Friday - 2.35pm.
Shelley is holding me tight. So tightly that the breath is being squeezed out of me.
A brief need for a quick embrace and peck on the cheek before heading for her car has become something more.
She doesn't want to go.
It's really that simple.
A day away is fine and she takes it in her stride, but anything that extends our time apart over the twenty four hour mark is something that doesn't sit well with her.
There's no fear of abandonment, no suspicion that the mice will play while the cats away, and she knows that on her return she won't find me standing in the ruins of our home saying 'I can explain this' either.
The reason she is never keen on us being apart for longer than a day is because when we are together life just makes sense.
It's always been that way.
From the moment we met it was Mr Hand meet Miss Glove.
We are our very own mutually assured comfort zone.
When we close the door on the world and it is just the two of us then the daily stresses of life just slip away.
As a couple we are perfect together, nauseatingly so. Others describe us as being made for each other, and who are we to argue.
Of course I like to play the macho partner in the relationship, but we both know that when she leaves I will just be putting a brave face on it because I will miss her as much as she will miss me. From the moment her car turns the corner and slips out of sight I will be counting down the hours till I see her again.
So this parting is a bit of a game we play. She holds me a moment longer than is needed and I squeeze her back and whisper that she is being silly and before she knows it she will be home.
It's a semi-comforting routine that we go through.
Her eyes are a bit glassy as she looks up at me and replies “but it's a full weekend. Virtually four days of team building with people I'm not keen on in the arse end of nowhere masquerading as an outward bound centre. There's no phones, no internet and they have already said mobile reception is patchy. It's going to be crap.”
She is probably right, but saying that won't help, so instead I dig deep and try and look like I'm finding it funny and with a smile waffle on a bit about how when she comes back she will probably be a black belt in some martial art.
One that lumberjacks invented and if I ever forget to do the dishes she will be able to tie me in a knot and squeeze me into the cupboard where we keep the tomato sauce and tins of tuna.
My levity chases the dark clouds away, and with a smile that makes my heart ache a little she laughs and with a promise that she will text, or phone if she can, she whirls around, swings the rucksack on her back - that she packed with more equipment than Scott of the Antarctic would take on a year long around the world adventure - and staggers to her car.
With her commenting cheekily that chivalry must be dead she hoists it into the boot, slams the lid down hard, and with a comical salute to me waves goodbye before she climbs into the drivers seat.
Without looking back she eases away from the kerb and makes for the end of the road.
It's only as she reaches the junction that she looks in the mirror and raises her hand for a second. The final, and expected, last wave goodbye, and then she is gone.
I stand there for a few seconds looking at the empty street and waiting for the crushing feeling that comes along with the acceptance that without Shelley with my weekend is going to be about as much fun as a root canal appointment at the dentist.
It dawns on me that Friday night entertainment on the television must be funded by pubs and clubs.
Every show seems to be designed with the intent to have the viewer reaching for their coats and rushing off to seek a safe haven from it in a local hostelry.
I'm bored. So very, very, very, very bored.
I'm also already making inroads into a second family sized packet of onion rings, and there's less than a litre left of cola in the two litre bottle I cracked opened less than an hour ago.
If the rest of my weekend continues in this gluttonous manner then the next will involve a treadmill and a heart monitor in our local accident and emergency department.
Well that’s if they have a heart monitor. It’s possible they lost that in the last round of cuts and if that’s the case then I’m buggered.
I've been expecting Shelley to call, and even been working out how long her journey would take while adding on an hour to get settled, but I still jump when my mobile bursts into the start of 'Should I Stay or Should I go' by The Clash.
The display confirms it's her and with a bit of a fumble I manage to get it to my ear and feeling a bit foolish with excitement I manage to giggle out a “you have reached a lonely man craving attention so please leave your name and number and I will get back to you as soon as possible”.
The phone buzzes and splutters electronic noise but little else.
Just as I am about to ask Shelley if she is there I hear a click and a voice says “enough of the bullshit. We have your wife. This is not a fuckin joke. No police or she dies. Got it? Do you understand me?”
And with those words time loses all structure. It simultaneously rushes by in seconds as it stretches out into hours.
