The Inheritance Powder
The Inheritance Powder. A Short Story by Rusty Woodward-Gladdish
‘Arsenic has been a popular way of poisoning people since the Middle Ages. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning could be confused with those of many illnesses, and it was also very difficult to detect arsenic after death so it provided a practical way of murdering someone. Indeed, white arsenic became known as ‘Inheritance Powder’. (Marjie Bloy. Ph.D., Research Fellow of the National University of Singapore)
Part One: Winter
George and Julia
It was raining again. It ran, coursing like tears down the window pane. George lay awkwardly in his bed facing the window. He lay on his side staring unseeingly out at the rain, his long legs drawn up into his stomach. His silver hair was dark with sweat. He moved his head irritably from side to side on the damp pillow. Then, his face contorted into a grimace and his eyes became mere slits as a searing pain shot through his entire body. His back arched as he wrestled with the all consuming pain. Then, just as he felt he could not bear another second, it stopped as suddenly as it started. He rolled onto his back, gasping for breath as the throbbing, red wave of pain ebbed from his spare frame.
He lay on his back for a moment staring at the ceiling, his muscles released from their vice-like grip, relaxed. He waited for a moment then he sat up gingerly. An icy wind sprang up outside and crept in the open window by stealth, tugging at the chintz curtains. George shivered involuntarily. He was nursing a full bladder and felt the need to urinate. He swung his legs out of bed and stood up unsteadily. He went to the window and looked out at the garden below. The late afternoon light was fading as winter drew its dark mantle over the neat suburban garden. It was raining steadily and the black denuded trees trembled in the sqally winds. Two dissident crows sat hunched in the branches with their backs to him. He frowned at the sight of these interlopers. It was unusual to see crows. The garden was normally the undisputed domain of three chattering magpies. He closed the window and shuffled to the bathroom.
After he had relieved himself he washed his hands allowing the water to run over his fingers. He leaned his head weakly against the glass of the bathroom mirror. It felt cool against his hot, moist skin. He studied the face reflected there. His hair was almost completely silvery white. Nothing left to suggest the full mane of blue-black hair of his youth. The green eyes that gazed back at him seemed dimmed somehow. Pain had dragged down the outer corners, giving him a permanently sad expression. He noted the deep lines running from nose to mouth. He had just turned sixty but looked older.
These terrible episodes of pain were aging him. He couldn’t understand it. He had always been so healthy and strong.
He still played tennis and golf. He scratched his head absently. The doctors had subjected him to a barrage of tests but could find nothing. He turned away from the mirror and made his way back into the bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed. He could hear his wife Julia clattering about in the kitchen downstairs. The muffled strains of the radio drifted upstairs.
He shuddered again. The room felt cold although he had closed the window. He realised he was thirsty and a little hungry too. His eyes fell on the old walking cane he once used for walking the moors. He grasped the cane and gave three resounding knocks on the floor. Julia came running sprightly up the stairs. She put her ash blonde head round the door and beamed at him.
‘Feeling better darling?’ she crooned.
‘Well yes, I do as a matter of fact’ he murmured.
‘Shall I bring you something on a tray darling? What about smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and a pot of Earl Grey? It’s your favourite’ she purred.
‘Yes, that’d be lovely dear, but don’t bother bringing it up. I’ll come down’
‘Are you sure darling? You look very pale’
‘Perfectly sure’ said George firmly ‘By the way, don’t you think the house is rather cold tonight?’ He noted that she was wearing a heavy sweater and thick tights concealing her shapely legs.
‘The central heating’s on darling. Perhaps it’s because you don’t feel well’ she said and whisked out of the room.
Downstairs in the kitchen Julia set about making George’s supper. She moved about the kitchen with a measured efficiency that belied her sixty two years, humming to herself as she worked. She put a dish of raw beaten eggs into the microwave, four minutes on ‘low heat’ and then began to cut the smoked salmon into strips. Wonderful things microwaves. Julia never took modern technology for granted. DVD recorders, washing up machines, mobile phones and computers. How on earth did we manage without them? The microwave pinged, signalling the completion of the eggs. She stirred some double cream into the scrambled eggs then began to shape the smoked salmon into rolls. As she waited for the kettle to boil for the tea she cast her mind back to when she and George had first begun their affair. They were both married to other people in those days which gave their affair that exquisite frisson of excitement. Then, as luck would have it, Roger had a massive heart attack as she was driving him home one night. He had been hopelessly drunk as usual. However, her bereavement had been softened by a substantial inheritance. Roger, ever the pragmatist, had been heavily insured and there had been several weeks of retail therapy. Poor Helena had succumbed to breast cancer leaving George hysterical with guilt and grief, but she had been there to comfort him, naturally.
