5 November 2002
Jean Farmer took the call, and regretted instantly that she’d been the one to pick up the phone. She knew the Sheriffs and hated that she would now have to ruin Mike’s night out at the Castle Hotel with the news from Lincoln Hospital.
‘How serious is it, Sister?’ she asked.
‘Not as bad as it first appeared, I’m glad to say,’ the nurse from casualty explained. ‘We’re sending her home, but she was crying for her dad and I promised Mrs Sheriff we’d call him.’
‘What exactly should I tell him?’
‘Simply that his daughter has been involved in a sporting accident. The wound to her arm is quite deep, but the bleeding has stopped, and it has been stitched and she’ll be fine. Just ask him to get home immediately, please. Mrs Sheriff is on her way there with their daughter now, and both of them are quite upset.’
‘Okay, will do. Thank you, Sister.’
Jean put the phone down, grabbed one of the staff just going off duty to hold the fort at the front desk for a couple of minutes, and headed to the dining room. Mike, in high spirits, and a group of work companions sat at the long table near the window.
She touched his shoulder.
‘I’m so sorry to interrupt your dinner, Mike, but we’ve just taken a call from the hospital. It’s Susan.’
‘Su—’ Mike Sheriff put his pint glass down clumsily. ‘What’s happened?’
Jean saw some of the colour drain from his face as alarm overrode the alcohol’s effects. ‘I don’t want you to worry but there’s been an accident,’ she started. Mike had pushed his chair back and was on his feet before she could say much more. ‘Mike, hold on.’ Jean grabbed his arm. ‘It’s all right. Susan’s fine, I promise. She’s hurt her arm apparently, but she’s okay. I’ve just got off from speaking with the sister on duty in Casualty.’
Mike appeared to be sobering fast. ‘I’d better go.’
Jean nodded. ‘I said we’d get you on your way immediately – but head home rather than the hospital. Diane’s on her way back to Louth now.’
‘I’m sorry, everyone,’ Mike said to the teachers around the table as he gathered his things together. ‘My mobile! Some bastard stole it today.’
‘It was probably that toe-rag, Wilkins,’ one of the others piped up. It was John Buchanan, a bitter sort. ‘He’s the school fence, I’m sure of it.’
She gave Buchanan a pained expression because she knew the Wilkins family too. And they were fine – their children were allowed to run a bit wild but they had good hearts and Georgie Wilkins was unlikely a thief. She returned her attention to Sheriff. ‘Mike, you’re most welcome to use a phone here; call on Diane’s mobile as they’re travelling now,’ she said, ushering the bewildered man away from the table and towards the double doors that led past the bar.
‘She doesn’t have a mobile either,’ he said, frowning. ‘Never needs one.’ Jean stayed quiet. ‘Sorry again. I’ll settle up tomorrow,’ he slurred slightly over his shoulder to his colleagues.
Jean answered for them. ‘That’s fine. Now listen, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to drive,’ she said. ‘Let me call you a taxi.’ She squeezed Mike’s arm reassuringly, then called across to the barman. ‘Dave, just keep an eye on Mike for me, will you? He’s a bit unsteady, just had some bad news. I’m ordering a taxi – he’s got to get home urgently.’
The man nodded. ‘Righto. I’m just checking through this afternoon’s delivery, but that’s fine.’
‘Thanks. I’ll be right back. Two minutes, Mike, okay.’
And that’s when I grabbed my chance. I’d been playing it by ear, so couldn’t squander this opportunity with the woman now out of sight, the barman preoccupied and, best of all, Mikey intoxicated enough to be compliant. Both of the staff had seen me, but what’s one more tourist in the bar of a popular hotel, and I’d gone to some lengths to disguise myself by wearing a false beard, a hat and a loose coat. Besides, I was enjoying the musty, gentle fizziness of a pale ale after so many years of living abroad. I sipped at it slowly, letting the familiar flavour sluice away the fear; killing time before the real killing began.
It was hard to believe the moment of redemption had arrived. I’d watched Mikey for weeks, watched the whole Sheriff family going about their business. The first time I’d laid eyes on him I felt as though all the breath had been sucked from my lungs. For the past thirty years he and the others had loomed in my thoughts as monsters, and yet here Mikey was now, middle-aged and so harmless-looking.
I shook myself free of the unexpected sentimentality. I would go through with it – there was no doubt about that. The deep wound that he and the others had inflicted upon me all those years ago had only pretended to heal. Beneath the scab of the new life I’d built, the injury had festered.
