My daydreams of escape and relief at having left the office were disturbed shortly after I arrived at the bus stop. My disturber was a dishevelled eccentric woman anxiously circling around a car that she seemed far too poverty-stricken to have ever owned. My hair, primped, preened and moussed to perfection, bristled as I took a good look. I shuddered, feeling as sane as she seemed demented.
That was what came from working at the hospital, surrounded by sickness and healthy living posters. There was something to be said for saturation advertising.
I looked again at the woman. It wasn’t only her actions that were demented. Her legs were clad in filthy long anglers’ wellingtons, and face and hair dripped blood onto her filthy trenchcoat. Later, I’d recall her as flapping like a vampire bat, but when she called out to me, I was far more concerned about preventing her from getting run over. Less about care for her, and more about not being keen on the whole reporting an accident rigmarole.
‘Are you alright, lady?’
My accent was refined Edinburgh, with the intentional focus on ‘refined’.
‘Thank God. Thank God. Come here,’ she shrieked. ‘I’ve got wounded cargo.’
She grabbed the sleeve of my suit jacket, and I bristled again. She was not the kind of woman who’d ever be encouraged to touch any part of me - or my apparel. Indeed, no woman on earth would ever be allowed to touch my navy blue silk blend. Lee Rager suits weren’t made to be pawed at by unwashed fingers, nor their fibres broken by rasping, uncut nails. Almost £4,000, the suit cost. £3993, to be exact, once I’d had the pants shortened.
‘Can you get off me, lady?’
It was more an order than a request, and the woman backed off a little while still urging me towards the car’s back seat.
‘Look. Look. Me sister’s been attacked. She’s precious, wounded cargo. Make her better. You’re a doctor, aren’t you?’
‘No. I work in administration. The hospital’s just there - that big building behind the brick wall.’
‘I know. That’s why I’m here… I tried to get there, but I bumped the car.’
I followed the madwoman’s eyes. Lying on the car’s back seat was a woman dressed in a black robe and white headdress. The white was stained with blood, rusty-dried and cherry-wet, and the robe speckled and streaked with dried clay and darkened bloody patches. The woman moved her head a little.
‘You’re an angel. A saint,’ the second woman mumbled up at me, with blood bubbling from her mouth’s corners.
‘I’m a hospital administrator. Not an angel.’
‘Oh God, in heaven. I give you thanks for delivering this angel to me.’
She was as batty as her sister.
‘She’s in a bad way, lady,’ I said to the woman who wasn’t collapsed on the car’s back seat. ‘You have to take her to hospital.’
‘I can’t drive.’
‘How did you get here?’
The woman shrugged, and I shook my head. How typical it was of me to get saddled with every lunatic who passed my way. One was demented, and the other believed herself to be a nun. Perhaps they were on their way to a fancy dress party, but I suspect that both of the poor unfortunates had come straight from the loony bin.
The cure for depression is to purchase and use something expensive and new. That’s what my mother had always told me, hence the suit and manicure. Unfortunately, I knew from experience that it didn’t always work, and when this was the case, doing good deeds was the only way to go.
I leaned against the door and looked again at the nun who immediately began apologising for the dog-hair-covered tartan blanket. I hadn’t noticed at first, but once I did, I realised how much I liked the digestive biscuit, dog-paw smell. It reminded me of something good. Something pure.
‘How did you get here if you can’t drive?’ I tried again.
‘She can. She started, anyway. But then we stopped at traffic lights, and this man went mad at us, and she got out to tell him off. That was when he went at her with his fists and started saying she was a (swear word) god-botherer.’
‘Can she walk?’
‘She can’t see, and her leg is all bloody. Don’t think so.’
‘I’ll drive her to the hospital. Then you can get help.’
‘How long will that take?’
‘Can she wait that long?’
‘She’ll have to. And the longer we wait here, the worse she’s going to be.’
‘Thank you, angel,’ came the whispered voice as I got into the driver’s seat and started the car up.
