20 December 2014

A serialization


I am in the final stages of editing Dismemberment, a short novel (of about 62,500 words) which is also being scoured for typos and inconsistencies by a stalwart band of eagle-eyed chums.

Much of the action takes place at this time of year and I propose to publish a chapter or two a day from now onwards. Please bear in mind that the text you’ll see here is subject to change before it emerges as an ebook. Your suggestions for improvement are welcome throughout.

This post will have its date-stamp modified so that it always appears at the head of the blog, and links to each chapter will be appended so that newcomers can read the story in sequence rather than in the date-order of posting.

RH, 14 December 2014

The epigraph is this:

Every decent man in this age is, and must be, a coward and a slave.

— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

_______________________________

Episode 1 (Chapter 1)
Episode 2 (Chapters 2-3)
Episode 3 (Chapter 4)
Episode 4 (Chapters 5-6)
Episode 5 (Chapters 7-8)
Episode 6 (Chapters 9-11)
Episode 7 (Chapters 12-13)

Dismemberment, Episode 7

12

Together with Laurel Close and Birch Meadow, Rosemont Close had been laid out in the early 1930s by a developer who had bought forty-odd acres of what had then been rough pasture. He had built semi-detached houses, which were relatively frugal with land and appealed to the growing number of workers who were prepared, in exchange for the clean air of the suburbs, to commute. The opening of Enham Hill Station in 1922 had spelled the end of rurality in what had been little more than a farming village.
     On first viewing the house, Laurence had not been impressed by its quality, but this was the best they had seen within their budget. Its situation at the end of a cul-de-sac was a bonus.
     Though they had spent quite a lot on the place itself, they had done nothing about the garage, which was tatty inside and used only for storage. A former owner had put an extension on the rear of the original structure to provide a small workshop and a place for garden tools. The same person, perhaps, had laid on electricity in the form of an overhead light and a double wall-socket.
     There was a personal door in the extension. That, and the electricity, had commended the garage to Laurence as the best place for the freezer – though if there had been no power laid on he would without hesitation have knocked a hole in the wall and run a cable out here from the kitchen.
     The freezer was now plugged in and working. The foreman had just silenced the high-temperature alarm, but the three LEDs were still flashing rhythmically. “What’s going in it, can I ask?” he said. “Meat or what?”
     “Vegetables, mainly. I’m starting an allotment.”
     “Minus five should do you, then, once you’re stabilized.”
     They had speedily removed the wrapping, cutting through the turquoise straps with a craft knife, then stripped the cardboard packing round the motor and peeled the protective film from the paintwork.
     Their trolley was also powered by an electric motor. Each wheel had its own hydraulic, variable-height suspension, allowing the trolley-bed to be raised or lowered through a range of angles to negotiate steps. At another time Laurence might have taken an interest in it. As things were, he had merely used the yard-broom to sweep the freezer’s destination clean.
     Now the foreman’s mate was bundling up the wrapping materials, about to deposit them on the trolley.
     “Can you leave the plastic, please? That thick stuff. I need something to cover the table.”
     “Surely.”
     That was the only word he had yet uttered. Compared with him, the foreman was positively loquacious. “Sign here, can you, guv?”
     When they had gone, Laurence thought he had better square things with Mr Sayeed. The doorbell was answered by his wife, who was wearing a sari and had a bindi on her forehead.
     “Yes?” She showed no sign of recognizing him.
     “I’m from Number 26.”
     “Yes, I know you, Mr Trent. How are you?”
     “I’m well, thank you, Mrs Sayeed. I … I just wanted to tell your husband the coast is clear now, and to —”
     Sayeed himself appeared in the hallway. “Aha!” he cried, and came to stand by her shoulder. He was considerably taller. “All finished?”
     “Yes, all finished. I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you.”
     “No problem whatsoever. My errand is not time-critical.” He was about forty, Laurence thought, and much more anglicized than his wife. He had the air of a self-made man, as if he owned a prosperous business. His geniality somehow persuaded Laurence that his employees, if he had any, would enjoy working for him. “One has to give and take, living in such an enclave as this.”
     “Well, I’m grateful to you for your understanding.” Laurence felt he ought to offer a word of explanation, and since Mr or Mrs Sayeed, or both, might have been watching the delivery anyway, he said, “We ordered a new freezer.”
     “Very good. Are you pleased with it?”
     “It seems fine. Time will tell.”
     “I couldn’t help noticing, it is a big one.”
     Foolishly, Laurence had lied to the foreman, not knowing what Annie might have told Marjorie, but he retained enough presence of mind not to repeat the allotment story to a resident of the close. Instead, to fill the void, he repeated some of the nonsense he had read yesterday, while browsing the various brands on the internet. “They’re cheaper to run, per cubic foot, and let you keep more in stock. Big freezers. Especially chest freezers. And if there’s a power cut the contents keep longer.”
     Sayeed gave a slight nod combined with a little grunt of approval, which nonetheless conveyed the idea that he himself couldn’t be bothered with such an appliance. It made a suitable ending to the conversation.
     “Anyway,” Laurence said, “thanks again.”
     “Goodbye,” said Mrs Sayeed.
     Annie must have been looking out of the window, because she emerged from the house and met him under the shelter of the open garage door.
     He said, quietly, “Does she suspect anything?”
     “I don’t think so.”
     “What did she say? What did you tell her?”
     “What were you saying to the Sayeeds?”
     “I just apologized for holding him up. He’s all right, I think. Not sure about his wife. I can’t make her out. But what did Marjorie say?”
     “Nothing, really. O yes, she wants Graham to come round with his drain-rods.”
     “What?”
     “I told her the drain might be blocked. I couldn’t think how else to explain the smell.”
     “Do you think he’ll come?”
     “We’re going to talk on the phone. I’ll tell him … I’ll tell him …”
     “You know where the drain-cover is. Right by the kitchen window.”
     “I know that. Of course I do. But what else could I say? The hall stinks like a shithouse. Worse.”
     The broken pane, covered now only by a sheet of cardboard cut from a cereal box, was bound to excite Graham’s interest. How could they explain it? And even if they came up with a convincing explanation, the breakage would add to the general impression of disorder, would cause further twitching of Marjorie’s antennae and suggest to her that something next door was definitely amiss, if not afoot.
     Annie said, “Do you think she can see the drain-cover from next door?”
     “Maybe, if she hangs out of an upstairs window.”
     “Then she’ll be able to see if it’s been disturbed. You’ll have to get the cover open. Do you know how?”
     “You just hoik them up. A big screwdriver or something is all you need.”
     “Pour some water down there. I’ll tell Graham the drain’s running freely and the blockage must be in the pipe, in the house. A job for a plumber. Though I did tell Marjorie the loo was clear.”
     “That doesn’t necessarily mean the downpipe isn’t blocked.”
     “Is that what it’s called?”
     His mother’s dining table was between them, dividing them. It reminded him of something he had meant to say just now: their dining room shared a wall with Number 25. “If she’s got her suspicions up … the dining-room wall.”
     From time to time the Sudeleys could be heard on the other side of it, usually when entertaining or when Marjorie was chairing one of her committee meetings – she was active in all sorts of things besides the council.
     Annie saw his point at once. So far the cutting had taken place early in the morning, when the Sudeleys would have been in bed, and well before Marjorie’s suspicions might truly have been aroused. Now, though, she might be on the alert. She might put a drinking glass to the wall, even a stethoscope if she had one, to amplify the sounds coming from the Trents’ dining room, of sawing, of hacking perhaps, of latex gloves being pulled off, of fluids dribbling into a black builder’s bucket from a squeezed sponge; and the appalled and guilty remarks exchanged by the butchers.
     Annie said, “We’ll have to be even quieter.”
     “We can’t delay the cutting any longer.”
     “I know. And we’ve got to get rid of that smell. And the house is freezing. I told her the boiler’s broken down. The condenser.”
     “It doesn’t have a condenser. It’s not a condensing boiler.”
     “Does it matter?”
     “Come on,” Laurence said, indicating the dining table. “Let’s put this back where it came from.”

