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Authors: Neil Cross

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His head swelled with madness, threatened to split like fruit. Kosovo refugees, gaunt and black-eyed on the Macedonian border. A burning man at the wheel of a bombarded truck, lips bubbling and peeling from teeth. He was sealed shut and bound in the dark. He crossed borders on bare and bleeding feet. He wept in helplessness and fear. Taste and smell of black, vegetal soil. He looked down on a pale body, not his own. Defiled and passing away. Blue flesh and ligotage.

He dreamed of rape and cancer. He dreamed of vandalism and mutilation, of soft bodies and impact. He dreamed of penetration. He dreamed of fierce contortion and violent impairment.

He dreamed of murder.

The dreams diminished him. He became hunched, red-eyed, timorous. The malice behind the twist of every smile bared itself to him. He saw knots of vein straining at neck and jaw. Bone superstructure on which living meat was hung. He heard screams of pain in laughter. He saw age slinking behind youth: death behind age. He saw compost and animal flesh. Worms rolled in loops and knots.

The pattern of job and friendships shifted around him, modulated into the choreography of an unknown dance. Schoolchildren sensed that something was amiss with their deputy head teacher who—if not loved—had at least gone essentially underided. But now Mr Taylor wandered the corridors befuddled, like an untimely spectre. They sensed that his purpose was lost. When they addressed him—even his favourites, the sixth-formers, the athletic and the academically talented—he didn’t seem at first to recognize them. A spasm of panic would twitch across his features.

Even those admired sixth-formers were still children and there was little pity among them for a man so evidently teetering on the headland. Jokes were told about him and names were invented. Some of the jokes and nicknames found their way to the staffroom. There was more pity there, not much, and guilty laughter.

Time passed. The laughter did not subside, but it took on a disconcerted undertone, an acknowledgement that something alien walked among them.

Three times a week for fourteen months, he saw a therapist.

For displaced anxiety and depression triggered by the death of his father, he was prescribed Prozac.

One night he freed himself from tangled bedsheets and hurried downstairs. On the back on an unopened gas bill he wrote:

have what? three seven zero of what?

we are going to invert.

Later, fully awake, he saw this message and did not understand it. Along with his family, friends, colleagues and pupils, he began to fear for his sanity.

In the morning, Rachel found him quite still in an armchair. He was pretending to read a thriller. She knew he had lifted the book from the carpet beside him the moment he heard her stir, in order that she would not find him staring blankly at nothing.

One night he said, ‘I don’t need a doctor, I need an exorcist,’ and Rachel looked up from her novel. She laughed and hoped this was the first sign of the Prozac making things better.

But Andrew was not joking.

He saw many doctors, in private clinics paid for by insurance policies he had opposed taking out on political grounds. It was Dr Scobie, Presbyterian and arrogant, who first spoke to him of temporal lobe epilepsy.

It was a mysterious madness. Its locus, the source of his misery, was perhaps a tiny lesion on his brain. He imagined a pullulating knot over his ear, into which surged occult patterns and energies.

Andrew said: ‘But what if it’s real?’

‘What if
what
’s real?’

‘The dreams.’

‘Real in what sense?’

‘You know in what sense.’

Scobie clasped his smooth hands before him on the desk. He twinkled with medical irony.

‘Don’t you think it would be best to eliminate alternative possibilities before we discuss—alternative possibilities?’

‘I’m not imagining it.’

‘I’m not suggesting you are. The phenomenon is quite real. It’s the
cause
of the phenomenon we’re here to ascertain.’

‘But what if the lesion is an effect? What if the dreams caused it?’

Minutely, Scobie shrugged his bony shoulders. Glint of sunlight on watchstrap.

‘I’m afraid that’s not a question I’m trained to answer.’

In the early hours of the morning of 17 December 1999, he dreamed about Kelly Brookmyre.

Kelly was fifteen. She lived in a small village in south Wales. She had disappeared. Nobody knew where Kelly might be.

Andrew woke unable to move. Rachel woke alongside him, bewildered by his mewling. On her knees, her nightdress hiked and one unprotected breast lined with the pattern of rucked bedlinen, she attempted to calm him while he mooed like a cow.

The house came awake. Lights. The children crying. Rachel ushered them back to bed. Sound of doors slamming. She dragged hands through sleep-knotted hair.

The days leading to Christmas were full of distance and awkwardness. Christmas Day: a silent lunch, lips taut and white, cutlery clattering too loud.
Top of the Pops
.

