I didn’t think anyone could do much harm to a bowl of cornflakes but I hadn’t counted on Sadie. The cereal itself was fine but she’d used powdered milk and mixed it using the same method for the previous night’s gravy and custard. Small white lumps floated around my plate and stuck to the cornflakes. At my feet, Weedgie spat them out onto the carpet.
Conversation was sparse and muted, everyone sleepy and gearing themselves up for another working day, and then Sadie announced that her sister Mary would be coming to stay for the weekend.
“Will she want our room?” I asked in some alarm but Sadie assured me that Mary would sleep in her small guest room downstairs. “She doesn’t keep good health, and it’ll give Don a break. He‘s been so patient with her the last few months, the man‘s a saint.”
I immediately took a dislike to Don. A saint…or a potential murderer? I had a tingling sensation in my stomach, and it wasn’t all due to the burnt toast and stewed tea which followed the cornflakes. I reckoned I had found my potential victim. Weedgie tugged at the leg of my jeans.
“It’s her, isn’t it? This Mary? She’s the yin ye’ve tae save.”
I nodded tersely, annoyed that he’d picked up on it too. I asked Sadie when her sister would be arriving and she told me sometime after lunch. She rose and bustled in and out of the room, clearing the table while Lorraine, Pat and Eric left and went back upstairs. I studied Lorraine as she went; she hadn’t shown the tiniest bit of recognition towards me. This was ridiculous, for crying out loud. I had murdered the girl; the least she could do was acknowledge me. My ego wasn’t used to this kind of treatment.
Another worry surfaced. In the bathroom mirror this morning I had seemed even younger than the day before, despite the ridiculous moustache and long hair. I looked about sixteen. Was my age reversing? Would I look fourteen tomorrow and then get younger and younger until I disappeared altogether?
“Whit are ye thinkin’?” Weedgie stared up at me. “Ye look worried again.”
I wished he would mind his own business and leave me alone. I thought quickly.
“I need to go and find out if I do exist in 1968,” I told him, “I can’t stand this not knowing. I’m going to go to Stella’s house and my old workplace.”
“My wife. She lived with her aunt before we married. I met her last autumn. She should recognise me. You stay here and see if you hear anything else about Sadie’s sister.”
“Ye canny jist leave me here. Ah’m yer dug, ye’ve got tae look efter me.”
Sadie came back in just then and picked up Weedgie’s bowl. I took my chance.
“Sadie, would you mind keeping an eye on Weedgie while I go out? I won’t be long, I’m, er, looking for a job and I think it would be better if I didn’t take him with me.”
Sadie’s face lit up. “Of course, Mark, I’d be delighted.”
“Frinkin’ jinkin’ ploopy,” Weedgie said, then added; ”Mark.”
I let this go. I smiled sweetly and thanked Sadie then left and drove across town. I knew exactly where I was headed, needed no map to get there. My old life. My old haunts.
Haunts? A voice in my head told me I was now a ghost haunting them. I dismissed it, concentrated on the roads and the van’s frisky gears and finally arrived at Cleveland Drive.
A small, dark man in a red suit was leaning against the gate of number seventy two. He strolled over to me as I parked the van. I wound down the window, trying to look casual and steady my heartbeat which had risen to an alarming rate.
“Where’s Weedgie?” Mr. Scarlet looked around the cab and raised an eyebrow.
I sighed. “Back at the boarding house where we‘re staying. Spying on the landlady.”
“And why are you here?”
I considered lying but something told me he already knew the answer.
“I want to know what’s happened to me. I’ve met my first victim, she should have died six months ago. No-one seems to remember much about me after they meet me. I’m getting the horrible feeling I don’t exist.”
I stared him out. He laughed. Birds flew out of trees all around us and took off into the sky.
“Go back to Weedgie, Marty. You belong together. You’re a pair. A team.”
My hands tightened on the wheel. “I want answers.”