13

By nine o’clock that evening the worst was over. Two hundred and sixteen bags had been packed into the Tauchen’s cabinet, causing the sensors to protest again. Laurence had swiftly silenced the alarm.
     He had made eight trips to the garage. The kitchen door adjoined the fence separating Number 26 from the Pruetts at Number 27. Their windows on that side had remained in darkness; a peep over the hedge at the imperfectly drawn curtains of their front room had revealed the flicker of television. The rear of the garage, and hence his access to it, could not be seen from any of the Sudeleys’ windows. The whole close seemed to have lapsed into its usual Saturday-evening somnolence. He was fairly sure that his comings and goings had not been observed.
     Besides the one-pound bags there was the head. This, in a couple of nested carrier-bags and minus its mandible, had been the first into the freezer and would remain at the bottom till last; till they had decided the safest way to be rid of it.
     The two carrier bags, from Asda, had been introduced into the household by the burglar himself. Laurence had noted the irony. One’s future was not only unpredictable but subject to God’s sense of humour. Assuming he existed.
     They had divided the spinal column into pairs of vertebrae and had sawn up the larger bones, such as the femurs. The worst part of the skeleton had been the pelvis, but now that was in handy pieces too.
     While making his trips to the garage, Laurence had realized that he was capable of anything. That was to say, any human being was capable of anything, when his survival or even his interests depended on the outcome.
     Until yesterday he had believed himself the mildest of men. Now he knew better. Without wanting it, he had gained an insight into the evils of humanity – its régimes and death-camps, its conspiracies and malfeasances. Having on Thursday night renounced the rule of law, he had become a reprobate like all the rest.
     Those ideas had begun to take shape during the cutting, especially when he had found himself becoming habituated to it. The unimaginable – the unpredictable – had been happening. His young and previously innocent wife, on the other side of the diminishing heap of meat, had been accepting lumps of human flesh, whole organs sometimes, bones, sections of bone, and packing them into freezer bags.
     After the scare about the dining-room wall, they had remained largely silent, each pursuing private thoughts. Under the ceiling light she had looked plain. It was as if he had been seeing her for the first time, stripped of the glamour, the youthful allure that had always deceived his eye. What other deception, he had wondered, had tied him to her? Was she really his soulmate, as he had believed?
     He had never known her to utter an untruth, but she had lied so slickly to Marjorie, and then to Graham on the phone – putting him off – that she was clearly practised in falsehood. It had after all been Annie who had persuaded him to step outside the law. Why had she done that? To protect him, or merely to preserve the status quo in which she received the benefit of his salary?
     Fitting a burglar alarm had been her wish, not his. The wall-box announced to the world that there were goods at Number 26 worth stealing. Might its very presence have attracted the burglar here? He had stymied the circuit easily enough; perhaps the brand-name had attracted him.
     The hammer had been kept by the bed at her insistence. Without the hammer none of this would have happened. The hammer had made her husband reckless. Hadn’t he been acting the caveman, defending the little woman, when he had ventured out on the landing? He had hit the burglar for her sake. If anyone was to blame it was Annie, yet this torment of guilt was exclusively his. She had goaded him into it. Weren’t all women like that, manipulative? To compensate for their lack of physical strength, evolution had made them cunning. Conversely it had made their menfolk dupes.
     When he had first met her, one of her attractions, perhaps one of the most important, had been her lack of resemblance to the generality of female students. She had appeared not to regard men as the enemy; had seemed ready to accept him in the ancient way.
     As their marriage had matured and he had begun to earn more money than she did, he had come to discount the intelligence that had once so impressed him. He now recalled that her degree was better than his. Her complacency about her job might be due to something other than lack of ambition. Laziness, for example, enabled by the mug who paid the lion’s share.
     The burglary had threatened that. Annie’s intelligence had revealed itself again. She had seen that she had to take charge to protect the status quo.
     Yes, the status quo.
     And yet, Laurence was aware of the inconsistency of human thought, especially his own. People were hypocrites, changed their mind, held mutually incompatible views, might be unable to look into themselves and question what was going on. Was he trying to justify himself? Or offload the blame?
     The mental artifice that had allowed him, day after day, to maintain a tolerable opinion of himself had been laid waste. Just like the burglar, his inner man had been knocked down, cut up, reassembled in the wrong order, refrigerated, and now it was so jumbled that he was blaming the one person who had always seemed selfless and constant and who had jeopardized her own liberty so that he could remain free. He thought he had loved her but he might have been wrong, or wrong to do so. She was human as well, with her own set of hypocrisies and inconsistencies.
     When the last bags had been packed away, Laurence locked the freezer and the personal door. He had left Annie in the dining room, where she had been levering up the drawing pins and making two stacks of newsprint. The apparently unstained pages would be soaked for two or three days and made into pulp which could then be dried, shredded and dispersed. The others would have to be rinsed out, several times, before they too could be pulped.
     She had gathered the shower curtain ready for the washing machine. It would be joined by the fifteen or twenty pairs of soiled latex gloves and the garments they had worn as overalls. Everything would be washed twice, scrutinized, washed again by hand if necessary, then added piecemeal to the domestic waste. The drawing pins and all the tools would be rinsed in detergent and hot water, bathed in vinegar and, just like the hammer, the newspaper pulp and the burglar’s bones and his other effects, distributed far away from here.
     He found her thrusting the last of the unstained newspapers into a bin-liner. He said, “Shall we put the furniture back?”
     “No. Not yet.” She was looking at him in an unfamiliar way. “I’m too tired. I want a shower. A long one. Then I’m going to bed.”
     The implication was that he was free to unroll the carpet and move the furniture himself. The further implication was that she was going to take all the hot water, leaving him unable to shower for at least an hour.
     Until this moment they had considered each other in this, as in every other, respect.
     Involuntarily he pictured her indistinct form behind the new shower curtain, her face offered up to the spray, her hair darkened and slicked back. She was just standing there, minute after selfish minute, trying to absolve herself of all that had happened, of him, steamily blending with Janet Leigh in Psycho, the curtain’s membrane being torn aside, the jagged chords, the gleaming blade being raised again and again and again.
     The vision possessed him for no more than an instant, but it made him see that he hated her and wished her, if not dead, then non-existent. She had indeed brought him to this pass; and in her eyes he now saw that she hated him too.
* * *
“There’s something going on next door,” Marjorie said.
     “What do you mean?”
     “Something peculiar. I don’t know what.” She turned off her bedside lamp.
     “Maybe they’ve had a row.”
     “It’s more than that. Anne-Marie was … I can’t pin it down. She seemed nervous. Even afraid. Then there was that smell.”
     “It’s the drains. The pipe, I mean. She said.”
     “Oh, I know what she said. When I told her you had some drain-rods she seemed alarmed. Why should that alarm her?”
     “Honestly, Marj.”
     “They’ve had the cover up today.”
     “What cover?”
     “The drain-cover. The metal thing.”
     “How do you know?”
     “I looked. You can tell it’s been moved.”
     Graham was quiet for a moment. “Well, it’s just as they said. Laurence was investigating, that’s all. She said he poured water down the hole.”
     “You weren’t there this morning when the freezer came. I was. The way he ran across to the Sayeeds.”
     “They’re going through a rough patch.”
     She ignored this ludicrous comment. “Usually in the evenings,” she said, “they’re in the front room, but tonight their dining-room light was on till half past nine. I don’t know what they were up to in there. I couldn’t hear much. I even put a glass to the wall.”
     Again Graham remained silent. This time she could sense even more strongly his womanish disapproval. It only made her more determined to get to the bottom of this. She knew intuitively that something had befallen her neighbours. Formerly they had been predictable, just another young couple, but now they had diverged from that. It was unnerving. People like that lay outside her control.
     Marjorie’s world was orderly. She had dedicated herself to maintaining order. The constituents who sought her help expected her to oppose criminality, antisocial behaviour, even unfairness, all of which arose from the selfishness of people who had diverged. Aided by the law, she thus brought order to chaos. Why, she even sat on the Police Authority, albeit as an independent member, and was one of the voices guiding its conduct.
     Marjorie tried to analyse these feelings and couldn’t. They were too vague. The Trents, in her eyes, had been unthreatening and easily pigeonholed, but now … now she felt uneasy about the pair of them. It was not so much that they shared the building in which she slept: what worried her more was that her judgement, on which she had always prided herself, might be at fault. Her judgement was of a piece with her maturity and – yes – her wisdom, two of the most important qualities she brought to her public service. “From each according to his abilities”: that part of the creed was what inspired her. Her sense of duty compelled her to soldier on as the councillor for this ward, despite the abuse she received, the long hours, the tedious correspondence, the inadequate allowances and, worst of all, the humiliation, every so often, of having to put herself up for re-election.
     “Graham.”
     There was no reply. His breathing had changed. Presently he began to snore.