Now, with the fresh pain of loss tearing me apart, that old fury had spewed forth in an angry torrent. To lose our perfect child, lying so sweetly in his cot as if gently sleeping, his tiny six-month-old body still achingly warm, had sapped every last reserve of my strength. It was the end of my marriage too, the end of a happy life with Kim which had sustained me over the past couple of decades. I rued the day I’d suggested that starting a family would complete us. Now we had lost two daughters to miscarriage and our precious boy to some inexplicable string of letters. ‘SIDS,’ the doctor had said gently, although it had explained nothing.
I had done everything to make my life work; to walk in the light rather than dwell in the dark. No one could accuse me of bemoaning my past and yet it seemed the horror of my teenage years was never to leave me. And there he was, one of the perpetrators, about to pay for the events of his own past. I took a final sip of my beer and felt a rush of adrenaline spike through me as I began my performance.
‘Thanks. See you later,’ I said to the barman, who was busy counting crates and ticking off sheets of paper. He didn’t even look around.
I concealed myself in the corridor that led to the toilets and watched through the glass of the door as the receptionist led Mikey out of the restaurant and into the bar. He looked shaken, a bit unsteady on his feet, no doubt helped along by the beer and wine he’d enjoyed during the evening. The woman said something to him, her hand squeezing his arm, then called out to someone – presumably the barman – and left Mikey alone. He swayed slightly in a daze.
I seized my moment and pulled off the coat, hat, beard and stuffed them into the backpack I was carrying, before I re-entered the bar quietly. I pasted an expression of slight bafflement on my face, then grinned. ‘Mikey Sheriff?’ I called softly, contrived disbelief charging my words.
Sheriff stared at me in confusion. I could understand why. Unlike me, he hadn’t changed much at all. Greyer, paunchier, those dark-blue eyes even more hooded than I recalled, but there was no mistaking plain, duck-lipped Mikey Sheriff of three decades previous. That he had won the heart of any woman was a surprise.
My luck was in: the barman was nowhere to be seen, Mikey no doubt already forgotten in his need to get on with his work. I slapped the man I was going to kill on the arm. ‘You don’t recognise me, Mike? Come on, you used to call me Bletch!’
I watched his confused gaze as the nickname from so many years ago registered. ‘Bletch?’ he repeated dumbly.
I nodded, still holding my smile.
‘It can’t be,’ he went on. ‘Not A—’
I couldn’t risk him naming me publicly. ‘Is something wrong?’ I interrupted. I knew I had only seconds now before the woman from the front desk returned.
Sheriff didn’t even notice the clumsy shift in topic. Instead, he groaned. ‘My daughter’s been involved in an accident. I have to get home. They’re calling a taxi.’
‘I wouldn’t bother,’ I said. ‘I’ve heard there’s a delay of about forty-five minutes.’
‘In Lincoln?’ he said, aghast. ‘I can’t imagine it.’
I nodded. ‘There’s some convention going on. You can try, but I was about to head off anyway. I’m happy to take you home. It’s probably far quicker.’
I took his arm and guided him to the side door, keen to get him out the building before the receptionist returned. Help came from an unexpected quarter. A youngish woman – the housekeeper, I assumed, from her clipboard and name badge – entered through the same door we were making for.
‘Hello, Mr Sheriff,’ she said, then sensed the atmosphere and looked to me. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Help me outside with him, please,’ I said. ‘He needs some air. He’s just received some bad news.’
To my relief she didn’t ask any more questions, just took Sheriff’s other arm and helped me bundle him into the cold November night. The chill air slapped us in the face. Worried it would sober Mikey up, I quickly explained to the girl what had happened. ‘So I’ll run him back to Louth,’ I finished. ‘Thanks for your help.’ Behind Mike’s back I made a gesture to indicate that he’d had too much to drink.
She caught on fast and turned to him eagerly. ‘Mr Sheriff, listen. Give me your car keys and I’ll move your car – the red Vauxhall, right? – into the staff car park. It’ll be safe there. You don’t want to be picked up by the police, do you? Why don’t you let your friend get you home safely?’
Friend? I had to stifle a smile.
Mike obviously shared an identical thought. ‘Bletch?’ he repeated and fresh confusion clouded his face. ‘My friend?’
I threw a look of sympathetic concern to Emma. ‘It’s been a while, Mike. I’m not surprised you don’t recognise me.’ I gave a shrug. ‘When Mike knew me, I was as big as a house.’
She didn’t seem to know what to say to that; I was clearly the reverse now. I kept talking, kept moving, drawing Mike towards the car park.
‘No one’s told me how badly my daughter is hurt,’ Mike slurred. ‘I need to ring home.’
Emma spoke to him firmly. ‘Mr Sheriff, get in your friend’s car and go home. It sounds as if they need you back there straightaway.’
