Next door to Charles

You’ve probably heard about Charles Blatchford, though I doubt you’ll remember the details of the affair. He had his fifteen minutes of fame, or perhaps infamy would be a better word, eighteen years or so ago when Emily, his wife, was found mutilated and tied to the trunk of an apple tree in their garden.

Charles did his time without complaint, though he had quietly maintained that he was innocent.

I had to think for a while where I had heard his name before when he moved in next door, and when the penny dropped I was horrified. Frankly, I was petrified that I might be doomed to share the dreadful fate of his poor wife. If I could have, I would have sold up and moved elsewhere. But as the local press had made such a fuss about Charlie being released after only sixteen years, with pictures of him in his garden next door, selling my place was going to be difficult. No-one willingly moves in next door to a murderer.

As you can imagine, I kept a close eye on him. Mostly from behind lace curtains, I admit. I didn’t want to advertise the fact that I was terrified, or, even worse, nosey.

I’m not sure what I expected of him, but whatever it was I soon realised I wasn’t going to get it. Instead, I found he spent a lot of time in his garden, quietly digging or harvesting, often reading. He played a lot of music, mostly that classical stuff but sometimes ordinary pop. It was late spring when he moved in next door, so his windows were usually open, and the music flowed gently out.

The smell of coffee, too, always around ten in the morning and again at three in afternoon; the rich smell of real coffee, which I found delightful. In fact, I frequently found myself making coffee for myself, having been reminded of it by the aromas floating from his windows. Mind you, mine would be instant. I’d never get used to those machines they use these days.

So gradually I dropped my guard and stopped worrying so much about my safety. After all, I reasoned, just because he had chopped up his wife didn’t mean he was going to do it again, and let’s face it, I’m just his neighbour, not his wife.

Anyway, he must have been there at least a year before I finally met him, and when I did all those fears came flooding back.

There’s a little river, a creek really, running down the valley behind our row. Each of the houses has its own little gate at the bottom of the garden opening out onto a narrow dirt footpath which more or less skirts the creek. Well, perhaps rivulet would be a better word. It’s about a metre wide and perhaps thirty centimetres deep, trees growing on both sides making it quiet and shady the year round. People jog there, or take their dogs for a walk. It’s a nice natural spot in a built-up world. Every now and then along the course of the rivulet there is a garden seat, and sometimes, when it’s not too hot, I take a book and sit there and read.

That’s what I was doing when I met him.

Even though I’d been keeping an eye on him for so long, and despite his picture in the papers, I didn’t recognise him up close. I was absorbed in my book, of course, and hadn’t heard him approach. All of a sudden I realised that someone was standing quite close to me, and I sort of did a little jump and looked up. He was standing about three metres away, just looking at me. He had a hat on, one of those floppy things that people wear these days, and his face was partly in shadow.

‘Oh,’ I said, flustered, ‘you made me jump.’

He smiled, his face all crinkly. ‘I’m sorry I surprised you,’ he said softly. ‘It was just that you looked so… relaxed, I suppose. I didn’t notice you there until you turned the page.’

And then I realised who he was, and my skin began to crawl. The hairs stood up on my arms, and I didn’t know what to say. I picked up my book and stood, holding on to the back of the seat for support, ready to run. But he was on the path between the seat and my garden gate, and I didn’t know what to do. I blushed, I know I did, and looked down, unable to look him in the face.

He must have realised immediately what was happening. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he apologised. ‘I hadn’t meant to disturb you.’ He looked down too, and turned away, and I saw that he was hurt by my reaction. He took a step away from me, facing back the way he must have come.

‘No, wait,’ I called to him before I realised what I was doing.

He stopped and turned, and looked at me expectantly. I could see the hope in his eyes.

‘I was just surprised, that’s all,’ I stammered.

‘Well, I didn’t didn’t mean to surprise you.’ His voice was so quiet that I could hardly hear him. ‘I’d better get on.’

