Bob Slayer?
By Ivor Griffiths

John lay recumbent in a hospital bed. He was asleep, his head was at a curious angle, there were too many pillows, the sheets were up to his chin, and pieces of plastic tubing and gadgets clung to his body, as fungus clings to trees. It looked like it was draining the life from him, emptying him, as a magnet empties a jar of pins; his energy seemed to be leaving him in a random pattern. He was still breathing, but the breaths were slow and so shallow a whole minute would pass before one could see, or perhaps imagine, an imperceptible movement in the white sheets, that clung to him, like a spider smothering a fly, wrapping him up so he could not escape, slowly suffocating him, for later consumption. In the background there was a machine with a screen, it had lines on it that moved up and down in a complex pattern, mocking the life that was ebbing away. It played a melancholy song as it bleeped a hypnotic melody. It was a lament, for a dying man.

The mattress had one of those under sheets, plastic, and crunchy. Every time John so much as twitched a muscle, it set off a chorus of crunching. He had not had any sleep since put in this ward, just periods of almost lucid unconsciousness. Wafting through every crevice in this part of the building were antiseptic smells. Lit by a red bulb, so dim he could look straight at it without squinting, a sense of dread seemed to permeate the atmosphere of the room, an air of inevitability: doom almost. He pissed through a tube.

His feet were throbbing with pain, his lungs, throat and back repositories of indescribable, gut wrenching, cancerous agonies. He was wearing a nightgown, institutional issue, designed to reveal the crack of his arse at every opportunity. As if to make the wearer feel belittled. He was red-hot, the painkillers and anaesthetic welcome intruders in his body, but distorting and stealing its senses. He was only just conscious, staring at a pale lime green shiny ceiling; through his agony, he focused on a motif, created by the uneven paintwork and a small area where the paint had flaked. It reminded him of a pale green unicorn; he wandered back to his past, slowly, memories popping up here and there along the way, raindrops slowly filling the lake.

He was ten, stood in a kitchen, a long room, he looked up, and it seemed taller than a tower. The dull, sepia, uneven, wood chip wallpaper clung precariously to the walls, stained with little brown spots, from condensation that had formed and leeched out the nicotine from thousands of cigarettes. Pictures and wall hangings adorned the slightly peeling wallpaper. The pictures were gothic renaissance reproductions in ornate but worn and peeling gilded frames. The wall hangings were red, purple and orange, spidery batik and tie die that his Mam had made. From the ceiling hung mobiles, paper fish and crabs and lions and goats, floating miles above in a hazy pink atmosphere, with a cloud layer of smoke, hovering above the pale light, like a fog.

The old oak table dominated the room. Years of chopping, leaning and the countless discussions hosted by it, bestowed upon it a pitted and cratered surface. The light had a red tinge to it, contrasting with the dark brown surface of the table. It shone down upon the table from the pale bulb hanging above, surrounded by a red shade, frilly, frayed and dusty.

He saw a clutter of candles, the wax drawing paths of burnt out glory across the table. The light from the candles and the smell of incense, made the kitchen magical, ethereal and religious. It was quiet. His Dad was sitting at the end of the table; the candles, incense and other stuff were in the middle, together with what looked like a large wooden chopping board, although he had never seen his Mam chop anything on it. It was about three inches high, alabaster, very smooth on the top, and supported by four pale green marble legs, each in the shape of a unicorn.

John was back there now; the machinery of his mind was fully in gear, the cogs turning in his head a whirring conveyer belt production line churning out memories. With no quality control of memory how can one tell if memories are accurate or not? It did not matter, pumped full of morphine and other chemicals, to dull the pain; Johns mind was escaping, and now freed, roaming randomly through his past.

He was standing next to the black cast iron stove, but not too near, as it grew very hot, the shape of a barrel but only about three foot high, it had a stack that came out of the top and disappeared into the upper stratosphere of the ceiling. His Mam meticulously cleaned it. It stood on cast iron legs, the door to the grate had a window in it, so the boy could see the knights and dragons that played in the flames. On top of the stove stood a kettle, steam came whistling from the spout. A china teapot, cups, and saucers were on the old, knarled, dark oak dresser. The cup his Father used was a huge blue china patterned teacup. His Mothers was a smaller version. His Father used the cup more as a bowl, the saucer as a spoon. He would fill the saucer with tea, and sip it. He said it cooled quicker that way, because the surface area of the tea in the saucer was much greater than it was in a cup. Therefore, it cooled quicker: obvious really.

