By John Steele
That was the problem with England, he thought: it’s besotted with the dead. He stood on the High Street gazing at a window display of old cavalryman uniforms and a cardboard cut-out of Churchill. The shop was a low-cost clothes shop and window lettering declared, ‘Fashion is timeless.’
So is death, he thought.
He appraised his reflection in the smudged glass: a nondescript man and, some might say, not unattractive. No middle-aged spread, but he noted the greying temples and vacant eyes, hollowed out by thirty-seven years among the worst excesses the world could throw at him.
Terence Ghent turned back from the window to take in a woman fiddling with her bag in front of a charity shop; a hollow-eyed shift worker sitting in the window of a chain café, still in uniform; a harried mother wrangling three kids out of a convenience store; and angry-looking youths with their bow-legged swagger, searching for a human dart board to pin their bitter disappointment on. His tribe now.
Ten years in the army had taught him survival skills and given him a sense of camaraderie.
Six years teaching with a charity in Vietnam had taught him humility and given him a gaping chasm on his CV. No employer in Britain cared about, or rated, the work he had done there. In England, nothing seemed to have much worth beyond England. So here he was, with the disenfranchised, dispossessed, disinterested. Thirty metres away stood a crossroads with a bookies and chain chemist squaring up to an up-market jeweller and overpriced tailors. This junction was the collision of the High Street and Promenade, a fault line of privilege and frugality, wealth and austerity.
She was standing at the traffic lights when he noticed her, understated and so, clearly, from money. Her hair was swept into a swirl of burnished gold and fastened by a simple tortoiseshell clasp, leaving a smooth high forehead and finely tuned nose speared between dark, almond eyes. She glanced left at the oncoming traffic, strode across the road, and onto the High Street.
In his three years in Cheltenham, Terence Ghent had never seen a patron of the Promenade enter the enemy territory of the High Street. The council offices and several bus stops were located on the Promenade; many of the town’s less privileged residents could be found dazedly, enviously wandering among the boutiques and society cafes on their way to those spots, like wraiths lurking among the fluttering society butterflies. But the money never drifted over to the other side. It knew its place in the Montpellier area, the Suffolks, Leckhampton and Tivoli, and jealously guarded its borders with outrageous property values and society functions and bold, rapacious snobbery.
The woman’s face was pale and smooth, void of the pink bruises left by the scouring mid-winter air left on cheeks and noses. After a few strides, she turned off the High Street onto a narrow alleyway leading to St Mary’s churchyard. On the other side of the ragged graves, blasted by the passing of countless lifetimes and the British weather, stood a teahouse and the town’s museum and library where, Terence guessed, she was headed. He watched her as she stepped onto the stone paving of the alley, metallic-slick with rain. Her pallor matched the cream belted coat she wore to just below her knees. He stood at the narrow entrance of the passageway, hemmed in by a fast food place and a money-lender, and observed her assured stride, her heels echoing off the cracked, ancient stone. Her calves were sheathed in tan leather boots and came to an abrupt halt as they were confronted by two pairs of tattered, smeared trainers.
‘Where you going?’
The thick Gloucestershire accent almost smothered the vitriol in the voice.
She stood immobile and he imagined her staring, trying to discern the features of the youth, who blocked her way, in the dark vacuum of the sweat-top hood. The teenager was tall and skinny, all sinew and elbows.
‘Nice bag. What’s in it?’
The youth jerked his chin toward the woman’s handbag as though spasming. His companion, shorter and stockier, surveyed the alley with an air of command and a clear challenge in his eyes: Go on, step in. See where it gets ya.
So Terence did.
The stocky youth shoved the woman – her back to Terence – aside to confront him, as Terence approached the knot of bodies in the narrow space. She made no sound as she stumbled.