Their relations had been sexually charged rather than sensual. She had to admit that she was rather highly sexed and somewhat demanding in that department. This suited them both however, although as time went on Julia realised that there were ‘others.’ Her shrewd blue eyes narrowed to cat’s pupils as she remembered the lies, the subterfuge, the silent phone calls and the nights when George failed to come home. Well, they were both in their sixties now. The bloom of those fabulous fifties long faded. She ran her liver spotted hands down her body. She was no longer quite so slim, but her breasts were full and heavy. In her youth she had longed to be tall and statuesque but only reached five feet four. She supposed that they were now both past their best. Now George stayed at home writing articles for the university. Now she knew exactly where he was.
Julia poured boiling water into a large white teapot with a bamboo handle. She arranged the food on a tray and took it into the dining room. She went to the foot of the stairs to call George. Pausing at the central heating controls she turned the settings down to the minimum. Then she stepped lightly into the dining room humming gaily as she went.
The evening sun began to slip down behind the hills. The air was heavy and oppressive There was no breeze to stir the dusty foliage of the trees. It had, in fact, been an exceptionally hot day and had exceeded record temperatures. The newspapers and TV were full of speculation about the weather. People were dying of the heat in France and Italy. Really quite bizarre. Everything in the garden was wilting except the lavender and Rosemary borders. The purple flowers were smothered in bees and the scent of the Rosemary wafted in through the open conservatory windows. It really did have quite a Mediterranean feel. They needed another gardener now that Potts had decided to retire.
The last rays of the sun lit up the surrounding hills painting them a delicate rose pink and casting long shadows in the meadows. The heat rose up from the scorched earth and wrapped the house in a steamy warmth.
Julia sat staring listlessly into her dressing table mirror. Downstairs, a telephone was ringing somewhere in the house but she didn’t seem to hear it. She leaned towards the mirror and her small piercing blue eyes examined her face with studied care. She ran a finger down her rather large nose thoughtfully and then patted her newly peroxide hair. Beads of sweat be-jewelled her upper lip. A bottle of Gordon’s gin and a glass stood on the dressing table. She carefully poured a small amount of the liquor into the glass and sipped it reflectively.
Roger was late. That must have been him ringing just now. He was probably drunk and wanted her to come and pick him up from the White Hart. Roger’s drinking was beginning to intrude on their lives. The pub was becoming a second home. Perhaps the business wasn’t going so well. She couldn’t tell. Roger never discussed the business with her. Not that she cared one iota as long as she had free rein with her credit card. She loved shopping. Drunk with the power of spending. She adored staggering out of the stores, weighted down with numerous bags looped round her fingers, her face flushed with pleasure. Besides, if anything happened to Roger (perish the thought) she inherited everything. He was heavily insured.
Julia had always enjoyed receiving gifts and in the early days Roger had been especially generous and had showered her with expensive presents. She was not personally familiar with the act of giving to please others. It was more in her nature to receive.
When she was a child her father always brought home some little trifle for her delight. She remembered the china doll with golden hair that opened and closed its eyes and cried ‘Mama’ when it was turned over. Then there was the little bracelet, glinting gold, with opals flashing their mystical green fire. Her eyes darkened as she recalled the puppy he had once brought home for her and her sister when their mother was in the hospital. It had been a little golden Labrador with huge eyes of velvet brown. She had never been comfortable with animals. They always needed something; feeding or taking for a walk or stroking. Sometimes she had forgotten to feed it. Her father was busy at the hospital with their mother so when the puppy fell into the fishpond one winter’s day and got tangled up in the netting used for catching the falling leaves, Julia could only watch its futile struggles and whimperings as it tried to scramble up out of the icy water. When its useless scrabbling and whining ceased, Julia stared curiously as the small body suddenly released its hold on life and floated out, belly-up, into the middle of the pond. She let out a great sigh and blew on her freezing fingers. Then she turned and ran toward the house scuffling through the dead leaves in her pretty fur lined boots.
