Naylor stared at the weeds growing up between the slabs, a brown and stubby bottle suspended between his forefinger and thumb, and wondered which of his bodily parts to assault next, and with what. There was the red wine that had sent Roderick howling up into his apple tree like a demented orang-utan – a creature he certainly resembled in girth. This wine had the trifold property of destroying liver, stomach-lining, and of inducing piles almost immediately. Many of Naylor’s wines were like that, yet he felt compelled to make them since discovering, on his return to civilian life, that he could produce a gallon of alcohol for under a pound. This had been enlightening, and had increased his resentment of those who had been his previous employers, ultimately. He also found that he enjoyed the process of wine-making, that is, up to the moment he actually had to drink the stuff. He distinctly remembered how this wine had begun. A memorable day, etched into his mind:
The sloes had a delicate icing-sugar bloom and hung on the branches as densely packed as grapes. He pulled them off in handfuls and threw them into the five-gallon bucket where they landed with a satisfying drum roll. It had been a good year. Already he had ten gallons of elderflower, ten gallons of elderberry, six gallons of plum, and assorted crab apple wines bubbling away in his larder. This was a good day near the end of the fruit picking season. The autumn sunshine had the colour of last year’s elderflower wine and the warmth of summer had yet to abate. He picked sloes from early morning, the drum roll turning to a fruity mutter while earwigs spiralled up out of the bucket to avoid what would have been a scalding death when he sterilised the fruit. Not all of them would escape. They’d float to the surface with their bodies stretched out long and ribbed. He never bothered to scoop them out; a small protein content in the wine could do no harm, gave it body.
At midmorning he stopped to sit on a stump framed in the bright yellow of sulphur tuft fungi, drink coffee from his flask, and smoke a rollie. Cloud like broken lead climbed the horizon and a ragged crow observed him from the storm-mutilated branch of an oak. In retrospect he considered belief in omens: the brilliance of hindsight.
There was no more beer. Five ripped-open boxes with empty brown innards exposed attested to this if the communal stagger of departing guests did not. Half-drunk glasses of home-made wine lurked in the borders and there were bottles unsampled. Naylor couldn’t face any more of the stuff. The acidity of too-young wine continuing its fermenting process in his gut was nauseating. Somewhere, though, there was whisky.
Roderick, now flat on his back on his lawn while staring up at the star nascent sky, had a glass clutched upon the wobbly mound of his belly, and what it contained – the glass – had that enticing amber glint. He had offered none around. Someone might have said, ‘Yes please’. Naylor considered venturing to his van and unearthing the bottle cunningly concealed under the passenger seat, but in the end decided that was much effort to make. Instead, the bodily parts he chose to assault next were his lungs and he duly rolled a cigarette to let dread nicotine in.
“Are you all right?”
There is always someone who will ask this of you if you are drunk enough to fall off a patio wall while rolling a cigarette. Naylor looked up at Susan and considered how best he might answer her and if she required an answer at all. The question had the false sincerity of which only a trained social worker is capable, the intention being to reassure the questioner that she cared. As with the ‘How are you?’ greeting, it did not really require a concise answer.
“Fine,” said Naylor, upon observing that he still had a firm hold on the Rizla paper and had not spilt any tobacco. Susan smiled deprecatingly and with a rustle of her shell suit quickly departed.
Without bothering to get up – the position of his body had only shifted by ninety degrees after all – Naylor rolled his cigarette and placed it in his mouth. It was only then that he remembered that his lighter was in the back pocket of his jeans. The logistics seemed improbable, if not impossible, so he took a tip from Roderick and just stared up at the wavering sky. Time passed; it does.
As is often the wont of a rollie carelessly pulled from the mouth it came away with a neat strip of skin. The pain shoved Naylor closer to reality – a place he liked to avoid – so he rolled fully onto the lawn and pulled his lighter from his back pocket. Soon his lungs filled with lovely nicotine and he was all quote drugged-up unquote. This from the soldier, in the bunk on his right, during Naylor’s brief and traumatic army career. The man had been aptly described as a born-again non-smoker; one who became righteously indignant at the slightest whiff of the substance he so craved in his bleakest moments. Naylor could not remember his name. But were names important when you had a number? He sneered at the thought.
