirs had been the big bedroom at the back, warmed in the mornings by the rising sun as it loomed up over the houses beyond their back garden. He’d followed the same routine each morning for so many years and now? Now it was done and gone, a page in his very own history.
There was a new routine waiting for him now at the one-bed flat he’d decided to rent on the other side of town. It would be a lonely routine and an unwelcome one. Fiona had been unforgiving and unrelenting in her determination to remove him from her life, deaf to his protestations of innocence. It was unfair, selfish, heartless, but whatever he tried, she simply threw his advances back in his face.
Worse had followed. Arnold Longfellow had taken possession of a brand new Lamborghini several days before and he’d been careful, of course, to make sure it was there, on his driveway, when Mean had arrived to collect his first car-load of belongings. It was the same vile yellow as the original car, no doubt intended as another slap in the face. Mean had been unable to do any more than cast a furtive glance at the vehicle, though he felt certain his neighbour was watching from inside his house, gloating for all he was worth.
And, worst of all, Longfellow would not have been alone. Within a day of being so heartlessly turfed out of his own home, Fiona had phoned Mean with her announcement. He knew something was wrong almost as soon as she spoke. There was something in her voice, a fluttering, sadistic satisfaction that at once had him on edge. She was leaving him and, God forbid, moving in with Longfellow, with whom, she admitted without a hint of guilt, she had been having an affair for over six months. Longfellow was wonderful, attentive, understanding, sharing and caring, everything, she insisted, that he was not. The absurdity of it made him laugh, so much so that Fiona cut off the call, leaving Mean wallowing in a sea of disbelief. She would regret it when she discovered what Longfellow was really like. How could any woman live their life with an arrogant, self-centred man like that? She’d be back, he was as certain of that as he’d ever been of anything. Time was all it would take, a little time.
But the days had past and nothing had changed. The realisation grew that nothing was going to change. Disbelief had turned to anger and that in turn to panic and fear. But more recently the fear and loneliness had begun to be replaced, at least in part, by something else altogether, a growing, surging desire for revenge. It worked its way through his veins while he slept, fitfully and unhappily, quietly going about a take-over from which there would be no return. He didn’t fight it, why would he? He could use it to good effect. Longfellow had rubbed his nose in the dirt, taken everything he’d ever cared for and now he was going to pay for what he’d done.
Mean had arrived in a state of depression, hollowed out by the days and nights alone, hope a distant prospect, but as he climbed behind the wheel of his Audi, that empty space inside filled ever more with a desire for revenge. His fingers gripped the steering-wheel so the knuckles whitened and he pressed the accelerator pedal with an aggression he couldn’t recall having displayed before, as the car squealed away down the road.
Mean didn’t hear the lose-packed garden tools thud against the back of the boot, nor did he notice the clothes placed on the seat next to him fall to the floor. His mind was a whirl of considerations, options and outcomes, everyone of which involved inflicting pain on Andrew Longfellow. Some also included inflicting pain on his want-away wife. She couldn’t be considered free of all guilt, not when she’d treated him so badly, carrying on with another man for all that time.
But the items thrown around in his car were not the only things Mean didn’t notice. At the t-junction at the end of their street, he flicked the Audi round a parked van, then turned sharply to the left, intending to make his way down to the main road. He should have stopped. He should have given way. He would never know what it was that hit him, but others saw what happened. To him it was all nothing more than a moment’s madness, a world tipped upside down, everything out of focus and incomprehensible. The lorry hit him side on, ploughing deep in to the driver’s door, Mean unable even to hit the brake pedal before the impact. Metal, plastic and glass flew everywhere in a piercing wail of protest. Mean thought perhaps he could buy himself a new, bigger car, once the money from the house had been divided up. It was his last thought, accompanied by an image of a car, big and yellow, that he could no longer put a name to.
* End *
Shorts in the Dark
Every month you will find a new short story here, always with a darker criminal theme. Below is October's story. Enjoy!