A Triptych Tale …

Keeping a Cool Head

A Triptych Tale

 

Father deserved to die. While knocking seven kinds of thingy out of Mother, he would howl, ‘I love you Hayley, but you don’t love me, you heartless bitch.’ Then he’d break her ribs, and make her a cup of tea as compensation.

Every loyal wife, like every rib, has her breaking point. I was fifteen years old when Mother reached hers. Father staggered home drunk one night after being chucked out of the Dagger and Duck. He gave her a black eye, and fell over. ‘Let’s kill him, Lucy,’ she yelled.

‘About time,’ I yelled back. I sat on top of him to stop him from getting up, and she bashed him on the head with the wok. She kept bashing until it cracked: his head, not the wok. He twitched, then lay still.

‘What do we do now?’ I said.

‘We scrub the wok.’

‘I mean what do we do with him?’

‘We take him to Auntie Beryl’s place.’

It was a good plan. Mother’s ancient aunt didn’t receive visitors. Nobody would find a body on her patch. Auntie Beryl was mad. All the family knew, but nobody said it. Her two-hundred-year-old farmhouse had dry rot, wet rot and every kind of rot known to the rot experts. The paint had long ago disintegrated, the windows were decorated with dust, not curtains, and forests of fungi clung to the exterior walls. The house squatted beside a weed-colonised paddock. The ducks had abandoned the duck pond and the pigpen housed no pigs. Auntie Beryl had eaten them.

We shoved Father in the car boot and drove to the lane alongside the paddock. I grabbed his arms, Mother grabbed his legs, and by the light of the moon we swung him over the hedge.

Every loyal wife, like every rib, has her breaking point.

Mother said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll get rid of the car. There’ll be forensic evidence in it.’ She’s a CSI fan.

Next day, a Polish gentleman called Bartosz knocked on the door and asked if we had any plumbing issues requiring attention. While he was unblocking the toilet he told us he was making his way to join his brother, who was working as a cockle gatherer on the coast of Morecambe Bay. He had a long way to go, and no transportation.

Mother said, ‘You clear the blockage and I’ll give you a car.’

He said, ‘Blez you, lady. Englizh you mozt generez.’

‘There’ll be no documents, and you mustn’t tell anyone where you got it.’

‘I not need documentz, and I zay I buy it from man in pub. Big man wid no hair.’

‘Good. That covers about a third of the inner-city population.’

We placed our trust in the hands of a Polish plumber, and waved goodbye as he drove into the sunset on the wrong side of the road. We neither saw nor heard anything of him again. There was a photo-fit on Crimewatch that bore a resemblance to him, but a closer resemblance to Mr Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, so we were confident that Bartosz was safe.

Mother’s bruises healed, she had her roots done, and she looked good. She met Dwight at the local bingo club. He was a long-distance lorry driver. She said he looked like a young Kris Kristofferson. He wasn’t a bingo head, but his widowed mother, Delia McNealy, was. When Dwight turned up at closing time to escort Delia back to her sheltered accommodation, he offered Mother a lift. They piled into his lorry and sang country songs all the way home. She came in flushed and smiling, warbling Me and Bobby McGee.

After they’d been seeing each other for two months, Dwight moved in with us. He made Mother laugh, so I liked him. I thought his name was weird, though, especially as when we invited Delia round for tea to celebrate Mother’s birthday she called him Colin. What the hell, he was an improvement on Father, so we let him be what he wanted to be.

One day he said to Mother, ‘Hayley, you should tell the police your husband’s missing.’

‘Why?’ she said. ‘I don’t want them to find him.’

‘I know, and they probably won’t bother looking, but after he’s been missing for seven years he can be legally declared dead, and we can get married.’

She stared at him. ‘Dwight McNealy, was that a proposal?’

‘Yeah, if you’ll hitch your star to my wagon.’

She punched the air and yelled, ‘Yee-har!’

Next morning I accompanied her to the police station. The overweight desk-sergeant yawned and said, ‘Yes?’

Mother said, ‘My husband’s missing.’

‘Any idea where he’s gone?’

‘He’s run off with an aromatherapist.’

She always developed a nerve rash when she lied, so I took over, to give her time to compose herself. ‘Her name was Fazakerley,’ I said, ‘because that’s where she was conceived. He called her Zak, for short.’

