Monday, 8 December 2014

Midwinter Tales - No Smoking Kills

A festive tale now from Mark Jones, President of Greenock Writers Club, and a gentleman and a scholar to boot...

Eight months had passed since I’d last seen and spoken to Niall. Eight months since our last rammy, and still Dad’s estate hadn’t been settled.

It scunnered me to spend Christmas in my brother’s company. I was afraid how things might turn out. Yet it had to be done – I had to return to the bay and sort things for good. Afterwards I would at least – and at last – feel free to move on, leave the past behind and break the bonds that bound two brothers who loathed one another.

MacKellars’ Farm. Back o’ the World, the back of beyond. What was Niall up to? Twelve months since Dad died and still the place hadn’t been sold. The locals would be wondering too. However, we all knew the answer. Niall was still attempting to broker a better deal – but since each successive offer appeared more profitable than the last, he would, I knew, never make up his mind. He was too greedy to settle on anything – too greedy to finally sell – for fear greater riches awaited him around the corner. And, as I’d realised eight months before, at the climax to that belting fight at midnight along the lonely lane that leads to our farmhouse, he had never intended me to help him decide what happened to the farm. After Dad died, it had fallen to us both, but not only was Niall intent on making as much money from its sale as humanly possible, he was hell-bent too on ensuring only he ended up with the proceeds.

So the trip home hardly thrilled me. But I had long since steeled myself for it. I could be as dispassionate as I liked now. He wasn’t about to get his way, after all.

Niall, a pest controller, had always resented me. The clever brother, I’d left the bay for Edinburgh University, studying chemistry to PhD level, and escaping the drudgery of agriculture, returning to the farm only a couple of times a year. Neither of us were our father’s sons in this regard, neither inheriting his interest in farming. And, after I’d left, what had Niall ever done but pish away Dad’s pocket money and waste opportunities? He had a similar intelligence to me – consider him handling all those pesticides and poisons stored in the outhouse. He must, in his own way, have been just as scientific. But he was too lazy to put in the work, and he became envious, resenting others’ success – my academic success, my salary working for a pharmaceuticals company on the other side of Scotland. He wanted everything on a plate.

And he could never keep a friend. Dad always blamed the friend. He had a soft spot for Niall, who in Dad’s eyes could do no wrong. But how many friends can you discard along the way without it becoming obvious? Niall was a bad lot, not the kind of guy you stayed friends with for long. Nobody could stick him. No one could trust him.

Niall’s personality – unfortunately for us both as it turns out – initially made things simple for me when ultimately we fell out over how to dispose of the farm. At first, his refusal to consider any proposal of mine frustrated me. Then, when he started going behind my back to actively destroy deals I’d worked hard to secure, I lost my rag. And it was all too easy to get at him. I abandoned my attempts at diplomacy, at reason, at a calculated softly-softly approach to handling his temper, and went for him hammer and tongs. I lost control of my emotions, a foolish thing to do.

Knowing that, money aside, the only thing Niall truly cared about in the world was Gillian, his girlfriend, all it took for me to avenge myself was to send faked business mail in his name to the home of Gillian’s parents, and then a few anonymous demands for debts. Living away in Edinburgh, there was no way I should have known their address, so it couldn’t be traced to me. But Facebook and an old-fashioned phone book are fabulous things, I found. Gillian knew as well as anyone that Niall never kept friends for long; that there was something shady about him. But she’d never understood what it was about him that repulsed others. Knowing how often he’d fallen foul of others but not why, my forgeries helped wipe the scales from her eyes. She now believed he was up to no good, trying to con her in some way. Just as I’d hoped and connived, she dumped him. Nice girl, Gillian. Innocent. Too good for Niall.

But he knew it was me, even if he couldn’t prove it. That’s why he’d waited silently in the trees for my return from the pub one night while I was back at MacKellars’, visiting to help arrange the sale. Top of the hill where the road leads to Leapmoor. He caught me unawares, left me for dead in that ditch, cleverly making it look like a hit-and-run.

From the moment I regained my senses I knew he’d checked me. I could never prove his guilt. He’d sorted himself a perfect alibi. And how could I say anything to convince anyone else? I simply wasn’t in a position to. Checkmate, perhaps. As I said, he’s not stupid, when he puts his mind to it; and muscular with it.

Instead, I let it lie, bided my time. I was calm. The desire for revenge consumed my soul but anger, I decided, would no longer get the better of me again. Niall would neither enrage me ever again, nor see a penny of Dad’s money. Of that, I was certain.

Which is why, nearly a year ago, on Christmas Eve, I returned to the bay, to the farm, finding myself in the old living room, divided from my brother by nothing more than a coffee table. Sitting so close, his sight disgusted me. I felt awkward and, I must admit, somewhat nervous. Still, the evening passed quietly enough. I ignored him for the duration, and he never once spoke to me. It was like he couldn’t see me.