‘You wanna turn around mate, walk away,’ said the squat boy. His acne had been seared purple by the harsh cold. The kid’s neck followed suit as Terence took a solid grip and slammed him against the wall of the passage, feeling the teenager’s shoulder blades grind against the brick. The yelp was strangled with an ounce more pressure, like squeezing a trigger, while the tall youth whispered, ‘Fuck!’ The woman, now leaning against the opposite wall a couple of yards in front, flattened her back against the surface to create a clear space between Terence and the tall, hooded youth.
Terence said, ‘The two of you, away with you.’
The teenager said, ‘Fuck off Paddy. What you gonna do, there’s two of us, dickhead,’ and made a run at him while the stocky youth clawed at Terence’s wrists. Terence hurled the thickset teenager into the gangling charge of his hooded mate. Both ended up a tangle of limbs in a soapy puddle. A swift kick to their bollocks and it was over.
Terence took a gentle grip of the woman’s elbow and walked her into the graveyard, past centuries of death and forgotten lives, and out the other end, in front of the museum. He took a step back and mumbled, ‘I was in the army,’ then felt foolish and said, ‘Are you okay?’
She smiled, a bright, open grin which barely appeared to thin her full red lips.
‘I’m Lily,’ she said.
* * *
The house was huge: three, high floors of colonnades, bas-reliefs and a sharp, angry pediment stabbing the low rag of cloud above. Lily had been walking to the library for a book on anthropology and had insisted on repaying his gallantry – her words. Her ivory features had blanched at his suggestion of a coffee in a local café. Instead, she had flagged a taxi and pressed him to have a drink at her house and, on condition that the drink was soft, he had accepted the invitation of this beautiful, sophisticated woman. It wasn’t your everyday occurrence: a member of the Montpellier ‘set’ hosting an unemployed ex-squaddie, but his forty-three years had taught him that life could spring many surprises – and could be all-too-short – and it was best to grasp opportunity when it presented itself.
But he didn’t like the house, its look. He had been raised in a small weaver’s cottage on the Cave Hill in Belfast, two cramped bedrooms shared by a family of six and a toilet boxed out in the corner of a freezing yard. It had been damp, meagre, yet warmed with simple, familial love. He had never liked large houses and felt dwarfed and mocked by their grandeur. They were alien, the preserve of another type, another world.
He didn’t want to go inside; but he wanted her.
The door opened in the grand, neo-classical façade, a tiny portal stalked by great stone pillars, to reveal a dark heart. The sun was already smothered by a spreading grey stain of winter cloud and the light in the entrance had not been turned on. Terence stepped aside to let Lily stride through and switch on a lamp, then crossed the austere threshold.
As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he remembered.
It had been a small shack and the stench had been vile: urine and a bitter copper reek that bit at the back of the throat. The blood had been everywhere, the flies too. He saw the father first, collapsed on the table. The mother was lying over the boy, her back a ragged swamp of carnage. When their corporal gently peeled her from the child, the peaceful sleep of the boy’s face was spoiled by one, clean bullet hole in his forehead. The girl stood in the corner. She had wet herself repeatedly and she clutched the torn ear of a traditional Kilim rug. They had to coax her for an age to leave the shadows in the corner of the room, a unit of grown men, armed to the teeth, persuading a seven-year-old girl to abandon the bodies of her parents and twin brother. The militia had executed the males; the mother was just collateral damage. And as they’d wrapped the girl in blankets and lifted her into the Land Rover, and throughout the drive into Kosovo, she hadn’t taken her eyes off Terence, as if dissecting him, trying to understand why he’d been too late to save them all.
Then she was gone and he was back in Cheltenham watching a phantom descend the grand staircase in front of him, the outstretched arms of the gilded banisters beckoning in the cavernous hall. The walls were a smooth cream, punctuated with too-large paintings of stern-faced old men and a huge print of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. The floor was a frigid black and white tile with a slim tongue of scarlet carpet splayed from the staircase to the door. The whole was empty and clinical, like a lavish slaughterhouse. The figure strode across the hall.
‘Gordana,’ said Lily, ‘how are the children?’