His dad was old; at least he looked old to the boy. However, Fred was not his real dad, just a foster dad, but the best Dad he ever had. Izzie was his foster mum. He always thought of them as Mam and Dad. He loved them, they were caring and kind, eccentric and brilliant, life was an adventure every day that he spent with them. They did everything they could to protect John from his violent stepfather and real mother. They told him he was a good and kind little boy; if he did something wrong he should admit it and apologise, they taught him to have self-respect, confidence in himself, and they taught him basic Christian and Pagan morals. John thrived in this environment.

Music was playing. The boys Dad was talking to his Mam; he remembered her beauty, love, forgiveness, loyalty, and respect. Shorter than her husband, but more than his equal in many other ways she had dark, curly auburn hair down to her waist and a warm and genuine smile, that were complements to her beauty.

The old man wanted to do something. He animatedly explained it to his wife. His arms waving and pointing at papers scattered on his bit of the table. She kept shaking her head and looked none too happy.

However, his father was a genius; he knew everything about most things and knew where to look if he did not.

The book of words my son, the book of words, he would say to the boy It is all in a book of words, you can do anything if you know how, and if you can read you can know how. Something is only hard to do if you dont know how to do it. Fred always had a book in his hand because he hated watching the television. He distrusted the black and white, oval shaped eye in the corner; it was always going wrong and using lots of electricity.

No good will come of that thing he would say.

He did not eschew technology, just the opposite, but he did not like a thing if he could not make one, or do something with it. He could write a book, because he read them, he would not write one, but he could have done. He loved music, he had many records, and he liked guitars and had a couple of electric ones. He could play them, but was crap. He could not make a television programme so he did not watch it.

Electricity fascinated the old man, he had it when he was a kid and the rest of his mates were slowly going myopic, sitting reading, by dim yellow candle, or gas light, or in bed for eight oclock. He had just bought some electric motors; they were big and heavy, grey shiny paint covered them, cylindrical in shape, with a gear, or cog, on the end of a shaft of metal that came out of one end, wires came out of the other end. He had put them on the kitchen table and Johns Mam was complaining about the mess, while his Dad explained why it was a good idea to set up an electric boring machine in the front room.

His idea was to create a heat exchange and thus generate his own electricity. He had bought five hundred feet of scaffolding poles that he was going to join as he drilled down through the earth under the house. These pipes had been accumulating for the previous two years and now filled the back yard. He was explaining to the Johns mother how he was going to join these poles together pShe did not think the plan was any good and that the poles would come apart if he did not change the way he was going to do it. They were going to drill in the front room. It was on a day when John had to visit his biological mother, Bella, and his stepfather that the accident happened. John would always remember the gloating look on his stepfathers face when he told him that the posh bastards had blown themselves up. Fred and Isobel had both died in the Gas explosion. Fred got his own way in the end. When he had drilled down four feet, he had hit a gas main and blown up half the street. The remains found would have filled no more than a small carrier bag.

John stirred in his hospital bed, the rubber sheet echoing its crunching around his head, he was cold now, but he was not awake and not sleeping either, he was in the twilight between sleep and consciousness, the territory that the heroin addict occupies. He pulled up the covers; there was another deafening noise, the rubber sheet protesting loudly as he moved. He groaned and lay down, on his back looking up, at the ceiling, his eyes almost shut, like a child pretending to sleep. He stared, half-conscious, at the same spot of flaking paint, squinted a little more and the pale green unicorn returned and he drifted back to the past once more. He seemed to jolt awake and was on his own, it was pitch black, so black he could not see his hand if he put it right up close to his eye. It felt like he was in a dark purple, almost black, void. He put his hands up in the air, slowly; he then put them down by his side.

