Caroline's Storybook

The Moth And The Candle

by Caroline Ashbee

My dear Anne, my dearest Anne, I can see you sitting at home on the sofa in the drawing room, wondering what has happened to me. I can see you, in those first hours, thinking, saying to yourself 'There must be some perfectly reasonable explanation', but from the start you wouldn't have believed it. I'm too reliable for that. I'm hardly ever late; and when I shall be late I always telephone to let you know so you won't worry. But not this time.

At a time like this, even at a time like this, my mind turns to music, to the last song in Frauenliebe und leben, the last song, the last thing, the woman sings about, the only time her beloved husband let her down, by dying, and this is the last time I will let you down. Oh, Anne, Anne, the hours have gone by, and I can't recover the feelings that led me to throw everything away. I had to do it at the time. I wouldn't think of the consequences that I knew were inevitable. I was driven by a need that led me to do what I did. No excuses, I did what I wanted to do, I wished that she had made it easier for me, but in control, out of control, I did what I wanted to do and now I take the consequences. I cannot face life any longer. This letter is the last goodbye. I am now letting you down for the last time.

I want you to know a lot of things. It seems silly to be concerned with what anybody should think of me after my death; but I do, I want you and Jennifer and David to know why I shall do what I am about to do. I shall kill myself because I have condemned myself to death. Do I deserve to die? The law says that I don't, even for premeditated murder, and what happened, what I did, was never premeditated; but I am convinced that Timothy Kingsley is someone I no longer wish to know, so I shall kill him, kill myself. I suppose that part of what brought me here is my willingness to make my own judgements, my unwillingness to be bound by convention. It is very important---No it isn't--- it seems very important now to convince you that I am not going to kill myself to avoid justice, I am killing myself because 'justice' in its current mode is inadequate to repay me for my crimes. In this way the disproportionate act is atoned for by a proportionate penance.

Of course I didn't mean to kill her. I've never believed in that excuse when other people have offered it, I wish I could believe in it now; I've tried and tried; but I can't convince myself that intention matters a bit. What has happened to her, to Alison, is what matters, and Alison is dead.

I would not have met Alison but for an accident. It all took place at the beginning of the year. I had been to the bookshop near my office, you know the one, where I have the account, and I had bought a couple of paperbacks which I took with me when I went to lunch in the club. Over lunch I read a review of a newly published book about the sociology of urban violence, and I thought that it would almost certainly be in the university library, so straight after lunch I drove across town, and found it on the shelf, and I took it out. I was in the car driving back to my office when I remembered the paperbacks that I had left behind. I drove back to the library and saw her with friends, standing in the foyer of the library. She was standing resting on her crutches. She was wearing a long skirt, and I couldn't see her feet, but there was something about the way she was standing that told me she was an amputee. As always, I was glamoured, a moth at the candle. The air was transformed into a thin vapour, my heart was pounding in my ears, and I felt immense gaiety. This, as it always was, was love at first sight. I wanted to speak to her, but I was too shy to approach her while she was with her friends. It was obvious from the way they were standing and talking that they were about to leave the library and go to different destinations. I raced up the stairs to where I had found the library book I had taken out, but there was no sign of the bag containing my paperbacks, so I surmised that I must have left them behind at the club. I sprinted down the stairs and saw her leaving with two friends beside her.

I had no choice but to follow her in the hope that finally her friends might go their separate ways, leaving her alone, and I could say something, I didn't know what, to her. I was blissful as I watched her walking, swinging herself between her crutches. I recognized from the moment I first saw her that she was not conventionally beautiful, she was a big heavy girl, but she was so attractive. They stopped together beside a car parked in one of the spaces reserved for disabled people, and she opened the door, collected a folder and rejoined her friends. I watched as all three of them went together into one of the buildings nearby, the School of Fine Arts. Almost certainly she was a student, either of fine arts or of the history of art. I walked back to her car. On the windscreen there was a disabled driver's parking permit, and these have the disabled person's name written on them. So I knew two things about her. She was a student of art, and that her name was Alison Taylor.

