Being murdered is a surprisingly effective way of losing weight.
The thought would never have occurred to Sarah Morecambe if she had not recently been stabbed to death in her own kitchen. Blood, for example, is remarkably heavy. A good, deep stab wound can take half a stone off you in a couple of minutes. And then there’s the famous 21 grammes that the soul weighs. It’s not much, but every little helps.
Sarah was trying hard to look on the bright side, to find what her mother called ‘the rainbow in the storm’. But nothing – not even dramatic weight loss – makes up for being killed over a late-afternoon cup of tea in your own newly decorated kitchen. To make it worse, she had left the cat’s Sunday fish frying on top of the cooker. There was almost no chance that the murderer would think to turn off the hob, and then her house would burn down before she had even finished decorating it. And how would anyone be able to solve her murder then?
Some of her hair was trailing in the cat’s bowl and the body was lying in an awkward position, with its left arm behind its back and its right leg bent double. She saw now that the leggings had been a mistake, but the knitted-silk top was good. Burgundy suited her, though it didn’t go at all well with the bright red blood that was pooling out all around her, spreading so fast that the murderer was having to take little steps back to avoid staining his white trainers. She realised, as she watched him bend to leave the knife on her stomach, that the murderer’s balaclava was exactly the same colour as her top.
He muttered ‘Sorry, love’ – as though he had just accidentally pulled out in front of her at a junction, rather than deliberately stabbed her to death. Then he backed out of the kitchen. She didn’t hear his footsteps in the hall. Neither did she hear the front door close. Had he gone? And how could she hear anything when her ears were lying dead on her beautiful new slate floor?
There was no doubt that she could hear. The click of the cat-flap was, if anything, sharper and louder than usual as Purrdey nosed it open from the outside. Sarah now bitterly regretted having saddled the cat with a joke name. She had meant it to be a joke on joke cat names, but now there would be no one around to explain those two incriminating Rs on Purrdey’s bowl. There would also, she suddenly realised, be no one around to fill the bowl.
Purrdey saw Sarah’s body and froze. Both ears swivelled to their ‘alarm’ position. After a long time Purrdey blinked, then padded very slowly closer to the body. The cat sniffed at the blood, gave it a tiny lick and then sat down and let out a thin miaow. Sarah had always hoped that Purrdey loved her, but it’s difficult to tell with cats. The real test of their loyalty and affection is whether, left alone with your dead body, they refuse to eat you.
Earlier that same Sunday…
Jonathon Fairfax was astonished. This was nothing new. His first memory of being astonished dated from the age of three, when his mother had quite casually suggested that, instead of wearing a pair of comfy watertight pants, he should spend the rest of his life holding in his wee and poo. Now, seventeen years later, he was astonished because a huge, terrifying man in a smart dark-red balaclava was asking him directions.
‘Sorry?’ said Jonathon, putting down his laundry bag and taking a firmer hold on his box of washing powder.
The street, a canyon of old red-brick terraces, was deserted. It was wide but thickly lined with cars. Nearby a cluster of houses had been infected by that feared North London disease that turns any unwary building into a chicken shop.
The day was cold, and the March sky overhead was a perfectly neutral grey: the sort of sky that can happily sit above any kind of weather.
‘I said, do you know where Acacia Road is?’ The man spoke slowly and emphasised the words by shrugging his shoulders into his suede bomber jacket. They were large shoulders, as though when it came to building the man’s upper body, God had decided simply to use a whole cow.
‘Acacia Road?’ asked Jonathon, goggling.
‘Yes,’ said the man. He really was enormous. Some might have said that he had no neck, but this was an illusion caused by the fact that he had so much neck. It started at the edges of his huge shoulders and tapered only slightly to meet his muscular head. Did the man somehow do a head workout? Jonathon wondered. Though it was dwarfed by his neck and covered by his balaclava, the man’s beefy head looked as though it could bench-press two hundred pounds on its own.
‘We, um, we’re on … This is Acacia Road,’ said Jonathon. He stood on one leg: a gesture he had done for comic effect as a child, but which had now become instinctive when he was in awkward situations.
‘Is it? It don’t say so. Where’s the signs?’ The man stared hard at Jonathon, as though he suspected him of having stolen all the signs.
Jonathon was easily intimidated. In fact, left alone for long enough, Jonathon could probably have contrived to intimidate himself. But, now that he was being stared at aggressively by a giant in a balaclava, he was more astonished and confused than afraid. The man seemed to be waiting for an answer. Had he asked a question? Jonathon couldn’t remember.
‘Um. Sorry?’ he said.
The man sighed impatiently and pinched the bridge of his nose. He stopped, then put his hand to his cheek as though to confirm what his fingers had told him, which was presumably that he was wearing a balaclava. This seemed to surprise him.
‘I get a cold face,’ said the man.
‘Yes,’ said Jonathon, stupidly.
‘Right,’ said the man. He slapped his big cauldron of a belly, shouldered his way across the empty road, pulled himself into an old grey Jaguar and drove off.
Jonathon stood for some seconds in the grey empty street, paralysed by astonishment, before carrying on down the road and into the launderette.
Jonathon stuffed his washing into the machine and sat down. Like much in London’s Holloway Road area, the launderette had apparently been transported directly from Soviet Russia. It was a large, pocked, windowless cell full of fluorescent light, 1960s washing machines and instructions fixed in place with yellowing Sellotape.