Andrew on the edge of the bed in his new shirt and trousers, sobbing into his palms.

It’s a Wonderful Life
.

The television news showed that ranks of police and local volunteers spent Christmas Day beating down grass in frosted fields, searching for Kelly Brookmyre’s mortal remains.

Her parents, colourless, flanked by senior officers in laundered uniforms, petitioned for her safe return. Bulbs flashed. The shifting of shoulder-mounted cameras.

Few doubted that Kelly was dead.

Except Andrew.

At 2.49 on the morning of 28 December 1999, he awoke and screamed,
Oh Jesus Christ, I’m on fire.

He was not on fire.

Kelly Brookmyre was an above-average pupil. She was attractive and vivacious and because of this some did not love her.

One female classmate especially had taken against Kelly. This classmate resolved to exact revenge for whatever wrong had been done to her. We can speculate upon exactly the nature of this impropriety (and chances are, we wouldn’t be far from the truth), but the particulars need not be recorded.

Somehow (and again, it’s perhaps better that we don’t seek to understand quite how), this aggrieved girl procured the assistance of her family in pursuit of her teenage revenge. She was assisted by two males, one seventeen, the other nineteen: her brothers. A 51-year-old woman provided further assistance. Her mother.

Either these four or an unknown combination of two or three of them successfully contrived to kidnap Kelly. She was taken against her will to their grey, terraced house where they burned the tips of her fingers on the ring of an electric cooker. They cut her hair with scissors, then shaved it with a Bic razor. They stripped her nude and carved the word
slag
on her belly with the tip of a knitting needle. Foreign objects were inserted into her vagina. A television remote control. A golf ball. The handle of a bread knife.

Kelly was fastened to a single bed with parcel tape and injected with amphetamines. She was blindfolded and the headphones of a Sony Walkman were taped to her ears.

On the morning of Christmas Day, the brothers joined in the search for Kelly. They enjoyed the sense of community spirit her disappearance had engendered in the small town. It felt Christmassy. Were one to examine the relevant videotape, they can quite easily be identified over the shoulder of a grim police spokesman, beating aside grass frozen white like icing sugar.

At approximately 2.40 on the morning of 28 December, they transferred Kelly to the boot of the family car. They drove her to what the press concurred was ‘a nearby beauty spot’, where they tipped her into a little-used picnic area that borders one of the main roads leading to town. They poured petrol over her and one of them set her alight.

It did not emerge in court which of them had done so.

Kelly was alive when she was found. She lived for twenty-one hours.

IV

Three months later, in March 2000, Andrew closed the door on his house and double-locked it. He caught a taxi to Temple Meads and a train to the south coast. At the coast, he caught another train to a small coastal town, where he wandered about until he found a quiet pub that took his fancy. Inside, he propped himself at the bar. He drank three pints of Guinness. The pub was quiet and the landlord engaged him in pleasant, inconsequential chat for much of his stay.

He left the pub and took a walk along a coastal path, pausing first to post his suicide note.

My Dearest Rachel. By the time you read this.

It was very dark. There were no stars. The breeze was warm and smelled of nocturnal pollen, of sand and salt-wet pebbles and sea.

He removed his shoes and socks and walked down to the pebbled beach, across the threshold of black seaweed at the edge of the sea, bordered by a luminous tier of foam. It began to rain great warm gobbets. He squatted, heel to haunch, and unclasped the suitcase. He removed a change of clothes and a flattened Adidas sportsbag, into which he transferred £47,000 in cash.

He undressed. Naked in the rain and pale in the starless darkness, he felt pagan and unfamiliar. The pebbles were cold and bruised his tender English soles.

He dressed in the clothes he’d bought for cash that morning. Heavy-weave cotton trousers, khaki, with deep pockets; a warm, hooded sweater. A pair of Adidas trainers.

He took a moment to imagine the police photograph that would be taken: a brown leather and brass suitcase alone on a grey pebble beach, set against a looming grey sky. The thought was dense with the future of those he loved.

By the time he reached the bus stop it was raining heavily. He got soaked through. He waited, hood pulled all but uselessly over his bowed, dripping head, until an asthmatic single-decker shuddered to a halt alongside the country road.

He rode to the next town, where he registered in a bed-and-breakfast hotel under his new name, Jack Shepherd. He had practised the signature many hundreds of times.