There was nothing else I could do until she came back, so I took a chance, picked up my car, drove back to the club, found my books still on the table where I had left them, and drove back to the library. Alison's car was still there. I wondered what to do. I would write a note, with my name and telephone number on a scrap of paper and fasten it to her car. Writing the note was difficult enough; but then I had to go and fix it somehow to her car. It took ages to pluck up the courage to do it. I did it in the end: I walked nonchalantly past the car, and paused, but there was nowhere obvious where I could fix the note. I felt the time rushing by as I stood there indecisive, shifty, and unignorably conspicuous, as conspicuous, I remember thinking in the interminable moment, as an eyeball in the fruit salad.

In the end, in a panic, I pushed the note into the gap between the window and the driver's door. I was terrified the whole time that someone would challenge me: there were passersby, but nobody noticed, or if they noticed, they saw nothing at all unusual in the sight of a middle-aged man meddling with a parked car. I was almost shaking when I had finished. I decided to wait and see what she would do when she found the note. It was while I was waiting that I began to think about what I had done. It didn't take long for me to become unhappy with the wording of the note.

You can imagine how I was feeling: relieved that I had fixed the note and had got away with it, increasingly unhappy with what I had written. I wrote another note, folded it carefully and walked up to the car a second time. It was easier this time: I knew how the old note had been attached and it was a matter of seconds to exchange the notes. I did it almost without breaking my stride as I nonchalantly walked past the car. Then I went back to watching and waiting; but after a few minutes I knew that leaving a note was completely the wrong thing to do. I walked briskly past the car a third time and plucked the note up as I passed the car. I was almost delirious with relief. Part of my misgiving was that I had used our home telephone number and I was afraid that you would take the call, and demanding as my needs were, I didn't want to hurt you more than was absolutely necessary. I decided to wait until she came back to the car, and if she was alone I could speak to her then. While I was waiting I made a note of her car number. After about an hour she came back to the car. Impossible to explain the bliss I felt just watching her walk, but it was blissful; it was a tempered bliss because still she was not alone. By this time she had only one companion but I didn't dare approach the two of them. Crushed by a sense of loss, I watched them drive away together.

It was only later that I realized that there was just a chance that I might be able to find her again and make contact. She was almost certainly a student in the School of Fine Arts, and I knew her name. It was simple to find out her address. I was very nervous, ready to put down the receiver at any moment, as I telephoned the University, asked for the Undergraduate Office, and simply asked for the term-time address of Alison Taylor, a student in the School of Fine Arts. I hadn't thought of anything to justify my inquiry, but it didn't occur to the person I had asked to seek a justification either. She told me Alison Taylor's address: it was on Western Hill, in one of the big houses that are divided into flats for rent.

Afterwards, most lunchtimes, I would leave the office and visit her street just to look at the house where she lived, in the hope of catching a glimpse of her. I used to look out for her car. You would be surprised how excited seeing her car made me, just the car! It meant that she was nearby. I always felt wretched as I stood, aimlessly looking round, frightened of being noticed as an eccentric by the passersby. But it didn't take long to get over this embarrassment. What I never got over was the unhappiness I always felt. If I could see her car I was unhappy knowing that she was close and I wasn't with her, if her car wasn't there I was unhappy because she was far away. I knew that going there would make me unhappy, unhappier, but I still went. It started in the Spring; I remember going there when the leaves of the plane trees were fresh and pale green, and it continued into the autumn when they filled the gutters, swirled into piles of crumbling brown-paper offcuts, dispersed by the gales of November.

I know that you noticed that something was wrong all through the Summer, but I couldn't tell you what was ailing me, and when you asked me I didn't lie: it really was middle-aged gloom, but Alison was the cause of it. I had fallen in love with a woman twenty, twenty-five years younger than me, a woman I had never spoken to, and didn't dare to speak to.

