Of trains and games and little red stains...
The smell was back, that damp, musty smell that Joe always associated with old houses and old people. Joe had smelled it before, many times, just as he’d been here many times in the past, or at least he thought he had… He mentally steeled himself as he felt the nausea welling up from the pit of his stomach. He really didn’t want to be here, not now, not ever.
For some reason his head felt as if it were made of lead and it took an almost herculean effort to raise it the smallest of distances, in fact it was all he could do to raise his chin up from his chest. He heard a muffled sound to his right and instinctively turned toward it, then the darkness closed in again and he collapsed back to the floor.
When he eventually came too, he felt his mind reeling as it struggled to form any sort of comprehension. In some ways it was as if his thought processes had become detached from him and were now hung in some form of suspended animation. He swore and tasted the bitter, metallic taste of blood in his mouth, was it his blood? He opened his eyes and saw he was in a room that was vaguely familiar, or at least he thought it was. It was the floor, the floor was different, and it took him a while to realise there was now a heavily patterned, old fashioned carpet where there should have been modern, polished floorboards. Then there was the bed…
The room started to spin, and he felt the all-encompassing blackness slowly enveloping him until he eventually started to slip away into that finally balanced place that lay just beyond the edge of consciousness. It was as if he was no longer in this world and not quite in the next. It was a cold, dark, vacuous place devoid of any vestitude of life.
Then he saw it, a small speck of light at the far end of a tunnel and for one blissful moment he thought there might be hope. It was only for a moment though, as another convulsive wave of nausea coursed through his body and the tunnel started to twist and turn in a series of violent, kaleidoscopic motions. Joe closed his eyes in the hope that the nightmare would cease, but to his horror when he opened them, he found he was no longer looking along a tunnel but down a seemingly fathomless abyss.
Even as he watched, the speck of light at the bottom was growing bigger by the second as he free falled uncontrollably toward it. This was the end… when he reached the light, he knew it was the end, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. All of his hopes, all of his dreams, they all flashed before him along with the faces of those he held dear. He let out a long-anguished cry born out of fear and desperation, then there was nothing…nothing at all.
The smell was back, which was a good thing as it meant he wasn’t dead but back on the bedroom floor. He lay there face down, for what seemed an age before eventually lifting his dazed and confused head in an effort to make some sense of his surroundings. He was closer to the bed this time, its black, cast iron bed stead looming over him.
The room swung in and out of focus again and somewhere in the far recesses of Joe’s befuddled mind realisation dawned that the bed should have been a single, modern, pine bed not this monstrosity from a bygone age.
There was something else too, a feeling of restricted movement that his brain just couldn’t rationalise. It was almost as if his arms and legs were ignoring his commands to move. Then it came to him in a moment of sickening realisation, both his arms and legs were bound tightly behind his back. He struggled desperately then but try as he might his efforts were in vain and he resigned himself to lying there in a state of fear filled impotency.
He must have passed out again, how long for he didn’t know, it could have been five minutes, or it could have been five hours. What he did know though was he was no longer alone; he could distinctly hear the sound of feet shuffling around on the carpet in front of him. He raised his head to see a pair of boots three foot away. They were old leather boots; clog like in appearance with odd looking brass buckles in place of laces. Above the boots a pair of grey trouser legs towered above him. Despite his best efforts Joe couldn’t crane his head far enough back to see anything above the knees and for now his tormentor would remain anonymous.
“Please help me,” he sobbed pathetically.
The boots stood still as if they were considering his request then took a single step backwards. Something dripped on to the floor to Joe’s right and he turned to see a shiny wet patch of what was obviously blood, he cried out involuntarily as a crimson droplet tapped on to the carpet beside him. To his horror the drips increased in frequency, each droplet impacting on the floor and bursting into a myriad of much finer droplets that peppered his cheeks.
All the while the boots remained in menacing silence in front of him. In an act of sheer desperation, he half rolled on to his side and kicked for all he was worth against the bedstead in the hope that somebody would hear the commotion and come to his rescue. It was to be to no avail and the boots were very quickly back in front of him, albeit a little further away. This afforded him a better look at the person wearing them and he took in what details he could. The trousers above the boots were dark grey, an old-fashioned cut, both high in the waist and wide in the leg. Above the trousers his tormentor wore a rough, loosely fitting waist coat that was faded with age. More than that, Joe could not see.
Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse a hand dropped into view, it was holding something, some type of blade that was dripping for most of its length with thick, congealed blood. Joe saw it was an old fashioned wooden handled chisel; he’d seen something similar years ago in his grandfather’s toolbox when he was a boy.
What fear he’d felt before paled into insignificance as he saw the hand reverse its grip on the chisels handle so it could be better used in a stabbing motion. With one last terror induced effort Joe summoned all of his strength and jerked his neck back as far as it would go in an effort to see the face of his tormentor. It wasn’t to be though, as he couldn’t see anything above the level of their chin. What shocked him to the core, however, was the stiff white dog collar they were wearing around their neck. His tormentor was, it appeared, a man of the cloth. It was then he realised the chisel was swiftly descending toward his own neck.
“No, no,” he screamed whilst desperately thrashing from side to side in an effort to avoid the blow.
Whether he avoided it or not he didn’t know, just as he’d never known. As with on previous occasions this was the point when he always woke up. He lay on his back, panting heavily as he stared up at the ceiling.
“Bastard,” he growled as he flung the duvet back and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The dream was always the same. It had never changed. He doubted it ever would. Over the years he’d considered seeking professional help to see if there was a reason for the same reoccurring nightmare to be constantly stalking him from the shadows. He shook his head as he knew he never would. One thing he did know though, it wasn’t in any way linked to Sue’s death. He’d been having the dream long before her accident.
He glanced across at his alarm clock, its LED display showing it was 23.55. The alarm was set for midnight and he reached across and turned it off, thereby denying his nemesis the pleasure of annoying him with its incessant high-pitched tone. As victories went it was about as hollow as Lance Armstrong’s drug fueled Tour de France wins, but what the hell. Once he’d dealt with the alarm, he switched on his bedside lamp and allowed himself a moment for his brain to slowly boot itself up to speed.
As it did so he studied the small collection of framed photographs on his dressing table. First and foremost was a large picture of Sue standing on a section of Hadrian’s wall. He could remember taking it as if it was yesterday. It had been on their first date, a damp and miserable day in Northumbria, what more could you want. Only it wasn’t miserable, far from it in fact as archaeology and history were Sue’s two biggest passions. Joe couldn’t help but smile as he remembered how she’d come alive when they’d pulled up at a remote car park near Haltwhistle. All of a sudden what looked to Joe as little more than a pile of stones and undulations in a field became a Roman Fort along with a civilian settlement as she animatedly brought the place back to life. She was truly gifted and in no time at all her passion and enthusiasm would infect whoever she was talking too. She would have made a fantastic teacher, a fantastic wife and without doubt a fantastic mother.
Joe looked away as he felt a tear welling up in the corner of his eye, it had been three years since she’d been killed by a hit and run driver and the pain was still every bit as raw as it had been on that Monday. Monday the 24th of May, or black Monday as Joe referred to it.
He slid his attention across to another, smaller photograph, it showed his mother, Sue and Uncle Jim smiling back at him with raised glasses. It had been the day they’d announced their engagement. Who knew that within six months Sue would be gone.
It had hurt his mother and his Uncle every bit as much as it had hurt him. Especially Jim, he hadn’t taken the news at all well as he’d liked Sue from the very first moment he’d met her. Joe remembered how his uncle had surreptitiously taken him to one side before quite candidly telling him, “listen son, women like that don’t come along very often.”
Joe also remembered how a week after her death he’d received a visit from his then boss, Police Inspector Griffiths.
“You need to tell your Uncle to call the dogs off,” were his exact words.
“What do you mean?” Joe had asked in all innocence.
“I mean it seems we aren’t the only ones investigating the circumstances of your fiancée’s death. You need to tell Jim to leave it to us.”
Joe was genuinely surprised, which looking back now was surprising in itself. He should have known “Psycho” Jim wasn’t about to just sit on his hands. If Jim had found the person responsible, he’d never said, and Joe could only imagine what their fate would have been if he had. Not that he cared. Whoever it was had hit Sue that hard both she and her bike had been catapulted through a hedge into a field beyond. Although he’d never seen it, colleagues had told him her mountain bike’s back wheel had totally disintegrated. Such had been the force of the impact.
