Authors: Neil Cross
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To Ethan and Finn
I wish the stairs were endless
We’re just going to leave you now, okay?
Robert Grimson, leader of the Process Church of the Final Judgement, taking leave of his remaining followers,
Boston Common, 1975
There are certain people who have that ability … Cops by nature are sceptical. They don’t like to talk about this stuff, and it doesn’t make it into the reports most of the time for obvious reasons.
Police Chief Robert DeLitta, following the death of Dorothy Allison, a professed psychic credited with solving more than a dozen murders and locating more than fifty missing children
Sufficient unto the hour is the evil therein
Andrew had done his research.
Although he knew the odds on successfully faking suicide were not good, one night he caught a train to the south-west coast of England and fabricated his death by drowning.
He thought of pupae and butterflies. Time lapse. Reversed.
Before that day came, there had been much to do.
His father had left him £25,000, which Andrew had transferred straight to a building society. He imagined a fungal mound of greasy cash in a damp basement corner; but he no longer cared about that and from the account he arranged to withdraw £9,000.
He and Rachel were affluent in a way that privately rather embarrassed him. She worked for the natural history department at BBC Bristol. When the weather was fine, she walked to work. Andrew was deputy head teacher at a south Bristol comprehensive. He earned less than his wife and didn’t mind. In addition, Rachel received an annuity from her grandparents that paid for holidays and Christmas. There was a joint savings account, which contained more than his inherited £25,000. And there were a number of insurance policies, into which they had been drip-feeding their salaries for more years than he could cheerfully think about.
His family would never need what remained of his inheritance. They’d probably never want to touch it, in the hope or fear that he might some day
, shambling, seaweed-shrouded. But he left them the money anyway.
He redrafted his will one Thursday lunchtime, employing a south Bristol solicitor who expressly was not a family friend.
He was of sound mind.
With the £9,000, he opened three bank accounts under his own name, depositing £3,000 in each.
During the weeks of preparation, he regularly transferred portions of this money from account to account. Because this deceptive flow of capital gave each bank the impression that his financial affairs were fluid and sound, he was able to arrange three substantial overdrafts.
He withdrew the money in instalments. This procedure was time-consuming and repetitive, and it helped that he’d been on sick leave since the previous school year. Each day for several weeks he withdrew from automatic teller machines on Whiteladies Road slightly less than each account allowed him. Computer automation ensured that human attention was not brought to this possibly dubious conduct.
He left early in April. The morning had about it a crisp Englishness that filled him with vague happiness, a pre-emptive nostalgia. He remembered the life he had been living as if it were already a faded photograph. He found himself moving about his house, picking up and minutely examining innocuous objects—a television remote control, a golf ball, a bread knife.
He dressed in his best suit, as if going to work, and took with him a small leather suitcase in which he had packed £47,000: his original investment plus £38,000 from the overdrafts. He felt the thrill of a new life about to begin. Walking for the last time from bank to bank, folding cash into wallet and wallet into breast pocket (he could feel the blank, whirring eyes of disinterested security cameras), he was possessed of a peculiar consciousness, as if viewing himself from a precipitous new perspective.
He left before the kids got home.
Andrew and his family lived in a Georgian house in central Bristol. Many properties on their winding, tree-lined street had been converted into flats for young professional couples who wished to live near Clifton without paying Clifton premiums. There were also family houses—university lecturers, bankers moved from London with Lloyds, media types.
What was to become chronic insomnia first made itself known in his late thirties. Sanguine, he imagined it would be a passing problem and, that first summer, he functioned well enough on three or four hours’ sleep a night.
The early mornings were quiet, leaf-dappled with shadow, and stone-cool. Fully awake in time for
, he would stretch with great contentment (gently, so as not to wake Rachel), then take the portable radio from the bedside cabinet and wander downstairs, barefoot in pyjamas, to the ground-floor extension he’d built for visitors. His mother-in-law called it the Granny Flat, and the name had stuck.
