Chapter ten: Forgive Me, Mother, For I Have Sinned
There is a time of definition in the life of every man when the pieces fall together or events take place to shape the future. It might happen suddenly or it might be a gradual process, a build up of things over weeks or months. Sometimes when it occurs he will be unaware that it is doing so, until one day he looks back and realises that his life has altered completely, for better or worse. It could be that he has fallen in love. It could be that some outside event changes his whole attitude to life, so that he views everything from a different perspective, and then indeed is life new. It could be that someone dies, creating a hole in his life that cannot be filled. It could be a new job, or a new car, or a new interest of any kind. Or it could be that he accidentally stabs his boss to death with a pair of scissors.
Barney's life was changing, he knew it was happening, and there was nothing he could do about it. He tried telling himself that this was what he'd wanted, that he had planned to kill Wullie anyway, but deep down he knew there was no way that he'd have been able to do it, had not fate forced his hand. And now he prepared to turn to his mother. Forty-six years old and still the same solution to his problems as he had had forty-four years previously when he'd broken a toy or spilled tomato ketchup on his bib.
He was still contemplating the fickle hand he'd been dealt when he walked into his mother's house. He called out to announce his arrival, a shout which was, as usual, greeted by silence. He could hear the television playing in the sitting room and imagined she would be engrossed in some dreadful quiz show.
He opened the door, immediately started coughing as the great wall of cigarette smoke swept into his lungs. It was always the same on days when she'd been sitting watching television all day and it was only very rarely that she ever opened a window; in itself something that was only ever likely to happen between the end of June and the beginning of September.
He walked into the room, extravagantly waving his arms in front of him, still coughing loudly.
'For God's sake, I wish you'd open a blooming window in this place if you're going to smoke so much, Mother,' and he walked between her and the television to pull back the curtains and let in some fresh air. Cemolina scowled at him but she was more concerned with the television and
Give Us Your Body Fluids.
He stood by the window breathing deeply, as much for show as clean air, before moving back into the room when he realised that she was paying him no attention. He slumped down into a seat, leant forward, rested his forearms on his knees, looked keenly at his mother. He stared at her for a while, hoping she would notice him. However, her attention was undivided. This show was her favourite. Finally, he felt bound to speak.
'Mum, I've got to talk to you. I'm in trouble.'
She didn't answer for a while, then eventually lifted a dismissive hand, waving it in his direction.
'Shh! Not when they're trying to guess whose fluids these are. Who d'you think? This bloke says Alfred Hitchcock, but I thought they looked more like Robert Altman's. What about you?' She turned, gave him a brief look.
Barney faced the realisation that all the women in his life were more interested in television than they were in him.
'Mum, I need to talk. I'm in trouble. Real trouble.' He hesitated, but he had her attention at last. 'I've killed Wullie.'
Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped. The expression held on her face for a few seconds and he definitely knew he had her complete attention when she lowered the volume of the television. If he wasn't mistaken, there was a glint in her eye, a smile forming upon her lips.
'Wullie! You've killed Wullie did you say?'
'Aye, aye I did. Christ, mum, I'm in real trouble. Real trouble,' and he ran his hands through his hair and looked at her with desperation. Comfort me, his face said, I need it.
'Jings! Well done, I didn't think you had it in you.'
'What?' he said. Despite the night before, it wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting.
'Well, you wanted to, didn't you? You said you wanted to kill him. I'm proud of you.' She paused, reflected. 'Although, d'you not think it would have been better if you'd taken care of the papist first? Can't stand they bastards, so I can't. Bastards the lot of them.'
He looked upon her with wonder. How could she take it so lightly?
'Well, then, how did you do it? What was the instrument of his destruction? And don't tell me it was poison or I'll be right upset, so I will.'
When the scales fell from his eyes, they did so quickly and dramatically, cascading and tumbling away in a frantic rush. He looked upon his mother in a new light. She was mad. Of course she was. Completely mad. Perhaps it was senility but if he thought about it, he was sure he could think of examples of her madness throughout the years. She'd always been insane but since it'd been with him all this time he'd come to take much of her behaviour as normal. But this wasn't normal.
All the plans and schemes and silly ideas she'd had. He had liked to think of her as vaguely eccentric, perhaps even extravagantly eccentric, but it was more than that. Worse than that. And now, what about this reaction? How could she possibly be enthusiastic about him killing Wullie? Killing anybody? What mother could be so welcoming about her son committing such an act?
What was he doing here and what advice could he possibly get from her that would be of any use? Christ, he'd been a fool. He'd been a fool to tell her what he'd been thinking in the first place, and he was a fool to come here tonight with a bloody corpse in the boot of his car.
'Accidentally. With a pair of scissors,' he mumbled, wondering why he was bothering to tell her.