The woman who had descended the staircase said, ‘Restless. They would not sleep. They were hungry. But now they are settled and having a nap upstairs.’
With that, Gordana, a pale, severe woman in her thirties with a jet-black hair bun clinging to her scalp, gave Terence a short, heavy stare and walked out into the dying light of the afternoon, trailing a mid-sized travel bag on wheels behind her. As he and Lily wandered through the grand hall and then through a doorway into a large, open room with long sofas and a smooth metal sculpture of a muscular nude in the centre, Terence said, ‘Gordana is going on a trip?’
‘She has to sort out some rather messy personal business,’ said Lily. ‘She’s indispensable. Our housekeeper-come-nanny. From Serbia.’
‘So, you have children?’
‘A boy and a girl. You?’
‘A boy. He’s six next month. I’ll have to send his present to him.’
‘He lives abroad, with his mother.’
Lily wandered over to a drinks cabinet and fished out a bottle of gin and a Coke. ‘Far?’ she said.
‘His mother is American, from Boston. It didn’t work out and I couldn’t stay in the country when the divorce came through.’
‘Just fly over for his birthday,’ she said, as though it went without saying. He shifted on the sofa as she handed him the Coke, then felt a pang of disappointment as she sat on the sofa opposite, out of reach, carrying the thin perfume of the gin with her.
‘Where’s your kids’ father?’ he said.
‘Someone has to be. He was dead from the waist down after the first year of our marriage, to me at least. Not to the girls in the Ladies’ College sixth form, though. Now, there’s a misnomer.’
‘You didn’t go there?’
Her face wrinkled in a pantomime sneer. ‘God, no. I went to school in London, and would be there now if I had the choice. But, life conspired...’
She set her gin on the arm of the sofa and began unzipping her boots. He placed her at a similar age to his own, early forties. Her coat was still on and he flushed at the thought of what might be underneath. As he set his glass to his lips, she said, ‘What do you do, Terence?’ then, ‘Sorry, I always do that. Ask questions when people’s mouths are full.’ But she didn’t look sorry.
He took a sip before answering. ‘I was in the army for years. I met my ex in Iraq. She was with the Americans out there. Then I left and took up charity work, volunteering in Vietnam. My wife’s father had served there and she always wanted to go, so we spent a few good years in Asia. My son, Gerry, was conceived out there.’
He didn’t want to ramble, hated when other people did, but found he couldn’t stop. She hadn’t taken her eyes off him as he spoke. She slipped the boots off and padded over to stand next to him. No one had listened to him, really listened, for so long.
‘Things were already sour when we got back to the States and, shortly after, we divorced. I got a job out here through a mate, but it fell through the week I arrived.’
Lily opened the coat with a flourish. She wore a simple white blouse and pale green skirt, mid-thigh length, underneath. Her body strained against her clothes in smooth gliding patches as she eased herself down, next to him. She was beautiful. He took another, larger sip of Coke.
She said, ‘You’re not working.’
He tried to decipher whether the remark was an accusation or statement of fact. His face, always his betrayer, gave the game away.
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Lily, ‘no one in my family has done a day’s work for decades. Maybe centuries. Terence, my darling, working isn’t the same thing as making money.’
As she took a sip of her drink, a small pulse nipped at her neck and he smelled the sweet sting of alcohol on her breath.
She moved nearer, her eyes slightly glazed but focused on him, drilling into him like a bullet.
He remembered again.
Her insignia had had a poppy pinned to it, the Americans on base making an effort for Remembrance Sunday as the dry heat of Basra had seeped into the mess. She had leaned in close and whispered something indecipherable in his ear, her hot breath sending prickles across the nape of his neck. The hand on his thigh had sent its own message. He had stood, holding her gently under her left arm, and they had walked out together toward her hut and ten years of a shared existence.
Another woman, another time.
His ex-wife, Beverley, had the habit of phrasing statements as questions: You hungry? You wanna eat something? But here and now, Lily had an assurance and purpose in her speech.
