Paul Mills has worked variously as an English teacher and a newspaper subeditor in Spain, Lebanon and China, but is currently based in London. His fiction has appeared in The Magnolia Review and in Metamorphosis, an anthology published in June 2019 by Propertius Press.
Kick the dog
A still May afternoon, alternately sunny and cloudy. A typical suburban semi-detached house, window ledges in need of paint, garden well-kept, if a little overgrown down at the end. Helen Janson, 48 years old, and the only female in her family of five, watering the plants on the patio, talking to the rabbits. 'Look! Nice juicy carrot,' she trilled. 'Wanted cabbage!' she replied to herself in her surly rabbit voice. And then, in her normal voice: 'Well never mind, you've got carrot. Come on, eat it quick, or Blueberry will have eaten it all up before you've had any. Maybe you can have some cabbage later if you stop sulking. Nice juicy carrot.' She could keep up imaginary dialogues like this for ten minutes at a time, or however long it took to water all the plants on the patio.
Meanwhile, the sound of children's songs drifted over the garden from next door, where Jamie and Nat's toddler was dozing in her cot.
We have still five miles of travelling, and the shades of night are falling...
Inside, her husband Ken, sitting on the sofa, reading about different kinds of share ISAs in the money section of the Financial Times. Ken Janson did not have a share ISA, and never would have, but the weekends were long and he ended up reading every inch of the Weekend Financial Times, including all the supplements.
Trot along gently, trot along gently, trot along gently, brother horse...
Upstairs, Ollie, the eldest of the three sons, back from university for the summer, typing the names of films he liked into his computer. He read the Wikipedia page for the newest Tom Hanks film, which he had seen the previous weekend. Then he read the reviews on IMDB. Scrolled back through the reviews to see if anyone had commented on any of them. Scrolled back through them again to see what country the reviewers were from.
We have still four miles of travelling...
And in the bedroom next door, the youngest son Nathan, thirteen years old, lying in bed, under the duvet, where he spent much of his time. Face towards the ceiling, eyes unfocussed, planning his first murder.
He wasn't an attractive boy; his face was too narrow, his upper teeth too prominent, which combined to make 'rat' the first animal that came into the minds of the bullies at school, whenever they had reason to abuse him, (not that he cared.) He also looked young for his age, so he was used to being addressed as 'you little rat', if he did anything to annoy the bigger boys.
Now get faster, now get faster, now get faster brother horse...
He had daydreamed about killing for as long as he could remember, and at first it had been the bullies, or maybe the kids from the year below who shouted insults at him on his way home. He had imagined coming up behind one of them – maybe Lawrence – with a brick, and bringing it down on to the back of his head, then hitting him round the head over and over as he lay stunned on the pavement. Perhaps cutting him with a knife. But it was only today, lying under the duvet, that the idea had occurred to him to actually kill someone. That he could do it for real. Not necessarily a bully – kill someone for no reason. He had no idea why the thought had occurred to him now, and never before – if he had chosen to watch the old comedy film on TV instead of getting into bed to daydream, it might never have occurred to him at all – but now that it had, he liked it. He really liked it. He liked the image of himself being led away by the police, past a row of schoolmates, neighbours, teachers, all looking at him with bewildered fear. His face blank, surveying them dispassionately. All of them thinking: 'It could have been me!'
Except when you introduced reality into the equation, it wasn't quite as simple as in his daydreams. He rarely saw any of the kids from his school walking down the road alone; they were always in groups, and brick or no brick, he was hardly going to attack a group of kids. Even if he could find one walking alone down a deserted road, he didn't trust himself to necessarily be able to do it. What if they sensed him behind them and turned round, to see him sneaking up on them, guilty and rat-like, with a brick in his hand? What if he misjudged the first blow as they were walking away from him and he just scraped the skin on the back of their head, and they turned on him, eyes blazing?
No, there had to be a better way.
We have still two miles of travelling...
But how did you go about killing someone? He liked the idea of smothering one of his brothers in their sleep. Peter for preference, because Peter was well-liked, and might make something of his life, which made killing him seem that bit crueller. Ollie, despite the fact that he was at university, was a bit of a waster, he thought. If he killed Peter, he would have killed someone who was worthwhile, who was popular with the girls, and so many people would be so much more upset. He would have struck much more of a blow against the world.
But of course it wasn't realistic. If you put a pillow over someone's face while they were sleeping, the first thing they would do was wake up. And both his brothers were bigger than him.
His gran, maybe. He thought he was stronger than his gran. He could smother her. She wouldn't even have to be asleep. Just go round her house, put a pillow over her face while she was sitting in her chair. Could he do that? He wondered. She would thrash around, but she would be too weak to push him away. Killing her wouldn't mean very much, not like killing Peter, but the advantage was that it might be put down to natural causes. The police might not even investigate it, so he could get away with it, and then, emboldened by one successful murder, he could go on to commit more. How many people could he kill before they caught up with him?
We have still one mile of travelling...
He tried to think of the detective shows his parents watched. What did people do on those? There were lots of beatings and stabbings... there was poison... but how did you get hold of arsenic or cyanide or whatever? There was a Graham Greene book where, unless he was remembering wrong, they killed someone with peanut mould. How long did peanuts take to go mouldy?
Or he could set fire to someone's house. He knew where Lawrence's house was, and he imagined sneaking out in the middle of the night, putting a lighted match through the letter box, the house burning down with Lawrence and his parents inside. Did Lawrence have any brothers or sisters? In his daydream, he had a younger sister, and she screamed in vain for Lawrence to save her as her room filled with smoke and flames. There was something unsatisfying about the idea though. Setting fire to someone's house in the night was the act of a petty vandal, a contemptible figure who scurried off into the darkness, and whose crimes evoked not fear but disgust when they appeared in the papers the next day. He wanted the newspapers to report him as a psychopath, to print his name with horror and respect.
He went back to the idea of poison. There must be something you could get hold of. What about rat poison? That couldn't be too difficult to obtain. If he was an adult, he could get it easily, but of course no-one would sell it to a thirteen-year-old boy who looked more like eleven, or ten.
