Monday, July 22, 2019 09:31

Grave Mistake


Albert Marsh was as timid in middle age as he had been diminutive in childhood; it was obvious he would never be any different. He stood less than five feet two inches tall, and if his waist measurement were to have been unravelled it would as likely have stretched from the ground to his shoulders. Though the hair on his head was as black as it had ever been, his moustache, a big bushy affair which always looked as though it could do with a trim, was turning greyer with each passing year. The way he spoke reminded one of a hen-hearted schoolgirl, and his demeanour reminded the casual observer of a man who had spent much of his life under a woman’s thumb; an obiter dictum never more fitting than when one saw him at his wife’s side. Albert would walk each morning from his house, calling at the newsagents shop on the corner of his street for the first of his two daily papers, then down the hill and past the shops on his way toward the railway station. There he would join his fellow travellers for the seventy minute journey into the city. Few of his acquaintances knew first hand much about Albert’s private life but those who paid heed to rumour were legion. In fact, on those occasions when Albert took a day off, the main topic of conversation in the crowded carriage invariably involved one or other of the Marshes. Fewer of them still knew of Albert’s job as a warehouse manager with a company dealing in drugs and chemicals.

Marsha Marsh – yes, apparently Albert had married a woman by the name of Marsha – was not just a good three stones heavier than her husband but she towered over him by twelve inches. And that was without the two-inch heels she insisted on wearing on the few occasions they ventured out together. It really was a matter of little and large. Yet if photographs were anything to go by Marsha had been a stunning beauty in her teens, with a slim waist, legs that went on forever and ample yet firm bust. She had been very much admired and sought after by young men from the moment she left school. Her first and only job was as a waitress in a rather classy restaurant on that side of town where the populace had big houses, big cars, and salaries to match. Hour after hour of climbing the wide timber staircase to the upper dining room kept Marsha in trim, and weekends spent at the palais de danse just around the corner from her parent’s house helped burn off the very last of any unwanted calories. Unbeknown to Marsha, the restaurant’s proprietor was only too aware that some of his richer clients considered the sexy waitress as much a draw as the over-priced food his establishment offered.

The casual observer might be wondering how two such people could have fallen in love. It was obvious what Albert found attractive in Marsha, but what did a lovely young girl find in a youth whose appearance was destined to be mirrored in the hapless creature she now called her husband?

Part of the answer is cakes.

Somewhere in his past Albert had learnt the art of cake making, and Marsha had a passion for cakes.

However, Albert’s culinary abilities were, as the years went by, to have a very different effect on domestic felicity. The net result of the hours Albert spent in the kitchen was that his wife’s once model-like figure began a transformation. With the contentment and easy idleness of married life – Marsha considered that a wife’s place was in the home – the beautiful and graceful young girl of her youth became a distant memory.

Lying in bed night after night Marsha would think about her childhood friends. Some had married men with money; other had found men with good looks. One had even married a man who was rich and good-looking. Marsha would shift herself over in bed and look at short, fat Albert and ask herself how the fates had led her to his door. She considered that she had lost on both accounts, for Albert was neither rich nor handsome. And it was not long before she began to look for somewhere to lay the blame for her growing discontent.

And blame is what Albert had to get used to. At first he bridled; answered back and shouted just as Marsha did to him. But as the years drifted by Albert actually began to find a degree of comfort in his plaintive existence. He coped well with his humdrum life; knowing the train would always be there to take him to work in the morning; that his wages would be paid in the familiar little manila envelope at the end of the week; knowing there would always be a meal on the table when he got home in the evening. It was a shame that alarm bells didn’t begin to peal the day Marsha told him she’d joined the ladies sewing circle. It was then that the subject of cakes reared its ugly head once more. Albert could remember all too clearly how Marsha had taken so much pleasure in embarrassing him in front of her friends. How she would bring them into the kitchen whilst he was working; making him parade in his pinafore and telling everyone what a good little housewife he’d make. She had even expected him to serve tea and cakes as if he were the maid. Albert was clear in his mind that things were going to change; he would not put up with it much longer.

