‘If you’re there, pick up. C’mon Beth, get out of your pit and pick up the Goddamn phone, I want all the gory details. Oh my God, you’re not in bed with him are you? Okay, so you’re not there. I’m burning with curiosity here. Meet me at the coffee stall in the market in Ulverston at ten, yeah? Colin hasn’t put any money in the bank this week, the bastard, so I’m going to call in at the garage. A bit of public humiliation ought to remind him of his parental responsibilities. Catch you at ten, babe. Bye.’
The phone was beside the chair in which Beth sat, numbly ignoring it. It was only eight thirty. She’d been in the same position all night without moving. She hadn’t noticed the passage of time at all, it could have been one night or it could have easily been three weeks. On the rare occasion that her mind had been filled with thought, the only thing taking space was a detached bemusement. She was amazed that her mind wasn’t racing. She had just killed a man. She had watched life seep away from another human being and yet she didn’t feel anything much at all. She certainly wasn’t frightened. On getting home she had prepared for what was to come and then she just sat down quietly to wait.
True she had run home in sheer panic but the moment that she shut her front door on the world, on him, the fear left and she was filled with an empty calm. She had walked straight into her bedroom and stripped out of her bloody clothing, folding the items into a neat pile and putting them in a suitcase. As well as all the blood on her outer garments, there was a small blood stain on the front of her underwear, a drop that had smeared through her skirt from either one of her cuts or one of his. She felt humiliated and almost threw them away, but of course, they’d want to examine her underwear too. She placed her boots neatly on the top, zipped the case and dressed in jog pants and a jumper. She wanted to shower. She could smell him on her, that sickly magnolia shower gel. It made her gag and several times she thought she was going to vomit.
She wanted to shower but she had seen enough cop programmes to know that it wasn’t the right thing to do. She didn’t want to incriminate herself further or make things any worse for herself when she stood in the dock a murderess.
She'd put on a coat because it was cold, took her suitcase and placed it neatly beside her chair and sat down...waiting. She didn't even contemplate ringing the police herself; thought took effort and she had no effort left to give. She didn't feel numb in the way that stories always described, this was entirely different. She felt blank.
Maybe she should go to meet Maggie, live for one more hour as a normal woman on a normal Monday morning. Maggie said herself that she wanted the gory details of her date with Marc. Beth snorted. Well, if gore was what she wanted she wouldn’t be disappointed.
She had expected them to come, flashing blue, almost immediately. But Marc might not be found for some time, it might be days and then they had to connect him to her. It would save a lot of time if she went to them. But it would be good to have a coffee with Maggie first. For once, she had something to tell that Maggie couldn’t beat.
After hours of empty nothingness, the thought of seeing Maggie had opened a small part of her functioning. She realised that she wasn't just cold, she was freezing. She noticed for the first time that she hurt almost all over her body. Letting the hurt in also created a channel for simple thought. She'd meet Maggie and then she would hand herself in. That was the right thing to do in these difficult circumstances.
She left a note for the police saying that she was going to give herself in but had called into the market first. She had no idea how quickly the police would break down doors in cases of cold-blooded murder. It might look as though she’d run away.
She felt as if she had a cold, the type of cold that people always exaggerate to ‘flu’. She was tired but not sleepy, heavy but not encumbered. Her head ached from the beating and her few intermittent thoughts were having trouble getting through the swelling to make themselves understood.
She looked at the clock to see what time the next bus was due. The time went from her eyes to her brain and then was lost. She read the clock again, this time keeping the information on its lead, but she struggled to make the calculation of the current time to bus time. It was irrelevant, more white noise in a head crammed full of the stuff. The buses ran every fifteen minutes so she wouldn’t have long to wait.
As she left the house she saw somebody sitting on the strip of council owned grass opposite her house. She panicked, figuring police stakeout, but it was only a teenager. Her bottom must have been wet, sitting there, like that. It was a dismal day. As she cut off Maple Avenue and onto Accacia, she tried to come to terms with the enormity of what she’d done. She had to at least make herself think about it.
‘I killed a man last night,’ she whispered to herself. But it didn’t feel big. She needed to buy tampons and that seemed like a much bigger deal if she was about to be arrested. The girl from the grass was walking behind her. Beth glanced around, worried that she might have heard her admitting to murder, but the girl was far enough behind that, at worst, she might have seen some crazy woman talking to herself. She wouldn’t be able to hear what Beth had said.