“Bloody wine,” said Roderick, stirring from slumber the Great Dane, Bacon, who had found a warm spot at his side.
Naylor sat up and the world shifted like a badly hung painting. For a moment he thought he would be leaving Roderick and Susan something nasty to run their lawn mower through – he had done so before – but he managed to pull the painting straight. Of course Roderick was right, so very right. The association was there as inseparable as bogy and finger; blood and wine, his own special Eucharist, though the bread had been different.
He had been aware of it for some time as he made his way down the hedgerow, but had dismissed it as litter, a discarded toy, tissues chucked from a car parked in the field entrance, a novelty condom. Drawing closer to it he found it more difficult to dismiss; something bulky, something off-white. When the collecting bucket was half full of sloes and his hands getting sore from thorn scrapes, he went to investigate, now expecting furniture surreptitiously dumped, an old mattress, cushions, something.
The off-white object was a human hand. The rest was the blood-soaked body of a man.
Naylor had seen death before, and strangely not when he had been in the army. He had once found a corpse on the mud flats and been proud of his ability not to puke. That had been before he had moved it. There had been the eels writhing out of her rain cape and the mud falling from her face to reveal that crabs had eaten it away. The worst had come with the indignity of a fart stinking of putrefying flesh. Then he had scattered his lunch all over the sea grass. This time his reaction was different.
The man looked to be in his forties, though it was difficult to tell beyond his greying hair. His suit looked expensive, so far as Naylor could judge these things, and down one side was soaked with crusting blood. There was a lot of it. It looked to Naylor to be much of what the man had contained. He stepped back and wondered if he was about to be sick and discovered that all he felt was morbid curiosity, if there could have been any other kind in that situation. He squatted next to the corpse and looked for the wound that had caused this death. Two holes in his side. He turned the corpse over – rigid as a plank – and winced at the mess of splintered ribs and split flesh. Only then did it occur to him; exit wounds. Those he had seen, though not for real. The slide-show before advanced weapon’s training had been illuminating, but then so many things had been in the last years he served out.
The corpse dropped back with a soggy thump and Naylor immediately spotted the gun where he had trodden it into the dirt a pace from the clawed right hand. He didn’t pick it up. They were always doing that in films. Instead he looked for more clues. It was shoved in the brambles; a suitcase. He had to look.
At the back of his mind Naylor had been turning over subsequent events: how he would call the police and have the satisfaction of a frenzied reaction to his words, how he would dine out on this story for the rest of his life, how inspector Morse would be impressed by his concise observations and clarity of thought, and how together they would go on to catch the murderer. When he opened the suitcase a completely different scenario arose and he felt the same gathering greed he felt when faced with edible wild fungi or a bush loaded with sloes.
“Frog wine,” he said, and Roderick snorted. It was like a mantra. Whenever Naylor thought about wine and the production of wine and most importantly about blood, he tried mentally to change the subject by saying those two words. They were ridiculous really, but had seated themselves permanently in his mind. There had been a conversation; drunk and stoned he and Roderick had discussed from what it might be possible to make wine. The conversation started to go downhill with talk of grubs in Tequila. Frog wine had been discussed just before the whole episode had degenerated into giggles.
Roderick sat upright and squinted at Naylor with the firm concentration of one who is trying to pull all the images together. To assist himself in this endeavour he sipped more whisky, then he looked from it with guilty cunning, and surveyed his garden as if intrigued by the effect of seeing it from this novel angle. He viewed his patio suspiciously then inspected the dial of his watch with elaborate care. Most of the guests had gone. Alex was comatose in a position of impossible comfort; his legs looped over the patio wall and his head resting in the herb garden. Susan, fat Tracy, and the female Alex had invited from the pub, were sitting around the bench table Roderick and Naylor had stolen from the beer garden of the Black Pig, and drinking that fizzy wine women seemed to be able to drink by the crate.