19 December 2014

Dismemberment, Episode 6

9
    
They cut the head off first. From the way he acted, Annie suspected that Laurence had meant to do this all along, to anonymize the corpse as much as possible right away. As for herself, she hadn’t thought about the sequence of cutting. He had told her several times that he could do it alone; she needn’t be present, the process would be too disgusting. There was no reason why they both should have such memories lodged in their minds. Annie had countered by saying that they were in this together. Laurence had killed the burglar for her sake as much as his own. Besides, she thought she was probably the less squeamish. Women were practical creatures, she had said; men had no idea how down-to-earth they could be. She had even offered to do most of it herself, leaving to him only those tasks that required masculine strength. He had declined. They were indeed in this together.
     So she made the first incision, using the virgin sharpness of the Prestige carver, and opened the flesh of the throat. There was relatively little blood. The stiffness had almost gone, allowing Laurence to lift the head while she cut all the way round, through what she supposed were muscles, tendons, the windpipe and gullet, until the blade met bone.
     The large, balding, middle-aged head yielded to all this without the least protest. Its grimace remained unchanged, disinterested. As she worked, as her latex gloves became smeared, Annie knew that what she was mutilating had been a man, a human being, with a name and a mother and a childhood. Perhaps even a partner somewhere who was being driven frantic by his absence. She glanced at Laurence. He seemed to be thinking much the same.
     She said, “He forfeited the right.”
     “Yes.”
     “When he broke the kitchen window.”
     “Yes.”
     “Now he’s just meat.”
     “Even so.”
     “I’m down to the bone,” she said, trying to sound matter-of-fact. “The neck.”
     “Right.”
     They had donned the same overalls they had worn last night when dragging the body downstairs: pyjamas, in Annie’s case, retrieved from the ragbag in the airing cupboard, completely buttoned and with the sleeves tucked into her gloves. Laurence’s overalls comprised an old blue-and-white rugby shirt and a pair of creased cargo-pants.
     He exhaled, a deep, deep breath, far deeper than a sigh, as if expelling his own humanity. The azure-framed hacksaw was lying beside him, half on the shower curtain and half on the newspaper-covered boards of their dining-room floor. He picked it up by the handle.
     Now it was Annie’s turn to hold the head while Laurence placed his blade in the cut and sawed, hesitantly at first and then faster, as if in a hurry to get it over with. The head came free, and she was surprised by its independent weight.
     “Cut the jaw off.”
     “Annie …”
     “I’ll do it if you want.”
     “No.”
     “Is your toolbox back in the broom-cupboard?”
     “Yes. What do you want it for?”
     “The pliers.”
     They had discussed this in detail, long ago, in the far reaches of the first night. Laurence had obviously forgotten. He was even more distracted than she had thought. Again Annie was moved to offer to do the worst herself; and yet, as she nimbly rose to her feet, she felt the vast relief of getting away, even for half a minute, of leaving behind this new rasping of the saw, deadened as it was by skin and the incipiently putrescent flesh of the left cheek. Hacksaw. The implement was perfectly named, for it hacked as much as it sawed, that offset line of teeth, clogged now and the legend on the blade made unreadable: ALL HARD HIGH SPEED STEEL. All hard. That was what she had to become, at least until today was over.
     Besides the pliers she wanted a canister of some sort, and was ashamed to realize that she was glad of the extra time this would give her away from the scene. Her first thought had been for a yogurt pot. She kept a dozen Mookow pots, nested, with their transparent lids, in the cupboard where the Pyrex lived. They were useful sometimes for storing or disposing of liquids. But the plastic might be microscopically less smooth than glass, more difficult to clean, although it could always be burnt – but where? A jam-jar, then. She had hoarded several of those too, why she couldn’t tell. She never made jam and didn’t even know how. It had seemed the correct, the housewifely, the thrifty thing to do, to wash away the last vestiges of marmalade or jam and retain a jar and its screw lid.
     Even as she took out the largest jar, she saw that her calculations had been nonsensical. A yogurt pot would be no more absorbent than a polythene bag and hardly more difficult to get rid of; there was a heap of bags already beside the corpse, unrolled, their perforations torn, their mouths eased open in readiness, eased open between the then-clean fingers of her latex gloves.
     She had removed one of the gloves in order not to soil the toolbox or the cupboard-handle. It was now dangling, inside-out, from the gloved fingers of her left hand. Smudges of gore were visible through the latex. Her mind too felt as if it had been turned inside-out.
     She was every bit as distracted as Laurence.
     The thought was almost as frightening as the rest of it. More so, because if they had both been unhinged by horror they were bound to make mistakes, and if they made mistakes they would be lost.
     When she got back to him Laurence was still kneeling in the same place. The severed jaw had retained much of the tongue.
     “Laurence.”
     He looked up at her.
     “You don’t have to do this.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “Let’s dial 999. We’re going to get caught anyway.”
     “No we’re not. You know what they say. ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish.’ Why do they say that?”
     “It’s a catchphrase. From the telly. A quiz.”
     “Annie, give me those pliers. I’m going to pull the teeth out now, just as we planned. Then we’re going to wash them clean and get rid of them one by one, just as we planned. Then we’re going to get rid of the rest of this horrible cunt and no one will ever be the wiser. Just as we planned. Or rather, just as you planned, because last night – I mean, the night before – I was in no state to plan anything. You saved me from calling the police, and they’re horrible cunts too.”
     He was holding out his gloved hand for the pliers, and she understood that she had not yet, by a long way, sounded the depths of the man whose bed she shared.
     He said, “What’s the time?”
     “Five o’clock, near enough.”
     “First light in two hours, then. We can get a lot done before breakfast. After that we’ll have to see to the garage.”
     She knelt down again. Rather than replace the glove she had removed, she took another from the box he had bought yesterday. The dirty glove went into a bin-liner for detailed cleaning and disposal later.
     Annie took hold of the jaw and pressed it down against the floor. All the bigger teeth had been filled with mercury amalgam, forming a unique and traceable pattern if left intact. Laurence seized a molar – or maybe it was a wisdom tooth – and pulled. It took all her strength to resist, but eventually, after several attempts, the tooth and its roots came out. Laurence held the pliers over the jam-jar and opened them, but the tooth wouldn’t drop until he scraped it against the rim, whereupon it half fell, half slid, to the bottom.
     The serrated beak of the pliers took firm grip on the next one.
    
10
    
They were carrying the love seat towards the house when Laurence noticed a turn of her head. He followed it to see what had attracted her attention: Marjorie, descending the shallow gradient of her frontage, only her head and shoulders visible above the hedge.
     With the officiousness that found expression in her gait, she turned and came fully into view. She was bearing a brown package. That explained her attempt to raise them yesterday evening. The time now was about nine, a conventional hour for a neighbour to correct a misdelivery.
     Despite the paralysing knowledge that the front door was unlocked, this explanation began to make him feel less apprehensive.
     Beyond that front door lay the hallway and the charnel-house they had made of the dining room. If she so chose, Marjorie could attempt to march straight in there, whereupon she would be confronted with a variety of unclean tools, a headless human male semi-dissected and a heap of sealed plastic bags containing human bits and pieces, such as the fingers and toes Laurence had himself cut off with the secateurs – or the digitless hands and feet, separated, sawn off, each in its own bag. To ensure that everything would fit into a volume of five hundred and eighty litres, each bag had been all but immersed in a bucket of water to get rid of excess air, then sealed by Annie with a twist-tie.
     “Good morning!” he called out.
     Marjorie returned the greeting.
     Annie’s expression, referring to their burden, said “Shall we put it down?” and he complied. The love seat was the last-but-one thing that needed to be removed before the freezer could get to the back of the garage.
     “This came for you yesterday,” Marjorie told her, handing over the package, a flattish cardboard box, evidently not heavy. “You were both at work.”
     Annie must have ordered something without his knowledge.
     Laurence had already taken note of Marjorie’s garb – in particular her beige raincoat and jacquard scarf – and asked himself whether she were on her way out or whether she had dressed herself up for this. Though the air felt cold and damp under a heavy sky, it had not yet started to rain.
     Annie thanked her, rather too effusively, he thought. “I’m sorry you were bothered.”
     “It’s no bother,” Marjorie said, subtly rounding her Os, “though I did try” – Ai did trai – “to bring it round last night. I rang several times.”
     “I’m so sorry. We didn’t hear the bell, did we, Laurence?”
     Something made him want to inform Marjorie that he and his wife had been otherwise engaged, upstairs, but he merely gave a sort of good-natured shrug, as if to imply that the bell might be faulty and that he would look into the matter. This had the desired effect and Marjorie, not without a hesitating trace of disapproval, changed the subject. “That’s a nice piece,” she said, meaning the love seat. “I don’t think I’ve seen it before.”
     “It belongs to my mother,” said Laurence. “We’re making some room in the garage.”
     “Yes, I saw earlier.”
     Of course she did. Perhaps even through binoculars while standing invisibly behind the net curtains in the bay window of her master bedroom. He felt sure she was waiting for an explanation of the garage-clearing; he looked at Annie but was unable to gauge her reaction. They were prepared to admit to installing a new freezer, but only if that were unavoidable.
     Marjorie said, “Oh, I was going to ask last night, will you be here on Wednesday? The twenty-third. Graham and I are having a few people in for Christmas drinks. Just from the close. I’m sorry it’s such short notice. Spur of the moment thing. Six-thirty. Do say you can come. No need to dress up.”
     The prospect of two hours in a roomful of neighbours, Marjorie presiding, Graham dispensing the canapés, was not only as unwelcome as it would ordinarily have been, but alarming. Who knew what mental state he and Annie would be in by then, what inquisition they might be subjected to, what incriminating slip either of them might make? But if they declined they would have to go out or hide at home. If they wanted to hide, he would be forced to park the car elsewhere, then walk in plain sight back up the close, perhaps even meeting – if he didn’t allow enough time – one or more of the guests on their way to the Sudeleys’.
     “That’s very nice of you, Marjorie. Are you free on that evening, Annie?”
     “Yes, I’m pretty sure I am.” Her thoughts had plainly paralleled his. “Thank you,” she said to Marjorie, and with a confirming glance at Laurence added, “we’d love to come.”
     The parcel had been relinquished, the invitation accepted, and unless Marjorie proposed to stand there and gossip – hardly reasonable, given the activity she had interrupted – there was no obvious way for her to prolong the encounter. And he had just felt the first touch of rain. A moment later two or three fine streaks marked the lenses of his spectacles. Simultaneously the man who lived nearly opposite, at Number 19, opened his door and noticed the gathering in the driveway of Number 26. He shut the door and seemed minded to come over and say hello, principally to Marjorie no doubt, for Laurence and Annie hardly knew him.
     But Mr Sayeed merely waved and stepped from his porch. He must have pressed his keyfob: the directional indicators on his Toyota lit up. He got in and, with Marjorie half watching, started to back out.
     Laurence became aware of an intensification, a localization, of the ambient traffic-noise, being caused by a goods vehicle, a heavy one, coming up the cul-de-sac. Mr Sayeed’s red lights came on and, together with the reversing lights, went off again. The car moved back to its original spot, and Laurence watched the arrival of a white panel-lorry, unmarked, two men in the cab. With a loud discharge of air-brakes it stopped outside Number 27, half on the pavement and right up against the garden wall.
     The freezer.
     They were early. Much too early.
     Its arrival at this moment seemed monstrously unjust. Marjorie, Sayeed too, would know about the freezer. Far worse than that, his mother’s dining table still had to be removed from the garage. The men might chivalrously offer to carry it into the house.
     Before they had had a chance to climb down and speak to him, Laurence hurried across the road to Mr Sayeed. “Sorry about this. We’re having a delivery. Are you in a hurry? I can get them to go round the block and let you out.”
     “No problem, my friend. How long will they be?”
     “Fifteen minutes, max.”
     “I have a few things I can do indoors.”
     He seemed genuinely not to mind.
     Laurence saw that Marjorie, indifferent to the onset of rain and the vulnerable upholstery of the love seat, had engaged Annie in conversation. A curse on that raincoat! Were they talking about the delivery? What motive was Annie offering for ordering such a big freezer? Nothing had been pre-arranged. And the conversation was giving Marjorie a chance to scrutinize her more closely. The shadows under her eyes, the outward signs of fatigue and distress, were the least of it.
     The lorry had been driven by the foreman, a pinch-faced fellow wearing jeans and a green padded jacket. “Mr Trent?” he said, coming across the terminus and meeting Laurence halfway; he had ignored the two women by the love seat. “Number 26? A freezer?”
     “That’s it.”
     “Where d’you want it, guv?”
     “In the garage, please. I think it’ll fit, once we’ve got one more thing out. We’ve been making space. You’re too early.”
     “Schedule’s all mixed up. Computer’s had a prolapse, or so they tell us.”
     Laurence was eager to cut short this exchange for fear that Mr or Mrs Pruett from Number 27 would emerge to complain about the lorry, which had blocked their exit and presumably darkened their front room as well.
     He returned to Annie and the love seat. “Let’s get this into the house,” he said. “Sorry, Marjorie.”
     Marjorie said, “Do you need a hand? Shall I fetch Graham?”
     “No no, that’s all right.”
     “It’s no trouble. Anne-Marie, you shouldn’t be moving furniture about like this.”
     Meanwhile the foreman’s hulking mate had taken up a strategic position on the pavement and the lorry had pulled forward. With deafening beeps that were surely alerting everyone in Enham Hill, it now inched backwards.
     “Really, it’s fine,” Annie said, a wildness beginning to appear in her eyes.
     The back of the lorry was three or four feet from the brick piers marking the end of the driveway.
     “Perhaps Ai could help,” Marjorie said.
     The foreman’s mate raised his hand and again the air-brakes gave an expulsive swish. The engine stopped. The foreman appeared; his mate was letting down the tailgate, which cleared the piers by a matter of millimetres. Despite everything, Laurence marvelled at the man’s spatial judgement. And he had seen, which Annie and Marjorie apparently had not, that Marjorie was about to be trapped in the driveway – unless she cared to negotiate the soil and thorns of the rosebed and climb over the wall.
     “Marjorie, you’d better get out before …”
     Too late. The foreman had already pressed some button or other, because a hydraulic platform, level with the bed of the lorry, now slid out and came almost flush with the piers. The men clambered inside and between them started dragging something big out of the way, making a ponderous, hollow noise: a washing machine or dishwasher on a pallet, perhaps, and then another. Like the schedule, the unloading sequence had been messed up.
     “Annie, quick.”
     Ignoring Marjorie, they carried the love seat to the porch, through the door and into the hallway to the end. The dining-room door was an inch ajar; Laurence quickly shut it, only to realize that Marjorie was watching. She had followed them to the porch.
     “Do you mind if I wait here out of the rain?” she said, giving him a curious look, as if her bespectacled eyes wanted to stray to the dining-room door, as if its handle were an irresistible magnet … for there was a definite smell in the hallway, bloody, like a butcher’s shop, but also faecal. Not a butcher’s shop, no! An abattoir!
     Why hadn’t he shut the door earlier? Was it because he had underestimated, become accustomed to, the stench in the dining room? Or had he simply forgotten? Was he capable of thinking straight at all?
     Marjorie was still standing in the porch.
     “This really is a nuisance,” Annie said. “But they won’t be a minute. Why don’t you wait in the living room? Do you mind, Marjorie?”
     “I’m happy to wait here.”
     Yes, yes, for God’s sake let her wait there!
     Couldn’t Annie see that if Marjorie came into the house they would lose sight of her while the to-ing and fro-ing proceeded outdoors? She would be at leisure to lay aside the magazine Annie might give her, get up from the sofa, venture into the hall … The alternative was to shut her in the living room, but that would look decidedly …
     A new noise from the pavement reached his ears. The platform was descending, bearing the freezer on a trolley with pneumatic-tyred wheels. The white enamel was visible under a thick, heat-sealed polythene wrap, the corners underneath protected by cardboard capping, the whole thing bound round with turquoise straps. The word “Tauchen”, in large, matching turquoise italics, made a repeating pattern on the polythene. The freezer was huge, far bigger than he had anticipated. It looked tremendously heavy.
     “Laurence,” Annie said. “I’ve got a bit of a headache. Can you deal with the table? Get one of the men to help you. Leave it under the garage door for the time being.” The overhang, she meant, while the door was left open. “Before we move the other things back we ought to put some plastic or something on top to keep the rain off.”
     She was a genius. “Right,” he said, flabbergasted by her presence of mind, overjoyed by the reprieve.
     “I’ll stay here with Marjorie.”
     “Right.”
     To Marjorie, Annie said once more, “They won’t be a minute.”
     As she showed their guest into the living room, Laurence heard her say, “I’m sorry about the heating. There’s something wrong with the boiler.”
     He went outside again.
    
