Letters Prey

Privately, Muriel thought it had perhaps been just a matter of time before something like this happened, what with the way her Alan constantly hared around like there was no tomorrow. “The early bird catches the worm” had been his motto, and he had lived by it in earnest, always up well before she ever felt like rising, wolfing down a bowlful of something that inevitably had Ener- or Nutri- in its name while he scanned the FT or the business pages of the Telegraph, and off out the door while she was just stumbling blearily down the stairs to make herself some tea and a piece of toast to eat as she reviewed that day’s lesson plans in her head. She’d never really understood how anyone could live like that, not year and year out, at any rate, nor how she and he had ended up getting (and staying) married, while she was perfectly content as a part-time primary teacher. Still, they did complement each other in a strange sort of way, and however you looked at it, he did earn excellent money and always got the biggest bonus in his department each year. But then The Accident happened, and Muriel had sobbed and sighed and asked herself over and over again why she hadn’t played the field just a little longer as a young woman, and chosen a husband without quite the same insatiable need to be Going Somewhere and Doing Something Productive every minute of his waking life.

Alan’s spotless silver-grey Mercedes saloon had roared out of the driveway at 7:00 am sharp as usual. Indeed nothing about that morning had been unusual at all; it was pure bad luck that Benjy the postman, whom Alan had seen discharging his duties many times before but had of course never exchanged a word with, happened to be walking across the cul-de-sac while looking the other way and listening to something very loud and bass-heavy on his DJ-style headphones at the precise moment Alan was rummaging in the glove compartment for a pack of Smints, conscious of his first-thing one-to-one with the head of marketing for Europe, rather than giving his full attention to the road ahead.

The judge had said all the things he was obliged to say in cases like these, about the tragic waste, the victim cut down in his prime, the parents robbed of their son; but also of the apparently sincere contrition of the defendant, his unimpeachable good name up till that moment, and things of that nature generally. Alan had wept – mainly out of concern for himself, of course, but it had still looked good, and if truth be told he was genuinely sad about killing Barney or Billy or whatever the postman had been called. The judge, summing up, pronounced that although, yes, of course, there had undeniably been a death, and that this had been caused “in large part” by dangerous driving (a great deal had also been made of Benjy’s headphones), the two facts did not, in the end, add up to a charge of death-by-dangerous-driving. Alan escaped with charges of speeding and driving without due care and attention, and got away with no more than points on his licence and a hefty fine. Oh, unless you count several expensive rounds of single malts he’d bought both his brief and the judge at the 19th hole after they’d played a few rounds together to celebrate Alan’s good fortune in not receiving a more serious penalty.

The terrible accident was still playing very heavily on Muriel’s mind four days after her husband’s case was heard, while he had apparently forgotten about it apart from the annoyingly long and technical calls he was still having to make to the insurance pricks about the big dent in the front of the Merc, when something happened in the morning that rather upset what Alan liked to think of as their imperturbable domestic harmony. The usual two or three items of mail had already been dropped through the letterbox some ten minutes previously by Benjy’s replacement when there was another soft slap of an envelope hitting a doormat. Alan, who was marching purposefully down the hallway to leave for the day anyway, reached down and picked it up. It was a postcard, or rather, a piece of card of the exact size and card quality of a typical holiday postcard, but perfectly white and bare of any design whatsoever. On the other side was a brief scrawled message that seemed to have been written with the cheapest sort of red biro, and no stamp or postmark of any kind. The message read:

DIE U WANKER

Alan was momentarily non-plussed, but quickly realized that whoever had posted this message couldn’t have got very far in the three or four seconds since it had been posted through the front door. No doubt one of Barry’s erstwhile colleagues was trying to spook him out in revenge! He yanked open the door and was confronted by a resolutely empty garden; indeed, a vista which contained not a single human soul except the new postman still on his rounds, already fifteen or twenty doors up the road.

A chill ran down Alan’s spine and he dropped the card to the doormat. “Is everything alright, dear?”, his wife called from the kitchen-diner. A pause, then Alan rallied and called back, as nonchalantly as he could: “Oh yes, it’s fine, just another of these damn begging letters we keep getting. Going now, see you later.”

He bent down to pick up the card again, scrunching it tightly in his fist and then thrusting it into his pocket before disposing of it – no, better still, burning it – once he got to work. Clearly some joker was trying to wind him up and, the obviously rather sneaky method of the message’s delivery notwithstanding, it was not going to have the desired effect of getting to him.

