Friday, 29 November 2013

Catching Up With Murder - Chapter 17


“You killed her? Well, I suppose you had no choice. Imagine how it would have been if she’d come here! Did she struggle? How did it feel when you held her down? Daz, you’re incredible! I love you so much.” Cotter fell into the big man’s arms and sensed there was a ‘treat’ in store for him later.
The next day, Cotter went shopping in Brighton with Mary Bishop. The Bishops were the nearest he and Daz dared have as friends. By comparison, the rest of Monk’s Tallow comprised neighbours and casual acquaintances. There were times when Cotter wanted to scream to the rooftops that he was Ralph Cotter and stuff Sarah Manners. He wanted to tell someone, anyone, how he and Horton had been taking the piss for years, no one suspecting a thing. He kept quiet of course, had no choice although it meant, for the most part, the two men having to keep their distance. Somehow, with the Bishops, it was different, easier. The four felt comfortable with each other. While Cotter always had to be on the alert, pre-empting Sarah Manners’ every reaction, he felt less on edge with Sam and Mary Bishop than anyone else.
In particular, Cotter loved being with Mary.
Mary Bishop was a lively, animated person and fun to be with without being either extrovert or crass. Cotter felt relaxed with her, so much so that he had been tempted on occasions to confide the truth. He resisted partly because he genuinely did not want to risk losing her friendship and partly out of fear of being hauled off to jail. His main concern, though, was Daz.  Horton, he knew full well, would do more than merely thrash him to within a centimetre of his life.
Sam’s wife always wore the same perfume, one that never failed to exhilarate Cotter.  Now, as they chatted across a window table in a promenade cafe she leaned across to take his hand, as she often did, and he caught a pungent whiff. It excited him. Lately, he had begun to wonder about this. For the excitement had long since overtaken any simple, uncomplicated pleasure. It gave him a sexual buzz. Her touch, too, gave him goose pimples and it was with some difficulty that he exercised supreme self-control over the telltale bulge in his trousers. Thank God they were sitting down, he reflected, albeit slightly breathless.
 “That’s what I love about being with you, Sarah, you listen, “Mary was saying, “Sam, bless his heart, hasn’t a clue. Oh, he’ll hear what you say and make some reply or other but he never really listens, whereas means a lot to me. I love these little jaunts of ours, just the two of us,” she that silky voice that had sent shivers down his spine since their very first meeting.  He envied her. She was attractive, chic...and genuine.  He, on the other hand, was merely faking. Oh, Sarah Manners was as good as counterfeit gets and no mistake…but counterfeit all the same.
Cotter had tried hard to dismiss the feeling of inferiority Mary Bishop gave him. She could not be blamed for it, after all. And he did so enjoy her company. Yet, these feelings had worsened, grown more intense in recent times.  Did he fancy her? He certainly did not. So, what then?   There was something about her sheer femininity that began to possess him.  Jealousy played a part, no doubt, but only a part. The rest remained a mystery to him, troubling him almost as much as it thrilled him.
“Your friendship means a lot to me too, Mary.” Sarah Manners smiled and placed her other hand over the one with which Mary had grasped hers. 
Mary Bishop swallowed hard. It was the first time in her life that she had been attracted to another woman. Sarah was like no one she had met before.  Oh, she could be stiff and distant sometimes. But she could be kind and generous too. And she’d meant what she said. It was good to have someone to talk to. She’d never had a close woman friend before.  Other women always seemed to mistrust her. This was only to be expected, she supposed, since she was attractive enough to have looked stunning in sackcloth and ashes. Sarah was different.  Sarah accepted her as a person. This was a new experience for Mary and she liked it.  While she wasn’t exactly adverse to men undressing her with their eyes or women summing her up as a flighty bitch, it made a pleasant change to form a genuine bond with someone, especially another woman.
Is Mary Bishop a closet lesbian, Cotter wondered?  The prospect appalled him, not least because it meant he would have to back off. Imagine, if she knew the truth?  He could not suppress a grin. She responded with a dazzling smile of her own and he struggled to resist an irrational urge to slap her face. She was so sure of herself, completely secure in her damn femininity while he...but he took care not to let the grin slip.
“Why, Sarah, I do believe you’re blushing!” giggled Mary Bishop and felt a deep yearning within that she found at once disturbing and delicious.
