"You've got to do something about that half wit, haven't you."
Marge had jumped out of bed early that morning, and not content with this she was now going on at Vera.
"How d'yer mean, love?"
Vera hitched herself up in the bed, bemused with sleep. "What are you going on about? The only half with I know is sitting on the bed looking at me."
"You know what I'm getting at. Stutty."
"Oh, him." Vera lay back with a sigh. "You're right there. He's getting to be a real pain in the arse. Anyhows, I was thinking of dumping him - even if he does live in a big house in Crosby."
That only set Marge off again. "You can't do that, Vera. That's the last thing you've got to do."
It took her some time to get her point through to Vera who only wanted to turn on her side and sink back into sleep for an hour or two more.
"Look, our Marge, can't you leave off rabbiting at me for a bit? I've got to get me beauty sleep. Besides, it's only frigging ten o'clock in the morning and you know I'm not me best before breakfast."
But Marge persisted.
"You know he's been talking too much, don't you?"
Vera nodded. "Going on about being an accessory, you mean? I'm sick to the back teeth with all that gobshite."
"Sooner or later people are going to notice. People are always listening to things in pubs and you never know who'll go to the police. There's plenty of dirty stool pigeons who'd sell their best friends down the river."
Vera burst out with a laugh. "You've been reading them Yank comics again, Marge? Stool pigeons. Fancy that. You mean someone like Cullen."
"No, that's different and you know it. Anyway, information, that's more his work. But what Stutty's doing is dead stupid. He just can't keep his mouth shut and he's going to get picked up one of these days."
"Why should you worry? We've all got our story, haven't we?"
"Ah, give me a break!"
At this Vera began to laugh again. "God, Marge, what's got into you? You're talking real weird these days."
But Marge had become serious again. "Listen, Vera, if the police ever question him he'll blurt out the whole story. You know what he's like. You know if he tried to tell a lie, or something that he'd made up, he'd right away start contradicting himself. He's a real half wit is Stutty and there's no way he could ever stand up to someone like Taylor. He'd be scared shitless for a start. He'd sell Cullen down the river."
Vera pulled the sheet over her head for a bit, then emerged with a shrug of her fat body. "I suppose you're right, Marge. He's going to land us in it if he goes on like this. I'd better talk to him."
Marge shook her head. "That's not going to work, love. It'll have to be something more direct. I think I'd better have a world with Cullen. He'll know what to do."
Vera didn't say anything, but Marge's last words had set her thinking and she began to wonder if she could turn the whole thing to her own advantage. After all, that bunch, Cullen, Marge, Stutty, the whole pack of them were pretty wet behind the ears when you really got down to it. Terrance wasn't too bad, but he was innocent with it. And so, Vera thought, if she really could put her mind to it then maybe she could come out of the whole thing smiling.
"Yea, Marge. Well, I'm going to have me sleep now." Vera said, as she turned to the wall, grinning to herself.
Harold Coke had taken to wandering. Normally he kept to a pretty regular routine on work days, and his weekends were generally taken up with his walk to the library, time spent with Emily and Little Eric, turning the pages of a book, and then settling down every Saturday evening in front of the wireless to enjoy The Music Hall followed by the Saturday Night Theatre on the Home Service.
There were some extremely good plays on the wireless, plays that made you think and asked important questions, the sort of questions that were very difficult to answer. But best of all Harold enjoyed detectives and adventures. He would have liked to have listened-in with the light off; stretched out in his chair imagining himself drawn into the situation, travelling in an express train across the snow-swept countryside, getting into a handsome cab and making his way across fog-bound London, or seated in the Old Bailey listening to the prosecution cross-question an innocent man. Emily had said that sitting in the dark was morbid and encouraged bad thoughts.