Nothing makes any sense.
'This is a joke' jumps unbidden to the front of my mind and is instantly slapped down as I instinctually know that it's not.
It’s simply not.
There's no reason for it to be a hoax, a silly prank call.
In my gut that is already knotted I know this is happening.
A days worth of questions, and half a days worth of answers, rush about inside my head in a fraction of a second and ultimately everything jumbles together into an internal scream.
'This can't be happening' beats a mantra in time with the blood that I can feel pounding at my temples.
The room begins to tip to the side and then I realise that the room hasn't moved, but I've instead slumped involuntarily to the side and I am close to tipping clean off the couch onto the floor..
“Don't hurt her, please don't hurt her”, echoes back from the phone, and then I recognise it as a strangled version of my own voice babbling on autopilot.
“You aren't an unintelligent man so you will already know that I can't promise that. You fuck up and she gets hurt. The bigger the fuck up then the more it will hurt. If you fuck up completely then she's dead. That's the boring shit out if the way. All I need you to do now is say you understand. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” It still doesn't sound like my voice.
I'm bathed in sweat and it feels like what I have always imagined drowning would be like.
I'm immersed in fear and it's filling my lungs and there's a blackness creeping towards me.
No light at the end if the tunnel, but instead an enveloping sense if nothing.
Concentrating on not blacking out I repeat “yes”, and add “I get it. Don't hurt her.”
A terse “expect a call in an hour” is all the response I get and the phone goes dead.
Clutching the phone tightly to my chest I make it to the bathroom and in a rush the onion rings and cola erupt from me into the toilet bowl. Gagging hard, more comes until my throat burns and my eyes water from the force expelled as my my stomach emptied itself.
All equilibrium has gone.
My world is a storm lashed ship and I cling on with my free hand to the bath and pray that I won't be cast overboard into a sea of madness.
With brutal force the realisation that I have never known what real fear is pushes me to the floor, pulls my arms and legs into a shaking foetal position and draws guttural sobs from my very core.
I can't lose Shelley. I simply can't lose her.
I'm in the chair with my mobile phone sitting on the coffee table in front of me.
Fundamentally I know that I will do whatever it takes to get Shelley back. There’s no question of that.
Once I had left the bathroom I considered all the options and thought about how I could prepare for the return call and what would be asked of me.
Next to the phone I've got my bank card, our joint account card and a pile of cash that amounts to three hundred and twenty pounds sitting.
The cash is our holiday savings that we have both been salting away in a jar.
If it's money he wants then this is everything we have apart from the house and Shelley's car and he can have them to.
I sit in silence.
To my right the digital readout on the front of our old DVD player flashes the hour and minute and my index finger taps in time with it.
The mobile starts in on playing the Clash and I wait a beat and then snatch it from the table.
Trying to remain calm I get the first words in clearly and concisely “I will do what you want, but you must not hurt my wife. Is that clear? You will not hurt her. I have all the money we have and it is yours. Just give me what ever details you need to and we can resolve this.”
I can't believe that I have managed to remain sounding calm and controlled.
“Do you understand me. You will get what you want, but only if my wife remains unharmed.”
For the first time the sense of not being in control abates a little, and then the connection is cut off.
My stomach twists tightly and the realisation that instead of assuming control of the insanity that is now my reality I have instead gambled with the life of my wife, and for what?
All the options that had been considered in the cold aftermath of having what could only be described as a full on meltdown in the bathroom have been nothing more than delusional crap disguised as rational thought, and now the enormity of my crass stupidity was sweeping away the foundations of the only hope that I had.
From somewhere tears flow again. I had thought that it would be impossible for my body to dredge up anymore, but no, that was just another thing that I was wrong about.
“Christ. What had I done?”
If I had been left to contemplate it then the vacuum of not knowing would have driven me insane as I imagined one horror after another. but before I lost it completely the phone burst into song again, and for a second I couldn't see it and panicking I followed the sound of the ring tone to where I must have dropped it.
Pressing it to my ear I say nothing.
“It would seem from the previous call that you were mistakenly under the impression that you had some sort of leverage, and maybe even thought that you were assuming some control.”
