© Keith Jackson
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Sometimes I think I will jump.
But not right now.
Today I am content to lean into the strengthening wind and look down over the edge of the cliff. There’s something about the jumble of black rocks at the bottom and the way the sea seethes around them. It’s inviting. One jump, a rush of air and then nothing.
But not today.
Today I’m more interested in the horizon. The sky’s boiling. Huge clouds, grey and fat with rain are being driven towards land by strong winds. It’s going to be a big storm. The winds gust harder and I hurriedly step away from the edge, back onto the safety of the coast path. It’s time to head for home and drink the storm away.
A few drops of rain spatter into my face, and before I can zip up the flapping ends of my waterproof jacket the rain comes down hard and fast. I start to run. But a few hundred yards down the path I stop dead.
Why would a woman be sitting on a bench up here at this time of year, in just a yellow t-shirt and shorts? I should just walk past, it’s not my problem, and so I start moving again. As I draw level I speak.
‘Is everything ok?’ I say.
She doesn’t answer.
‘Excuse me, are you ok?’ No reaction for a second, then she looks up at me – her eyes are amazing, wide and dark, almost as black as her pupils. She’s pretty. No, gorgeous in fact, even bedraggled by the rain.
‘You can’t stay here. You’ll catch your death,’ I tell her. She looks back out to the sea and shudders.
‘I’ll be ok.’
She’s local – no mistaking the North Devon accent.
‘I don’t think you will be. Look, my house is just a bit further down the path. We can go there and you can call someone if you like. Your husband maybe.’
‘No, thanks, no,’ she almost whispers. I have to strain to hear.
A gust of wind blows the rain in over the cliff almost horizontally, whipping the low gorse bushes around. I stagger and grab hold of the bench.
‘Honestly, let’s go,’ I have to shout now over the rising howl of the wind. ‘Now.’
She gets up, grabbing a small rucksack that had been tucked under the bench.
‘I’m Dan by the way,’ I yell.
‘Helen,’ she shouts back.
Ten minutes later we’re in my house. It looks out and down onto the small harbour. Not as pretty as Boscastle, but it gets its fair share of visitors in summer. I lead her into the front room, wincing a little to myself at the state of it. The walls are dirty magnolia, unadorned with anything other than stains and scars of things I have thrown at them when depression or too much booze needs to be vented off. The brown, threadbare carpet hasn’t fared much better. I point to a sagging leather sofa at the other end of the narrow room. ‘Sit down. I’ll see if I have anything you can wear.’
A few minutes later I’m back, dried and changed. ‘I’ve found some stuff to fit you. There’s a towel too. Upstairs and on the left.’
‘Thanks,’ she says, and gets up, rucksack clasped tight to her chest. She walks past without looking at me.
I flop into my favourite chair, a great big reclining, rotating monstrosity. It’s up this end of the room, away from the trivial distraction of the TV. I turn it round to face the window that looks over the harbour, across to the hills and cliffs on the other side of the valley. Bookcases stand on either side of the window, stuffed with everything I have liked enough to want to read again. Plato jostles with Stephen King. H Rider Haggard rests next to Alice Sebold. They are all dog eared with broken spines. I treat my books roughly.
Rain pummels the window panes. The hillside opposite is just a grey green blur. The gusting wind is whipping the rain around and driving it up the valley. The sky’s solid grey, as dark as the Cornish slate on the roof of the house.
‘Are you married?’
Shit, she moves quietly.
I turn the chair round to face her.
‘Nope, I’m not married. Not anymore,’ I answer.
‘Yeah. So…Why were you on the cliff?’
‘I just needed air. That’s all,’ she says, a bit unconvincingly.
‘It’s December.’ I raise my eyebrows. ‘Do you often go out in such thin clothes in winter?’
She looks out of the window and I can’t help a quick glance at her. The t-shirt’s baggy, and it’s a good job the cargo pants have a belt. But she looks good - very good.
‘Do you want to call anyone?’ I ask her.