She turned towards Croftland’s shops and the bus stop. It was quiet for a Saturday morning. Only one old lady stood in the shelter, head bent against the autumn chill. The girl went past and disappeared into Buywrights. Beth envied her youth. She probably didn’t have a worry worth frowning over.
There was plenty of room on the bus. She took the first forward facing seat, crossed her legs and turned her face to the window. The driver released the air breaks and the bus began to roll. She watched without interest as the girl from the grass ran out of the shop and hopped onto the bus just as it was about to pull away. After paying, she plonked herself down on the long seat at the front that faced into the aisle. To hold onto the safety pole she had to lean in slightly towards Beth.
‘Phew,’ she said. ‘Just made it.’
Beth tried for a polite smile. It turned into a grimace as the clotted blood at the side of her mouth split. She could feel the girl looking at her. She felt herself colouring. It dawned on her that she hadn’t even washed. Apart from hastily pulling on some clean clothes, she was as she had been when she fled Marc’s house. Her hair wasn’t brushed, her mouth was stale and her battered face unclean, the blood left to dry as it had fallen.
The girl took a canvas bag from her shoulder and rummaged inside. ‘Here,’ she said, holding out a white cotton handkerchief, ‘You might want to…’ She tailed off, motioning to the dribble of fresh blood that had escaped from the cracked scab on Beth’s face. ‘It’s clean,’ she said, with a self conscious grin.
‘Thank you.’ Beth took it and dabbed at her face, she winced. Talking hurt, touching it hurt, thinking about it was agony. She brought her hand down, went to pass the handkerchief back and saw that it was stained with blood. She shrugged apologetically and dropped her hand, not quite knowing what to do.
‘Keep it,’ said the girl. ‘I’ve got plenty more.’
This one small kindness was too much for Beth. She hadn’t cried at all, but now, on the bus, surrounded by people, she felt tears welling up in her eyes. Not now, she pleaded, silently. Dear God, please not now. Her prayers went unanswered and tears fell from her eyes. She knew that she was going to become hysterical if she didn’t get a grip of herself. She felt a noise rising inside her, and until it mixed with air she had no way of knowing if it was going to be a sob or a scream. She swallowed it down and brushed ineffectually at her face with the hanky. She took some deep breaths, aware that the girl was looking at her, hoping that nobody else had noticed the exchange between them. She had to get herself under control.
‘Are you okay?’ The girl’s eyes were sympathetic, but they were also curious.
Beth nodded, ‘Yes, I’m fine thanks.’ What she wanted to say was, ‘Please, leave me alone. Don’t look at me. In fact, please sit somewhere else,’ but of course she couldn’t so she scrambled around for something to say, something unrelated to the state that she was in.
‘Not many people use them these days,’ she said. The girl looked blank.
‘Lace handkerchiefs. I mean, not many people have them.’
What Beth meant was that the girl didn’t look like a hanky user. She looked about fifteen. She was tiny and elfin. Her complexion was pale and she had a mop of unnatural jet black spiked hair, cut short. Her eyes were lined with thick black eye liner and she had black nail varnish. The black theme didn’t stop at her make up. She wore flared black trousers with a little tartan skirt over the top and a black t-shirt with the words ‘You’ve been a naughty boy, go to my room’ printed on it. Her eyes were huge, dominant in a round pixie face. She looked confidant and carefree. Beth envied her.
‘It looks sore.’ The girl was peering at Beth and every explanation that came to mind seemed implausible. Beth felt that she should give some account of her injuries to this young stranger, but she couldn’t come up with a lie that would fit, so she said nothing.
‘My name’s Jennifer,’ said the girl, holding out her hand for Beth to shake. ‘It means White Phantom in Hebrew. I like it. When I was a little girl my nanny used to call me it, she said I was like a little ghost creeping around. I’d like to be a ghost, wouldn’t you; it’d be great being able to just appear anywhere you like and to listen into conversations and stuff? You can call me Phantom if you like.
‘Beth,’ she replied, shaking the girl’s hand. She hadn’t intended calling her anything at all, and Phantom just sounded ridiculous.