There was something so… well, sort of hangdog about him, if you know what I mean. As though I had kicked him when he was down. Suddenly all my fears of him disappeared. I wanted to pat him, to sooth him. I’m not like that, usually. I’ve lived most of my life alone, and I don’t react to people well. I did to him, though.

‘Please, don’t.’ I didn’t know what else to say. The seat was between us, and I felt awkward.

He obviously did, too. ‘You know who I am, don’t you?’

I nodded. ‘My neighbour,‘ I said. ‘I’ve seen you around.’

‘But you know who I am, don’t you?’

I lowered my eyes. ‘Yes,’ I admitted.

‘And that’s why you were scared.’

I wanted to deny it, but I could see he knew. ‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘A bit. It was so... so sudden.’

He sighed. ‘I shouldn’t have stopped like that. It was rude.’

I couldn’t help smiling. ‘Well, perhaps not rude. Maybe it was just that I had thought I was all alone, and suddenly you were there.’

‘And that I am who I am, too.’

I nodded. ‘But I’m over that now,’ I said, and smiled at him, not quite a natural smile because I wanted him to be sure that I was okay about him being who he was.

Rather clumsily I sat down again, my back to him now. I turned and my head and said, ‘Well, now that we’ve met, why don’t you sit down for a moment and tell me about yourself?’

He hesitated. ‘Are you sure?’

I nodded and patted the seat as though inviting him nearer. ‘Yes. I’m sure.’

I could see he was uncomfortable about it, but he clearly didn’t know what else he could do. He came around the seat and slowly sat, keeping some distance between us.

‘I know you make delicious coffee,’ I said. ‘I smell it every day. And you like music, too. I hear it, even in the house.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he apologised. ‘Is it too loud?’

‘Not at all,’ I told him. ‘I like it. and if I didn’t want to listen I could simply close the windows. Sometimes I’ve wanted to ask what it was that you were playing, but I never got up the courage.’

He chuckled. ‘Well, just call out to me if I’m in the garden. I won’t mind at all.’

‘I’ll do that, now that we’ve met.’

And so we chatted about stuff for a quarter of an hour, and then I said goodbye and left him. As I went through my gate I turned and looked at him, and gave a little wave. He was smiling and relaxed, and he looked like a very nice man.

Needless to say, as soon as I got indoors I googled him and read many of the hundreds of reports about him. According to most of the reports he was a monster, an evil, dangerous man who deserved more than the twenty years of his sentence. All the photos of him on line made him look the part. You wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night. Or any other time either, I suppose.

But the man I had been speaking to seemed a gentle, mild-mannered man. According to the the reports he was just a few years older than me, and didn’t look too bad for a seventy-one year old. He had been out of prison just over two years, with a four-year reduction for good behaviour. That meant something, I supposed.

Anyway, we met most days after that. I suspect that at first he was keeping an eye out for me, and when he saw me setting out for a walk, he would get to his gate at more or less the same time. Not that he would join me, not at first. No, he would just say g’day and maybe comment on the weather, and then go the opposite direction to me.

But slowly the greetings became warmer and the conversations longer, and before too long we would often walk together for a while, or sit on the seat chatting about this or that.

I enjoyed those times, and began to really look forward to our meetings. After a few months of this, as the weather was turning cooler, I invited him in to my kitchen for a cup of tea. I daren’t offer him coffee, because mine wouldn’t have been a patch on his.

Then one day, as I was going to the Post office for something or another, Jennifer Bates stopped me. ‘I see you’ve taken up with that Charles Blatchford,’ she said bluntly, which took my breath away. ‘You want to be careful,’ she continued. ‘Didn’t he chop his wife into pieces?’

I stared at her. There was a look of something like triumph on her face, and I could have slapped her, the silly cow. ‘Charles is my neighbour,’ I told her. ‘I haven’t “taken up” with anybody. And it would be none of your business if I had.’ I paused for effect, then leaned closer to her face. ‘Keep your bloody nose out,’ I spat, and I turned and stomped away, as angry as I have ever been.