She tutted loudly, displeased at the lack of drama in the description.
'Was there a lot of blood?'
'Aye,' he mumbled. 'A lot of blood.'
He stared at the floor. He had no business here. There were no great answers to his problems to be found in the home of his insane mother. He was going to have to solve them himself.
'What have you done with the corpse?' she asked, the glint returning to the eye. He didn't notice, so much attention was he giving to the carpet. His heart had sunk. He was scared.
'It's downstairs, in the boot of the car. Wrapped in several large plastic bin liners.'
'Crike! Bring it up then. I'll make soup!'
Barney looked up, aghast. 'Mother!'
She smiled, had the decency to look slightly embarrassed, but he knew it was feigned. They cast a quick glance at the television as the presenter produced a bag of thick, lumpy green liquid, but Cemolina was too intrigued with Barney's predicament to raise the sound. Barney turned away from the TV with a look of disgust. Cemolina came with him, her finger momentarily twitching over the volume button.
'Well, what are you going to do with it then?'
He let his head hang low, enveloped, as he was, with dejection. 'I don't know, Mum, I really don't know.'
She stared at him; he stared at the ground, there being very little else for him to say. He had to leave and get on with things, but when he got outside there was a body which he was going to have to dispose of and he had no idea how he was going to do it.
Slowly he dragged himself out of his seat and stood up.
'Look, Mum, I really ought to be going. I shouldn't have come here and brought you into this. It's my problem to solve…'
'Now, none of your nonsense,' she chided, 'you sit right back down and we'll talk this through, all right? I'm your mother and I'm here to help.'
He paused at her words, grudgingly lowered himself back into his seat, his reluctance to get help from his mother fighting his desperate need for help from anywhere.
'Now, tell me everything that happened and we'll see what we can do.'
Barney stared at her. What options did he have? He hardly had any friends with whom he could share the story. Wondered if he could go to the Samaritans; didn't think they had a murder line. So maybe it would do him some good to tell his mother, even if there was nothing she could do to help him. And all the while, something at the back of his mind was hoping that she would advise him to go to the police and get it over with. It wasn't a decision he could possibly make for himself, but he knew it'd be the right thing to do.
He laid the story out for her, trying not to miss anything out. For almost all of it she sat quietly taking it in, except for pitching in to suggest that he really ought to have killed Charlie Johnstone when he'd had the chance. When he was finished he was distraught and rested his head back against the seat, trying to stop the tears spilling over onto his face. His hands were shaking and now that he had related it all and confronted the full awfulness of his situation, he was close to panic.
He opened his eyes to Cemolina bending over him and forcing a large whisky into his hands. He took it and shakily lifted it to his mouth. God, it felt good. Talisker, he thought, although he was no expert. Probably been there since his father died. Breathed deeply as it burned its way down his throat.
Cemolina settled back into her seat.
'What d'you want me to do, Barnabas?'
He leant forward, resting his forearms on his knees.
'I don't know, Mum. I can't ask you to do anything. What am I going to do, that's the question?'
'Why don't you bring the body up here, son? Let me take care of it.'
He stared at her, a wild look in his eye. It was ridiculous. What could his mother possibly do with a human body? But no matter how ridiculous it seemed to him, he loved the idea. If she took the body, he was free of it. He could wash his hands. It would be wonderful.
'But what are you going to do with Wullie that I can't?'
'Never you mind. Just comfort yourself with knowing that I can take care of it. You can always rely on your old mother. Now you run downstairs and bring the body back up. And mind and try not to let anyone see you, this time.'
Half an hour later Barney was driving home, feeling moderately relieved. Felt like a weight had been lifted. Noticed other cars on the road; remembered to use all the gears. He had no idea what his mother intended to do with the corpse, but whatever it was she had in mind, she'd had a reassuring look in her eye and enough confidence in her voice to put him at ease. It wasn't over yet but the immediate worry of the corpse was gone. It had given him plenty of time to worry about all the other problems which would arise.
On his way home something made him drive past the shop. Just a hunch, a vague feeling of unease. Didn't know what he expected to see. Wullie's ghost, perhaps, his face pressed against the window, his features contorted in eternal agony. However, the shop front stared darkly and mundanely back at him. Quiet, deserted. Deathly quiet.
He walked into his flat at just after ten o'clock. Surprised to be confronted by the sounds of silence, rather than some abysmal Australian or American Deep South soap. Stopped and listened before he walked into the sitting room but there was nothing. Maybe Agnes had gone to bed already but something told him it wasn't going to be that. The hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention, his skin crawled. Panic.
