Simon works in the butcher's. He doesn't own the shop - that belongs to old man Scanlon - but he's normally left in charge because he's been there the longest, and the old man doesn't bother coming in so much these days. He started in the shop as a Saturday boy, sweeping up, washing down the counters. Soon they had him tying joints and serving the customers, so when it came time to leave school it just made sense to go there in the week too. Now, fifteen years later, he wonders whether he should have been more ambitious, should have tried for an apprenticeship with his uncle's building firm, but he knows it's too late. He's Simon from Scanlon's, and he always will be.
He's five feet five - shorter than average, but not freakishly so. Most of the time he doesn't even think about it, but sometimes it bugs him. When he realises he has to crane his neck to talk to the other lads in the pub after a football match. When his carrier bags scrape on the ground, because although his legs are short his arms are long - the kids at school used to say he was half gorilla, but it comes in handy when he's keeping goal. Mostly it bugs him when the girls look him straight in the eye, then go off at the end of the evening with one of the tall lads, with one of the forwards who can boast how many goals they've scored this season, with someone who doesn't smell of blood and offal deep in every pore.
The thing which bugs him more than his height is that even in his thirties he's still living with his parents. Scanlon doesn't pay him enough to get a place on his own, and Mum needs his housekeeping money too much anyway since Dad was laid off. Even if one of those young girls from the pub did hold his gaze and leave with him at the end of the evening, he couldn't take them home - and even if he went back to their place and love blossomed, he knew it wouldn't go anywhere. Mum and Dad needed him, and he couldn't conceive of a life beyond them. How had this happened? How could a boy with so many dreams become a man with no imagination? How could so many years go by and nothing move on?
It had been a bad day, and Simon had had his fill of it. The previous night, Delia Smith had made one of her oh-so-reliable recipes using braising steak, and the town's housewives had run out like good little girls that morning to emulate her. The steak had run out by lunchtime, and he had spent the whole afternoon explaining to distraught middle-aged ladies that they couldn't have Carbonnades à la Flamande on the table for their beloved hubbies that evening unless they fancied a half-hour drive to Tesco's. The reactions he had got were mixed; everything from blank incomprehension, through tearful desperation, to outright blazing anger. One lady had been particularly vocal and imaginative in a tirade questioning his parentage, his personal hygiene and his ability to slice bacon and chew gum at the same time. At that point he'd made the mistake of explaining rather sarcastically that it was against the hygiene regulations to chew gum in the shop, and it seemed that now he had not only lost Scanlon's a loyal customer, but possibly his job too.
All of this was rather ominous. He'd gone into the day in a positive frame of mind, because that night he had a date, his first in almost two years. Her name was Judy, and he'd met her at Brando's, the local nightclub. He'd gone there with some of the lads from the football club - well, it was either that or back home to his parents and their constant low-level bickering. The lads had enjoyed their rum and cokes rather too well, and ended up standing on a table and waving their genitalia at passers by. Of course, he hadn't joined in - work might get back to his Mum, and anyway he was a bit lacking in confidence in his tackle. It would be just his luck that the combination of the drink and embarrassment would make them retreat into their little pubic nest and lead to his being held up to ridicule for weeks after. Judy had come past at that point and made some remarks to the effect that she was rather unimpressed with what was on display. In fact, she seemed rather more intrigued by the quiet lad who was busy pretending not to be with these thugs, whilst making sure they didn't get a taxi home without him. She had let him buy her a dry white wine - well, it was more true to say that she'd told him to buy one - then she'd pecked him on the cheek and whispered that if he was in the downstairs bar around eight o'clock on Friday, she'd be there too.
At six he shut up the shop and, putting out of his mind the thought that it might be the last time if that miserable old bag was indeed a friend of Scanlon's wife, he headed off home to make himself ready. He didn't just bathe, he wallowed, using the bubble bath his Gran had given him at Christmas. He didn't just wash, he scrubbed, to remove every speck of animal flesh from under his nails, and around the sovereign ring that had been his 18th birthday present. He even tried to do something with his hair, but at every brushing it just stood further on end and looked more ridiculous. Then he remembered that his father used to use Brylcreem, and as logic took a fast train out of town he slapped a handful on his head and started to comb it in. Now his hair looked like it was stuck to his head with wallpaper paste, and he didn't have time to wash it again. He grabbed a hand towel and rubbed furiously at his head to remove the excess grease, but soon it started to slide across his scalp like a fried egg across a hot pan.