He was roaming freely in the past now. Slowly, like a cat waking and stretching, his mind came into focus. Shooting up his legs was a sharp pain. The pain was searing, as if dipping a hand in red hot water and pulling it out fast, delayed but lingering, face twisting agony. It consumed his whole body; it seemed to be flowing out of the top of his head and it floated above as it consumed him. He could not cry out, or if he could, he did not hear. He thought of pictures, they were bright colours, every colour he could think of: purple, yellow, orange, red, blue, every hue was there. Floating like clouds and swirling, quite slowly, the colours were all moving, some were streaks of colour, like smoke, but thicker. He was looking at three people ahead and to the right of him, looking upwards; he only saw them for a moment, they wore white. He held this image and the pain seemed to meld into it, his breathing was deep and rhythmical. He put his hands to his face: it hurt. Free falling, spinning but not dizzy, he touched his face but could not feel his hands, they felt numb, now he was razor sharp cold, a chill that cuts through every pore and makes you walk like a robot, a tottering tower so cold you can hardly breathe. Suddenly there was a light; it grew from a pinprick, gradually it expanded, white in the middle, softer as it grew out wards, until it filled the room. He could barely see, looking through what appeared to be dry ice pierced by arc lights, but only seeing the light. He was four years old and this was the first time he could clearly recall his stepfather beating him senseless. He was in hospital.

John woke suddenly, sweating. The pain was intense, he shouted for a nurse, but it came out as a wheezing, whispered whine. There was no response. He tried to reach for the Morphine button but he did not have the strength. He lay back down, he thought of a cloud, white and empty. He focused on the softness, the nothingness and of floating deep inside it. He relaxed and controlled the pain the same way as when he was a boy suffering a beating by his stepfather. He remembered the time his stepfather had thrown a kettle of boiling water at him, when he had punched and kicked him on his fifth birthday, when his mother had told him not to be a liar when he complained that his stepfather kept touching his privates. He remembered his mother throwing him down the stairs because he told his friends about it. He remembered the last time he saw them, when he was seven. Tears filled his eyes, he cried for that little boy, an old man sobbing at the injustice that that child, powerless to protest, had endured. She was nonetheless his Mam and he loved her still, but she hated him and hurt him. Her name was Bella.

He was ten when he went back. Bella and her man had both had intensive counselling so that made it all right and safe. They always denied any wrongdoing and threatened to claim compensation from the Social Services for placing John with such unsuitable, dangerous and deranged foster parents. Therefore, a spot of family therapy and token supervision was the result. The beatings were less after this. The odd black eye, Psychological abuse, endless criticism and putting down of John were normal. He learned to make them laugh at him, this seemed to deflect their anger, and he sought to please his stepfather and called him dad. They went fishing, fighting and boozing together. John learned to be just like his stepfather a Geordie, from Gateshead, a Deckham lad. He remembered a time before call centres, hot water, and indoor baths. A time of shipyards, of coal fires, bronchitis and kids running about in winter, with no shoes. He did not like anyone who lived south of Gateshead; he ventured to South Shields on occasion to fish for codling from the pier, but no further than this, unless it was necessary. He would not be able to rationalise this if asked. He just knew that this was the way to be. His stepfather taught him this. He soon blocked out the teachings of his foster parents. His stepfather taught him how, he constantly criticised them for leaving him: by being stupid and blowing themselves up.

He met a Cockney once and thought he was a bastard; he loathed Mackems he put up with the Pakistanis because they kept the corner shop open until late, and one would always give him a sick note down at the quack. He hated Scousers, never forgetting the humiliation of 74 when the Toon got their arses kicked down at Wembley, in the FA Cup Final. He was a big lad, six two, fifteen stone, went to the gym and drank four or five pints of half-and-half every night, down at the local pub. He was a bit fat and slightly red faced, from the beer; he had a blondish head of hair, that was thinning slightly, and a broken nose. His skin was wrinkled and lined from all the roll-ups he smoked He imagined himself to be witty, funny, and a raconteur. Because of his size and aggression, few would dispute this claim, not to his face at least. He liked to fight and reminisce about the violence in the seventies. He was active on the terraces, before they closed the Leazes End, and all the puffs started liking football, buying season tickets and sitting down rather than getting pissed and standing on the terraces.

He heard a sound and hurried back to the present, a nurse had come into the room, she ruffled towards him as if in a cloud, she rolled him easily onto his side, he only weighed a few stone now. She spiked him with a massive dose of morphine, the pain slowly receded and he drifted back off to the past.

It was a cold morning, dawn was just breaking, and there was a slight breeze; but only every now and then, walking along John could smell silage, pungent, yet sweet: the odour of farming. The trees were thinning out, and occasionally, the brown and ochre leaves, some of which were still clinging to their branches, would fall ever so slowly, to the forest floor. It was a constant rustling, like rain; occasionally, creaking branches would interrupt this symphony. The ground was muddy, squelching under foot; caked with mud the leaves that had fallen made a thick brown porridge, and covered the track. Weary now, he put one foot in front of the other, counting rhythmically as he walked, thinking of home, previous friendships lost and Bella with Bob. The legs and part torso he carried were heavy now, wrapped in an old threadbare carpet, tied up with string. John turned to look behind him, the blood dripped occasionally and it was getting blacker, the legs were stiffening slowly; they would start to smell quite soon.