But then he decided this was a bad attitude. He shouldn't expect it to be easy. He couldn't expect to be a notorious criminal without having to think things through. There would be logistical problems to solve. He would have to be cunning.
The song next door changed. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect...
He knew this could so easily slip away from him. There were plenty of things he'd planned in the past that he'd just never got round to doing. He couldn't let that happen here, he wouldn't let himself just forget about this. He had to do it. Show them all. Fuck you. Wide eyes, looking out at him, pleading at him as he choked the life away. He was going to be the most significant thing in the lives of... how many people? How many could he get away with?
While shivering in my shoes, I strike a careless pose...
Sobbing parents. People looking down at headstones, saying: 'So young. So sad.' Stone angels over the headstones. Angels wearing shoes, striking a careless pose. Sniggering together. Were they angels, or were they the girls from his class? They were sniggering, but the teacher was angry. The teacher hadn't seen the headstone yet. How would she react? Stone wings. Sniggering.
He was asleep.
Thursday afternoon, nearly two weeks later. Ollie Janson was back at university, but was falling behind with the work, and wouldn't necessarily last another term. Peter Janson was spending too much time out with his friends when he should have been studying. Ken Janson was acting increasingly withdrawn, and his wife had taken to browsing through a book in the local bookshop called 'Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison', but was putting off buying it in the hope that maybe she was misreading the signs, and actually her husband was fine after all. The only member of the family who wasn't causing her stress was Nathan, who was never in trouble at school, always did his work on time. He wasn't the best academically, but he was very creative, and often got good marks in art and drama. She was a little concerned about how quiet he was, and the about fact that she never saw much evidence of his having many friends, but she was probably just worrying over nothing. After all, if she was saying that one of her children was spending too much time with his friends, and another too little, didn’t that suggest that the problem was with her, not with them? That maybe she was the kind of mother who would find things to get anxious about whether or not there was actually anything wrong?
So she left Nathan alone and worried about the rest of her family instead.
On this particular Thursday, Nathan was walking home via the high street. He normally walked home via the park, but he had promised himself that today was going to be the day he went through with the first phase of his plan. (Unless there were too many people. He had allowed himself that get-out.)
Instead of turning left in the direction of the bookshop when he hit the high street, he went straight on, past the hardware store. He walked to the end of the high street and kept on, and then took the first right. He turned right and then right again, until he had gone round in a circle. He was feeling anxious about the people that he passed, kept imagining them glancing at him suspiciously, perhaps thinking ‘What’s that freaky-looking kid up to?’ but he knew that this was ridiculous. He was just walking in the street. He hadn’t done anything wrong yet – how could they possibly know he was planning to? All the same, he had to keep telling himself that he wasn’t attracting anyone’s attention. It was all in his mind.
The guilt was with him already, before he had even committed the first little act that would lead to his first crime. The guilt and the fear of being caught. If it was this bad already, how much worse would it be later?
He didn't have to go through with it of course. He could turn left and walk home. Read in bed, do his homework. There wouldn’t be any guilt at all, the sense of relief would be enormous, and when he went down to supper that evening he wouldn’t have done anything wrong, and he would have nothing to feel bad about! He would be the same innocent boy everyone took him for.
The same innocent, contemptible, laughable fucking freak...
He turned right again, but when he walked past the hardware store, he didn't chicken out a second time, he went in. He only glanced at the cashier by the door as he went in, moving just his eyes and not raising his head. The cashier was not looking at him. She was not frowning, was not wondering what a thirteen-year-old kid could possibly want in a hardware store.
The hardware store had two entrances, and was quite big. There were three other people in this part of the store. He didn’t stick out. As inconspicuously as he could, he looked around for security cameras. He walked past the power tools, past the gardening part. Maybe they wouldn’t have it, and he would have to go home empty-handed. Maybe he was in completely the wrong kind of shop. That was entirely possible. He liked the idea. He would have none of the guilt, but at the same time he wouldn’t have to berate himself for having been a coward.
He saw something that looked promising in the aisle to his left, at the side of the store, and went to have a closer look - and there it was; a small cardboard box with a picture of a rat on the front. There was no one around. He looked up. No cameras either. He wanted to linger, to psyche himself up before he even touched it, but he knew he mustn’t do that. The longer he stood there, the more chance there was of someone's seeing him, and either challenging him or remembering later what they had seen.
Still no people. Still no cameras.
He took the box. He wanted to read the side, but he didn’t let himself; he had to be as fast as possible. He opened the box. There was a plastic bag inside with a mauve powder. It didn’t look bad. It looked something you might mix with water to get paint.
He took a pair of scissors out of his pocket, along with the small plastic food bag he had taken from the kitchen that morning, and cut a slit in the top of the bag with the mauve powder, (now he really was doing something he could be challenged for. What would he do, what would he say if someone caught him?) He poured some of it into his food bag and, the panic rising inside him, put the rest of the rat poison back in its box and the box back on the shelf, hidden behind several other boxes. The food bag back in his pocket, the whole operation had taken just a few seconds.
He walked back out of the shop, adrenaline coursing for some reason through his legs, making him wonder if he was walking normally. He didn’t glance at the cashier this time, just marched straight past her – he wanted to know whether the cashier was looking at him, and he wanted to know badly, but he knew that if she was and he looked up, he would not be able to avoid looking guilty. And if she was, it didn’t matter, just so long as he kept walking at a steady pace, not looking as if he was doing anything wrong. Besides, thinking about it rationally, there was no reason why she should be looking at him!
He kept his pace steady when he got outside the store, resisting the temptation to break into a jog. He couldn’t help imagining all the people on both sides of the road staring at him, as if his guilt were blazoned all over him, shining out of him like a light, making it impossible for people to look away. The feeling stuck with him all the way home, but not ’til he was inside his house did he quicken his pace. Then he ran up the stairs and took refuge in the safety of his bed.
