There was something wrong about the house in Eastfield Terrace. Something unpleasant.
All the houses in the street were more or less identical: red brick, Victorian; with two bedrooms on the first floor and a bay window on either the left or the right of the front door. Some had satellite dishes. Some had window boxes filled with brightly colored flowers. But looking down from the top of the hill, one house stood out immediately. Number twenty-six no longer belonged there. It was as if it had caught some sort of disease and needed to be taken away.
The front garden was full of junk and the garbage can beside the gate was overflowing, surrounded by plastic garbage bags that the owners had been unable to stuff inside. This wasn’t uncommon in Eastfield Terrace. The net curtains were permanently drawn across the front window and, as far as anyone could tell, the lights were never turned on. But even this wasn’t particularly strange. What was unusual was the way the house smelled. For weeks now, there had been a rotten, sewage smell that seemed at first to be coming from a blocked pipe but which had rapidly gotten worse until people had begun to cross the street to avoid it. Whatever was causing it seemed to be affecting the entire place. The grass on the front lawn was beginning to die. The flowers had wilted and then been choked up by the weeds. The color seemed to be draining out of the very bricks.
The neighbors had tried to complain. They had knocked on the front door, but nobody had come. They had telephoned, but nobody answered. Finally the borough council at the Ipswich Civic Center had been called…but of course it would be weeks before any action was taken.
The house wasn’t empty. That much they knew. They had occasionally seen the owner, Gwenda Davis, pacing back and forth in front of the curtains. Once-more than a week ago-she had been seen scurrying home from the shop. And every evening the television was turned on.
Gwenda Davis was well known in the street. She had lived there much of her adult life, first on her own and then with her boyfriend, Brian Conran, who worked occasionally as a milkman. But what really set the neighbors talking was the time, six years ago, when she has inexplicably adopted an eight-year old boy and brought him home to live with her. Everyone agreed that her and Brian were not exactly ideal parents. He drank. The two of the argued. And, according to local gossip, they hardly knew the boy whose own parents died in a car accident.
Nobody was very surprised when the whole thing went wrong. It wasn’t really the boy’s fault. Matthew Freeman had been nice enough when he arrived, but a bit of time spent with Gwenda and Brian had soon had an effect. He had started missing school. He’d been hanging out with the wrong crowd, known for a whole range of petty crimes. Inevitably he had gotten into trouble with the police. During a robbery at a local warehouse, just around the corner from Ipswich Station, a security guard had nearly died, and Matthew had been dragged out with blood on his hands. As punishment, he’d been sent away on some sort of fostering program. He had a new foster mother, somewhere in Yorkshire. And good riddance to bad rubbish. That was the general view.
All this happened three months ago. Since then, Gwenda had gradually disappeared from sight. And as for Brian, no one had seen him for weeks. The house was silent and neglected. Everyone agreed that soon something would have to be done.
And now it was half past seven in the first week of June. The days were stretching out, holding on for as long as they could. The people in Eastfield Terrace were hot and tired. Tempers were getting short. And the smell was as bad as ever.
Gwenda was in the kitchen, making supper for herself. She had never been an attractive woman, small and dowdy with dull eyes and pinched lips that never smiled. But in the weeks since Matt’s departure, she had rapidly declined. Her hair was unbrushed and wild. She was wearing a shapeless flowery dress and a cardigan, which, like her, hadn’t been washed for some time. She had developed a nervous twitch and was constantly rubbing her arms as if she were cold or perhaps afraid of something.
“Do you want anything?” she called out in a thin, high-pitched voice.
Brian was waiting for her in the sitting room, but she knew he wouldn’t eat anything. She had preferred it when he’d had his job down at the milk depot, but he’d been sacked after he’d gotten into a fight with one of the managers. That had happened just after Matt had been sent away. Now he’d lost his appetite, too.
Gwenda looked at her watch. It was almost time for Big Wheel, her favorite television program of the week. In fact, thanks to cable, she could see Big Wheel every night. But Thursdays were special. On Thursday, there was a brand new program-not a reapeat.
