Chaddleworth

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: July 24, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 24, 2019

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'Son of a bitch!'

The American punched the steering wheel of the Rover P4. He took out a handkerchief and wiped a hole in the condensation on the windscreen. It made little difference. The handkerchief was already saturated.

He rolled the window down half an inch. The horizontal rain, driven by a fierce south-westerly, reached in and clawed at his face. He closed the window again, wiped a wet hand across his eyes and cursed. The windscreen wipers struggled vainly against the onslaught as they chased each drop like a hopelessly aged cat.

The car stuttered again. 'Son of a bitch!'

He could hear something rattle, from the engine. Twice already he had been forced out into the weather to look under the hood. Twice he had found nothing. No snapped belts, no leakages, no hissing, no sparks, no odd smells. What the hell did he know anyhow? He wasn't a goddamned mechanic. It goes until you tell it to stop, end of story.

The car kicked again.

He peered through the windscreen. Even if it wasn't raining, what was he going to see on an unlit road in the middle of the English countryside?  He sure as hell wouldn't see the cow before he hit it.

He pulled over and drew breath, lit a Marlboro. This, he thought, is why God gave us tobacco. The chance to take five minutes out every once in a while, just to reassess.

The car coughed.

'Son of a bitch!'

He considered his options. He could drive until the car died and just start walking. Take his chances. Or he could drive and, with luck, get where he was going and everything would be fine. Or he could park up and walk in the hope that he came across a farm or something, somewhere there would be help. Farmers were good with this sort of shit. They fixed things. They worked with machinery all the time. Or he could stay where he was until morning, get a few zees; by then, the English summer would have returned and he could go in search of help.

Either way, he was dependent on good fortune. He wasn't a fan of fortune. It was rarely good.

He smoked the Marlboro to the stub, wound down the window and threw it onto the verge. The rain bit like red ants. As he rolled the window up, he thought he saw a light through the darkness. He squinted. No, no light. Just the desperate hope of a desperate man. Then he saw it again, like Morse, on-off-on-off. He got out of the car and walked ahead. He leaned into the wind, pulled his old wool jacket tighter and gripped it at the collar between white knuckles. On the horizon he could just make out a skyline of trees. They danced like marionettes in the gale. He looked for the light again. It was there alright, small and yellow, playing hide and seek between the branches.

'Son of a bitch!'

Fortune. Not good, not yet, but not bad either.

He ran back to the car, urged on by the wind, fought open the door and jumped in. With a string of four-letter words, he ground the car into gear, stamped his foot down and drove as fast as he dared along the dark, tortuous unfamiliar road.

Anxiety swelled within him. What if the light had been only a figment of his imagination, a water-bound mirage sent to instil in him some sort of rain-bound madness? He sped up. The drops of rain, so large he could see each one as they careered towards him, exploded against the windshield and spread like fat capillaries upon pallid skin.

The wheels clipped the verge and he felt the car aquaplane. The vehicle threatened to do a three-sixty and flip. He fought with the wheel, a mad fisherman straining against a heavy line, heart in mouth. A cold sweat mingled with the rain upon his face. He felt sick. He never felt sick. How could he after all the things he'd done?

The car swung its tail, then righted itself and surged on. The light grew larger, clearer, stayed visible longer. He prayed. He knew no god, but he prayed. If he could get there, the car could die. That was the deal - see me safe, you can have the car, heart and soul. People like him didn't believe in any god. God could take from him anything he was willing to give. He sure as hell wouldn't get his soul.

The car began to scream.  It sent a shiver through him. He knew the sound of a final scream.

'Son of a bitch!'

He rocked back and forth in his seat in the hope that it would get him those extra few feet. The scream grew louder. Something, somewhere, was trying to break free, to kill him. The car was haunted. It was filled with the vengeful souls of all those who had crossed his path, all those anonymous faces who never knew of him in their lives, yet in their death were welded to him, soul to soul, until they met again on the other side.

Then, as he exited the bend, he saw it; a house, in which a single light burned and called the lost and lonely to safety.