By October I was becoming desperate. I still didn't know what to do; but I knew that I had to do something. I had to try to make contact with her. I spent longer and longer waiting in the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of her swinging by. I considered simply accosting her; but I knew that that would be unacceptable, more, I knew that if she allowed herself to be picked up in the street by a stranger she would be unacceptable to me. I had to make contact in some other way. One of the benefits of being a programmer is that it trains you to think exhaustively. If I was not to speak to her, and if I were to continue to want to communicate, the mode of communication would have to be writing. I should have to write a letter to her. It took a long time to decide this. I was cautious about writing: a letter is concrete evidence, and while I was doing nothing wrong in writing to her, I was uneasy about leaving concrete evidence of my somewhat unusual feelings towards women who are amputees, Oh, I forgot to tell you, I sent her a Valentine card, anonymously, of course. It was a quixotic thing to do, but I hoped she would like it. She didn't look to me much like the kind of girl who gets lots of Valentines. She wasn't a physically attractive girl. Plain, big-boned, fat, pear-shaped, dull reddish hair; and she dressed like an art student: faded denim jacket, colourful sweaters, long full skirts, and always a black stocking, and a black thick-soled men's working shoe. I never saw her using a prosthesisSilly to write 'I never saw her', I don't suppose I saw her more than five times altogethernor using crutches other than the aluminium fore-arm kind. Some women amputees I have seen manage to walk with their crutches with a kind of flowing grace, but Alison, sullen-faced, seemingly always resentful, heaved her heavy body between the crutches, effectively enough, but without any hint of elegance, on the contrary, she seemed to have a careless kind of take-it-or-leave-it posture; but I fell in love with her all the same.

It took me a long time to decide what to write to her. I thought about the honest approach, writing and telling her I had fallen in love with her at first sight all those months ago. I thought about that approach and discarded it. It would seem too obsessed. God knows, I was obsessed, but I didn't want to seem to be obsessed, especially at first. I didn't want to have to mislead her, but that's what I did. I wrote to her claiming to be an officer of a charitable society set up to provide aids for physically handicapped people. I asked if she would be willing to answer some questions as part of a survey we were carrying out of the needs of people whose mobility was impaired. It was the only thing I could think of. To make it look convincing it I sneaked into the drafting office at work and used the computer to make up a suitable logo, I used the DTP program to make the letter look professional, and I sent it to her. I went through agonies after I had sent it, agonies that she would be suspicious and tell the police, agonies that she would reply, but decline, agonies that she would reply and agree to meet me. I suppose that the worst of possibilities manifested itself.She wrote back agreeing to meet me, at her flat, on a Thursday afternoon. I wrote back and accepted her invitation.

Somebody once suggested that whenever events were settled by probabilities the Universe split itself into separate branches, each branch a complete Universe in which one of the alternative possibilities expressed itself. I'd like to think there were parallel Universes where the choices have been different, where Alison declined to meet me, where I never saw Alison in the first place, where you didn't have to know that your husband had killed somebody, and where Jennifer and David did not have to know that their father was a murderer. What makes it doubly terrible is that Alison was a year younger than Jennifer, and I can hardly imagine, even now, what I would be feeling if some lunatic had killed her.

I'm sorry if I'm rambling. It's all part of what I've got to try to explain to you before I die. I never meant to be wicked. That's what I want you to believe and that's why I'm going over this wretched story so carefully. Everything I did was motivated by love.

I went to her flat. She lived on the ground floor, naturally. I stood at the front door of the house and rang the bell to her flat. There was a loudspeaker beside the bell and a woman's voice with a Birmingham accent, an ugly, urban whine, asked

'Who ees eet?'

'Timothy Kingsley to see Alison Taylor.'

'Oh, coome een then. It's the last door on the roight.' I went inside and walked down the communal corridor, knocked on Alison's door, and stood waiting, and then she appeared. I caught my breath as best I could and stood looking at her.