There was one thing he had always insisted upon, right from the very first episode, and that was to sit in the dark while "Dick Barton - Special Agent" was broadcast on the Light Program. It was best in winter, when no light came in through the heavy curtains and the room was lit only by the fire and the red glow of the valves at the back of his wireless. On those nights Harold would take Barton's adventures to bed with him and relive them with his head on his pillow. Long after Emily had turned off the light to sleep Harold would race though London with faithful Snowey White and Jock Anderson at his side. Together they would enter deserted warehouses, crumbling country houses, rat-filled cellars and collapsing mineshafts. Shoulder to shoulder Harold, Snowey and Jock would face malicious villains, battle half-crazed henchmen with steel claws for hands, and escape from all manner of wild animals, death rays, poisonous gases and fiendish electrical devices.
Somehow Harold liked it best when he was being Dick Barton all alone, travelling through the night in a fast car or a single-seater aircraft. The noise of the engine and the motion it generated would help him to drift off to sleep. And, when the images in his mind were particularly vivid, he would summons them up on the following night and take up the adventure where he had left off the night before.
But none of this was really working for him now. Those terrible thoughts of the murder kept coming back each night, no matter what he did to prevent them. He had even, as a last resort, tried being Scott of the Antarctic, leading his men on their last march against the blizzard and bedding down in their tent at night. But, focus as he might, he could not even summons up the howl of the Arctic wind or the slapping of the canvas sides of his tent. For a moment the comforting images would seem to gather themselves into reality, but just as rapidly they would fade away like a child's watercolor that has been left out in the rain. In their place, like the crowd that exits from a football match, a series of thoughts surged through his mind, jostling and pushing each other out of the way.
These same thoughts had now begun to invade his waking day, insinuating themselves into his concentration at work, engulfing him as he sat on the bus going home. It was at this point that Harold took to wandering, for he discovered that after he had walked for several miles did his mind and body became exhausted to the point where the thoughts lost their ability to attaching themselves to him and fell away into the general oblivion of exhaustion.
Mostly Coke walked the city alone after work. But on the weekends, he would take little Eric with him and end up carrying the boy on his shoulders after he had become tired to the point of tearfulness. Some Saturdays he would wander around the city, along the old Georgian houses in Abercrombie Square, past the consultant's offices in Rodney Street and on, upwards, towards the Cathedral. From there he would wander as far as Princes Park and some times, in total exhaustion, traipse as far as Sefton Park and the boating lake.
On other Saturdays he walked through the dock gates, entering into a world of tractions engines, shirehorses and steam trains, of cranes, coiled ropes and rusty chains, past freighters bearing foreign names and far away registrations, tugs, passenger liners and dregers.
Little Eric liked the docks best, standing right at the edge and looking up at the great red cliff of a ship's side or down, down into the dark oily water. He remembered overhearing Mr. Threlfall once tell his father that if a person were to fall into that water there would be no point in saving them, no point in a person even trying to swim, because the oil in the water would eat into them, or suffocate them, or something else so dreadful that Little Eric could not fully remember.
Little Eric looked at the red and white lifebelts hanging from the iron railings that surrounded the dock, and at the slime-covered stone steps leading down into the water. They looked so damp and greasy and slippery that he wondered what would happen if his father were to stand on the top one and fall in. Should he run for help? Or would he just to stand there and wave good-by to his father as he surfaced for the first and only time before being eaten away by the oil? And what would Little Eric do then, being a boy without a father? Would the men in dark jackets, with cigarettes cupped in their hands take him back to their hut and give him how sweet tea to drink? Would they let him stay there, to play on the ships and learn how to work the cranes, and maybe go to some of those places that he had dreamed about in his stamp album?
Yes, Little Eric liked the docks best, that and the place where they had the rings in the wall. He couldn't quite remember where that had been because they had walked for so long and taken so many twists and turns. His father had told him that the rings were used to tie up slaves before they were shipped to America.
Little Eric thought a lot about that, what it would be liked to be chained to a wall. Once, when he was younger, he had persuaded the girl next door to tie him to a kitchen chair with part of their cloths line, but he always found it too easy to escape. He had been told stories in the Bible about whipping and wondered if there was still blood on the cobblestones. But he had been riding on his fathers back at the time and was too tired to get down and look.