11
    
“It’s the condenser, Laurence thinks. We rang the service people first thing, but they won’t be here till Monday. They could have come out at once, only they’d have charged another hundred pounds just because it’s a Saturday. Be even more tomorrow. I’ll have to take time off work.” Annie realized she was gabbling. “It’s all right, though. We’ve got a couple of electric heaters in the loft. We’ll get them down when some of this stuff goes up.”
     Marjorie was watching her closely from her newly acquired coign of vantage – the armchair by the window. Annie wished she had chosen the other one, the one she herself had just perched on, for the light behind Marjorie was making it hard to judge the nuances of her expressions and hence to glean some clue as to whether she suspected. The odour in the hallway had seemed outrageously blatant, but perhaps Marjorie’s sense of smell wasn’t acute, or perhaps she had an incipient cold. At any rate, she had made no comment about it.
     “We’re having trouble with the drains as well,” Annie said. “The upstairs loo’s been slow to clear for a while. We might have to send for Dyno-Rod or someone like that.”
     There was a pause. Then Marjorie said, “Where are you going for your meat, then?”
     Just for a moment Annie didn’t understand what she meant. “We’re not sure yet.”
     On the driveway, Marjorie had made it plain that she was curious about the freezer, particularly its size, so Annie had told her they wanted to reduce their food bill while improving the quality of their diet. She had said that Laurence had compiled a spreadsheet; the freezer would be completely amortized in no more than seventeen months. Where all this had come from Annie didn’t know. The morning had assumed a surreal character – more surreal even than the hours since the burglar’s death. And what had happened earlier, in the dining room, seemed not only surreal but revelatory. Most of her wanted to deny that it had happened, and the knowledge that there was yet more to do – that he was only half cut up – was too odious to confront. “I’m one of these”, she had thought, staring at the half-deconstructed corpse, a human being laid bare, its mangled, smelly innards shamelessly on view.
     Until then she had never acknowledged her own body for what it was. Her mind had tricked her into believing she was something more than a collection of organs and bones, a higher being unconcerned with the squalid mechanism that housed her spirit. Not only was she “one of these” but she was married to a male like that, another ape with genitals. Their private life together, their likes and dislikes, their shared memories, their hopes for the future: all this was part of Nature’s trickery. The mind was in the service of the body, and all the body wanted was to reproduce. To breed – that was its goal. “Love” was nothing but a ruse to persuade the male to stay with and support the female till the young were grown.
     Before this morning, Annie’s chief ambition had been to start a family. She had been worried that too much time was passing before she and Laurence could afford even one baby, never mind the two or three she had really wanted. Beholding the ape-burglar as her ape-husband had opened its ribcage and started cutting out the heart and lungs, the illusion had fallen away. She didn’t want to be an ape any more. She certainly didn’t want to produce new ones.
     In a few minutes her attachment to Laurence had evaporated. Kneeling there at his behest with the supply of plastic bags and the buckets and sponge and towels, she had inwardly begun to blame him for what had happened to her.
     All that linked them now was the fear of getting caught. Their respective bodies were afraid of the privation that punishment would bring. To that end, her mind was generating a web of deceit, its most elaborate yet. Deceiving Marjorie was trivial. Annie would have to deceive Laurence, at least until this was over and her ape-self could shake free of his.
     “Lyndon’s are highly spoken of,” Marjorie said. “In the High Street. I believe they do special deals for bulk.”
     “Next to Powntley’s?”
     “That’s them. Old-fashioned family butchers, they are.”
     That phrase featured on the shopfront. Family butchers. Who, it seemed, not only butchered families but were proud of the fact.
     Marjorie said, reviving a topic Annie had thought dead, “Where d’you think the blockage is?”
     “In the pipes or the drain, probably. We think the loo itself might be all right.”
     “Graham’s got some drain-rods. The proper things. Why don’t you let him come round and sort it out for you?”
     “No, really —”
     “He’d be glad to. We had a blockage ourselves, before your time. When we found out what it would cost to get a plumber in, Graham went down to the builders’ merchants.”
     “I don’t want to trouble him.”
     “Really, Anne-Marie. That’s what neighbours are for. Besides, he’s got nothing better to do.”
     Annie disliked the way Marjorie always used her full forename. No one else did, no one she knew or liked; it was a way of asserting dominance. Then she saw that to refuse would look suspicious. “Well, if you’re sure. Not while it’s raining, though.”
     “No. This afternoon, perhaps, if that’ll suit.”
     She would have to find some way to put him off. “You’re very kind. But let’s see what the weather’s doing then.”
     The parcel Marjorie had brought was resting on the arm of Annie’s chair. Marjorie had glanced at it once or twice, as if impatient to know its contents. For something else to say, Annie picked it up and announced, “This was supposed to be a surprise. Laurence’s Christmas present. His main present, anyway.”
     “Oh, what have you got him?”
     “Headphones. Good ones. You know how he loves his music.”
     Marjorie was sitting by one of the pair of floor-standing loudspeakers. After her complaint, Laurence had at first listened only at a low volume, but soon enough had stopped listening altogether, except now and then to his portable player. Although the player sounded perfectly fine to Annie – he had upgraded the earbuds and done something clever with the software – Laurence found it barely adequate. Second only to his computer, his music system had been his most cherished project, carefully assembled over the years. She had hoped the new headphones would please him and let him use it again. They were highly rated by aficionados of such things. He preferred classical music, Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven and Schubert, the baroque, Bach, Handel, Purcell; and, most especially, early music by such composers as Hildegarde of Bingen and Hucbald. Annie liked all that too, well enough, but with Laurence it had been a passion. Marjorie had effectively spoiled it for him, and there she was, planted right next to one of the speakers and showing no remorse at all.
     Annie craned her neck, looking out towards the garage. The delivery seemed to be coming to an end.
     She had successfully avoided offering Marjorie a coffee; Marjorie would have accompanied her, in a friendly fashion, still chatting, to the kitchen.
     “I think you can escape in a minute, Marjorie.”
     She stood up and Marjorie, silhouetted against the north London morning and its rain, had to do likewise.
    
