17 Dec The Man
© Pearlie McNeill, August, 2011
About this story
This story was written when I was living in the UK. One Friday a judge in Leeds had allowed a man accused of murdering his wife to change his plea to manslaughter, because of the man’s plea that his wife nagged him.
The same judge, on the following Monday, sentenced two teenaged sisters to five years imprisonment each for killing their father, after witnessing sixteen years abuse of their mother and being victims of their father’s abuse on a number of occasions.
I was furious and pondered the idea of vigilante action against male violence versus legal action through the courts. My thinking led me to writing this story but I set myself a challenge in order to narrow my focus. The story would have but two characters, I would have only one narrator and I would not give my narrating character a defined gender but leave it to the reader to decide based on their own assumptions. It’s a dark story and all I can say about that is that none of us knows what’s inside our creative self till we start putting it out there. If you have comments to make about this story feel free to email me at email@example.com
His window was always open. I knew he’d arrived home when I heard the thump of the breadboard slapped down on the kitchen table. His evening meal varied little. Doorstep slices of bread thickly coated with butter, eaten either with cheese or ham. By the look of it, the cheese was one of those strong smelling types and the ham came in wafer thin slices, compressed in a tight pile and wrapped in greaseproof paper. Impatiently, he would pull at the meat or roughly hack pieces of cheese, tossing torn layers down carelessly before adding mango chutney. The way he shoved food into his mouth you’d have thought each meal was his last.
For breakfast he ate the end of last night’s loaf with dollops of strawberry jam. I could read the jam-jar label easily enough and it was always the same brand. He’d gone through fifteen jars of the stuff since moving into the attic room next door And the empty glass containers stood in single line formation along the back of the sink. It wasn’t a real sink, just a bench with a plastic bowl down one end. There were no taps in sight and I imagined it was one of those houses where the tenants collected water from a communal bathroom somewhere in the bowels of the building.
His habits were as regular as clockwork. First he ate his food then he made some tea. I’d expected to see the milk poured straight from the carton but no, this was a man who liked his tea served properly. The jug and the sugar bowl were part of a matching set with a luminous quality evident in the colouring that suggested they’d been painted by hand. Family heirlooms, I decided, old enough to be treasured and heart-warming in their beauty.
I had sighed with pleasure at the sight of his cup and saucer. Exquisite was the word that had come to mind, truly exquisite. The design was bronze and yellow against a cream background and I could just make out a thin band of yellow on the inside of the cup.
I’ve always been fascinated by people. I love to observe them, particularly when they don’t know they’re being watched. I tell myself it’s because I am a writer, I have to observe, have to take note. Still, I hadn’t realised how absorbed I was becoming until, one day, on one of my infrequent trips to town, I saw some things in a shop window that I thought might belong to him.
I was waiting at the bus stop and staring into the antique shop window. It’s one of those flimmy-flammy type of shops, you know the sort; shelves crammed with fragile pottery and old-fashioned statues and vases, outdated souvenirs and unwanted junk and not a single price tag in sight.
I had already cast my eye over the silver monogrammed hairbrushes, the stained glass lamp and the tapestry covered footstool, when the door of one of the window cases swung open. The shop assistant reached behind him to bring forth a cup and saucer which he deftly placed in a prominent position. It was an exact replica of his cup and saucer, that same one I saw him use every night. I tried to catch the young man’s attention but he was gone. I was about to go in and ask a few questions but then, just as I made a move towards the shop doorway, I saw my bus come round the corner. All the way home I wondered about what might have happened. Did that cup and saucer belong to the man next door? Could he have been forced to sell some of his precious things to make ends meet?
That evening I watched with rapt attention as the cheese sandwiches were eaten with the usual choke-me-to-death speed but no move did the man make towards the kettle. Seething with impatience I was ready to yell at him. Get on with it. I urged silently. Many times since I’ve wondered what the outcome might have been had I not been so caught up that night, yet, there was not the slightest hint of what was to come.
Bent over the washing bowl like he was at that moment, he could have been a surgeon scrubbing up before an operation, every movement so deliberate and thorough. In recent weeks he’d been examining his hands carefully every night then applying cream from a tube he kept near the sink.
It had grown dark. I closed my notebook and put down my pen. Glancing at the clock on my bedside table I was thinking about something to eat but looked up quickly as something caught my eye. He’d switched on a light. It wasn’t the overhead light but one of those standard lamps with a big shade.
He was standing now with his back to me in front of a wardrobe directly opposite the window. The wardrobe had a mirror-fronted door. He stood there looking at himself for several moments. I was irritated by such self-absorbed behaviour. Whatever was wrong with him tonight? Would he never get around to making that cup of tea?
