OK – is this a crime?
I leave it to you to decide.
A Taste of Death
I was surprised to find my neighbour beating down my door at a quarter to six on a Sunday morning. We have hardly exchanged ten words since I moved here. She is built in the ‘keeps herself to herself’ mode, along with most of the other people on this street. And that suits me fine. I don’t suppose we have much in common, there being at least a thirty year age gap between me and the rest of what I call Via Geriatrica.
Once I’d dragged myself out of bed and pulled on a dressing gown, I found Margaret on the doorstep, clad in a pink knee-length winceyette nightie, beaming all over her face. She barged straight past me giving me no chance to speak.
‘I had to come and tell someone,’ she said in her shrill voice. ‘I know I shouldn’t tell a soul and I’ll deny it all later if you breathe so much as a word, but I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it. I’ve killed him.’
‘Killed who?’ I asked.
‘Norman,’ she said. ‘It’s taken me a while, but I knew I’d manage it in the end.’
It took me a moment to register that Norman was her husband. I’ve only seen him twice. On both occasions, he stunned me by being able to keep his vast frame upright on such seemingly tiny feet.
‘Norman’s dead?’ I suppose I must have seemed a bit slow on the up-take.
‘Oh, yes,’ she assured me. ‘I even got a mirror out and put it by his nose. Definitely not breathing.’
I couldn’t think there would be any need for the mirror. The first time I encountered Norman, I heard him long before he heaved his body into view. It was like something out of an old Hammer Horror film, his breathing loud and tortured. I used to have a boyfriend who restored traction engines and most of them made less noise than Norman breathing. Mind you, the din was understandable: the man was vast. It must have taken a huge amount of oxygen for him just to raise a finger, let alone plant one foot in front of another to walk. The second time I saw him, two ambulance men were trying to squeeze him into the back of their vehicle and I remember thinking they would have been better off borrowing a low-loader.
‘Oh, dear. I am so sorry,’ I said, saying the first thing that came into my head. ‘Do you want to sit down?’
‘Are you sorry, dear?’ she squealed. ‘I’m not. I’ve been trying to bump him off for years and now I’ve succeeded. Yippee!’
I wasn’t sure how to react. I’d never met a murderer before so I suppose I’m no expert on what they look like, but Margaret was about as far away from my idea of a killer as you could get. More likely to be on the receiving end of any sort of violence, I would have thought. Short and skinny, with a pale face and a little cloud of wispy hair, she looked as if Norman had sat on her and squeezed the life out. I have to admit I’d have strangled her myself if I’d had to live with that penetrating voice of hers for very long.
‘Actually,’ she said, her head snapping back and her hands beginning to flap about. ‘Perhaps I ought to have a second opinion. Make sure. You’d better come and look.’ With that, she opened my front door and shot down the path, leaving me wondering whether to follow or ring the police. I didn’t really believe her story, but I was curious, so I found myself shoving my feet into wellies and trailing after her.
For such an elderly lady, she had a fair turn of speed. She’d left the back door wide open and the kitchen was empty. I glanced into the sitting room, but she wasn’t there either.
‘Up here,’ she called. ‘In the bedroom.’
The cottage was the same as mine, although decorated in a fussy way. I had few possessions, fewer still on display, whereas Margaret could have starred in her own version of the Antiques Roadshow. No space had been left unfilled. I wondered how Norman had managed to manoeuvre his bulk around the place.
Upstairs, in the larger bedroom, there was no fussy bric-a-brac, just one brass bedstead containing one very large man.
I suppose I could have touched his skin to see if it was still warm. I didn’t. I concluded that in the absence of any rasping noise emanating from his lungs, Margaret was probably right: the guy was dead. We stood together in silence for a few moments. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I was considering the poor undertaker who would have to get Norman out of the house. These cottages had tiny windows and twisting staircases. The wise seventeenth century builder had the foresight to include a ‘coffin drop’ in each of the two bedrooms in case of such emergencies, I was uncertain that Norman’s body would fit through the hole.
‘I was right then. He really, really is dead. I’ve killed him.’ Margaret’s smile indicated total satisfaction. I felt I had to raise the obvious question.
‘Er, how did you do it, if you don’t my asking?’
‘I don’t mind, though as I said if you repeat a word, I’ll deny it. It’s such a relief, I can tell you. He was driving me mad. Everything he did, everything he said. You know when someone can’t do anything right?’
I knew. That was why Brian and I had separated, why I was living in my own version of this tiny cottage.
‘I had just cleared away the dirty dishes and brushed crumbs from the tablecloth. Norman belched his approval and raised his thumb in praise of my magnificent steamed steak and kidney pudding with creamy mashed potatoes and extra onion gravy.
‘“That was amazing,” he said. “Your best yet. The crust was delicious. You added herbs, didn’t you?”
‘I always add a few. To sharpen the palate, enough to notice without overpowering. He was good like that, could always be relied on to compliment my cooking.
‘I went into the kitchen to fetch the dessert, keeping an eye on him through the crack in the door jamb, although it wasn’t really necessary. I knew he would be savouring the last glass of red wine. He wouldn’t consider waiting, sharing it with me. Not that I wanted any, nasty bitter stuff. Give me something sweeter any day, preferably with bubbles in it and definitely not with steak and kidney pudding. A glass of water and a nice cup of tea suit me just fine.