I could see she was about to ask me my name. ‘Whoops!’ I said, pretending to catch Mike as if he’d staggered. ‘Come on. Let’s get you home, champ. Your family needs you.’ I looked back at her. ‘I’m sure Mike will ring to thank you himself.’
She gave a grin. ‘No need to worry. This is my last night here and I was just knocking off. I’m headed overseas for a year, doing an exchange.’
The angels were smiling on me tonight.
I hustled Mike quickly into the car park, all the while making the right sympathetic noises.
I bundled him into my van, locked his door, then jumped into the driving seat. I pulled a bottle of water from the glove compartment. ‘Here, Mikey, drink this.’
‘What is it?’ he murmured.
‘Just water. You need to sober up. Drink plenty and we’ll see if we can’t get you a coffee on the way home. That will help wake you up.’
‘Where’s Jean? I must thank her,’ Sheriff mumbled as he unscrewed the cap. ‘Is it really you? Fat Bletch?’ he continued, a note of awe coming through the alcohol. ‘It can’t be. You look so different, so thin. Amazing.’
‘Everyone looks amazing through slightly pissed eyes, Mike,’ I said, pulling out of the car park. ‘But I’ll take the compliment. I work out, keep myself fit.’
‘I can hardly believe it’s you. I would never have recognised you.’ He yawned.
‘You could say I’ve reinvented myself along with the new body.’ I grinned at him.
He paused then; no doubt the memories were crashing back, closing in around us. No amount of alcohol could fully block those horrors.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ he admitted, and I felt a small stab of admiration that he at least said that much. ‘What can I say that can —’
‘Nothing, Mikey. Nothing you can say will change it.’ I held his abashed stare. ‘So don’t try, eh? It was almost three decades ago.’
‘No, but —’
‘Please, don’t. I never allow myself to think about it, let alone talk about it. If I can bear it, you can bear not to discuss it, eh?’ I gave him a friendly punch, but he looked like a startled deer, ready to flee. ‘Keep drinking,’ I said. ‘We have to sober you up.’
I watched as he tipped almost half of what was left in the water bottle down his throat. It was enough; I could relax now.
‘What are you doing here, anyway?’ he said. He was concentrating hard on not slurring.
‘Work,’ I answered brightly. ‘It’s such a beautiful city and that cathedral at night – wow! I was just having a beer at the hotel and planning to drive around and enjoy all these fabulous old buildings and landmarks in the dark.’
‘A long way from Brighton,’ he murmured, leaning against the window.
‘Too right,’ I replied quickly. ‘Drink the rest. You’ll feel better shortly.’
‘I feel worse. I was coming good, but now I feel blurry again. I don’t want to be here with you. It’s embarrassing. I feel awkward and ashamed. Please don’t behave so generously towards me. I don’t want your pity and I don’t deserve it.’
I smiled in the dark and watched him give another big yawn.
Mikey was mine.
When Mikey came to, he found himself slumped in the back of the van with me hovering above him, snapping on thin surgical-like gloves.
Despite the alcohol on his breath, he was sober enough to think clearly. Terror does that to you.
‘What’s happening? Why have you tied me up? What happened to your hair?’ he asked, fear escalating in his voice as he took in the van’s interior, the torchlight, the hideous distortion of the face of the person they had once called Bletch.
‘Oh, I took my wig off. Do you like my mask?’ I said. ‘It’s not nearly as much fun as your clown masks, but I’ve heard that a stocking over the head and face is great for preventing DNA drifting down. Same with the gloves. And I’ll be burning my clothes later – there are plenty of bonfires around tonight.’ I paused. ‘Does the fifth of November mean anything to you, Mikey? It’s highly significant for me.’
It was as if he’d heard none of what I’d just said. ‘Where are we?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, Mike, this is salubrious compared with the places you chose for me. But don’t worry. I’m taking you somewhere else, somewhere that should prompt memories – not that you’ll be aware of them.’ I smiled, the gesture no doubt terrifying in the torchlight. ‘Do you know, I’ve been afraid of anything tunnellike for thirty years, ever since you guys grabbed me in the Hove twitten. You can’t imagine how something like that impacts on your life.’
I added, ‘You remember what you did, don’t you, Mike? I can’t remember much myself – not that first time. I was so drugged, you see. Just like you’ll be again in a moment. But I wanted us to have this chat so you know what is happening and why. Now, I want you to take these. They’re stronger than the stuff I gave you before.’ I held out two tablets.
He shook his head, understanding dawning as the memories flooded back. He opened his mouth again. ‘A —’
‘No pleading, Mikey.’ I waved a finger at him. ‘I tried that too. It doesn’t work. So save your pride. Be courageous instead and go to your death bravely.’