Something happened then that made my heart jump in alarm. He stepped to one side, opened the mirror-fronted door, grabbed a long object from inside and placed it on the kitchen table.
Half rising with shock and disbelief I almost cried out. My mouth went dry and though my lips moved I could not make a sound. Helplessly, I stared and stared, wishing that I could turn away, do anything, but look at that human arm he’d ceremoniously placed on the kitchen table.
How long did I stand there, transfixed with horror, unable to turn away? Perhaps it was only a matter of seconds? My mind was racing full pelt, trying to make sense of the situation. Was he a magician? A showman of sorts? But I knew the truth even whilst I scratched around in my brain for some credible explanation. This was no trick, what I saw was horribly real. Did that mean he was a murderer?
The grisly sight of that disembodied arm was bad enough but the way the man behaved was even worse. He pranced around the table like an experienced ringmaster striding through a well-rehearsed routine. First he sashayed to the left to switch on the overhead light, then a quick twirl to the right, both hands outstretched, indicating the ring on the middle finger. It was then I realized it was a woman’s left arm. The delicate, intricately designed silver band was tightly embedded in blackened flesh, supporting a gem that might have been a ruby. I couldn’t believe my eyes when he reached forward and touched the stone with his fingertips, his eye on an unseen audience. Even now I shudder uncontrollably when I think about it.
Retching and swaying, unsure whether to faint or be sick, I made it to the bathroom on shaky legs, grateful for the icy touch of the bathroom tiles. Beyond my front door there were people, someone would come if I yelled for help. But how to erase the memory of that arm?
By the time I felt strong enough to walk back to the window he’d drawn the curtains. The show was over. I was in a panic. What to do? Call the police? That’s what people do, isn’t it? But dear reader, can you truly comprehend the predicament I was in? If that man had meant for me to see the evidence of a crime then surely he’d have some story cooked up, and would the police listen to me anyway? Wasn’t I just another grey-haired, busybody, presumably senile, with nothing better to do than waste their valuable time? And what would I tell them anyway? Excuse me Officer, the man next door has been dancing around an amputated arm for the last hour, and it’s making me feel sick. Will you please come and take him away?
My parents brought me up with two strong beliefs – never to waste time; my own or anyone else’s and always to mind my own business. On trains my father would point to the cord positioned high up in each carriage, warning me repeatedly there was a stiff fine imposed on anyone who pulled that cord for no good reason. To be so recklessly inconsiderate was the ultimate time-wasting crime, according to him. When I grew old enough to travel on my own that damned cord was a constant source of fascination. I’d even describe it as one of the great temptations of my life. And what about minding our own business? Don’t we usually say we’d rather not be involved, or leave me out of it, or no, I didn’t see a thing Officer?
My head was spinning. I needed a cup of tea. Minutes later, I was sitting up in bed pouring my first cup. I tried to distract my mind but it was no use. Had he set out to show me that arm? That poor woman, was she his wife? Had he killed her? So many questions and only he had the answers.
I should have been scared to death. After all, there was a suspected killer living next door, and from what I’d seen, he had a habit of storing bits of bodies in his wardrobe. True, I’d been shocked to the soles of my feet by the sight of that arm but it was the mystery of the whole thing that bothered me most, like reading halfway through the only copy of a terrific novel then having someone come along and steal it from you. Was I going to let some old bloke in an attic room dump me in the middle of a gory plot and then carry on as though nothing had happened? Not on your nelly.
Well before dawn I was up and dressed, waiting for signs of movement next door. I had no plan but decided to follow the man in the hope of learning more about him. At the first hint of trouble I’d definitely go to the police. And, well, if I’d got it all wrong, what did it matter?
Tailing him was surprisingly easy. I was across the road, hidden in a shop doorway before he appeared on his front step. It was still dark but I wasn’t worried about keeping him in sight. I’m sharp-eyed like a hawk and only use my glasses for reading but my main concern was transport. Did he own a car? What if he got on a bus? Could I make a quick dash in time? I need not have worried. He walked every step of the way, keeping to a leisurely pace around the park and several new housing developments until finally, he reached the old iron bridge on the edge of town. Once across he promptly disappeared. Charged with brisk energy I quickened my step. I’d cycled around this area most of my life and many’s the time I’ve carried my bike down that short flight of steps to the rough track that runs alongside the river for several miles. I hadn’t been down this way for years but it was familiar ground and I felt safe enough.