‘In that case,’ the desk-sergeant said, ‘He’s not missing.’

Mother resorted to the truth. ‘The thing is, he gets drunk a lot, and falls over. He could be dead in a ditch.’

He sighed and took a form from the wall-rack. ‘When did you last see him?’

‘Three months ago.’

‘Why did you wait till now to report it?’

‘Because he’s always running off with someone, but he comes back. He’s never been missing this long, so I thought I’d better tell you.’

He made some notes on the form. ‘If you can provide a sample of his DNA it will help us to identify him if he does turn up in a ditch.’

‘I thought of that,’ Mother said. She delved into her Marks & Spencer’s bag-for-life and pulled out a well-used handkerchief. ‘I found this in his bathrobe pocket.’

He picked up the phone. ‘Get one of the geeks up to the desk with an evidence bag. They’d better wear gloves.’

On the way home I said, ‘Are you sure that was a good idea? If they find his body we don’t want them linking it with us.’

She smiled. ‘No chance. It would take a brave man to venture into Auntie Beryl’s paddock.’

Months rolled by and Father was forgotten. One weekend Dwight was on a European run, and he was delayed by a hold-up of some sort in Calais. Mother was at a loose end, so Auntie Alice, Auntie Beryl’s sister, invited her to an audience with Madame Jacquetta, who could contact the dead. I tagged along for a laugh.

Receiving post-life communications was Auntie Alice’s favourite social activity. She’d been hoping for a message from Eddie Cochran since she was fourteen and he took three steps to heaven.

Months rolled by and Father was forgotten.

Mother’s aunts had little in common. Auntie Beryl looked like Norman Bates’s mother; Auntie Alice wore high heels and Lycra leggings. I thought they were both mad.

The venue was an old dance hall above the Co-op Convenience Store. ‘This place brings back memories,’ Auntie Alice said. ‘Back in the day it throbbed to the beat, with Faron’s Flamingos, Earl Preston’s TTs, and Alby and the Sorrals. I had a special fondness for the drummers.’

Mother said, ‘They’ve probably finished their last drum roll and died by now. Get Madame Jacquetta to say hi.’

Hard wooden seats were arranged in rows, but we’d brought cushions. The medium, wearing a kaftan and a turban, came on stage, introduced herself, and closed her eyes. Her voice became a singsong wail. ‘Do we have a Debbie with us?’

Three or four hands shot up, and the assorted Debbies called, ‘Here.’

‘Will anyone accept a message from Darren?’

Two Debbies called, ‘Yes.’

‘Darren still loves you, Debbie. He’s happy, and he wants you to move on and be happy too.’ The two Debbies sobbed and nodded, and the audience applauded.

Madame Jacquetta’s eyes rolled back in her head. She moaned and sang, ‘Lucy, your father has a message for you. His head is in the bottom right-hand corner of the freezer.’ She moaned again and took a deep breath. ‘The rest of him isn’t fit to be seen. It’s been at the bottom of the duck pond for six months.’

Mother whispered in my ear, ‘Say nothing.’ I couldn’t, even if I’d wanted to. My mouth was as dry as Jewish wit.

The medium sang on. ‘He wants you to take his head out of the freezer and give it a decent burial or cremation. Your choice.’

Auntie Alice didn’t flinch. The message may have entertained her but she didn’t connect it to us. She’d long ago forgotten that my name was Lucy. She always called me Janis. I apparently resemble a dead singer of that name, from the olden days.

After we returned home and I’d regained the power of speech, I said to Mother, ‘I don’t understand. If Father had landed in water we would have heard the splash, and how do you suppose his head got into the freezer?’

‘Dunno, but it can stay there as far as I’m concerned.’ She laughed. ‘You don’t believe that rubbish, do you?’ Lucy’s a popular name. It’s just a coincidence that you were there.’ I wasn’t convinced. There couldn’t be too many Lucys who’d left their father to decompose in close proximity to a duck pond.

#

One summer morning two charity workers, touting for donations to a donkey sanctuary, turned up at Auntie Beryl’s front door. They noticed an unpleasant smell wafting through the letterbox, and there were a lot of flies around. The donkey savers called the police, who kicked in the door and found her. She’d been dead for at least a month. A sharp-eyed plod spotted an unposted birthday card addressed to Mother, stuck behind the clock on the mantle-shelf. It led them to us.