He put his foot hard on the brakes. The car skewed for a few seconds upon the thin meniscus of water, then gripped the road and brought him to a shuddering halt.

He gripped the wheel, squeezed until his fingers hurt, took a deep breath, then opened the door and threw up.

He looked up. He had stopped next to a white picket gate. It had a name upon it. He narrowed his eyes to focus. It said: CHADDLEWORTH.

He straightened up. Torchlight shone in his eyes. A man stood behind the gate, watching.

The American shielded his eyes. 'Chaddleworth?'

He saw the shadow of the man's head nod.

'Son of a bitch!'

 

*****

 

Eldon Street leaned into the torch's beam and watched dumbfounded as the vomiting man pulled himself upright.

He had heard the mechanical wails of the car for some time, despite the wind and rain. At first, he had thought it was the scream of a vixen. He would hear the murderous cries every night and had grown used to them, but as the noise continued, so he had grown curious and looked out of an upper window. In the distance he had seen the dim lights of a car as it snaked its way through the absolute darkness of a countryside night. A couple of times it had stopped and it had crossed his mind to get his hat and coat on and go in search of the vehicle.

Instead, he turned the upstairs light on. It wasn't much, but to a ship at sea, any light meant land and safety.

The act of putting the light on had forced him to decide that that particular act was the beginning of a commitment. He would don his mac, hat and boots. Just in case.

He went downstairs.

He was checking the batteries in the torch when he heard the brakes. He calmly screwed the back of the torch on and unlocked the front door.

He heard the man vomit as he walked along the path. He picked him out in the torch's beam as the man, pale and wet, raised his head. His head lolled in the manner of the hopelessly seasick.

'Chaddleworth?' asked the man. He sounded like an American.

Eldon nodded.

'Son of a bitch!'

Eldon opened the gate and went to the man. 'Let me help you,' he said.

The man did not put up a fight. He did as Eldon asked, put his arm around Eldon's shoulder and allowed him to guide him through the stinging rain and into the house.

'The car...' he began.

'The car will be fine,' reassured Eldon. 'Let's just get you out of this weather.'

 

*****

 

The American drank the brandy. He felt restored, seated in a comfortable chair, a fire growling next to him. Occasionally the wind found the chimney and the flames danced as if trying to escape the confines of the grate.

The other guy stared at him. He smoked a cigarette with his elbow rested against the armchair. When he took a drag, his forearm sliced through the air, delivered the cigarette to his mouth, then returned to its position, straight up towards the ceiling, poised. The arm of the chair was worn from where his elbow had pivoted over time.

He wore round glasses, hooked over large ears, which were accentuated by a short back and sides haircut. Apart from the ears, he reminded the American a little of George Orwell, sharp-faced with piercing, inquisitive eyes and a mat of swept back hair that had been combed in a certain way for so long that it now just grew that way, like trees that had been born in the path of a south-westerly wind.

‘This is very kind of you, Mr Chaddleworth…’

Eldon Street sat forward in his chair like a bird that had heard a worm beneath its feet. ‘Actually it’s…’

‘There aren’t many places in the world where you could rely upon the kindness of a stranger. Certainly not in big-town America, anyway.’ He drained the brandy and placed the glass upon a coaster. ‘I’m sorry, you were going to say something?’

Eldon shook his head. ‘No. It’s fine.’ He retreated into his chair, back into his silence.

‘Have you lived here long?’

Eldon's eyes blinked slowly. ‘Thirty years.’ He spoke in a refined, flat voice.

‘That’s a long time.’

There was a moment’s hesitation. ‘I like the quiet. The towns are growing, creeping. I don’t like the congestion, the busyness.’

‘You live alone?’

The American watched as the thin man shifted in his seat. He was uncomfortable with the question. He suspected that his host was uncomfortable with conversation altogether. On the other hand, maybe he just wasn’t used to company, being this far out of town.