Little Eric enjoyed it best when his father explained facts to him and pointed out things that Little Eric did not know. His father seemed to know a lot of things and Little Eric remembered all of them on their walks together, carefully asking his father the identical questions on their next visit to see if he could catching him out in his story. But for some reason his father had not spoken to him on their last few visits. He simply strode on ahead, taking no notice of his son and sometimes walking so fast that Little Eric found it difficult to keep up. They did not even stop at the paper shop to buy four ounces of sweeties on the way home. It really wasn't much fun being with his father any more and Little Eric began to wonder what would happen if he tried to wet himself.
One day, on his way home from work, Harold Coke decided to get off the bus and visit the library. Normally he would have had gone home to have his tea with Emily, but today things seemed to be pressing in on him so much that he felt he had to make a resolution of the questions that had been disturbing his sleep.
After first wandering round the bookshelves Coke walked over to the reference desk to ask for advice. Miss Denton was not in her usual chair tonight, only the young man with the glasses who put books back on the shelves. Admittedly Harold had had some very good chats with him in the past, for the young man seemed very knowledgeable. Indeed it was he who had advised Harold to read "The ABC of Relativity" and afterwards had steered him towards Bertrand Russell's other writings. Harold was more interested in science, astronomy and things like that, but the young man had been particularly excited about a book by Mr. Russell that the library had just acquired. He explained that it contained the whole of philosophy within the space of a single volume.
Harold had hurried home with the book and, that very evening, seated beside the fire, had relished the new world that was opened up to him within the Introduction. But after that things began to pale a little, what with the Milesian School and then Parmenides and Empedocles. It all seemed so confusing and Harold found it difficult to keep track of the different names and the ideas associated with them. Everything seemed to be contradictory with the Greeks, and there was another five hundred pages to go before the book got as far as "The Rise of Modern Science" which was Harold's real interest.
In the end, after having copied down several of the more obscure names for use in his conversations with Threlfall, Harold had returned the book unread. Indeed, that was the fate of so many of the interesting and exciting books that he had borrowed from the Public Library.
It was for that reason that Harold Coke had tried to avoid Mr Walther in the past weeks, for fear that the young librarian would ask him about "The History of Western Philosophy". But this evening there seemed to be no one else around, and the questions were pressing so forcefully within Harold's mind, that he had no choice but to walk over to the Information desk and ask where he could find a medical textbook.
Fortunately Mr Walther did not seem notice him, so the problem with Bertrand Russell never arose. Indeed, the young man was so preoccupied that, hardly looking up, he pointed up the stairs to the relevant section of the library and mumbled a call number.
After browsing around in the medical section Harold was forced to return. He had opened several books but they all them seemed to be dealing with diseases like scabies, whooping cough and measles or, failing that, they anatomized particular operations in graphic and unpleasantly necessary detail. It was not really the fault of the books themselves. It was Harold, he was finding it increasingly difficult to focus his mind these days. Somehow the thoughts spinning round in his brain were absorbing his mental energy and concentration. Indeed, he had stood for some moments in front of Mr Walther's desk before he realized that the young man was questioning him.
"C-c-can I help you, Sir?"
Harold gestured with his hands and shrugged, finding it difficult to get the words out.
"If you could describe the symptoms to me, sir. Exactly what sort of disease are you interested in?"
Seeing Coke hesitate Mr Walther seemed to forget his own concerns for a moment. He stood up and conducted Harold to the far end of the library where their conversation would not be overheard.
"You'd be surprised, the sorts of things people come in with to look up in the medical books." Mr. Walther spoke in a gentle and understanding way. "Most of the time there's nothing really wrong with them. It's all a matter of the imagination. In fact I really wouldn't worry about it at all, sir."
"No it's not like that. It's not about me at all."
Coke shook his head, then looked around as if searching the room for a plausible explanation. "It's, well, it's like something in a story. Hypothetical. That's it, hypothetical."