“You’re not in any position to call the shots, Marty.” His voice was icy, his eyes turned to steel. Behind him, I saw a figure opening the gate to number seventy two.
I was out of the van and running towards her before Mr. Scarlet knew what was happening. She looked just the same; small with bobbed fair hair and pale skin. Nondescript. Boring, even. Why had I married her? For the house, of course; her elderly aunt’s big house which would be left to her in two years’ time. I loved that house.
“Stella! Hi, it’s me,” I touched her shoulder and she jumped, turned and shrank away.
“Who are you?” She looked angry.
“It’s me.” I heard desperation creep into my voice. “Marty. Martin Hollis. You know me, Stella.”
She shook her head and backed off along the pavement. “I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else. I don’t know you.”
“Steven, how’s Steven?”
This stopped her again. She turned to me, suspicion in her eyes. “How do you know him? You don’t know us. If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll call the police.”
She turned and marched away.
Well. This wasn’t the meek little Stella I’d known and tolerated until I got my hands on the house. What had happened to her? I thought for a moment. Maybe I should try and find Steven, her son. He’d be at school right now…
“Not a good idea.” Mr. Scarlet was right behind me.
“Don’t do that.” I jumped away, heart thumping even faster, then barged past him and jumped back into the van. To hell with him. I would try the picture house where I’d worked.
“Yeeargh!” He was sitting on the seat beside me. “Get out of the van.”
“The picture house where you worked will open later this morning. Mr. Granger, the manager and your old boss, will be in the office and the projectionist will be organising the film reels for the matinee and putting out new posters. His name is John McCall and he has worked there for five years. There are no bodies buried under any floorboards. They’ve never heard of you and if you go there mouthing off the way you just did to your so-called wife they probably will call the authorities. That would be embarrassing for us and you’d be vaporised into black nothingness for eternity.”
Right at that moment the black nothingness seemed like a good option. I struggled to control my breathing.
“I have…a few questions.” I hoped I sounded reasonable but had a horrible suspicion my voice now sounded like Minnie Mouse in a wind tunnel. Mr. Scarlet sighed.
“Why do I look younger than yesterday?”
“I told you. You’re ageless.”
“That…doesn’t really answer it for me.”
“Okay…you’ll settle at the age which is most appropriate for you. Probably the age when you were last normal, before you began to change and go all…serial-killery, for want of a better word.” He sounded bored. “The age before you started to have all the dark thoughts…the ones that wouldn’t go away and got stronger and stronger over the years until you met Stella…and then the thoughts became reality.”
My head swam. I took a few deep breaths.
“Will I ever exist again? My past is gone, I don’t seem to have ever been here…how…can I…?” I struggled with this one. It was a biggie.
“That all depends on you.” Mr. Scarlet looked out of the window at a squirrel which scampered quickly up a tree beside the road. “Do your job here and you will get another chance. I did explain that to you.”
“So…I save this Mary person…and then I have to save some other people…and then…can I be born again? Or can I start again and re-live my old life?”
A smile escaped Mr. Scarlet’s stony expression. He turned his pale eyes to me and I saw myself reflected in them.
“Your old life is gone, Marty. Accept that and you’ll move on a lot faster. Once The Committee are satisfied with your performance then you will get your reward.”
I swallowed. “Which is…?”
“Another chance. That’s all I can tell you. Now get back to Weedgie. He‘ll be missing you. I told you, you‘re a team.” The smile became a grin, showing rows of sharp, pointy teeth.
And then something so blindingly obvious and hideously awful finally occurred to me.
“This is hell, isn’t it? I’m in hell. I thought the motorway café was hell but it wasn’t. This is it.”
Mr. Scarlet mimed applause. “Well done, Marty. But there isn’t one definitive hell, you know. This is simply your version.”
I knew it.
I was destined to spend eternity with Weedgie.
Hell couldn’t get any worse than this.