Yet there was something about this fellow that made him want to press a few buttons. He wore a cardigan that was old and baggy and familiar, that he had bought long before he lost a considerable amount of weight. He had trousers that shone a little. The tongue of his belt hung loosely. His collars were frayed. His fingernails were longer than one would expect in a man. He had nicotine stains between the first and second fingers of his right hand.  There was something of the ghost about him.

Eldon considered the question. He shifted again, uncrossed and recrossed his legs.

The American wanted to break the extended silence, to tell him to get on with it. He didn’t like silence. Most of the people he met could not stop talking. They would say anything, like they’d taken some sort of drug, just to be able to stretch out those seconds…

‘I do live alone, yes.’

‘Never married?’

Eldon took a fresh cigarette from a pack on the small coffee table next to him and lit it from the embers of the other. It was punctuation. He smiled uncomfortably. ‘She died.’

‘I’m sorry.’

Eldon nodded his thanks.

The American took out a Marlboro and lit it. 'When?’

‘Some time ago,’ answered Eldon vaguely. ‘Would you like another drink?’ he asked quickly.

‘Thank you. I would. I feel warmer already.' He pointed at the fire. 'Only in England would you need a fire in the summer time.’

He watched as Eldon picked up a fine, cut crystal decanter and filled their glasses. Eldon’s hand shook slightly, as if the weight of the decanter was a little too much for his thin wrist.

The decanter was dust free. The American looked around the room. Despite his shabby appearance the man, it had to be said, kept an immaculate house. There was not an object out of place, not a stray magazine or newspaper, not a cobweb or a speck of dust. There was a bookcase against the far wall, well away from the fire and away from any light source. He was willing to bet that if he plucked any book from the case, that it too would be dust free.

The drinks poured, Eldon sat down in his chair again. He lit another cigarette and took up the same pose, his elbow nestled in its familiar hole.

‘I find,’ said Eldon suddenly, ‘that foreigners are under the misapprehension that England is all cottages, with roses around the door, green fields and perpetual summer.’ He did not smile. His eyes, very black in the light of the fire, remained fixed upon his guest’s eyes. ‘Except at Christmas when, for perhaps three days, it snows and people flock to the streets to sing carols and take mulled wine and hot chestnuts and skate upon frozen ponds.’ This was all said without the slightest trace of irony. His face showed nothing. It was impossible to tell if he was being light-hearted or somehow took offence at this view of England.

‘In the same way that Americans are seen as cowboys, I suppose,’ countered the American lightly. ‘People find comfort in stereotypes.’

‘I do not,’ said Eldon sharply. ‘They serve no purpose and are a disservice to those being stereotyped and to those committing the sin.’

It was the American’s turn to shift in his chair. ‘It’s a little strong to call it a sin, wouldn’t you say, Mr Chaddleworth?’

‘I use the word in its loosest sense. I found many Germans to be as charming or as repulsive as any Englishman, Frenchman or indeed any American when I was in Europe.'

The American sensed a way in and seized the chance. ‘You served?’

‘I did.’

‘In what unit?’

‘3rd Para.’

‘I was 505th.’

As quickly as he had opened the door, Eldon slammed it shut. ‘It’s over now.’ He held the American’s gaze as if challenging him to say more.

The American offered nothing. If this was a game, it was unlike any game he had ever played. He had met people who thought that they were clever, that really were clever, that were cocky, that were brave, that had no head for heights, that were better the higher they got. They came in all shapes and sizes. Many assumed him to be stupid, just because of what he did. They assumed him to be a tool, a hammer in the hand of an unknown man, unfeeling and without sense or purpose.

In a way, they were right. He was no more than they were; shitting, sleeping, breeding tubes of flesh, no more than lugworms who left their cast upon the sand to be washed away in the next tide. They thought they could outthink him, outtalk him, outrun him, but they could not because he simply did not care and because he knew, he knew, that when push came to shove, they were all the same and that he was the tide sent to wash away every trace of them. One day, he knew, the winds would not change and the moon would revolve no more and he too would become still.

