Authors: Ed O'Connor
For Mum, Dad and Alix
Blasted with sighs, surrounded with teares,
Hither I come to seek the Spring,
And at mine eyes, and at mine eares
Receive such balms, as else cure everything.
John Donne, extract from
9 December 2000
Twilight drained from the sky in sudden streams. The ground felt damp. December winds had chilled the soil but had not frozen it. Crowan Frayne had hoped for a harder surface. Frozen earth makes no sound. Mud squelches and clings like an ugly memory. No matter. Frayne thought of forcing his face into the ground, to impress his image upon the earth. The idea amused him. He could peer down on the dead as God peers down on the living.
Tonight he heard music; voices abstracted by time. As if the piano in his mind was strung with the spirits of the dead, producing exquisite notes of pain at his every delicate keystroke.
The spot he had chosen was well concealed at the base of a dark cluster of elm trees. He could see the house clearly. The lights had come on an hour earlier. The garden – half illuminated – was small and neat. Flower beds huddled against the wooden panelled fence. In spring they would surge with colour but now they seemed skeletal and forlorn.
Frayne could make out the image of a woman beyond the windows. Young, tall, lean. She would be strong. He would have to be cautious. Finding her had been a Providence. Chance had dealt him an unexpected and brilliant hand. Lucy Harrington had fallen through his letter box.
He checked his watch. Not long. The details could not be left to chance. Precision was everything now. The house was old, a recently gentrified nineteenth-century cottage. The back door was ill-fitting, with an old-fashioned lock. He had already checked. The lock could be dealt with easily. None of the nearby cottages overlooked the garden directly. He would have privacy.
And time. She would need to leave by 7.50. The reception would last two hours at least. Time enough. An upstairs light threw a square of light onto the gloomy lawn. Crowan Frayne
squeezed the flower in his left hand until his fingers were stained violet. He picked a scalpel from his selection of medical instruments and gently sliced the skin under his left eye. A spot of blood bloomed on his face. He spoke quickly and quietly as a single dark tear rolled down his cheek.
‘Let me power forth
My teares before thy face whilst I stay here.’
The words evaporated with his breath in the cold air. He became still. A hole in the night.
The cocktail dress fitted perfectly but Lucy Harrington was unhappy. Her shoulders were too big and her boobs too small. She wondered if she should have been a cyclist instead of a swimmer. Maybe a blouse would have worked better, been less unforgiving. She glanced at the clock. 7.52. There was no time. The reception started at eight and New Bolden was at least a ten-minute drive. It would have to be the dress. She straightened its soft lines and dabbed her favourite Issy Miyake perfume onto her neck. Satisfied, she grabbed her car keys and hurried downstairs.
Frayne caught his breath as the front door opened and Lucy Harrington emerged, silhouetted against the hall light. He knew that she couldn’t possibly see him, but he still felt conspicuous. As if the heat of his excitement created a variation in the texture of the night. She turned and double-locked the front door (as he knew she would) and walked quickly to her car. Her breath ghosted against the car windows as she fumbled with the lock.
This excited Frayne. He remembered that Donne had contorted the view of Aquinas that angels were spiritual entities that created bodies of air to assume visible properties. How did it go?
‘Then as an angel, face and wings
Of air, now pure as it yet pure doth wear …’
Perhaps Lucy Harrington would be an angel. He would help her.
The headlights blazed accusingly in his direction. Frayne sank low to the ground, until he feared that the earth might absorb him alive. The car spluttered to life and spat light against the ancient curtain of the woods. Inside the vehicle, Lucy Harrington cursed her vanity as her high heels slipped on the clutch and the engine stalled. Eventually, the yellow Fiat began to move away and, after a moment, passed within a few feet of the spot Crowan Frayne had just vacated.
It was a housebreaker’s trick. It only worked on older dwellings. New buildings had security locks fitted as standard and required different treatment. But, this time, Crowan Frayne’s research the previous night had proved correct.
He knelt at the back door. The cold stone grated at his kneecap. Moving rapidly, he withdrew a piece of card from his equipment bag and slid it under the back door, directly beneath the keyhole. The card in place, he carefully fed a narrow steel meat skewer into the keyhole until it stopped against the key that had been inserted from the other side. He held the skewer in place with his left hand and with his right picked up a hammer. He hit the skewer firmly once and heard the key fall gratifyingly from the lock inside. Smiling, he withdrew the card with great care from the crack underneath the door. Slowly the key emerged. Frayne snatched it up, inserted it into the lock and turned it. The whole operation had taken less than a minute. He was inside.
The warmth hit his face like a breaking Mediterranean wave. The door clicked shut behind him. He locked it and for the first time felt a flash of fear. Crowan Frayne placed his anxiety in a box: he would open it later.