But put up with it he did: He was no match for his overbearing wife. On the few occasions he attempted to stand up for himself – and being required to make a few fairy cakes was certainly not the least of Albert’s gripes – he would find no meal waiting for him when he returned home from work. Or perhaps there’d be no clean shirt for the morning. Things like that might seem petty to some people, but not when you were a working man doing your best to earn a crust. At his protest Marsha would throw in a few old grievances: there was never enough money; she had to endure silly remarks about her name; why had he never built the fishpond she’d always wanted in the garden. Some days the list was long and some less so depending on just how aggrieved she felt at the time. In the end it was easier for Albert to give in and do as his wife wanted.

But Albert didn’t like it. He was the man of the house he’d tell himself each time, and he was not prepared to be bossed about like this for much longer.

Of course it is always so much easier to sound determined than to actually take action. And no one who knew Albert would ever accuse him of being a man of action.

Years of passive hostility went by with little change in either of their lives: Marsha kept making demands and Albert kept acceding to them.

The catalyst that galvanised Albert into action occurred one working-day morning; it was nothing more than a simple breakdown on the railway line.

As a consequence of his usual train being cancelled – he wondered why it always seemed to happen on a Friday – Albert was forced to share standing room only with a carriage full of people he’d never seen before. It wasn’t until the journey had been in progress for some minutes that Albert realised not all of the train’s occupants were strangers. On the contrary, two of his fellow commuters – people who lived further up the line, and had had the fortune to gain themselves seats – appeared not only to know one another well but to know a great deal about Albert. The substance of their conversation wasn’t obvious at first and Albert simply felt put out that people had the need to talk so loudly. Besides, he was an old-fashioned gentleman who experienced embarrassment at eavesdropping, even involuntarily, upon a private conversation. But what he heard not only added to his embarrassment but brought on a fit of anger which he was troubled to control. It was evident that much of his, Albert’s, private life was rather less private than he might have hoped. The subject of the strangers’ discussion centred on what they perceived to be the mismatch of himself and Marsha, his wife. There was plenty of guffawing and scoffing at Albert’s expense; talk about Marsha’s size compared to his own, how she dominated him so and made him parade in a pinafore. Of course, Albert guessed that this had come from one of his wife’s sewing-circle friends, some of whom had husbands who shared Albert’s daily journey. Listening to the conversation going on just a few feet away from him, Albert felt his face and neck redden and his whole body grow hot. Suddenly he was sure everyone in the carriage was looking at him; knew he was the subject of the conversation. He turned bitterly towards the carriage window so that his fellow travellers would not witness his humiliation.

At the journey’s end the train pulled slowly to a stop and Albert alighted onto the rained- dampened platform, along which he bolted as quickly as his short legs would carry him, steaming with anger, and a determination to do what he should have done years ago.

And where better to begin making his plans than in the privacy of his modest little office surrounded by a warehouse full of drugs and chemicals.

It took the whole day for Albert to compose himself; a day when the things that should have been done remained unattended to. But once the working day had ended and the senior manager had been around to make his customary inspection – a futile and meaningless mission Albert always thought – he left his tiny office with a spring in his step and a piece of paper in his pocket containing the remedy to the sad reality of his life. Those plans – he absentmindedly tapped the piece of paper in his pocket – would set him back where he belonged; at the head of the Marsh household.

By five o’clock that evening the plan on his little piece of paper had turned Albert from the insignificant and trivial little fellow who lived with his wife Marsha in Albion Road, into the man who owned the nice house at number 36.

If the people he met regularly on his nightly journey home noticed any change at all in Albert’s demeanour they would have but a short time to discover the reason why.

That same Friday Marsha, too, had been busy. She had spent a good part of it talking on the telephone to friends and sewing-circle ladies about coming events and, of course, the promise of more of Albert’s cakes if they were to come for afternoon tea. In her mind it was not a matter of if Albert would make the cakes … she knew she had only to tell him and it would be done. “I have the ladies coming the week after next week, Albert,” she said the instant her husband walked in the door from work that evening.

Albert knew after all these years of marriage that it was his wife’s way of saying that she expected cakes for the event. “That’s fine, my dear,” he responded without the slightest hint of rancour but with just a hint of satisfaction. Marsha Marsh was accustomed to having her demands being met and read nothing into her husband’s ready concurrence.

And so it was that Albert was able so promptly to put into action his carefully thought out plan.

Late that night he took himself to bed and fell asleep dreaming of the day, a day not far away now, when he would finally be his own master.

The following morning Albert arose early and set off towards the end of the garden with spade and pick axe and busied himself in excavating the hole exactly where his beloved Marsha wanted her fish pond. It was the least he could do for her.