‘Are you going to the doctor’s?’ Jennifer continued. ‘I could walk with you, if you like. I mean, you might be a bit unsteady on your feet, it would be no trouble to see you get there okay.’
‘No,’ Beth spoke too loudly. Her voice bounced off the windows of the bus. She saw several people turn to look, alert to the possibility of some in-travel entertainment in the form of a row between other passengers. She forced a smile, ‘I’m sorry, no, I’m not going to the doctors. It’s only a little cut, it looks worse than it is. Stupid really, I fell over the cat after a few too many drinks last night.’ She chuckled. ‘The cat came off worse. I’m just meeting up with my friend in the market café. I’m all right, really. Thank you.’
‘Well, at least let me walk with you to the market, it’s on my way, I’m going in there anyway.’
She was persistent. Beth was irritated. Why couldn’t the nosy little Goth freak just leave her alone and mind her own business? Why wasn’t this kid the stereotypical doped-up teenager for whom the term ‘self absorption’ was invented? Beth shrugged; the bus was pulling in and it would seem churlish to refuse the girl’s company when they were both going in the same direction. She smiled her thanks and they left the bus together. Beth was surprised that, in fact, she didn’t feel shaky at all. She was cold, though, and shivered into her coat. Jennifer chatted all the way to the market hall. Beth was grateful that she didn’t pry. She seemed content to ramble on about a book she was looking for but didn’t want to have to pay full price for. Patricia Cornwell’s latest page-turner was a book that Beth had read and, despite herself, she found the conversation interesting.
‘Everyone’s talking about it. Apparently it’s really cool,’ Jennifer commented, animatedly.
‘Yes, it’s not bad. I think I’ve still got it lying around somewhere. I’ll hunt it out for you, if you like.’
‘Really? Oh, that’d be fantastic. Thank you. I’ve been looking for it for weeks now. You live on Maple, don’t you? I could call around for it some time.’
Beth had switched off from the girl’s rambling chatter. They were walking through the outdoor market, picking their way between the stalls. She could just about make Maggie out through the throng of people, waiting for her at one of the coffee stall tables. Beth hurried towards her.
‘Well, that showed the bastard he can’t mess with me,’ said Maggie, waving her friend over. ‘I said to him… Oh my God, Beth, what the hell’s happened?’ she stood up and Beth waved her hurriedly back into her seat.
‘Sit down, don’t fuss, it’s nothing.’
‘Nothing, my arse. Je-sus, Beth, did he do this to you?’
Beth was painfully aware that Jennifer was still hovering beside her and she turned to thank the girl again, willing Maggie not to say anymore until Jennifer left.
‘Hi, I’m White Phantom,’ said Jennifer. She pulled out a chair and sat down. ‘I was just saying to Beth that she ought to go and see the doctor. It looks nasty, doesn’t it?’ Beth and Maggie exchanged glances and Beth spread her hands slightly to indicate that she hadn’t really brought her.
‘Oh, look, they have lime milkshake,’
Jennifer went on, oblivious to her lack of welcome. ‘Don’t you just love lime milkshake? Most people just stock strawberry and chocolate these days, even banana is getting scarce. If you’re going up, I’d love one. Here, let me give you some money for it, Beth.’ She began to scramble around for her purse at the bottom of her bag.
‘Oh, really, don’t bother,’ said Beth. ‘It’s all right, I’ll stand you a shake. Um, We’re not staying long though. I, um, have to walk Maggie to work, don’t I, Maggie?’ she said, giving her friend a nudge, ‘You have to be at work in quarter of an hour, don’t forget.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Maggie, picking up on the clue and Beth’s attempt to get rid of the girl. ‘Yes, right old git my boss is. Can’t risk being late.’
‘What do you do?’ asked Jennifer, straightening up from her bag and lighting a cigarette.
‘Barmaid,’ said Beth, while in unison Maggie said, ‘accountant.’
‘Um, I’ll get the coffees in,’ muttered Beth. She mouthed the word accountant silently over Jennifer’s head and shook her own. Maggie looked like many things but she would never be the first figure that sprang to mind on the mention of accountancy. She couldn’t add up for toffee.
‘Well, what I mean is,’ Maggie went on, with barely a heartbeat’s break between lies, ‘I work behind the bar at The Grapes, but I do the pub accounts on a Saturday.’
