One From The Vault
I was having had a spot of bother with a rich man’s wife. She was older than me but I didn’t care. I just wanted her, like some strange and terrible drug.
It was the usual story. She’d married young, enticed by the charm of a mature and successful man, and the stability that comes of secure investments. The age gap had not seemed so much when she was twenty and he was fit and fifty. But she was pushing forty now and he had not aged well. Emphysema was slowly drowning him; he was bald, half-blind, and crippled with arthritis. There were no children, and he didn’t expect his wife to look after him, not that way, so I was the care assistant. He was decent enough to me, but there was something grotesque about him, especially when you thought about him still sleeping in the marital bed. It was his skin that got to me, stretched over him like a shower curtain wrapped around a skeleton. He was deathly pale, with had no hair at all, no eyebrows, no lashes, nothing on his arms and chest, not even around his slug-like cock. He was like some kind of subterranean lizard, milky-eyed and albino, slobbering over his woman like a piece of over-ripe fruit.
She was a fine looking woman, outwardly affectionate, and he was very proud of her. ‘Marrying her,’ he told me once, coughing wetly, ‘was the best thing that ever happened to me.’
‘You’re a lucky man,’ I agreed, thinking of the way the contours of her body shifted beneath those fashionable clothes, her deep, dark eyes. He had everything I wanted and could never have: the country house, the money, and the trophy wife, starved of physical attention and ready and willing to do anything. She made that more than obvious.
We were the only people in the house and it was easy enough for her to make her move. The old man always slept in the afternoon, and between two and four my time was my own. I had an apartment at the top of the house and I would read, play games or watch a DVD. One day I went back there and she was waiting, stretched out on the bed in nothing but her jewellery, a glass of wine in her hand. ‘Have you ever fantasised about being seduced?’ she had said.
After that we couldn’t leave each other alone. She took to slipping him sleeping pills, which she got on prescription, and then coming to my room at night. There were no servants, and when the old man was out of it we could do whatever we wanted.
I was marvelling at the paleness of her skin against the soft black of a negligee as we lay together late one memorable evening when she broke the spell. ‘He still makes me do things,’ she said, sitting up in bed and lighting a cigarette.
‘What things?’ I asked her, feeling suddenly sick.
‘Dirty, filthy things,’ she said, her face momentarily aged by disgust. ‘Not like us,’ she added. ‘He says I have to, or he’ll cut me out of his will. He has a half-brother somewhere, in the military I think, and he says he’ll leave it all to him unless I do what he wants.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said uselessly, trying to get my arm around her.
‘I hate him,’ she said, moving away. ‘Why won’t he just die?’
‘I had been wondering about this myself. As far as my lover and her surroundings were concerned, I knew that my ship had come in. And I was confident I had won her heart, because despite what they say there is really only one true way to that for men and women. But I equally knew that she was accustomed to a standard of living that I could never hope to provide. With her style and looks, I was also uncomfortably aware of how easily I could be replaced by a similar model in a higher income bracket. I needed the old man’s money as much as she did. ‘He’s very frail,’ I ventured cautiously, praying I was reading her right. ‘He could easily have an accident.’
She gave a melodramatic sigh, expelling cigarette smoke like an exasperated devil. ‘Do you think I haven’t thought of that?’ she said. ‘Do you think he hasn’t?’ She moderated her breathing and continued, ‘There’s a clause in the damn will – I’ve seen it – that says in the event of any death deemed to be unnatural or in any way suspicious the entire estate goes to the half-brother.’
I took the cigarette from her hand, had a drag and then put it out. Then I kissed her until I felt her yield. ‘Then we wait,’ I whispered. ‘He’s old and we’re young. He can’t last much longer.’
‘Neither can I,’ she said.
But he did last, cheating death as the weeks turned into months. The old bastard was a deal tougher than he looked, shuffling around with his sticks, reading, listening to music and seemingly oblivious to the continuing betrayal. I didn’t know if he was still fucking her too, because she didn’t dare drug him every night, but she didn’t raise the subject again and I never asked. It was only when he caught us together that things finally changed.
From her position on the bed I’m sure she must have seen him, but she just carried on letting me have her while he watched from the doorway of my bedroom. He must have woken up and needed me for something. Only when she greeted him cheerfully over my shoulder did I even know he was there.
He just stood there in a dressing gown, leaning on his stick, huge tears sliding down the hollows of his face. I wrapped the bedclothes around myself in girlish modesty and started to apologise, but she kept silent, exposed and uncaring, staring him down in utter hatred.
His face began to distort, and he started to shake violently, as if an electric current was surging up through his stick and into his body. I watched him framed in the doorway, willing him to go. Finally, gasping for a breath that wouldn’t come, he fell backwards into the hallway, one of his slippers flying off as he hit the floor.
I moved to go to him but she held me back. ‘Wait,’ she said, lighting a cigarette. After two more and a glass of wine she phoned an ambulance.
But still he did not die. It was, the doctors said, a massive stroke, and they marvelled at his will to live. We had thought him dead, but the paramedics had found a pulse and with his wealth and status the healthcare was exemplary. In a month he was off the critical list. His devoted wife sat by his bedside every day, sleeping in an adjacent room in the exclusive private clinic, leaving me to pace my room in the family house like a man on Death Row.