She found her sister in the music room practising a song with Miss De Mielle the music teacher. She sat listening politely as her sister’s voice flew round the room like a swallow, dipping and soaring and finally coming to rest, vibrating on the low notes. It was a song full of tenderness and sadness and made Julia think about the puppy whose stiff little body had sunk into the waving tendrils of the underwater plants. She felt her face grow hot momentarily with guilt but then her discomfort quickly receded at the thought of the gifts her father might be bringing that evening. Without waiting for her sister to finish her music lesson she ran up the stairs two at a time to her room.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Part Two: Roger and Julia
They were going to be late for dinner with the Huntington-Smythes. Julia rose and walked over to her wardrobe. It was stuffed with dresses and outfits for every conceivable occasion, some with the labels still attached. They had never been worn. Rack after rack of shoes was revealed in another cupboard. Laid out neatly in gleaming rows.
‘Imelda Marcos eat your heart out’, she murmured out loud.
She finally selected a close fitting black velvet dress with a low neckline and shoes to match. She sat down again at her dressing table and began to rifle impatiently through her drawer until she finally extracted a velvet choker with a large diamond like stone attached to it. She put it on and then leaned back to admire her reflection. Just a dash of red lipstick and a wave of her mascara wand and she was ready. The telephone began trilling again but this time it was answered by Mrs. Overton, the housekeeper.
‘Mrs Huntley,’ she called ‘ Mr Huntley’s on the phone. He’d like to speak to you’.
She sighed exasperatedly, ‘ Alright, Ill take it up here’.
Julia picked up the receiver of the white telephone on the bedside table.
‘ Roger where the hell are you? You know we’re going to dinner with the Smythes. We’re supposed to be there at eight.’
‘Yes, I know that old girl, no need to panic’ slurred Roger good-naturedly.’ Just been having a few bevvies with Godfrey in the White Hart. You remember Godfrey Palmer? We were at prep school together’.
‘You’re drunk!’ hissed Julia. ‘How predictable!!’
‘Yes, I s’pose’ I am old thing’ chuckled Roger amiably. ‘Come and get me there’s a good girl. We can drive directly over to the Smythes. Should be a barrel of laughs’, he said dryly, ‘At least I’ve got a head start’.
She snorted. ‘Oh for God’s sake! Just stay where you are and I’ll meet you in about half an hour’
Roger giggled, ‘That’s my girl’. The receiver clattered loudly in her ear then suddenly purred in monotonous silence.
She replaced the receiver and glanced at her watch. It was 7.45. She ran downstairs snatching up her mobile and car keys from the hall table. Outside the air felt stuffy. She got into her little blue Polo, and scattering gravel over the flowerbeds she drove off down the road.
* * * * *
As Julia drove along she glanced at the evening sky. Wisps of dark grey cloud began to form into billowy thunderheads. The air suddenly became heavier and torpid. Lightning flickered across the glowering sky.
‘That’s all I need’ she fumed inwardly. She pressed her Manolo Blahnik harder on the accelerator and the little car shot forward obligingly. The heavens opened just as she pulled into the car park of the White Hart pub. She stopped at the front entrance and peered through the windscreen. Through the curtains of rain she could see Roger weaving about unsteadily in the doorway. She leaned across and opened the passenger door and hissed at him
‘Get in the car for goodness sake!’
Roger flopped into the seat like a landed trout.
‘Cant do the seat belt up’ he muttered.
She sighed impatiently and grudgingly helped him with the belt.
‘Just look at you’ she snapped.’ You look as though you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards. You knew we were invited to the Huntington-Smythes’, she wailed, her voice ending on a perilously high note.
‘Oh bugger the Huntington-Smythes! Terrible snobs! Haven’t got a personality between ’em let alone a brain!’ snorted Roger. ‘Anyway. I’ve got the mother and father of a headache! Started as soon as I woke up this morning. Like a bloody sledge hammer in my head’
‘I’m not surprised’ she commented.
‘Have you got any aspirins in your bag?’
‘You’re such a fool Roger!’ Julia said, ignoring his request. ‘Bertie could put a lot of business your way if you played your cards right. But you never could play cards could you?’ she said grimly. Her knuckles gleamed white as her grip tightened on the steering wheel. She started the car and drove on through the now torrential rain. Thunder reverberated round the hills and crackled in the valleys. Visibility was almost impossible. She strained forward to see through the windscreen. A squally wind came out of nowhere and began to buffet the little car.
Suddenly Julia was aware of some strange, animal noises filling the interior of the car. They were coming from Roger.
‘What on earth’s the matter with you now?’
There was no answer.