“Excuse me.” Cotter rose and fled to the Ladies. She held on to his hand a fraction and he had to tug it free. Once in the loo, he attempted to martial his floundering senses. “Get a grip, Sarah my girl, get a grip,” he muttered. Only when he was with Horton did he revert to being Ralph Cotter in his mind’s eye. Mostly, to all intents and purposes he was Sarah Manners.  So, did Sarah fancy Mary Bishop?  Cotter laughed aloud, the idea was so absurd. So what was it, eating at every nuance of his being over Mary Bishop?  He had no desire to make love to the what then?   It suddenly came to him and he broke out in a cold sweat. He wanted to teach her a lesson. He wanted to smash the smug self-confidence and the consciousness of allure that shone through every provocative glance, each provocative swing of the hips as she walked. Oh, nothing outrageous but all the more sexy and desirable for that.
How could I have got it so wrong? Cotter wondered as he re-joined Mary Bishop and together they sat quietly admiring the sunlight dancing on gentle waves? He was more than happy to remain silent and digest the shocking revelation he had just made to himself.  He did not particularly like this woman. Rather, he almost hated her. That was the attraction. As for wanting to bed the flirty cow, he’d much rather...kill her? 
“Oh dear, you’re not catching a cold are you darling?”  Mary Bishop fussed with touching concern upon seeing that her companion had begun to shiver in spite of the afternoon’s unseasonable warmth.
“Maybe we should be getting back,” suggested Cotter getting to his feet even as he spoke.
“I suppose so. You’re looking very flushed. Are you alright?”
“Perfectly,” lied Cotter.
That night, he lay next to a loudly snoring Horton and could not, for the life of him, get Mary Bishop out of his head.  He could even smell her perfume. It made him want to...what? Why was he sweating like pig?  Why did he keep clenching and unclenching his fists as if his hands had minds of their own?  His mouth felt dry. In the end, he could bear it no longer and got up, went to the kitchen and made a cup of tea.  Heart pounding, adrenalin racing, he wrestled with feelings unknown and unbidden.  He stared into his mug, enjoying its warmth without even taking a sip of tea and only vaguely aware that it was getting cold which is how Horton found him soon afterwards, lying perfectly still and gazing into space like a zombie. 
What the devil’s up with you?”
Cotter started violently. Daz was glaring at him, puzzled and angry. There was concern in his manner but not of a sympathetic nature. It was as if Cotter’s behaving oddly was affront to Horton’s, authority. “I’m in for a thrashing,” thought Cotter. In the same instant, it struck him what it was, the feeling that had haunted him since being with Mary Bishop earlier. Before he let Horton lead him, forcefully, back into the bedroom, Cotter found the bottle to give it a name. “Power,” he told himself over and over. He wanted a taste of the same power Horton had over him. In his mind’s eye, he saw Mary Bishop’s wide-eyed expression as he gripped her pale throat in his bare hands and squeezed...
“You know the drill,” said Horton harshly. Cotter, trembling, lay face down on the bed, his hands still tightening around Mary Bishop’s pretty neck.
Liam Brady, alias Harry Smith, enjoyed helping out at The Green Man. He was delighted to discover that he had a natural talent for bar work and soon got to like everyone calling out, “Harry!” He began to like Harry and once, in conversation with Sadie, likened it to being an actor growing into a lead role. Only, he had no script to follow so changed similes and started to think of himself instead as a novelist creating a character. He gave himself a past of sorts, took the present as it came and preferred not to think about the future.  The latter, however, began to assume a wholly new dimension once the former had settled into a particular pattern of everyday life. He began to feel that he belonged at The Green Man, a feeling that intensified when he started sleeping with its landlady. He could not have said when it started although, later, both agreed each had been aware of feelings towards the other for some time. 
 Sadie and he had hit it off from the start but as mates that was all. Or so it appeared to both of them. One night, after a particularly busy time at the bar and his having to throw out some local yobs, the two of them were enjoying a drink and a chat together when they all but collapsed at one of the tables. The regular barmaid was on holiday in Tenerife and her replacement had not turned up. It had been bedlam at the bar. “The clearing up can wait. We deserve our beds,” Sadie declared, yawning.  He followed her upstairs and, for no reason, they paused at the top. “Thanks, Harry, you’re a diamond,” said Sadie and gave his arm a friendly punch. 
