A hard exit

Kill her. Yes. Kill her. I’d thought it before. A thousand times. Every time that sickly smile greeted me, oblivious to my mood or circumstances. Every time that wittering, sing-song voice dragged its manicured nails across the blackboard of my brain, or the bland, middle class mediocrity of that childish, hollow laugh slid itself like the right-kind-of butterknife between my ribs.

Oh, I’d thought about it. Like a daydream about sex – one that took things several stages further than humdrum reality could ever really go. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill her… Yes, I’d imagined every glorious, forbidden scenario. In public. On a train. Different methods. Different positions. With every possible implement. With machinery, animals, different people. I’d imagined it all. Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, came a point when it became more than just an idea. When I took back control.

I remember exactly where and when. Just out there, at the top of the stairs, at the point where they turned, one step down from the landing. A point just before I saw that idiotic better-than-you face tumbling away from my outstretched palm, disbelief alternating with the flapping of that godawful Laura Ashley print, her ridiculous rubber limbs clawing for the worn bannister, and flashes of white underwear – for once, curiously erotic. That’s the memory of her I most cherish now. That glorious response to a moment she never saw coming; a moment of decisive action that she would not – could not – have imagined. The Big Surprise.

And I laughed. I guffawed. I couldn’t help it. It was like that ridiculous urge to laugh at funerals, when you knew it was wrong but it just welled up in you, and all you really wanted to do was laugh and laugh and laugh with relief.

But there was something else too. Something that, at the time, I almost failed to recognise. It was happiness.

Yes, I felt happy. Beautifully, blissfully happy. And so I laughed aloud, her ridiculous, incredulous expression falling away from me like all the world’s cares, the moment seeming to expand as she receded in slow motion, as if I could have trotted down the steps past her and watched it unravel from different angles, as if somehow I could have pressed pause and then advanced the scene frame by frame, slowing, slowing, slowing…

And then a sudden stop. A sharp crack, like the breaking of a dry stick. And that was that. I made a cup of tea – stepping over the misshapen floral heap at the foot of the stairs – and took it back up to my study. I would phone for an ambulance soon. A tragic accident. No one would question it. But time for tea first.

Imagine. That moment of complete peace, free from the burden of aspiration. Of all the tasteful furnishings, charity volunteering, matching cutlery, “support the nurses” and oh-so-thoughtful TV documentaries on a thousand-and-one causes sucked up and compressed into a poisonous ball then shat out in a moment of sublime relief – the ecstasy of letting go, of all cares being blotted out by a beautiful, serene nothingness.

Imagine it, just for a moment.

Then imagine it shattered forever by that sound. That wretched, accusing sound.

It began with a kind of snuffling, like a dog or a pig. Against common sense I actually pictured a dog in the house, sniffing at the body. Momentarily I wondered how a dog might have got in, perhaps attracted by the sound or the scent of death; I even eyed the ash-grey poker in the study fireplace with which I might have to fight the animal. But no. It wasn’t a snuffling. It was the sound of something moving. Something being dragged. Dragged slowly up the stairs.

Fffffffshhhhhhh… Fffffffshhhhhhh… Fffffffshhhhhhh…

I still hear it. I can hear it now. I think, probably, I always will. I didn’t move from my seat then – not at first. Instead, I sat, awoken from my fleeting dream, waiting for that sound to resolve itself into something physical, all the time repelled to the level of nausea by the impossibility of it, the utter madness of that sound having any physical cause at all.

It drew closer to the room by painful degrees, sometimes accompanied by a whimper, such as an old woman makes in her sleep. It seemed so close, as if whispered in my ear. I surely must see something – see it. But it just kept on. Time stretched. Space closed in. I began to doubt everything – my entire reality. Was it in here already? In the room? Slithering beneath the desk, in the dark space about my curled toes? Surely it couldn’t…

Then it stopped.