When Beth returned with two coffees and a lime milkshake she could see that Maggie was almost jumping out of her seat with frustration. She had a head full of questions and was impatient to get rid of the Goth who, seconds later, sat with a milk froth moustache. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that she wasn’t welcome, Phantom controlled most of the conversation.
‘Right, come on then,’ said Maggie, draining the last of her piping hot coffee and burning the roof of her mouth. ‘Let’s go.’
Again Beth tried to say goodbye to Phantom, but with little luck.
‘Oh, I’ll wander round that way with you. I’ve got nothing better to do and you’ll need someone to keep an eye on Beth in case she comes over wobbly.’
‘No,’ said both of the women together.
‘Really, I’m fine. There’s no need,’ continued Beth.
‘Actually, we have some things that we’d like to discuss in private. It’s been very nice meeting you though, Spirit,’ Maggie said, in her gruffest take-no-prisoners voice.
Beth cringed; she could never have been that blunt. Sometimes, Maggie was straight-talking to the point of being rude. But, she had been polite for almost fifteen minutes when she was dying to know what had happened to Beth. Under the circumstances, she had been remarkably restrained.
‘It’s Phantom,’ said Jennifer. Her head was low and she now looked as though she was only twelve. Beth felt sorry for her, but Maggie was unrepentant.
‘Oh well, see you then, kid. Hey, try it with a dollop of ice cream next time. It’s to die for.’ And they were away, waving behind them as they went. Beth heard Phantom say that she’d call round to pick up the book that evening but Maggie was pushing her hard from behind to hustle her out before they were held up any longer.
‘What a bloody fruitcake, where the hell did you get her from?’ Maggie didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Right missy, what the hell’s happened to you? My cars in the car park, we’ll go to yours and you can tell me all about it.’
Beth flopped gratefully into Maggie’s soft, leather car seat, but only after moving Connor’s football boots and a soggy cheese Wotsit. Suddenly, she didn’t know what to say, how to begin. She began to cry, quietly. ‘Wait until we get home Maggie, I just want to sit quietly for a second.’ Maggie scowled before patting her knee and turning her attention back to the road.
Beth was confused. She had so badly wanted to see Maggie before she turned herself in. She was going to tell her everything. She knew that Maggie would support her and would insist on going with her when she went to the police station. Since leaving the market and walking down the street all the feelings that Beth should have been feeling were slowly beginning to come to her. It was a normal Saturday morning in Ulverston. People were doing their thing, traders were selling, shoppers were shopping and impatient drivers were shaking their heads at the idiots in front of them.
These people weren’t thinking about being sent to prison for murder. They were wondering if they should do sausage casserole or Lasagne for dinner. The women might be working out whether he’d notice if they spirited some money from the housekeeping that week to buy the pair of jeans knocked down in the sale. The men might be thinking about sneaking off for an hour with the very willing bit on the side that they had stashed away, but they almost certainly weren’t thinking about a man they had killed the night before.
Beth didn’t want to go to prison. A furtive emotion that was new to her was tunnelling through her mind. It was self preservation. She’d never really needed to use it before, she’d never thought of it as an emotion. But it was. It was every bit as strong as the fear that was causing her to tremble in a steady, but increasing, panic. Maggie saw her shaking and turned on the heater. ‘Hang in there Beth, nearly home, darling.’
In that instant Beth realised that she wasn’t going to go to the police and she wasn’t going to tell Maggie what had happened.
What the hell was she going to say? She’d never been able to lie to her. She certainly couldn’t use the tripping-over-the-cat story. Maggie knew that she didn’t have one. Her best friend for twenty years, the mother of three children, had a nose for ferreting out lies. She could see the colour of them before they were fully spoken. Beth was going to have to come up with something plausible.
Once in the house the stalling was over. Maggie came into the room with two mugs of coffee. She sat opposite Beth and threw her a cigarette. Beth winced, lighting it through her cracked lips.
‘Did that Marc bastard do this to you?’
Beth tried for a laugh and failed. ‘No, don’t be daft. He was lovely, the perfect gentleman. I’m going to see him again, next week. No, I was walking home.’
Maggie cut in, ‘What, he let you come home alone?’
Shit! Not good enough. Change of plan.