If this had been any ordinary walk I might’ve worried about aching feet but there was something compulsive about the chase that kept pulling me on. I hadn’t had so much excitement in ages. Once on the track I hesitated. I didn’t want to be complacent. He hadn’t looked back once since leaving home but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t. At least the light was better now. I glanced at my watch. Almost 7 0’clock. We’d been walking for over an hour. The river was strangely silent, not a ripple disturbed the smooth, grey surface. I was careful and used the cover of trees to protect me from view. We walked on and on.
I was beginning to wonder if he’d set out for a long day’s hike when he again slipped out of sight. I stopped at the spot where I’d last seen him. About twenty feet away a white gate was clearly visible amongst the trees. Lantana and blackberry bushes had grown across the rough track. Crouching low I edged towards the gate. My excitement quickly changed to fear. It was one thing to follow him in the open but this was different, this was scary.
The gate was padlocked but it was a simple matter to duck under the top bar and step through. Burnt twigs and blackened stones were scattered close to my feet and there were more further on. It was an ideal place to boil the billy. There was another gate on the far side of the clearing but no sign of the man. Alert for the slightest sound, I waited with bated breath. If I stayed here too long I’d never catch up with him. But what if he was hiding, waiting to trap me?
Sparrows were active in the trees above and I spotted a currawong but that was all. I was intent on reaching the next gate. Sweat broke out under my arms and across my backside. Okay, this was enough for one day. I’d walk to the next gate and turn around. Then I saw the hole. It wasn’t visible until you came close. Branches and leaves had been carefully placed to obscure it. I guessed it had been dug recently, the shape was still so sharply defined. It looked like a hole dug for a … a coffin.
Oh my god, could this be where he’d left her? Did I really want to look? But hang on, if the body was there, I’d have the proof I needed to go to the police. Steeling myself not to be squeamish, I stepped closer. The hole was quite deep. I remember thinking that if I were in there I’d not be able to see over the edge. There was no body. The hole was empty. I sighed with relief and then … I jumped.
Perhaps he trod on a twig? I’m sure I heard something. He must have come from behind intending to shove me in but before he could deliver that helpful push, I had spun into action. When I jumped it wasn’t a forward leap but a sideways twist. How dare he creep up on me like that?
Instead of grabbing at him for support, I threw myself past him, arms outstretched, eager to get as far out of his reach as possible. But my right leg was flung out at an odd angle, catching him somewhere about the height of his knees. I recoiled quickly, fearful he might grab me. I don’t think he imagined for an instant, that things might not work out as he’d planned. I watched as he stumbled forward, shock showing on his face. Hastily, he jerked himself upright, but was too late. His arms flayed at thin air as he slid into the hole, feet first.
I was up and off like a shot. My heartbeat boomed in my ears, my legs were trembling violently but I managed to grab hold of the gate and lower myself to the ground. I knew the immediate danger was over but what if he managed to get out of that hole?
Eventually, my heartbeat slowed and the trembling subsided. I was calmer but no less anxious. I stood up slowly. Low, grunting noises were coming from the hole. It was dawning on me gradually that he’d been caught n his own trap. I was in no danger while ever he stayed there.
Warily, I walked back and peered into the hole. I’d been right about the depth. Even with his arms pushed upwards there was still a gap of several inches between the tips of his fingers and the edge of the hole. He was throwing himself from one end to the other like a newly sprung jack-in-the-box, fingers scrabbling as they sought to find something to grab onto.
The soil is sandy along the river but around here it was obviously clay, hardened now by the recent bad weather, the surface slippery and unyielding. He’d need more than his pretty hands to get him out of that little hole, I thought maliciously. To dig a hole that deep he must have had a shovel. So where was it? My excitement returned when I caught sight of the handle, half buried in a pile of dirt and camouflaged with several bushy branches and bits of twig. I grabbed the handle with both hands but the shovel wouldn’t budge. I pulled again but it held fast. I needed that shovel. I’d get it out if it killed me. The thought made me laugh out loud. Have you ever noticed how humour surfaces at the most unlikely moments? Determinedly, I yanked harder, back and forth, up and down, again and again, feeling the shovel give ever so slightly. I persisted. Finally, I pulled it free with one final wrench. It was fairly new, the bottom edge still shiny in patches. I held it over my right shoulder, clasping the handle with both hands, feet spread apart for good balance. An icy calm overtook me, the like I’d never known before.
His upward thrusts were slower now and the sound of his gasping breath was tinged with frustration. He seemed unaware of my presence. Did he assume I had panicked and fled? The thought made me twitch with unexpected fury. I slammed the shovel down awkwardly.