The trees became even scarcer as he walked, oak and elm replaced by the moulting bark of silver birch, odd clumps of nettles and ivy interspersed the trees, the grass was wet with dew, and the sunlight stronger, as the sun rose. It was quiet apart from the occasional crow squawking. The sun was blinding, it was a low orange winter sun and made the grass seem paler, it was yellowing anyway in parts, and the whole forest seemed to be shedding its skin like a snake: it would sulk all winter, emerging in spring with a diamond skin of leaves and lush new growth.

After thirty years of grafting, on the banks of the Tyne, making Tanks, the Company laid John off. He got a watch, a leaving do, thirty grand of redundancy money and lost most of his social life. He had already seen off three wives; he was on to his fourth, he had nine kids, never paid a penny in child support and was proud of it. His lads saw him in the pub and CIU Club; his daughters sent him cards on his birthday and at Christmas. He always told his ex wives the same thing: if they stopped him seeing the kids, wanted money or let another man leather his bairns he would take their Fathers face off with a Stanley knife, as a football hooligan this was his weapon of choice. He had a track record for this, while on remand in Durham for GBH: he blinded a nonce, cut off most of his nose and none of the other prisoners or screws saw a thing. No one doubted his word or intent when he made a threat. He never paid a penny to any of the women but saw all his kids grow up. Some described him as a misogynist, others said he was just a cunt, but no one, except perhaps a copper or screw, would ever say it to his face. He thought himself to be a good bloke, a real man, and a diamond. His stepfather taught him this.

He had time on his hands then, and time to pursue his secret passion: tiddlywinks. He had been playing since he was a boy living with his foster Dad, Fred. Fred encouraged him to play, and enter competitions; they would travel to these together. He had a gift for it and he mastered it when he was seven. Nine times out of ten he could put a tiddlywink in an upturned thimble from nigh on three feet. He never told his mates at work, or his wives or kids, His foster Mam, Isobel, knew he played but she would never tell. He played under the name of John Todd and had been world champion for thirty years; he had been on BBC television news once and on Blue Peter twice. Always wearing a wig and glasses, he was never recognised. Tiddlywinks was a link he had to Fred and Isobel and meant everything to him. He never ever told his stepfather he played; it was a secret that he kept from his stepfather and real mother all their lives.

The memories were clear now, as if he had fully regressed, the trees, sounds, and sights and smells were so real, as if transported back in time. As he walked, through the mud, he thought back to the Tiddlywinks World Championships. That year they had been in London, at a hotel on the Strand. John did not like the idea of going to London, full of Southerners and multi-cultural types. Tipped to take his crown this year, his main rival was Bob, a Cockney. Johns pride was such that he could not permit this to occur, especially as Bob was a Cockney. He was taking his latest wife with him; she did not know why they were really going, she thought it was a shopping trip, a chance to spend some of Johns redundancy money. John called all of his wives Bella, after his Mam. He liked a big woman, the bigger the better: it made him feel more secure, he was consumed with jealousy, he was a violent man to his women, as well as any man who was daft enough, to be seen by him, gawping at Bella. The latest Bella was three hundred pounds of wheezing decrepitude, a bit like a giant white crinkly sumo toad, that chain-smoked. As he walked in the squelching mud, half of her was slowly congealing on his back.

The four star hotel had been pleasant but peeling, not so much on the Strand as five hundred yards off it. Bella was wheezing, sweaty and farting; he sent her off to the shops and opened all the windows. He had an hour before the first round. It would take him twenty minutes to get to the venue. The competition was at another hotel. John left his hotel and jumped into a cab, he was just about there when he saw Bella and a tall gangly skinny person with ginger hair and an inhaler in his hand. He was hopping around her, like a hyperactive cricket. She was laughing; the cricket was seeking and gaining her approval. Johns stomach turned, it was Bob, that tiddlywinking cockney bastard. His mind raced: she was going to betray him, like his Mam, for another man. She would find out what this Cockney did and why he was here, and so she would find out about Johns secret passion, his disguise was not that good. This meant his mates would find out; in Johns mind, his reputation was already in tatters and he faced ridicule back home.