Eventually they sent him home. I was still his nurse, but now he was completely helpless. The embolism had mashed all those neutral connections that facilitated movement and speech, and only the sad light behind his liquid blue eyes betrayed any sign of consciousness. They said higher brain function was still clearly evident, and that he could still hear and see and feel, so we should talk to him and keep him stimulated and entertained. A bedroom was set up for him downstairs, and during the day I sat him in a specially adapted wheelchair, cleaning and feeding him like a baby, and playing him classical music or pointing him at the TV. On fine days, I would wheel him along the paths of the landscaped garden that he loved so much. Sometimes I’d even push him down to the family mausoleum, a great grey tomb built in the grounds by a Victorian ancestor. He never said a word, but his eyes followed me intently. It would have been more humane to suffocate him with a pillow.
But forensics are very advanced these days, and with the kind of lawyers the old man could afford I knew the will would be iron-clad. So we all waited for the inevitable, the second stroke that would finish the work of the first.
To hasten this, we devised a very specific form of live entertainment to accompany the audio/visual, in which we made love on his bed every day while he watched silently from his chair. She was into it from the start, but I confess a certain initial reluctance, which she overcame by the application of increasingly creative and passionate games. As we bit, whipped and sucked the old man looked on from the awful prison of his own body, like a soul trapped within its own decomposing corpse. So involved were we in each other that when he finally slipped away we didn’t immediately notice. We put him carefully to bed, and this time we left him all night before we called a doctor.
Following a small private service in the local church, attended by the representatives of several major investment banks and a couple of retired cabinet ministers, the old man was laid to rest in the family vault. If there really was a half-brother, he had not deigned to attend. The reading of the will was, I gathered, a similarly simple affair, the entire estate, including all properties, investments and holdings going to the grieving widow. In acknowledgement of my faithful service to her husband, she graciously kept me on as a personal assistant. After a suitably decent interval, a more public romance blossomed, and we married in the spring. And regardless of what you might think, I wasn’t just marrying the money, and neither was it the secret that bound us. I was happy and in love, and as far as I was able to measure so was she. We never spoke of the old man.
Having no need to work we became completely lost in each other, the house and its grounds a vast and sensual playground. My wife loved to cook, and we continued to resist servants, preferring the privacy that our wealth afforded. Our seclusion was interrupted only by scheduled weekly visits by the same team of gardeners and cleaners that had maintained the place in the old man’s day.
One midsummer evening, after the groundsmen had gone, we walked hand in hand through the great garden equipped for an impromptu moonlight picnic. She carried a blanket and I a small hamper containing wine, cakes and candles. The air was warm and sweet with freshly-cut grass and honeysuckle, and the night was charged by our mutual desire.
‘Let’s do it by the old fool’s grave,’ she suddenly said.
I could never turn her down, and there was a certain thrill to the irreverence of such a suggestion, couple with the memory of those wild afternoons when we did it in front of the old man. She was looking particularly alluring that night as well, in a low-cut summer frock with just a glimpse of satin underneath, so I didn’t require all that much persuasion. She put down the blanket not far from the door to the vault and I arranged and lit the candles. We drank to the old man’s demise and then she lie down laughing and lifted the hem of her dress. Then something hit me hard from behind.
When I came round, I at first didn’t know where I was. I was aware only of stone walls in trembling orange light. I was facing a long, low sarcophagus with our candles placed all around the base. There was a shadowy human figure laid out along its length which I took to be a marble effigy. I couldn’t feel anything, but I was evidently propped against a wall because I could see my naked legs splayed out on the dusty floor in front of me. Angles were weird, and I realised my head was lolling to one side, only my eyes moving. I willed myself to shift position but nothing happened. I tried to speak but no words came. My mouth hurt and my head began to throb, but I was otherwise completely numb. With a rising sense of panic, I realised that my neck must be broken. I could do nothing but stare silently at the silhouette on the slab, while inside my mind was screaming.
I prayed my wife to come and rescue me. Maybe there was still hope. We were rich, after all; the best medical care in the world was available, including cutting edge experimental surgery, providing I could just stay alive. With a tremendous effort of will I fought down any thought that whoever had attacked me had got her too. She was smart and resourceful, I reasoned, and she obviously saw him coming. She knew the grounds better than any assailant. She must have gotten away; she would have called for help.
The candle flames flickered and danced, playing tricks with the shadows and giving the reclining statue the appearance of movement. The place was really getting to me, and while my new body slumped uselessly my mind was still trying to run, like a child in a dark room terrified of ghosts.
All at once the statue sat up and spoke my name. It was my wife.
In the shadows beyond my field of vision something coughed wetly.
Dead lungs still wheezing, the old man lurched out of the darkness, his hairless and translucent skin corrupt and his bones exposed in the spectral candlelight. I willed my wife to run, but she was paralysed in terror and struggling for breath. He was on her soon enough, forcing her back onto the stone, rending her clothes and then her flesh with his terrible talons. He took her in front of me and at last she found her voice.
Eventually, she stopped screaming. Then he turned his attention to me…