‘Tell me about the army,’ she said.
He sucked in a lungful of air, as though he were about to dive to a great depth, and said, ‘What’s to tell? It was tough. Demanding. I was a different man when I left to the one who joined.’
‘You killed people.’
He shook his head and wondered if it had it sounded convincing.
They’d searched the house, a boxy clay structure, but no one had lain a hand on the family. Shipton had wanted to smack the father around but McCallister, who had a smattering of Arabic, stopped him by talking with the family and swearing they were legit. Everything was fine, all good, but then Shipton, too wired after too little sleep, saw the boy reach for something under the table and lost it. He opened up with his gat and it all went for a ball of chalk. Terence and McCallister had been the only ones in the squad who hadn’t fired a shot. By the time the dust cleared, scratching their eyes, the family lay in a shredded huddle hurled up against the wall by the rounds, a mass of blood staining the clay a funereal black. They checked under the table and saw what the boy had been reaching for: a bowl of figs, a peace offering for the soldiers. Terence had gone outside and retched, but only after he had seen the dead, hollow eyes of the mother fixed on him in accusation ...
There was a silence.
Lily was pressed close to him on the sofa now, her thigh warm and tight against his. He realised he had told her everything that had been in his head for the last few minutes in one, gushing stream. Iraq, the family, the tribunal, his exoneration. She reached out to him, her hand touching his cheek, and said, ‘Poor man.’ Then her face leaned closer and her eyelids hooded the deep hazel irises as they looked down on his mouth. He sighed, his breath sharp and brittle with excitement.
Then he said, ‘I’m sorry.’
Lily’s gaze drifted up to meet his.
‘The Coke,’ he said, ‘I need to use your …’
‘First floor, third door on the right. That’s the nearest lavatory for guests.’
* * *
He was furious with himself. The first flight had a landing for the weary traveller making the steep ascent. His anger carried him through the semi-darkness, despite the lights Lily had turned on for him. He had been so close. So close to a woman he’d never dreamed he could have been with. A woman of beauty, of sophistication. Skin as smooth as the silk of her blouse. A woman who commanded the room with more ease and finality than any NCO he’d met in the military.
And he’d bottled it. Like a kid, he’d panicked and made a pathetic, transparent excuse to escape.
On the first floor, he faced a corridor of thick pile carpet and heavy wooden doors, like a five-star barracks minus the swearing and body odour. Pushing open the third door on the right, he stepped into a simple and efficient room with a toilet and broad white sink, both immaculate under harsh fluorescent lighting, scrubbed pristine, presumably by the dour Gordana. He stood uselessly at the porcelain for a minute but nothing would come and he put himself roughly away as he accepted the fact, again, that he had bottled it downstairs.
It wasn’t as if she’d be the first woman he’d have been with since Beverley. There had been one in London and another in Nottingham on weekend trips. But he’d never been with a woman like Lily: a woman of breeding, of class. To be with a woman like that, to possess a woman like that, even for an instant, would take some of the pain away. The pain of a broken marriage, an estranged son. Of unemployment, his life directionless and devoid of purpose. The pain of sharing so much death, so much sorrow, in Kosovo, in Iraq. In Macedonia and Sierra Leone and Ulster. He splashed some water on his face as he washed his hands and resolved to take charge of the situation. He would go down to the room with the gleaming nude statue and the strong, beautiful woman with the sweet whisper of spirits on her breath, and he would possess her, if only for an hour or so. A dark speck caught his eye in the plug and he thought a spider was caught in a life-or-death struggle with the water, sluicing away. Then he saw it was a short tuft of dark hair, wrapped around the metal latticework of the plug-hole and he thought Gordana wasn’t as fastidious as he had thought. She’d have copped it for leaving hair in the sink in the army. He raised his head, half expecting to see her dry, pinched face scowling in the mirror. There was no one. The room was so brightly lit there were almost no shadows.
