Tuesday, 10 February 2009

An Easy Mistake to Make

Copyright © 2002

An irritable man sees double then sees red, with disastrous consequences.

It was a normal enough morning for Joan and Alan. She rose bright as a daisy and hummed her way through her washing and dressing before heading off downstairs to prepare breakfast. He slithered out of bed and moved slug-like and silent through his fixed, brainless routine. More often than not, even with his brain jarred by the ringing of the alarm, he had still to be coaxed into wakefulness by Joan, or at least wakefulness enough to commence his robotic preparations for the day. She thought him much like their old computer in the study, which would never work properly from a cold start but always needed a ‘warm boot’ to get things going.

He could hear her downstairs in the kitchen as he applied his electric shaver to his stubbled face, or rather he could hear the radio and various items of crockery and stainless steel being laid out. Not that it registered with him. He finished shaving and washed his face with soap and lukewarm water, then rinsed off with cold water straight from the tap. At last, the sap began to rise. He breathed in deeply, drawing the fresh, morning air into his lungs. He noticed that the bathroom window was open, but then Joan always left windows open, and that the air was cool and crisp and full of birdsong. He looked in the mirror and smiled at himself as a wave of consciousness swept across his mind, brushing aside his primordial programming and making room for rational thought to assert itself. He left the bathroom and returned to the bedroom to dress.

‘Breakfast’s ready, dear,’ he heard Joan shout from below as he turned the last loop in his tie then inched the knot up to his neck. He knew it would be; after so many years together, their separate routines had meshed perfectly.

‘Coming,’ he shouted back, then trotted down the stairs to his perfectly ordered daytime existence, hot tea, toast, and homemade marmalade.

‘Postman’s late today,’ Joan observed before kissing him on the brow then handing him his newspaper and continuing, ‘That tie doesn’t really go with that shirt.’

‘Oh?’ he said, turning to the back page, ‘I’ll change it then.’

‘The nice blue one I bought you.’

‘Right.’

Joan munched her way through her toast, smiling, and occasionally sniggering, at the dry wit of the D.J. Alan, trying as usual to do more things at a time than a man could cope with, slurped his way through his tea, spread marmalade on his fingers, and knocked over the cereal packet by attempting to use it as a support for the newspaper.

‘What are you doing today?’ she asked, wondering if, just for once, he might have something out of the ordinary to attend to, or if it would be yet another routine day at the office.

‘Mmm?’ he said, turning his face towards her but leaving his eyes on column four of the inside back page. She did not bother repeating herself, the years having taught her that he knew exactly what she had said but that his brain needed time to bring it to his notice. ‘Oh, just the usual,’ he said, finally giving her his attention, ‘although I think we might have a rush-job to despatch. Shouldn’t be too irksome, though.’ He flashed a smile at her. ‘What about you?’ he asked, mostly out of politeness; time had taught him that Monday meant shopping lists and planning housework.

‘Well,’ she said, competing again with his newspaper for his attention, ‘it’s such a lovely day that I thought I might go for a drive. Pop over to see Naomi for an hour, then pop into town.’

‘That’s nice,’ he commented from behind the centrefold, chewing on his third slice of toast, almost surprised at her break from routine, ‘Give her my love and ask her when she’s coming over to see her poor old Dad.’

‘Oh Alan, you know how busy she is with the children. You can’t expect her to keep on dragging them over here–’

‘And having them trample all over my flower beds because she’s too old to do that sort of thing herself now.’ He smiled wryly. Joan merely smiled, although not with her eyes.

They finished their breakfast in accustomed silence save for the banter emanating from the radio.

‘Well, best be off,’ said Alan, pulling on his jacket before rinsing the marmalade from his sticky fingers. They walked together through the hall to the front door. Alan took Joan in his arms and hugged her, then kissed her on the cheek. ‘Still no post, then,’ he said, and in the same breath, ‘Love you. See you later.’