Mr Walther smiled in encouragement. "Something to do with a friend, perhaps?"
Coke shook his head and looked towards the far windows. That reflected back the bright lights of the room against the dark night outside and he could see the image of himself, standing under a light and talking to Mr. Walther. The library had always been a haven for him, a place of security, yet now there seemed to be no release for the confusion inside his head. "It would be a pain. Something inside, something that didn't belong there."
Mr Walter nodded and gestured with his hand in encouragement.
"It's how a person would feel, what they would feel. I mean, could they? That's it, that's what I want to know. I mean, could I..they.. feel it, the pain? And bleeding, even if I were unconscious? Even if they were dying? What would it be like? Would there be anything afterwards?"
Suddenly Coke began to blurt it all out, without control. His voice rose and several people looked round from the bookshelves. "How can the books ever answer that? It's been on my mind ever since it happened. I mean, would the person still be there inside their head, living, feeling it? And would there be a time when everything stopped? When time stopped and they stopped being...well, themselves? And could they still hear their heart, and feel it stop? It could be anyone, me, or you. What would you feel like when the bullet went inside? They fired two bullets. But even then, even if you were in a coma wouldn't your brain still be alive? It would still go on working Would you be able to feel it, somewhere deep down in the bottom of your brain?"
Coke stopped. He had said it all now and had run out of energy. Exhausted he looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time that evening and then noticed how much his explanation had effected the young man whose face was now deathly white. "No,I don't mean you," he said kindly now. "Someone else. I only meant, just suppose. What would they feel?"
The young man was no longer listening, he had turned away and, having brought a handkerchief to his face, was running towards the door labeled Staff Only.
Coke felt a sense of panic rise within his chest. He thought that by having talked about it the thing, by having let it out, it's power would have left him, But now it was all back again. It was as if he were living in the center a bad dream. He felt his heart pump with an irregular beat inside his chest and discovered that he could no longer exhale his breath. There had been times over the last few days when he had wondered if the person sitting next to him on the bus could overhear the thoughts that were rushing through his mind, the cries of anguish, and actually see the vivid images that had become so familiar to him. He had sometimes felt his neighbour shuffling in the seat next to him and on one occasion a young woman had got up and moved to the opposite side of the bus.
And now, in the library, Coke realized that his thoughts had come tumbling out of his head and were reaching across the floor, seeking someone else to infect. Clearly the young man had also seen the images that Coke could not bring himself to speak about. Did this mean that he was going mad? Or that somehow his brain had begun to act as an extraordinary fine-tuned wireless set that could picking up all the pain and suffering in the world around him?
It had only happened to him after the murder. But why that, why that particular incident? There had been killings on the news before, acts of violence. He had seen men brought into the US Hospital at Hereford with parts of their bodies missing. Why this murder? Why did he seem to share in it? Why did he feel that, against his will, he was being dragged to its centre?
Harold Coke rushed down the library steps and out into the night air. He continued walking until he came to the river and, his feet sinking into the wet sand, stumbled on until he sensed the water lapping at his feet.
That night he did not return home until well after midnight. Emily was still sitting up for him. She had been terribly worried and now she was distressed to see the sand caked to his shoes and the water stains around the turn-ups of his trousers. She knew that there was something very seriously wrong with her husband. But how could she would persuade him to go to the doctor for a check-up?
Marge and Vera were in the snug having their last drink of the evening when Stutty burst through the door. Of course they could hear him his mumblings and stutterings and carryings on long before the door opened. The barman had started to call time and Stutty must have been caught in the crush of drinkers that began to assemble around the hatch outside the snug. At the sound of him even Vera raised her eyes to heaven.
"God, he's getting to be a right drip, isn't he Marge?
"Don't say I didn't tell you."
"But he buys dead good meals, and think of all the boozing the two of us have done on him."
Marge shrugged and looked a Vera in a crafty way saying, "Now think on what I told you about him talking too much. You keep him here while I find out where Cullen's got too."