He looked at the man who had brought him in from the cold, those impenetrable hawk eyes, that sharp nose, the thin face, sculpted by every event since the day he was born.

For the first time since he had dropped in on Sainte-Mère-Église in 1944, he felt afraid. He felt that same stomach-turning fear that came with the drop into the darkness and the descent into hell.

‘What do you do?’ he asked. He dreaded the silence now. ‘For a living? What do you do?’

Eldon’s armed scythed down to his mouth. He wrapped his dry lips around the Piccadilly cigarette and inhaled deeply. The tip glowed and cast shadows over his severe features. It reminded the American of a sunset he had once seen over the Rockies, at once sinister, full of shadowed threat, and beautiful.

'Oh,' sighed Eldon. 'This and that.' He breathed out. Smoke poured from his nostrils and drifted like spectres towards the fire.

The American laughed nervously. He didn't recognise the sound and thought for a fleeting moment that someone else had entered the room. It startled him. 'What kind of this and that would that be?'

'Local government.'

'That covers a multitude of sins.'

'It certainly does.'

'In the loosest sense, of course.'

'Of course.'

'Are you still there?'

'I retired.'

'You seem too young.'

'Illness.'

'That's unfortunate.'

'It was a dull life. I was content to go.'

The silence fell again.

The American found satisfaction in the man's ill health. It proved him right, with the loose clothing and the thin face. Cancer perhaps. Or chronic heart disease. And he didn't really like the man. He found his lack of emotion difficult. He found his tension, for that was indeed what oozed from his host, unbearable. He wanted to go back to the car and force it on until it dropped dead, like an overflogged horse, however far down the road.

'I should go.' It was a feeble declaration of free will.

'To where?' asked Eldon quickly. He seemed suddenly alert. 'How?'

'I have to be somewhere.' The American looked at his watch. 'The car has had a rest. I'm sure it'll be fine now. I'd been pushing it pretty hard. Probably just needed a little time out. We both did.'

Eldon stood. 'If you must, but at least let me send you on your way with a bit of hot food inside you. I insist.'

Christ! thought the American. Let me go. Just let me go. Take your English civility and your cold, empty heart and shove it.

On the other hand, he could now escape by negotiation. The door was half open. Saying yes would be a step towards an uneventful, even congenial goodbye. And why not? Why shouldn't this one brief encounter with a stranger end well for once? Why should one subtract from the other? For that was what always happened. Whatever those now distant strangers had lost, they had, each one of them, taken a part of him with them. He could leave here unblemished, whole, despite Mr Chaddleworth. He would be a better man.

It was only as these thoughts rolled around his head that he realised that he had considered killing Chaddleworth. He had no idea where that thought had come from, how it had been conceived. Had it become habit now to consider any stranger, any short-term interaction, as one that would end in the death of the other? Had his subconscious been pushing that thought slowly forward like a ton weight towards the edge of a cliff? Eventually, it would have toppled and, before he was able to stop himself, he would have found another piece of himself gone forever.

On top of all this, he was bloody hungry.

'Sure,' he said. 'That would be good. Who knows? Maybe the weather will be a bit calmer by then.'

Eldon looked towards the dark windows. As he did, a gust of wind threw a handful of hard rain against the glass. 'Unlikely,' he said. 'I'll make some food.'

He lit a cigarette and walked out of the room.

The American watched as he shuffled away in loose slippers, a baggy sack of indifference. What the hell kind of name was Chaddleworth anyhow?

 

*****

Eldon laid a fine table. He left nothing out; the mirror-sharp cutlery, the deep wine glasses, the white napkins, crisply creased and laid like virgins upon their china beds, all placed upon an immaculate, white tablecloth.

'This is a fine spread, Mr Chaddleworth. I'm very grateful.'

Eldon sat down opposite his guest and poured them each some wine. 'It would be wrong to let you go unfed.'

'All the same...'

'I hope you like the wine. It's a Merlot. Quite...fruity.'

The American noticed that Chaddleworth had become quite buoyant since he had left to prepare dinner.