Joan watched him drive the Range Rover into the morning traffic. ‘He never did change his tie,’ she said to herself, then quietly closed the door on him.
*

By the time Alan had fought his way through the traffic to work he was alert and irritated and ready for an argument. Everyone knew this would be the case and avoided anything that might cause one until at least after morning coffee. His secretary brought in the coffee and biscuits with the morning post then returned to her desk in the outer office to organise his phone calls and fit meetings into his diary. He slurped his coffee too loudly for her liking so she made sure the communicating door was firmly closed.

After forty minutes of sorting his mail into things to do now, things to delegate, things that could wait, and bin-fodder, the phone rang. It was the foreman from the workshop.

‘The rush-job’s finished, Alan. I’ve arranged for it to go by rail. Can you spare someone to take it to the station?’

‘Thanks, Joe. I’ll take it myself. Don’t want this one in the wrong hands.’

He left his desk, explained to his secretary what was happening, then wandered through the offices and down onto the factory floor. He noticed how everyone was always busy whenever he passed but he remained unconvinced by the deception. His father had had the sense to put him through the firm’s apprenticeship scheme so that he would have a full grasp of the way things worked by the time he came to take over. He certainly had a full grasp of how the men worked – mostly when they were watched – but, unlike his father had been, he was satisfied as long as they did the work that was required of them. The men knew that he knew, and his tolerance of their easy-going approach to work was rewarded by their tolerance of the frequent rush-jobs endemic to a specialist company such as this – provided, of course, that the overtime was paid at a satisfactory level. Actually, he enjoyed a lot of respect from the men. He did know the job, as newcomers who tried to pull the wool over his eyes soon found out. Leaving newcomers to find out for themselves was a favourite sport of the old hands.

He arrived at the foreman’s office and, out of politeness, knocked before entering. ‘Morning, Joe,’ he offered.

‘Hello, Alan,’ the foreman replied, rising from his chair then walking over to the bench on the other side of the room. ‘She’s over here in this case – a real beauty. I had to do this one myself; daren’t leave it to anyone else.’

‘She certainly is,’ Alan replied, admiring the craftsmanship, ‘and that’s as nice a piece of restoration as I’ve ever seen,’ he added with an appreciative whistle, genuinely impressed. ‘You certainly know your stuff, Joe.’ Joe responded with appropriately deferential pride in a job well done, before closing and locking the aluminium case.

Alan took the case out to his car and carefully laid and locked it in the space in front of the tailgate. He climbed into the driver’s seat, fired up the engine, turned on the radio then rejoined the busy traffic for his next dose of irritation and flaring anger.
*

The Collingwood Hotel stood next to the railway station. It had a large car park in comparison to the station’s and always there were spaces near the back. The parcel depot opened onto the hotel’s car park so, given the nature of his task, it was natural enough to park there rather than to try to get into the station’s. If the hotel’s car park attendant could be bothered to accost him he thought he could easily come up with a satisfactory explanation for his ignoring the ‘Patrons Only’ sign at the gate.

He reversed into his chosen space and switched off the engine. The programme on the radio was no more than a couple of minutes off finishing, so he sat listening in the car whilst gazing sightlessly across the car park and onto the outside world beyond it.

A man carrying a small suitcase emerged from the station and stopped to look around. Alan heard a woman call out. His attention caught, he looked towards the sound. At first, he could not believe what he saw. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. He had not been mistaken, and what he had seen struck him like a sledgehammer. When the woman had called out, the man with the suitcase had turned, seen her waving and smiling, and then walked briskly towards her. He had dropped his suitcase and clutched her tightly to him, kissing her passionately. Alan opened the door and stepped out beside the car so as to get a better view. The man was a total stranger to him, the woman, whom the stranger had enfolded, his own wife.