His scream rent the air. Several sparrows flew out of nearby trees like tiny helicopters, wings flapping at a frantic pace. Would someone come and investigate? And then it hit me. God, what had I done? Me, who’d never done a violent thing in my entire life. A few feet away the ground dipped below the level of the clearing. I hid there for some minutes. If someone had come I could easily have made my escape to the far gate. When I put the shovel down I noticed cigarette butts all around me. There were so many. How many days had he come here? Were there more holes? More victims? I glanced at my watch, shook it then placed it against my ear. I could hear the steady tick-tick-tick. Only 8.50? How could time pass so slowly?
Back in the hole the man sat slumped in a corner. His right eye was clenched tight and swollen like an egg. Dirt and blood were encrusted around the edge. Judging by the position of the wound he must’ve looked up as the shovel came down. I pointed the shovel at him as though taking aim. “I want to know why.” Silence. I decided to be patient. Resting the shovel against my leg I reached into my coat pocket and removed the two apples I’d hurriedly pocketed before leaving home. I tossed one into the hole. He shrank back as it bounced off his shoe. I drew out my fruit knife and started to cut the second apple into slices.
“I’m in too much pain to eat,” he gasped at last.
The sparrows had resumed their twittering. They seemed to be having a great time. The only other sound was me munching on my apple.
“What.. what are you going to do?” he asked at last, trying to make his voice sound calm.
“That all depends on you,” I replied, as though it really did, “I told you, I want to know why. Why me? And what about that other woman you killed? Who was she?”
He did not reply. I continued eating my apple. It had been a while since breakfast and lunch was a long time off. He began to speak again but I couldn’t hear what he said.
“It was a …a game, you know? A kind of joke?”
A joke? Did he really expect me to believe that? He seemed to revive then. Once started he couldn’t stop, words spewed forth like storm-water through an open drain. He’d killed eight women and he hadn’t known any of them. They were buried in the clearing, he explained. I was horrified. When I couldn’t bear to hear any more I walked away and counted graves. I couldn’t tell for sure but I had no reason to disbelieve him. He was a killer alright, no doubt about that.
Steeling myself to ask more questions I kept my mind on practical matters.
“How long did it take you to dig each hole?”
“About four weeks, depending on the weather.”
Callouses. No wonder he had to take care of his hands.
“Did they all die the same way?”
To my utter astonishment, he began to plead. He had some valuable things in his flat, he said, I could have anything I wanted. Why not let him show me and then I could decide. Those beautiful things, they weren’t family heirlooms at all, well not his family’s anyway. Oh, how could he? How could anyone?
Revulsion and horror drained out of me, only to be replaced by a dreadful fury that began deep in my belly and rose swiftly till I felt it gagging in my throat, swelling in my chest, coursing through the veins in my arms. I knew then I was going to kill him. There was no other choice.
“… And .. what .. about .. that .. arm?”
“I knew you were watching. I wanted to get you involved.” He looked up briefly, winced, then dropped his head before continuing.
“… it worked with some of the others.”
I picked up the shovel and thumped it idly against the edge of his grave. He flung his arms up to protect his face. He looked like a victim. He had become a victim.
“What more do you want?”
“You used a step ladder, didn’t you?”
“Where is it?”
Was that hope I saw flickering across his face? He made a move to stand up then fell back, groaning. He pointed towards the river. “It’s in the undergrowth behind the gate. Hurry please, I need a doctor. You won’t regret this, I promise, I’ll make it worth your while.”
For months afterwards I would argue with myself about the number of stones it took to finish him off. Was it six? Twelve? Twenty? More? The truth is, I don’t know. Satisfied he was unconscious, maybe even dead, I began shovelling dirt. I had no intention of filling in the hole, I simply wanted to cover the body. If he was alive he’d die soon enough. I really didn’t care.
It was almost one o’clock before I finished. Grabbing a wad of tissues from my coat pocket I wiped dirt and grass off my shoes then brushed down my coat. I realized how painfully stiff my back and arms were when I bent down to get through the gate. It was an effort to straighten up but I willed myself to walk as though nothing was wrong. What if someone came along the track? A jogger perhaps or someone with a dog?
There was no sign of life in either direction. Now where was that ladder? Poking around the undergrowth I found it right away. It was a rickety, wooden ladder, its weight more awkward than heavy. Holding it by the rungs I eased it, length-wise, into the water. The shovel went in next. One brief plop and it vanished.
Near the bridge I hailed a taxi. The driver was chatty but I made little effort, beyond being polite. I remember that journey as a rare luxury, my back supported comfortably against the back seat, my mind focussed on the splendid cup of tea I was going to make just as soon as I got home.
Weeks later I heard an almighty scream coming from next door. Well, it was only a matter of time before someone went in and opened that wardrobe. I shuddered as I always do, at the memory of that arm.