Mr. Scarlet watched me with great amusement. “You know, Marty, I’m going to give you some help here.” I stared suspiciously at him, not wanting to trust him in any shape or form but desperate for any crumbs of comfort I could glean from any source. He looked down at his black nails then back at me. “Your hell is Weedgie’s heaven. He loves it, he’s having a great time. You could change and love it too. Think about it. It’s up to you.”
And then he was gone.
“That’s it?” I said out loud to the empty space he‘d left, “That’s your idea of help? Enjoy my own personal hell? Well, that‘s just bloody fantastic!”
I started the van and crunched gears, cursing and mumbling to myself all the way back to the boarding house. I was in a living hell and the alternative was black nothingness and they just expected me to knuckle down and accept this? No way. They had seriously underestimated me if they thought I would buy all that turning my hell into heaven cobblers.
I parked outside Sadie’s door and sat where I was, gathering my thoughts. The Committee wanted me to save people, so I would have to do that. They hadn’t mentioned saving Weedgie, though…my original plan for his disposal seemed to get better by the minute. I’d get shot of him and then this living hell would become slightly more tolerable. I could put up with it until I got my reward.
This felt better. I had a plan.
“Yoohoo, Matty!” This was Pat, waving as she approached the van. I got out and she stopped and smiled at me.
“You’ll never guess,” she said, “The boss and most of the staff are laid low with food poisoning. The office is closed ’til Monday.”
“Fantastic,” I said, “Food poisoning, brilliant.”
She seemed not to notice my sarcasm and led the way up the stairs. She opened the door and laughed. “Listen to that. Weedgie’s howling the place down.”
We entered the hall and I heard the radio and Weedgie singing along to a Beatles’ song.
Pat joined in and I looked admiringly at her.
“You’ve got a great voice,” I said, and meant it, “You should sing with a band or something.”
She blushed but looked pleased. “Thanks. I love music. Don’t know if I’d have the courage to sing in public, ’though.”
Pat and I tracked the noise to the kitchen at the back of the house where we found Sadie baking at the table and Weedgie sitting beside her on a chair. Sadie started when we opened the door and clutched a floury hand to her heart. I wondered what culinary torture she was preparing and if I could find a reason to eat out that night. But the sister would be there so I’d have to attend the meal. Damn.
Sadie turned the radio down and swiftly tidied away her baking things. Weedgie tried to catch my eye but I ignored him and watched Sadie instead as she removed a tray of biscuits from the oven. Pat cheerfully told her the good news about work.
“Oh dear,” Sadie said, “That’s awful.”
Pat looked like she was about to say something else, then glanced at me and stayed silent.
“We’ll let you get on,” I said, “Come on, Weedgie, time for walkies.”
Weedgie and I left the kitchen and headed down the hall to the front door. The traffic would be building up outside; perfect time to put my plan into action.
We went out onto the street and then Weedgie spoke.
“Did ye find oot if ye existed?” He looked up at my expression as I stalked along. “That’ll be a naw, then. Ach well, never mind. Ye‘re here noo. And it won’t be long ’til this Mary arrives and then we can suss oot how tae save her.”
I tensed, watched the approaching traffic. A bus was easing away from the pavement, gathering speed. The driver was checking his wing mirrors. This was my chance. Three…two…one…
“C’mon.” I launched myself into the road and Weedgie followed. I heard the hiss and screech of air-brakes and saw a flash of red as I dived clear. I stopped and turned. There was no sign of Weedgie; just the bus stopped in the middle of the road, the driver’s face turning red with anger. He pushed down his window and yelled at me.
“You bloody idiot! Watch where you’re going - I could have killed you!”
“Sorry,” I said cheerfully as I thought, but you didn’t kill me. No, you killed -
“Haw, numpty! Did ye no learn how tae cross the road when ye were a wee boy?” Weedgie was by my side, shaking his head, pursing his big lips. “Lucky ah’m nippy oan ma feet.”
He carried on to the opposite pavement and I trailed disconsolately after him.
Next try, I’d time it better.