"You'd never do it."
"You don't have the bottle, mate."
"You'd mess it up anyway, you old bodger."
It was the same venue and group as every day. It was the usual conversation of at least once a week. But there was a new seasonal intensity to the notion.
Every day, Eric would call into "The Old Barn" in Lower Wallop, a down at heel establishment not to be confused with the more salubrious "Red Lion" or "Pig And Whistle". He would have a couple of pints - or more - with his mates to relax from his work as a builder and fuel sufficient courage to face another evening with the rancorous wife who was driving him to murderous intentions.
There was Robbie 'Goldtooth', unmistakable from his tattooed arms and sparkling mouth. Once the pride of his distinctive dental work had become engaged with a pork pie and disappeared down his gullet. For the next week, he had meticulously collected his shit until a friend could loan him his metal detector and the success of this endeavor was evident from his every inane grin.
There was Dave who ran a clearance business that specialised in sifting the contents of homes vacated by death or eviction. There was 'Reg for the veg' who had a greengrocery business on the High Street. And then there were Bing and King - identified in their passports as Bingham Smith and Graham Kingsley.
The newest member of the group was an invader from London's East End. Hard man Frankie was an ex-con whose crime was the subject of intense speculation. He lived in a run-down caravan in the grounds of a deserted farm on the edge of the village but had a special affection for "The Old Barn", probably because it had a television that was permanently tuned to the sports channel.
Each evening, Eric drew some sort of solace and sustenance from this disparate group that was always there and always ready to indulge in the melancholia occasioned by his domestic circumstances. The problem was his wife.
Eric and Cynthia were both raised in the village and had started dating in their teens. They had married when she became pregnant with their first child and two others had followed, each of whom had stoked the fires of his growing resentment towards his wife and his longing to be free of her. Over the years, she had grown ever more obese which, with her high blood pressure and angina, meant that these days she rarely left the house.
From the very start, Cynthia had belittled him and her endless criticisms had long ago extinguished the little self-confidence and self-esteem that he had possessed. It was unrelenting - everything he did and everything he didn't do was subject to forensic and minute nagging. In truth, she had much to critique: never quite finishing the jobs he started, never really listening to what she said, never telling the full truth about the finances of his business, and of course spending far too much time at the pub.
Since the children had all left home, "The Old Barn" had been his refuge, his drinking mates his support, and alcohol his prop and anaesthetic. The more she nagged him, the more he went to the pub. And the more he went to the pub, the more she nagged him. It was a vicious vortex that was sucking both of them down beneath black waters of anger and despair.
In recent years, however, even the drinking was not sufficient. He had been suffering from profound depression and his spirit was now close to extinction.
Christmas was the final battleground. None of his work customers wanted him around and the family expected him to be at home for the festivities. He drank as much as he could get away with but, even with the kids around, the proximity to Cynthia for days on end was driving him crazy. Now sitting in "The Old Barn" on New Year's Eve, he could not bear the thought of another year with her and once again he had raised with his mates the necessity of killing her.
It had started as a joke but, over the months and years, this recurrent conversation had hardened into a serious proposition. The group had brought their collective - and, it has to be said, limited - intelligence to bear on how Eric could murder Cynthia without this being attributed to him. A whole series of ever-more ingenious plans had been conceived, thoroughly examined, and inevitably rejected.
These conversations had acquired a new edge since the arrival of Frankie from the capital. His term of imprisonment was no secret and it was common knowledge that serious violence had ben involved. The chat was that he had got off lightly since further misdemeanours, including - it was said - two or three contract killings had never been pinned on him.
Tonight Eric's resolve was honed to an unprecedented sharpness. He had already consumed plentiful alcohol at home and here with the lads the blackness of the Christmas incarceration had driven him to add some whiskey and sodas to his usual pints.
The smells of the different beers and spirits, the odours of the crisps and peanuts, the raucous laughter of different huddles, the blarring noise of the football match on the television, the heat and itchiness of his chunky Christmas jumper, all combined to induce a kind of trance in which his intention became as clear and sharp as a bullet to the brain: he would kill her, he would.
The pressure in his bladder interrupted this reverie. It was time to leave any way, otherwise he would get blue murder at home. He excused himself and stumbled to the toilet. "The Old Barn" was not noted for its elegance and its toilets were consistent with its spartan decor.
One wall presented a single aluminium trough at which five or six customers could relieve themselves at a time, presenting the man at the lowest end with a veritable Niagra of yellow urine. On the opposite wall, instead of a set of separate porcelain sinks, there was a wide single basin of that same boring aluminium bedecked with three taps that never seemed to be fully closed.