‘Seat belt, seat belt,’ said the loony, throwing herself into the car next to me.
I plugged myself in.
That was when I heard the click of the car’s central locking.
That was when I heard the loony sister’s cackle.
‘Straight on, mate and no funny business or this’ll go straight through your brain.’ Suddenly, she brandished a tiny pistol that had been pulled from her inner coat’s pocket.
‘What’s going on? The hospital is next right.’
‘That might be the case,’ said the now very-much-recovered back seat passenger, ‘but that’s not where we’re going’.
‘That’s true, Mr Elmer Bartholomew Cross.’
The front seat loony had by that point removed her angling wellingtons and coat and was beginning to look remarkably familiar.
‘I gave you enough clues, Elmer, Didn’t you guess it was me when you saw Scamp’s dog blanket?’
Hmmm, not a nun. Not a sister. My sister. And the loony next to me was peeling off her facial prosthesis. Yep, I should have known it. Dulcie. My girlfriend. As she peeled off the final piece, she grinned and removed her fake upper teeth. ‘That’s better.’
She sighed happily. ‘Remember telling me that there was no point in my going to that audition? Because I’ve never been much of an actress? Remember, Elmer? Well, I got the job. First proper audition I’ve been to and I got the job! It’s telly, and a long series, so it will be good money, so I guess your girlfriend really can act. What do you say to that?’
I nodded and continued driving.
‘Well done, you two. Good jape. But where’s the car come from?’
That was likely a different story, and I steeled myself to hear it.
STOLEN CAR - BETH ORTON
Elmer and Louise Part Three
My girlfriend, Dulcie, tapped her acrylics on the passenger side of the car’s dashboard.
‘So,’ I urged, glaring at her. ‘What’s with the car?’
My sister, Louise, was still struggling to remove her disguise and make-up but piped up from the back seat. ‘Well…’ I turned to offer encouragement and noticed Louise’s eyes flickered sparkly and bright.
‘We kind of took it.’
‘Took it? From whom?’
‘Erm, I wasn’t introduced to the actual owner. We found it in the Asda car park.’
I stopped the car and grabbed his girlfriend’s arm.
‘What?! There’s CCTV all over that car park. They’ll have seen you.’
‘They’ll have seen two mad old ladies. Not us. Even you didn’t recognise us.’
‘But what about fingerprints? Oh my God, my fingerprints are all over a stolen car!’
Dulcie sighed and continued tapping.
‘Well, yes. But so are ours.’
‘But why would you steal a car? Louise? Dulcie? What the hell’s going on? Why have you done this? Why have you got me involved?
I didn’t need this. I have a management meeting tomorrow morning.’
I held my hand over my frantically beating heart. ‘Come on, you two. I have a life. I’m next in line for a big promotion too. I can’t get involved in crime. Not even as an observer. There’s no way.’
‘Calm down, Mr Asthma Attack,’ Louise teased as my face reddened.
‘I haven’t had asthma since I was a kid, Louise, and believe me, I’m not going to capitulate on this one like I always used to. Mum and Dad are going to be told about what you’ve done. Everyone will disown you. I’m going to tell Paul too, and you’ll be a jailbird divorcee by the time you’re forty. And you, Dulcie, why would you jeopardise your new acting career by doing something so stupid?’
Suddenly realising that I was still holding the steering wheel, I let go and with the end of my tie began to wipe as many of the car’s surfaces as I could reach.
‘And shut up with those fingernails, Dulce!’
The tapping didn’t stop, but otherwise, the two women held their silence as I continued wiping, and that was when, in utter frustration, I threw myself out of the stolen car, and straight into the path of a small, white workman’s van. I crumpled under the tyres as the van screeched to a halt.
The narrator TAKES ON the Story...
Did Elmer survive?
What happened to his sister and girlfriend?
And was there any reasoning behind any of the day’s events?
Well, obviously, yes. There’s always a reason. Or should I say that there’s always an explanation, though such explanations may be devoid of all reason.