She looked at him quickly and saw that his face had become contorted and had a blue-grey pallor. He was drooling.
‘Oh my God!’
But no human sound came from Roger’s quivering, slobbering, open mouth. Only a snoring, chuckling sound. Through the gloom she saw a lay by and quickly pulled over. The road was deserted. The rain bounced noisily on the bonnet of the car. There was no one to help them. She undid her safety belt and turned to Roger. She touched his hand gingerly and drew it back sharply, as if it had been burned. It was ice cold and his fingernails were a pale lilac. A flash of lightning lit up his face. His lips were now blue.
With remarkably steady hands, Julia reached for her mobile. She must ring an ambulance. They must have a doctor. They must get Roger to hospital!!! He was very ill. It was a matter of life or death. He could die. He…. Then, her mind suddenly emptied and she became calm. She stared at Roger with a certain curiosity. She had never seen anything die before. Only that useless little dog daddy once bought for her. As she continued to look at him his eyes opened and fixed on her face. He couldn’t talk or move, but those watery blue eyes begged and pleaded for help. She didn’t speak. Only Roger’s supplicating blue eyes sparked the silence. As she continued to watch, tears slipped down his frozen cheeks. His eyes never left her face. Precious minutes ticked by. He seemed to be weakening. There were long pauses between the greedy, gobbling gasps for air. His face had also now become quite blue; the hands pale and immobile lay lifelessly by his side. Julia picked up her mobile and keyed in the numbers.
‘Emergency! Which service please?’ The calm, flat tones of the operator spoke into her ear.
‘Hello! Hello! I need an ambulance quickly. My husband has collapsed. I think he’s had a heart attack!!
‘Is he breathing?’
‘Yes, he’s very blue and cold.’
‘Can you feel his pulse?’
‘Yes…no..Oh! I don’t know! Just a moment. Yes, it’s very faint. Oh please come quickly! We’re in the lay by on the dual carriage way, just about a mile from the White Hart pub in Hillsfroom’.
‘Try not to panic. Loosen his clothing. The Paramedics will be with you as soon as they can’
Julia put down her mobile and turned to Roger. He was slumped awkwardly in his seat. He lay there quietly now. His face seemed twisted to one side. The frantic noises had stopped. She undid his top shirt buttons then put her ear to his chest. No sound or movement came from that stilled heart. She rummaged in her bag for a little mirror. She held it to his open mouth. No mist appeared. Then with a shuddering sigh she sat back in her seat in the eerie silence and watched the rain pour relentlessly down the windscreen.
The Inheritance Powder: Part 3
George and Julia:
After supper George decided he felt well enough to go downstairs. He washed and shaved but kept on his pyjamas and dressing gown. He glanced at his watch. It was 8.30pm. No point in getting dressed now. Odours of the Shepherd’s Pie they had had for supper lingered in the hall. He shuffled downstairs and went straight into his study, his refuge and his sanctuary. The floor length , burgundy velvet curtains were pulled back to reveal intricately patterned, Art Nouveau, leaded windows. Books from floor to ceiling lined the walls and a large, upright Steinway piano stood shining in the corner covered with family photographs. On the wall above the piano hung a large oil portrait of a beautiful woman. She gazed down through blue eyes, fringed with long, dark lashes. An all pervasive air of sadness seemed to surround the painting. A thick, deep red, Turkish carpet caressed his slippered feet.
For a moment he sat at his desk and looked out of the front window at the rain soaked garden. A tall holly tree stood sentinel near the gate and mature rhododendron plants huddled together to form an impenetrable screen obscuring the flower beds and the gravel drive. The headlights from passing cars flickered across the window as they swished through the puddles at the roadside, throwing up great sprays of water. In the twenty years they had been in Dearing, he noticed that the traffic had got heavier. A sign of the times. The excellent airport connections and only one hour from London by bus and train made the little redbrick town a very desirable place to be. He switched on a green angle poise lamp and directed the light downwards towards the desk, so that he was less visible from the road. With a sigh he slid open the bottom drawer and took out a bottle of Glenmorangie. He poured himself a measure of the amber liquid. He could hear the muffled sounds of a TV programme from the living room. It sounded like ‘Gardener’s World’. Julia would be riveted. It was one of her favourite programmes.