“Yes, I'm sure you are, but that doesn't change the fact that you fucked up, and I did tell you what would happen if you fucked up didn't I?”
All this was said in a calm and measured tone. No histrionics, no upset, and so casually put that he could have been discussing the weather.
'No. I don't think you do.'
“I do. I’m sorry just tell me what…..”
And then the phone vibrates in my hand and chirps the signal that an image has been received.
It throws me off guard and with fingers that that seem overly large and clumsy I manage to hit enough buttons for it to download.
It's a finger. The tip of a finger
A photograph of my Shelley's finger.
At the tip it's a neatly trimmed fingernail. A fingernail that fails to maintain any attention as the blood, ragged flesh and splintered bone draw the eye.
Shelley's finger. Broken. Detached.
Somewhere internally a voice is asking why I'm not screaming while another coldly starts rationalizing how a person can simply shut down when overloaded with stress.
Closing my eyes I take time to breathe, to gather the wings of panic that threaten to take flight.
“Did Shelley have nail varnish on this morning.”
I say it aloud, and with my eyes still closed I repeat it over and over trying to visualise her hands because if she was wearing varnish it's not her finger.
I see her throwing her rucksack back and freeze it in my mind.
No nail varnish.
Definitely no nail varnish.
Looking at the phone I know it will start to play the Clash ringtone again soon enough, and as if by my willing it, it does.
“Shears from an 'everything for a quid' shop. Just the little rose pruners. There's duct tape in the same aisle and everything else that someone like myself would need to get a job done. Even a large plastic sheet that a body could be rolled up in. For less than a tenner I have the tools that will get me whatever I want. Do you fully understand the position you are in now?”
This is all said casually. So casually there appears to be no stress involved at all. Ths is a man who is used to hurting others, used to getting his own way. It is also the tone is that of a man who knows he has my undivided attention.
“I want you to listen carefully now because I'm going to ask you a question and your answer will change your life one way or another. Believe that. Are you ready for the question?”
I whisper “Yes.”
“Would you kill to get your wife back? It's a simple question.”
Money. I thought it was going to be money. Even though we don't have much I hadn't considered anything else.
“Yes, yes I would.”
“Too quick. Think about it. Would you kill a person you don't know to save the life of your wife. This person might be married, could have kids, pillar of the community sort. Is your wife more important than them?”
“I don't care. I don't care who it is. I just want my wife back.”
“Okay. I like an honest man. Tomorrow morning at nine you will get the call. All the details will be given to you and when you do the job I ask of you then your wife comes home. This isn't complicated. You do anything between now and then to fuck up and I start cutting your wife up.”
With that, it's over. The time on the DVD player flashes more numbers.
Two hours is all it takes for the sky to fall in on a life.
“Good morning. My name is Tony and I am phoning some select numbers in the area to offer”......I hang up.
The rank smell of sweat and fear - my own - hangs in the air. Nerves that are already stretched to what seemed like breaking point are tugged on harder.
If Tony was here I'd fuckin' kill him and not lose any sleep over it.
Just as I think this the phone competes with the shaking of my hand and I quickly look at the number and see that it's Shelley's as I press the button to take the call.
“This afternoon, at two, you will go to the Golden Triangle snooker club. Do you know it?”
“I do. Snooker and pool place in Thomson Street.”
“Good. You win a prize. Outside it there will be a blue Corsa. A man who will look very probably pissed off will leave the club between five and ten past. He's got blonde hair, shoulder length, bit of swagger about him. When he opens the car door and goes to step in I want you to stab him in the throat and do it right. Is that clear? Make sure that you kill him. Leave him in the car. He needs to be found there. Have you got that? Dead and left sitting in his car. Anything that deviates from that means I start in on your wife.”
“What if I get caught?”
“I don't give a shit. Your wife goes free regardless. You getting away with it or not means nothing to me at all.. Tell me back what you need to do?”
“Just after two a blonde guy leaves the Golden Triangle Club and I cut his throat as he gets into a blue Corsa. He must be dead. He must be left in the car. Then you release Shelley.”
“That's the idea. Simple isn’t it?”'
“Everyone has a name, but his doesn’t concern you”'
Click, and he is gone..