As he continued to walk through the cloying mud he thought back to the competition and losing his title by default, for not turning up, he began to cry, not sob, just cry, tears ran down his cheeks, he was nearly there now, the secret place. He had been here before, it was an old mine shaft; there had been hundreds of pits and shafts dug around here over the last few hundred years, many during the general strike when miners, idle and starving, would dig for coal to keep their families warm in the bitter cold of a North East winter. He threw Bellas huge legs down the shaft, a few seconds later he heard an enormous whooshing splash. He turned, and as he did so he looked down at his own legs covered in blood, not red or crimson, but black and congealed; he had a pair of plastic rainproof trousers rolled up tightly in his pocket. He pulled them out and put these over his jeans to hide the blood, cursing that he had not thought to put them on earlier. He believed then that the dawn would bring new promise from the hectic, murderous, and bloody day that had gone before. The noise of traffic hummed in the distance; the density of the trees had shielded it from him: like a sound barrier, absorbing all the smoke and noise of the city, as a sponge thirstily consumes water. However, as he got nearer to the city the noise grew, he saw the sky tinged with the smoggy excrement of cars, the filthy poisonous fumes that choked anything that sought to breathe it. The planet is coughing now, on the fag ends of an industrial age. He mused on the profundity of these things as he trudged wearily to the copse to get the rest of the body from the boot of his car. He needed to change his jeans before he met Bella the Fifth, who he had seen a couple of weeks ago, the Karaoke started at two, down at the bar, and he fancied his chances of winning the competition, as well as getting his leg over.

He was disappointed then to see in the distance the flashing blue lights from half a dozen police cars. His disappointment was complete when Her Honour the Judge sentenced him to a minimum of thirty years in Durham prison. This was a little further south than John would have liked.

The pain returned as John regained consciousness in his cacophonous, uncomfortable and lonely deathbed. The prison nurse was leaning over him, she did not care that he was dying and in pain. John could see her but could not move, he could see other white coats and he felt as if he was floating in a fog and then that he was running and running but the fog was growing thicker. He was blind, inside a bubble of air, surrounded by dank and moist mist. The silence was thick, like treacle, John seemed to be in a trance, transcendental images of past times and places dominated his thoughts, memories of what had passed filling the fog dome, he did not really see anything. He was trying to look at something but his eyes were unplugged. His breathing was very shallow and occasionally he would sigh. He slowly and noisily breathed out and the life seemed to be leaving his body as his lungs gurgled, full of fluid and tumours. Like birds gathering to fly for days, his soul seemed to be gathering from the dying parts of his body and leaving him gradually. He felt empty and hollow, his thoughts seemed to echo, and they were not sharp, the dull edge of a sharp knife, not able to cut through the resistance of brutality or actions from a previous age. Pressed back into the bed, gravity had intensified and made him so heavy that no matter how hard he tried he could not lift a finger. His breathing was slowing and becoming shallower, breaths getting thinner and rasping as the mist around him seemed to become thicker, denser and darker.

He turned his head, it seemed a great weight to John, it was an effort to look at her, he had to concentrate to move his head and look into her eyes, the pain had receded, and his thoughts were blunt, imprecise and vague. He thought he could see Bella meditating, completely still, apart from her right foot, which, every now and again, similar to a dripping tap at three in the morning twitched ever so slightly. She focused and her eyes changed hue from blue to green, she was angry, concentrating and frowning at him now. She was angry; John was at that moment a scared, powerless and cowering little boy. He knew that she would know what to do; she would be calm, powerful, merciless and in control. He must resist the temptation to try to speak, to make a sound or to undermine her strength. It was fear of her that was dominating his dying thoughts. The place that he was now at: in a dark, fog filled tunnel, terrified, old and infirm, weak and helpless, only half-aware, he would only be able to tell you that Bella was waiting for him. He would tell you he was sorry for what he had done. He could see a little boy; it was John, as a child, standing in what appeared to be a circle of light. He was speaking, his mouth moving, but John could not hear. He concentrated on the moving lips, they were mouthing, repeatedly: say sorry.

With one final great effort, of will and strength, hate, love and terror, he drew one last grating, rasping breath and cried out Mam, Im sorry - love me, please!

The nurse and Doctors made a backward glance and looked down at the gaunt, cancer eaten and crumbled cadaver of the killer. No one ever really cared, apart from Fred and Isobel; and the Bellas, sometimes.


Redemption is never beyond any of us

Ivor Griffiths

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