Terence wiped his hands and patted his face with a towel so soft he could have slept on it in his army days. Then he turned out the light and stepped out onto the first floor landing and came face to face with a figure in black. He felt a sharp sting of panic and gasped. The figure, small and cloaked in gloom at the foot of the next flight of stairs, stood mute, like the target-silhouettes used on a weapons-range. The figure was only the height of Terence's hip.
Lily brushed past his shoulder, a murmur in the darkened space, and began shooing the small, black presence up the second flight of stairs.
‘To bed, to bed. Up the stairs with you, to your brother.’
Terence stood in awkward silence, like a distant relative in a delivery room, feeling, more than before, that he had no place here in this vast old house, a husk of chambers and creaks and secrets. He had swallowed his dread with a choking gulp and taken the first step down to the great entrance hall and front door beyond, when Lily’s voice crept from the floor above, disembodied by the distance.
‘Sorry about that. Wait downstairs and I’ll be with you in a moment. Once I settle these two we can finish those drinks.’
And, just as he had done for much of his life, whether at the command of an officer or his ex-wife, Terence obeyed.
* * *
He sat with his Coke in his hand thinking the shadow – he couldn’t think of it as a child – had been so silent, even when shooed up the dark staircase. And that name, like no name he’d heard before.
‘Leannan,’ said Lily, startling him, ‘it’s Celtic in origin. Or so her father told me. You should know, being Irish.’ Again, the surety in her voice. She wore a bathrobe, smooth limbs only a shade darker than the Egyptian cotton.
‘I’ve never heard of it,’ he said, his voice hardening with resolve. ‘What’s her brother's name?’
She smiled, a shield of pure white, and there was further command in the smile. ‘Dain,’ she said, ‘it’s Irish too.’
Bloody new money, thought Terence. Always cursing their kids with pretentious names.
She stood and took his glass from him. Setting the glass on the drinks cabinet, she padded softly over to him again and slowly slid the belt of the robe open.
‘They’re hungry. They are always hungry. The young are simply voracious. All they do is consume.’
With that, the belt slid to the floor, followed by the towelling of the robe.
Consume, he thought. He couldn’t have put it better himself.
The pure part of him, the undamaged, unsullied part that still crawled and scratched out an existence in the cellar of his soul, had almost persuaded him to drink up and leave. The Terry who played Gaelic football as a kid, rode bikes with his mates and kissed his first girlfriend at the ripe old age of sixteen, wanted no part of this: children upstairs who could appear at any moment to see their mother throttled, the life draining from her naked body as a sweating, heaving stranger, flush and hard with the excitement of death, stood over her. But the Terence who had served a tour in Derry, spat on and shot at by his own people, who had fired at fleeting shadows in southern Iraq, was a very different animal. The Terence who had seen the genocide of the Balkans, child soldiers in Africa, was famished. He needed to consume, because in doing so he might consume some of the purity and normalcy of those lives he took: Pamela in London, a civil servant with an ordered existence, relationships like a box of files, and a semi-detached in Islington; Jenny in Nottingham, receptionist for a legal firm, pretty and shy with a love of opera and a collection of vintage ragdolls.
Yet Pamela had been sharp and frigid, a crisp resentment in her manner; Jenny had been corrupted, a taste for rough sex and pain beneath her fresh-faced bluff.
But Lily. Sweet, flawless Lily. Generations of breeding and class, untainted by the strife and struggle and guilt of the world. To take this life, this soul, might afford him some peace at last, a closure to the violence and misery, the shame at his ex-wife’s split lips and blackened eyes, the failure of a broken marriage and a lost son. Lily stood before him, naked now, a classical statue given life, her skin the purest white marble. And the unsullied young Terry slinked back to his tomb deep below his conscience and reason as the impulse, the hunger, the terrible addiction took hold, flooding his being with the craving to consume.