There was a scratch. A slow, uncertain tap tap-tap tap. Broken fingernails rattling feebly against the paintwork at the very bottom of the door. A rasping, like breath. And a grunt. Then, as if pushed from that point close to the hinge where effort is magnified a thousandfold, the door squeaked slowly, painfully open.

And there she was. Real, now. A trickle of blood leaking from her left ear, moistening and matting her hair, her lifeless legs splayed out behind her at a stupid angle. But her face carried a lopsided, idiotic smile. “Oh darling,” she slurred. “Still hard at work? Let me get you something to eat.” Her lungs wheezed like broken bellows. She made a strange snorting sound which might have been a laugh, and a bubble of snot glistened briefly, wobbled, then burst and dripped on the carpet.

I was angry. She shouldn’t be alive. It was sick. Others hung onto life with grim determination, but she didn’t have a determined cell in her body. What right had she to still be around when decent people were dead as earth? It was an insult. “I’ll be down in a minute,” I snapped irritably, turning back to my desk as if there were something important demanding my attention.

I listened as she pulled her twisted body with sickening back towards the top of the stairs. The moment she was fully clear of the study I took the poker from the fireplace and smashed it three times into her skull.

She slumped. Blood frothed from her mouth. Then it turned into another laugh, right out of that wrecked head. “I’m just not myself today,” she tittered. “I don’t know what it can be…” I retched and kicked her down stairs, the sack of a body flicking flecks of blood onto the wallpaper. I followed with limbs like lead, the metal rod in my hand like a lightning conductor for all the world’s anger. I beat her body with the poker until both had lost their shape.

The rest of the night I sat in my study, the place where I sat and pretended to work, listening to the sound of her dragging herself around in the dark below. Once or twice she called out in a slurry, gurgly approximation of her voice. “Come and have a break, love,” it sang. “I’ll put the kettle on.” I knew she could no longer get up the stairs. But I couldn’t bear to look at her again. So I just sat, trapped, listening.

Fffffffshhhhhhh… Fffffffshhhhhhh… Fffffffshhhhhhh…

Then, some time in the darkest hours of the night, I knew what it was I had to do. I took the shotgun from the locked cupboard in the study, loaded it, put the cold barrel in my mouth and pushed my thumb against the trigger.

And that, I suppose, should have been the end. Yet here I am. In life, things do not end so neatly. They do not give up the ghost.

I am blind. I have no voice. I still sit where I sat at that moment, now unable to stand, my head, as far as I can tell, at a strange angle to the rest, bone jarring against bone. My nostrils are filled with the stench of my own decay. Every now and then I extend my tongue and it meets the rough, unfamiliar edge of a tooth, broken by the kick of the gun barrel. My hands rest on the familiar territory of my desk, too afraid to investigate further. Just in front of me, my fingertips have identified a pen and a pile of paper. I no longer know whether my words are legible, or whether I’m just smearing them with my own blood. But I write. I don’t know why. Perhaps because it’s all I can do. Write and listen.

I can hear her now. She’s found a way of getting upstairs. She has even started bringing me food. I can’t eat – not that it matters. She brings it anyway – a sick, empty ritual. There’s only her sound, her voice, chiding me gently for not consuming what she’s prepared. How long I have sat here like this, and whether it is day or night, it is impossible to tell. I feel her next to me, perhaps looking up at me from her now unimaginable shape, hear her wheezing as she pulls herself up on my desk. “What’s this?” she says, close to me. I shudder. It’s grown cold. “Oh, it’s so good that you’re writing again. Here, let me help you…” A clammy claw moves my straying hand back over the pages that I am now incapable of reading, that I pointlessly fill with text. “You’re so clever,” rasps the voice. And then: “We’re so lucky.”


On this day in 1914, my grandfather George Welch and his younger brother Fred went to their local recruitment station in Chichester and joined the army. Both were under age. The story goes that they had tried the day before, but when the recruiting officer asked them their dates of birth, George – always a scrupulously honest man – told the truth. The officer sighed and told them to try again tomorrow. Both took the hint and returned next day much the wiser and a couple of years older.

