The major turning point in Dennis’s life started with an innocuous enough comment.
“We should get a dog,” said his wife Madeleine one Wednesday morning over breakfast.
That afternoon the Library van parked near the Village Hall and Dennis was dispatched to collect the books that Madeleine had ordered. Jenny Adams entered the van and smiled at him. He was holding a book about different breeds of dog.
“Which takes your fancy?” she asked.
“Oh, perhaps a collie. Thought I’d do some research – don’t know much about them myself.”
“We used to have a collie,” she said as they left the van. ”But she died over a year ago.”
“How sad, Mrs Adams,” he said.
“Oh, far too formal,” she said, laughing. “Do call me Jenny.”
They said goodbye and as he retreated into the wintry afternoon dusk he was aware that Jenny stood watching him for a while before walking home.
On the following Wednesday Dennis reached the Library van at the same time as Jenny.
“Was the book useful?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you. Madeleine has decided on a collie.”
“I’ve been thinking about getting another collie,” she said, “and I’ve found a local breeder – are you interested?”
So it was that on Friday morning after Madeleine had left for an early dental appointment the telephone rang. It was Jenny,
“Dennis – I have an appointment to see those puppies. Are you coming?”
“It‘s so hard,” Jenny said, on the way, about her husband’s illness, “watching someone you care for deteriorate in front of your eyes.” They arrived at the breeder’s farmhouse and she parked the car, turned off the engine and turned to him. “But it was so difficult, so draining, looking after him, that it was a kind of relief when he died: sort of liberating really.” She pulled the keys from the ignition. “But very lonely.”
“Well?” Madeleine challenged him, as he opened the door, on his return, “Where have you been?”
“Rather spur of the moment, my dear, I went to see some puppies. They are lovely collie pups,” he said. “Shall we go together next week, see if you’d like one?”
“This is not going to work,” she said abruptly. “This dog business: I’ve been thinking. Not such a good idea after all. Such a tie having a dog.” She paused. “Maybe a cat would be more suitable?”
Three weeks passed before Dennis saw Jenny again.
“Oh, Dennis,” she said, her hand touching his forearm, “I collected Tilly last week, and she’s lovely. Will you come and visit? She can’t go out yet.”
At Jenny’s house an excited black and white yapping bundle sprang up as she opened the door, whipping her tail back and forth.
“Oh! She’s gorgeous,” Dennis whispered as he bent down, rubbing his hands gently over and over the soft loose fur. “I’m sorry, Jenny,” he managed after a while, “but just seeing Tilly made me realise how much I’m ruled by my wife. I had been so excited about having a puppy – I can’t bear it.”
Jenny invited him in and made tea. Dennis found himself talking.
“Madeleine and I used to be happy years ago-” he said, stroking his moustache. He told Jenny how his gentle personality had attracted her, and how her tendency to bossiness focused him, inspired him in his work. They had treated each other with respect. Then in the first three years of their marriage she had miscarried twice.
“We couldn’t talk about it. She resented me because of what happened: attacked me constantly with snide, undermining comments. I did not fight back. I felt so guilty. When I didn’t react she tried harder to wound me. It’s as though she’s still trying to wound me now.”
“You can’t let her go on treating you like this.” she exclaimed. “The stupid woman doesn’t see what she’s doing to you.”
Dennis was taken aback.
“Well, I think you must be a saint to put up with it – honestly Dennis.”
“She’s had a lot to put up with – the state she got into after losing the babies made her lose all her hair.”
Jenny raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, its wig.”
She put her hand out and squeezed his forearm,
“Strange what life brings us, hey? Would you like another cup of tea?”
“No,” He looked at his watch, “I really must go.”
On the doorstep he turned to Jenny and bent down to give her a kiss on the cheek, “Thank you so much my dear.”
Over the next few weeks Dennis enjoyed the brief walks in the early spring weather, Tilly’s training, and the comforts of Jenny’s kitchen. They timed their meetings to coincide with the library van or one of Madeleine’s many commitments. What she did not know did not hurt her.
Dennis found his feelings start to change as he became fonder of Jenny and angrier with Madeleine. His need for human comfort was revived by Jenny’s sympathy, fired up by her admiration of him and her feelings of loathing towards his wife. And he wanted her more and more. But Jenny would kiss him, respond to him, build up his hopes then push him back
“Not yet Dennis. Not yet. The time’s not right.”
Then the longing became a craving, an ache for something else he could not have, something just out of reach. Now each time Madeleine ordered him about or humiliated him he mentally scored up another black mark against her. Dennis appeared to be resigned. Inside he was seething.
On Easter Sunday, at six thirty in the evening Dennis carefully mixed a drink for Madeleine to have while she cooked supper.
“This has too much of the bitters,” she grumbled. “Did you get the cheap gin?”