He rose and traced his fingertips from the small mound below, up Lily’s flat belly and between her breasts until they trailed the shadow of her clavicle, the bone straining against her skin as her body had strained against her clothes a short while ago. He was transfixed by the cords of her neck as he reached for it; the hands which had defended her, an hour and a half ago, now ready to crush the life from her. Then he felt something hard and sharp between his shoulder blades, insistent, and a keen cold seethe down his spine. He realised he’d been stabbed and jerked away from her, collapsing on the floor.
Lily, silent, tilted her head back to survey him with supreme authority, her eyes black slits in her hooded gaze, her jaw set. As Terence bled across the lush carpet, she sighed.
‘Really? On the fucking shag pile?’
Terence lay mute as her form seemed to fill the room, her lithe, naked body towering over him.
‘You already fucked up, leaving hair in the sink upstairs. Do I have to clean up all your mess?’ The smooth purr of her voice was now an earthy, Estuary yammer.
Terence turned his head to see Gordana standing next to his prone body, a long, bloodied kitchen knife in her hand and a large, clear plastic bin-bag at her feet. Something very red and angular lay inside the bag, and a shock of the same dark hair he had seen in the sink brushed against the inner plastic surface.
He said, his voice dull, ‘What?’
Lily, if that was her name, crouched next to him, utterly at ease with her nakedness.
‘That, my darling,’ she said, pointing at the bag, ‘is the owner of the house. A Lily Prescott, divorcee and rich bitch. You saw Gordana take half of her off in that travel bag to be dumped in the Dowdeswell Reservoir. You’ll be joining the rest of her soon.’
Terence, the cold now spread well below his waist, whispered, ‘The kids?’
‘Mine. See, me and Gordana lived in a decent little flat in Walthamstow with my two youngsters from a failed marriage. It wasn’t much but we were happy enough in London and we scraped by with the rent. Then this cow,’ she nodded at the red mess in the bag, ‘bought the building out from our old landlord and jacked the rent up. Well, I’ve got children, don’t I? Mouths to feed. I couldn’t be having that so we took the train up here and gave the snooty cow what she deserved.’
There was a grunt of agreement from Gordana.
Lily said, ‘Lady Muck here was my size, and it would be a shame to let all those fine clothes go to waste, so I tried on some of her wardrobe. Gordana stayed with the kids while I went to the library to see if they had some local reference books and maps, see if we could dump the rest of Lily-here in a different location, make it more difficult for anyone to find her. Make her disappear: no body, no murder. Course, you bleeding all over the wool carpet complicates matters.’
Terence said, wheezing, ‘You brought your kids here, when you planned to kill this woman?’
‘I couldn’t leave them in London, could I? What kind of a parent would that make me? And we didn’t plan to kill her, just give her what for, but things got out of hand and Gordana has a terrible temper.’
Another grunt from Gordana.
‘Anyway, then you played white knight with them teenagers, and you don’t look too bad, and it’s been a while since I been with a man, so I thought, why not invite you back to the house? Enjoy the fantasy while it lasts? Unfortunately, my best friend here is a tad overprotective. What’d you think, Gordana? He was going to fucking throttle me?’
Gordana mumbled an apology while the woman-who-wasn’t-Lily shook her head in exasperation and muttered, ‘I live like a fucking nun, honestly.’
And Terence felt his heart clench as the cold in his body began to thaw into a searing pain. He realised Iraq, Africa, and all would be gone with the dying of the day. Terence Ghent would no longer exist, and what he feared now was how long he must endure before the pain was ended.
John Steele was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has lived wherever they’d take him ever since. He writes mystery and thriller fiction and currently lives in England with his wife and baby daughter.
His debut novel, RAVENHILL (August, 2017), a thriller featuring Jackie Shaw, is currently available. Book #2 in the series, SEVEN SKINS is in the publication pipeline and he is currently writing his third novel.He has published several short stories on omdb! – “Setagaya Junction” (June, 2014), “The Parting Glass” (December, 2014), and “Achilles Heel” (June, 2015).
Copyright © 2017 John Steele. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!