short story: crime and punishment

It is the afternoon. I have eaten lunch but I am still feeling a bit peckish. I just spent an hour paging disinterestedly through some sort of journal, glancing at the sea of words and a few featured pictures swimming below me, without really taking them in. My mind is elsewhere.

“BZZZZZZZZZZZZT!”… ugh. That is my intercom. I hate the sound of it. Loud and untuneful with no introduction, it brings with it an obtrusive atmosphere that is certainly not welcome; someone is here.

“Yes Valerie,” I sigh into the contraption.

“Mr Boswell here to see you,” comes the reply.

“Send him in.”

My secretary’s voice bores through the door. Why do we even have to bother with that thing? I wonder. I can hear her fine as it is.

“The Doctor will see you now Mr Boswell.”

The door handle clicks and the door opens. Mr Boswell shuffles in, flat cap in hand, looks at me and stops. He then glances at the patients’ chaise longue, and his face somehow turns a more pallid shade of grey, if that is even possible.

“Hello, Mr Boswell,” I say, smiling (almost) pleasantly. “Won’t you sit down?” I gesture to the chaise.

Mr Boswell resumes his shuffle and moves towards the chair. He gingerly sits down as though he does not actually want to make contact with the piece of furniture, but realises it is going to be hard to levitate for the entire session.

“So, Mr Boswell,” I begin. “How can I help?”

I am not sure about this one. He seems meek enough. Is he shifty? I cannot tell. He starts to speak, hesitantly at first, then with more flow, more urgency. I try not to switch off. Occasionally I nod and sometimes chime in with the odd question or two, just to keep things moving.

“When did you first notice these irrepressible urges?” I ask.

“Not long after I married my second wife,” he replies. “Well. My dead wife. She is now dead.”

I pay attention. My head moves quickly with just the slightest of inclines, and I ask him about his dead second wife. Or his second, dead wife? Suddenly this seems more interesting.

“How did your late wife pass on, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“It’s sort of a long story,” he replies, gravely.

“We have plenty of time,” I assure him, with one eye on the clock above his head.

“She poisoned herself.”

So. Not such a long story after all then.

“Oh,” I say, somewhat inelegantly. “I see.”

“But… but,” he splutters. His effusive greyness is now becoming slightly disturbing.

“Yesss,” I prompt.

“I think… I think that I… well. I don’t know.”

“This is is a safe place, Mr Boswell,” I say, with (feigned) sympathy. “Of course you can say anything you feel you would like to get off your chest. I assure you there is no judgment here. Only freedom to be yourself.”

Mr Boswell nods. “Well. She left a letter. And… she said… she said that I…”

“Mmmm?” God, he likes dragging it out. 45 minutes, it’s been. Only 15 minutes left, and the clock is ticking, I hope he has the sense to know that I have a 3pm.

“…She said that I… that it was my fault.”

And there we have it. Was that so hard?

“Mr Boswell. People say all sorts of things. Often they don’t really think about what they’re saying,” I venture. Although sometimes they do.

“I had stopped you see,” he says. “I had stopped a long time ago. My… upsetting behaviour. I stopped it. And I promised I wouldn’t punish her again.”

He emphasizes the word ‘punish’, and gives me a meaningful glance. I feel a little cold. His grey face is beginning to resemble something ghoulish, something much more threatening than his awkward shuffling and tweed flat cap could ever suggest.

He continues.

“You see. After the last incident. She completely lost it. She said she’d had it, that enough was enough. She said she’d heard it all, that I was sounding like a broken record, that I was killing her. Then one day, she was cooking in the kitchen. We were having her parents over for lunch, so she was making a huge batch of soup. When I went into the kitchen I saw her there.”

At this point, he grins. I stifle a shudder.

“The kitchen was all steamed up. She was looking down over a huge pot. It was boiling hot. Her face was flushed red and her hair was a little wild. Something twigged inside me, a feeling deep within. It just welled up, unbidden, and, like the steam rising up from the pot, it began to spread effortlessly; filling me, filling the room, filling up the space between us. I couldn’t help myself.”

I stay silent, willing the confession to come within the next three minutes.

“I moved towards her. She saw me coming, and shifted her stance so she was blocking the chopping board from view, so I couldn’t see what was there. But I saw the knife – sharp as you like – and the blade gleaming with pride after slicing through its prey so effortlessly.”

This time I do shudder, despite my interest and obviously professional exterior. What is this? I think. Why is he smiling that weird smile? Grey-Man is creeping me out. Safe place, schmafe place.

“I walked to the stove. She looked at me. I could see it in her eyes; the challenge. I waited until I was close, then looked down at the giant pot. I put my hands on either side of it and lowered my face to the soup. I inhaled its earthy aroma and from that position I looked up at her. I smiled. ‘There’s not mush-room in that pot,’ I said.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I interject.

“I said, ‘There’s not mush-room in that pot.’”

Oh god. Could it be? Is this really happening? I look at Mr Bosworth. He gives me a sheepish smile. It is happening.

“Ahem,” I begin. “It was a mushroom soup?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

“And she was allergic to mushrooms?”

“… Yes.”

“BZZZZZZZZZZZZZT!”… ugh. I wince. It is my 3pm. I don’t know whether to shake my head or to shout, ‘Amen!’. I go for the former. Although, of course, it is impartial, indifferent; imperceptible, if you will.

“Mr Boswell, I’m afraid that our time is up,” I say, with (attempted) regret.

“It’s okay,” says Mr Boswell. “I guess even a quack has to duck.”

Indeed, Mr Boswell. Indeed.

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