There was rain in the air that April day but Albert worked the morning through and gave not a fig that Marsha didn’t even come out to offer him as much as a cup of coffee. When she did finally emerged from the house it was to enquire of her husband why he was spending quite so much time in digging the hole so deep and rectangular rather than in the shape she had requested. He explained to her that it was necessary, whilst the weather was being kind, to gain depth at the expense of shape. Surely she could see that with depth it would be a simple matter for him to then create the shape she desired, perhaps later on in the week, once the rain had loosened the soil. Marsha was gracious enough to concede that Albert probably knew better than she the technicalities of fish pond construction, but nevertheless felt constrained to observe that the hole looked more like a grave than a fish pond.

‘I’m sure it will serve its purpose once it’s completed, my dear,’ he offered quietly as she turned back towards the house.

Sunday dawned a slightly wetter day, but Albert was able to continue his work undisturbed, his labours acting to salve some of the hurt he felt at a decade or more of marital torment. And if at any time during this troubled period of his life he felt any remorse at his intentions, then each passing hour he worked alone, without so much as a simple enquiry from his wife as to how he was getting on, his conscience found ease in convincing him that he had every good reason for what he was about to do.

On Monday morning Albert Marsh returned to his warehouse a new man, going about his work with renewed vigour. He ran a check of the warehouse register to ensure that what he needed for his coming task was in stock in sufficient quantity, and then set about making a simple plan whereby he would be able to write the substance off when he left for home on, probably, the coming Friday afternoon.

Luck continued to be with Albert, for on his afternoon inspection of the warehouse and register on Wednesday, his own senior manager informed him that because of his coming holiday – due to commence the following morning – there would be no-one to carry out the daily inspection, and that in the event of anything having to be written off in the register it would be necessary for Albert to call up to the office and ask for a director to attend for the purpose. Albert hid a smile; he had dealt with the directors before and was confident that their signature would be a formality.

So it proved.

Following a stupid accident with a ladder, which Albert put down to Friday afternoon negligence, it was necessary to write off the remains of a container, the contents of which littered the floor and were plain for all to see.

The weekend was exactly as forecast, with plenty of rain and high winds. But Albert Marsh was a man on a mission, and had his wife been in the least bit receptive to the change in atmosphere in her own home she might have suspected that something was afoot.

But Marsha was Marsha.

She was now as she had been most of her married life: a selfish and demanding woman. It was almost as if she were detached from the real world around her and possessed not the least ability to recognise or appreciate when something was being done for her.

A gloomy heaviness cloaked the skies above Albion Road that Sunday. But that was the day Albert busied himself in making the cakes for the sewing ladies; cakes he knew they would never have the misfortune to eat.

Albert’s plan was so simple it made him feel light-headed. He wondered why he had not thought of it before.

He would make enough cakes for the ten or more ladies who normally attended on these occasions plus plenty to spare. The secret – and most cunning part of the plan – was to make them a day early, knowing that once he had returned to work on the following day his wife’s greed would get the better of her and she would, hopefully, eat plenty of them whilst at home on her own. And to allay any suspicion, he would also make a dozen or so that they could enjoy together in the meantime.

It was difficult for Albert to keep to his normal Monday morning routine: not to raise suspicion or do anything out of the ordinary. In the tranquil setting of the bathroom, with his face bathed in shaving foam, he questioned himself in the mirror: Is this something you really want to do? Do you understand that there is no way back from what you are about to do? Should you, even at this moment, go down into the kitchen and throw all the cakes in the waste bin?

But that would simply present a whole new problem. He could hardly go to Marsha and tell her he had a well-advanced plan to kill her. That her observation on the shape of the fishpond had bordered on the prophetic. No. He convinced himself that he had no option but to leave for work as usual and hope everything worked out the way he expected. His rationale was that everyone knew their marriage was on the rocks; he would simply tell everyone that she’d finally had enough and gone to live elsewhere.

At a few minutes before seven o’clock he put together his simple lunch box and added some of the ‘good’ cakes. Then he went into the lounge to say goodbye to his wife. It was probably just as well for Albert – and decidedly to his wife’s disadvantage – that Marsha was engrossed in the morning news, for had she looked into her husband’s eyes at that moment she might have had good cause to ask if there was something wrong. Albert kissed Marsha on the cheek and set off for the railway station.