Good old Julia! They had been together for nearly twenty years now. For a long time their relationship had been very physical. Julia was highly sexed. Even now the sight of her erect nipples straining against the fabric of her blouse turned his bowels to water. Some things never die. In the early days they had made love anytime and anywhere. Both trembling with haste and a desire to achieve release and put out the fires of their burning lust. Of course he had the odd fling here and there. Casual, friendly, sexual encounters. He had covered his tracks well. She could never have found out. He smiled involuntarily, delighted with himself and the power of the secrets he held. His whole life had been predicated on deception and secrecy in his intimate relationships! He excelled at conspiritorial games and thrived on subterfuge. He thought how shocked Julia would be if she had any inkling of his affair with Erica. He sat back in his chair and allowed his mind to drift down those crowded halls of memories so rarely visited.
When Helena died he felt empty, bereft and sick with guilt. His sense of loss was palpable. For the first time in his life he felt alone and abandoned. Without her he was nothing. She was the one who kept him from falling apart. She sensed and soothed his moods. When he sneaked back home in the early hours stinking of another woman’s scent, babbling lies and weak excuses, she would reward his shoddy behaviour by cooking him a delicious snack! She gave him her unconditional love but he repaid her loyalty with betrayal and humiliation. She took him back without question over and over. He had always been weak where women were concerned. He seemed to need their constant attention and approbation and was lured to them like a moth to the flame. So many lovers lost in the conflagration. He loved their feminine paraphernalia. The perfume bottles and myriad of msyterious jars and aerosols cluttering up the bathroom cabinet. The coloured hair ornaments and glittering trinkets spread in disarray over the dressing table. Their very female scent set his nostrils twitching like an old dog fox tracking a vixen. He knew he would never leave her. However, he was to be denied that privilege, for Helena lost her long and painful battle with breast cancer and died a quiet and convenient death. A cardinal chapter in his life was closed for ever.
He poured himself another drink and tossed it back quickly, feeling the fiery liquid sear his tonsils, almost making him retch. As he bent down to replace the bottle in the drawer his eye fell on the little key he kept taped to the upper part of the drawer and not immediately visible to the naked eye. It lay winking at him in the bottom of the drawer in full view. The tape must have perished and it had come unstuck, he surmised. He inserted it into the lock of the last drawer, opened it stealthily and took out a photograph. An attractive woman with shining, shoulder length red curls laughed up at the camera. Her dark brown eyes crinkled up at the corners echoing her wide-lipped smile. He absently caressed the glossy image with his forefinger and allowed his thoughts to drift. It was hard to imagine now how he had managed without Erica in his life. Theirs was a clandestine relationship of snatched kisses and furtive rendezvous. Erica was married. Yet another one of life’s little ironies. She was sympathetic and understanding when he got drunk and cried shamelessly for Helena. Julia had curtly told him to ‘pull himself together’.
He had felt wretched when Julia took down Helena’s portrait and replaced it with a portrait of herself that she’d had painted by a local artist. Ever shrewd and cunning, she made a great show of packing it carefully in bubble wrap and putting it in the wardrobe, but days later George discovered it concealed behind an old filing cabinet in a dusty corner of the garage. He had said nothing. Julia pandered to his every whim and she really was a marvellous cook and hostess and much admired by his friends. He needed her. Their affair had begun whilst Helena was still alive. He squirmed inwardly with self loathing as waves of remorse washed over him. He wondered if she had known all along.
George reached for the bottle and poured himself another drink. He stared thoughtfully into the glass. Recently he had sensed a change in Julia. Nothing concrete, nothing he could put his finger on, just little things. He noticed that all his books and papers he kept on their bedside table had been tidied away. Cupboards had been emptied and the garage had been cleared of the packing cases containing his ‘collections’
‘Really George, those packing cases were taking up so much room. There’s hardly any space for the car and anyway, it’s just a lot of old junk you’ve had since the year dot!! It simply had to go!!’
George sighed heavily. There was no point in arguing. She had made up her mind. There were so many memories in those boxes. The whole of his past life lay slumbering in those containers. In fact she seemed to have embarked on an unseasonal spring cleaning session. Only yesterday he noticed there were hardly any of his clothes in the wardrobe. He couldn’t find his old cardigan with the leather patches on the elbows.
‘Oh that old thing! I put it in the Oxfam box and they came and collected it this morning. It was so dirty and smelt terrible! Besides’ her voice dropped, ‘You won’t need it’.
‘What do you mean? ‘you won’t need it’. Of course I’ll need it. Winter’s coming on. You know damn well I feel the cold,’ said George crossly.