'Well down't joost stand there,' she said--Her's was the voice with the whining Birmingam accent'Coome een.'

Even as I stepped across the threshold I had a presentiment of disaster. Apart from her amputation there was nothing else about her exterior that was attractive. All I could hope was that she had a pleasing personality.

I followed her into the flat, drinking in her appearance as she heaved herself forward on her crutches. We went into a small room got up like a study, with some plain deal bookshelves, a desk and a single armchair.

'If you don't mind I'll sit in the armchair.' she said, 'You can sit at the desk.' Her accent wasn't that appalling I thought, less pronounced than I had thought at first.

I sat at the desk and took out the papers I had carefully faked to support my claim to be doing a survey.

'I'd like to start with a few formal questions, the usual things about age, sex, marital status things like that.'

'Age: 22, sex: female, marital status: single.'

'Now I want to establish the degree of your physical impairment, and the consequent disability.'

'I lost my left leg when I was twelve, a road accident.'

'The type of amputation?' My mouth was dry.

'Hip disarticulation.' She smoothed her skirt down on the left-hand side. 'There's nothing left.'

'What mobility aids do use regularly.'

'Only crutches. I tried a prosthesis for about a year, but it was always so uncomfortable and inconvenient that I gave it up.'

'Do you regard yourself as disabled?'

'Yes. I have a disabled parking badge on my car, I can't walk very far, and I can't carry very much when I'm walking. Yes, I'm definitely disabled.'

'How do you feel about that?'

'I believe that it's a way of leading me to God.' I could hardly believe this.

'Were you aware of this before you lost your leg?'

'No, it was God's way of calling me to him.'

You can imagine how this pious claptrap affected me. I was in despair. The only thing about her that I found attractive was her amputation; but it didn't matter because then the world fell in.

'I know who you are. ' she said in the same dull tone in which she had been answering my questions. 'You've been sneaking round here for months, haven't you? peeping round corners, staring. It's all just a pretext, this, isn't it? There's no organisation is there? You're just one of those perverts that make such a nuisance of yourselves aren't you? You're not the first one, you know. They all think they are, but they aren't. Most just stare and daren't go any further; but there's always the odd bold one who tries something on. So what am I going to do about you, you dirty little man?'

I couldn't think of anything to say at first.

'I haven't done anything wrong.' I said. 'I just wanted to get to know you.'

'... because I'm an amputee. You left that bit out.'

'I couldn't just walk up to you in the street and say ”Hello, my name is Timothy. I think you're very attractive, and I would like to get to know you.• God, I'm old enought to be your father.'

'You're a perverted little man, and you deserve to be exposed.'

'But I've done nothing wrong.'

'Nothing except insinuate yourself into my flat under false pretences.' She heaved herself to the telephone.

'I'm going to call the police.'

'Please, don't. I haven't hurt you or even touched you. I haven't threatened you.. .I only wanted to get to know you because I think you're very attractive.'

'Attractive? I know what I am: ugly, fat, and a cripple; and I know what you are: a pervert.' She began to dial. I went towards her. It was easy. I simply reached across and pushed down the receiver switch.

'You bastard.' she said, and she began to shout 'Help, Rape.' things like that.

'Look, I'm sorry. Please let me go. I'll never try to make contact with you again.' but she didn't stop, and it was then that I knew - It was so sudden, a revelation - that I had destroyed myself, us, the children, that's how I thought of them then. I wish they were still children, then they might have had some chance of not understanding, or of forgetting what had happened to their father. .. She wouldn't stop: I couldn't leave her. She would just call the police, I couldn't stay: help would arrive at any minute. I had to stop her shouting. I clamped my hands over her mouth. God knows, I was in desperation. When did I ever raise my hand to you, or to the children? I think she was frightened for the first time. She struggled, but lost her balance and we fell to the floor together; but I still kept hold of her mouth. I caught her leg in a scissors formed by my legs and held her with her back clamped against my chest and she couldn't move.