One male and one female officer brought us the news and the birthday card. We introduced ourselves. The male took off his hat and the female looked sympathetic, so we knew a corpse was involved. TV cop shows are useful sources of information about the appropriate procedure in such circumstances. I thought they’d found Father, and I felt sick. Mother must have been equally apprehensive, because when they said it was Auntie Beryl she giggled, before dashing to the bathroom. Mr and Ms Plod probably thought we were in shock. Ms made us a cup of tea and Dwight passed round the ginger nuts.

They noticed an unpleasant smell wafting through the letterbox, and there were a lot of flies around.

While we were sipping our Typhoo they asked us who was the deceased’s next of kin. Mother said, ‘She has a sister, Alice, and two brothers, Jack and Sid.

‘Don’t forget Grandfather,’ I said.

She glared at me. ‘I was coming to him.’ She turned back to the plods. ‘Her third brother, Bob, was my father, but he disappeared years ago. My mother said he ran off with a New Age traveller.’

I knew she was lying because the nerve rash was creeping up her neck, so I intervened, giving her a chance to dunk a ginger nut and take a deep breath. ‘Her name was Winchester but he called her Winch, for short,’ I said.

Ms Plod had obviously undertaken empathy training. ‘That must have been hard for you, Hayley. Where’s your mother now? Is she still alive?’

Mother relaxed and told the truth. ‘If she is, she’ll be somewhere in Canada. When I was old enough to take care of myself she ran off with a singer-songwriter from Ontario. She didn’t mention his name.’

Mr Plod interrupted. ‘We need a relative to formerly identify your aunt’s body.’

Mother nodded. ‘I’ll contact my aunt and uncles.’

When Mr and Ms had plodded off, and Dwight had left for his next excursion through the Channel Tunnel, I said, ‘What really happened to Grandfather?’

‘Your grandmother and I tossed him into the paddock.’

Next day Auntie Alice rounded up Uncle Jack and Uncle Sid, known in the family as the drunkles, because they were seldom sober. We arrived, mob-handed, at the mortuary, to meet Mr and Ms Plod.

Drunkle Jack grabbed Ms in a bear-hug and slurred, ‘D’ya do funerals as well as stag nights, darlin’?’

Drunkle Sid hauled him off. ‘She’s a real one, you pillock.’

The plods said the drunkles were in no condition to identify anyone, dead or not, so Auntie Alice did it.

‘Did she look awful?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, but better than when she was alive.’

Perhaps she’d lost a bit of fat and acquired cheekbones, I thought.

We took the drunkles to Starbucks and bought them each a black Americano to sober them up. It didn’t work but it made Drunkle Jack sentimental.

‘Beryl was a rum old bird,’ he said, stirring three heaped sugars into his cup, ‘but she had a heart of gold,’

‘You’re kidding yourself,’ Drunkle Sid said. ‘She was a tight-fisted harpy: gave nothing away.’

‘Only because she was a hoarder. Collected anything there was more than two of, but she was tidy. Kept her hoards in good order.’

Drunkle Sid said, ‘Bloody nutter.’

We sent the drunkles home in a taxi, and Auntie Alice suggested we go to the farmhouse. ‘The police broke the door. Anyone could get in. There might be valuables lying around.’ We doubted it, but she insisted.

The plods said the drunkles were in no condition to identify anyone, dead or not, so Auntie Alice did it.

We found a box of freezer bags in the kitchen, but no freezer. Mother said, ‘They’ll come in handy. We’ll share them between us.’

I left them plundering the house and walked across the paddock to where I thought Father’s body would have landed. It wasn’t there. On my way back I noticed an electric cable connected to the garage. Maybe that was where she kept the freezer. I stepped inside. There it was. My heart pounded. My legs didn’t want to move, but I forced myself to walk towards it and open the door. It contained row after neat row of human heads, each in their own freezer bag. I screamed.

The next thing I remembered was Mother, pulling me into her arms. Auntie Alice, suddenly Captain Sensible, said, ‘We’d better close the door before they start to defrost. Take Janis into the house. I’ll phone the police.’ She slammed the freezer shut. ‘Did you look in the bottom right-hand corner?’