‘No. He brought me home at about eight thirty because he had to go and, um, see his mother. It was her birthday, prearranged, unavoidable, couldn’t get out of it.’ Beth was aware of too many unnecessary details flooding from her mouth. ‘I made myself something to eat.’
‘He didn’t feed you?’
‘Oh shut up and listen, will you? I’m trying to tell you. I had a snack, made myself a brew and realised that I had no cigarettes. I had to go out to get some, so I nipped to the shop.’
Maggie looked at the open, almost empty packet of cigarettes on the table beside them and raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s some heavy smoking you’ve done since, lass.’
Beth ignored her and carried on with her story, focussing on what she wanted to say and not allowing herself to be sidetracked. ‘And on the way back I cut through the garages and some boy grabbed me.’
‘Oh, my God, Beth.’
‘He only wanted my bag, but stupidly I had it over my shoulder and hung onto it. So he hit me. He was only young, just a kid really. Drug addict, I think.’
‘What did the police say? Have they caught him?’
Bugger! Now it was going to get tricky. Beth felt panic rising inside her. Her palms were soaking and she wiped them on her legs. She brushed some nonexistent hair out of her eyes and shifted in her seat, then shifted back again.
‘I didn’t go to the police.’
‘What! Are you mad? Why not?’
‘What’s the point? I haven’t a clue who he is. It was dark. I didn’t get a good look at him.’
‘Beth, he hit you. You’ve got to go to the police. What if he does this again to somebody else? What did he get away with? What about your credit cards and all that? Shit, Beth he didn’t touch you, did he?’
‘No,’ said Beth, adamantly, tackling the last of the barrage of questions first. ‘Look, Maggie. I just want to forget about it. He didn’t get my bag in the end because a man came around the corner and he ran away.’
‘Well, that’s it then. You have a witness. The police can locate the man for a statement and we can nail this little bastard before he hurts someone else.’
‘He didn’t see anything. The lad ran off as soon as he saw him and the man didn’t even look our way. It’s over now. I just want to forget about it.’
Maggie was relentless.
‘But Beth, you can’t let him do this to you and just get away with it. Don’t you want to see him in court? Hell, don’t you want to kick the little shit in his tiny, teenage bollocks?’
Beth was losing control of the situation, she could feel her body jerking in more severe spasms, tears welled in her eyes. She just wanted Maggie to leave so that she could crumble and think. ‘For Christ sake, Maggie, just drop it, will you? I’ve made my decision. It’s nothing. It looks worse than it is. Look, if we ever see him again we’ll drag him down a back alley and beat the crap out of him, okay?’
‘I thought you wouldn’t recognise him?’
‘I won’t. Now shut up and give me another fag.’
‘You can smoke it on the way to the hospital. Come on you, this is bloody ridiculous. What would you say to one of your patients if you saw them in this state?’
Beth’s tone hardened, she made a valiant effort to bring the trembling down to a shivering. ‘Drop it, Maggie. In fact, if you’re just going to poke your fucking nose in and badger me into doing what you want me to do, you can get out. Go on, fuck off now. I can’t cope with this. It happened, it’s over. I just want to forget it, okay?’
‘But you’re not going to forget it, are you? Look at the state of you, pet. I won’t leave you like this, you know I won’t.’
‘I’m sorry, Maggie. I just can’t, okay?’ She was losing it again. While she was angry with Maggie she’d felt more in control but under her friend’s pitying look and gentle words, Beth could feel herself turning into a basket case. She gulped at the air. The room was too hot.
Everything was closing in around her and she felt as though she might be sick.
‘Please, Beth. Please let me take you.’
‘Seriously Maggie, I’m fine. Just a bit shaken, that’s all. I’ll be fine in the morning.’
‘I don’t like it Beth but if you can’t be swayed at least get a good night’s sleep.’ She picked up her handbag and rummaged through it, then pulled a bottle of tablets from its depths. ‘I’ve got some pills here. Just something to help you get through tonight and we’ll see how you are tomorrow, yes?’ She thrust the bottle into Beth’s hands.
‘Flurazepam, Jesus Christ, Maggie, I can’t take benzodiazepines, there’s nothing wrong with me. These would knock an elephant out. They’re prescription drugs, where did you get them?’