That night he dreamed of his sons and he dreamed of his daughter and he dreamed of his wife. He dreamed of his house. He sat gently on the edge of their beds, while they slept and did not know he had returned. He blew the fringe from their brows and smiled tenderly with love for them.

2

The day William Holloway knocked on her door again, Rachel was alone. Her children were at her mother’s, and the house felt far too big and too quiet for one person.

From the shadowed, stone-cool hallway she opened the door to him. He stood there, framed. Forty-three years old. Slender, narrow-shouldered and five feet, eight inches in his socks. Celtic-pale, freckled, gaunt. Small, uneven teeth but fine features; an excellent wide forehead. Strawberry-blond hair. Strands of it lit by sunshine. He was tolerably well dressed, in a black suit, three-button, off the peg. It was clean but rumpled at the back, as if he’d taken a nap in the car. His tie was loose at the throat. He had a prominent Adam’s apple, around which nestled patches of raw red shaving rash that looked aggravated by the heat.

The sight of him made Rachel anxious. He’d first questioned her two weeks before. She’d thought him distant and officious, less interested in Andrew than the money he’d stolen.

But now he inclined his head, a discrete footman’s nod. He was hesitant and apologetic.

She wondered if he’d come to tell her they’d found Andrew’s body.

He ducked his head unnecessarily as he entered the hallway, an action that seemed to acknowledge her grief. She led him to the sitting room. It ran the length of the house, west to east. At the far end, the east, stood a long wooden dining table. In the centre was placed a blue-and-white ceramic fruit bowl: blackening bananas and drying oranges. The coral skeleton of recently eaten grapes. French windows overlooked the seventy-foot garden, gently inclined, bordered at the far end by apple trees. From the branch of one of these hung a hazardous looking swing.

Facing west, under the bay windows, were arranged two sofas, a television, and a stereo. Separates. Mission, Boss, Marantz. Good enough: not ostentatious. Andrew’s.

Holloway inventoried the ranks of CDs, stacked in Ikea towers, in piles on the bookcase, on top of the video recorder. The collection was impressively haphazard. A jewel case lay open on the stripped wooden floor.
What’s Going On
. Gaye’s face obscured by a red Nice Price sticker.

The room was scented virtuously. It was fragrant with happy family and English summer. Except, of course, Andrew Winston Taylor was presumed to have extinguished himself near Abbotsbury, on the south coast, three months ago.

Andrew was barely absent from the house. There was no want of his imprint. As he sat, Holloway’s glance took in the long sitting room: family photographs on bookshelves, on the black leaded fireplace. Vases with flowers, lilies, beginning to dry and wilt. Muslin curtains. No children’s noise. The house felt at worst temporarily vacated. It was as if Andrew Winston Taylor, a hefty, robust, pacific man, was merely late bringing the children home from a trip to the zoo.

Holloway perched on the edge of the sofa and leaned forward, feet planted square. Elbows on knees, chin on knitted palms.

Rachel returned from the kitchen carrying a tray on which balanced two long glasses of iced water, a slice of lime in each. Holloway took the glass, drank eagerly. She watched the violent bobbing of his Adam’s apple.

He set the empty glass in a ceramic coaster placed near his ankle. Sucked air through cold-tenderized teeth.

Rachel sat facing him, curled on an armchair. She wore faded 501s, a white blouse. Black loafers on bare feet.

‘I’m sorry to bother you again,’ he said. I’m just mopping up. If you see what I mean.’

He blotted his brow with the edge of a cotton handkerchief.

Rachel smiled readily enough and dismissed his apology. Holloway wouldn’t have guessed her age with any accuracy. He knew she belonged to a gymnasium. Drove a black Volkswagen Polo. She had about her a considered poise.

Twenty-odd years of quiet, lovable Andrew, bemused by the mystery of his contentment.

He wondered what had driven him to walk into the sea.

He’d read the diary Rachel discovered stuffed beneath the seat of an armchair in the extension. It was a school jotter that Andrew had crammed with obsessive handwriting. Reading this diary, it was not necessary to be a policeman or a psychiatrist or a wife to know that Andrew Winston Taylor had descended into insanity, the nature of which it had been an act of quiet heroism to keep from his family.

Andrew underwent a nervous breakdown (an inaccurate term, essentially meaningless. One Holloway nevertheless understood), or had suffered late-onset temporal lobe epilepsy, or a psychotic episode, after or during which he walked into the sea and took the cold, polluted ocean deep into his lungs. And now he was dead and eyeless, face down and ragged with nibbling. Possibly the tides would wash him up somewhere or other, and some dog out for an early morning walk would stumble across a jellified mass shrouded in kelp.