After about fifteen minutes he felt a bit better – well enough to think about where he could hide the rat poison. Under normal circumstances, there was no reason for his mother – the only other person who ever went into his room – to look anywhere. He could put it under the bed, inside his trainer, in one of his drawers, anywhere… but what if his mother unexpectedly decided to tidy under his bed while he was at school? What if she decided to clean his trainers? And she might have any number of reasons for opening his drawer. In the end, he hid it up the chimney, on a ledge covered in soot, and even then he couldn’t shake the terrifying vision of her finding it by chance and confronting him with it.
Sunday, early afternoon. Helen Janson doing the ironing, Ken Janson trying to read the Weekend FT, but not able to concentrate because of the racket from upstairs. Not music. Couldn’t possibly call it music. Racket was a far better description. Helen knew that something had been bothering her husband in recent days. He had been irritable, and when he spoke it was likely to be a sharp monosyllable, accompanied by an annoyed glare. Helen Janson had no idea what it was, and didn’t know if she should ask him or just wait ’til whatever problem it was went away.
He was muttering as he folded and refolded the pages of his newspaper, and it was obvious what was coming. Helen watched him nervously as she put another of his shirts on the ironing board. Eventually he snapped, said ‘Oh for God’s sake!’ under his breath, put the newspaper down on the sofa next to him, and stormed upstairs. A few seconds later the racket ended abruptly, and he came back down, just as noisily, to resume reading his paper. After a couple of minutes, the racket was replaced with different sounds, as Peter Janson relieved his anger and his sense of injustice by banging about, slamming doors as he stalked from bedroom to bathroom. Now there were two men in her house who would be angry and sullen all day.
She took out her mobile, and texted her youngest son Nathan. ‘WHERE ARE YOU’
The reply came after a few seconds. ‘In town. Looking round the shops.’
‘GOING TO MAKE HOT CROSS BUNS IF YOURE BACK BY FOUR’ she sent. She felt an odd sort of pride in the fact that she was one of the last people she knew who had an old-style phone, with no internet access, and still communicated by SMS message. Although she never had worked out how to make her phone text in lower case.
‘Might be, might not. I’ve only just left the house and there’s a book I want to find.’ came the reply.
‘DONT BE TOO LONG MIGHT RAIN LATER’ she sent.
Nathan Janson continued his brisk walk along the footpath. He didn’t respond to his mother's third text. He had learnt that his mother always replied to texts and if he replied to everything she sent, it went on interminably. He was pleased with the second lie he had sent, the one where he said he had only just left the house. She hadn’t questioned it, and now she would think he had been at home, probably in his bedroom until just after two, when in fact he had already been walking for one and a half hours. He had underestimated the amount of time it would take to walk to his gran’s, even walking quite fast. It was the first time he had gone by foot; normally he went with his mother, and she drove. He was nearly there now though, was already walking through her village. He wasn’t worried about being recognised and remembered. He didn’t think anyone here knew him, and why would anyone remember seeing one more teenaged boy, however freaky-looking, mooching along the street, minding his own business?
He turned the corner and his gran’s bungalow was in front of him. He felt dirty, all of a sudden. He felt like – but never mind that now. He was going to go through with it.
He rang his gran’s doorbell. You couldn’t hear it from outside, and he wondered, as he always did when he rang it, whether it had rung at all. He waited though. He knew how slowly his gran moved through the house. After about a minute, he saw her emerge from the end of the corridor. Through the frosted glass she was nothing more than a shape, and the shape got bigger quite slowly; all in all it took her a good thirty seconds to reach the door.
‘Hello dear,’ she said, and looked around for anyone else. ‘Where’s Helen?’
‘She’s at home, I suppose,’ he replied.
‘Who have you come with?’ she asked.
‘I’ve come one my own.’ She seemed to want something more, so he said: ‘I just decided to visit you, see how you are.’
‘You’ve come on your own?' she said. 'Well this is a nice surprise.’
He followed her slow, shuffling form as it returned to the living room. The carpet in the hall needed cleaning. Sometimes when he went wound with his mum, he cleaned it for her, but it hadn't been done for a while.
She sat in her usual chair. ‘You should have let me know you were coming,’ she said. ‘I would have got something to eat. There are biscuits in the tin. You know where they are.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea? Shall I make you a cup of tea?’
This, like his visit, was unprecedented. He had never offered to make her, or anyone else, tea in his life.
‘Ooh, that would be lovely,’ she said. And he went into the kitchen.
He declined her offer of biscuits – he knew they were all soft. He put the kettle on and took out two coffee mugs. She normally drank out of a teacup, but they were too small for his purposes today. He wanted there too be enough tea so that she couldn’t taste anything wrong.
‘Do you take milk, sugar?’ he called. He had no idea. She replied that she took milk and one sugar. When the kettle had boiled, he put the teabags in the mugs, poured the water over it. A generous amount of milk, and two sugars – no two and a half. Mask the taste. Then he took the little bag out of his pocket, and glanced at the door, (because even though the chances of her having made the effort of getting out of her chair again and following him were slim to none, it would take some explaining if she unexpectedly put her head around the door and saw what he was doing,) he poured some of the contents into the mug as well. How much should he put in? It was delicate. He wanted to be sure he was giving her a lethal dose, but at the same time she had to be able to drink it. Presumably it didn’t taste bitter or anything, otherwise rats wouldn’t eat it, would they? He poured a bit more. Pour and stir, pour and stir, making sure it was all dissolved. His heart was beating so fast now he felt faint. He was going to do it, he was actually going to be a killer!
He carefully resealed the sandwich bag – he had used only about a quarter of what he had stolen from the shop – and picked up the coffee mugs. He noticed that his left hand – the one holding the poisoned mug – was shaking, threatening to spill coffee over his wrist. He tried to stop it. He couldn’t. He put the mugs down and changed hand. Now he was holding the poisoned mug in his right hand. For whatever reason, that seemed to work; now neither of his hands were shaking.
