A SPLINTERED STEP
They would not find her body for several weeks.
The camping trailer was parked at the upper edge of the field, hard against the hedgerow. Beyond that stood a copse of trees, and then a stretch of scrubby land sloping steeply up to the cliff top. In calm weather, she heard the Irish Sea breaking over the rocks beneath.
In summers gone by, other camping trailers had dotted the field, towed there by holidaymakers from the Midlands looking for fresh air and open space on the wild coast of West Wales. The farmer collected fees for the use of the site, and sold fresh eggs and milk. After he died, the land was sold off to speculators whose plans foundered during the Great Recession, the old stone farmhouse going to a couple of software engineers from Bristol who rarely visited. Only the solitary trailer remained, abandoned by its rightful owners, whoever they were, its paint pocked with rust and its wheels sunk into the earth.
Even before she died, she had been forgotten. No one came to collect rent for the site, or maintain the horse stable that had been converted to primitive showers and toilets for the summer visitors. One by one, the lavatories blocked up, and the water pipes cracked, dribbling rusty stains down once whitewashed walls. She rarely made the trek there anymore, preferring to squat in the narrow strip between the camper and the hedgerow. Washing was a chore she also avoided, especially now, when November winds shrieked through the bare tree branches, and rain clattered on the roof, drowning out the whispering waves. She pulled on another moth-eaten sweater liberated from the church’s clothing drop box, stuffed newspaper in the gaps around the door, and lit a fag. Tobacco smoke covered all other aromas.
Once a week she made the painful journey into the village with the unpronounceable name–Aber-something. Two miles, dragging a battered shopping bag on wheels behind her. She went to the post office first to draw her pension, then the off-license for three–no, four, please–bottles of no-name whisky and a hundred and twenty Benson & Hedges. With the cash left over, she bought a few tins of baked beans, and a couple of loaves of the sliced white bread she liked because it didn’t need much chewing: her incisors were gone, and only brown stumps remained of the rest. She bought eggs, if she felt extravagant, and Marmite, because a little went a long way. Then back up the hill, taking twice as long on the return trip, scared to think of what might happen when snow clogged the lanes in a couple of months’ time.
Halfway down the first bottle, she heard something outside: a motor, improbable as that seemed. No one ventured up the track beyond the farmhouse anymore, certainly not in a vehicle whose paintwork they valued. The gorse bushes encroached on either side, and mud puddles deep as wells made passage difficult even for farm vehicles. She pulled the pillowcase that served as a window curtain to one side, and peered out into the night. The rain had let up, but the wind was tearing clouds into rags over a three-quarters moon. She watched them scudding over the squashed silver disc for a moment, then scanned the field, squinting to make out the paler break in the dark hedge line on her left that indicated the gate to the track.
She was about to let the curtain drop and return to her drink when she saw a movement, a darker shadow bobbing against the silhouette of the hedgerow. Someone was moving quickly up the side of the field from the gate. She stared mesmerized as he--she assumed a man--approached the corner, then changed course towards the trailer. He was only a dozen yards away now. He wore motorcycle leathers that gleamed in the moonlight, and a helmet with a tinted visor pulled down to obscure his face.
Alcohol, not just that evening’s consumption, but years of abuse, thickened her brain. She struggled to find the appropriate reaction. Was this visitation good or bad? Was it even real, or some nightmare delusion, a product of delirium tremens? She had experience with the DTs, and ‘bad trips’ in those far-off days when she partook of more exotic drugs than whisky. Now, he was standing on the concrete block that served as her doorstep. His head turned towards her as she peered at him through the glass. She couldn’t see his face, but she felt his unblinking stare. It drew her towards him, away from the window. Two shuffled steps and she was at the door, her hand reaching for the handle.
He leaned forward into the opening, surveying the interior of the caravan, careful not to touch the door surround. He had intended to pull out some drawers, break a few things to create the disarray that might suggest a robbery interrupted, but now he saw that was unnecessary and even absurd. Dirty cups, empty bottles and paper wrappings cluttered every surface. The bed which took up one end of the space was a rat’s nest of old clothes and tattered blankets. A plastic garbage bag leaked its contents over the floor, and an ochre glaze coated the ceiling and upper walls. There was nothing to steal here.
Almost reluctantly, his gaze drifted down to the body. The bullets had lifted the old woman off her feet and slammed her against the cupboard behind. Already unconscious, she had slid down to a sitting position on the floor, a rag doll with head on chest and legs splayed. Knowing her history, one might have thought she had passed out, except for the fist-sized hole in her chest and the widening stain around it. There was no exit wound; he had chosen the ammunition to do maximum internal damage, fired at close range.
He was surprised at how frail she appeared. He expected a fiercer target, some token resistance at least. Sparrow legs and bony wrists emerged from a welter of mismatched clothing, a child dressed in grown-up cast-offs. Her scalp showed white through greasy strands of hair. For just a second, it moved him. Then he holstered the gun, and put on his leather gloves again. He took one more look around before nudging aside her outstretched foot with his boot so that he could close the door
I looked around the table with satisfaction. End-of-semester partying at Nemo’s was a law school tradition. The pizza was good, the beer--dispensed, for the most part, in pitchers–inexpensive, and the noise level deafening. Fifteen years ago, as a student holding down a full-time job, I rarely socialized here, and convinced myself it wasn’t my scene anyway. But now I counted as faculty, if only “adjunct.” The Alternative Dispute Resolution seminar I initiated this fall semester attracted a mere dozen students, but it was a beginning I hoped to build on. I liked most of the students in the class, and happily accepted their invitation to go for a drink after the final session. The married students, and those who, like I had once, juggled jobs as well as their studies, bowed out earlier. Only five now remained, as the hour edged towards ten-thirty.
On my left sat Joel from Long Island, son of a lawyer and grandson of a judge, who confided his disappointment at not getting into Harvard Law, but seemed to be making a cheerful second-best of his time at this less revered and ancient institution in Atlanta. He was smart and funny, and flirted with me outrageously. If I hadn’t already assigned grades, I would have suspected his motives, but under the influence of a second glass of the house red, I appreciated the attention.
Beth, on my right, was equally intelligent but much more serious. I saw my younger self in her drive to excel. When I aired the idea of starting a mediation clinic staffed by students and offering dispute resolution services to low-income families, she quietly but insistently pinned down a role for herself in the venture. Now she sat back, observing the ebb and flow of conversation with bright eyes and a small smile, contributing a precise comment from time to time, but never seeking to dominate or draw attention to herself.
The others ranged around the table had little beyond youth in common. Joy, a beautiful African-American woman, was destined to be a judge; she already had the required judicial demeanor. Tariq came from a highly placed political Pakistani family. I suspected he would prefer to stay in the States after graduation, but that was unlikely to be permitted. Tim’s Southern drawl was as thick as molasses. I was sure he signed up for the class in search of an easy A. When he overcame his disillusion on that score, his participation improved, and I hoped he might also volunteer for the clinic if I could get it off the ground.
“You must have heard of him! He was the lead singer with the Freds, and he’s British like you.” Joel was expounding about some rock star performing in town.
“I’m not British. I’m American by birth and I’ve lived in Georgia for most of the last twenty years!” It was the wine; under its influence my carefully acquired middle-American accent must have slipped to reveal my roots. Perhaps the wine accounted for my knee-jerk defensiveness too. I usually avoided talking about my background: the smallest revelation led to more questions than I cared to answer. When I escaped to the U.S. at eighteen years old, I slammed the door on the past. My visits to the U.K. since then had been strictly business: to mediate high stakes disputes between parties willing to pay for my expertise, and for a quicker, quieter resolution than that offered by the courts.