Hopefully she has neither. Maybe she might be interested in me… Maybe.
‘Husband,’ she says. That’s that then.
‘Why don’t you want to call him?’
‘I don’t. Ok?’ she says, voice rising angrily.
‘Sorry,’ I hold my hands up. ‘Don’t want to rake anything up. Do you want a drink? Something to eat?’
‘Tea, beer or wine?’
‘No problem,’ I jump out of the chair. ‘Back in a min. Take a seat,’ I say, waving at the sofa again.
I come back with cheese sandwiches and two cans of lager to find her in my chair. I put the stuff down on the coffee table. No one else has ever sat in my chair - and she’s curled right into it. It makes me feel a bit… A bit narked.
‘Comfy. I can see why you like to sit here,’ she says.
‘Yeah, it passes the time, you know.’ I sit on the coffee table. ‘Won’t your husband be worrying about you?’
‘No.’ She looks down at her lap, her face reddening.
‘Oh.’ Perhaps she’s split from him. Maybe I could… No, no. Forget it.
‘Can I have my beer?’ she asks, tilting her head and smiling.
I pass it to her, along with the sandwich. We eat and drink in silence for a few minutes. She picks at her food like a sparrow, but she sucks the tin down in about five gulps. She can drink, I’ll give her that. ‘Would you like another?’ I ask her.
She nods. ‘Please.’
I get her a second beer and we drink in an edgy quiet. Her eyes never settle. They’re all over the place - the window, my face, the sofa, her rucksack, the bookcases. I wonder what’s going on with her husband. Has she left him? But why would she be on the cliffs dressed like she is?
‘Why did you split from your wife?’ she asks.
‘You said you were divorced.’
‘Yeah. Just drifted apart. Army life for you. I spent too long in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ I reply, keeping it short, trying to discourage more questions.
‘Oh. Did you see much fighting?’ She leans forward a little.
‘No. I was Royal Engineers. We built schools, dug wells, fixed generators. That sort of thing.’
‘Sounds like fulfilling work.’
‘It was. Then when I was on leave I got jumped by a bunch of peace activists. They kicked the shit out of me, pardon my French.’ She smiles her forgiveness. ‘They beat me so badly I had to be invalided out of the mob.’ I’m not going to say anything about the pain, the humiliation I felt, the anger that it caused, or the lashing out at everyone around me. Until the final night, the final fight with Sarah.
‘Sorry to hear that. I hope I haven’t…’
‘Forget it.’ I wave her apology away. ‘So here I am beside the jolly old seaside, officially slightly brain damaged and all that. So why were you on the cliff? Haven’t done away with the hubby have you?’
She jerks like someone has jabbed a finger in her ribs.
‘Of course not. I… No I haven’t…’ she stutters.
‘It’s just a joke.’ Jesus, what’s her problem?
‘I just needed some time on my own. Some air. I’ll go back home when I’m ready.’ Her eyes finally settle. She stares at her beer can, wiping the beads of condensation away with her thumb.
A huge gust of wind makes the tiles clatter on the roof. There’s a flash of something grey past the window and a shattering noise.
‘When the storm is over, I’d suggest.’
‘Yes.’ A smile flickers and dies on her lips. She finishes her beer. I finish mine.
‘It must be nice, being on your own. Doing what you want, when you want to. Being with who you like.’ Her voice is low, thoughtful.
‘It has its good points.’ Plus desperate loneliness.
‘My husband’s the jealous type. I don’t get to do much.’
I shift about on the coffee table, trying to alleviate my numb bum.
‘Oh.’ What am I meant to say to that? ‘You must have friends, or family?’
She shakes her head. ‘Can I have another beer please?’
‘Yeah, course.’ At least it’s a chance to stand up and get some blood flowing in me glutes again.
I open my beer in the kitchen and drink deeply, enjoying the cold, fizzy feeling on my tongue. I swirl the beer round my mouth as I think. I can’t help thinking something is wrong. She seems so flaky and out of it, like her mind’s away somewhere else. I study the pile of washing up in the sink for a few seconds and then decided that maybe I should just talk mundane chitter chatter until I can get rid of her. She’s not my problem.