He went weak at the knees and had to sit down again. He rested his head against the steering wheel, his mind reeling at this unexpected disclosure of Joan’s unfaithfulness. He tried to swallow the huge lump in his throat and felt himself choking. He looked up again and saw Joan and her lover walking hand-in-hand towards the hotel’s entrance, laughing and smiling and flirting as they went.

Alan punched the steering wheel, making his hand bleed. Not knowing what else to do, he sprang from the car and followed the lovers at a distance. They turned into the hotel and he paused at the door as they approached reception. Satisfied that they would not see him, he slipped inside and took cover behind a large pillar from where he could hear them talking.

‘I know it hasn’t been long but I’ve really missed you,’ Joan said, smiling radiantly into her lover’s face. Alan wondered how long this had been going on.

‘Yes, but I’m here now,’ the stranger replied, sliding his hand over the back of her skirt.

Alan almost passed out.

‘I’ve really been looking forward to this. You know how down I’ve been at home, wondering what to do,’ Joan said.

Alan could barely restrain himself from running over and demanding an explanation, pleading for another chance, punching the stranger’s lights out, protesting his love to Joan.

‘I know, but we’ll have it all out in the open soon,’ the stranger said.

Alan began to cry softly. ‘Oh no!’ he thought, ‘she’s leaving me!’

The clerk came to the desk and registered the ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ who stood before him. Alan could not believe that they had used the name ‘Smith’. The clerk gave the couple a key, directed them to room 2-7 on the second floor, and wished them a pleasant stay.

‘Pleasant?’ thought Alan, ‘I don’t think “Pleasant” is what they have in mind.’

The couple made their way to the lift and pressed the call button. Alan almost gave himself away as they chatted whilst waiting. The man turned and by chance cast a glance over the foyer and towards the pillar around which Alan was peering. Alan jerked back out of sight. No-one said anything so he felt confident he had not been noticed. He heard the lift chime on its arrival, the door slide open, and the voices become muffled then silenced as the door closed again. He stepped into the open and saw that the foyer was empty. On impulse, he headed for the stairs and climbed them, stifling the sobs of his broken heart as he went.

As he expected, they had left the lift by the time he reached the second floor. He heard them chatting around the corner. He stood silently, straining to hear their talk, willing his heart to cease its drum-beat against his ribcage and so avoid giving away his presence. He heard a key turn in a lock, a door open and close, and the resulting silence of the corridor now empty of all but himself. He crept along the corridor, seemingly stepping on every loose and creaking floorboard as he went. Outside the door to room 2-7 Alan paused to regain his senses, what was left of them. Placing one hand on each doorpost, he carefully leant forward and pressed his ear against the door.

‘It’ll be quite a shock for him,’ he heard the stranger say.

‘Yes,’ Joan replied, ‘but it’s so exciting!’ She giggled then stopped. ‘Oh! That’s nice…’ he heard her say in a soft, luxuriating tone.

Incensed by what he had heard, Alan backed away from the door and took off down the corridor as if in flight from the Devil himself. He clattered down the stairs, panting heavily and calling out, ‘No!’ repeatedly as he went. He slipped on the marble of the foyer and went sprawling across the floor crashing into and toppling a planter. The clerk, disturbed by the noise, rushed out of his small office to see a middle-aged man clambering to his feet and running ungainly out through the revolving door, leaving it spinning in his wake. Once outside, Alan stopped and caught his breath in a series of wracking sobs and rasping gasps. Passers-by eyed him curiously and cautiously.