‘Help yourself,’ said Eldon. ‘There’s a selection of vegetables. I won’t take offence to anything you choose to omit. I hope you like the lamb, though.’

The American leaned forward and helped himself to some butter-wet boiled potatoes, steaming carrots and florets of cauliflower. ‘I’m sure I will. I rarely have the chance to eat lamb. America is a great beef country, some pork. We never think of lamb before those.’ He drank some wine.

Eldon noticed him raise his eyebrows and run his tongue across his lips.

‘What do you think of the Merlot?’ he asked.

‘You’re right. It’s fruity.’ The American smiled and cut, with some eagerness, into his lamb. It was clear that he had not had a decent meal in some time. 

How close we are to the animals, thought Eldon. He has not eaten for a short time and yet he devours the food as if he has been deprived of any form of sustenance for days.

He watched as the American ate without looking up. If he moved his hand towards his plate, he was certain that his guest would growl.

‘You’re a very good cook, Mr Chaddleworth,’ said the American.

‘Thank you. My wife liked my cooking.’

‘I can understand that.’

‘She liked lamb.’

The American stabbed his fork towards his plate. ‘Well, if it was anything like this, I can understand why she liked it.’ He smiled and drank some more wine. His lips glistened with the fat of the lamb. Eldon refilled his glass.

‘It was the lamb that killed her, you know.’

The American ran his fork around his plate and scooped up as much of the gravy as he could. ‘Really? Allergy of some sort? Bone? It’s easy to miss a bit of bone and get it stuck in your throat. You’re in trouble then. I knew a guy got a chicken bone stuck in his windpipe. He started shaking, turned blue and dropped on the spot. Poor bastard.'

Eldon shook his head. ‘No, nothing like that.’

‘Well? What was it then?’

‘I poisoned her.’

‘With lamb? Was it bad? 'Cause when meat goes off and you eat it, it’s like a nuclear blast in your gut…’

Eldon picked up his napkin and wiped his mouth. ‘No. You misunderstand. I poisoned her.’

‘On purpose?’

‘On purpose.’

‘Why?’

‘I had grown to dislike her.’

The American also picked up his napkin and wiped his mouth. He drew the napkin slowly across his lips, surreptitiously ran it over his tongue. He had the urge to spit.

‘Did she nag? Is that what it was? I heard that can push a man to the edge. I’m not married so I wouldn’t know.’

Eldon stared at him with a half-smile on his face, like a father explaining the death of the pet rabbit to his son.

The uncomfortable silence had returned. The American tried desperately to fill it. ‘I need my space, that’s why I never married. Lived with a girl once, for a month or so, but she drove me crazy with all that feminine stuff around the house and the constant need to talk. Plus, my job wasn’t so compatible with the family lifestyle, so to speak.’ He hesitated for a moment. ‘Mr Chaddleworth, did you poison my dinner?’

Eldon pensively rested his index fingers across his lips. ‘Yes,’ he said. He lit a cigarette.

A sweat broke out on the American’s brow. It was an almost instant reaction. He picked up the napkin again and wiped his face. He belched and put the napkin to his mouth. When he pulled it away, he noticed a flower of blood spread across the white cloth. His face disintegrated. ‘What the hell?’ He felt his heart race. The room started to spin as he became light-headed. 'What the hell did you do to me?'

'I've killed you, sir.'

The American felt his chest tighten. An unfamiliar wheeze, like a broken concertina, filled his ears with each wet breath. He felt as if his head was about to explode. 'But why, Mr Chaddleworth? Why?'

Eldon ran his index finger thoughtfully down his cheek. Cigarette smoke trailed lazily behind it. He shook his head as if any reason he might once have had to justify his actions now eluded him. 'It's what I do,' he shrugged.

The American vomited upon the table. He watched in horror as bright red blood spilled like rose petals upon the white cloth. That's me, he thought. That's my essence draining from me. Soon I will be gone. All those people...All those people...

He focussed upon the blurred figure of his host, his murderer.