I take the beers back into the front room.
I stand in front of the window, looking out. ‘It’s some storm.’ I take a sip of my beer. ‘Not seen one like this before.’
‘I’ll be out of your way soon.’
I turn to face her. ‘No rush, you don’t want to be out in that.’
‘I couldn’t leave him,’ she practically whispers.
‘What?’ I’m not sure I heard right.
She glugs some more beer down then pulls both legs up, hugging her knees to her chest. She stares into the distance. ‘He phones the house. Every hour. And if I don’t answer… So I can only go for short walks round the village. I didn’t think I’d ever have a friend. Then I met Mike.’
Here we go - the lover.
‘I forgot myself for a while. I missed the odd call home. Then two in a row. My husband came back to check. Saw us talking not far from the house. That night wasn’t… wasn’t the best I’d ever had.’
‘And, um, what did he do to you?’ I ask.
Nothing? What’s all this about then?
‘He never hits me. It’s what he says. It’s the threats. The…what’s implied that’s worse.’
I know I should change the subject. But it niggles at me.
‘Why didn’t you walk out on him when you found out what he was like?’
‘It’s not as easy as you make it sound.’
I could see that - Sarah stayed with me, even when I…
‘You could’ve just walked out the door as soon as he had gone to work. You’d have a whole day to get away,’ I say, trying not to sound incredulous at her staying with him. If what she says is true, of course.
‘Didn’t you hear me? He phones, every hour. If I don’t answer he finally comes home to see what’s going on.’
‘But even so, he’d have to know where you’d gone.’
‘He’d find me,’ she says with such certainty it silences me. I watch her drain her third can.
I have to ask, can’t help myself, there’s something about her. ‘What about now? Will he be looking for you?’
She looks at me. Then she shakes her can. ‘Can I have another please?’
I pull another beer from the fridge. What’s the deal with her husband? She sounds so… I don’t know… So final.
It really will be better if I keep off the subject from now on, especially since she has been putting the beers inside her. As soon as the storm dies down she can go off to wherever and that will be that.
I go back into the front room. She’s bent over her rucksack, rummaging around inside it. I put the tin on the coffee table.
‘Storm’s dying a bit, I reckon. You should be able to get away soon.’
‘Get away?’ Her voice is low, somehow distant.
‘Yeah, from here.’ I can’t help myself. ‘Maybe you should phone the police. Talk about how your husband…’
The encouraging smile dies on my face as I turn to face her.
She has a pistol. A big Browning nine millimetre. I recognise it from my Army days. Some officers used them as personal side arms. They pack a nasty punch. It looks old. I can see rust spots around the muzzle.
She stands up slowly, pointing the gun at my stomach.
So that was it. She had killed him. And now I’ve provoked her into this just because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. The first person I’ve been nice to in months and she’s a fucking killer.
She studies me, head to one side. ‘I knew he kept a gun. He was paranoid about home security. I’d been thinking for days and days about leaving him. About how I would do it and where I would go and what help I could get. But it always came back to him still being here. Still being able to find me. The thoughts just built and built until this morning, when he made me stand in the corner of the dining room, facing the wall, as he ate the breakfast I made for him, while he told me all of my failings and how I was lucky to be married to him. The gun was in the dresser. Before I knew what I was doing I was pointing it at him.
‘He laughed at me. I shot him. It was easy. He’s still there now. He won’t be missed for a few days. I was going to throw the gun off the cliff and then pretend I’d been away.’ Her voice cracks. The gun begins to shake in her hands. ‘When I got to the cliff I realised what I’d done. I was thinking of jumping, I was going to jump, when you came along.’
Were you now? Or were you waiting for Mike, and he hadn’t showed? I wonder.
‘You don’t believe me. I can see it.’
‘Can you blame me? If this is all so innocent why are you pointing a gun at me? I could’ve helped or something. Corroborated your story with the police maybe.’