To make matters worse, those responsible had driven off and left her there. At the inquest the coroner had estimated she’d lain out in that remote field for up to four hours before she was found. He’d also estimated she’d been alive for at least two. Two hours in which she could have been saved if somebody called the emergency services. It was a fact Joe was never going to come to terms with.
He drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly before standing up, as he did so a third picture came into view. One that was purposely hidden away behind the other two. It showed a tall well-built man with the characteristic Harper hooked nose. Unlike those depicted in the other photographs he wasn’t smiling and from what Joe could remember he never did. Not much anyway, except on those rare occasions when England did well at cricket.
Why Joe even kept a picture of his father on display he didn’t know, there’d certainly been no love lost between them. Not in the latter years of their relationship any way and Joe had always been much closer to his uncle. He scoffed at the thought as the irony wasn’t lost on him.
Joe’s father, Stephen Harper and his Uncle Jim were brothers, and there the similarity ended. Joe’s old man had been a career Policeman almost from the day he walked out of school. Outwardly he was a fine well-respected pillar of the community who sat on the parish council and played cricket for the village team. Over the years he’d worked his way up from beat bobby to Sergeant and then Inspector… what better role model could there have been?
His brother Jim on the other hand had trodden a very different path and after briefly studying for a degree had turned his back on University to manage a betting shop in Newcastle City centre. Five years later he’d opened his own in Durham, ten years on and the Harper Empire had grown to encompass a chain of twenty betting shops, a night club and two Hotels. Jim hadn’t managed all of this without bashing a few heads along the way and it wasn’t for nothing that he was known as Psycho Jim. There were also the rumors he’d been involved in various shady deals, but shady or not, Psycho Jim doted on his nephew.
In many ways Jim had been a surrogate father to Joe and the two had been virtually inseparable as he grew up. Something that would cause them any amount of pain when Joe quite unexpectedly followed in his fathers’ footsteps and joined the Police. To this day Joe didn’t know what had compelled him to make such a drastic career change. He was nineteen at the time and was working in one of his uncles betting shops in South Shields. What made it all the more bizarre was the fact that Jim made no secret of the fact Joe was the heir to the throne and one day the empire would be his.
Joe did suspect guilt played a large part as the day before his father dropped dead from a heart attack, they’d had a terrible fight. True it was a long time in the making and some would say long overdue, but even now, nine years later it was still something he bitterly regretted.
The reality was whilst his Uncle Jim might have erred on the wrong side of the law and greased a few palms here and knocked a few heads together there, the one thing he wasn’t was a womanizing wife beater. Unlike Joe’s father who outwardly had the air of utmost respectability whilst secretly having a string of affairs. Not only that once the doors were closed, he used to drink, quite often to excess and that inevitably didn’t end well for Joe’s mother.
Joe would have been about twelve when he first became aware his mother was being abused. It was a red-hot summer’s day and he noticed she was wearing a high-necked pullover which seemed ludicrous at the time. It wasn’t until later in the day when they were back home that Joe had seen the tell-tale bruising around her neck. When he thought about it his mother had always been a very clumsy person, walking in to doors and tripping up over the cat on more than one occasion. Except he now knew it wasn’t a door or the cat, it was his father’s fist.
That’s what had happened on the day of the fight, Joe had come home early to find his father with his hands around his mother’s throat. It wasn’t the first time but unlike previous occasions Joe was bigger, fitter and far more capable of taking his father on. He’d pulled him off her and tried to push him out of the room, but his father had flown into a drunken rage and took a swing at Joe. Fortunately, he missed, unfortunately for him Joe didn’t, and he’d landed a punch square on the end of his nose. His father had staggered back, either stunned or shocked by the blow, not that he’d had time to dwell on the matter as Joe had quickly followed it up with the mother of all head butts. This time it was his father’s turn to say he’d fallen down the stairs.
The next day he was dead, struck down by a massive heart attack, although that wasn’t quite true as his ghost had continued to haunt Joe from the grave. It didn’t help that when Joe had joined the Police his peers were split in to two camps. There was the camp who saw him as the son of an exemplary Police officer, then there was the other who saw him as the nephew of Jim Harper the alleged gangster. It was something he’d lived with and endured for nine years and as he sat there on the side of his bed in the middle of the night, he knew he was coming to a cross roads. The question was which way would he go…?