Having made a not very good best of the bad job his hair had become, he started down the stairs and towards the door. If he left now he could still walk past the bar five minutes early, to look inside and see if she was waiting for him. He wouldn't go in until eight, but if he knew she was keen it would give him an advantage. Suddenly he was stopped in his tracks by a shout from upstairs. "Simon!" his mother shrieked, "Simon Spencer Wood! Come up here and look at my bathroom!"
He looked back the stairs - at least if this didn't take too long he'd be fashionably five minutes late. There was his mother in the doorway of the bathroom, holding a bottle of bubble bath with no lid, and the sticky green fluid running all over the outside. "If you think you're going out and leaving my house in this state, you've got another think coming." By now every second seemed like it was going to make him terribly late, he could imagine Judy looking at her watch, maybe even getting up and leaving. That wouldn't do. He ran up the stairs, and the momentum carried him on a charge towards the offending mess. His mother, startled, stepped back inside and onto the tiled floor - and as she did so, her foot met the greasy towel. It was like a moment from a 1930s comedy, in his mind's eye it even went into black and white. She tipped, and seemed to lift almost off the ground - then she turned and came crashing down. Suddenly it wasn't a comedy any more - it was Casualty, it was E.R., as her head hit the basin and the skin split. The next thing he knew, his mother was lying on the floor of the bathroom as a pool of blood spread across the tiles and around the bottoms of his best loafers.
After a brief pause as he tried to take in the situation, Simon grabbed at his mother's shoulders and began to lift her off the floor. A twitch and a rasping, gargling noise confirmed that at least this was not as bad as he'd feared - she was still alive. The wound on her head was beginning to clot, and although at first it had seemed that her blood was everywhere, he could see now that the actual volume she had lost was not enough to be a real danger. No, what concerned Simon now was his mother's breathing, which was laboured and shallow, with every lungful of air seeming as if it required more effort to draw it in than had the last.
Butchery is a dangerous trade, and it was company policy at Scanlon's that every employee should have first-aid training. Simon wasn't the brightest or best student - and frankly, the old duffer from the St. John Ambulance hadn't been the world's best teacher - but seeing the bruises and the swelling on his mother's throat it didn't take a great leap of deduction to work out what was wrong with her. The initial impact on the basin had spun her round, and her throat had smashed onto the side of the bath. Laryngeal Trauma, that was what the old feller had called it - how could he remember that now, yet not remember what to do for it? Think, Simon, think. He had to clear her airway - her breathing had stopped completely now, her body was heaving as it tried vainly to suck in some oxygen. Tracheotomy - that's what it needed. He would cut a hole in her windpipe and let her breathe through that. He needed a knife.
He bounded down the stairs, and this time there was to be no loss of control. He turned sharply at the bottom and back along the hall to the kitchen. If there was one thing he'd gained from his years in the butchery trade it was an appreciation for a good sharp knife, and now he had a whole block of them to choose from. A small fruit knife, that would do the job. Now he needed a small tube, something to keep the cut open - he'd heard of people using a hollow biro case, but the written word was a rare visitor to the Wood household, so he knew that the drawer would contain only his old school fountain pen and a couple of pencils with broken points. A straw would be good - but would it be strong enough? Then he remembered that novelty curly straw, the one he'd insisted on using for his milk-shakes when he was a young boy - and which he still used occasionally to this day when he knew no-one would see. It was made of a much harder plastic. Perfect. He delved into the cupboard and emerged with his straw in both hands, like a fisherman lifting a prize trout from a lake.
Back up the stairs, and rather short of breath now - but not as much so as his mother. She was unconscious, and he could see that he must work quickly. He placed one hand behind her neck, and was suddenly paralysed by fear. He was going to cut her throat! He summoned the butcher in him to make this cut, just stick that knife in - but butchers are not trained to cut delicately, and suspecting he might hold back, he overcompensated and sliced right through the flesh, hit a vein, and watched in horror as fresh red blood joined the already-congealing dark mess on the floor.
This time she was dead, that much he could see - no human could have lost so much blood and survived, surely. He checked for a pulse, just to be certain, but knew it was hopeless. She was limp now, making no effort to breathe or move, and suddenly his focus on her drifted out. He saw himself, kneeling by her side with a knife in his hand, the knife which had killed her. What would people think? He was a murderer, and he would go to gaol. Where was his father? Still at work, he seemed to work late most nights these days. Maybe he was having an affair. Why should he have sex when Simon couldn't?
Judy! He was supposed to be meeting Judy - suddenly, his mind blotted out the carnage in the bathroom, and it became incredibly important to him not to let her down too. He didn't want to think about his mother, so he had to do something else - anything else. He would find Judy and explain why he was late. No, he couldn't do that. He couldn't say "I killed my mother". He would have to come up with an excuse, that was it - he'd think of one on the way to the bar.