Back in the living room, she was still sitting in her chair waiting for him. Smiling, pleased at the unexpected pleasure of his visit. He put her mug down in front of her, and she consciously widened her smile, as if to say thank you. ‘Lovely,’ she said. He was momentarily disconcerted that he didn’t pick it up and start drinking straight away – did she know something was wrong? – but then he put his own mug to his mouth and burnt his lips. He didn’t normally drink coffee or tea, and he had forgotten that you waited for a few moments for it to cool down.
He had never been any good at making small talk, and his gran was not someone he had much in common with. When he and his mum visited together, he always dreaded his mother going to the toilet because it left him alone with her, and the struggle to fill the silence made them both uncomfortable. Had to make an effort though.
‘How are you?’ he said.
‘Oh, ticking over.’ Her usual response.
‘How’s school?’ she said.
‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘Same as ever.’
He tried to think of something interesting to say on this subject. ‘I’ve had lots of homework recently. But it’s all been okay.’
She smiled and nodded.
Drink your tea. Drink it up!
Really, he supposed, it didn’t matter in the slightest if he made any effort to talk to her or not. She was going to drink it either way, even if they both sat there in silence looking at each other. And then she’d be dead, so what was the point in even trying to make conversation?
‘And how’s Helen?’ she said.
‘She’s okay.’ Nothing to say on that score either. ‘She’s…’
She’s what? She’s still singing in the choir? She’s started cooking curry?
Finally the old woman picked up her mug and took a sip. She smiled again. ‘Lovely,’ she said.
There was a silence. He was aware that he was watching her intently, his eyes boring into her. He looked away, tried to look natural. He sipped his own mug. ‘Have you been up to anything lately?’ he asked nonchalantly.
‘Oh, nothing exciting. Sometimes I just sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.’ She often said this, but he had never known whether it was quote or just something she had made up.
She took another sip of her tea, making a slurping sound this time. Then slowly, horribly slowly, she held her mug out in front of her and looked at it, curiously. Fuck! She could taste something wrong! What could she taste? Too much sugar? Something else?
She put the cup back down on the coffee table. She did it with purpose, and he had the impression she wasn’t intending to pick it up again. What should he do? He could still back out, just. If he grabbed the mug and ran to the kitchen, poured it down the sink, there could still be no consequences! He wouldn’t be able to explain his actions, but nor would anyone be able to do or say anything against him, other than he acted a bit strangely sometimes. He was staring at the mug, felt close to crying. He knew he must look suspicious, she couldn’t not know something was wrong, but he couldn’t help it now.
‘And what about your brothers?’ she said.
‘They’re okay. Ollie’s back in Southampton. Pete's got a ukulele and he’s trying to play some tunes on it, but he’s not very good.’
‘Oh dear, isn’t he?’ She gave a little chuckle.
He was still torn between carrying on with the non-conversation and reaching out to take her mug away from her. She was looking at him, and the look she was giving him was… wise! She knew what he wanted to do, and she knew that she was in no danger, because she had seen through him. So long as she didn’t drink her tea, she was safe. She didn’t seem angry, she didn’t seem scared, not even especially surprised that her youngest grandson had tried…
He stopped his own train of thought. She couldn’t possibly know what he intended. What was she, a mind reader? The most she could know was that her tea tasted a bit odd. He was suddenly annoyed with her, looking at him so superior.
‘How’s the tea?’ he asked.
‘Lovely,’ she replied, but now she looked less certain, less sure of herself.
‘Yes, lovely,’ she said again.
He had more or less ordered her, which she couldn’t think was normal, but even if she knew what was going on, she couldn’t refuse without seeming rude herself. She drank. Maybe she was scared of him after all.
He took a sip of his own tea. The atmosphere in the room had changed now. Now he was the one in control. She seemed to have shrunk down into her chair.
‘Dad’s very quiet these days,’ he said. ‘He hardly says anything. We’re worried he might be suffering from depression.’
‘Oh. No, he’s not a great talker, is he.’
There was a sound from outside the French windows. It had started raining. They looked at the rain for some moments.
‘I saw an interesting film last night,' he said. 'Old one. About a woman who was a Nazi. The Reader. Have you seen it?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Kate Winslet’s in it.’
‘It’s really interesting,' he continued, 'because it presents her as a person, humanizes her. A lot of the time films present Nazis as monsters, but she’s just a woman.’
‘It’s terrible what they did.’
‘Have some more tea. There’s one scene where she’s in the dock, and the prosecutor’s asking her why she sent people – take some more – why she sent people to the camp when she knew they were going to be executed, and she says “What would you have done?” And it really makes you think: what would I have done in that situation?’
Her mug was half empty. She looked frightened.
‘Excuse me a moment dear, I just need to visit the toilet.’
‘No. Sit back down.’ He seemed to have grown, and be looking down on her. She was powerless to disobey him. More silence. It lasted for longer this time, or it seemed to. He picked up his mug and took a big drink, then looked at her significantly. She slurped down some of her own.
‘I read that something like 87% of people believe in life after death,’ he said.
She didn’t respond.
‘That might have been in America though. It’s probably less over here.’
She gave him a frightened little nod.
‘What do you think?' he said. 'What do you think happens?’
‘I don’t know,’ she answered quietly. ‘I leave it up to God. He knows everything I’ve done. He knows the best place for me.’ Was there a tear in her eye?
‘Why don’t you drink some more tea? Finish it up.’
She did as she was told, and looked with a hollow gaze down into her empty mug. He took it. There was some residue in the bottom. It was blue.
‘How do you feel?’
She didn’t say anything, just gave a false smile and a small nod.
‘We’re going to sit here for a while longer. Let your tea go down.’
‘We can talk if you want. If there’s anything you want to say.’
She didn't say anything, just attempted a smile.
He watched her for another moment. He had never felt so in control of another person. It was a good feeling, almost erotic. Then he turned to look at the rain, letting his thoughts wander. He imagined himself as a crime boss in a film, sitting quietly in a dark warehouse with henchmen ready to carry out his orders. Hated by the local people, who were terrified of him because they all knew he could have them killed and there was nothing they could do. Nothing to him, everything to them.