The issue of Dad’s property still hadn’t been settled at this point, of course. However, I’d earlier read paperwork left carelessly on the sideboard of a deal to develop the whole farm into a housing estate – the very last thing Dad would have wanted. This was obviously Niall’s current plan. He had reason to believe he didn’t need to consult me. I knew it wouldn’t happen, though. He would think very differently about things in the morning.

Eventually, he sauntered out to the yard to padlock the gate and outhouse. Stepping outside myself, I watched him in the warm light of the old hut, tinkering about amid the pots and packets of the toxins he took care to store safely. He puffed away on an electronic cigarette. It had rarely left his lips in all the time I’d been back. He’d finally quit. It was the first thing I had ever envied him for. We’d started smoking together in our early teens, out in the barns. I’d always regretted this, never able to chuck it. And here was he, weaning himself off the addiction more successfully than I’d ever managed.

At that moment, I craved the soft soothing sensation of a long drag from a lit fag. But I’d none on me, and no means of buying any. I would even have taken a puff on that electric one of his, simply for the nicotine rush, but that wasn’t going to happen either. I was jealous. Really, really jealous. Almost insanely so.

Niall returned inside, bolted the back door, laid the e-ciggie on the sideboard, and departed upstairs. Again, I may as well not have been there for all he noticed me.

Alone at last, I wandered around the darkened house, pausing at the sideboard to pick up the e-ciggie. I twirled it between my fingers, wondering whether or not to take a quick suck from it. But nicotine was of no use to me now.

Tiptoeing through to the living room, I gazed over old familiar ornaments, objects and picture frames. Perhaps for the first time, I truly sensed Dad was no longer with us, gone to a better place. Then I tired of the sadness and set to work.

It took a good fourteen hours before anyone found him. I say good, but those hours were bad for me. I hadn’t counted on Niall having become so friendless that nobody would visit bearing gifts even on Christmas Day. I watched him rise for breakfast, puffing away at the e-ciggie while he went about his chores before passing out on the kitchen floor. But the wait thereafter was inconvenient – I had other places to be. Furthermore, I was afraid delay would spoil everything. I knew very well he mustn’t be left too long. He might die. And I didn’t want that.

Eventually I had to dial 999, afterwards placing his mobile in his hand so it looked like he himself had phoned for help.

Then I went and waved the ambulance through the gate after they’d cut the padlock to get in, but, naturally, these paramedics were in too much of a hurry to notice me standing there.

Thankfully, they found Niall alive. Only just, but enough. I watched them revive him briefly from his coma, then cart him off. I waited for the police to arrive, smiling in silent satisfaction as they puzzled over what had happened. Why would this relatively young man have taken the trouble to break open his own e-cigarette and introduce a concoction of various rat poisons to the cartridge? A combination of chemicals so precisely weighted towards one consequence that a suspicious mind might almost suspect an expert in pharmaceuticals had measured them out?

And why had this Niall MacKellar then inhaled from it? It looked suspicious, but there were only his prints on the device, and no evidence of the farmhouse having been visited by anyone else.

Poor soul. It was clearly a suicide attempt – botched, for he hadn’t died. But what drove him to it? He’d suffered two deaths in the family in under a year, of course – his father and then the brother. Yet, hadn’t he so much to look forward to, what with the sale of the farm and everything? Paperwork left lying on the sideboard suggested he was about to become a very wealthy man.

Trapped within his brain, having imbibed enough chemicals to mangle his mind but not die, Niall resides in a netherworld twixt the two extremes of existence, neither dead nor truly alive. Only death can relieve him from this misery – and he must wait. I never intended killing him. No, I want Niall to live, and to live for as long as possible – locked away safely from harm; semi-conscious; with a drip to feed him and a nurse to wipe his bum, day after day after day.

Who knows how long he’ll yearn release? How many decades must pass until I’m forced to face him again? But I’ll not worry for now. I’ll let that lie, bide my time. Fear, like anger, is irrelevant to me at present.

Call me cruel if you wish, but I had never forgiven Niall for beating me, leaving me in that ditch, unable afterwards to prove his guilt or prevent him taking MacKellars’ Farm for himself.

Now he’ll never have a chance to prove it was me who spiked his e-cigarette. And, you know what? I used to loathe him for it, but today I see he did me a big favour that midnight moonless evening along the lonely lane to Leapmoor. For, when it comes to revenge, it’s so much easier when your victim has already done you in. This twilit afterlife brings spectacularly useful advantages.

Being dead. They can’t arrest you for that.

Mark has written for us a few times before, why not have a read at Moonlight Over Inverkip, or his festive Ghost Story from last year Cantus Arcticus. Also, I'd just like to take a minute to slip into full on Tales from the Crypt host mode and say 'That story was sure to give you the vapours...' 

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