He yanked off his bloodied shirt, and the trousers stained so deeply it didn't look like blood - they were nearly black. The shoes were ruined. It seemed strange to worry about such a thing, after all he'd done that night, but he'd spent a whole week's wages on them, and he fumed over them as he rinsed his hands as best he could. Then, jumping across the landing to his bedroom, he began dressing in the first clothes to come to hand, old ones off the washing pile, his gym trainers. He began to fantasise: maybe Judy would be some help. Maybe she was a nurse - hadn't she had thick ankles, and a muscular set to her shoulders, as if she lifted people out of bed all day? Maybe she could tell him what to do, that was it, she'd be a nurse.
Down the street, he tried to walk rather than run, but found himself sweating anyway - deep down he knew why, but for now that was all in another world. Here and now, he needed to meet Judy. The bus came just as he reached the stop, which seemed to confirm that this whole episode was just a dream, but time was against him. The Town Hall clock showed twenty past eight - why wasn't he wearing his watch? Oh yes. Don't go there. He threw himself through the doors, without even giving the bouncers time to consider whether this unironed, panting, strangely-built little man should be allowed to grace their establishment. A look around the bar confirmed that he was too late: there was no sign of Judy. A tap on his shoulder raised his hopes, but it was just a man in a dinner suit saying something about a dress code. He turned, his head dropped, and he walked slowly to the door.
The bus ride home seemed to last no time at all: he thought of nothing, it was all gone. He had lost his job. He had lost Judy. He had ... done that other thing. He trudged back up towards the house, and saw that the living room light was on. That was strange, it wasn't even dark when he left home, how could he have left a light on? Then he realised that his father must have come home. Oh Lord, what could he say? This would be the reckoning.
He opened the front door sheepishly, and saw that his father was sitting in the front room. There were no policemen, no ambulances - maybe he hadn't even been upstairs yet? Maybe he didn't know? No, the television was off - and it was Father's habit to turn it on as soon as he came in. He was sat there in silence. There was no movement bar the orange flickering of the electric heater pretending to be a coal fire. Simon's father looked half up, as far as the young man's knees, then silently rose to his feet. Two steps brought him close, and he threw his arms around his son's neck. This undemonstrative man, this restrained man, this man who hadn't show love or hatred for any living thing in twenty years, held Simon tight.
'Simon ... son ... I ...' his father stumbled over each word, as if the movements of tongue and jaw to say it needed to be recalled from great depths of memory, ' ... your mother ... '. He leant back, and made eye contact with the boy for the first time. Suddenly he was firm and composed again, 'I cleaned up the bathroom for you.'
They stood in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil. Perhaps tea, the great reviving brew, would make it all easier to handle. Simon couldn't think of anything to say to his father, while Wood the Elder was concentrating intently on the kettle. Soon enough the water was hot and the tea made, and the two men had no further escape from conversation.
'Son, I'm proud of you.' Began Father, to Simon's considerable surprise. 'You did what I've wanted to for years. I had no idea she annoyed you as much as she did me.'
'She didn't really ...'
'I mean, you know that you've always been a bit of a disappointment to me,' Simon had known nothing of the sort, at least until now, 'but I'm impressed. That must be quite a temper you have on you. That's not come from my side of the family.'
'But I didn't ...'
'Which did you do first? Bashed her on the head, did you? Or strangled her? The knife was good, though. Safe. Final. I often dreamed of the knife.'
His father's pause for reverie gave Simon a chance to get an entire sentence out, 'Where is she?'
'She's ... taken care of.' His son still looked puzzled. 'The allotment', he explained, simply, then went on, 'but let's not get bogged down in the past, there's so much to be done. We're a team, you and I, and now we have the power to settle old scores. I've been thinking about my boss…'
On Saturday morning, Simon phoned Old Man Scanlon to say he had a touch of the 'flu. His boss was far from impressed by this: he'd had a plan for the day which revolved around sitting in front of the TV and watching a tenner a time ride on some luckless nag, but with Simon out there would be only Saturday kids, so he'd have to drag himself into the shop. Scanlon thought he detected something else in Simon's tone, a certain hesitancy, which he assumed was linked to the earbashing he'd got from his wife the previous night about how one of her twittering friends had been cheeked by "that lad who looks like a shaved monkey". He'd let the boy stew for a bit, and it would be good ammunition when they were negotiating next year's pay rise, but good staff were too hard to come by to take things any further.