Julia raised her head and smiled sweetly, ‘ I simply meant that you’ll need a new one darling’ she purred, but just for a moment he was caught in the ice blue glare of those unsmiling, cat’s points eyes. It was then that he suddenly became aware of how cold and calculating Julia’s eyes could be. He wondered why he had never noticed this before.
His thoughts were interrupted by a cacophony of applause and laughter coming from the TV. George stared at the red telephone on his desk for a moment then he snatched up the receiver and keyed in a number. A female voice answered guardedly.
‘Hello’ murmured George softly. ‘It’s me, is this a good time to call?’
A rush of exhaled breath. Then, ‘Yes, you’re in luck! Paul is giving a lecture in Birmingham tonight. Glad you rang though. I was thinking of giving you a sneaky call myself’.’
George smiled. ‘This is going have to be a quickie. Julia’s watching TV.’
‘My God! She’ll hear you!’ gasped Erica.
George gulped some whisky and gave a liquid chuckle into the receiver. ‘Not a chance, she’s going deaf. She’s got it turned up so loud you could hear it in Hyde Park!’
‘How are you feeling today?’
‘Lousy! I had a terrible bout of pain this morning. I honestly thought I was going to die!’
‘Oh you poor thing!’
George’s hand trembled as he poured himself another measure of whiskey, the glass clinked against the bottle. He paused. ‘You know Erica I think that Julia is trying to poison me’. It came out in a rush. There was a shocked silence at the other end. Then, in an artificially calm voice, ‘Oh! Come on George darling! Don’t be so dramatic!’
‘Look! I’ve been healthy all my life. Have you ever known me have an illness in the ten years you’ve worked for me? No’, he went on without waiting for her answer. ‘Of course you haven’t. I’ve been subjected to a barrage of tests. Some of them very embarrassing I can tell you, and the doctors still haven’t come up with anything.’
‘But darling! Julia dotes on you. She adores you. She…..’
‘She will inherit everything when I die. The house, the money, my pensions!’ George hissed fiercely.
‘But how….I mean when does she….’ stuttered Erica.
George lowered his voice to a whisper.
‘I just can’t pinpoint when exactly but…..’
Without warning the study door opened and a triangle of light formed on the blue chinese rug. Julia stood quietly in the doorway. ‘Im making some Horlicks, can I tempt you ?’
George replaced the receiver carefully and without turning round said, ‘No thanks dearest. I think I ‘ll have an early night. I didn’t sleep very well last night.’
Julia turned to go into the kitchen then stopped in the doorway, ‘It’ll settle your stomach’, she persisted.
‘Who was that on the phone?’
George stood up and yawned hugely. He gazed at her steadily. ‘Ah! It was one of those cold callers trying to sell us double glazing.’
‘How odd,’ she muttered and bustled into the kitchen and began clattering cups and plates.
The Inheritance Powder.
Part Four: The Legacy
George’s eyes flickered and twitched. He was dreaming. He was walking up a long flight of steps that didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. It was dark, except for a tiny pinpoint of light that pricked the blackness at the top of the steps. Then, without warning, a disembodied hand reached out and gripped his arm. He felt something or someone tugging him from behind, trying to pull him backwards down the steps. His mouth opened in a soundless scream. He tried to hold onto the rail but the hand prised his fingers off and he began to fall back into the dark nothingness. Down, down into the abyss.
George’s eyes flew open.
The curtains were closed and the light in the room was dim. He felt dizzy and disoriented. Still hovering in the no man’s land between sleeping and waking, he thought for a moment that he had moved onto the next stage of the dream. Outside he could hear the magpies cackling in the trees and the distant hum of the traffic on the main road. An icy breeze rustled the curtains and stroked his sweat streaked face. He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, mulling over the conversation he’d had with Erica the night before. Perhaps he was just being paranoid. It could just be a figment of an over active imagination. He passed his hand over his forehead. His head ached. Anyway, what if it was true and Julia really was poisoning him, who would believe him? He had no concrete proof of any kind. It was a preposterous idea but deep down he just felt there was something, he just couldn’t put his finger on it.
Bravely ignoring the tantalising scent of sausages cooking mingled with the smell of fresh roasted coffee, he tried to focus on recent events. The gripping stomach pains often erupted in the early hours. The onset would be a strange metallic taste in his mouth and the pains would go on in varying degrees of intensity throughout the day, his body wracked by vomiting. By the time evening came he was weak and washed out. It seemed to come on in phases. There were weeks at a time when his body functioned normally. Julia was wonderful. She was always so caring and considerate. Always there with a hot milky drink or a restorative cup of strong coffee, sweetened with honey and crowned with a dollop of clotted cream. Julia’s voice broke into his thoughts, calling up the stairs.