    

18 December 2014

Dismemberment, Episode 5

7

They had dragged the body more than halfway down the stairs when the doorbell rang. Annie’s suddenly rigid jaw and her stark-wide eyes, looking up at him, registered pure fear. If the letter-flap were raised, whoever was in the porch could not fail to see what was on the staircase.
     She turned towards the frosted glass panes, behind which Laurence could see a vague, unmasculine face, lit from within the house. The hall-light being on did not necessarily mean that anyone was at home. What did, however, was the presence on the driveway of the metallic silver, rain-wet form of their Volkswagen Golf.
     It was all over. They were done for. He had been insane even to have contemplated trying to evade detection.
     The face came yet closer to the glass. One face. Not even another gang of carol singers, then, Laurence’s first wild hope. Maybe a canvasser, someone selling something … or a charity collector …
     Just above the threshold of audibility, Annie gasped out, “It’s Marjorie!”
     Who else?
     Of course it was Marjorie, responding to some arcane telepathic signal that Laurence had transmitted last night, just a minute or two after … after the blow. His frenzy of guilt had sent it through the party wall and into her sleeping and receptive psyche. She had picked up and processed the signal in an instant, confirming what she already knew, that there was something unsound about her neighbours, especially Laurence, whom she both condescended to and distrusted. Condescended because he was a newcomer to Enham Hill and young enough to be her son; distrusted because she knew he was more intelligent and better educated, the extent of his advantage being impossible for her to gauge. Her inferiority in his presence was manifested by a subtle change in her accent. It became more refained. Alone with Graham, her voice was not like that. Once or twice, while weeding beside the fence, Laurence had overheard her ordering him about.
     What was really surprising was how long it had taken her to materialize at the threshold, to extend an accusing finger and apply its tip to the illuminated button. And as if this thought had set it off, the bell rang again. The noise seemed even louder and harsher and more jagged this time, cutting into him like a circular saw.
     Marjorie’s face was moving about as if she were trying to see, distorted and amorphous, a creature of the depths, a pink, fleshy squid. She knew they were in. She might even be able to discern them – their shapes, the different colours – on the stairs.
     There was no sound from the TV, nor from the hi-fi about which she had complained so bitterly when they had first taken up residence. If they didn’t answer, how would she react?
     Laurence had frozen as solidly as his plan for the body, his hands grasping its cold ankles and the cocoa-brown socks with their clocks, around which were gathered folds of the doomed shower curtain. He knew he must keep on grasping. If he let go, if the burden slithered down and against his wife, the noise, even if she didn’t react, would make Marjorie lift the brass letter-flap. In fact, she was so nosy that he was finding it hard to believe she hadn’t done so already. Surely it was about to open. A pair of chilly, bulging eyes, behind spectacles, would be given free rein to range about and, in half a second, focus crisply on the stairs.
     The bell rang yet again. And then, incredibly, after some unimaginable span of time, Marjorie, her movements implying impatience or irritation, turned away and left the flap untouched.
     Still he knew he must not let go, however washed-out he felt, however debilitated by abhorrence and dread. His ordeal was only just beginning. Annie’s too, and she had slept even less than he.
     For supper she’d served minestrone soup with grated parmesan and garlic bread, followed by cherry yogurt. The food, its inherent, organic properties of disintegration and decay, its colours and shapes and textures, had reminded him with almost every mouthful of what was awaiting them. Masticating the bread, like swallowing the soup and its bits of pasta and vegetable, like the yogurt, had made him think of what they would be flushing down the lavatory. It had been all he could do to finish, even with a fortifying glass of wine. He had guessed that Annie had deliberately chosen vegetarian fare. But they had to eat. They had to keep their strength up. It was bad enough that they would have had no sleep for forty or fifty hours.
     He managed to utter some words. “What do you think she wanted?”
     Annie gave a sort of stunned shrug, expressing neither an inclination nor an ability to speculate.
     “Do you think she’ll be back?”
     Still recovering, Annie could make no reply.
     “I think she already knows. Maybe she heard … last night … through the wall.”
     “That’s crazy.”
     “Annie, what are we going to do?”
     “Get him out of sight, that’s the first thing.”
     They resumed their progress.
     In grim silence she reached the bottom of the stairs and, struggling, began to turn their burden rightwards, into the hallway proper.
     Until this evening, Laurence had never guessed quite how heavy a human body could be. The burglar was utterly passive, almost as unhelpful in death as he’d been in life. At the top of the stairs his extended arm had proved difficult. Laurence had tried to force it back and to his great surprise the arm had yielded and was no longer stiff – unlike the rest, which was now even more wooden than it had been this morning.
     What they could see of the skin had turned a waxy yellowish-grey. The face had become yet more contorted, unrecognizable, really, the lips drawn back from the matt, dry teeth. The cheeks, much of the facial musculature, had collapsed. The part of his head that had been lowermost was congested with blood and fluids which had indeed started to permeate the skin, matting the hair and forming a small, unspeakable puddle.
     Upstairs, Laurence had wrenched out the hammer and wrapped it in another bin-liner. They would scrub the murder-weapon clean of blood and fingerprints with detergent and then immerse it in vinegar – a mild acid – before losing it somewhere.
     The hole it had left was perhaps the most ghastly feature of the corpse: a socket of congealed blood, hair and wool-fibres admixed with other stuff, fatty, pale grey and gelatinous, which could only be brain. Holding one edge with gloved, reluctant fingers, he had cut the hat away with many snips of a pair of nail-scissors, then dropped it in the plastic bag Annie had been holding ready. The lustreless, balding pate underneath had seemed both pathetic and revolting, yet another detail he didn’t want to absorb.
     Laurence was now so tired that his mind had begun to wander. This time yesterday, he and Annie had argued over the arrangements for Christmas, arrangements that were greatly overdue and still unsettled. She wanted his mother to spend Christmas Day with them and her parents in Potters Bar. His mother did not like his mother-in-law and Laurence feared a row. The alternative was either to invite his mother here or for Annie and him to spend the holiday at her new flat. His mother was lonely and had even fewer friends now that his father had died.
     None of the Christmas plans was particularly appealing. Potters Bar would be difficult, and not just because of Annie’s mum; his mother would feel conspicuous, invited out of pity, emphasizing her single state, her bereavement. She might even get weepy again. Going to his mother’s flat would be equally difficult. Bringing her here had seemed the best option. Annie could buy a ready-made Christmas dinner at Marks and Spencer. Then on Boxing Day the two of them could pop over to Potters Bar for the afternoon, just to show their faces.
     Now, of course, there could be no question of having anyone here. The dining room would be unusable; there would not be enough time to redecorate. As for going elsewhere, Laurence was reluctant to leave the house unattended. Even though the new freezer was supposed to have a locking lid, that could no doubt be jemmied open. The freezer would fit nowhere but in the garage, and the garage was even less secure than the house. The up-and-over main door was fitted with a flimsy built-in lock. If the end of a steel pipe were placed over one leg of the T-shaped handle, the whole assembly could be wrenched out.
     They had yet to make space in the garage. That work was scheduled for tomorrow morning, before the delivery. He hoped the weather would improve – going back and forth to the house with garage-junk would look odd in the rain.
     It would also look odd if he or Annie were to make too-frequent visits to the garage, so they would have to bring back a number of bags at once. That would mean storing all but one in the kitchen, in the fridge-freezer, where they kept their food.
     He was still struggling with this conundrum – whether to buy plastic storage-boxes to keep the waiting bags separate, or whether simply to discard the fridge-freezer once the blending was over, when Annie said, “We’re too tired for this tonight. We’ll make mistakes. We’ve got to get some sleep.”
     He realized that, just for a moment, he had been thinking about something other than what was directly in front of him. Even in the short trip downstairs, even while manoeuvring the body of the man he had killed, even while getting over Marjorie’s manifestation – preoccupied with the idea that she would soon return, or telephone with a thinly veiled demand for an explanation – Laurence had begun to normalize the murder. Just as he had foreseen at his desk, the shock and guilt were wearing off, but this, in some ways, was even more disturbing to him than his previous distress.
     He said, “How can we sleep, with him down here?”
     They had changed places, Laurence leading. The hallway’s polished wooden floor was letting them slide the load, holding only the shower curtain. How gratefully he had relinquished those ankles! Annie reached the dining-room doorway and they began dragging the burden across the newly bared boards towards its resting-place.
     She said, “We must sleep, sooner or later.”
     It was tempting to postpone the worst part of all. Would it really matter if they left the cutting till daylight? Decomposition could only just have started. What difference would ten or twelve hours make?
     But she was suggesting a variation from the plan. He had braced himself for the cutting and had envisaged it taking place under the central ceiling-light. He had not thought of doing it by day. That would make it harder somehow, either less shocking or more: all he knew was that he had accustomed himself only to the idea of doing it at night. A change of plan was unsettling.
     She switched on the light, fulfilling that part of his vision, at least, and they resumed their progress. He managed a glance at his watch. It was already well past eight.
     He said, “As soon as he’s settled I’m going to call her. I must know what she wanted. And if we’re really going to bed, we don’t want her coming round again, or phoning.”
     “But that’ll tell her we know she called.”
     “I still think she suspects something.”
     “How can she?”
     “You know what she’s like. I wouldn’t put it past her to have bugged the place.”
     “Really, Laurence.”
     “She’s on the Police Authority.”
     “So what?”
     “She must know a lot of policemen. They’d do favours for her, to keep in her good books.”
     “Oh —” she began, irritably, but checked herself, though when she spoke again her tone was even more irritable. “The Commissioner himself could live next door and be none the wiser. Laurence, don’t go to pieces on me. I can’t do this on my own.” Then she said, “We’ve got to get some rest. Even if we can’t sleep, we ought to lie down in the dark. Or I will, even if you don’t want to. We’ve got the garage to clear first thing.”
     A week ago, had he been able to foresee this, he would have said that she would be the one to go to pieces. Her paranoia about the alarm system was part of that, but of course she had been quite right, right also to insist on arming themselves with the hammer. A shotgun would have been better, and it shamed him to think of the way he had silently patronized his wife.
     She looked exhausted. Her distress might even be more acute than his, and he was to blame. In every way he was to blame. He should have seen that they would be physically unable to do the cutting tonight.
     The body and its shower curtain were in position.
     “Come on then,” Laurence said. “Let’s go upstairs.”
     “Turn the phone off first.”
    