The message recurrently drifted to the forefront of Alan’s mind over the course of the day, and his colleagues noticed that he wore an uncharacteristically distracted expression. However, a meal at the Plough and Greyhound with Muriel to celebrate the company’s winning a big new contract that week, a decent bottle of pinot noir and a truly exceptional episode of Strictly quite put the whole unpleasant business out of his mind, and he’d forgotten all about it by the following morning. Until, that is, there was another audible flop of something landing on the doormat, a good quarter of an hour after the rest of the post, again coinciding with Alan’s walking down the hallway to the front door. As before, it was a rectangle of white card, unmarked except for a short scrawled message, which this time said

TOO FAST CUNT

Alan had scarcely read the message when, his face twisting into a furious scowl, he immediately yanked the door open, determined to catch the culprit red-handed. But again, there was no-one to be seen for many tens of metres in any direction, and the couple’s neat front garden afforded no hiding places that could fully conceal a human being. Alan emitted a sort of strangled whimper and lurched out of the house, half-heartedly checking under the Merc to make sure the prankster wasn’t hiding there – but of course there was no-one. This time Muriel was sufficiently concerned to emerge into the front garden and ask what was going on. Alan was torn between wanting to share this awful secret with his wife and the desire to keep up his façade of unflappability – and, to be completely honest, the nagging fear that she would find the whole thing funny.

“Nothing!” he exclaimed, knowing he wasn’t convincing either his wife or himself. “Nothing at all! It’s fine! Have a nice day! Bye!”

And with that he walked stiffly over to the car, buttocks tightly clenched the whole way and with that morning’s message again scrunched up in his fist, and drove uncertainly down the drive and off to work (where he was, for once, not terribly productive at all).

The next day there was a merciful absence of mysterious insulting messages, and Alan sincerely hoped that his unseen tormentor had had his or her fun with that second postcard and had now got bored of the game. But this was not to be, as the following morning a third hand-written missive appeared on the doormat, this time reading

FLASH BELLEND

Alan fairly yelped this time, and then ran down the path to the car and drove off before he could even hear Muriel say anything. She was by now quite severely worried by her husband’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and agitated state, and in the absence of any knowledge about the enigmatic letters, was starting to think that a delayed guilt over Benjy’s death was kicking in.

Even a break of several days without any biro’d threats or insults did little to improve Alan’s state of mind. Muriel was seriously considering asking her husband to seek professional help when, some three weeks following the postman’s death, Alan found a fourth hand-written postcard lying ominously on the usual pile of regular mail. Shakingly, he reached down for the card, which was lying blank side up, raised it to eye level and turned it over. As before, the crudely formed lines of red ballpoint ink spelled out a brief message, which this time read

FUCK U MERC TWAT

Something inside Alan snapped. He tore open the door and ran down the driveway, waving the card wildly above his head and yelling “Come on! Where are you, you fucking joker? You think this is funny? Show yourself and I’ll fucking flatten you, you illiterate, working-class bastAAA-“

but his words were cut short as he tripped over the kerb and was knocked out cold by the impact of his head on the tarmac.

Thankfully for Alan it was not a particularly hard fall, for all that, and there was just the barest cranial fracture and no cerebral bleeding. Under other circumstances he would most likely have come round with the worst headache of his life, been taken to hospital for bandaging and observation and eventually been released without needing further treatment. But this particular morning, Muriel wasn’t there to call an ambulance as she’d already left for her weekly pre-work yoga session.

This bad luck was further compounded by the dodgy handbrake in the post van, which had been due for its annual service but hadn’t received it since the Royal Mail sell-off as no-one at the post depot could quite work out who was supposed to take the time and spend the money to get it done. Alan’s accident and the overdue van service would, by themselves, not had wrought any great harm but for the moderate incline on which Petunia Close had been laid out. And perhaps even these three facts would not have added up to tragedy if Sammy, the new postman, hadn’t been over a hundred metres up the road and distracted by an especially pettable cat.

Ironically, it was the same coroner who’d given Benjy’s corpse the once-over (before pronouncing, redundantly, death by massive blunt trauma) who performed the autopsy on Alan. As he’d later remarked to his colleagues over drinks after work, it was quite certainly the first case of crushing-to-death-while-unconscious-by-a-runaway-post-van he’d encountered in a career of more than thirty years.

And try as he might, the hand-scrawled message on a scrunched-up rectangle of card in the corpse’s hand could not be connected to any other aspect of the case.

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