Revenge

 

You never think it’s too late until a gun barrel is pointed at your forehead. His index finger curls menacingly around the trigger and you pray for it to end already. You never forget his face. Distorted through your bloodied tears. You do not flinch as his finger closes in on the trigger and the bullet plunges deep into your skull, penetrating the serpentine-like nerves of your brain. You do not feel pain. Instead, you freeze for a split second as if blinded by a bright flash of light, and then you rock back and fall like a solid statue onto the flat cold ground. Only, unlike a statue, you do not shatter. You lie there, immobile with shock, as the dawn creeps up from behind the grey blinds covering the window and illuminates the room in clear yellow stripes, as if someone had purposefully sliced it with a knife. Scars don’t heal.

 

***

 

     I still don’t know how exactly I survived. Survived the straight shot to the head, survived the fourteen years rotting away in the grey, old prison South of London. And how I then survived the six years of working in the dark, damp, rat-filled basement of an old schoolmaster, now turned pickpocket. Oh, and quite a business he had himself there. What was my job, you may ask? Not pick pocketing. No. I wasn’t allowed outside at any time apart from the early morning, when there was still little people out on the streets, so no one could see my dehumanized face. No. I stayed in the basement, suffocating during the day, and freezing during the night. The evening wind drifts would especially irritate me.

     I was a carpenter. Nothing to do with pocket picking, as you may have thought. Well, the old schoolmaster had established himself pretty generously, I guess. His hobbies, as he would call them, would include rather varied things, such as, as you already know, pocket picking, carpentry, and then there was the third one. He liked hiring…disfigured people, like myself. There was Dylan the famous one-eyed, crooked-nosed ex-pickpocket. Not so ex, huh? Then there was Bob, who worked alongside me, though only night shifts, carving beautiful ornaments onto the chairs I had made earlier – he was missing a leg, the details of which were vague; Kyle, a serious young man with ambitious plans and four fingers on his left hand – this didn’t stop him from pick pocketing wallets on the most crowded street in London. Yes, everyone on Oxford Street knew of him, and yet no one acted to stop this injustice towards their determined work ethic and hard-earned money. Now, only one more addition to our little business. Rory, not quite a child, not quite an adult. A seventeen-year-old foster-home-raised ginger, who visited the basement every Sunday to deliver knew supplies on his rusty old Chevy. This was how we got the needed intake of wood supplies as well as carving tools, and sometimes even food. Some days, we had to go hungry, for working most of the day left us no time for personal pleasures, such as hygiene, but most importantly food. Frankly, there was no money to go and buy it with either. We depended on Rory.

     I will not bore you with this long tale of how I worked in the basement of a slightly crazed old schoolmaster any longer. We will move on to the important part. The part, where I showed what I had been hiding all those years. Fourteen years in the rotten prison cell, six years in that filthy basement, and five months finalising and getting ready for what I would do to… Twenty years and five months. Twenty years, five months and three days precisely. A long time for a man to work out his rights and wrongs, to seek and receive forgiveness from God for sins he did not place, crimes he did not commit. A long time for a man to plot and finalise a spiteful revenge for that one person whose face he never forgot.

 

***

 

     He used to work in a coal mine, after serving in the war. He had three children, all of which had gone off to Europe to get a degree, unlike their lowlife father. His wife had died two years ago, of which I was sure, having visited the cemetery earlier this morning. It was inscribed, thin white letters over grey marble - expensive for a lower class worker such as him - "Here lies Elizabeth Crawford, devoted wife and mother to a loving husband and three children. Lost but never forgotten." Hah, loving husband. And below, in even smaller, thinner letters, white over grey, “1919 – 1963”. People in the bars talked. They said it was heart failure. Personally, I thought she willed herself to death. Who could ever stand living with that beast, that monster? Not Elizabeth. I knew her. My precious Elizabeth, she had been everything to me, and he had taken her away. With her, he took my soul, my feelings, my desire for anything in this corrupted world. He took away my passion, my love and my ability to feel any sort of emotional pain. They said he went mad after her death – quit his job, bought a new house, shut himself out, but I could never believe that. No, that man was incapable of loving, just like he had made me incapable of feeling.