Her eyes widen and she regards me intensely for a few seconds.
‘I just don’t want to go to prison.’ She’s more animated now. There’s a hopeful tone in her voice. ‘I killed him, and there’s no proof he’s anything other than a successful businessman. I can’t go to prison. I’ve been in a cage all my life.’
She’s about four feet away. I calculate my chances of jumping her. They aren’t good. I can see her point about the police though, about assuming her guilt. I don’t know what to think anymore. My head begins to ache. She’s confusing me.
‘Look. We don’t want to hurt one another. Why don’t you put the gun down and we’ll talk about options,’ I say, trying to sound reasonable, but the words stick in my dry mouth.
She laughs. High pitched and edgy.
‘Options? What fucking options?’
‘See? There aren’t any. He’s fucked up my life so far and he’s fucking it up still.’
‘Helen, you need to calm down,’ I say softly. I don’t want that gun going off by accident. ‘You have to explain it to the police. There’s no other sensible way.’
‘It’s just over. There isn’t anything left. I’m going.’ She half sniffs, half sobs.
‘Where?’ I ask, puzzled.
‘Back to the cliff.’
I stare at her as what she means dawns on me. How many times have I stood at the top of the cliff, wondering if I should just step over the edge?
‘Helen,’ I reach out to her but she steps back. ‘You said you never had a life. Don’t do this. It’ll mean he’s won.’
She starts to cry. The gun drops onto the back of the chair and she puts her face in her hands. Her whole body shakes. And at that moment I believe her. She doesn’t look sorry for herself, but for the life she’d been denied. I don't know why, but Ibelieve her. She has a chance for something else now and I have an idea on how to get it.
‘Fancy a walk in the rain?’ I ask slowly.
Her house is detached and surrounded by high hedges, and as far as I can tell no one has seen us get here. Most of the houses in this part of the village are holiday lets, and I used the back ways to get here.
We stand outside the dining room door.
‘I don’t think I can go in there,’ she says, her voice trembling slightly.
‘You don’t have to,’ I reply. ‘How often do you clean your oven?’
‘What? Why?’ She looks puzzled.
‘Oven cleaner is a nasty mix of chemicals. It scours things off hands as well as ovens, like any traces from firing a gun.’
‘So you clean your oven now with no gloves on and the police will never be able to prove you fired a shot. You just tell them you cleaned it then went for a walk to clear your head from the fumes. You got caught in the storm, I brought you back and we found your husband, dead.’
‘Police? But… But they’ll know,’ she says doubtfully.
‘No they won’t. They may suspect, but they can’t prove,’ I pause. ‘I’ve been assuming the gun’s illegal? Not registered?’
She shakes her head slowly. ‘No, it's not registered, it’s illegal.’
‘And nobody knows what he’s really like? You know, with you?’
‘No,’ she says emphatically.
‘There you go then. Nothing provable. It’ll be a bungled robbery. Especially since I’m going to take some of your jewellery and trash a room or two.’
She looks a bit dazed.
I point at the kitchen door. ‘Go on. We have to call the police soon.’
I run up the stairs and find the master bedroom. It’s dominated by a king sized bed covered with a plain white duvet. Along one wall is a row of oak chest of drawers and a dressing table. I put some gloves on and pick up a jewellery box and empty the contents into my pocket and then drop it on the floor. I sweep the rest of the stuff off the dressing table. The wardrobe gets the same treatment - all the clothes out and on the floor. I generally mess the room up and knock the pictures off the walls. Next I go onto the landing. The loft hatch is just out of reach. I need a chair or something, so I run back down the stairs.
I stop outside the dining room door. I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies before but something’s compelling me to look at this one. I can hear Helen in the kitchen. I slowly open the door. He’s facing me, stretched out on the floor. His blood’s drying to almost black, stark against the cream carpet. His eyes are half open, face slack like only a corpse’s can be. A shock of curly brown hair tops a round face with a long nose and full lips. It looks like a face built for laughter.
But what do I know?