Suddenly, the Rage gripped him. He took off once more and raced towards his car. He opened the tailgate then, with grim determination, unlocked the aluminium case. He looked dispassionately on its contents. He began frantically to search through the clutter and rubbish in the car until he found three carelessly discarded unspent cartridges that were left over from Saturday’s pheasant shoot; his own gun was the same calibre as the knocked-down shotgun in the aluminium case. ‘I’ll swing for them!’ he declared to himself as he assembled the gun. ‘I’ll kill her for this!’ he said, as he inserted a cartridge into the left-hand bore, and, ‘I’ll kill him!’ as he repeated the action for the right-hand bore. ‘How could she, after all I’ve given her?’ He put the third cartridge into his jacket pocket…

He left the car, neglecting to close the tailgate, and stormed off resolutely towards the hotel entrance. At the hotel, he set the door spinning once more. The clerk looked up from his desk and saw the middle-aged man re-enter the building. His face looked like thunder and he carried a shotgun broken across his forearm! Alan strode across the foyer towards the stairs, past the cleaners who attended to the spilt contents of the shattered planter.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ said the clerk, hardly daring to attract the attention of the armed man. Alan paid him no heed but marched determinedly upstairs. The clerk reached for the phone and dialled three digits.

On the second floor, Alan encountered a Room Service attendant pushing a serving trolley. The man, on seeing the shotgun and the grim look on Alan’s face, halted in his tracks and turned ashen white. ‘Back off!’ Alan shouted at him as he snapped the gun shut. The man retreated, dragging his trolley.

Outside room 2-7, Alan flicked off the safety catch and held the gun by the stock in his left hand. With his right he hammered on the door, shouting, ‘Come out here and face me like a man, you bloody coward!’

He heard Joan’s terrified scream from within.

He hammered again, and shouted, ‘Get out here now, or I’ll kick the door in!’

Inside the room, the stranger reached for the phone and did his best to raise reception but the clerk was already fully engaged in telling his own observations to the police and passing on those of the Room Service attendant who had fled to safety down the back stairs.

Alan stood back from the door and kicked as hard as he could just below the lock. The door shuddered. He kicked again and heard the satisfying crack of splintering timber. One more kick and the frame gave way. The door slammed back against the wall of the small passage just inside the room, then ricocheted back into Alan’s charging advance. He barged through unflinching at the door’s revenge and levelled the gun before him. After two steps, he stood in the open room. Ahead of him, he saw Joan on the bed, screaming, the blankets drawn up around her. He swung left and saw the man, naked, the telephone receiver in his hand.

‘What the hell, d’you think you’re playing at!’ the stranger shouted at Alan.

‘Me?’ Alan shouted back, ‘I’m not playing at anything!’

The scene turned red before him. He put the gun to his shoulder and levelled the double muzzle at the stranger, who shrank back in terror against the wall, pointlessly closing his eyes against the expected blast. A deafening crack reverberated inside the small room, and the stranger’s face disintegrated.

Joan screamed as her lover’s body collapsed against the wall and slid jerking to the floor, ‘Oh John! Oh John! Oh John! Oh John!’ she shouted, her eyes agog at the bloody, shredded mess before her.

‘John?’ Alan shouted in utter disbelief, ‘John Smith? How utterly crass can you be?’ He rounded on Joan and barked into her face, interposing himself between her and the corpse, ensuring that he had her full attention, ‘And you! How could you do this after all these years, coming here and bringing him with you?’

Startled, she blubbered and squealed, ‘Oh no! Please don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me!’

‘I asked you a question,’ he shouted.

‘I just needed to know,’ she blurted back, ‘I didn’t think it would do any harm…I was curious, that’s all. I wanted to know if we had a future–’

‘What? You didn’t think it would do any harm?’ he shouted and, stamping his feet, his arms and the gun flailing around, ‘All this is just for curiosity? And what about our future, you stupid cow? Did you stop to consider that?’

She sat on the bed a terrified, gibbering wreck before him, and wept uncontrollably.

Suddenly still, he declared, ‘Well, I guess we have no future now!’ He poked the gun into the blankets until the muzzle came up against her belly, then discharged the second barrel. She fell silent instantly and cracked her head against the old, iron bedstead as she recoiled from the blast, robbing herself of her few remaining seconds of conscious existence.