     I knew the part of town he lived in, the street, even the house number. You may wonder how. As I said before, people talked. And they talked a lot about him. Some sympathized, some downright hated him. I would classify as the latter, even though I chose not to voice my opinion in public. No need to attract unnecessary attention from the wandering eye of the crowd. I was not a man of chatter. I did not mingle well with the crowd. I had no care for their routine lives and miserable childhoods, nor had they for mine. I had not been killed by that single shot to the brain, because God, if he even existed, had given me a chance to go back and fight for what was right. All I needed was a minute, a minute to execute the plan I had been developing for twenty years, five months and three days. I knew everything to the finest detail. After all, what else has a man got to do in his rotting prison cell with no means of escape for fourteen years?

 

***

 

     Let me tell you a bit more about my background. No, not mine. Ours. Mine and Elizabeth’s. I called her Lizzie back then. She was a sweetheart. The loveliest lady you could find in West London, and, frankly, I thought and still do, in all of London. She woke up every day at dawn and drew back the lace curtains she had so strongly insisted upon a few years back when we were renovating our house. Our house. Who did it belong to now? Some lowlife who had no care for the love we had had all those years ago. That’s right, why would he? He was probably just some ordinary man, passing through life as a paper boat would down a stream of fast flowing water. It would start out gracious and tall, beautiful in its simplicity, and gradually wilt like the petals of a flower or the leaves of a swaying tree in late autumn. As it came down the stream, sailing as fast as the current would push it, not able to turn back no matter how hard it would have tried, the fragile folds of the paper would unwrap and the boat would no longer be what it had appeared as a few seconds ago: a strong, perfect, confident figure now turned into a useless, softened, disfigured material. The paper would sink and be lost in the bed of the stream or be carried out to sea, the paper meanwhile steadily dissolving until it was nothing, not a single particle in this vast and bustling world. A world, where we do not have time to turn back and think of what mistakes we have made in life, and truth be told, we cannot turn back time, so it would be pointless trying.

     As silly as my sentiments sound, the sinking boat is indeed the representation of a fast-whirling life gone by in a single blink of an eyelid. I have lived life. Not the life in prison; I do not count that as living. But the life I once had with Elizabeth – with my Lizzie. We would walk miles every day in silence, with not an aim in the world, apart from being together forever. The silence was never agitating, but comfortable in the sense of two people, that understood and loved each other to the extent of no words needing to be mentioned, enjoying each other’s company while the day was still young, as were they. If I had known how little time we had left together, I would have never made promises I could never keep, I would have spent every single waking moment of the day telling her how beautiful she was and how much I loved her, instead of making excuses every evening of needing to check on something at work or pick up some papers I had left there last night and then guiltily heading out to the bars to have a fun time with my mates. How could I have ever traded her for a few glasses of beer and pointless chat? I loved her, there was no doubt about that. I was prepared to spend all day with her, but I was also a selfish bastard. Self-centred and concerned about my reputation in the public. Who needed that reputation now? I should have cared less about my position in society, I should have never made dishonest excuses all those evenings I could have spent time with her and made her happier than she already was, I should have… I should have. A man never realizes his mistakes until it is too late.

     It’s over for Elizabeth, but it’s not over for me. Yet, anyway. I cannot let him get away with ruining our perfect life, our perfect engagement that would have so easily turned into a marriage had he not driven her away from me. Lies. Lies is the only thing he is capable of. The human population is built on lies. How ideal would the world have been if no stranger ever killed a kind man willing to give him a ride to the train station and then have taken what money he had, having no care for the man’s wife and children waiting patiently, unsuspecting, at home; or a sweet old lady offering a homeless man to stay in her living room until he is able to find a job only for him to push her out of her own home? Goodwill. Goodwill has been slowly banished and replaced by mistrust and dishonour. Families torn apart, marriages sliced in half, children disgraced and innocent men locked up into filthy prison cells to rot the rest of their lives in. This was what the world had turned into. And it was exactly what he was capable of.

