A Slow Death
By Mark Bibby Jackson
The photograph told of a happy family. The mother sat at the front, her husband standing beside her ’til death do us part, the two children – one son and a slightly younger daughter – standing to his left. A picture of perfection resting on the mantelpiece above the faux-log gas fire.
Beneath it lay the dead body of George Armstrong.
“Mid-50s, retired stock broker, liked a game of golf and a tipple say the neighbours. Two children, both left home. Girl at university, son works in the city. Wife in the kitchen,” a uniformed officer informed Sergeant Jessica Smith as they shared a quick smoke on the doorstep.
“Down for the Dunmow Flitch, weren’t they? Maybe I should see if the missus wants us to step in.”
Held every four years in the town of Great Dunmow, the Flitch was a trial of married couples, who claimed they had never argued or regretted their marriage in the past twelve months. Those that convinced the jury of their marital bliss were rewarded with a flitch of bacon. The tradition stretched back to Chaucer.
Jess’ mum and dad often said they should enter the contest, but never did. In truth, though she had never heard them quarrel, she suspected that was something they saved for whenever she and her sister Nicole weren’t around.
Gaile and George Armstrong wouldn’t be bringing home the bacon this year.
“A blow to the back of the head, most likely with this one iron,” the Scene of Crimes Officer explained once Jess had introduced herself. “Then he fell on the gas pipe and probably cracked it open on the valve. Dead in seconds I’d expect.”
Armstrong’s body was stretched out on the floor, his right hand reaching towards the flatscreen television set, the remote control just out of his reach. He was still wearing his raincoat. Underneath it, a pair of plus-fours, similar to the ones Jess’ dad used to wear, peeked out. A golf club lay beside him, its head covered in blood. Jess had almost tripped over his golf bag discarded in the hallway on her way in.
A game of football was playing – some Champions League game – not that Jess followed football. Had never got into it, that was Nicole’s domain. Although when colleagues asked her at the pub after work she’d say she supported Arsenal, so she fitted in.
Everything about the room seemed spotless, everything was in its rightful place, except for Armstrong’s dead body, of course.
“Time of death?”
“Around eight, I’d say.”
She looked at her watch. Almost 9.30pm and still no sign of Inspector Williams. No doubt he was at The Boar’s Head watching the match.
“Wasn’t going anywhere, was he?” Taff would say if she mentioned anything, not that she would.
The grieving widow was still crying in the kitchen, another uniformed officer keeping her silent company. So Jess thought she’d poke around upstairs.
Straight ahead at the top of the stairs was the daughter’s room. Posters of Rihanna and Justin Bieber hung on her walls. Jess had slept beneath Liam Gallagher and the Spice Girls. A stack of books climbed precariously from the floor – the only books in the house. Maybe the daughter was studying English.
Jess had loved reading ever since a child. She’d even got an A in her O Level English Lit, but then boys got in the way. Boys and the traditional Smith family aversion to academia. One of her cousins had gone to Essex University, but she’d dropped out after a year, and was now working at a hairdressers in Braintree. Jess was toying with the idea of taking a course in English at the Open University. With any luck she’d graduate in six years, that is if she didn’t get called out on murder enquiries on study nights.
She doubted the Armstrong’s daughter would have to balance working nights and writing assignments. Judging from the photos on her mantelpiece, she had gravitated to the lofty spires of Cambridge. That was quite out of Jess’ orbit.
The next room was the parent’s. Separate beds. Mum always said that was the death of a marriage. Perhaps she was right.
As she walked across the pristine white carpet, Jess felt relieved she was still wearing the protective covers over her shoes. Everything was immaculate. All the clothes were hung on their hangers, her blouses and dresses on the left, his suits and shirts to the right. At least they still shared the same wardrobe.
There was no need to open the chest of drawers, but she did. His socks and underpants were neatly folded – ironed Jess thought. The drawer beneath, her underclothes were the same, next to her woollen jumpers.
Jess walked out backwards carefully retracing the steps she’d taken on the way in, fearful that Gaile Armstrong would detect her snooping.
On the other side of the bathroom – a knitted frilly pink cover on the toilet seat with a matching Marie Antoinette doll hiding the toilet paper – were two more rooms.
First was the son’s, deserted apart from a cloth-eared teddy and a neglected cricket bat. The last room served as an office, or was it a study, the only messy room in the house. The old desktop computer was surrounded by pieces of paper with indecipherable hieroglyphics on them. The keypad had gathered a thin layer of dust through lack of use. On the right of the desk was a filing tray that contained the household finances. Jess skimmed through them. Nothing untoward, even their joint account had a healthy balance.
No sign of Gaile Armstrong’s cleaning hand here. But no sign of her work either. The neighbours had said nothing of that.
Jess checked her watch. It was now ten and still no sign of Inspector Williams. What time did the game finish?
Gaile Armstrong was still huddled over the kitchen table when Jess entered the room, though her sobbing had stopped at last.
The table had been set for two. A bunch of flowers stood in the middle next to a yet to be opened bottle of red wine. She had bought the same one from Tesco’s only last weekend, although hers hadn’t stayed that way for long. A girl needed to wind down.
It was the type of fitted kitchen that all women were supposed to dream of, although Jess knew one who didn’t. She was strictly a microwave chef. Had never learned to cook – mum always did that – and now she didn’t have the time to start. If it hadn’t pinged by the time she’d retrieved a clean plate and fork out of the dishwasher and poured herself some wine in a hopefully, but not necessarily, clean glass, then it had taken too long.
The kitchen window was wide open even though it was March and there was a cold snap in the air. Still, she could detect the lingering smell of something burnt.
The cooker top was as spotless as the rest of the house. It was one of those ceramic hobs that you could wipe clean, though somehow Jess doubted Gaile Armstrong permitted any mess in her kitchen.
“What’s this bloody bag doing here?”
Jess could hear Inspector William’s voice from the front hall, clearly he too had discovered the deceased’s golf clubs.
She opened the oven door. Inside was a blackened chicken resting in a baking tray surrounded by equally blackened potatoes Jess’ dad could probably use as charcoal briquettes. Even she wouldn’t dare eat it, and she had eaten some filth in her time. She checked the timer on the cooker. It was set for 6pm.
Removing her protective gloves, Jess sat next to Gaile Armstrong, just as Inspector Williams was making his way into the kitchen. His ruddy complexion betrayed the beers he had consumed, the steam coming out of his ears suggested that Arsenal might have to wait another year for Champions League success.
Jess took hold of Gaile Armstrong’s hands.
“Is it over?” were the widow’s first words.
Copyright the author, Mark Bibby Jackson
A Slow Death came third in the Essex Book Festival Crime Writing Short Story Competition 2016.
The views and opinions expressed in these stories are those of the authors. These are works of fiction: Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or/and used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.