8
    
Later that evening the rain stopped and the cloud-sheet broke up before a south-westerly wind, the scudding pieces now and then revealing a sliver of moon. Laurence had opened the bathroom fanlight in order to gauge tomorrow’s weather.
     His bladder had woken him from lurid dreams. As he had emerged from them he had felt that he didn’t deserve any more unpleasant experiences, not now. The dreams had borne no obvious relation to what had happened, but had nevertheless been about difficulty and isolation.
     They had reminded him how unbridled was his subconscious, how tenuous his waking control. A shred of sanity was all that divided him – divided anyone, really – from officialdom, a shred little more substantial than the secrecy he and Annie had been able to preserve so far. By some miracle Marjorie had failed to breach it. If she’d lifted that flap the machinery of the state would have come down upon them both.
     When he got back he was glad to see that Annie seemed to be still asleep. The time was now 2.07, which meant she’d managed five solid hours.
     As considerately as possible he depressed the mattress beside her. Sheer fatigue had let him find sleep before, but now he was more rested, and anyway his racing thoughts made relaxation impossible.
     He was planning what to do about the garage. Besides the junk he and Annie had accumulated, it held furniture that his mother had been unable to bring herself to sell, things that wouldn’t fit into her new flat: a dresser, a dining table, a bookcase and a velvet-covered love seat. These, together with four cases of books and some bags containing curtains and bedspreads, held associations for Laurence too. He himself was reluctant to part with them, and not just because they still belonged to his mother and she might, one day, wish to see them again. They meant home, memories of his father. While they remained in the family that old life was not quite over. Perhaps they could be adopted for the next house, if it were large enough, wherever it might be.
     But now, unexpectedly, urgently, he needed the space. He wanted the delivery-men to be able to carry the freezer straight into the garage to reduce the chance of a neighbour seeing what it was. Such a large freezer might cause speculation. Was Laurence planning to take an allotment? Did Annie propose to buy her meat and fish and poultry in bulk? Better to avoid such explanations, such complicating lies.
     He was trying to work out where to put whatever needed to be stored until the freezer was in place and most of it could go back. Once the spare bedroom was full, the study was the next place, provided he left enough room to get behind the desk: that ought to remain free.
     He often – very often – needed to bring work home, especially at weekends. Either he was incompetent or Stanford and Hecht demanded too much; the latter, he thought. Or if not the firm, then Henderson, whose pleasure in heaping him with responsibility was positively sadistic.
     Lying there in the semi-darkness, Laurence perceived clearly for the first time something obdurate in his character, far below the diffidence and his eternal giving way to others. He had just remembered one January morning at school. He might have been twelve or thirteen. His class had changed into white T-shirts and shorts and plimsolls and were shivering in the gym at the start of a PE lesson while the teacher, Phelps, was boasting about his Christmas break, about his trip to Canada to visit his parents – who, Laurence reflected later, had had the excellent good sense, when emigrating, to leave him behind. Phelps had been in his twenties, with a crewcut and the overweening, muscular presence of those confident of their physical prowess. As his talk concluded, he took a silver dollar from his pocket, held it up for all to admire, then tossed it on the strip-wood floor in front of the assembled boys. The way he did it prompted an immediate scramble for the prize and everyone dived for the coin. Everyone except Laurence.
     Above the scrum, Phelps met his eye. Laurence had failed to dive because he had known that, even in the unlikely event that he were to be the one to reach the dollar, Phelps would not let him keep it. Besides that, Laurence had seen that Phelps was abusing his position, a position that had only been conferred on him by the local education authority; and the education authority was accountable to, and paid for by, people like Laurence’s parents, who expected their children to be taught at this school, not manipulated to feed some bully’s ego.
     So Laurence returned Phelps’s stare, levelly, with arms folded. The wordless exchange lasted no more than a few seconds, though it had a lasting effect. Phelps conceived a great hatred for him. Constrained by what he dared to get away with – because the man was a bully, he was also a coward – Phelps made Laurence’s life as unpleasant as he could.
     Similarly, Laurence had failed to dive for Henderson’s dollar. Even at the pub he kept his arms somewhat folded, as it were. Henderson was insufficiently articulate to tackle this head on, and yesterday, when refusing to revise the report, Laurence had observed a bewilderment in him he had never seen before.
     “Go to sleep, for pity’s sake,” he told himself.
     Laurence was no stranger to insomnia. He often woke early and found it impossible to get back to sleep. Worries about money predominated: Henderson, the unknown new rate when the mortgage came up for renewal next spring. He worried about his and Annie’s future, about the growing tax burden, and watched with foreboding and dismay the profligacy of the government. They made everything so expensive. They lied and lied again about the inflation rate and kept changing the way it was measured, even the measure itself, choosing whichever one suited their purpose at the time. The statistical truth was buried by the imperative to get re-elected. The short term was all that mattered. That explained in part the reckless, the fiscally insane expansion of the public sector.
     He worried too about the European Union and its remorseless expansionism. This he observed every day from his position at Stanford and Hecht. The firm, a global presence, was controlled by people he had never seen, in New York and Chicago, and who knew what they were up to, whether one morning he would arrive to find his pass-badge deactivated and his department inaccessible?
     There were even darker clouds on the horizon. The taxpayer bailout had exposed the cancerous state of the financial and political system.
     Banks, not the government, created new money. They did this by issuing loans, not only to individuals but to the government as well. All taxpayers, present and future, were drawn into the net. The political class, funded by and beholden to the banks, had made no more than a token attempt at regulation, and even that had been weakened in recent years.
     Like the state pension, the banking system was a con-trick. It depended on confidence and its parent, ignorance. How long would it survive once enough people understood the colossal scam that was fiat money?
     Public spending was out of control. Politicians would never make significant cuts. The bankers wouldn’t permit it, and anyway the electorate had become accustomed to entitlement. As a share of gross national product, government expenditure, and hence the national debt, could only ever increase. If for no other reason, the debt had to be serviced. The mathematics of compound interest ensured that it could never be paid back. Default was inevitable. Just as public spending and debt had got out of control, so had the hubris of the men who owned the politicians and the central banks.
     There was yet worse. Even during maths lessons at school, Laurence had understood the implications of the exponential function. The increase in the number and life expectancy of human beings would ultimately be checked by famine, disease or, more likely, totalitarianism and war. He now gave the present circumstances thirty or forty years at most, fewer if the economic meltdown came first.
     Besides these theoretical worries there were others, personal and immediate. He and Annie wanted to start a family but couldn’t afford to. Not so long ago, one salary – his – would have been enough. Since most married couples now had two salaries, all prices, especially of houses, had gone up. In effect, many working women earned nothing, and if they had young children they were compelled to pay for childcare from taxed income. Annie had to waste her days on a mind-numbing job at Watson’s. Every month that passed carried her further from her reproductive peak and increased the ultimate likelihood of complications for mother and babies alike. Delay into her thirties or even forties would leave her, and him, without the stamina to cope with young children. The longer they left it, the older they would be and the fewer years they would have with their children and grandchildren.
     Of course, they could both jack in their jobs and, while the system lasted, live on benefits. Then they could produce as many children as they wanted, but they’d have to live in a council house and kowtow to any and every official who came along. Or they could sell this house and move further out, much further. One of his colleagues had recently bought at Peterborough and spent the best part of six hours each work-day on the commute.
     But Laurence’s mother lived in London, and even as it was he felt bad about how little time he could spare her. Anyway, the house was supposed to be an investment. That was what he and Annie had believed, before the bottom had dropped out of the housing market. He’d known that their respective pensions, together with whatever the state provided, would not be enough. The plan had been to sell the house on retirement and move to a smaller place in some cheap part of the country. He’d also known that property wasn’t a one-way bet; he’d just never anticipated the depth of its crash.
     He knew that his views would nowadays be stigmatized as “right wing”, yet it seemed to him that they had remained in one place while the whole political landscape had shifted to the left. He did not regard himself as a Conservative and would never have voted for one. He simply believed that high taxes depressed economic activity and that the government had become too big; that the individual and then the family, not the state, were sovereign – notions inherited from his father, who had grown up in a very different Britain.
     It all boiled down to one thing. His father had taught him that. He’d said that most people, most of the time, were motivated by self-interest. In matters of commerce, self-interest was neutral and even benign, so long as conscientious regulation discouraged monopoly and fraud. In areas where selflessness had to be assumed, such as politics and the public sector, hypocrisy was the norm. Here, as in one’s private life, selfishness produced misery. Whatever were the flaws in Christianity, at least it preached the abnegation of self, but in modern Britain that religion was all but dead.
     Laurence’s worries sometimes merged into a homogeneous mass and he perceived all of society as selfish and hostile. Society had last night become condensed into a single excrescence: the person of the burglar. Laurence would never forget the way he had hit him.
     Who was it who’d said that modern men lead lives of quiet desperation? Thoreau, he was pretty sure, that old fake, pretending to rough it by Walden Pond and not mentioning the trips he made to his mum’s for a hot meal and a bath. Yes, Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau. On a humanities course for maths students, Laurence had been made to read Walden. There wasn’t much of it he remembered – mainly one scene in which Thoreau lectures a working man about spending money on coffee. Laurence had marvelled that the chap hadn’t, in Anglo Saxon terms, told him to go away. Perhaps he had; perhaps Thoreau had failed to mention that too. But his philosophy of simplicity, reduced dependence, was nonetheless appealing. A cabin, a hoe, a row of beans; and Annie. No mortgage, no Tube, no Henderson, and the politicians and the rest could do whatever they liked.
     And with this thought Laurence finally admitted the truth. In that torchlit moment, the burglar had become the focus of his rage. Building during years of disappointment, worry and frustration, of impotence and injustice, the pressure on his dam wall had become unbearable. Like a laser-beam, the burglar’s torch had pierced a hole in it and he had taken the full force of the jet.
     More than fear, then, had motivated the blow. There had been an element of spite.
     He turned over to look at the clock-radio. 4.17.
     She said, “Are you awake?”
     “Did I disturb you?”
     “No.” Then, “Laurence, I want to make a start.”
    