Gwenda was addicted to Big Wheel. She loved the bright lights of the studio, the mystery prizes, the contestants who might win a million pounds if they got enough questions right and dared to spin the wheel. Best of all, she loved the host-Rex McKenna-with his permanent suntan, his jokes, his perfect white smile. Rex was about fifty years old, but his hair was still jet-black, his eyes still glimmered, and there was a spring in his step that made him seem much younger. He had been on the show for as long as Gwenda could remember, and although he hosted two other quiz programs as well as a dancing competition on the BBC, it was on Big Wheel that Gwenda liked him the best.
“Is it on yet?” she called out from the kitchen.
There was no reply from Brian. He hadn’t been talking very much lately, either
She reached into a cupboard and took out a can of beans. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a feast, but it’d been a while since either of them had earned any money and she was beginning to feel the pinch. She looked around the kitchen for a clean plate but there weren’t any. Every surface was covered with dirty crockery. A tower of soiled plates and bowls rose out of the sink. Gwenda decided she would eat the beans out of the tin. She plunged her hand into the brown, filthy water and somehow managed to find a fork. She wiped some of the grease off on her dress and hurried out of the room.
The lights were out in the loving room, but there the glow of the television was enough to show the way. It also showed the mess that the room had become. There were old newspapers scattered across the carpet, overflowing ashtrays, more dirty plates, old socks and underpants. Brian was sitting on a sofa that had looked ungly and secondhand the moment it left the shop. There was a nasty stain on the nylon cover. Ignoring it, Gwenda sat down next to him.
The smell, which had been bad throughout the house, was worse in here. Gwenda ignored that, too.
It seemed to her that things had gone from bad to worse since Matt had left. She didn’t quite know why. It wasn’t as if she had actually like him. On the contrary, she had always known there was something weird about the boy. Hadn’t he dreamed his mother and father were going to die the night before the accident had actually happened? She had only taken him in because Brian persuaded her-and of course, he’d only wanted to get his hands on the money that Matt’s parents had left for him. The trouble was, the money had gone all too quickly. And then Matt had gone too, taken away by the police as a juvenile delinquent. All she’d been left with was the blame.
It wasn’t her fault. She’d looked after him. She’d never forget the way the police looked at her, as if she were the one who’d committed the crime. She wished now that Matt had never come into her life. Everything had gone wrong because of Matt.
“And now, on ITV, it’s time once again to take your chances and spin…the Big Wheel!”
Gwenda settled back as the Big Wheel tune began. Fifty-pound notes twisted and spun across the screen. The audience applauded. And there was Rex McKenna walking down the flashing staircase with a pretty girl holding onto each arm, dressed in a bright, sequined jacket, waving and smiling, happy as always to be back.
“Good evening, everyone!” he called out. “Who knows who’s going to win big-time tonight?” He paused and winked straight at the camera. “Only the wheel knows!”
The audience went wild as if they were hearing the words for the first time. But of course Rex always began the show the same way. “Only the wheel knows!” was his catch phrase, although Gwenda wasn’t sure it was true. The wheel was just a big piece of wood and plastic. How could it know anything?
Rex came to a halt and the applause died down. Gwenda was starring at the screen in a kind of a trance. She had already forgotten about her baked beans. Somehow in the back of her mind, she wondered how it was that the television still worked when the electricity in the house had been turned off two weeks ago because she hadn’t paid the bill. But the back of her mind was a very long way away and it didn’t really matter. It was a blessing. How would she get through the nights without Big Wheel?
“Welcome to another show where the spin of the wheel could mean a million pounds in your pocket or a return ticket home with nothing!” Rex explained. “And what a busy week I’ve had. My wife woke me up at six o’clock yesterday morning to remind me to put the alarm on. The alarm went off at seven and still hasn’t come back!”
The audience roared with laughter. Gwenda laughed too.
“But we’ve got a great show for you tonight. And in a minute we’re going to meet the three lucky contestants who are competing for tonight’s big prizes. But remember: If you want to get your hands on a million quid, what do you have to do/”
“You have to spin to win!” the audience yelled.
Brian said nothing. It was beginning to annoy Gwenda the way he just sat there.
“But before we get started,” Rex went on, “I want to have a quick word with a very special lady, a real favorite of mine…” He stepped closer to the camera, and as his face filled the screen, it seemed to Gwenda that he was looking directly at her.