‘George darling! Breakfast is ready! Shall I bring it up or are you coming down?’
‘I’ll come down’
He swung his legs over the bed , went to the window and opened the curtains. The rain had stopped but strong gusts of wind shook the trees roughly and blew the remaining leaves against the glass. He sighed and then putting on his dressing gown he went down to breakfast.
George shuffled into the kitchen. It seemed warmer this morning and filled with aroma of coffee and toast. He took his place at the table near the window that looked out onto the garden. The Guardian newspaper was propped up on the reader and his boiled eggs nestled neatly in their twin cups. A cafetiere of rich Mocha coffee stood near his plate.
Julia leaned forward and poured him some coffee. ‘You look better this morning darling. Did you sleep well?’
He gulped down his coffee. ‘Yes, I slept much better. I feel much more energetic this morning. As a matter of fact I was thinking of taking up Edgar Frinton’s invitation to a round of golf this morning.’
‘Well, if you feel up to it’ Julia inclined head sideways like a weasel looking at it’s unsuspecting prey. ‘More coffee darling?’
‘Mmm! Yes please’, mumbled George through a mouthful of toast. ‘By the way dear, take care if you have to go down the cellar for any reason. When I went down there yesterday to replenish the wine rack I noticed the stair rail has come loose. I’ll fix it later on today. We can’t have you falling down those steps’, he grinned. The trilling of the telephone interrupted their breakfast. Julia jumped from the table. ‘It’s probably Patti. She said she’d ring me this morning about the arrangements for our shopping trip’.
She disappeared into the living room. George brought his coffee cup up to his lips but did not drink. Better not have that second cup. Bad for the blood pressure and guaranteed to get the old ticker jumping all over the place. Instead, he quietly poured the contents into the plant on the windowsill. He couldn’t help noticing that the lovely lotus shaped leaves of the pink cyclamen had started to turn yellow and some of the leaves had made a premature exit onto the compost. Julia had over watered it. She was never very good with plants. Plants needed looking after and nurturing. She was an excellent planner and organiser but he had to admit her caring side wasn’t very well developed. Helena was the gardener. She loved her plants and he often found her sitting among the towering spikes of blue Delphiniums she loved so much. In fact he had insisted that the garden was left pretty much how it had been when Helena was alive. He owed her that much. Julia wanted to change everything after she’d seen one of those gardening programmes on TV, but he forbade it.
Julia’s voice broke into his reverie, ‘George, I’m off now. Patti has just arrived. Be a dear and stack the dishwasher would you? Mrs Tudge is on holiday in Benidorm for two weeks!’ She kissed his cheek briefly, then she was gone. He heard Patti’s car churning up the gravel in the drive as they drove off for a rendezvous with Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo.
After he breakfasted and had a leisurely read of the paper, he rose from the table and started to load the dishwasher. Then, without warning his body was caught in an agonising vice. He crashed backwards onto the tiles struggling to breathe. Saliva poured into his mouth but he couldn’t swallow. His body jack knifed as a violent seizure gripped him, then darkness and merciful unconsciousness.
* * * * *
After he’d rung the bell several times Edgar rattled the door handle and was surprised when it sprang open. Assuming that the door had been left open for him, he walked into the hall and called out, ‘George!’ There was no answer. The house seemed strangely still. He walked towards the kitchen. ‘It’s me George, I…….’
The door to the kitchen was slightly ajar. Edgar pushed the door open and saw George writhing and jerking around on the floor. He rushed forward, ‘My God man! What’s happened to you?’ but George couldn’t answer him. His eyes had rolled up into his head and his entire body was convulsed in rigid contractions and thick strings of vomit flowed from his mouth. Edgar snatched up the phone and dialed for an ambulance.
The rain began to fall again just as Julia stepped out of Patti’s car heavily laden. She put down her designer bags and waved goodbye to Patti as she drove off down the road. The house was in shadow. No welcoming lamps lit up the sightless windows. The rain suddenly came on heavier and she was aware that her feet, so daintily encased in strappy Jimmy Choos, were getting cold. She rummaged in her bag for her key and fumbled it into the lock. George must be in bed sleeping off the effects of her breakfast. She could hardly suppress a smirk as she walked through the house snapping on the lamps as she went. She ran upstairs calling ‘George! George darling! I’m back’, but there was no answer. She went into their bedroom but it was empty.