Holloway had encountered such things before, and worse. But he didn’t think he would encounter it this time. He could not imagine why Andrew Taylor should take those 38,000 fraudulently acquired pounds into the great darkness with him.

Perhaps it was merely testament to his peculiar madness, to his unique system of portents and symbols. Perhaps the money meant something. But Holloway didn’t believe that either.

Ten thousand people went missing in Britain every year. Some were dead. Most were not. Most could be found, if there was a good enough reason to look.

Rachel leaned towards him, passed a sheaf of photographs.

He thanked her, shuffled through the prints. He looked at Andrew Winston Taylor and wondered at the madness that had driven him to walk from this house, these children, this wife.

‘Kelly Brookmyre,’ said Rachel.

Kelly’s name had passed her lips innumerable times. Its use was tired with past exasperation. ‘In Wales. The Christmas just gone.’

‘I remember,’ he said, and he did. He had heard this from Rachel, and he had read it in Andrew’s diary and he had heard it from Llewellyn, who ran a pub in Cardiff now and was privy to the stuff that didn’t make the papers. Coppers’ talk.

Rachel ran a hand through her hair. The glint of June light on wedding ring. Tucked a lock behind her ear.

‘It just seemed to push him over the edge,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why, particularly.’

‘But you mentioned that he seemed to improve after the Brookmyre murder.’

‘He seemed to,’ she said. ‘But he didn’t. Not really.’

‘But you had no idea that …’

‘That he would catch a train to the seaside and drown himself?’

‘No.’ He looked down at the pad. Scratched out a spiral with blue nib. ‘Of course not. I’m sorry. But he seemed in control? He wasn’t short-tempered? Or violent?’

‘He never even raised his voice,’ she said. ‘To me or the children. Not once.’

She twirled a stray lock of hair about her index finger. She’d told him all this before. This time he seemed to accept that she was telling the truth.

Each of them seemed dislocated from the facts. She wondered why he was here. Doing his job, she supposed, even though it no longer seemed to interest him.

Holloway glanced at his notes. Hanging men etched in margins. Clockwise spirals. A stick figure with a zigzag mouth lay in a hospital bed.

‘But he knew he had problems? He was still in treatment?’

‘You know that. You’ve probably met his doctor.’ (He did, and he had.) ‘He saw a psychologist for about a year, give or take. God knows it was a struggle to make him go in the first place. He didn’t think it would do any good.’

‘And?’

She shrugged, once.

‘They were talking about temporal lobe epilepsy,’ she said. ‘But by then they were at a loss, pretty much. It’s quite rare, and Andrew wasn’t even a classic case.’ She sighed. ‘It’s just neurology,’ she said, with a tired emphasis. ‘A functional thing. Bad wiring.’

She tapped the side of her head twice. Cuck-oo.

He smiled, tapped his front teeth with the end of a biro.

‘I heard once,’ he said, ‘from a doctor—my wife’s friend was a doctor—that if they sever certain nerves, and join them to certain other nerves, you taste vinegar as a loud noise in your ears. Synaesthesia. LSD can do it to you. Well, the good stuff can.’

She laughed, obligingly. She said: ‘How long have you been married?’

He tugged at an earlobe. ‘Well now. Nineteen years? Twenty? Twenty in July.’

‘You get less for murder.’

‘Ha. Yes.’

‘I can’t believe he’s gone. Not really.’

Now the creature that had possessed her husband’s body was no longer around, she found herself rediscovering Andrew, reassembling a sense of his nearness. Having him dead was like having him back.

It was better.

She encountered an occasional guilt at her want of anger at him, that she didn’t feel worse. This feeling would sneak up behind her at odd times, wrap its arms around her breasts, nuzzle its face into her shoulders and rock her gently side to side. She would weep into her fist until it passed. Eventually, it always did.

Holloway pocketed his notes.

‘That’s enough for now,’ he said. ‘I’ll be in touch. Meanwhile, there’s nothing you can do. Take a holiday. Don’t wait by the telephone. Take the kids to …’ (not the seaside) ‘—Alton Towers. Thorpe Park.’

She laughed because he seemed well meaning. Then she closed her eyes, lifted her chin, nodded.