The rain was getting harder. The clock on the wall said four o’clock. The latest he could be home without arousing his mother’s suspicion was probably about six, although he could always think up an excuse. I took shelter from the rain in Tesco’s. What time did Tesco’s shut on Sunday? Maybe he had planned this badly. Maybe it would have been better to do it on Saturday, when the shops were open for longer.
He looked at his gran, looking back at him. He let his gaze wander around the room, at the china animals on the mantlepiece, the watercolours on the wall. What would happen to all this junk when she was gone? There was a melancholy feeling when he tried to imagine the house empty, or with new people living in it. It was the closest he ever came to feeling sorry for poisoning his grandmother.
He waited, neither of them said anything, and after a while, her head dropped forward and her eyes closed. Nothing dramatic.
He took both the mugs and went to the kitchen to wash them up. He dried them, and replaced them in the cupboard, exactly as they would have been if he had never been there. His heart was beating very fast, but he was impressed by how focused he was. Some people would probably not be able to think straight in a situation like this, but he knew exactly what he was doing. One last look at his gran, and he would be off. He would leave by the French windows and the back gate, so as not to be seen by the neighbours.
He glanced in at his gran. Now she was slumped in her chair, didn't really even look like a person any more, just a bundle of tatty old clothes. For a few seconds he had the idea that she was still alive, she hadn't died after all, and as he stood there looking at her he felt light-headed and he seemed to hear her breathing. He stood there, rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do. What would he do if she suddenly looked up? What could he do if he hadn't killed her? Then he gave his head a little shake, looked at her intently, listened. There was nothing. She wasn't breathing.
He left by the front door. He couldn’t leave by the French windows, he had realized, because there was no way to lock them from the outside, and the police would be suspicious if they were left open. Incongruously, his last thought before leaving the house was that her carpet really was disgusting. How could a person live in such a filthy house?
On his way out of her village, the fear came again, the same fear he had experienced after he had bought the poison. It wasn't any stronger this time, but somehow it was... deeper. As he hurried past the shops, he could feel panic trying to take over, and he had pictures of the police knocking on the door while the family was sitting down to dinner. Even though he knew there was no reason for anyone to think it was murder, and even if they did, there was no reason for the neighbours to have noticed him, he could still picture the look of non-comprehension on his mother’s face as the police told her what he had done, and that look scared him. He would do anything not to have to face that look. But the rational part of his mind knew that this feeling, this paranoia, had been inevitable, and it would subside at some point, even if it took days. And when it did, he would be Nathan Janson, killer. A different person, a bigger, more significant person than the person who had woken up in his bed that morning, a person who would be ready to start to take control of his little part of the world.
As he passed under the railway bridge, Graham MacRae from school saw him from down the street and shouted with a grin: ‘Nathan Janson’s a complete wanker!’
However different he was from the person he had woken up as this morning, it seemed that the world around him was still stubbornly the same.
Helen Janson did not notice that her youngest son did not say anything over dinner that night; he hardly ever did. Nor did it strike her as remarkable that he went straight up to his room after finishing. If there was any conversation over dinner in the Janson household, it only ever came from herself, and she wasn’t talkative that evening. She was thinking of holiday destinations, and whether Peter was too old to go on family holidays. It would be a shame if he was; another member of her family starting to grow up, nearing the point when he would move on. She tried to remember how old Olllie had been when he had stopped coming on holidays. She continued to ponder as she took the dishes to the kitchen and started washing up.
Peter hadn't said anything about his music being turned off that afternoon, but he was still in a bad mood. She wondered how long it would last. She almost wished he would complain about it, so that she could point out, reasonably, that it had been too loud, and if you played your music at that volume, then other people had a right to object to it. She convinced herself that if she said those things, he would see reason, and would recognise he had been in the wrong.
Upstairs in his bedroom, Nathan was lying in his bed, too terrified to move. Panic had taken over him. It was stronger than he had anticipated and by this time it had well and truly got the better of him. Had his family noticed over dinner? Had they been casting odd looks at him, or had he just been imagining it all?
He was finding it a strain to breathe. He was dreading having to go downstairs again to clean his teeth. He would have to run past his parents sitting in the living room; he couldn’t bear being in the same room as them, not in the state he was in now. And what if they tried to talk to him? For some reason the thought of even having to say a couple of words seemed terrifying. The first word out of his mouth would surely give him away, and they would know everything as soon as he replied.
He stayed like that, his thoughts paralysed, all of him except his head covered by the duvet, for a good two hours, before he felt able to move, to go downstairs to the bathroom.
He barely slept that night and at school the next day no one but himself noticed that he was only going through the motions, paying attention to, but taking no interest in, what was going on around him. After school he went home and was slightly disappointed that it was just a normal evening. Apparently his grandmother's body had not been found yet. He didn't do any homework – couldn't have done any. For the second evening in a row he just lay in bed, less afraid now, and calmer, but numb.
On Tuesday morning he felt a little more with it, but he was starting to wonder how long it would take before anyone realised that his gran was dead. How long would she wait there, slumped in her chair, stiffening, before anyone missed her? How often did anyone visit her? Surely she wasn't that isolated? Surely she had daily contact with someone? Because he knew by now that he wouldn't be able to think properly while he was waiting for his victim's body to be found.
But Tuesday afternoon and then Tuesday evening came and went and no one mentioned her. His mum waffled on about holidays and about a council workers' strike, but it never occurred to her to wonder if her own mother was okay.
Then it was Wednesday, and he knew that this would be the last day, because Mum always phoned Gran on Wednesday evening. He tried to plan his reaction to it. She was in her eighties (at least! He found he didn't even know how old she was!) so would it be inappropriate to be shocked when his mother came into his bedroom and told him the news that she was dead? Should he even be surprised? Then it occurred to him that it wouldn't happen like that anyway. If no one else had found her by now, then what would happen would be that she would phone and there would be no answer and she would be worried and she would put her head round the door and say she was just going to drive over to Gran's because she couldn't get any answer. And then he could be anxious. Not surprised, but anxious. And when she came back and told them all what she had found it would be that much easier to look natural because they would all have been half expecting it anyway. That would be okay. That would be manageable.