It seemed the most natural act in the world to kiss. “Hey, look at us!” Sadie joked, slightly breathless.  Her smooth, ivory skin, any younger woman would have died for, turned a deep pink. But she did not pull away when he kissed her again.
They were the butt of crude jokes from the pub regulars for weeks but, as with most things, people came round or simply got used to the idea. Most people accepted him as the gaffer now. At the same time, Sadie took care to see that no one forgot whose name was above the door. 
The age difference was irrelevant to both of them. Certainly, he did not think of her as a mother figure. Once when someone had been teasing him about that over the bar he’d retorted without thinking, “If sex with your mother is that good, I’m all for it!” There was a split second’s silence as Sadie appeared in the doorway leading to their private quarters. All at once, the bar erupted with good-humoured laughter. No one dared put Sadie Chapman forward as a mother figure for young Harry Smith again.
Sometimes Harry would have nightmares although these grew less frequent as the weeks and months passed. It was always the same nightmare. He would be trapped in a lift hurtling out of control, carrying him to certain death.  No one else was in the lift. He was alone, but for an enormous teddy bear. Seconds before the final impact, he would wake up, often screaming and sweating buckets.  Sadie would take him in her arms and rock him too and fro, making soothing noises of comfort and reassurance.  Sometimes he would snuggle against her and drift back to sleep. At other times, they would end up making love. “You are just fantastic,” he told her often enough.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” she’d respond with a cheeky grin. Sadie still could not believe her luck. Not only was she sleeping with a handsome hunk of a bloke fifteen years her junior but she was also in love with him and he with her. It worried her that, sooner or later, they would need to face facts. ‘Harry’ needed to know who he really was. Didn’t everyone? For now, though, she was content, the same as he, to push the inevitable to the back of her mind and make the best of things. Their relationship blossomed and people who had known Sadie for years remarked how well and happy she looked.
“I haven’t seen Sadie look so good since that rat she was living with before took off with Maggie from the fish and chip shop,” commented Kath Rowley to her daughter-in-law in the lounge bar on one occasion.
“Harry’s looking pretty good too,” commented the younger woman.
“That what comes of getting your leg across regular,” husband Brian snickered and earned a playful, albeit stinging cuff from his mother. “Here, we’ll have less of your cheek if you don’t mind. Get another round in.”
“It’s not my turn.” Brian Rowley protested.
“It is now.”
“Same again please Harry and one for yourself, whatever’s your poison.” Brian grinned at the other man who grinned back.
No one would have guessed that Harry was smarting inside. But this was a pub and Rowley was a regular. There was no point in telling him to wash his mouth out and find another local.  He had quickly learned that crass remarks went with the territory. In time, he’d also realised that most people meant no harm.  Brian Rowley’s remark had been made had tongue in cheek so, for now at least, his card may be well and truly marked but that was all.
One weekend, the pair left The Green Man in the capable hands of their part-time staff and visited Sadie’s sister in York.  In spite of Sadie’s constant fretting about the pub, they had a wonderful time.  Harry was convinced that a couple more laid back and easy to get along with than Holly Vickers and her husband, Joe, could not conceivably exist. Even the teenage children treated Harry like one of the family and showed him the same air of knowing distain they displayed towards their parents. He would be hard put, Harry suspected, to find a more close-knit family anywhere.
Another trip, this time to Canterbury to visit Sadie’s widowed mother, was a less happy occasion. The old witch had done nothing but find fault with him, to such an extent that Harry had frequently absented himself, gone for walks or a few beers at the local watering hole and left them to it. “I’d come with you,” said Sadie apologetically, “but she’ll only carry on all the more when we get back.”   So he had taken himself off for hours at a time and had not felt so miserable in ages.
It was at such times when, left to his own devices and crowded by unwelcome thoughts, Harry Smith would find himself beating off waves of panic and fear. Most of the time, he was happy to play Harry Smith to an appreciative audience. But he was not Harry Smith. Who the hell am I? He would struggle in vain to remember. Sometime he would have flashes of...memory, imagination, what?  More disturbing were the feelings that came with them...a fear tantamount to terror, a physical pain that caused him to become breathless with sheer panic. The only distinguishable images emerging from the muddle in his head comprised someone he took to be himself, but was not Harry Smith and could easily have been a complete stranger, running a gamut of exaggerated expressions. It was like walking through a Hall of Mirrors at a funfair. The teddy bear too, loomed as clear as day but always wore the same stoic, hard-done-by look. How he hated that huge, ugly bear.