Although it overlooked the rear garden, the Granny Flat had the familiar but exotic air of a holiday home. It didn’t quite feel like his property, from which he extracted a delicate pleasure. There was a single bed, kept made in anticipation of a visit (he never minded); floral print duvets and feather pillows; Rachel’s watercolours—Devon seascapes. There was a bookshelf he’d fitted into an alcove, not without complication or a concurrent sense of satisfaction. The lower shelves were lined with art and cookery books and paperback thrillers. On the top shelf was a creased, stained, dog-eared paperback copy of
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
that had been passed from hand to hand on one family holiday.
Every year, they rented a house in a harbour town on the coast of Devon. In the garden was a brick barbecue at which stood Rachel’s father and brother. They were oiling trout with a pastry brush, wrapping the fish in Bacofoil and placing the parcels on the grill, where already sausages were blackening on one spatula-flattened side. Because it was an unspoken rule that such jobs as barbecuing meat should be the responsibility of his father- and brother-in-law, Andrew and Rachel prepared the salad.
Rachel found this hilarious. Despite Andrew’s protestations to the contrary, she told him (as he shelled hard-boiled eggs and wrestled the tops from bottles of salad dressing) that his voice had temporarily dropped an octave to reassert his compromised masculinity. Then she stood on tiptoe and kissed him just behind the ear.
Rachel’s grandmother sat happily enough in a deck chair, reading
. The children busied themselves variously with Gameboys, the lower limbs of blameless trees, tepid cans of Diet Pepsi and
Andrew’s mother-in-law did not arrive at the alfresco wooden table until her husband was almost wretched with worry that her trout would be overcooked. She emerged with red eyes. She had just finished
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
That evening, while Rachel’s grandmother babysat, they went to the local pub. There was a car park at front, wooden benches set on the grass, each sheltered by an umbrella advertising Holsten Pils. At one side of the pub stood a pebble-dashed extension that housed the family games room. This in turn housed its own bar, which was staffed by an elderly woman who apparently had yet to tire of the borderline atavism of children on holiday, up past their bedtime after too long in the July sun.
Andrew drank pints of lager and lime, his holiday drink. His sunglasses were upended on the table before him. He was a big man with a rugby player’s shoulders and neck: his black Adidas polo shirt—All Blacks, a present from New Zealand—was taut at belly and shoulders. His hair was packed into tight Semitic curls, thinning at the crown and his experimental goatee beard was flecked with silver. He wore cargo shorts and old tennis shoes, ripped at the seams. He’d begun to acquire a belly in the third year of marriage, when a recurrent cartilage injury barred him even from Sunday soccer.
He drove a ten-year-old Volvo. He believed cricket to be a deep communion with the English subconscious and his voice had the appropriate, gentle behest of a commentator, accentuated by his rising West Country inflection. He remained passionate about rugby. His computer password was
. He would not subscribe to Sky Sports.
Lower-middle-class Bristol boy, temperamentally left-wing. He did not smoke, except sometimes at Christmas and parties. He had never been unfaithful to his wife and had in his married life never been impotent, excepting a single, half-drunken escapade with a recalcitrant condom that closely followed Rachel’s decision to come off the Pill. He read the
on Sunday. Sometimes he bought the
to read on the toilet.
Andrew moved with the gentle assurance acquired at cost by any person who since childhood has been one size too big for the world.
Before ten, it clouded over and began to drizzle and they went inside. The main bar was dark with wood and brass. Within ten minutes, heavy rain came in off the Channel and began to beat a tattoo against the leaded windows. They fell into conversation with another group of holidaymakers, three married couples from Yorkshire, two generations. Rachel began to massage the inside of his calf with her insole, having slipped off a yellow, rope-soled espadrille bought the first day from a seafront shop perfumed with heat, inflatable rubber rings and suntan lotion.
The rain did not let up. At 11.30, he and his family walked the short, steep route to the rented house, which overlooked the harbour. His wife (his Rachel) borrowed his denim jacket because the rain made her sun dress clinging and transparent. The jacket made her child-sized and her hair hung in wet tousles across her brow and shoulders. She smelled of rain.
When they entered the holiday-musty cottage, only their eldest, Annie, was awake, watching
Curse of the Werewolf
, starring the young Oliver Reed.
While much of his world was asleep, he enjoyed the holiday feeling of agreeably alienated familiarity. He showered, shaved and wrapped himself in a dark-blue towelling robe.
Sometimes he whiled away an hour reading yesterday’s newspaper. Then he prepared breakfast for those members of his family currently willing to eat it.