16 December 2014

Dismemberment, Episode 4

5

“Can I help you, madam?”
     “Just browsing, thanks.”
     The woman retreated to the counter, where she had been chatting with the other, matronly, assistant.
     Annie suppressed an urge to check for a camera. They were bound to have at least one. The act of looking up for it might be construed as suspicious.
     She picked up a pair of stylish French bacon-tongs and pretended to examine them. There were three other customers in the shop, all middle-aged women. She had also suppressed the urge to look more closely at them for fear they would remember her, and now told herself not to be so stupid. What she was doing was, outwardly, perfectly normal. Why shouldn’t a young wife be wandering round Palliser’s Cookshop in her lunch-hour? And yet the enormity of what she and Laurence had embarked upon was enough to destroy anyone’s equilibrium, if not catapult her into outright madness. She was amazed that she had been able to keep calm at the bank. The moment of arrival had been the worst. “You look a bit peaky this morning,” Pauline had told her. “Are you all right, dear?”
     “I didn’t sleep well. A dog kept waking us up.”
     Because Annie liked her boss, just below the surface had been a powerful desire to add, “That’s not true. What really happened is that my husband took a hammer and bashed a burglar’s skull in, killed him as a matter of fact, and now we’re planning to get rid of the corpse in secret. That’s why I feel so deathly sick.”
     Pauline had given her two paracetamol tablets for the headache, which was now even worse. She had also told her to go home if she wanted. Annie had forced a smile, thanked her, and continued with her work. She loathed deceit of any sort, yet it would be the substance of her life for weeks, months, perhaps even years to come; perhaps even until she died.
     She had already begun to deceive Laurence. Last night she had pretended to be practical and brave, when really, inside, she had been a churning mass of confusion and horror. She had done that for his sake, and for hers, because he would have been sent to prison if they’d called the police – there was no doubt in her mind about that. He was too sweet and gentle not to be ruined by prison. She would lose him. If ever he came out again he would not be Laurence any more.
     Feeling sicker than ever, and ineffably weary, Annie put down the bacon-tongs. She moved towards the display of kitchen knives. Her lunch-hour would be over soon enough, and both Iceland and Argos shut at five-thirty. The Sabatier, she thought, rather than the Prestige. She had found them both in the Argos catalogue, at home, before leaving for the bus: each one a set of black-handled knives in a block, outwardly similar, and similarly priced. The Sabatier name somehow spoke more of quality and strength and razor sharpness, irrational though that was – the Prestige looked just as good. She was inclined to the Sabatier, but what swung it was that the Prestige set came not only with its own sharpener, but something called a “boning-knife”. She slid the Prestige carver back in its slot.
     Because she’d bought nothing, she apologetically called out “Thank you!” to the assistant who’d spoken to her – it seemed only polite – and made for the shop-door.
     Annie had never owned a proper carving knife. There was no time for cooking roasts. Besides, she wasn’t sure how to do them. Her mother had never taught her and in her teens she hadn’t wanted to learn. Such domestic skills, one of her schoolteachers had insisted, were part of the toolkit of male oppression.
     The receding cookshop, then, was something of a foreign land. Every surface was covered with utensils and vessels and gadgets, some with no obvious purpose. Wall-shelves and peninsular shelves were filled with more; from stainless steel butchers’-hooks in the shelf-supports dangled or sprouted a curious vegetation of glass-cloths, egg-slices, pastry brushes, scourers; and at the far end of the shop, near the counter, stood an array of coffee machines, food processors, toasters, fat-fryers, breadmakers, and other appliances whose function was obscure.
     Argos was only fifty yards along the High Street. It was full of Christmas shoppers and she had to wait for a place at a customer desk.
     To save having to look through the catalogue again, she had jotted down the numbers before leaving home. Above the colourful, tethered pages of the catalogue stood a blue-bezelled screen. Closely hemmed in by customers on either side, she took her piece of paper from her bag and tapped in the first set of numbers.
     828 4471
     The display reported:
     3 in stock
     Living Dots Shower Curtain – Aqua. £4.99
     Next she entered the code for the knives.
     842 8419
     2 in stock
     Prestige 7-piece knife block set. £34.99
     She wondered whether to risk a stock-check on the Kenwood Multipro and decided not to. That, or an even more powerful model if they could find it, could be left till next week.
     She helped herself to an order-slip and wrote the numbers down with one of the short, blue-painted pencils. She could easily have shown the checkout girl her own bit of paper, but that would have been out of the ordinary.
     Annie joined the long queue for the cash-desks. Just as Laurence had had no choice but to buy the freezer online, she would have to buy the Multipro using a card. Offering that much in cash might also be memorable.
     She had withdrawn a hundred from the machine inside the bank. As expected, the five twenty-pound notes had been new and unused, in serial order. She had considered swapping them for used ones, but everything was under surveillance, and how could she explain such an act? Old for new, certainly, if they were destined for a nephew’s birthday or something of that sort, but not the other way round.
     Perhaps there was something more heavy-duty than a Multipro. It wouldn’t tackle the bigger bones. A garden grinder might do for those, except maybe the pelvis, but would be noisy. Not an impossibility, though. She and Laurence could pretend to be doing DIY.
     That put her in mind of the kitchen window. Like the Multipro, the repair would have to wait. To secure the rest of the house, Laurence had removed the handles from the kitchen door and withdrawn the square-sectioned steel spindle that connected them. Not satisfied with that, he had also fitted two makeshift latches using many loops of garden wire and four hefty screws, two driven into the jamb at top and bottom and two more driven into the door itself.
     While he had been doing this, they had again discussed the pros and cons of calling in sick; and had definitively come down against. That also would represent a break from routine and, if they both called in, it would look suspicious to a detective. If one of them were to stay behind, alone with the body, was it to be him or her, and what could either of them usefully do, before the necessary purchases had been made?
     Britain was so crowded and obsessively monitored that leaving the body whole would be to guarantee discovery. Besides, they had no way of getting it into the car unobserved. Dumping an arm or leg or torso would be almost as risky.
     Leaving bags of human remains, cut however small, in any sort of waste-bin was simply too dangerous. The bin-men never seemed to look at what was going into their truck, but, down at the tip, who knew what procedures were followed? Who knew who might notice what, and what analysis would be made of the surrounding garbage, what labels or old envelopes, erroneously withheld from a blue recycling bin and added to a black, would pinpoint the bag as coming from Rosemont Close, or even the houses in the turning circle?
     Dropping the bags into public bins – or other people’s wheelie-bins – was still more risky. They might be seen, even captured on CCTV.
     So bins were out. Laurence had thought of getting a dog and feeding it the burglar piecemeal. The dog would need to be quite big, though, and how could they leave it alone all day while they were at work? A cat would be too small and take too long, even assuming it didn’t turn its nose up at the taste.
     Annie had recalled hearing that, in London, you were never more than a few yards from a rat. Should they put bits of him out in the garden at night? But what if the rats merely dragged the bits elsewhere, into whatever place they might use as a larder? Suppose that were in the sewer: their cache might be found. Or what if the bits were taken by a fox? A fox too might leave them somewhere exposed to official view.
     The idea of acquiring white rats, of caging them and cleaning up their droppings, had been too filthy to contemplate for more than a moment, but gradual disposal was the only answer. She and Laurence had discussed the merits of using acid or caustic soda to dissolve the pieces. Dissolution had the merit of silence; the insurmountable problem was to get enough of such chemicals without arousing suspicion.
     The queue to the cash-desks had been cordoned off with rope. Annie noticed the shaven head of the man standing in front of her and the tattoo on the back of his neck, a badge of conformity nowadays, inflicted with some sharp, reciprocating, blood-producing tool. His ears were as prominent as those Laurence had gripped last night while she had manoeuvred the bin-liner into place.
     She turned her eyes away, overwhelmed again by a grey, despairing nausea. Those moment-to-moment, businesslike thoughts of bins and rats and cats had skated on a brittle, papery rink up there in the daylight where normality lived – and fallen through. That daylight hadn’t been normal, but a delusion. For the first time she wondered whether she were in shock. Her calculations were as repulsive as the burglar himself. He’d got inside her head. Her brain had been ravaged just as brutally as his.
     And what about Laurence? All morning she had been desperate for him to hold out until she could be with him once more.
     “Can I help?” said one of the cashiers, and the shaven-headed man went forward. Then it was Annie’s turn. Her cashier, a young girl, took the slip and typed the numbers into her terminal. While she was doing this, Annie observed the curious mixture of innocence and knowingness she presented to the world. She could be no more than seventeen, this girl. She was little more than a child. There was a pimple at a corner of her mouth and her skin looked greasy, sebaceous, as though her hormones had not yet settled down, but her hair had been dyed blonde, with pink streaks, and the cheap rings on most of her fingers somehow bespoke sexual experience going back years, well before the legal age of consent. She was pretty enough that she certainly had a boyfriend, a spotty youth with a job no better than hers, driving some old wreck that he had ridiculously modified to make it look faster and more cool …
     “Aqua shower curtain, four ninety-nine. Prestige knife-set, thirty-four ninety-nine,” she intoned, and Annie smiled and confirmed her order with a nod and a barely uttered “Yes”.
     “That’ll be thirty-nine ninety-eight, please.”
     Annie handed her the two twenty-pound notes she had taken from her wallet in readiness. The terminal spewed out a long receipt. “Order number seven-one-six, Collection Point B,” the girl said, and circled those words with a ballpoint pen. “You’re welcome,” she added, on being thanked for the receipt and the two pence piece. Even as Annie turned away, she called “Can I help?” towards the queue.
     The transaction had passed off without a hitch. The girl had barely looked at her. Ownership of the goods had been anonymously transferred.
     A screen showing the progress of the orders was fixed to the wall above and to the right of the collection counter.
     Annie stood and waited.