‘Anyway, I stacked the plates in the dishwasher and called through to him that I’d bought a nice piece of sirloin for Sunday.
‘“Wonderful,” he said. His reply was broken into three syllables by two burps and I winced at each one. His manners were dreadful, I can’t tell you.’
I nodded, but I couldn’t believe she’d done him in because he had wind after he’d eaten. If that were reason to commit murder, half the men in England would be in danger of getting a knife between their ribs.
‘I took the clean tea towel from the top of the plate of muffins. They were just nicely warm and I split each one neatly into two, their aroma of spicy fruitiness filling my nostrils. You must try one. There are still a couple left.’
For a surreal moment, I thought I’d wandered into a cookery show, but she was soon back on track.
‘Norman loved muffins and my Strawberry Cinnamon Sugar Muffins were his favourite.’ Margaret sniffed. ‘He was surprised I baked them for him, of course, because we’d had another argument that morning.’
‘Oh, yes. I’m surprised you didn’t hear us, but then these places are well built, aren’t they, well insulated? Yes, I threatened never to make muffins again, threatened never to cook him another thing. Not even my Chocolate Brownies, the ones so full of pecans that he adored. It wasn’t my fault the doctor had told him to lose weight. His breathing was laboured. His blood pressure was dangerously high, and his cholesterol. After countless visits to the doctor and as many changes of pills, nothing had worked. Norman refused to diet, but he blamed me for his weight gain.
‘“You shouldn’t give me so much,” he would say after eating enough breakfast for a family of six. ‘”You know the doctor said to cut down.”
‘And I did try. Why, only the other day I gave him a three egg omelette and what did I get for my trouble? He moaned he was starving and wanted to know if I was short of housekeeping this week. It was always the same. He was like a child. If I gave him too little, he complained. If I gave him the quantity he wanted, he ate every scrap and then bleated that it was no wonder he put on weight. The trouble is, I love to cook and he loved to eat. And I loved to see him eat, so I cooked even more. Me, I’m as thin as a bean and I’ve always eaten the same food as Norman. Just not quite so much of it.’ She sighed and pulled a face.
‘Or I did until recently. Until he ballooned to thirty-two stones, seemingly overnight, and his eating began to revolt me. The butter that dribbled down his chin from my lemon butter chicken, the slurping of maple syrup on waffles, the crunching of my magnificent cinder toffee, where once I would have seen these as signs of appreciation, they left me nauseous, so I couldn’t eat anything at all. Couldn’t sleep. I could only sit and stare while he lifted forkful after forkful to his mouth of whatever I laid in front of him. I lost weight as he gained it.
‘The situation had become intolerable. Something had to give.’
She closed her eyes, one hand on her chest and for one minute, I thought she’d finished, but no, she was only pausing for breath.
‘Once I’d made my decision to kill him, I felt quite serene. Although I still couldn’t manage to eat, sleep no longer eluded me. I was calmer than I’d been in years.
‘Of course it would have been easier to pick up a frozen lump of beef and bang him over the head, but then I’d have an unexplained body on my hands. I mean, there was no possibility of my slinging him into the boot of a car and dumping him somewhere unseen, was there?’
Her tiny frame shook with quiet laughter and I had to agree that there was not.
‘And I don’t want to see out my days in some awful prison. No, I was going to have to be a great deal cleverer than that. So, I carried on as normal. Then last night, I pumped the centres of the muffins full to bursting with thick Devonshire clotted cream and a sweetened raspberry cooli. The red syrup bled out of the cracks as fast as I poured it in. Turned my stomach to see the mess it was making. Norman though, he thought it looked delicious. Eight muffins he ate and the best part of a pint of clotted cream. And all that sugar in the cooli. It was inevitable, wasn’t it? A heart attack?’
She gave a little nod and sighed again.
‘But it isn’t your fault,’ I said. ‘He was a grown man. If he knew he had a heart condition, bad cholesterol and so on, you can’t blame yourself if he continued to eat things that he shouldn’t.’
‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘I haven’t helped. I’ve been adding to it. Ever since I knew.
‘Red meat. Full cream milk. Full fat everything, cooking in butter or lard, frying everything when I should have grilled. I’ve been adding butter and cream to sauces and gravies. Loads of cheese. Norman loved his cheese. And his chocolate. Two dozen eggs a week minimum we got through, when the doctor said he should have no more than four.’ She snorted. ‘And you have no idea how much sugar and icing sugar. It’s cost a lot of money, but he’s got good life insurance, I’ve seen to that. More than enough to pay off my debts and see me right for a good few years. I might go off to foreign parts. Somewhere warm, I think.’
She beamed and gave herself a sort of hug.
‘Anyway, I must go and ring the doctor now. Play the grieving widow. Thanks for listening. I just had to tell someone and I couldn’t talk to any of the old dears along the road.’ She chuckled. ‘Might be the death of them. I don’t want to bump anyone else off, do I?’
And with that, she scurried downstairs to find the phone, leaving me contemplating everything she said.
I’m not sure what to think. Did she really kill him? And if she did, what should I do about it?