Periodically, Rachel was on a diet: in the bedroom she adopted an expression of glum concentration and squeezed and prodded and examined in full-length mirrors her breasts and thighs and buttocks. At the age of twelve, Annie announced that she was a vegetarian. Andrew and Rachel decided to encourage her in this. They were proud of their daughter and hoped she’d grow out of it soon.
Adam and Steven, the twins, would eat anything, so long as it was not or did not contain fruit. Sometimes on Sunday, Andrew would cook a full fried breakfast for himself and his sons. Cracking eggs into a hot pan sizzling with bacon fat, he never felt closer to them. He didn’t fully understand this. He suspected that something primeval lurked at its source, but it pleased him nonetheless.
On the night of Saturday, 31 August or the early hours of Sunday, 1 September 1997, he lurched into wakefulness like a braking truck. He had vividly dreamed the death of a female celebrity and lay awake for many minutes.
In the early hours, he sneaked from the bedroom and padded downstairs to the Granny Flat. In the washed-out pastels of a Bristolian autumn morning (the smell of fresh, laundered cotton), even showering and shaving, the dream-sadness lingered.
He wondered if he should discuss the dream with Rachel. He towelled himself dry and looked for his bathrobe. He padded round the Granny Flat in befuddled circles, like a sleepy cat. The robe hung where it always did, on a hook behind the bathroom door.
He decided not to say anything. He had been disconcerted by the death of his father two months previously. Rachel’s strained patience had been tested further by his sudden insistence, against her appeals, on keeping a photograph of him in the sitting room. It stood next to their wedding photograph on the fireplace.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Whatever you want,’ and they hadn’t spoken for two days.
Their relationship had not yet fully normalized. She was still being tautly polite and he quietly amiable.
Downstairs, Andrew turned on the television. Something important seemed to have happened: there was live news on every channel. His first thought, the legacy of a cold-war childhood, was of nuclear war.
He watched BBC1 for a few incredulous minutes. Then he went and woke Rachel, taking the portable radio with him.
Much as families had during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, they gathered round the television. On every channel haggard newsreaders, broadcasting live, explained again and again what had happened in Paris during the early hours of the morning. Even the coiffured anchormen seemed unable to believe it.
Andrew and his family were strangely enraptured, brought into silent fraternity by the woman’s death. It seemed to intimate something of great significance, something at the insubstantial edges of which the mind could only grasp. Andrew felt close to them, all at once. They did not dress or properly eat until late in the afternoon. Rachel wept and comforted Annie. The twins were silent. The unspoken dream-sadness settled heavily on Andrew’s shoulders and entangled him like a musty robe.
He didn’t know what time he’d woken up. Nor could he eliminate the possibility that he’d heard wayward news broadcasts during his sleep and retained their content—what televisions and minicab radios had been mainlined into his receptive mind in the late night stillness? What Saturday night revellers returning along empty streets drunkenly pondered aloud the breaking news, echoing faint but distinct in the marital bedroom? It was therefore not possible to say with certainty that the dream had been precognitive.
But he knew it had been.
A woman he’d never met—to whose image he had been exposed for nearly twenty years but to whom he nevertheless had paid little conscious attention—met her fierce consequence in downtown Paris; her limited intellect extinguished, her body rendered askew and crooked by impact.
An oceanic swell of sorrow washed over England. There was a spasm of grief. The morbid incense of flowers piled high, corrupting in the late summer heat. The beloved countenance glimpsed in gently shifting cloud formation.
During those strange days the country could hardly believe it might recover, but it did. It was gently chagrined, as at the memory of a small indiscretion. The shared sense of something numinous and ineffable receded. Britain realigned. It clicked firmly home into the mounting from which it had been shaken.
Andrew Taylor, however, did not. Try as he might, he could not get realigned. He did not click home.
The woman’s destruction had shattered something in him like the windscreen of her Mercedes: she had ruptured a psychic membrane and the dream of her death was only the first. Into Andrew’s head there surged a geyser of terrible images. Nightmares clamoured and shrieked behind his eyes. The nocturnal world became a feast: the constant eruption of orgasm. He pitched and warped on the mattress, turned in a knot of sweat and bedclothes.