The Civic Centre was crowded with journalists, local residents and dignitaries. It was hot and airless. Lucy Harrington found the atmosphere stifling. Still, this was what it was all about. All those lonely winter mornings in the New Bolden swimming pool,
the pain of weight training, the sacrifice of a social life. She tried to enjoy herself and concentrate on what the Mayor was saying.
‘Few districts can boast their own Commonwealth gold medallist.’ New Bolden’s bald mayor paused for emphasis and breath. ‘Lucy’s achievement has put our town on the map.’ A firework display of camera flashes flared across the room as Lucy smiled a shy, embarrassed smile. The mayor continued, his forehead sparkling wet under the lights. ‘A personal triumph, yes. But one in which we can all share with a great degree of great pride. As the name suggests, New Bolden is a new town and Lucy is the first of its new generation of young people to make a real mark on the world. I therefore ask you to raise your glasses and toast the new Commonwealth 100-metre freestyle champion … Lucy Harrington.’ A noisy toast. A ripple of applause. Lucy Harrington rose nervously to her feet and fixed the audience with a grateful blue-eyed gaze.
‘I suppose a swimmer should never be out of her depth, but public speaking has always terrified me.’ Indulgent laughter. ‘I’m determined that this speech won’t last longer than my race did so that gives me about a minute to thank everyone. Swimming can be a lonely sport and athletes, almost by definition, have to be selfish individuals. But when I stood on the blocks last weekend I knew I had all of New Bolden right there with me. That feeling is hard to top.’ Lucy Harrington paused and looked around the room: the wallpaper of unfamiliar faces, the flashes from the press cameras. Suddenly she felt very tired.
It was 11.07. He had expected her back by now. However, Frayne was unconcerned: this had always been the variable and he was prepared. The time had passed quickly until now. He had familiarized himself with the house. He had checked and rechecked his instruments. Now he sat quietly and read. Lucy Harrington’s bedroom smelt vaguely of flowers and vanilla. A car rumbled up outside.
Crowan Frayne put his book away.
A weary Lucy Harrington slammed her front door shut against the cold. She dropped her keys on the hall table and kicked off her shoes. She leaned against it for a second as fatigue began to build up behind her eyes. Then, just as she was about to enter the kitchen, she heard running water. The bath. She must have left a tap running. She swore quietly as she hurried upstairs and strode into the bathroom, expecting the room to be awash. It wasn’t. Water gushed noisily from the cold tap but the bath was less than a third full. She hesitated. Was she going mad?
As she bent over the bath and turned the tap off, Crowan Frayne stepped quickly up behind her and smashed a hammer into the back of her head. Blood spat against the tiles and Lucy Harrington slumped to the floor. He hit her again, harder. It was important to be certain.
It was done in a moment and she had hardly made a sound. Frayne worked quickly. He was well rehearsed. He rolled her onto her back and pushed back her left eyelid. The pupil was dilated, black and unseeing. He brought in his equipment box and withdrew a scalpel, scissors and a set of forceps. This was the critical challenge. He anticipated no problems removing the eyelid but severing the lateral ciliary muscles that supported the eye in its socket would be awkward. He didn’t want to damage the eyeball. That was vital. He saw his own face bloated and floating in Lucy Harrington’s dead black pupil. He addressed the darkness softly;
‘On a round ball
A workman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All.’
Conditions were cramped and he needed more light. There was a metal reading lamp in the bedroom. No need to rush. He had plenty of time.
The alarm clock glowered at him. 3.17. Julia had been due back at midnight. He had last tried her mobile an hour ago. It had been switched off and that was always a bad sign. He knew he was being punished but couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was
he couldn’t understand why. Eighteen years of marriage seemed to have driven him and Julia further apart. Familiarity didn’t just breed contempt. It bred unfamiliarity.
He was getting annoyed now and mainly with himself. Thinking is the undoing of the insomniac. Once his anxiety generator had been switched on, Underwood knew he would end up tracing the ripples of paint on the ceiling. Sometimes, if he was lucky, the ripples would wash together in waves of exhaustion and he would sink: but not tonight. His throat was dry. He reached for the can of Pepsi that he kept on the bedside table.
A car drew up outside. He peered through a gap in the curtain. A minicab: another bad sign. Where could she have
been until 3.17? New Bolden was hardly Monte Carlo. Once the pubs cleared out at 11.30 the only action was at the kebab van. His mind raced. None of the alternatives was appealing. Julia stepped from the car and hurried inside.
He heard her climbing the stairs. She was trying to be quiet. He counted her steps. The fourth stair was loose but he heard no sound. She must have stepped over it. She was trying not to wake him up. Why? Thoughts ricocheted through his brain.