Mother said, ‘Yes.’

I said, ‘No.’

Auntie Alice patted my hand. ‘Madame Jacquetta must have meant that message for you, lass. Trust your father to get your name wrong.’

The plods removed the frozen heads, and after a preliminary search they dredged up sixteen headless bodies from the duck pond. The sniffer-dogs found twenty-two more buried in the paddock.

Ms Plod kept us informed of progress. One day she turned up wearing her sympathy face and said to Mother, ‘Sad news, I’m afraid. A head from the freezer and a body from the pond matched your husband’s DNA.’

I said, ‘Can we have him back so we can give him a decent send-off?’ I didn’t want any more messages, via Madame Jacquetta, from an angry ghost.

Of course, Lucy,’ Ms Plod said. ‘We’ll release the remains when our investigation’s complete, but I’m afraid there’s more news.’ My stomach churned and Mother’s nerve rash blossomed. This is it, I thought. They’re going to arrest us. She continued, ‘I’m sorry, Hayley. The DNA of another head from the freezer and body from the paddock is similar to your Aunt’s. We believe we’ve found her missing brother, Bob.’

‘My father?’ Mother said, making a good job of sounding surprised. There was no sign of the nerve rash.

Ms Plod said, ‘Would you give us a DNA sample so we can be certain?’ Mother offered her handkerchief. Snatching her hand away, Ms Plod said, ‘That won’t be necessary.’ She took a swab on a stick out of a plastic box, and rubbed the swab across Mother’s gums. ‘This way’s more hygienic.’ The burger Mother had had for lunch wasn’t particularly hygienic, but we didn’t argue.

My stomach churned and Mother’s nerve rash blossomed.

After she left, I said to Mother, ‘Remember what Drunkle Jack said? Maybe Auntie Beryl wasn’t a mass murderer. Loads of people might have tossed corpses into the paddock and she was just hoarding and tidying up.’

‘But why decapitate them?’

‘The bodies wouldn’t fit into the freezer.’

‘Really, Lucy. You do have a grisly imagination.’

Two months later the coroner’s office told Auntie Alice that the police enquiry was complete and she could collect Auntie Beryl’s body from the mortuary. They told Mother that Father and Grandfather were also awaiting collection. ‘We’d better opt for cremation, and as soon as possible,’ Mother said. ‘We don’t want a nosy pathologist who’s seen as many episodes of CSI as I have, spotting a wok-shaped dent on the back of your father’s skull.’ I agreed. It was unlikely that Auntie Beryl owned such an implement. You can’t fit a pig in a wok.

After the triple funeral, we auctioned the farmhouse. The top bidder was an entrepreneur from Fazakerley, who told us he planned to open it to the public as the ‘Museum Macabre’. Its notoriety would pull the punters in. I wondered whether any more dead bodies would get chucked over the hedge and increase its pulling power.

Auntie Alice and the drunkles gave Grandfather’s share of the proceeds to Mother. She used them to pay for her and Dwight’s wedding, and a honeymoon in Nashville.

#

The wedding reception was fun. I avoided the line dancing but Garth, the drummer in the country music band, was cute. We have a date next Saturday.

Auntie Alice said, ‘You’re about to have your first sexual experience, Janis.’

‘How do you know?’

She winked, ‘He’s a drummer.’

While I’m savouring the pleasures of the flesh, she’ll be savouring the company of the un-fleshed, with Madame Jacquetta. She hopes Auntie Beryl will turn up and reveal her motive. Personally I’d let sleeping ghosts lie. If she’s as mad in death as she was in life, Eddie Cochran had better hang on to his quiff.

Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had seventy-five stories and poems accepted by paying markets, and¬†Silver Pen nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare and cats.

Previous publications are in: Third Flatiron, Words With JAM, Metro Fiction, Kzine, Iridum Sound, The Waterhouse Review, Mad Scientist Journal, With Painted Words, The Lorelei Signal, Grievous Angel, Silver Pen, 4 Star Stories, Alban Lake, Mirror Dance, Chuffed Buff Books, Unsettling Wonder, Slink Chunk Press, 200 CCs, Third Wednesday, Cricket, and The Oldie Magazine.