It didn't happen like that.
In fact, nothing happened at all. He lay in his bed after dinner waiting for the knock on his bedroom door and it didn't come. Nine o'clock came and went, and she never phoned after nine o'clock. He went downstairs and his Dad was watching some eighties film on TV, while his Mum chortled at how bad it was. He thought about mentioning Gran, to remind his mother that she had a mother of her own, who was all alone and needed to be checked on, but he couldn't think of a way to do it that sounded natural and would not seem suspicious in retrospect, so he said nothing.
Wednesday evening turned into Wednesday night. Nothing.
Friday. Nothing. How was this possible?
The weekend came round again and Nathan Janson had missed three homework assignments, which he was something he never did, and was having ugly, guilt-plagued dreams, when he slept at all.
And on Sunday, when his mother finally, finally mentioned his grandmother, he felt such a wave of relief he thought he was going to pass out.
'Do you want to go and see Gran?' she chirped.
'Sure,' he said, keeping his voice neutral. So he and his parents (Peter was out with friends) got in the car and set off for his Gran's village, and Nathan prepared himself to receive the news of the first death in his family.
It was curious, watching his Mum pull into his Gran's driveway like everything was normal, not realising that these were the last couple of minutes before her life changed forever. Because however she reacted, however well she coped, this would change her life. She had no siblings, and her father and aunt had died long before – before Nathan had even been born – so Gran was the only member of her old family left to her. He wondered how she would take it. Ah well, it happened to everyone, sooner or later.
His mum rang the bell, (which none of them could hear) and they stood on the step and waited. They waited a good thirty seconds, because she had been unsteady on her feet for a long time, and then Nathan's eyes widened and his legs froze. A blue figure had appeared through the frosted glass at the far end of the hall and was making its slow way towards them. Nathan stared in horror. The look on his face would have been alarming, if anyone had been looking at him, but neither of his parents were. Was she still alive after all? Had some doppleganger taken her place? Was she a zombie? His mind struggled to find an explanation, but there was no explanation. The figure grew larger. It was her, there was no question! The way the figure moved, the shape, the slowness – it was his gran! She was alive!
The figure reached the other side of the door and fumbled with the lock, and then the door swung open and she stood smiling at them, identical to how she had looked a week ago opening the same door. Not dead. Talking to them. Not dead.
'Hello. Lovely to see you all. Oh, couldn't he? Well I'm sure he's got better things to do than spend his time with me. Oh, ticking over.'
They went through to the living room, and Nathan half expected to see the hunched, bundle of clothes still on her chair. They sat down and ate stale biscuits and his mum and his gran talked while he and his dad listened politely, and at some point his gran mentioned that she had had a little tummy trouble about a week ago, but she was all recovered now.
And at some point she mentioned that Nathan had paid her an unexpected visit last weekend and it had been a lovely surprise, and his mum looked at him and asked him why he hadn't told her he had been to visit. And there was a hint of pride in her voice, but he hardly noticed it, because he was glaring at his gran, thinking 'A little tummy trouble? That's it? I gave you half a cup of rat poison! A little tummy trouble?'
And they ate their stale biscuits and they drank their tea, and then they went back home and it was all so very, very normal.
On Wednesday evening, Ken Janson broke the news of his impending redundancy to his wife. She tried to be supportive, but he didn't want to be supported. She tried to be positive about it, but her positivity didn't get through. She pointed out that there were lots more jobs out there, good ones for someone of his experience, but he didn't want to listen. She wasn't canny enough to realise that he had anticipated her reaction exactly, and that this was the principal reason he had put off telling her for a whole month. And so they fell into an uneasy silence, her trying to think of something she could say to make her husband feel better, him wondering how soon he could reasonably break the scene off and turn the television on without seeming insensitive to his wife's efforts to comfort him. The silence was only broken by the children's songs Jamie and Nat were again playing for their toddler next door.
When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I'm feeling sad...
Helen Janson was an hour late making the dinner that night, an hour which Peter Janson spent on having three simultaneous Facebook conversations, an uncomfortable one to a girl he had recently rejected, the other two more light-hearted. His youngest brother Nathan spent the time, as he spent so much of his time, in bed. There was a paperback detective novel on the bed beside him, but he had lost interest in it, and was gazing blankly at the wall. Anyone looking at him would have guessed that there was nothing at all going through his mind, but of course in reality he was thinking hard.
It was all a question of proportion. A rat was very small, and so of course it only took a very minimal amount of poison to kill a rat. But a person was much bigger, and so the same amount of poison was a much smaller proportion of a person's bodyweight, and so would not be lethal. You would have to scale up the amount of poison to take account of this, but that would mean that a lethal dose for a person would have to be huge – more than you could reasonably administer without their noticing. This simple reasoning would seem to kill the whole project stone dead.
My father he left me an acre of land, sing o-vey sing i-vy...
There were presumably other poisons available. After all, people did poison each other, so there had to be a way of getting hold of something that could kill someone, but he had been considering the matter for some some time and he was no closer to thinking of how.
The truth was, he wasn't as enthusiastic about it as he had been. Maybe there wasn't a realistic, foolproof way of killing people, and it wouldn't be the end of the world if he just gave up on the idea. After all, he had tried, he had gone through with it where so many other people might have chickened out, so he had more than proved himself to himself, (though of course that wasn't what it had been about.)
I harrowed it next with a bramble bush, sing o-vey sing i-vy
Maybe this was why murder was so infrequent. Maybe there were plenty of people who wanted badly to kill other people, but there were so few easy, plausible ways of doing it, and so they just gave up. He let his mind wander, and he found himself listening instead to the tuneful nonsense coming through the window.
The little mice carried it into the barn, sing o-vey sing i-vy
I threshed it there with a fine goose quill, sing o-vey sing i-vy...