Frank Wood's confident tones of the Friday night were justified by the ease with which things returned to normal and his wife's absence was explained away. For a while he had doubted his son's resolve as he broke down, babbling about some girl called Judy who had dumped him. In fact, Simon had been shaky and tearful all weekend - justifying in part his years of paternal contempt - and was unwilling to talk further about their great release. However, by Monday morning the boy was back in shape and headed off to work, quieter than normal but able now to hold himself together. The neighbours were informed that Mrs. Wood's mother was very ill, and she'd gone up North to nurse the old dear through to the likely end. In fact, Simon's grandmother was so unwell that she'd died twelve years previously, but no-one in the street knew them well enough to catch the lie. The plan was that in month or two they'd tell everyone of a terrible car crash on her return journey - she really shouldn't have driven while so freshly bereaved - and now she was to be buried with her mother. No, please don't send flowers, make a donation to charity in her name. Which one? That one for battered wives, she was always strong on women's rights.
So Simon reached the end of the first week after he killed his mother, and he was beginning to believe that he would get away with it. And if he got away with it, surely it couldn't be such a bad thing? His father forgave him - in fact, he was being downright pleasant, and Simon wasn't sure whether that or the strange conversation in the darkened kitchen unnerved him more - but no-one seemed too angry at him, so maybe he wasn't such a bad person after all. It was in this frame of mind, almost dizzy with the relief from the smothering guilt, that he found himself back in Brando's with the lads that Saturday night. He hoped with all his heart that Judy would be there, though he still wasn't sure which out of dozens of carefully plotted excuses he would use if he saw her again. She wasn't, though, and he was working hard on drinking himself to a temporary forgetfulness when in strode a girl he slowly recognised. It was one of Judy's friends, her companion two weeks earlier. They'd exchanged pleasantries when Judy went to the lavvy, Simon striking up the conversation to cover the imagined sound of his stomach doing back-flips as drink and desire left him feeling queasy but excited. The girl thrust out a hand with a piece of paper in it, giving Simon a look which said 'I hate you, but I'm doing this because my friend has asked me to'. He took it, and the girl was gone before he could decide whether it was safe to thank her. He weaved his way to a better-lit portion of the bar, where he could see what was written on the note. 'Judy Green', followed by an address and phone number. It was a miracle! He'd been given another chance! He stuffed the paper into his jacket pocket and bought a round of rum and cokes to celebrate. Then another, and soon he'd forgotten what it was he was celebrating.
That night, a taxi dropped Simon outside his house, the driver looking relieved that his cab had escaped with nothing worse than a scattering of cigarette ash and a faint flatulent aroma. He stumbled to the door, got his key into the lock at only the fourth attempt, and removed his jacket. The banister post was a fairly big target, but Simon's condition was such that he missed it anyway; the jacket fell to the floor as he thudded up the stairs, and within minutes a snoring sound was coming from the back bedroom. Simon's father emerged slowly from the living room, smiled indulgently at the crumpled jacket, and picked it up. A piece of paper fell from the pocket - an address. That Judy girl, the one who had given Simon all that trouble. His smile broadened, as Frank Wood realised that the chance had come to repay his debt to his son.
Simon woke, just barely. His brain felt about as sharp as his duvet, his mouth had a dry, almost mouldy taste to it, and his stomach ... oh, thinking about his stomach was a big mistake. He reached the bathroom just in time: when the puking gave way to retching, then the retching to coughing, he kneeled there by the bowl and memories of the previous night began to return. The speed-drinking contest. Singing that song about Sir Jasper. The girl with the note. The note. The Note!
The adrenaline lifted his protesting body from the floor, and the anticipation cleared his head enough to negotiate the stairs down to his coat. The note was indeed there, in his pocket, he hadn't dreamt it. If he had been in a more observant state he might have wondered why the paper was crumpled despite being neatly folded in four, but all he cared about was the content. He had Judy's phone number. She had wanted him to have her number. She wanted him to call. He almost dialled there and then, but the fact that it was half past seven on a Saturday morning was fresh enough in his mind for him to hold back. He had to get ready for work - ugh, how he hated the smell of liver when he had a hangover - and he had to wait until the evening to call her.
His resolve held until mid-afternoon. Awarding himself a tea-break, he quickly washed his hands and popped into the office out the back. The phone was only supposed to be used for business, but all the staff knew that Scanlon didn't care enough any more to check the bill too thoroughly, so long as they didn't take the Mickey. If it was a local number and a short call, he'd assume they'd called a supplier, or one of the cafes they bought for, and let it pass. He dialled the number, and it rang. It rang and it rang, and he kept the phone to his ear as he made the tea. He was about to put down the phone so that he could walk to the fridge for milk, when it was answered. A slightly breathless Judy explained that she'd heard it ringing as she entered her block of flats, and run all the way in the hope that it was Simon calling. This frankness knocked down all of Simon's barriers, and he in turn confessed how glad he was she'd got back in contact. They talked on and on, Simon's tea going cold without ever seeing the milk, until Vicky, the cheekiest of his teenage helpers, stuck her head round the door and asked if he was ever coming back, or had he been taken sick again?