“Shall I top it up, my dear?”
“No.” she said banging a saucepan lid, “it’s bloody awful.”
As they ate their meal Madeleine became clumsy and tired. The bottle of wine Dennis had chosen from the cellar remained on the sideboard, untouched.
“I think I’ll go straight up,” she mumbled. She managed to put on her nightie before slumping into bed where she fell asleep. Dennis sat on the edge of the bed watching her for a while. That was good stuff, whatever it was. He took one of the pillows and placed it firmly over her face. There was not much of a struggle: after a while she became floppy. He felt in her neck for the pulse. Nothing. Her chest was still. She was dead. He pushed the pillow aside.
He went downstairs and gulped a glass of wine straight down. He topped up the glass, slumped back on the sofa and dialled Jenny.
“I’ve done it,” he said.
“I’ll come soon,” she said, “after dark.”
Jenny did not arrive at the back door until 10:30pm. He clasped her eagerly, but she drew back.
“Wait.” She studied his face. “You actually did it. Did it all go according to plan?”
“Right, let’s get the cellar ready- is everything down there?”
Dennis went round the house turning off lights imitating bedtime, to any casual observer, and then they went down into the earthy cool mustiness of the cellar.
Preparing a grave was harder than they had anticipated. They lifted the flagstones and broke through the compacted earth beneath with a pick axe, then took it in turns to scrape away the soil until they had formed a hole three feet deep.
“It needs to be deeper,” said Jenny. “But, I’d better get back before it gets light. No-one should see me here.” She paused. “But I want to see her before I go. I want to see for myself.”
They crept upstairs with a torch as though trying not to wake someone and Dennis pushed open the door of the room. Death did not become her. Madeleine’s skin was mottled, her eyelids were slightly opened, and her jaw drooped. But there was no doubt that she was dead.
“She can’t hurt us now,” said Jenny. She moved forward. “I’ll need this,” she said as she pulled off Madeleine’s wig, revealing a sparse covering of wispy grey hair, “and her glasses, and hand bag.”
Dennis felt shocked and excited by her coolness.
It was four o’clock in the morning, when Jenny left and Dennis felt suddenly tired. It was light when he awoke with a start in the guest room where he had lain on the bed just for a few minutes. What time was it? He felt around for his watch on the bedside table and pulled it up close to his face to see the hands. Nine-thirty. Lots to do.
During the day Dennis finished digging the hole. He went back to the bedroom and tried to roll Madeleine into a fireman’s lift, which was awkward because rigor mortis had set in, but he got her down to the cellar somehow. He pushed her into the hole, and shovelled the earth and rubble back in on top of her. Levelling the soil as well as he could he placed the flag stones back on top. The remaining mound of soil he shovelled into the empty coal bunker, and then he swept the floor before rolling out the old carpet which usually lay there. It was late afternoon.
He went to the bathroom and showered. Dressed only in his towel he pulled out from the back of the cupboard a packet of hair colouring. He put on rubber gloves to apply the dark sticky liquid. While he waited he ran a bowl of hot water and scraped off the stubbly growth then shaved off his moustache. After rinsing away the excess dye from his hair he roughly towelled it dry and combed it into place, then dressed in his new clothes. He took out his new rimless glasses and put them on. A younger more confident man looked back at him.
As he tidied the kitchen he realised that he had not eaten since the previous day. He made a coffee and a took a handful of biscuits and ate them hungrily, leaning against the kitchen work surface. Back on task he gathered up all the perishables into a carrier bag and dumped them in the outside bin. Then he cleared the telephone answer machine and spoke calmly as he re-recorded a new outgoing message.
“Madeleine and Dennis are away. Please leave a message and we will get back to you as soon as we return.”
He went back upstairs to the spare room where he reached under the bed and pulled out a small packed suit case and some hand luggage. The latter he opened to check Madeleine’s passport and his own, plus the tickets, the traveller’s cheques and some Euros. They were all in order. He slipped them back inside. At 10:30 pm, he turned off all the lights. He turned the central heating off. At 11:30 pm he put on a new jacket and shoes and left the house by the back door, walking out of the village until he reached a lay-by. There she was, waiting for him in the dark blue Volvo, dressed as Madeleine, wearing her wig and her clothes. He took a sharp intake of breath, felt a tight contraction around his heart. He opened the door.
“You gave me a start then, Jenny-”
“Madeleine now: not Jenny,” she said sharply. “Are you ready?”
He put the case on the back seat next to the excited dog then climbed into the front passenger seat.
“All done. What about Tilly?”
“No problems, she’s chipped and vaccinated and I have all the papers.”
“Are you ready then?” he said with a nervous laugh.
“I don’t know how long it will be before they catch up with us,” she said, “so we’d better make the most of it.”
She passed him the map, pulled out of the lay-by and accelerated quickly.