For a moment, time stood still. Alan looked at Joan’s lifeless form and turned cold and numb. Smoke swirled from the two barrels to form nebulous blue sheets suspended in the still air. He fumbled distractedly in his pocket for the third cartridge, intending to use it on himself, but the shotgun slipped from his fingers and rattled to the floor. He stepped back, wide-eyed and with panic beginning to rise. He heard running footsteps in the corridor.

The panic took over and he began his flight. He ran away from the sound towards the window. He threw up the sash and climbed out onto the fire escape. He clattered down the metal stairs, barely keeping his feet on their slippery, damp surface. As he went, he heard the retching of his unknown pursuer above. He ran for all he was worth through the hotel garden, and cleared the low fence at the end in a single bound. He burst into the car park and made a beeline for his car. From the corner of his eye he glimpsed the flashing blue light of a squad car parked outside the hotel entrance; the air was filled with the noise of a second that arrived just as he climbed into his car.

He fired up the engine and floored the accelerator. Fortunately for him, the two parking spaces in front of him were now clear and he shot through them and the wooden fence beyond, then over the footpath and onto the road, scattering surprised pedestrians in every direction and strewing rubbish from the still-open tailgate. He sped through the town wreaking havoc upon stationary and moving cars alike. Eventually he calmed down and drove more temperately to the far-flung corner of the car park at a large out-of-town shopping mall. He left the car, walked to the bus-stop and waited, stupefied, in the shelter.
*

By the time he reached home, he had begun to realise what he had done. He had walked zombie-like along the road between the bus-stop and the house, making pathetic little whimpering noises, interspersed with, ‘Oh Joan, my lovely Joan,’ as he plodded on. At the front door, he lifted a trembling hand to the lock and steadied it with his free hand so that he could insert the key. Once inside, he pushed the door closed, leant back against it, and slid down it as the dam that held back his tears finally gave way under the strain. He sobbed and howled and called for Joan. Blackness descended on his soul as the day descended through dusk towards night. Eventually, he crawled to the lounge where he stumbled to his feet using the furniture for support. He shuffled forlornly to the drinks cabinet, still crying as he went. He took a glass and poured four fingers of Scotch. He gulped on it and paused to sob. Again he gulped, and the amber liquid breathed its soothing warmth into his body.

Their mantelpiece had a photograph on each end, one of him, one of Joan. He went for Joan’s picture but reached out clumsily for it, knocking it to the floor and smashing the glass into myriad fragments. He fell into the nearest armchair and broke his heart again. He gulped once more. His head began to reel. The extremes of emotion that he had endured that day conspired with the drink and soon he was asleep and snoring loudly.

He woke an hour later, his head throbbing. He refilled his glass and sat down again. It was night by now but the darkness cocooned him, making him feel strangely remote from the deeds done in daylight. He half heard a car draw up on the gravel outside, and the slamming of a single car door. He lifted his swimming head and tried his best to steady the room and focus his thoughts. He heard a key in the door and then the irritating squeak of the hinge that he had been meaning to oil for several weeks. ‘It must be Naomi,’ he thought, ‘Whatever am I going to tell her?’

A hand pushed open the lounge door and reached inside for the light switch. The door continued to swing, revealing fully the owner of the hand.

‘Oh my God!’ shouted Alan.

‘I’m sorry, dear; I didn’t mean to startle you. Why were you sitting in the dark? Oh, you’ve been drinking, and rather heavily, by the looks of things.’

Alan sat forward on the edge of the chair. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He opened them again and focussed on the woman before him. Horrified, he was momentarily speechless, then he blurted out, ‘Joan! But I thought you–’

‘You’ll never guess what arrived in the post today, dear,’ she said, far too excited to pay attention to the sudden and deathly pallor of his face or the consternation in his speech. She slipped back into the hallway to remove and hang up her coat.

‘But you’re–’

She continued her excited babble as she walked back into the lounge, ‘It appears that when my mother gave me up for adoption she also gave up a twin – an identical twin!’ she clapped her hands in ecstasy. ‘Can you believe it?’ she asked, barely looking at him.

