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The Cellophane Man

The body is stretched out on the ground. Eyes wide open, vacant, staring. Face frozen in a grimace. It had required some planning, and patience, and it hadn’t been a perfect plan by any means, but I preferred a more subtle approach – I’m not a violent person.

***

‘That’s me away now,’ Martin’s wife shouted before the front door banged shut behind her. Moments later Alice could be seen waddling along the pavement on the other side of their garden hedge. Martin sat watching her from his usual spot by the living-room window.

Once she had disappeared from view, he hurried through to the kitchen, heading straight for the cupboard above the kettle and grabbing a couple of chocolate digestives from the biscuit tin. These were his favourite moments: home alone. Alice would be almost half an hour before returning from the local shop with his paper, ham and fresh rolls. He relaxed back in his red high-backed chair, resting his digestives on one of the grubby arms and drinking the apple juice Alice had placed on the little table beside him. If he had any luck she would bump into one of her cronies and he’d gain some extra moments of peace. Married for 40 years, they had gone through their ups and downs – downs mainly – but Martin found that she did have her redeeming qualities. For one, she’d taken on the running of the house and brought in a regular wage from her part-time job. He’d taken a heart attack ten years earlier and hadn’t worked since. If he were honest, she’d looked after him well. She was the one to make sure his prescriptions were collected, kept track of his medication and dealt with all the bills. She was the one who made sure he ate a balanced diet. He helped with little bits of DIY, gardening – nothing too demanding.

Brushing the crumbs from his thick grey moustache, Martin glanced at his watch before continuing his observation of the outside world. He’d come to know many of the neighbours’ routines. Situated in a slightly elevated position, Martin’s house offered a good view of the terraced houses that ran along the opposite side of the street as well as the bus stop and small collection of convenience shops at the end of the road. One neighbour in particular had caught Martin’s attention: a man he guessed to be in his mid-thirties who was a frequent visitor to number 25 – Katie’s house. Martin now sat and watched as this man carried cardboard boxes from a small removal van that was parked outside Katie’s house. His jaw clenched and his fingers picked at the widening hole in the fabric of the arm of his chair. The boyfriend must be moving in. Why would a pretty young woman be spending time with this guy? His face had a gruff look, a permanent frown, as if to warn others to stay away. He wouldn’t like to come across him on a dark street.

Alice’s reappearance was an unwelcome interruption to his thoughts. He brushed the remaining crumbs from his grey trousers, shuffled his bulky frame off the chair and turned on the TV. He could pretend to be engrossed in some show while she prattled on about next door’s stylish new kitchen or the increasing price of groceries. He gave one last swipe of his moustache and settled back into his chair.

‘I thought I’d visit Sophie on Monday,’ Alice announced later that evening as they climbed into bed. ‘You remember her don’t you, dear? Your only daughter.’

‘Of course I remember,’ Martin mumbled, feeling his chest tighten. Since returning from the shop this morning, Alice had been particularly frosty and he suspected a phone call with their daughter was at the root of her disturbance. She always phoned Alice’s mobile so that they could have their wee chats out of his earshot. Cupboard doors had been shut with a little more vigour than was necessary and silence was interspersed with Alice’s self-declarations of martyrdom. Martin had alternated between extended visits to the toilet, paper in hand, and pretending to snooze in his chair. Alice’s departure for work had elicited a long sigh of relief from Martin and a welcome easing of his neck pain.

‘Are you not even going to ask me how she is?’

Martin fumbled around the side of the bed to find the light switch and turned it off, pulling the flowery duvet and bedspread up to his chin. ‘Sophie knows where I am, dear. I’m sure she’ll pick up the phone if she wants.’

‘Well, whose fault is it that she doesn’t want to see her own dad?’ she spat. ‘You’re an embarrassment to her and who can blame her? None of her friends would come to this house. You gave them the creeps. It’s those shifty eyes of yours. Mum said as much the first time she met you. “Lecherous” she called you. “You can do better than him” she used to say.’ She gave a disgusted snort and thumped at the bed covers either side of her, sending puffs of lavender his way. ‘Mum was always a good judge of character.’

Martin crumpled into the duvet and fell asleep fantasizing about holding Alice’s lavender-scented pillow over her face.

Monday

Martin pulled up outside his house and sat for a moment. He’d dropped Alice at the train station, waving her off with uncharacteristic elation. He wetted his lips, checked his watch: 8.15 am. Perfect! He’d come to know Katie well over the last couple of years … Well, her routines anyway. She was a timid creature. He had a vague awareness that this was part of the attraction. It had occurred to him over the last few days that she appeared more anxious than usual: she walked a little faster, head bent a little lower, eyes fixed a little longer on the ground ahead of her. Her shoulders had curled more inwards as if she were trying to slip through life unnoticed.

Unnoticed … Martin had no problem going unnoticed. The invisible man. People talked over him, not interested enough to hear the end of his story. They bumped into him in the street without apology. Served him last at a bar. At college, he was never picked to answer a question, his raised arm being ignored. But someone had noticed him back then: Alice. He’d never fully understood why. Opposites attract, he supposed. Alice had been a tsunami, sweeping him along with a force he couldn’t hope to control, and he’d been happy just to be swept along for the journey. Happy … happy wasn’t the right word – he didn’t think himself capable of this elusive state of mind – he was content. Content to no longer be adrift by himself.