He gazed at his host, who studied him with a calm curiosity.

All those people...

Mr Chaddleworth began to fade into a shrinking, dark vignette.

 

*****

 

The Rover P4 suited Eldon Street very well. The deep, green-grey seats were sumptuous and the wood on the dashboard, with that small clock above the radio, lent it an air of bourgeois luxury.

Its previous owner had been right. After a rest, it had started without a problem. The knocking was still there, but that was not his problem; that was what garages were for.

He pulled into the village and stopped outside the garage - MILLS & SON: est 1923. The blue painted wooden doors were a little worse for wear and the old petrol pump on the forecourt was no match for the modern petrol stations, but you could trust these people. They were Village.

The owner came out to greet him. He had a black, oily rag in his hands. 'Morning. Mr Street, isn't it?'

He held out a black paw, then realised the state of it and withdrew it before Eldon could refuse to shake it.

He walked around the car in the way that mechanics walk around cars.

'Problem?'

'Yes,' said Eldon. 'It knocks. As you drive, it knocks. Underneath.'

The mechanic stuck his lower lip out and shook his head. 'I'd better take a look then. Leave it with me. I'll take it for a spin.' He nodded at the pub across the road. 'Pop and have a ploughman's and a pint. I should have a good idea by the time you're done.' He held out his hand for the keys.

Eldon gave him the keys and crossed the quiet country road to the Hart and Garter.

He did not have a ploughman's or any other food. He had coffee as he felt obliged to have something, observing the garage as he was through the pub's leaded windows.

The Rover returned after half an hour. Eldon finished his coffee and had another cigarette. Five more minutes; plenty of time for the mechanic to get underneath and have a good look.

He reflected upon the previous night. He had watched the American fade with interest. It was a familiar pattern; the shock, the horror, the disbelief, the search for reason, the bargaining, the acceptance. It was always the same.

When he had finally given up, flopped forward in his seat, propped up by the table against his chest, Eldon had waited. He had learned to wait. The heart would sometimes mutter on of its own accord. The final discharges of life between the cardiac nodes would gradually ebb away and the flutter of the Purkinje fibres would fade. Until then, he would wait. There would be a certain stillness at the end.

When he was sure he was dead, he moved around the table with practiced certainty, grabbed the American's arms and pulled him from the chair. The chair toppled. The American fell heavily, rolled sideways, but soon straightened up with a tug from Eldon's wiry wrists.

He pulled him through the house; through the lounge, the kitchen, to the back door and into the garden. The American had been right. The weather had calmed.

It was a fine garden. It had apple trees and a vegetable patch. Towards the house, it was well-manicured. Further down, after the trees, it became an area of wilderness, overgrown with brambles and wild flowers and uncontrolled grass. In the summer, he would take a deckchair and a pair of good German binoculars down here and watch the wildlife.

He pulled the American through the kitchen door and through the trees until he reached the brambles. Once there, he lay the body down upon the wet grass, took out a torch and reached into the undergrowth. After a moment, he found what he was looking for. With an effort, he pulled on a rope and raised a large wooden disc from among the brambles. That done, he returned to the American and dragged him into the wilderness, where, head first, he dropped him into a well.

He replaced the cover.

He looked through the pub window and saw the mechanic. Time to go.

When he crossed the road, the mechanic was eager to take him into the garage. 'You should see this, sir. You really should.' He grabbed the crook of his arm and pulled him through the peeling old blue doors.

Before Eldon could pull away, he was inside.

The doors closed behind him and shut out the daylight.

A naked bulb came to life.

Eldon turned to see a policeman.

It was the policeman's turn to take his arm. 'Is this your car, sir?'

What could he say? 'Yes,' he said. 'It is.'

The policeman walked him around to the rear of the car and opened the boot. 'Could you explain this then, please?'

Eldon looked down into the dark, cavernous boot.

Upon an old, grey woollen blanket lay the body of a middle-aged man with a single bullet wound above his left eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Christopher Bradbury. All rights reserved.

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