Alice wasn't sure what woke her. The nightmare or
the noise. She was vaguely aware of a door having clicked
softly shut close by, but it was the distorted picture of
Joseph in her mind's eye which held her attention.
His huge brown eyes as bright and trusting as ever.
She lay cocooned within the threadbare blanket that had
once been their bed. It still smelt of him and she imagined
it always would. A few smouldering embers of coal glowed
dimly in the grate. She could barely distinguish the blurred
remnants without her glasses, just as she had barely been
able to make out the distorted corpse of Joseph earlier
Her eyes welled instinctively at the memory and she felt
the corners of her mouth pucker involuntarily as hot sticky
tears coursed down her cheeks. But she wouldn't cry.
Joseph wouldn't like to see her sad. Instead she wiped
a runny nose the length of her pyjama sleeve, her eyes refocusing
in the dimness as mucus congealed into the fabric just as
Joseph's blood had oozed into the muck of the farmyard.
Then she heard the noise a second time and knew it wasn't
part of her nightmare.
An intense light shone blindingly on her face and for one
glorious moment she thought her prayers had been answered
- she had simply died and gone to heaven. She squinted,
raising a hand to protect her already impaired vision, expecting
to see Joseph's dear, familiar face at any moment.
Instead a nicotine-hoarse voice slurred sourly in her face,
'If you so much as squeak, I'll slit your fat
throat from ear to ear.'
Alice felt the cold sharp point of the butcher's knife
pressing into her windpipe. She thought she might retch.
'Understand?' the voice added gruffly.
She held her breath, conscious that the blade could puncture
skin and cartilage with the slightest movement.
'Alright then, where're the keys to the four
Too scared to speak, Alice used her right hand to gesture
'Stupid cow,' she heard the intruder mutter
before thrusting her back towards the settee again. 'Move
and my mate there in the corner'll separate your feet
from your legs.'
Alice watched as the shape rose and shuffled by torchlight
across the length of the kitchen, then started to climb
the stairs. It was only when the figure was halfway up that
she heard a strange voice whisper, 'Do you want a gun?'
Mildly surprised, Alice realised it was herself.
Another blur rose from a dark corner and came to hover over
her. 'What'd you say?'
Scarcely audible, Alice repeated there was a shotgun by
the stairs if they wanted it. Her father always kept it
in case of burglars.
'Bloody hell, love,' the outline exhaled, 'we're only after
the Freelander. We don't wanna be doin' life for blowin'
somebody's head off!'
But his curiosity had been roused. The shadow gravitated
to the foot of the stairs and picked up the weapon lying
bathed in moonlight.
'Nah love. Now if you'd been talking one of your sawn-off
shotguns or a nifty little Smith and Wesson, then we'd be
in business, but this looks like something Dick Turpin would've
ponced about with.'
Alice said nothing, merely watched as he propped the antique
but perfectly functional weapon up against the wall.
Suddenly there was shouting from above, a resounding thud
on overhead floorboards and the original slight shape slithered
down the banisters. 'Go, go, GO!' he yelled
at his companion and before Alice could blink they had vanished
into the night.
It all felt like a very bad dream and she just wished she
could wake up with Joseph and mam beside her, the way things
used to be. Before it all went wrong. Because of her. Alice
knew she was awkward. And slow. And a soul-destroying burden
on her father. He had told her often enough. She also knew
she was very fortunate that he had taken the time and patience
with her, that he had because - as God was his witness -
she would have tried the patience of a saint. And if anything
had happened to mam and Joseph, it had been because Alice
had driven him beyond the limits of human endurance. So
boy was she in trouble now for letting the men get away
with the brand new jeep.
Alice frowned, screwing her eyes tight in consternation
as she tried to get her brain to work and decide what to
do next. What might make dad lay off another beating and
even please him so he wasn't so angry about the car...
Then she had it. And her pale round face broke into an enormous
grin as her head, for once, told her absolutely the right
thing to do. Inhaling deeply, she rose from her makeshift
bed and shuffled to the kitchen sink. Opening a drawer she
took out an old pair of cotton gloves dad made her use when
cleaning cutlery. Alice carefully slipped them on over each
plump hand, smoothed her crumpled pyjama top and moved towards
the bottom of the stairs. The glint of ornamental metal
winked at her in the moonlight as she stooped to pick up
Cursing and swearing was filtering from her father's bedroom,
telling her he had recovered from the fall. She moved forward
to the foot of the stairs as all eighteen stone of him loomed
into view at the top of the landing.
'You slow-witted bitch! From the day and hour you were
born you've been nothing but a curse. Why did you let them
She hadn't, but there was no point arguing, she'd
get beaten for it anyway. And she supposed they would have
carried on like that. Father and daughter. Until there wasn't
anything left of her to beat senseless.
Senseless. And a picture of Joseph's shattered, brainsplattered
skull swum sickeningly before her once more.
He had shot the dog straight between its bewildered eyes
because Alice had forgotten to order coal.
Afterwards, and despite her pleadings and hand-wringing
attempts to go to the dog in case he could somehow be saved,
she had to keep out of her father's way. Waiting until
he lumbered off for a drink with neighbours, then scrambling
out to the yard where the Alsatian's body had lain
in the rain. Limp, bedraggled and saturated with water,
the once intelligent eyes now lying sightlessly open. She
had hugged the lifeless form long and hard, oblivious to
the wind and rain whipping against her skin, soaking her
Alice gazed up at her drink-sodden father as he teetered
at the top of the stairs hurling abuse and expletives at
her. She didn't even attempt to understand what he
was saying. But surely he would feel better when she told
him what she was going to do with the gun.
She didn't intend to hit him. She had only wanted
to show him how she could clean it for him after the bad
man had left his mucky pawprints all over it - as Alice
had been warned many times not to do.
As it was, between her bad eyes and him lurching unexpectedly
forwards, he landed in a heap at Alice's feet. His
neck broken in three places. One for her, one for mammy
and one for Joseph. The bullet burying itself harmlessly
in a piece of wood panelling beside a looking glass that
mam had been given just before her marriage. Dad had never
Looking down, his sightless expression reminded her again
of Joseph that morning, but Alice felt no tears for her
father. Instead she wondered if in those last few seconds
he had felt as Joseph would have - that scared, that vulnerable,
Naturally the intruders would get the blame for everything.
Their fingerprints were all over the house and gun.
Alice knelt to lay the gun beside the body and began carefully
and methodically removing each glove; they would be useful
in the morning for stoking up the fire.
Not so stupid Alice after all, she thought. No, not so stupid
Alice at all.