Looking in his laundry bag, Jonathon remembered that he had, the previous Sunday, inadvertently laundered the book he was reading. He looked around for distractions, but the other people in the launderette were silently watching their clothes rotate, intent on avoiding eye contact. He got up and collected a selection of the leaflets and flyers that lay on the windowsill, some so old that the writing on them had faded almost to invisibility.
Jonathon sat back down. ‘Missing cat’, announced the first leaflet, displaying a photo of a cat with one ear. He realised that he couldn’t possibly face looking at the next leaflet, and so settled back, like the others, to watch his clothes go round and round.
Jonathon was in London waiting for his life to begin – waiting to be recognised, though he had no idea for what. Balladeer, advocate, swordsman? He should start learning to do something. More urgently, he needed friends. He felt that if he didn’t make friends soon he would die. Actually, it was unlikely he would die. Instead he would have to take the more effortful and dispiriting alternative of going to live in Humberside – the latest stop on his dad’s quest for perfect bleakness.
‘You’re going to London?’ his dad had said, in much the same incredulous tone he would have used if Jonathon had announced that he planned to have his head laminated.
‘Is there any more marmalade?’ Jonathon had replied.
‘London chews people up and spits them out like pancakes.’
‘Like pancakes?’ Jonathon asked.
‘Yes, I think there’s some left. Why?’
‘Are we talking about marmalade or pancakes?’
‘We’re talking about life. London is a mistake. The most unfriendly city on Earth.’
Now the point at which Jonathon would have to concede that it was impossible to make friends in London was fast approaching. How, he wondered, did anyone in London come to know anyone else? There seemed to be no situations at all in which it was remotely permissible to talk to people you don’t know: public transport, launderettes, pubs, cafes, swimming pools, shops, pavements, libraries – all were strictly off-limits. You could ask directions and buy things. Nothing else was allowed.
Even at work he had no friends. He had stupidly chosen to get a job at Harrods, because it was famous, but the rigid and inflexible caste system that operated among its employees meant that he would have to be there for at least another ten years before anyone might, for example, ask him if he’d had a nice weekend. By then the prospect of ever actually having a nice weekend would have irretrievably vanished.
As a result, although he had been in London for only three months, he was already living too much in his own head. He had constructed an extraordinarily detailed fantasy life in which he divided his time between his studio in Paris and his apartment in Constantinople, visiting London tanned and full of mystery, hailed as Europe’s foremost poet and stockbroker, or something. His clothes were elegant and simple, hand-tailored by the finest hands. His shirts made beautiful women weep.
The fantasy bore no relation to any element of his current or past life. He lived in a tiny room in a gigantic house shared by strangers. And the clothes that the washing machine was currently hurling around inside itself were boring threadbare jeans and jumpers. How, he wondered, had he acquired such childish, sensible and unsexy clothes? They were perfect for a camping trip in 1950s Norway, but utterly unsuited to the roiling fleshpot of London in the mid-1990s.
Eventually, over the course of the cycle, he forgave his clothes. When they were clean and only slightly damp he put them in his laundry bag and made his way over to the door, where he was escorted from the premises by the implacable stare of the flint-eyed attendant who sat in an orange plastic chair. The bell beside the door gonged his exit.
No sooner had Jonathon set foot on the street than he saw the huge terrifying man – this time without his balaclava – pull up in his old Jaguar. Jonathon thought briefly of turning around and going back into the launderette, but the awkwardness of doing so scared him even more than the huge terrifying man did. He would pretend not to see the man.
He squinted his eyes as though blinded by the dim grey sun and walked on.
The murderer was furious and deeply frustrated. For fifteen minutes he had been hunting with no sign of his prey. Then, just as he was on the verge of giving up, he spotted it. The parking space hasn’t been born that can outsmart me, he thought. It had done its best, sandwiching itself between a rotting yellow Volvo and a dirty white Bedford van. But he had sniffed it out, and now he was going to fill it.
He glanced in his mirror, stopped, put his arm around the passenger seat and reversed into the gap with a single, liquid move. Satisfaction surged up from his belly and put the first smile of the afternoon on his face. He had never tried heroin, but he doubted that it beat a really good bit of reverse parking.
Having to go away and come back had cost him a lot of time, but it’s stupid to go and kill someone when you’ve just been seen in the victim’s street wearing a balaclava. You have to leave time for the memories to fade. The murderer had taken a spin up to Highgate, had a half, watched a bit of a match and come back. Not unpleasant, but still a waste of time.
It was all that kid’s fault. Some people can take a balaclava in their stride, but that kid had stared at him like he was astonished or something. The army, thought the murderer, isn’t the answer to everything, but it would knock the astonishment out of a kid like that in a second. Selective conscription, that’s what they needed.
He checked his face again: no balaclava. Good. The balaclava was a present from his niece. It was fantastic – cashmere and extremely comfortable. The problem was that it was so comfortable he couldn’t tell whether or not he was wearing it. This was quite a big problem, because people tend to look askance at other people wearing balaclavas. This was, he felt, a national disgrace: men wearing balaclavas had fought and died for Britain.
Anyway, this time he would make sure that he didn’t put it on until the last minute. He patted his inside pocket to make sure the kitchen knife was there. Then he unlocked the glove compartment, opened the box and took out a fresh pair of surgical gloves. He could put those on now.
Just as he was about to open the car door he looked up. Not again, he groaned to himself. There, coming out of a launderette, was the kid he’d asked for directions. The kid was squinting, carrying a laundry bag over his shoulder and a box of Persil under his arm, spilling a fine line of powder behind him. Had the kid seen him?
To find out, you will have to buy the book. Or just ask me.