But being invisible came with its advantages, too. He was able to study people that much closer. He had spoken to Katie a couple of times but he doubted she’d remember. He’d taken a gentle stroll to the shop some mornings around the time Katie would be catching her bus. He even went as far as to get on her bus one morning to see where she worked, but that was before he’d begun having more chest pain. He kept closer to home these days, hardly venturing out in his Motability car anymore. He felt it was a waste: a taxi now and then would be more economical, but Alice liked the idea of the car. So the car stayed.

Movement at the corner of his eye pulled him from his thoughts. Katie scurried along her garden path. Bang on time. Martin squirmed in his seat, feeling heat spread through him. You could never go unnoticed. If he got out of his car to go to the shop now, he’d get the chance to say hello to her. Pathetic, he knew, but it was something. He had to take the crumbs. The boyfriend being around more was a bit of a worry, but he doubted he’d even show up on the guy’s radar. He wiped the sweat from his brow and noticed his hands were trembling. Calm down

Pain, sharp and sudden, ripped through his chest. The shock made him suck in air and he screwed his eyes shut. Clutching his chest with one hand, he searched in his jacket pocket for his GTN spray with the other. Where was it? It had to be in here. He always carried it. He pulled his mobile out and dumped it on the other seat along with some receipts and a packet of tissues. The spray wasn’t there. The other pocket, it must be in the other pocket. He dug into his right pocket, nausea building, and finally his fingers found the cool, round bottle. Thank goodness. Working the lid off with his fumbling fingers, he quickly raised the nozzle in front of his mouth, took a deep breath, opened his mouth, lifted his tongue, pressed down on the pump … and nothing. Please! Please work. He pressed again … nothing. Sweat began to drip from his face onto his grey trousers as he slumped forward. The house, there’s another spray in the living room, on the table. A banging on the car window made him jump. He looked up to see an unshaven face sneering at him. The man banged again and made a circular motion with his hand, indicating for Martin to roll down his window. Wincing, Martin dropped the bottle, turned the engine back on and opened the window, the cold air biting at his sweat soaked face, making him shudder.

‘My girlfriend has just shown me a letter she got about you,’ the man barked immediately. ‘It say’s you’ve been watching her.’

Martin squinted at the man, a maelstrom of thoughts swirling, making him feel dizzy. Katie stood beside him, her gloved hand pulling at his jacket sleeve. ‘Please, Paul, just leave it. It’s not worth it.’

‘It’s alright,’ the man said to Katie, ‘this is just a friendly warning.’

‘Please,’ Martin slurred. ‘I’m not feeling well, I—’

She wanted to go to the police,’ – he pushed his reddening face close to Martin’s – ‘but I told her I’d take care of you.’ Spittle hit the side of Martin’s cheek.

‘I need to get to my house,’ Martin continued, desperately hoping the man would stop.

Katie was tugging harder at the man’s sleeve. ‘Please, Paul, he’s got the message now. This is why I didn’t want to say anything to you. Come on, he doesn’t look well. Please.’

‘Stay away from her,’ the man shouted before tossing a crumpled piece of paper at Martin’s face and stomping away. The scrunched-up letter landed in Martin’s lap. A waft of lavender rose from it. What the hell? It can’t be… Just get inside, get the spray, it’s all that’s needed, don’t panic, panicking won’t help. Just breathe.

Stumbling from his car and making his way to the concrete steps that led to his house, Martin gripped onto the metal banister, sliding his hand along the cold metal to help pull himself slowly up the steps. A few more and he’d be at the path near his garden gate. Is nobody looking out their damn window? The pain was worsening and he let himself slump down onto the step. My mobile! He rummaged in his jacket pocket. Shit, shit, shit – I’ve left it in the car! Okay, Martin, just get to the house, you’re nearly there. Get to the phone. Take your spray, it might help.

Heaving himself back to a standing position, the last few steps to the house were agonizing. A terrible squeezing pain gripped the centre of his chest as he clumsily slid his key into the front door lock and turned it, half falling into the hall as his body pushed against the door. Nearly there. The spray sat on the little table beside his chair, the phone beside it. He grabbed the spray and slumped into his chair, hurriedly bringing the nozzle to his mouth, desperate for relief – nothing came out. What? How could both sprays be finished? A dread engulfed him as his mind returned to the lavender-scented letter that had dropped into his lap. Alice. What have you done?

He picked up the phone with wet palms and punched in 999.

The line was dead.

***

I pour the apple juice into the glass and then open the Ramipril capsule, pouring the contents down the sink, making sure to run the tap. The Amlodipine can be dissolved in water and I’ve reassured Martin that it works just as well in the apple juice along with the Ramipril. Not that it’s going in the apple juice – I’ve dissolved it in water and have poured it down the sink, just like I do every day. He’s always been such a baby about taking his medicine, but it’s proved useful. I’ll give him his aspirin: I’m not a monster. After all, am I really responsible for him taking his medication? I take a deep satisfied breath: the anonymous tip-off was one of my better ideas. That poor girl. She reminds me of my Sophie. Well, when Martin is gone, she’ll come home. I’ll have some proper company again. Martin has long outlived his usefulness … and I doubt anyone will really miss him.

© Heather McAnespie (2021)