Holloway was bored by the meagreness of his thoughts. He stood, straightened his jacket a little.

‘I can’t say I know Andrew,’ he said. ‘I never met him. But I don’t think he meant all this. He wouldn’t hurt you like this. Not if he was in control.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Well. One would hope not.’

She looked up at him from beneath her brow.

He smiled, snaggle-toothed on one side. He had long canines, one of which was chipped by a wedding ring worn round a finger curled into a fist thrown with malice smack into his mouth, ten years before. Longer. The jagged end sometimes caught his lower lip and he looked wasted and undomesticated. This with a delicate, boyish jaw and his freckled skin, still troubled by shaving.

He was scented with something she recognized: Wrights Coal Tar Soap. When she was about to leave for Bristol University, her father had described its smell as the last pious thing in England. He still made the same joke every Christmas.

Holloway shut the door behind him and stood for a long second in the front garden, squinting. He patted his pockets, checking the whereabouts of wallet and keys.

He wondered what Rachel Taylor thought of his visit. What use in looking again at photographs of a dead man?

Drowned men did not return from the sea.

He patted his breast pocket, removed his sunglasses, slipped them on. Checked his watch. He thought about the £38,000. He had a sense of something loosening in his chest. It was almost relief. In the fatiguing heat of the late afternoon, he began to walk.

He walked towards Whiteladies Road, then turned left and downhill for a few minutes, in the direction of the city centre. He quickly became overheated. Not far from the children’s hospital, he turned on to another quiet, tree-lined road. He followed the street as it hooked back uphill, and stopped at a once-grand, detached Victorian house that stood behind a low wall with black metal gates. He closed the gate behind him. He walked to the tall, blue door and rang the bell.

He waited half a minute before a short West Indian woman of prodigious girth answered the door. She was middle-aged and wore a white uniform.

Her name was Hetty and it had occurred to Holloway more than once that this woman was probably the best friend he had left in the world.

‘Hello love,’ she said, Caribbean West Country.

‘Hello sweetheart,’ he said. ‘How you keeping?’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Not so bad.’

Holloway leaned forward to kiss her cheek.

‘How are those legs?’

‘Oh. Mustn’t complain.’

Still, she liked to be asked. She smiled, good and broad. A proper smile. He saw so few.

‘And the Tiller girl in there?’ He nodded over Hetty’s shoulder.

‘Not so bad,’ she said. ‘Not so bad.’

Hetty turned and led him into the coolness of the home’s hallway.

Inside, it was cool. The original floor, tiled, decorative, cracking here and there at the edge. A reception desk. NHS posters, bleached pale and brittle with age. Purple shadow and the faint smell of institution, a sweet undercurrent.

He followed Hetty to the television room. Three of the four walls were lined with chairs and wheelchairs. This is where those residents who were able spent their days. Those who sat before the large, double bay windows had turned their backs to summer outside.

He felt the sweat cool on him.

He saw Grace in the far corner. She was etiolated and delicate, graceful in indignity, white-haired and swan-necked, heavily liver-spotted. She sat primly in a wheelchair, a tartan blanket across her lap. She wore a knitted white cardigan and sheepskin slippers. Sometimes her hands made feeble motions, as if knitting.

As ever, she seemed galvanized by his approach. Something pale ignited in her eyes. She reached out a palsied hand and greeted him, beckoned him to sit by patting her lap twice.

Pulling up a chair and excusing himself to the old man on her left, he enjoyed or endured another moment in which it occurred to him that today, for a moment or two, she might know who he was.

Gentle, he touched the back of her hand with two fingers, patted it. He could roll her cool skin between his fingers like kid leather. He was aware of her faint palsy.

‘Hello, sweetness,’ he said. ‘How’s my glamour girl?’

She smiled. Her eyes widened in delight.

‘Are you Mary’s lad?’

‘I’m your Lizzie’s boy,’ he corrected her again. ‘Billy.’

She looked him up and down. ‘
Our
little Billy? Apple cake Billy?’

He patted his belly, rubbed it, smiled.

‘That’s right,’ he said.

‘You’re a little devil with that apple cake,’ she said, and her face softened.

They sat alongside one another, watching
Countdown
. Every now and again she spoke an irrelevancy and he hummed his agreement and patted her hand. At 5 p.m., Hetty brought him tea and biscuits on a plate. He invited her to join him, as ever, and for ten minutes they chatted, each with one eye on
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