'It's over. Everything is over.' I was saying it to myself all the time. I knew then that I was finished. The only course left was suicide. I knew it then; but I hoped that there was another way. She was struggling less and less. She was tiring and was becoming resigned to the fact that I was stronger than she was, and she couldn't prise my hands away from her mouth. Things had gone quite differently from what she had expected, as well, and she must have been becoming aware of the full implications of the plight we found ourselves in. We lay together on the floor for what seemed like hours. I had pins and needles in my legs and my arms.

'You realize what this means?' I said at last. 'It means I have nothing left to lose.' She made no sign at all of having heard me. She simply lay, relaxed against my body. 'If you promise not to struggle I'll let your leg go.' again no response. I let her leg go. She lay relaxed against me. I held her like this for an age. I suppose it must have been about a quarter of an hour. 'If you promise not to shout I'll take my hands away.' No response. I took my hands away and her head, completely relaxed slipped to the side and hit the floor. I knew that she couldn't be unconscious because I had done nothing to hurt her.

'Alison,' I said, feeling foolish, and knowing what the answer would be, but asking all the same, 'are you all right?' I knew before I asked the question that she was dead. I tried to remember the resuscitation procedures I learned on the offshore safety and survival course. I loosened her collar, placed her on to her back, checked the airway was clear, knelt at her side, and began the heart massage, putting my shoulders into the work. Then the mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration, and then the heart massage again and again and again. I could see the instructor counting the timings. I remembered her blond hair and her voice. 'Don't give up.' she said, 'Never give up.' I remembered the hard time the roustabouts gave her: they didn't take kindly to being instructed by a woman. I didn't give up; but Alison was dead.

I looked at my watch. It was twenty past four. I was kneeling beside the body of a dead woman. I would be expected home by six at the latest, I knew that by seven you be distraught, by half past you would have called the police to find out what disaster had befallen me. All sorts of ideas passed through my mind. The main thing that I wanted to do was to dispose of the body. I thought that if I could dispose of the body I could escape from the temporal consequences of what I had done. At first I was frightened and concerned with self-preservation. It was only later that I lost interest in that. I sickened myself thinking about the body. This was Alison Taylor who had terrified me, had wanted to destroy me, but who had been a person, with friends, and parents, and relatives. I knew then that I was not going to dispose of the body. I knew then that nothing that the law could inflict would be sufficient a punishment. I knew that the only conceivable atonement for what I had become and had done was death. I have been sitting at Alison's desk for a couple of hours writing this. The apology for my life. I have no more excuses. All that remains is to post it to you. Then I shall drive the car into the pier of one of the bridges over the motorway. It is important that my death looks like an accident because otherwise my life insurance will be invalid. This way, at least, you will get the house and an income of sorts for the remainder of your life. It is absolutely essential that you destroy this letter by burning and that you then pulverise the ash. This is the last thing I will ever ask you to do for me. Please do it.

And now, the last goodbye. Even now I know that you would try to understand, try to stand by me. Your love can forgive even this. My darling Anne, I can see you still as I saw you that first day, wearing the blue sweater, and the grey check skirt, your hair on your shoulders, and your glasses, old-fashioned now, but lovely in my memory because you were wearing them; when I saw you then I fell in love with you at first sight. For you I feel a love that warms and makes whole, this other, a love that burned me up and ruined me. You have given me more than any reasonable man could have wished for, but I have never been reasonable. There has always been a flaw in my nature, an unreasoning obsession with women who are amputees. For most of our life together it was a small flaw, but it has become worse, like a system of cracks spreading across a windowpane, travelling year by year by slow degrees until something, some small shock from outside, causes the glass to shatter.

In my own way I loved Alison; but I love you all, my wonderful daughter, Jennifer, my honourable son David, and you, dearest of all, my darling Anne.

Everything comes to an end.

© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995