Later that day, when I had calmed down, I went out my front door and into the next garden and knocked on his door. He was a bit surprised when he saw me there. ‘Can I come in?’ I asked.

He opened the door wide and ushered me in, along a long dark corridor to his kitchen at the back of his house, a big room with a long window looking out onto his back garden. ‘Well,’ he said, looking me up and down. ‘This is unusual, isn’t it? What can I get you?’ He paused and looked more closely at me. ‘You’ve been upset, haven’t you? What’s the matter?’

‘Some of your delicious-smelling coffee might be good,’ I said. ‘Could I try a cup of that?

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Funny, really, that you’ve never been in here before.’

He busied himself with a shiny coffee machine, all chrome and knobs and dials, and got some biscuits from a tin and put them on a plate while the machine did its thing. Then he got a jug and half-filled it with milk. ‘White?’ he asked. Then, when I had nodded he stuck the jug under a pipe and turned a knob which started steam bubbling through the milk, making enough noise to silence us.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘that was a performance, wasn’t it?’

He chuckled. ‘Oh yes. It’s all part of the theatre of properly made coffee. Now, tell me what the problem is.’

So I did. ‘That Jennifer Bates,’ I told him. ‘She’s a piece of work, she is.’

‘Which one is that?’

‘The blonde with the ponytail and dark roots. Works in the bakers. Got her nose in everything. Warned me about “taking up” with a murderer.’

Charles laughed, a deep hearty laugh that filled the kitchen. ‘She’s right,’ he said as his laughter subsided. ‘Oh, I don’t want to alarm you,’ he said, putting his hand on my arm. ‘But you know, she’s right. I did kill Emily.’

I was taken aback. I don’t know what I thought he would say, but it certainly wasn’t that. ‘But you always denied it,’ I said.

He looked down and smiled self-deprecatingly. ‘Well, you do, don’t you’ he said quietly. ‘I mean, it’s sort of expected, isn’t it. And the papers exaggerated it all, as usual.’

I recoiled a little, and I expect the horror was showing on my face. ‘But I believed it,’ I told him. ‘All these months I’ve believed you were innocent.’

He looked into my eyes for a moment. ‘Look, that’s what I said at the trial, but I’ve never said it to you, have I?’

‘We haven’t talked about it.’

‘No, we haven’t, have we. Do you want to, now?’

I hesitated. ‘I’m not sure,’ I said. But we had had such a good time together… did I want to lose that? ‘Maybe we should. But…’

‘I know,’ he said. ‘Or at least, I can imagine. I expect you’ve been hoping that I was innocent, so that you wouldn’t have to be afraid of me. Is that it?’

I thought about it. ‘Yes,’ I agreed slowly. ‘Yes, I think that’s it.’

‘I don’t want you to be afraid of me either. Shall I tell you how it came about?’

I nodded, but I was very doubtful. What if…

‘Okay,’ he started. ‘So yes, I killed Emily. I didn’t mean to, but she was driving me mad and I couldn’t stand it. She had lovers, lots of them, and the thought of losing her… Look, I went temporarily mad and I killed her. It was wrong, it was evil. I didn’t mutilate her and tie her to a tree like the press said, I killed her with one blow. I meant to just frighten her, but I went too far.’

My hand was over my mouth and my eyes brimmed with tears.

‘I immediately came to my senses and went to the police, and I was arrested and charged and eventually pleaded not guilty because my barrister said I should, and I kept that up until they found me guilty. I was taken away and I served my time for a dreadful crime, and I was released at the end of it.’

‘But we’ve become friends,’ I said and I could hardly get the words out.

He nodded. ‘But look,’ he said, ‘I could never guarantee that I won’t kill you too.’

I turned away. ‘Oh no!’ I cried.

He put his hand on mine. ‘We’ve got to face it,’ he said. ‘I’m certain I would never lift a finger to hurt you, or anyone else. But we both know I’ve done it before. So what would a guarantee be worth?’

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