“Got a bottle in my van,” Naylor added to Roderick’s decision making process. Roderick nodded, his chins concertinaing, and lurched to his feet. He held this position until the ripples died, then headed indoors with Bacon padding along behind him. Naylor noted that, as well as lurching, Roderick was limping, and guessed the embarrassing fall from the apple tree had not been so painless as he had made out. Roderick did not have a tree-climbing physique. He liked to describe himself as ‘portly’. Yeah, which port?
By the time Naylor had managed to get to his feet and stagger towards the patio he saw that the three women were on their knees around the table looking at the slabs. Fat Tracy, who rather than being mutton dressed up as lamb was pork dressed up as human, had no doubt lost one of her contact lenses. She did this regularly, usually when a conversation became more than the gulf between her ears could handle. She had done it when Alex, with the subtlety of a baboon with a hard-on, had tried to open her eyes to the merits of driving him home and sucking his knob. Naylor had no doubt that she would drive him home, despite Susan’s deep concern and sisterly advice, and that Alex would have his evil way. He usually did. Lurching past the three women Naylor looked down at Tracy’s huge lycra-clad backside and shook his head.
“Must remember that next time I want to park a motorbike,” he said.
“Wha’?” Tracy looked round with a dumb-blonde grin that was on the edge of imbecility. Naylor repressed the urge to attack when he caught the new female looking at him estimatingly. She was quite attractive and he did not want his misogyny to show just yet.
“I said Mecca is that way.” He pointed to where he thought the East might be and stumbled inside with as much dignity as he could muster, that is to say, not a lot.
Roderick’s sitting room had the ambience of a particularly smelly cafe furnished with one or two decent bits of furniture. Roderick was standing in the middle of the bare floor having a staring contest with a nasty-looking corn dolly Susan had hung up. As Naylor entered the room, Roderick broke away from this clash of wills, and slumped on a battered leather sofa sending a shock wave through the upholstery that flung a particularly irritable cat onto the floor. With delicate steps, Bacon then approached him, and rested a muzzle like a bucket of shelled oysters on his shoulder. Naylor dropped onto the sofa as well. He held out a glass he’d grabbed on the way through the kitchen. Roderick reached over to a cupboard next to the sofa and removed a three-quarters full bottle of Canadian Gold, quickly slamming the door on the jumble of wire, books and toilet rolls.
Naylor licked his lips at the sound of the metal cap coming off glass and the gurgle of liquid gold. He took his first sip with slow relish and felt it ignite the beef burgers in their marinade of red wine and beer in his stomach, then he observed a pendulous rod of drool hanging from Bacon’s mouth. He just made it to the toilet as the projectile vomit passed his tonsils. To the occasional mechanical “Are you all right?” he heard over the next two hours he replied, “Frog wine.” Then he slept on the sofa before slinking away in the early hours of the morning observed inscrutably by the cat.
The suitcase had contained twenties and fifties in apple-size rolls held shut with rubber bands. Naylor came to a decision in about half a second. He shut the suitcase, looked round for Jeremy Beadle, then legged it for his van. Though the case was heavy, but Naylor sprinted through the barley stubble with it. He quickly shoved it in the back of the van, tossed his waterproofs over it, followed by his tools, petrol cans, chain saw and hedge cutter. Then he sprinted back.
On returning to the corpse his first thought was for his footprints, then the sloes. Could he deny having seen the corpse if questioned? Yes, he could. Could he confuse the issue at all? He momentarily considered cutting off the hands and smashing the teeth, but the demon forensics reared its head and snarled at him. Instead he carefully searched the man’s pockets and came up with a box of cartridges, a wallet containing money but no identification, a lock knife and a small folding spoon, a pack of Rothmans and a gold lighter. He took them all along with the man’s watch and gun, then shoved him under the hedge until he rolled in the ditch. As an afterthought he scattered dry soil over the nearest spill of blood. Lugging his bucket of sloes back to his van he noted blood on the ground right up to the edge of the road and some on the road. There was a trail he could back-track, perhaps to find where the man had been shot. It couldn’t have been far away. He did not. Instead he put the bucket of sloes on the passenger seat and supposed he should feel guilty. All he could think about though was what precautions he should take while spending the money.