The woman in Morrisons is cutting tomatoes, slicing into onions, chopping at some green herb, and all the time providing a running commentary about how the knives will never need sharpened and come with a lifetime guarantee.
Not once does she mention if they are suitable for cutting a throat but I take a set and put them in my basket next to the yellow rubber gloves, iceberg lettuce and sponge scourers. The latter two are props as my paranoid mind thinks if I just buy a knife and gloves the woman at the checkout will look me in the eye and know that I'm planning to kill a man, and in her knowing she will have no other choice than to scream murderer and point an accusing finger at me.
The choice of using a self service checkout, or one where a person will cheerily serve me, seems too complex a question to ask myself. Everything throws up multiple options that need navigated.
On one hand the automated option will not accept my buying a box of knives without an alarm sounding and a member of staff needing to check if I am over eighteen. Yet on the other hand I'm not sure if I can deal with maintaining a natural conversation with a woman on a checkout. “So how is your weekend sir?” “Well not so good. My wife has been kidnapped, one of her fingers has been cut off and if I don't kill a man I don't know then I will never see her again, and if I do then there's a good chance I might only see her as long as I'm chained to a table and guards are close by.
This is a nightmare. A real waking nightmare.
I also have to factor in that I must look as if I am losing the grip on sanity and people in general don't like to sell sharp knives to sweating and twitching maniacs.
Taking a deep breath I make a decision and head for a young girl who has just finished serving an older couple and refuse to make eye contact with her as casually as I can.
It's a blur and next thing is that I am outside. I'm not sure if she spoke to me or even if I paid by cash or card.
A blue Corsa arrives outside the Golden Triangle club and a blonde man climbs out of it.
This is it.
He slams the door closed behind him, looks up and down the street - but not at me - and then walks into the darkness of the entrance. Simultaneously my bladder spasms and I feel a warm squirt of urine escape as my body confirms that you can actually piss yourself in fear.
I clutch the knife in my pocket with my rubber encased hand and try not to shake too obviously.
It's not ten, or even five minutes, before he reappears and the speed he strides out means he very nearly catches me out.
He's feet away from the door with his keys in his hand before I can even move, but like an automaton I do move. One foot edges off the kerb and the other follows as I draw my hand from my pocket.
He has his back to me and the door is opening.
He's already slipped in and sitting down while pulling the door towards him as I get to the side of the car.
Pressing my body into the gap it forces the door to spring loose from his grip.
He looks up and I thrust the knife into his neck, pull it back and do it again, and again, and again.
He may have made a noise, maybe not. All I can hear is a rushing noise in my head that reminds me of standing too close to a large waterfall. Everything surrounding us slips away and all I can see is him looking up at me as my arm thrusts back and then forward again into his neck.
His expression goes blank and then empty.
Blood pours from him. It's everywhere. Not spraying like in a film, but running from the wound like a tap has been left on. His hands didn't even come up to clutch at me. Nothing. He looked at me and then his surprised focus just turned off.
One second alive and the next dead.
I step back and bump my hip on the door to close it.
No one is in the street, no cars have passed and everything is eerily quiet. All I can hear is my own laboured breathing.
I strip the glove off and as I pull it down and inside out it slips over the knife. I pull the other off and push them both into the Morrison's bag I pulled from my pocket and walk away.
Looking down I am surprised that there are only a few small splashes of blood, and none that obvious to anyone who would be walking past.
Home and sitting watching the mobile.
I should feel something, but I don't. It's as if my feelings have been shorted out, overloaded and the fuses blown.
The television is on.
Nothing has been reported yet although I have heard sirens. As long as Shelley is okay I don't care what happens.
In the hallway I hear the sound of keys in the lock, and as I rise the front door opening.
“Hi honey. The weekend has been called off. Hoorah. Weather problems. Brilliant eh? I would have called but I can't find my mobile. Did I leave it here?”
I say “No, you didn’t leave it here” and before she can put her bag down I take her in my arms and hold her.
Tears slip down my cheeks, but I’m smiling as I hold her.
I’m still smiling as over her shoulder I see two police cars draw to a halt outside.
It doesn't matter. Shelley is okay.
Shelley is okay.