     I’m sorry Elizabeth. Sorry I could not protect you. Sorry I made those stupid excuses. And sorry I did not fulfill the reason for my second chance on Earth earlier. I’m sorry it had to come to this.

 

***

 

     Twenty years, five months and four days. How I had waited for this moment. I dreamt of it every night in the cold dark prison cell of South London’s jail. Enclosure had served me a purpose, and I was intent on proceeding with what I had dreamed of all those nights throughout the past two decades. Only in the vague and shimmering reality of my dreams, the plan I had developed over the thousands of restless nights, when I could not close my eyes sheerly due to the adrenaline of blood pounding in my ears at the prospect of a possible solution to my suffering, never came to a satisfying conclusion. I long since had succumbed to the constant midnight howling of the wolves somewhere far away in the forests surrounding the prison, and the banging of the wrought-iron gates that isolated us criminals from the rest of the innocent – though not really so – population, had ceased to leave an endless clanging noise in the back of my mind long after the banging had stopped and the sun had risen.

     This time, it would be different from the dreams. Dreams were just a premonition of what was to come. Your mind played tricks on you and you were so intoxicated in the sheer flight of this sub-reality that you played along with the close-reality fitting events that were really just a corner of your imagination. I meant to get it right this time. Proceed right through to the end. I would not back out. I meant to redeem myself, and I would. Who was I now to hesitate? Betray Lizzie all over again for a few nerves tingling in the back of my mind? I knew myself better than anyone else ever could, and I was going to leave a mark in this world, even if it meant throwing myself into the lowest and hottest layers of hell along with him. I had nothing to lose, nor had he.

 

***

 

     He had an ordinary house. Solid and beautiful in its simplicity. Nothing peculiar about it. Nothing to say that a cold-blooded murderer rested behind those tightly framed windows and pale grey weatherboard. He lived in a friendly neighbourhood on the side of London. Everybody greeted you as you passed them, smiling sympathetically at your mutilated facial features, unaware of the history behind the half-closed eye that could barely see, the unnaturally upturned nose, the bulging forehead and the two angry red scars running across your temple and just above the right eyebrow. They were complete strangers, perhaps slightly too attentive, to an innocent-minded person. I, on the other hand, had seen things, knew that you could plaster a smile on your face and still carry out the most humiliating of all sorts of crimes. You could steal a wife, wreck a future, and shoot someone at dead-close range without a second thought, and live on happily, pretending nothing of the sort had happened, and that you were just an average man, going about your daily motions without much regret or aim.

     Enough. I’d had enough. How much longer could he be?

     I heard footsteps. They gradually grew closer, more profound, bold and heavy. I pressed myself up against the wet grey weatherboard – the rain had been pouring mercilessly throughout the whole morning, just like on that cold night in the loathed basement with the blinds closed over the shut windows, eliminating all possible sounds from traveling outside. As I drew in one massive gulp of a breath, preparing myself for what was to come, I watched a tall, clad in black figure round the corner of the street and walk purposefully towards the house. I deliberately did not step out right there and then. I awaited my moment. I knew when to strike. So far, everything had been going according to plan.

     He walked past, as if not noticing me flattened out against the wall of his own home, and turned the key to enter through the front door. It was an oak door, did not penetrate sound. Good.

     My Mother once told me, “You cannot change the way things are, you cannot fight with fate, you have to accept things as they are and learn to cope”. I disagreed, and still do. Learn to cope when my only love had been forcefully pulled, wrenched, away from me? I could not, I would not accept the way things were. I would fight with fate if that was the last thing I did.

 

     I promised myself I would go and see my Mother in the hospital tomorrow. I had known she was there for many years now. Kyle had found out and told me. We used to be close, Mother and I. Dad never cared about either of us. He had left when I was nine; Mother had done the best she could on a limited income and I was grateful. I would see her. I wanted to see her. Apologise. Then I jerked at the realization: would this be yet another promise I could not keep?