He had been stupid to think that such a small amount of poison would kill a grown person. (Though maybe not that stupid – he had read books and stories in which people killed each other with small quantities of rat poison, administered in Coke cans and the like. So clearly the question of proportion hadn't occurred to the authors of these stories either.) He tried to imagine how much poison it would take to kill his gran, to give her more serious problems than a little tummy trouble! No way of knowing really. But either way, the little sandwich bag of the stuff he still had hidden in his chimney was useless. You needed a much larger quantity of it.
The miller he said that he'd work with a will...
Or, it occurred to him now for the first time, a much smaller person.
Sing o-vey sing i-vy...
It was another twenty minutes before he was called down to dinner, and for all that time, he lay in his bed, motionless, a very slight smile on his face, listening to the songs coming through the window.
Two and a half weeks later. In the intervening time, Helen Janson had spent many hours on the Internet and looking through the recruitment section of various newspapers. She had found the details of over a dozen jobs, had downloaded and printed off application forms, and when that hadn't prompted her husband to action, she had even filled in his basic information in a few of them herself, to save him the effort. Ken had read the job descriptions, read some of the more promising ones several times, occasionally nodding his head as he imagined himself doing those jobs, but that was as far as he ever got, and it drove Helen Janson to distraction. As she told her friends, as she told her mother, as she told the shopkeeper – everyone except her immediate family: 'He just sits there! He doesn't put any effort in to do anything. It's like that bloody garden fence! He'll be out of a job in a couple of months, and I hope he doesn't think he's going to sit around the house all day getting under my feet!'
Her three sons showed less concern. Peter was having what his mother would have referred to as 'girl trouble', (although of course he would never have talked about it to anyone in his family, so she didn't know) and Nathan had been occupying himself once more with sweet daydreams of being a feared serial killer.
On this Sunday morning, he was sitting in outside with a book, ostensibly to watch over the rabbits as they hopped round the garden. There was a small fence – small enough to step over – separating the Jansons' back garden from Jamie and Nat's, and you could see right into their small kitchen. Jamie and Nat were in the habit of leaving their back door open – not just unlocked, but open – and Nathan hadn't seen them for over an hour. They were, presumably, either in the front room or upstairs with their daughter. It was the easiest thing in the world.
Nathan scanned the upstairs windows of all the houses he could see, just to be sure there was no one in any of them who was watching or who might happen to glance down and see him. Even so, just to cover his back, he acted out a little one-man play which would give him an excuse to stray into next door's garden and even, at a pinch, into their kitchen, without seeming suspicious.
'Blueberry, where are you?' he said, looking round the garden. (Blueberry, he knew, was in the hutch, but no one watching him from an upstairs window could know that.) He made a show of looking round the garden, even though he was sure no one was looking.
'Blueberry, what are you doing there? You know you're not allowed in Jamie and Nat's garden. How did you get in there?' Carolina, Blueberry's companion, stretched and watched Nathan Janson step over the fence into next door's garden, and then pause to cautiously scan the surrounding houses once more, before continuing.
'Come here. No, come here!' He said this while crouching low, but not actually moving much, as he would have felt a little bit ridiculous chasing an imaginary rabbit round his neighbours' garden. He took a few steps towards the house, which was all that he needed to be right next to the kitchen door. 'Where have you gone? Blueberry, where have you gone? You haven't gone in there, have you?' And, heart beating violently, looking a lot more nervous than a search for an errant rabbit would seem to justify, he stepped through the open door into the kitchen.
He stopped, listened. The next bit, he knew, was the dangerous bit. If he someone came in in the next thirty-seconds-to-a-minute, he would have more explaining to do than he was capable of. Unless he went back of course. He could just back out of the kitchen, step back into his garden and land back in normality again.
Heart beating violently, he opened the fridge. It was a very full fridge – really Jamie and Nat could have done with a bigger one – but there on a shelf in the door was a baby's bottle, and the baby's bottle was half full of milk. He took the top off the bottle and put it on the work surface, took the sandwich bag of mauve powder out of his pocket (what if someone comes in? oh shit oh shit what if someone comes in?), poured a small amount into the bottle and shook it. It didn't alter the colour of the milk noticeably (oh shit oh shit hurry up, won't you hurry up), so he put a bit more in. Some of it stuck to the side of the bottle, so he swirled the milk round until it had gone. The milk was still white, but there were blue lumps of undissolved powder floating in it. It really needed a stir. For a few seconds he was paralysed. He didn't want to take the extra time to take something from the cutlery draw and stir the milk, but he had to; it was too obvious as it was. He opened a few draws, looking for knives, and when he found one, a butter knife, he stuck it in the bottle and swirled it round. That was all it needed. The milk still hadn't changed colour much, so for a third time (careful! don't spill it on the fucking floor! fucking fucking) he poured what was surely a lethal dose for a one-and-a-half-year-old into the bottle containing her mother's milk, and then the fear, the panic, came on strong, sending a shudder through his body (what if they come? oh what do I do if they come in now?) and he knew he had been too long, he had to leave. For a few terrifying seconds, he couldn't find the top for the bottle, he couldn't remember where he had put it. Then he saw it on the work surface next to the microwave, and he screwed it back on the bottle as fast as he could, and put it back in the fridge. The panic was so strong, he practically flew back out the door and into his own garden, before stopping, looking around. Still no one. Still nothing to distinguish it from any other ordinary June day. He waited a bit for his heartbeat to slow, and the adrenaline and the terror flowing through him to lessen. Then he opened the hutch, and Blueberry looked up at him.
'Oh there you are!' he said. Just in case.
It was only once he had sat down in the garden seat that he realised he was still holding the butter knife, but there was no way he was going to go back into Jamie and Nat's kitchen. He left it under the rabbit hutch, where it wouldn't be found for a long time, if at all. For a horrifying instant, he thought he had left the bag of rat poison in the kitchen, but then he felt it in his pocket. (Funny, he didn't remember putting it back there!)