She sat at her dressing table in the dark and looked out over the Rododdendron hedge into the street. Shimmering raindrops swirled round the streetlights. A brisk, chilly wind blew down the almost deserted street and an empty tin can skittered along in the gutter. It was only seven o’ clock in the evening but the grim weather had driven the Saturday night revellers from the streets. George must be having dinner with Edgar she surmised. She had expected to find him at home. This time she had been so sure of the outcome. She shuddered involuntarily and felt a wave of fatigue wash over her. ‘What I need is a drink’ she said out loud and went downstairs to the kitchen.
She noticed that the dishwasher was only half loaded and the table was still littered with pots of marmalade and honey and butter smeared tea plates. She sighed, exasperated that George had left her to clear up the breakfast things. She took a clean glass down from the cupboard but noticed that there was only red wine in the rack. She had decided to drink only white wine, it seemed to have less effect on her diabetes. There was bound to be some in the cellar. She switched on the light and cautiously made her way down the steps . Out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw a movement of a small shadow cross the floor. She shivered! A mouse or worse, a rat! As she grabbed a couple of bottles of Chablis and turned to go back up the steps, she heard the phone ringing. She was halfway up the steps when the light began to fizz and splutter and finally went out leaving her in total darkness except for a slice of light from the open cellar door at the top of the steps. She went up quickly clasping the bottles under one arm and holding the stair rail with the other. She had almost reached the top when her spiky heels slithered on the smooth stone steps. She clutched frantically at the stair rail which immediately came away from the wall. Losing her balance, she fell backwards, arms and legs flailing and plunged down into the blackness, striking her head on the corner of the last step. The wine bottles smashed and splintered into a thousand glittering shards. Julia lay there, eyes closed, the lids a heavy purplish blue. Her face was ashen. One leg awkwardly under her body, her arms lacerated by the broken glass. Her blood mixed in with the wine staining the concrete floor.
Upstairs the answer phone had picked up Edgar’s message. His voice boomed out into the empty living room.
‘Julia! Are you there? Please pick up the phone………Look, it’s Edgar here. George has been taken very ill and he’s in Royal Dearing hospital. Seems like he’s had some sort of poisoning. They’re keeping him in for 48 hours. They won’t let him see anyone just yet. They’re doing a lot of tests. I’ll ring again soon. Bye for now!’
The machine whirred and clicked again and a clear female voice filled the room. ‘Hello Julia! It’s Patti! I’m afraid I won’t be round for coffee tomorrow. Bertie has just rung asking me to go up to London to baby sit for him. Bit of an emergency, so I’ve got to go and play grandma. Anyway, we’ll catch up when I get back. By the way, what did George think of your new shoes? See you when I get back sweetie! Bye’
The house sat in dust filled silence with all the lights on. Down in the dark, dank cellar Julia regained consciousness and discovered that she could not move . A creeping paralysis had spread up the left side of her body and her limbs had become heavy and numb. She opened her mouth to call for help but it was as though her jaws were locked and her lips had been sewn shut. Her eyes tried to pierce the gloom. She could see a fuzzy light at the top of the steps, but the effort of trying to maintain consciousness was too much and she slipped back into a comatose state.
* * * *
Bright sunlight streamed into the bedroom where Julia lay propped up on a bank of snowy pillows. George sat quietly watching her pale face for signs of life. He noticed the mouth seemed twisted to one side and spittle flecked her lips. He reached out and touched her hair, now turned completely white. She seemed to sense his nearness and opened her eyes.The bright blue eyes he remembered were dimmed and full of rheum. She tried to speak but only a drooling mumble indistinct from human speech, came out. Her left arm lay useless by her side. The doctor said she’d had a stroke brought on by a blow to the head. Her speech centres had been destroyed and the stroke had left her paralysed down the left side. She gazed at George, mute and helpless. Her eyes pleading and tormented.
He leaned forward and patted her lifeless hand. ‘You don’t have to worry about a thing old girl. We’re going to look after you. Everything is going to be all right, isn’t it Erica?’ He smiled up at the tall, red-haired woman standing with her hand on his shoulder. Julia blinked and two huge tears slid slowly down her withered cheeks.
This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The right of Rusty Gladdish to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988.