That’s what Elmer thought as he emerged from under the white delivery van, and noticed the symbol on the side. It was in the shape of a stylised toilet, and underneath was the text: ‘Trust Us With Your Plumbing’.
He wasn’t going to trust anyone again in a hurry. He’d trusted two mad old ladies with his life, and look where he was just twenty minutes later: broken and bruised, with resentment and fury in his soul.
After all, he had things to do, places to go, work to finish and hair to preen.
Elmer was cross.
Oh. And Elmer also was quite convinced that he was dead.
Elmer Speaks Again...
Well, I assumed that I was dead but, as occurs regularly in the cliffhangers of psychological thrillers, my ‘death’ proved to be an enormous exaggeration of my symptoms. Having said that, I was hurting quite a bit, and blood seeped through my now-ripped suit. I wasn’t sure where I felt the pain the most - in my body or in the fabric I loved with every inch of myself.
I couldn’t remember much of those few seconds, but what was clear was that I’d bumped my head badly, and had knocked almost every one of my body’s protrusions on the van and the pavement’s kerbstone. It’s a good job I am a strong and sturdy guy, and despite my injuries, I suspected I was in far better condition than I deserved to be after being hit by the white plumber’s van.
I could remember one thing. Following my self-ejection from the stolen car, Dulcie and Louise had done exactly what I’d expected. The car had stalled right next to my fallen form, but as I looked up, my girlfriend and sister had chosen not to scoop me up, to return me forcibly to their stolen car, and take me with them on their journey.
Instead, they’d driven off, without even a backwards glance, leaving me crumpled in the gutter and with nobody but the driver of the white van to offer assistance. The plumber, at least, showed some empathy, squealing his vehicle to a halt and practically falling out of the van door in his eagerness to get to my crumpled shape.
‘Oh my God, you alright, mate...? Mate...? You just fell out of the car, and my van hit you, and then you rolled to the edge. Luckily, no cars were coming.’
I shuffled slightly on the kerb and grimaced. ‘You can go. I’ll be alright.’
‘I can’t leave you here like this.’ The plumber’s forehead dripped with sweat.
He wiped his eyebrow with his forearm, then reached out to me.
‘Here, get in. I’ll take you to the hospital. It’s only a few minutes away. It’s the least I can do.’
I nodded and allowed him to help me to my feet and guide me towards the van. My right shoulder, hip, ankle and knee hurt like mad from the impact, and I struggled pathetically onto the front seat.
‘I’m Simon.’ The plumber offered a hand to shake.
‘Elmer. No handshake. My wrist is killing me.’
‘I’m not surprised, mate… You hit the ground pretty hard. And Elmer’s a pretty weird name.’
‘Yeah. Even worse when you try living with it. My sister’s called Louise. She was in that stolen car. That’s why I got out.’
‘What do you mean?’ He started up the van, and the tinny rumble seemed to trigger cognition.
‘Hell! Elmer and Louise! No way! Your parents named you after a film?!’
‘Yeah. They had a terrible sense of humour. And look where it led us. Lou’s on her very own criminal road trip. I’m surprised it took her this long to come up with the idea, to be honest. I’m the straight one. She’s always been a wild card.’
Simon put on his seatbelt and took a toke of his e-cig before replacing it into his overall’s pocket. My nose wrinkled in disgust.
‘God, that smells like my grandma’s mouldy potpourri. What’s it supposed to be?’
‘Can’t remember. Cheap pear drops? Cinnamon biscuit? Strawberry and lime cheesecake? These things are really bad. All they ever taste of is charcoal briquettes and ethanol… Strapped in?’
Seatbelt. Get your seatbelt on.’
‘Oh. Yeah. I’ve done it. Thanks.’
‘Guess that means your arm isn’t broken. Still need to go to the hospital though.’
I shrugged, then nodded in resignation, closed my eyes, leaned my congealing scalp against the van’s headrest, and immediately fell asleep.
It was only then that I checked in my pocket. The three vials were still there, unbroken and glistening. And they would last me well till tomorrow.