Both were in the Southdown Battalions of the Royal Sussex regiment. Back then, it was still usual practice to place men from the same towns and villages together in the same battalions, so they would serve alongside their family, friends and neighbours. It seemed to make sense; it meant the new recruits already had a bond and a familiarity with each other, so could cohere more rapidly as a unit. The First World War changed that policy. Whole battalions were wiped out, robbing entire communities of their men.

Fred had this photo taken before he went to war. It shows him in his smart new uniform, but with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his cap pushed back, displaying all the cockiness of a man – or, rather, a boy – who as yet had no fear of war,

Little is known of their experiences during the next few years, but in 1917 – exactly a century ago – a window opens. During July and August George and Fred are at Ypres. Their superior officers have all been killed or incapacitated, and George – by now a corporal – finds himself in charge of both the men and the trench map, a copy of which I still have.

The fighting is bitter, and over the next 70 hours actions occur that result in George being awarded the DCM. The citation speaks of ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in establishing and holding advance posts in a village [St Julien] and afterwards in rendering assistance under fire to a number of badly wounded men.’ It is also recorded that he carried his battalion Colonel back to safety after he had collapsed from exhaustion.

On 26 September 1917, however, their luck ran out. During fierce fighting in an area of the front codenamed ‘Tower Hamlets’ George was wounded and Fred killed. George was sent to England to recover, and while there had his DCM pinned to his chest, ultimately surviving the war. But Fred never saw home again.

I am thinking of them today – both the grandfather I knew, who never spoke about those days, and the great uncle I never got to meet, preserved only in this picture.


Whenever Dolby felt angry or afraid he would take the gun out of the bottom drawer. The weight of it, its compactness, the power it implied – this was his salvation. At these times, he would look out onto the street from his window and imagine how he might change things. Just a slight pressure of the index finger – this dream of power made him stronger. As he watched those passing by, he knew they knew he was up there, that they were walking into his sights, his territory.

Tirzah had urged him many times to get rid of it, knowing it attracted danger to their household. But Dolby was adamant. He saw the danger that swam around them, but took this as the very justification for keeping the gun.

“Just throw it in the canal,” she would say. “You know half our worries will go with it. And maybe you’ll sleep again.”

He always gave the same reply. “It’s our security. Suppose some maniac came our way?” His eyes were wide as he said this. She often lay awake at night listening as he sat at the window.

Dolby’s thoughts were most often of their neighbour, whose name was Suleyman. Dolby hated Suleyman. Because he too had a gun. He would watch for him at his window, accompanied only by his suspicions, eager to learn of the other’s movements. Often he could see Suleyman watching from his own window opposite. Dolby did not know Suleyman as one knows a person one meets and talks to. There was a time when he had spoken to him, but that was long ago. The time for speaking was over.

“I do not need to know my enemy,” he would say, “only that he is my enemy.” And his possession of the gun was enough. Enough for Dolby to hate him. For this reason, Dolby knew that words could not pass between them. These days argument meant the gun. So it was necessary to keep the distance, and it was this the gun helped to maintain.

There was no reasoning that did not lead to the gun. It was good. It was necessary. It kept things the way they were. He could count on it – it was there when he needed it, and sometimes his need was great. Often only its weight could calm him. Some days life seemed good, Dolby’s usual fears gave way to confidence and he felt he might find Suleyman and kill him.

At other times he felt sure Suleyman had similar plans, and then he kept a close eye on his neighbour and a tight fist on the gun, the resentment growing, the hatred filling the empty corners of the room. Occasionally, when the night was quietest, he would stare down the barrel of his own gun and imagine.

One day, Tirzah left. She said there was no future. Not simply no future in their life together, but no future at all. She said she couldn’t live with death any longer.

Dolby protested, saying that death was precisely what the gun protected them from.

But it was too late. Tirzah was gone.

All week Dolby sat armed by the window, cursing Tirzah, cursing Suleyman, cursing his neighbour’s possession of the gun.

And, most of all, cursing the day he had sold it to him.