Sadie got used to Harry’s taking himself off from time to time, invariably without a word. At first she’d worry herself sick but soon became resigned to it and fretted less, especially since he always returned within a few hours.  It was during one of these walkabouts that Fred Winter appeared at The Green Man and started asking questions. She told him to come back the next day and spent the next couple of hours till closing time wondering how Harry would take the news. But even if this bloke can identify him, what then?  The same question kept running through her head like an express train. She thought she knew the answer. It would spoil everything and, in the end, she would lose Harry. At the same time, he deserved to know the truth about himself, they both did. 
Only briefly did Sadie contemplate not telling Harry about Fred Winter and racked her brains for a suitable lie with which to fob off the Nosy Parker. By closing time, though, she was reconciled to the likelihood that her life with Harry was poised to change direction forever. She had a gut feeling about this. Somehow, she just knew Fred Winter was bad news.
Harry was restless and moody when he finally returned, a little after midnight. Later, in bed, he told her that he wasn’t sure he could live with Harry Smith much longer. They made love. It helped. Afterwards, they lay in each other’s arms and she gently broached the subject of Fred Winter. He sat bolt upright, nostrils flaring, like a scared animal. “What did he say? What does he know? Who does he think I might be?” the questions spewed out of a quivering, dribbling mouth.
“Relax,” Sadie begged, “Relax,” she kept repeating, “We can’t be sure he knows anything. He’s not sure himself, for heaven’s sake. He just wants to meet you and have a chat, that’s all. It might lead to something or it might not. Can’t do any harm to find out, though, eh? There’s nothing to be frightened of, Harry, my love.  Nothing can happen unless you want it to and, anyway, I won’t let it,” she murmured in his ear and let her tongue play, seductively, with the lobe. “It will be okay, you’ll see.  No one is going to hurt you or either of us. We’re bigger than that, you and me, right? You just have to be strong, my love, we both do. I can if you can.”  She kissed his pale cheek. “We can get through this, Harry, no matter what.”
“Can we?” He was not so sure.
“You bet,” she said with a confidence she was far from feeling.
“I suppose...”
He began to relax and snuggled against her again but continued to speculate well into the early hours. Eventually, both drifted into an uneasy sleep. Sadie slept the more soundly of the two, however, and did not hear him stir when the clock in the bar downstairs chimed a quarter past four o’clock.
Harry had neither a plan nor the faintest idea where he would go. All he knew for sure was that he had to get away, as far away as possible, from Herne Bay.  He threw a few clothes in a holdall, leaned over Sadie’s sleeping form and kissed her lightly on the cheek. He would miss her terribly. But I can't stay, I just can't.   He was not ready to hear whatever this Fred Winter had to say, not yet. Oh, he wanted to know, wanted desperately to know...but not now, not yet. It's too soon. I can't face it, not right now, not just yet, my love,” he murmured softly in Sadie’s ear. And he did love her. They were good together. He would miss her so much. Maybe he should wait, see Fred Winter after all?
He almost lost his nerve, would have undressed and got back into bed if the same image that had come to him a few hours earlier had not sprung, unbidden, to mind and scared him half to death all over again.  He saw himself, very clearly, plunging a knife into the same teddy bear that had haunted his worst nightmares for so long.
Blood gushed out of the bear’s brown belly, a fountain of it, spraying him with its sticky wetness until his whole body was dripping red. What did it mean?  Harry tried not to answer the question; it came to him anyway, as if the bear was determined he should be in no doubt. I’ve killed someone, his lips mouthed over and over. I’ve killed someone and that’s what I can’t remember because I don’t want to remember. I’m on the run, for fuck’s sake. Shit, I’m a murderer. I’m a bloody murderer. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound emerged, only a gurgle that reminded him of a death rattle...but whose?  “Dear God, help me,” he sobbed. 
All at once, his legs gave way.  He collapsed in a heap on the stairs.  I’ve got to go, Sadie. I’ve got to go. I can’t do this to you. It’s not fair, nothing’s bloody fair, he yelled soundlessly up the stairs and could easily predict her response. Sadie would say it didn't matter. But it did matter. I have to get out of here, and I have to do it now.  It’s now or never, now or never, he kept telling himself and struggled to his feet. He began to run, weak at the knees and increasingly scared while remaining perfectly focused on the bolts of the heavy oak front door.

To be continued