But Albert was not a callous man, and spent his entire journey to work in a state of introspection. And the saddest thing of all was that none of his fellow travellers noticed any difference.

‘Would you like a cake?’ he said, offering his lunchbox to a colleague a few minutes after 1 o’clock.

‘Thanks, Albert.’ The man reached over and took a cake from the box.

Albert was watching the rain falling outside the warehouse door. ‘Going to have trouble later,’ he muttered to himself.

‘What was that you said, mate?’ his colleague demanded.

‘Oh – oh – I, um, I was just thinking out loud really. It’s just that I’ve got a job to do on my wife’s fishpond this evening. This rain’s not going to make things too easy.’

‘Huh!’ the man scoffed. ‘It’s going to be a day or two before you can do much in the garden.’ Albert smiled wanly.

‘I don’t suppose it will bother her too much if you leave it for another few days,’ the man added, looking pointedly to Albert’s lunchbox and the remaining cakes.

Albert held out lunchbox distractedly for the man to help himself. ‘No, you’re right there,’ he agreed with some irony. ‘It won’t bother her at all.’

A few minutes before Albert was due to leave for home the trembling began. It started firstly in his hands, then in his legs and finally, as he arrived at the railway station, it had reached his stomach. He spent most of the journey home in the carriage’s toilet compartment, and at the journey’s end was lucky to alight from the train before it pulled away from the platform. He stood by the telephone booth barely able to control what little remained of his stomach’s contents. He was scared almost to death at the thought of returning home and finding Marsha’s body. He’d never seen a dead body before. And she would be dead. There was enough stuff in those cakes to kill a herd of elephants.

But was that really the reason? If he was honest, wasn’t he more scared at the thought of Marsha still being alive? Just suppose for a moment that she hasn’t eaten any of the cakes at all. Would he then not have to find some reason to thrown them all away? To then have to explain why? Rather than being the free man he had set out to become, would he not simply have made himself a heavier cross to bear?

It was now, when he realised that everything might not have gone according to plan, that he had the clarity of mind to see every single flaw in his scheme. And flaws there were in abundance. That sudden clarity of mind gave Albert the ability to see every possible failing in his plan – except one.

The fifteen minute walk up the hill and past the shops was the longest journey of Albert Marsh’s life. He finally turned the corner of Albion Road and looked along it towards the front of his house; there was nothing out of the ordinary to see, and as he approached the entrance to the newsagents, where for years he had called in at each day’s end to collect his evening paper, he asked himself whether he really had the need for a paper on this of all evenings.

There were customers in the shop and Albert was not confident that he could keep a dispassionate face. On the other hand, he reasoned, would it not raise suspicion if on this very evening he didn’t do what was expected of him? Would the shop keeper, if asked at some future time, not voice his surprise at Albert not buying his usual paper; a paper Mr Marsh collects religiously every evening?

Albert entered the shop and was far too wrapped up in the way he felt to pay any attention to the chatter going on there: in addition to the customary banter, the shop keeper kept apologising for the queue and bemoaning the fact that his wife had failed to return in time for the evening rush.

When he arrived at the counter Albert handed the money over with trembling fingers. “Thanks Mr Marsh,” the shop keeper smiled, handing Albert his paper. “I know I can always rely on you for the correct change.”

It was as Albert reached the door of the shop, when all he wanted to do was to get home and put himself out of his misery that the shopkeeper called to him.

‘Oh, Mr Marsh – ?”’

Albert turned back with poorly concealed irritation. ‘Yes?’ he demanded sharply.

‘When you get home please tell my wife it’s time she came down to the shop. I really do need some help here.’

Another man, looking at the magazine rack with his back to Albert, turned and demanded: ‘Yes, you can tell mine, too. I’ve been at work all day and I haven’t got any blinking dinner on the table yet.’

Albert’s lips began to move but no sound came out. Then, finally he managed to ask: ‘But what makes you think they’re up at my house?’

‘Never thought of you as having a bad memory, Mr Marsh,’ the shopkeeper observed with just the hint of sarcasm. ‘That sewing circle has got a lot to answer for in my household,’ this with a little laugh.

‘But … but … that’s tomorrow,’ Albert protested. ‘It’s always been on a Tuesday,’ sudden beads of perspiration appearing on his forehead.

‘Not any longer,’ the two men retorted in unison. ‘They changed it to a Monday.’


Copyright © J E Emberson 2005