The raised height of the trough for pissing and the lowered elevation of the basin for washing had been known to cause some confusion to more inebriated users of this particular emporium and indeed the presence of a single actual enamel toilet with its cracked seat and broken door had - on occasions of urgent need - led to the basin being used at times for multiple purposes.
As Eric watched the stream of lemon-coloured but less fruity smelling liquid decline in force and height, he became uncomfortably aware of someone standing just inside the room and watching him intently. As the stream became a trickle and the trickle mutated into dribbles, he gave his member a vigorous shake and struggled with the zip on his jeans before turning to face his silent observer.
It was Frankie and he seemed preoccupied.
Eric had never had such an enticing proposition and he knew immediately that it was an offer than he couldn't refuse. After only seconds of hesitation, he heard himself commit to a heinous act that would enable him to live again.
Eric had never envisaged the murder of his wife requiring more than his ingenuity and courage. But, in the end, he knew that, for all his talk and bravado, he was too mild and sensitive to commit harm himself to any human being, even that bitch Cynthia.
Eric swallowed hard and tightened his belt. This would wipe out nearly all the savings he had squirrelled away without Cynthia's knowledge. But then, with her out of the way, he could sell the house and ...
That was a week ago ...
The money had now been handed over. The murder plan had been agreed.
Frankie explained to Eric that he would use a tried and tested MO, a term he had picked up from a gang (or a television programme). He would not in fact recognise either a modus or an operandi if it came knocking on his caravan door.
He would wear gloves and twist her head sharply to snap her neck. Then he would take her to the top of the stairs and throw her down. Next he would pour copious alcohol down her throat and place an upturned bottle and smashed glass by her prostrate body. Nice touch that - given her moaning about Eric's drinking.
Her husband would stay at "The Old Barn" all evening, giving him the perfect alibi in the unlikely event of anyone doubting that an overweight and intoxicated woman had tragically fallen down her own staircase at the conclusion of the festive season.
All that Eric had to do was call round the house from work to check that the curtains were drawn and she had no unexpected visitors. That would be easily done and, having been done, the agreed signal was to be set up, both men agreeing that even a text message would risk incriminating them. The signal was the deposit in the local church graveyard of a "Santa, please call here" sign - as seasonal as it was macabre.
Eric - the epitome of a white van man - left the loft conversion on which he was working in the next village and drove home with quiet determination. The curtains were already drawn - check. He entered the house and immediately established that there were no visitors - check.
Cynthia was sitting in her favourite armchair watching her favourite soap "Emmerdale" with what seemed like more than usual concentration. Eric manoeuvred around the chair to stand beside his wife to announce that he was off to the pub and he couldn't care a damn what she thought.
What he saw stopped him dead. She was sitting upright with eyes and mouth wide open but not a hint of movement. He felt for a pulse but there was nothing. Her body was icy cold to the touch. Then it jerked in rigor mortis which really made him jump.
A cocktail of emotions swept over him: shock, sadness, relief, elation. He collapsed onto the couch and his gaze fell upon "Emmerdale". He had always said that, if he had to watch the programme, he would be bored to death. So perhaps he should not be too surprised to find Cynthia in her present state. On reflection, he concluded that she must have been dead for some hours; otherwise rigor mortis would not have set in.
Given the short days, she had obviously drawn the curtains in late afternoon and she often watched television for hours at a stretch. It was just poetic that "Emmerdale" was on now. It would be dignified to turn it off. Click. The sound seemed to signify the end of a life as well as the conclusion of a transmission.
He fell back onto the couch. To be honest, he had often wondered why she had not copped it earlier, given her poor health. Anyway, no need now for a murder, no need now for all that expenditure. Except that Frankie was looking out for the signal and he had already been paid.
A call for an ambulance could wait. No need to rush. Cynthia wasn't going anywhere. The priority was to stand down Frankie and recover his money, although he supposed that he would have to give him something for his willingness to do the deed. How much would be appropriate? Pity there was nothing online to advise him on such special circumstances. What use was that Internet when you really needed it?
Eric drove at some speed in his excitement and liberation. At the farm, there was no caravan, nothing. Now he felt new emotions: panic, fear, anger, bewilderment. He couldn't call the police. What on earth would he tell them?
'Well, officer, this gentleman kindly agreed to murder my wife but fortuitously this proved unnecessary. Yet said gentleman disappeared with the agreed fee without so much as a by your leave.'
Where could he go? There was only one place: "The Old Barn". He jumped into his van and raced round to the pub. They were all there: Robbie 'Goldtooth', Dave, 'Reg for the veg', Bing and King. None of them had seen anything of Frankie that day.
Eric stormed up to the bar to accost the pub manager.
Published on 2 January 2014
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