Stutty came in through the door looking like a wild man.
"Hey, Stutty," Vera called out. "I bet yer Ma didn't get you dressed this evening. Just look at him, Marge, he's done the buttons on his coat up all wrong. God, you look a sight, one side's half a yard longer than the other."
The two of them pissed themselves laughing at Stutty who was standing there, the rain dripping off his trilby and his eyes wide and staring.
For once Stutty refused to join in and looked furiously at Vera. "S-s-s-stop that at once. It isn't funny. I'm deadly serious this time."
"Look at him now, Marge, he's gone all strong and silent on me. God but you are a long drink of water, Stutty. Now bugger off and get us something to drink. Go on, hurry up or the towels'll be on the pumps and that'll be it for the night. And don't forget me crisps while you're at it."
"No". Stutty stood there and glared back at them. "It's not funny, and I'm deadly serious. We're in terrible trouble, Vera. "
But Vera grinned back at him and in desperation Stutty turned to Marge. "Listen, Marge, this is no joking matter. Please make her understand. The police are onto me."
This only wound up Vera some more. "Not that one again, Stutty. Put another record on."
Stutty stamped his foot hard and, almost in tears, shouted, "You're so vapid at times, Vera."
Marge nudged her friend into submission, and trying to swallow down her own laughter, asked Stutty what was the matter.
"Well," he said, pausing for effect as he looked at both of them, "the police were round at the library this evening, questioning me."
"PC 49 was it? Did he get his big truncheon our at wave it at you?", Vera burst in.
"No, it was a plaincloths man, actually."
"Did he have a false beard and big boots? Is that how you knew, Stutty?"
Marge shushed Vera and tried to find out what had really happened.
"Go on, Stutty. What did he ask you? Did he come right out and say he was from the police."
"Not right away. He just started asking me questions, about the murder."
"I'd noticed him in the library before. I always thought he was a regular customer. But today he came right over to my desk and started questioning me."
"And he said he was from the police?"
"Not at first, no, but....I can't really remember, it all happened so fast. He started asking ordinary questions at first. Then, suddenly, he asked me about the murder - with all the details and everything. I mean he actually accused me. 'What did you feel like, when you pulled the trigger?' he said. And 'How did it feel?' He kept asking me how I felt when I did it. I mean, he actually accused me, right there in the library and in front of all the customers."
Vera grinned across at Marge for some encouragement, but her friend was looking down into her glass.
"Come on Marge, have you ever heard such gobshite? He's making it all up, isn't he?"
"Shurrup, Vera, and let him talk." Marge turned back to Stutty. "He accused you of doing the shooting?"
Stutty nodded. "They must have found my coat, with the Cash's name tab stitched inside."
"He didn't say anything more, just that?"
Stutty nodded again. "I think he was just playing with me. You know, like that novel by D-d-doestovesky. C-c-c crime and P-p-p..."
"Don't start all that stuff up again, Stutty. This is serious for once."
Stutty looked at both of them. Even Vera had stopped laughing and was starting to look thoughtful.
"And what did you say, Stutty? What did you tell him?" Marge asked, after a long silence.
"Nothing really....I.... I don't remember. It was all so fast." He paused and looked down at his hands. "I find it hard to remember what happened - it all happened so quickly."
He paused again. "It wasn't really like questions after all. It was more that he was telling me what had happened .... that's it, and then watching for my reaction."
"You're sure you didn't say anything, Stutty?"
"No! Well, I don't know. No....I don't think so. There were people watching. I can't really remember."
Marge stood up and touched him on the arm. "You wait here, Stutty"
She glanced across at Vera. "Don't let him go. I'm going to find Cullen, he'll know what to do. You wait here with Vera, Stutty. And don't let him talk to anyone. Have a word with the barman, he'll let you stay on after they've closed if Stutty gives him something. I'll be as quick as I can."
But when Marge finally returned with Cullan the lights were out, the pub was deserted and Vera and Stutty were long, long gone.
Contact F. David Peat