6

She got home first, as usual; and this evening Laurence had errands to run. Even now, applying her key to the mortise lock, Annie didn’t want to step inside. She had considered waiting near her bus stop, watching for the Golf to go past, but a cold wind had got up and rain had started to fall. She could have sat in the bus shelter, but that would have left her vulnerable to any peculiar man who happened by, and if she repeatedly failed to board a bus it might have invited attention. So on alighting she had opened her little frilly umbrella and continued on her usual route, up the right-hand pavement of Rosemont Close almost to the Sudeleys’ – they were at home – and on into the unlit frontage of Number 26.
     Before opening the door she needlessly looked over her shoulder to confirm the plain visibility of this porch from the houses opposite; and the impossible expanse of crazy-paving separating it from the garage. The cutting might have taken place in there, making the horror ever so slightly less, but no, it had to be done in the house, inside their sanctuary, their sanctum; what had been their sanctum.
     Again despair threatened to overtake her. Again she forced it back. Someone had to get home first. Her day would have been easier than Laurence’s, if only because he disliked Henderson so much and Henderson was so inquisitive and acute; but it was also Laurence who had struck the blow. Guilt was piled on top of his anguish. Annie believed that he was not as strong, mentally, as she was. Thus it was better for her to be the first to enter the house, the scene of the crime, of both crimes, the burglary and its consequence.
     Compared with the consequence, the burglary had been nothing. Yet was it really a crime, what they were planning? Wasn’t the real crime the failure of the courts to deal effectively with criminals? She didn’t know and couldn’t consider this question further, even though it had been woven among the worries that had been assailing her all day. She was too tired. Her hand had already turned the latch-key and the door was opening into the darkness of the hallway.
     This evening she did not need to deactivate the burglar alarm. The thing was worse than useless and they had unplugged it. The hallway felt cold: they had also turned off the central heating.
     Still clutching her bags in her left hand, Annie stood and sampled the air. Just for a moment she had thought the house smelled different, but no.
     She leaned the bags against one leg of the narrow hall-stand, retrieved her umbrella from the porch and shook it, with a flinging motion, four, five times, towards the street. After that she shut the door and turned on the overhead light.
     As ever, the doormat was strewn with litter. Rosemont Close was plagued by a variety of junk advertisers. Garish fliers for overpriced pizzas and takeaways predominated. There were also the freesheets, which Annie never read, because they were so boring, merely adding them to her store of old newspapers. The postman, too, deemed her house a dustbin. Even a single letter made an excuse to deposit a sheaf of unwanted circulars, all held together and misshapen by a rubber band which she had to cut through before disposal, because she had heard that rubber bands could kill seagulls at the tip.
     Checking for letters and finding none, she made everything into a rough pile, then thrust it into a wicker wastepaper basket. When the basket was full she would, like a dutiful citizen, empty it into the recycling bin. More than once she had considered accumulating, say, six months’ worth, and stuffing it, by night, into a pillar-box to give the Royal Mail a taste of their own medicine.
     Her habit, once she had removed her coat, was to head for the kitchen. Instead she went into the living room. Before switching on any table-lamps she drew the curtains against the view from the houses opposite and, in the semi-darkness, still wearing her raincoat and outdoor shoes, sat down.
     She was afraid to go into her own kitchen, even more afraid to go upstairs.
     Silent tears started to roll down her cheeks.
     The sofa faced the dead TV screen. TV was supposed to be a window on the world, yet now it brought to mind only the cameras that in England followed you wherever you went. The police, councils, the government, also used helicopters and satellites to spy on the people. So too with the internet: she had zoomed in on her own back garden. At the bank she was kept under continuous surveillance, except, as far as she was aware, in the loo, but she wouldn’t put it past head office to have that covered as well.
     What the authorities saw was raw and unedited, unlike the version of reality on TV. That was carefully manipulated to keep the herd compliant. She thought of the way she and Laurence sat on this sofa and stared at the screen, passive, excluded, disenfranchised, yet persuaded somehow that they were cosily part of it all. In fact no one gave a toss what Mr and Mrs Trent were watching. As individuals, they were negligible. Only the overall ratings mattered.
     The TV set was instead a portal to the world’s cynicism, and there it was, stuck in the corner of her living room, just as that corpse was stuck on her landing.
     She had begun to tremble. Her hands came up and covered her face. She bent her head. This tiny space inside her palms was all the privacy left to her, temporary and hot with tears. Even Laurence couldn’t be relied upon.
     He would be home soon enough. She had to keep him on track. If he found her like this it would be the end.
     Annie wiped her eyes and gave the TV set a baleful glare. She might never watch it again. Better yet, she would persuade Laurence to throw it out.
     That morning, after their showers, they had taken down the shower curtain and wrapped it round the burglar to protect the carpet in case he started to leak in some way – they didn’t know, but it seemed possible. The question of where to do the cutting had occupied them for quite a time. The obvious place seemed to be the bathtub, because of fluids, but the restricted space would make the cutting awkward, especially as the body was so large. The bathtub might become damaged, such damage being difficult to explain.
     The plan now was to drag the body downstairs, head first, with Laurence holding the ankles as well as the rear part of the curtain, controlling its descent, while Annie guided a course to the dining room.
     They had chosen that room for various reasons. The whole of the upstairs was covered with fitted carpet, but the dining-room carpet was loose and could be rolled aside. The room was large enough for the job in hand; there was nowhere convenient to store the furniture they would have had to remove from the spare bedroom. Since they could eat in the kitchen they didn’t need the dining room for anything else. The room was at the back of the house; and there was a place in one corner that was not visible from the French window, which meant they might not have to leave the curtains drawn during daylight if the process took longer than anticipated. Moreover, the dining room was in need of redecoration, which would happen as soon as possible afterwards, in case microscopic, DNA-yielding particles adhered to the walls or ceiling.
     First they would group the carpet and all the furniture against one wall. Once the body was in, they would cover the floorboards with thick layers of newspaper held down with drawing pins: Annie had bought a box at W H Smith. Then she and Laurence would spread out the shower curtain and pin that down too.
     The burglar’s flesh and organs were to be divided into chunks weighing about a pound. The head, minus the lower jaw, would have to be frozen whole while they worked out what to do with it; the bigger bones would be sawn into pieces five or six inches long.
     Since he weighed about two hundred pounds, Annie had bought two hundred and fifty medium-sized freezer bags, a hundred and fifty at Iceland and fifty at both Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s high street stores. At Tesco, which she had visited last, the bags had been on special offer. She had considered buying more, but had decided to stick with the plan. The plan was making this easier. To diverge from it in any way would be to humanize what they were doing; they had to be ruthless.
     The discount had almost made her feel as if Tesco were offering themselves as accessories, another sign of what she knew to be her increasingly irrational mental state. Exhaustion and lack of sleep were contributing to it. Her fatigue had taken on a hallucinatory quality, and while queueing in Tesco’s she had felt the onset of what might have turned into a panic attack. Then she had ordered herself to get back in shape. Her basket had contained a few other items: own-brand malt vinegar, mince pies, some toothpaste. In the same way, she had bought extra things at Sainsbury and Iceland to help camouflage the purchase of the bags. In each case she had paid cash.
     She got up from the sofa. The kitchen. It would have to be done. She would have to go into the kitchen. The room was open to anyone who ventured up past the garage and round to the back of the house. She had heard no sounds from there, but angrily dismissed the feeling that she ought to go outside and check that the casement was still shut. This whole exercise demanded stronger nerves than that.
     Annie unwound the turns of wire between each pair of the screws Laurence had driven into the door-jamb. He had left the spindle, with one handle attached, on the floor. She picked it up, resolutely inserted it in the socket, and opened the door.
     No one had invaded the kitchen during the day.
     She returned to the hall-stand to fetch her shopping. Once she had put it away, she would go upstairs to inspect the burglar. After that she would turn her thoughts to the evening meal.