Tentatively opened the door to the sitting room, expectations of a massive police presence behind the door. The television was on but with the sound turned down. Agnes sat, cup of tea in her hand, concerned look on her face; next to her on the settee was Moira, Wullie's wife, tear in her eye, cup of tea untouched on the table. They looked at Barney as he walked in the door and such was their relief at seeing him that neither of them noticed that he, as the ancients used to say, completely bricked himself.
They didn't say anything; watched closely as he removed his jacket, letting it fumble out of his hands and fall to the floor. He came into the room and sat down in a seat opposite them, not wanting to say anything. Didn't want to betray his secret. Felt like he had blood all over him and the word
murderer carved into his forehead.
Agnes finally spoke. The silence could not be allowed to extend for the entire evening. Quick look at her watch. Twenty minutes until
Rectal Emergency Ward 6.
'Moira's here,' she said.
Barney nodded. Aye, I can see that.
'She's pure dead worried, so she is, and I says, you know, maybe she should be worried.'
Barney nodded again, tried to look interested but not overly concerned. Telling himself to behave as if he didn't know why Moira was here. Act natural. He was nervous; felt like the slightest hint might give him away. Had to ensure that there was nothing in his demeanour that would strike a discordant note. Act natural, Barney, act natural. Thought of the Beatles.
They're gonna put me in the movies. Wasn't the Beatles who wrote it. Who did it first?
'Barney?' said Moira.
'I didn't do it' he blurted out, fingers gripping the seat.
'What?' said Moira and Agnes in unison.
He closed his eyes, tried to take hold of himself. Don't be such a bloody dunderheid, Barney. They don't suspect you of anything. Why should they? Just be calm and don't put your foot in it. He opened his eyes. Determined to play the part; the grand conspirator.
'Oh, sorry, nothing. I thought, well, I don't know. I was thinking about something else. In a daydream, you know.' He paused, tried to regain his composure. 'What's the problem Moira?' he asked finally, his voice just about steady enough for them to not notice the difference.
'It's Wullie, Barney, he didn't come home the night. Are you sure he didn't say anything else when he left the shop? Just that he was going shopping, is that all?'
Barney thought. Tried to look like he was giving the question serious consideration; trying to compose himself. Had never felt so uncomfortable in his life. Fighting the urge to blurt out the truth but knew he'd already gone too far for that.
'Aye, that was all,' he said eventually. 'He left about quarter past five and said something about going to the shops. That was it, you know.'
Moira waited for something else, but Barney was finished. How could he give her more hope than that? She'd lost her husband, although she didn't know it. Her head dropped into her hands and she started crying in gentle sobs. Agnes moved closer, put an arm around her shoulder.
'What kind of mood was he in, Barney? Did he seem to be all right, you know? Think about it, 'cause Moira's pure upset, so she is.'
Barney stared into space for a while, casually lifted and dropped his shoulders. Hoped it was casual. 'Aye, well, you know Wullie. He just looked like he normally does, you know.'
'You don't think he's been nabbed by yon serial killer, do you? That's what me and Moira have been talking about.'
Barney scoffed, nearly choked on it. At least he could honestly deny that one.
'No, no, don't be daft. He hasn't fallen into the hands of any serial killer. Don't worry about that.'
He decided it was time to look unconcerned, make them think they were over-reacting. Which was exactly what he would've thought, if he hadn't just stabbed Wullie in the stomach. He stood up, stretched, yawned.
'Look, Moira, I wouldn't worry about it. He's probably just gone down the boozer and had a few too many. You know what he's like, eh? You know Wullie.'
She shook her head slowly, mumbling through the tears. 'No, no, it's not like him. Not Wullie, so it's not. A Friday night, aye, but never during the week. Not my Wullie.'
Barney waved this away, casual, dismissive, but the next question hit him harder. Full in the face at about a hundred miles an hour.
'D'you not think we should phone for the polis?' said Agnes.
The polis! He hadn't really thought of that yet. He knew it would come to it but not yet. It was too early for the polis to be involved. God, Wullie could genuinely be sitting down the pub for all anyone else knew.
'Eh, no, no, not yet. I think that might be a bit hasty, you know. Wait and see what happens. Maybe if he hasn't shown up by the morning, give them a wee call. I'm sure he will but, so I wouldn't worry about it.'
'D'you really think he's all right, Barney?' Moira said to him through her tears. Desperately seeking reassurance.
Barney looked into the damp eyes, was finally overwhelmed by guilt, to the point of not being able to reply. Mumbled some attempted words of comfort to her, squeezed her hand, muttered that he was tired.
He walked to the bedroom, an air of unconcern about him; the great lie. And when he got into the room, he collapsed on the bed and wept.
Sunday - chapter eleven: When Did You Last See Your Enthusiasm?
The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson - collected chapters
Meet the author: Douglas Lindsay