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Copyright Ben Westerham 2018. All rights reserved.
Walking into Trouble
Ralph Higgingbottom, a man of few words and not a great many thoughts, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in his house about 7.30 in the evening. He was found by his sister, a skinny brunette with big eyes and matching glasses and whose bones seemed in every instance to be struggling like mad to force their way out through her skin. Pauline was a visitor to her brother’s home most Tuesday evenings, it being the one time during the week when she knew for certain she was free to pay him a visit, her neighbour being available to babysit her two young children.
She arrived three minutes later than she was accustomed to, on account of the bus being held up by a road accident. There had been a body lying on a stretcher in the road, surrounded by ambulance crew and police. It hadn’t looked good. One of the cars involved was bashed to pieces, the front almost completely crumpled in on itself. She had turned away as the bus got as close as it was going to get, afraid she might see death looking back at her.
On the short walk up to the house from the bus stop, Pauline had come face-to-face with death a second time. A small ginger cat she knew to be a pet of one of her brother’s neighbours lay stiff as a board on the far pavement, its head distorted by what was likely to have been an unwelcome encounter with a car. For a second time that evening, Pauline looked away from a scene of suffering, clutching the top of her coat in one hand and pulling it up in front of her face. She hurried on to her destination.
Having a key of her own to Ralph’s house meant she was always able to let herself in, though she made sure to ring the bell first so that he knew she was there. As she fiddled with her small, pink handbag, searching for the key, Pauline glanced in through the patterned all-glass door and couldn’t help noticing the large dark object at the foot of the stairs. Something inside her snapped. There had been so much death on her way there. It didn’t seem natural, normal. A jumble of thoughts flooded her mind all at once, leaving her temporarily confused. The door key tumbled to the ground. She bent down to pick it up, her hand shaking.
The key never worked well in the lock and, given the tremble in her hand, it took Pauline several attempts to force it home and open the door. Pauline was filled with trepidation and scared to the point where she wanted nothing other than to turn around and run back home.
A light came on in the front room of the semi-detached house next door, making her start, but all she saw was a hand take hold of a curtain and draw it part way across, screening the room from where she stood. The sound of the TV started up. From the top end of the long straight road came the roar of a car engine being reluctantly kicked in to life.
Pauline brought her attention back to the front door, which she eased open with reticence, placing a foot inside, on to the door mat, as if she feared she might be stepping on to a mine. Her other foot followed equally slowly and she stood there, still holding the key.
She thought perhaps she ought to have screamed or possibly fainted. But she didn’t do either. Instead, as she stared down at the crumpled body of her brother, his whitewashed face and dull, open eyes looking up towards the ceiling, all she did was cry. It was a single tear at first, slipping from an eye and down her left cheek, a pathfinder, lighting the way for others to follow. The first tear had barely made contact with the collar on her coat when a flood began, washing away her sight and soaking her cheeks.
Finally releasing her grip on the key, still in the lock, Pauline dropped to the ground, her back against the wall opposite the silent figure of her brother and reached inside her handbag again for her phone. Even with her vision blurry from the tears, she could make out the number nine. She pressed it three times.
The police woman sitting opposite her in that small, stuffy interview room at the station didn’t seem entirely sympathetic, to Pauline’s mind. She would have thought they’d have worried about her state of mind, given her recent and so terrible loss. To lose a brother and to find the body yourself should surely bring out kindness and understanding, even from those who are complete and utter strangers. But there was none of that.
She struggled to remember just what had happened. It seemed unreal, a foggy recollection that she couldn’t quite reach. She had sat there in the hallway, silent and frozen, waiting for her call to bring others to her aid. They had arrived; that much she could remember. Flashing blue lights and noise, so much noise. People came, moved her aside, spoke to her, or at least they tried to, but she wasn’t sure she had understood them and felt certain she had not been able to reply in a way that meant much. Someone lifted her up, took her away from the house, perhaps to a car. More voices, more lights, more confusion. Then darkness and silence.
There had been nothing else to remember until she became aware she was sitting in a hard-backed chair with a narrow table between her and another seated woman. She wore a uniform and her bright blonde hair was in a bun and she very definitely didn’t smile. Pauline could remember that; the woman definitely did not smile. Nor did the man who stood to one side, tall and handsome, his arms folded across his chest. He too wore a uniform, all blue.
The woman had started to ask her questions, but they didn’t make any sense. She had, they told her, been round to her brother’s house earlier in the day, but what, they wanted to know, did she and her brother argue about so violently that the next-door-neighbour could recall hearing their shouts? No, she replied, she never went to see her brother twice in one day. She only rarely went to see him more than once in an entire week. Why would she have gone there twice in one day?
And why, the policewoman went on to ask, had she run off down the pathway from the house and off along the street in such a hurry? The same neighbour had seen her, through his living room window. And he had said the front door was slammed shut so hard it made his house vibrate. No, she replied, the neighbour must be confused because she hadn’t been to her brother’s house earlier that day. She only ever went in the evening and just once a week.
They asked her more questions, so many it made her head ache, but already she had forgotten most of them, even if she had taken them in at the time. And the questions were all about her. That didn’t seem right. They should have been asking about her brother; after all, he was the one who was dead. Yes, she was sure about that; he was dead. She had seen him lying there on the floor. So many thoughts in her head, such a huge mish-mash that she couldn’t sort one from another and it caused her more and more pain the harder she tried. Someone gave her a small white pill and a glass of water to help take away the pain, but it didn’t seem to make any difference.
She asked the woman where her brother was and if they were taking good care of him, because it worried her to know that he was being properly looked after. She didn’t need to worry about that, they told her. He was at the hospital and they knew how to look after the dead there. So, he really was dead, she hadn’t simply imagined it. She had hoped she had imagined it, that he was still alive, but she knew now that wasn’t so. There were tears then, from her, and she thought she might have been crying before, but wasn’t certain. Then they left her, with a cup of warm, milky tea, alone in the room and she waited, for how long she had no idea at all. No clock, no watch, just silence and her.
When the man and the woman in uniform returned they brought something with them, something wrapped in a green plastic bag. She had green plastic bags in a little drawer in her kitchen. She liked to use them for trips to the shops because their handles were strong and hard-wearing, not flimsy like so many others. This time the woman spoke in anger, her voice raised and her piercing, wide eyes filled with threat. Somewhere in the words she hurled there was an accusation, but it was hard for Pauline to make it out in the din. Her brother, she said, her brother was dead.
As Pauline looked up through tear-filled eyes, her head an uncontrolled jumble of sound, the other woman placed the plastic bag on the table between them and opened it up. Something, somewhere went snap inside Pauline’s head, as if a dam that had lodged there had finally been broken and the memories that had been blocked could come washing right through.
The argument she’d had with her brother over who was to get what from their mother’s will. The hammer she had found under the kitchen sink. The anger, oh yes, the growing, surging anger that welled up inside her. She remembered now the thrill of the thought, how welcome it had been to her as she stood there trembling. And thought had turned to action in one flashing blow. Violent, sudden and fatal. He was dead, she thought, before he even hit the ground. And that was when the voices started, filling her head, telling her to run, run away home and pretend she was never really there. Run away home as if nothing had happened. And for a while, a very brief while, she had believed herself, that nothing had happened there, until the voices came again to torment her, to break her, to make her wish she too was dead.
* End *
Shorts in the Dark
Every month you will find a new short story here, always with a darker criminal theme. Below is May's story. Enjoy!