He sat back on the seat and picked his book up, but he knew there was no chance of being able to read it any more. Maybe they'd come now. Maybe Nat would stroll into the kitchen, humming, carrying Rowan or Rhona or whatever her name was. She'd open the fridge, and Nathan would have a ring-side seat as she lovingly squeezed poison into her baby's mouth. He would be able to watch the effects, see how long it took for the child -
He noticed he was shaking. Maybe it was better to be inside when it happened. Then they would never even think to associate him with any of it.
He wandered through his house in a daze. His mum was dozing on the sofa, dad was reading the paper. Peter was probably in his room wasting time on the internet. He could try to read, he could try to do homework, but there was no point – the chances of his being able to concentrate on anything at all were nil. There was nothing to do but wait and at some point the fear pressing down on him, making it impossible to do anything, might fade. Either that or he would hear screams from next door, and know that he had completed his first step – successfully this time – towards being...
Being what? Not just a rat-faced freak, but a rat-faced freak who killed small children? No, he had to remind himself of the sense of power, of control, that he had assured himself he would feel if he actually started ending other people's lives. Maybe that sense would come later, but for now all he felt was dizzy, unspeakably dizzy, and slightly sick. If only there was some way he could distract himself. Take his mind off what he had done. Calm him down.
He turned on the TV. There was a programme called 'How it's made', which was today explaining how pepper mills were made. He stared at it, not taking anything in, not even aware of what the programme was. He felt like screaming.
It had felt bad enough in the few days after he thought he had killed his gran. Why had he decided to put himself through this again?
And this was how he spent the next hour, sitting in the armchair, occasionally shivering in spite of the warm weather, not noticing anything that was going on around him, not even when his mother woke up and asked him why on earth he was watching this, not even when his dad demanded he answer his mother when she spoke to him, and said his name three times, louder each time. He didn't respond when his mum touched him on the arm and asked him if he was all right. Only when she actually shook his arm did he come to, and look at her slightly startled.
She was looking worried. Both his parents were looking worried. He told them he was fine, and went upstairs without further explanation.
He lay on his bed and took out a book, not caring which one, he just wanted to look like he was occupied when his mother came to check on him, as he knew she would now. From his bedroom window he could see down into next-door's garden. He wished he couldn't.
Maybe, given all this, what he did next was inevitable. He remembered how bad it had been the first time, after his visit to his gran, and he remembered how long it had lasted. In those few days, if he had been able to take back what he had done, reverse it somehow, he surely would have done. This time was as bad, but the difference was that this time he could take it back. So long as Rowan/Rhona hadn't been fed yet, he could just go back, pour the milk down the sink...
Except he didn't want to go back. He didn't want to even leave his bed. It was the only place he really felt safe. It was unbearable, the indecision, and the knowing that every second he delayed made it less likely that he would be able to undo what he had done. And what if he went back and it was too late? If he opened the fridge and the milk bottle wasn't there? Once again, there was a huge risk that someone -
He jumped out of bed. He hurried downstairs and into the garden. He stepped over the fence. No caution this time; he didn't stop to see if anyone was watching, he didn't make any kind of pretence to cover his back, to give him a reason for being there. Straight through Jamie and Nat's back door and opened the fridge. It was still there! It wasn't too late! He poured the milk down the sink and replaced the empty bottle in the fridge. Maybe someone saw him. Who cared? What was the worst that could happen? Jamie or Nat could ask 'Why did you pour that milk away?' and he wouldn't answer. And if no one had seen him, they would wonder what on earth had happened to their baby milk, and they would try and try and try to come up with some kind of explanation, but they wouldn't be able to. It wouldn't occur to them to think of their next-door neighbours' youngest son.
Back in the garden, he sat on the lawn, and then he lay on the lawn, and he smiled. There was a feeling of exhilaration, of relief, as if there was suddenly enough oxygen in the world, when there hadn't been before. He looked up at the sky, mesmerised by its blueness. Even the feel of the grass underneath his hand felt more... more vivid somehow. He sat, and he grinned at the sky, and he wondered how long this feeling would last.
And the moral of the story is...
Ken Janson did eventually get another job, but it was through an agency – he never bothered to look seriously for something better – and so it was a fairly menial job, and rather poorly paid, which meant that his wife had to take on more hours in order to support the family. If she resented him for it, she never mentioned it. Peter Janson didn't do as well in his exams as he should have done, and left school to take an admin job in a bank. He had little or no responsibility, which suited him very well, and he eventually got a promotion purely by virtue of having worked there longer than anyone else on his team. Ollie Janson, dropped out of university and instead took an admin job in a minor government agency. He lived with his parents until they really couldn't tolerate each other any more and then he rented a house with three friends.
Nathan Janson was more successful. He went through the rest of school without really making any friends and showing no outward sign that he was in any way upset by the treatment he continued to receive from a lot of the other boys, some of them younger than him. But he did reasonably well in his exams and a few years after his abortive murder attempts he went to university to study English literature. He spent three years in Cardiff, and then he graduated – the only one of his family to complete a university course – and got an admin job with Cardiff City Council. His mother phoned him regularly every Wednesday evening, but apart from that he didn't have much contact with his family.
He did however keep in contact with a few of the people from uni, and they met up at weekends and trailed round a few of the local pubs and clubs. In particular, he kept in contact with a timid maths graduate called Alison. More or less on a whim, they took up mountain biking, and after that they spent every other weekend cycling in the valleys.
After a year or so they moved in together, and spent the evenings in companionable silence, often in front of the TV. After another two years, they got married. They found a beautiful wedding venue near Pontypridd, and both their families spent the night in a local bed and breakfast. There was a modest number of guests, as both of them had only a handful of friends, but some of Alison's friends were rather more boisterous than she was, and the reception was as rowdy as wedding receptions traditionally are. They all ate and they drank and they danced – they even persuaded his parents to dance – and when they were tired of dancing, they walked in the moonlit grounds and Alison's friends told obscene jokes, and they laughed and were happy.
And if you had told anyone at that wedding that this was a man who had once tried to kill his grandmother, and his next-door-neighbour's daughter – and had come close to succeeding – they wouldn't have known what to say. They would never have believed you.