‘Postnatal depression, darling, remember? Plays havoc with your sleep patterns. They’ve been at the bottom of my bag since Bazzy was born. But never mind that, get one of those down you and ring me as soon as you wake up tomorrow.’
They moved on to other subjects and Beth deflected Maggie each time she tried to stray back again. She was on edge. She had things to do. She’d pack a bag and run away to Morocco. She had no real ties here. There was enough money in her savings to build a modest life out there. She’d call Maggie when the dust had settled. Get her to come and visit. She’d build a new identity, or get amnesty, or do whatever it is that other murderers do to avoid being caught – if only she knew what that was.
She felt so dirty. She wanted a shower, some clean clothes. She just wanted to be left alone to think.
It seemed like forever before Maggie finally got up to leave. She gathered Beth into a fierce bear hug and Beth had to stiffen herself so as not to cry out in pain or wince when she felt bruising to her ribs and back. She hadn’t even known that she was hurt there.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’
‘Yes, yes, now go and see to those kids before you have Social Services banging your door down. I’ll ring you in the morning.’
‘Okay, but you’re sure, now?’
‘Yes, go on, bugger off.’ She forced a laugh and waved Maggie out of the gate.
Beth shut the door and sighed. It looked as though she’d got away with it – for now. Not Marc’s death, she knew that wasn’t going to be so easy to cover up, but at least Maggie didn’t seem to smell a rat.
She stood by the door still holding the bottle of pills in her hand. She’d clutched them, holding onto them tightly since Maggie had passed them to her. Much as a child will grip firmly to a rattle for comfort, Beth had squeezed down on the bottle while Maggie had talked, subconsciously channelling her feelings into the bottle, anything to keep her focused on that moment, that second. Now she looked down at them as though they’d just appeared there. Her brow furrowed. Sleeping pills. Bloody ridiculous, she told herself. She didn’t need them. But, she reasoned, she did need sleep. In fact, at that moment she couldn’t think further than a shower, soft pillows and a warm duvet.
Maybe one pill wouldn’t hurt. If it blotted out the awful images that kept flooding her mind, her own snuff film looping behind her eyes.
She went to the sink and poured a glass of water, the noise of the tap running echoing that of the fountain. She heard again the trickling water, saw it passing over the breast of the statue and Marc’s dead eyes. Her gorge rose and she clutched onto the cold stainless steel of the skin gulping in air. Battling with the childproof cap, she swore loudly into the silence of the room. The lid gave suddenly and she cupped her hand, letting the few tablets in the bottom of the bottle empty onto her palm.
One pill, be buggered, she thought. She wanted complete blackout for at least twelve hours. If the police came they would just have to hole her up in a cell until the fugue lifted. She was beyond caring, just wanted it all to go away. Before she could talk herself out of it she tilted her hand to her mouth and tipped four of the eight capsules in, quickly swallowing them down with a large gulp of water.
She heard the first pounding at the door as she was putting the rest of the pills back into the bottle. They spilled onto the kitchen floor, the bottle crashing down among them as she was startled by the insistent banging.
She crept quietly into the living room and hoped that whoever it was would go away if she just ignored them. The first knock had been forceful, the second was more demanding, louder than the first. It wasn’t a neighbour wanting to borrow a cup of sugar, that’s for sure.
It was the police. It had to be. She’d plead self defence. It was an accident. It really was an accident. She hadn’t wanted to kill anybody. She felt sick. Her heart was thudding. Her knees threatened to give way. It was Saturday afternoon. She should be sitting watching the omnibus edition of Corrie on the telly and making a mess of the crossword puzzle that was defeating her. This time yesterday her life had been boringly normal. Now she had the police hammering on her door.
‘Just coming,’ she shouted. Her voice trembled. She was shaking. Could the pills be working already? Nonsense.
She opened the door.
‘I followed you. You lied to me. Why did you lie to me?’
Jennifer stood on the doorstep. Her eyes shone with hurt and anger.
Beth was relieved – and annoyed. She was so bloody grateful that it was only the girl with the ridiculous name and not the police.
‘Jennifer. What are you doing here so soon? Oh, um, yes. I’m sorry about that. You see, Maggie and I, we had some things that we wanted to discuss and... Oh look, I’m sorry, but you understand, don’t you?’
Tears glistened in the girl’s eyes and she said accusingly, ‘I thought you were my friend.’