‘But you’re–’

‘I have a twin sister! An identical twin sister! A letter came from her today. She found out about me from her adoptive mother and traced me. She sent me a photograph.’ She rummaged in her handbag for the letter, took the photograph from the envelope and thrust it in front of his disbelieving face. He took it from her tentatively. She returned to her babble, ‘We’re so alike, don’t you think? Look, she even has the same hairstyle and the same shade of lipstick. Isn’t that amazing?’

‘Then…it wasn’t…you?’

‘What? No, of course not, it’s her, my identical twin sister! Anyway, she said in the letter that she was coming to town today – today, dear, can you believe that? Her husband – his name’s John, oh, and hers is Jenny – her husband is catching a train from London after a meeting he has to attend. They’re staying at the Collingwood. John and Jenny Smith – isn’t that rather lovely? Anyway, they hope we’ll make contact and meet them tomorrow but they quite understand if we feel awkward about it.’ She paused for breath. Finally, she saw the blackness in his face. ‘Are you all right, dear?’ she asked him, ‘Is there something wrong?’

He lifted his face slowly, his body swaying from the effects of the drink. ‘I think,’ he swallowed hard, ‘I’ve already met them…’ he replied, in doom-laden tone.

Picking up on his mood, she lowered herself in trepidation into the other armchair, sensing that he had something awful to tell her. ‘Really? When? How?’ she asked.

‘I…I had to take a parcel to the station. I…I bumped into them there.’

‘My, that must have seemed strange.’ Then her eyes sparkled, ‘I bet you thought you’d caught me with another man!’ she said in a suggestive tone.

Alan hung his head low and spoke so quietly that Joan had to strain to hear him, ‘That’s…exactly what I thought.’ Then he told her, falteringly, and amidst many tears, what had happened.

‘You did what?’ she shouted, standing to her feet, suddenly angry. ‘If this is some sort of joke I don’t think it a very funny one – not very funny at all!’

‘It’s not a joke,’ he said, looking at her with big, moist, puppy-dog eyes that begged for forgiveness, ‘It’s true. I killed them.’

She flopped, incredulous, back into her armchair, ‘I can’t believe it! Are you telling me,’ she asked, ‘that you’ve killed the sister I did not know I had before I’ve even had the chance to meet her?’ She broke down, her suddenly grief-stricken face in her hands, and wept. ‘Alan, Alan, what have you done? Do you honestly believe I would engage in a sordid affair?’

‘It was an easy mistake to make,’ he petitioned, ‘she looked so like you. When I saw you – her – with him at the hotel where we spent our wedding night something just snapped. I did it because I love you so, so much, my darling…’ He found himself suddenly speechless. He slid off the chair and shuffled on his knees across the floor towards her, holding out his arms. ‘Please forgive me,’ he groaned through his sobbing.

‘Stay away from me!’ she yelled, and pushed at him with both her hands so that he fell sidelong and hit his head on the fireplace. He climbed groggily back to his knees and wiped blood from his brow with the back of his hand. She sighed heavily then fetched a box of tissues from the lower shelf of the coffee table and knelt before him. She began, with no apparent emotion, to mop up the blood oozing from the gash on his head.

He placed loose fists tremblingly against her hips, unable to touch her with open palms, expecting her rebuff. Slowly, fearfully, he slipped his arms around her waist until he was crushing her to himself and weeping desperately into her shoulder. ‘What am I going to do?’ he kept asking, ‘What am I going to do?’

She held him in her arms, and rocked him gently as she had used to rock Naomi when she had been hurt as a child.

Joan heard a car draw up on the gravel. A few seconds later, the doorbell rang. In stunned silence, she rose to her feet, leaving Alan in a crumpled heap on the floor, howling in anguish. She went to the door and opened it to find herself confronted with several armed policemen.

‘I think you’d better come in,’ she said, and she walked back towards the lounge and her doubly empty life…

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