I go in the kitchen. The tang of oven cleaner hits my nose hard and my eyes water a little. I wave my hand in front of my face. ‘Open a window. We can’t have the smell being recent. Got any air freshener?’ I ask.
She nods as she opens the window above a gleaming sink.
I pick up a chair from the little breakfast bar.
‘What do you want that for?’ she asks.
‘Need to get in the loft and hide the jewellery.’
Thirty minutes later I put the chair back. The kitchen smells of flowers. Helen’s leaning against the black marble worktop, looking out of the window intently. The ubiquitous rucksack’s next to her, it’s shabbiness out of place in the brochure perfect kitchen.
‘Looking for something?’
She starts. ‘No… Course not.’ She stares out the window again, a preoccupied look on her face.
‘Are we ready for the police then?’ I ask her.
She pulls the pistol out of her rucksack. ‘What about this?’ she asks, holding it up.
‘Shit. We should have got rid of it. I completely forgot…’ This is bad news.
She holds it out to me, handle first.
‘Can’t you bury it in the garden or something?’
I stare at it. The police will search the garden and the surrounding area for a murder weapon. She waggles it. I take it off her and heft it. I haven’t held a gun since my army days. I’m flummoxed. I don’t know what to do.
‘Give me a minute to think,’ I say, and I wander out into the hallway, tapping the gun against my leg as I prowl round in a small circle, desperately searching for a solution.
The front door bursts open and smashes against the wall. I spin round, adrenalin kicking in my stomach. Old training makes me swing the pistol up.
‘Armed police. Drop your weapon. Now.’
A man crouches in the doorway, dressed in blue fatigues and US army style helmet. He’s aiming a short, vicious looking gun at me. I freeze. My mind’s totally blank as I stare at him in disbelief.
‘I said drop your weapon.’ He’s pumped full of adrenalin too, his voice is tight and I can see the muscles bunching on his forearms. He’s not far from pulling the trigger.
I let the gun fall. It hits my foot. I kick it away and sink to my knees, trying to keep my hands up. He comes up to me, two others close behind him. They push me face down onto the floor and twist my arms behind my back. A few seconds later I’m back on my feet, tightly handcuffed.
Another man comes in. His short blond hair glistens with rain and his long, beige raincoat is dark on the shoulders. He glances at me then calls out. ‘It’s ok Mrs Peters, we’ve got him.’
Helen comes into the hallway. Her eyes are fixed on mine. There’s satisfaction in them, and hardness too.
‘Helen, what’s going on?’ I ask her, almost whining in fear.
‘You’ve been holding Mrs Peters’ hostage since you shot her husband. That’s what’s been going on. Not as clever as you think you are, though. She called us on her mobile while your attention was elsewhere. She said you kept going back to look at the body. Gloating were you?’
‘No… I don’t understand. Are you saying I killed him?’ Fuck, I really don’t believe this. ‘No way. She did. She admitted it to me earlier.’
‘We’ve had our eye on you since you moved here. Loner, angry, spends time on the cliffs every day, ex soldier with a history of violence and mental illness. You did it. I know it and I’ll prove it, don’t you worry.’
I look imploringly at Helen. ‘Tell the truth Helen. Tell him what really happened.’
‘He’s been bothering me for weeks. My husband warned him off three or four times. He just turned up this morning and barged in. He… He shot poor Tom.’
Tears again. Fuck, she’s good at switching them on.
She looks at the detective. They hold each other’s gaze for just a little too long. I know. Shit. I know. Talk about a set up. Fuck, they must’ve planned this for months.
‘Good job Helen, well done.’
She ignores me.
The detective nods at the uniformed police. ‘Take him to the car and caution him.’
He turns away.
‘Mike?’ I say.
He can’t help himself, he glances back at me.
He frowns and then leads Helen back into the kitchen.
The rain’s stopped and the gale’s now a breeze. Blue shows through the ragged grey clouds. The world smells fresh and clean. Washed and ready to start again.
At the end of the path a blue and yellow police car waits.