After that they met most evenings for a drink after work, they spoke on the phone every day and neither cared that they talked about nothing at all, in fact they showed every sign of a couple falling in love - but Simon never called her from home. He was nervous now whenever his father was around, and that seemed to happen more frequently than before. He'd be doing the washing up and turn round, there was his father just watching him. He'd be in his room listening to records, his father would knock on the door and offer him a cuppa. He supposed that with Mother gone, there was nothing else for the poor guy to do of an evening, but he still found it creepy. Simon was grateful for the way in which his little problem had been sorted out, but now he began to wonder whether the price of the lie mightn't prove higher than that of the truth would have been. He certainly believed that it was very important that his father not know about Judy. He did give her his home number, but told her only to use it in an emergency - told her his father was working nights and hated being woken. She seemed to take this seriously, so when, on the Thursday night, the phone rang and hers was the last voice he was expecting.
'Speaking. Judy, is that you?'
'Yes, sweetheart. Simon, I'm scared.'
'What's up, my angel?'
'There was a man hanging around outside my flat when I got home. Then I was in the kitchen and I think he was out the back, by the fire escape. He looked creepy. Please come over.'
This was a big step - she hadn't wanted him to see her flat until she'd had time to give it a good clean, and as for so many working single people, that meant the best part of a weekend would have to be spent throwing away things which might once have been lettuces from the fridge, ferreting every discarded pair of underwear out from under the bed or behind the chest of drawers, and trying to find a shop which still stocked bags for her outdated and underused vacuum cleaner.
'Okay, if you need me. Give me twenty minutes.'
It actually took him twenty-five, including thirty seconds to scribble a note to his father explaining that there was a shepherd's pie in the oven. There were no buses between their estates at that time of the evening and no taxis on the rank, and he almost stumbled as he tried to run down the street and look for house numbers at the same time. When he found it, the front door was open - was that for him? Surely not, if she was so scared about an intruder. Up two flights of stairs, he came to another open door, and even from out on the landing he could hear the crashes and groans of a terrible struggle. In he ran and saw a man in a balaclava holding a cushion over Judy's face. Simon picked up a chair and swung it at the man's back. It got there, but on the way it knocked that table lamp on to the floor and plunged the room into darkness. The two men wrestled on the floor, but Simon was the stronger and soon he had his adversary pinned to the floor and his hands at the man's throat, those long arms keeping the flailing from his face.
Judy had recovered her breath and reached the light switch. The sudden brightness made both men squint, then after a moment the masked assailant stopped all his struggling. He didn't seem to have passed out, but he was no longer wriggling and punching out. A police car, summoned by a worried neighbour, screeched to a halt in the road below. Simon still held the man, not trusting him to have given up yet, as Judy moved round behind him and pulled off the balaclava. The younger and less overweight of a pair of police constables appeared in the doorway just as Frank Wood's face was revealed to his astonished son. In the frozen instant which followed, Simon's brain was struck by an idea so safe and simple, yet so devilishly fiendish, that he almost didn't dare see if it would work. But this was his moment, and he seized it.
'Officer, this is my father. I think he's gone mad'
'Will somebody please tell me what's going on here?'
'This man came in and tried ...' began Judy, then stared at Simon. 'Your FATHER?'
'Yes, and I'm afraid that he may also have done something terrible to my mother.'
The court case against Frank Wood didn't take too long to complete, nor tax the jury too much. He admitted the assault charge, and though he pled not guilty to the murder of his wife, he offered no alternative to the police's version of events. The pieces of Mrs. Wood's body from his allotment, the diary entries found on his computer at work in which he fantasised about killing her and his boss, and the unprovoked assault on his son's girlfriend combined to give a stark picture of a man descending into violent insanity. His son's damning testimony, weeping as he related how his father had told him his mother had run away with another man, and they were to lie to cover up the shame of it, proved that the monster had no regrets about his actions. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and as he was led away he passed Simon in the gallery and their eyes met. The most casual observer would have seen the look of contempt on the son's face, but only someone with a deep insight into human nature could have interpreted the mixture of love, bewilderment and grudging respect on the father's. Judy looked on, and was chilled for a moment by the similarity of those purposefully set jaws and cold blue eyes - but she soon dismissed that as fancy, and went back to running through the plans for the wedding .