     The door shut. I moved out of my flattened position into what I supposed was a stealthy stance. Breathe. I walked towards the door. Knock. Silence. Another knock. He opened the door almost immediately this time. He was no longer wearing the black coat he had worn on the street to protect himself from the biting wind, but had on a warm navy blue sweater loosely pulled over a striped white office shirt and a pair of black trousers very similar to the ones I was wearing.

     “What is it?”

     He did not flinched at my face. His eyes were staring out over my head, as if deep in thought. Maybe he was revolted to look at me. Who wasn’t? I felt that way every time I accidentally saw my reflection in the windows I passed during the early mornings, when the lights in the shops were still switched off so that I could see myself as clearly as if I was looking into a mirror hung over my bedside table.

     “What do you want?”

     “Could I p-please use your t-telephone?” I stumbled over my words, as I had practiced all those long sleepless nights in the small prison cell. “I-I’m cold. I n-need t-to call my n-niece. Sh-she promised to p-pick me up at eleven, and s-still hasn’t arrived. Perhaps sh-she forg-got–” I worked on the chattering teeth just for affect.

     “Your niece must have a… Oh, come in. It’s warm in the house. I’m just making tea.” He beckoned me to enter and gave me a woolen jumper to warm myself while the pot boiled.

 

     “Th-thank you. You have a nice house. My niece must have forg–”

     He cut me off with an abrupt, “It doesn’t matter”, and quickly disappeared in the direction opposite to where we had initially come in from.

     He had changed, his face now held the wrinkles of an aged man and he no longer had that pleasant smile he used to lure women with, but it was still him. I expected him to have shrunk in height and fattened around the sides, but despite his age he still carried himself as the officer he used to be, with pride and confidence. He walked as an officer was expected to, big bold strides that carried him to the other end of the room in a matter of a few short seconds. He showed no signs of weakening, no deteriorating of health. All the same, I was prepared for anything.

     He did not remember me. And why would he? I was just another man in a long line of losers he had tripped upon their path to a greater life – an unfavourable soul in his little malicious black eyes.

     I rolled up the sleeves of the jumper – no need to get it dirty – and walked over to the kitchen, where the water had by now boiled over. I moved quickly and quietly, careful not to jostle a cup or rattle a fork. I found it almost as soon as I opened the second drawer in a long line of them under the kitchen counter. It was perfect. The silver blade shone with the reflected light of the sun coming from the small window over the sink. It felt almost holy, though I knew it much more strongly resembled something of the contrary. I stood there for a moment, mesmerized in the devilish beauty of the knife, imagining it sinking deep into the flesh of the man I hated most on this Earth–

     “I see you’re feeling better already.”

     I whipped round, caught off guard, able to hide the kitchen knife behind me back before he noticed it. The surprise must have been so evident on my face that he smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile, and it reminded me of that rainy night in the cold basement. I closed my eyes, praying the memories to go away just this once.

     “I wouldn’t want you to freeze to death, would I now, Mr. Rathbone?”

     My eyes opened in a flash. He was standing a metre’s distance away, close enough to strike. But suddenly I felt my fingers go numb and I clutched the round handle as hard as I could, not able to feel anything, just to stop the knife from slipping out.

     “You thought I wouldn’t remember you?” He smirked. I waited in silence, shuddering slightly as he neared me with that ghostly smile of his playing excitedly on his red lips, tantalizing, evoking in me a frightening feeling of dread. I remembered that red-lipped smile only too well. Blood red. “I thought so, too. Until you showed up on my doorstep.” I could feel my nostrils flaring as my breath caught somewhere deep down in my throat. It felt like I had frozen all over. I wanted to roll down the sleeves, but could not risk exposing the knife. It now seemed to weigh tens times its mass, a burden to carry, an unwanted consequence floating above my head like a thundercloud, ready to break out at any moment.