“Hello Gwenda,” he said.
“Hello Rex,” Gwenda whispered. It was difficult for her to believe that he was actually talking to her. It always was.
“And how are you tonight, my love?”
“I’m alright…” she bit her lips and folder her hands in her lap.
“Well listen, my darling. I wonder if you’ve given any more thought to what we were talking about. Matt Freeman. That guttersnipe. That little creep. Have you decided what you’re going to do about him?
Rex McKenna had started talking to Gwenda two months ago. At the beginning, it had puzzled her. How could he interrupt the show (watched by ten million people) just to speak to her? Somehow he even managed to do it in the repeats-and that couldn’t be possible, because some of them had been recorded years ago. At first, it had worried her. When she told Brian about it, he’d laugh in her face and tell her she was going mad. Well Rex had soon put her straight about Brian. And now she didn’t’ worry about it anymore. It was bizarre but it was happening. The truth was, she was flattered. She adored Rex McKenna and it seemed he was equally fond of her.
“Matt Freeman made a fool out of you,” Rex went on. “He came into your house and he ruined your relationship with Brian. Then he got into trouble and everybody said it was your fault. Now look at you! No money. No job. You’re a mess, Gwenda…”
“It’s not my fault, Gwenda muttered.
“I know it’s not your fault, old love,” Rex replied. For a moment the camera cut away and Gwenda could see the studio audience getting restless, waiting for the show to begin. “You looked after the boy. You treated him like a son. But he’s pushed off without so much as a by-you-leave. No gratitude, or course. Kids these days! He’s full of himself now-and you should hear the things he says about you! I’ve been thinking about it and I have to say…I believe the boy ought to be punished.”
“Punished…”Gwenda muttered with a sense of dread.
“Just like you punished Brian for being so rude to you.” Rex shook his head. Maybe it was a trick of the studio lighting, but he seemed almost to be reaching out of the television set, about to climb into the room. “The fact of the matter is that Matt is a very nasty piece of work,” he went on. “Everywhere he goes, he causes trouble. You remember what happened to his parents.”
“It was his fault. He could have saved them. And there are other things you don’t know about. He recently upset some very good friends of mine. In fact he more than upset them. He killed them. Can you believe that? He killed all of them. If you ask me, there’s no question about it. He needs to be punished very severely indeed.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Gwenda said.
“I can tell you that. He goes to a school called Forrest Hill. It’s in Yorkshire, just outside the city of York. That’s not so far away.
“What do you want me to do?” Gwenda asked. Her mouth was dry. The can of beans had tilted forward in her hands and cold tomato sauce was dripping into her lap.
“You like me don’t you, Gwenda?” The television host gave her one of his special smiles. There were little wrinkles in the corner of his eyes. “You want to help me. You know what has to be done.”
Gwenda nodded. For some reason she had begun to cry. She wondered if this would be the last time Rex McKenna would talk to her. She would go to Yorkshire and she wouldn’t come back.
“You go there on the train and you find him and you make sure that he never hurts anyone again. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to everyone. What do you say?”
Gwenda couldn’t speak. She nodded a second time. The tears were flowing faster. Rex backed away. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Gwenda Davis. She’s a lovely lady and she deserves a big round of applause.
The audience agreed. They clapped and cheered until Gwenda left the room and went upstairs.
Brian remained where he was, sitting on the sofa, his legs slightly apart, his mouth hanging open. He had been like that ever since Gwenda had stuck the kitchen knife into his chest. It was still there, jutting out of the bloody rag that had once been his shirt. Rex told her to do that, too. Brian had laughed at her. He had said she was mad. She’d had to teach Brian a lesson he couldn’t forget.
A few minutes later, Gwenda left the house. She’d meant to pack, but in the end she hadn’t been able to find anything worth taking, apart from the ax that she once used to chop wood. She’d slipped that into the handbag that dangled from her arm.
Gwenda locked the door behind her and walked away. She knew exactly where she was heading: Forrest Hill, a school is Yorkshire. She was going to see her nephew, Matt Freeman, again.
He would certainly be surprised.