     “You killed her,” I murmured, unable to suppress a sob that escaped my quavering lips. “You took her away from me and you killed her.”

     “No. It was you who did that. I gave her a life, children, a proper family, everything she asked for. You made her miserable.” Another smirk. “Did you think she never knew where you went off to after lying about needing to attend to some office work? Of course she knew. You thought she was stupid.” He shook his head. Then I saw his arm move from where it had been resting in his trouser pocket. I had not noticed it before. “You never understood her.” I watched as he pulled out a gun and pointed it at me. He stood so close that he could have pulled the trigger with close eyes and still hit the target.

     I didn’t move. I stood there, frozen as a statue, astounded, shocked, wordless. The only thoughts that were running through my head were of that awful night when he took the last thing that mattered from me, my hope. What happened next can be called insanity – you may like to refer to it as that to cover up for the real emotional drive behind my actions – but I call it a final surge of power. All the numbing hurt and pain, which I thought had long since left me, built up in this last effort to avenge my lost love and all those wasted years of suffering. It drove me insane, it drove me away from people; I became a wild beast, just like him, covering it all with the fragile humanity I still had somewhere in me, just enough to do exactly what I came here to do, rid this suffocating world of only one single man – him. I could have found a cure for heart disease, I could have helped put an end to poverty, I could have made amends for all my wrongdoings. Instead, in a flash of mixed emotions I thought I would never feel again, I collided with the man standing in front of me, enough to unbalance his grip on the revolver, and thrust the knife into the centre of his stomach. He gasped and fell to his knees, red blood splattering from his mouth. For some reason I had thought it would be a darker red, signifying the devil he was inside, but no, it was as bright and rich a red as a sunset could sometimes be over the Thames river on a clear, crisp Autumn evening.

     I grabbed the gun from under his leg and pointed it at his forehead, biting down on my tongue so hard that blood began to ooze down my chin. His face had paled and he stared up at me from where he was positioned helplessly on his knees. His eyes held that same unfocused yet present glazed expression I remember Elizabeth had had when I first told her I loved her. At first, I had thought she hadn’t heard me, so I had repeated it. She’d laughed and kissed me, and said she had simply been imagining how her life would had turned out if we had never met. We never talked of it again.

     The sheer memory of her sent another jolt of anger mixed with regret through my body and, half not expecting it, I pulled on the trigger, sending a glass-shattering burst through the whole house. I doubt any of the neighbours heard it, or perhaps merely thought it was a champagne cork popping out of the bottle. But it deafened me. I stood there, unreasonably calm, a drowned ringing sound filling my ears. I stared down at him, sprawled over the kitchen tiles, eyes rolled back in a death glare so that only the whites were showing. I kneeled down and closed his eyes, a motion which seemed automatic to me had it been anyone else lying there.

     I stood there for a long time, remotely aware of the time it would take for someone to notice that the lights were on but he was not in the house. I did not feel anger, remorse or hatred. He did not deserve any pity, but I could not give him hatred either. I had bestowed onto myself this great burden. I had fulfilled what I had come here to do. But for some reason I felt neither relieved nor satisfied. I hadn’t hesitated, I had carried the plan out exactly the way I had planned, with the exception of the gun, even better than in all those dreams put together. Why did I not feel anything; not sadness, not anger, not even an acute sense of relief that he was gone?

     That was when I realized I still held the revolver in my hand. It was a pretty thing. Slick and black. More fitted for a lady’s hand than that of a man. I glanced once again towards him. It made me sick. I felt a chilly sense of wretchedness run through my whole body.

     Then I lifted the gun to my head.

Comments

Sometimes I read phrases and it takes my breath away....serpentine-like nervesof your brain - wow! The image is very powerful! And wonderful detail....like the pick pocket with four fingers.There were moments when I felt like I was reading Charles Dickens so clearly were your characters drawn. Another wonderful piece of detail - rolling up and rolling down sleeves. And such a shift in emotion as he became aware of the gun in his hand. Wonderful portrayal and full bodied story telling. Congratulations Anna!!!