I had a conversation recently with someone who told me her daughter had just acquired an imaginary friend. I told her straight, ‘That’s crap. No need for it.’ I never had an imaginary friend – never needed one. When I was young I had more real friends than I could count with a calculator. But then, I was very pretty, and clever, and just fun to be with; so being the most popular girl around was a no brainer really.
I’m in my (ahem) early thirties now but c’mon guys, let’s face it, time has been kind to me, right? And I’m still as popular as ever. Last year I overheard a friend telling someone, ‘That Lucy could have any bloke in the world and, give her her due, she’s already had most of them.’ Aw – bless. It’s really nice when you hear compliments about yourself.
And then Pippa came along and joined my social circle. I don’t know who she’d been talking to but she was desperate to be my friend. We were good together. She wasn’t as attractive as I am, obviously, but we had similar tastes and she was always good for a laugh. So you can just picture how hard I laughed when I came home early one day and caught her in bed with my fella. I didn’t laugh for long. It wasn’t a joke. I ranted, ‘How could you do this to me? My best friend!’
At least I’d always imagined she was my friend!
SUSPECTED MURDERER ON THE RUN
A 37 year old man, charged with the brutal murder of an elderly couple in their home last Friday has escaped from a prison transport van while being taken to Oakwood Magistrates’ Court. Donald and Marjorie Kemp were found stabbed to death in the kitchen of their semi-detached house. Their bodies were discovered by a neighbour who became concerned when the Kemps failed to take their customary evening stroll.
The accused, Nathan Tamblyn of Tennison Crescent, Oakwood, currently unemployed, is believed to be extremely dangerous and police are warning the public not to approach him. Anyone who thinks they may recognise Tamblyn is urged to dial 999 immediately. His wife and three children are thought to be staying with relatives in another town.
Thursday 18th December, 2014
The weight of the world lay heavier on the shoulders of Nathan Tamblyn today. All his days now were burdensome but this day was the worst he could remember. Had it really been a year since he had taken that split-second opportunity to escape? A year? Sometimes it felt like yesterday, sometimes a decade ago, sometimes – most often – as though it had never happened at all. But now that Christmas was approaching and it would be the second without his wife and kids, reality was refusing to give him any respite in denial. For the past week he had been sleeping under this very bridge over the canal. It offered shelter from the rain, though not the cold, and it was not – at least for the time being – occupied by anyone else. He’d slept in worse places.
The eerie diluted light of a typical English winter day drifted and played on the ever shifting water in the canal. It was hypnotic, dull, yet strangely attractive. Nathan tried to look away but found he couldn’t. He stared unblinking as the patterns on the water drew out of him all the experiences and memories of his year-long flight from captivity. How easy it would be to give himself to the water. To drift with it, to float briefly and then to sink, to die.
Lizzie Cooper thought her feet might drop off if she didn’t sit down soon. She was too old for this. She’d been Christmas shopping since early morning and she needed, more than anything, to get home. She’d decided to take a short cut along the canal. It would take at least ten minutes off her walk. A little way ahead a stone bridge crossed the water. She thought she could see something under the bridge, on the towpath. It looked like a bundle of old clothes someone had abandoned but, as she got closer, she could see that it was a man. A tramp, a down-and-out. Lizzie hesitated now. There was no-one else around. Would she be safe? Silently she cursed. She wasn’t going back now – she was far too tired for that. Taking a deep breath and scolding herself for being so jittery, she lengthened her stride and walked on.
As she approached the huddled figure, she muttered, “Afternoon.”
He glanced at her and stirred, shouting something incomprehensible. Was that a growl she heard? It was only then that she realised she’d been holding her breath. “Lizzie, you old fool,” she thought to herself as she left the bridge and was, once again, in the open air and heading home.
When the attack came, it was swift, vicious and inescapable. Everything seemed to happen at once; noise, pain, confusion. Her shopping bag was wrenched from her hands and she felt herself falling. More pain. She felt the gravel of the path bite into her cheek, and then silence. For the briefest of moments she lost consciousness and the darkness, when it took her, was very welcome. But just seconds later she was awake again. She blinked open her eyes and was shocked; petrified to see the tramp now bending over her. What could he possibly want? He’d got her bag, why didn’t he just leave her alone now? Was he going to kill her? She realised eventually that he was saying something but she couldn’t hear. She watched his lips moving, fascinated, transfixed. Her hearing restored itself then. He was asking if she was OK. He told her to try moving her arms and legs to make sure nothing was broken. She did as he suggested and, as nothing did seem to be broken, she allowed him to help her get to her feet.
They made an odd spectacle: a dishevelled, emaciated old hobo and a frail old lady, hobbling together towards a nearby bench. Once there they sat down and to Lizzie’s astonishment the tramp handed her bag back to her. He asked again if she was OK. She was, but was still shocked and very confused. Nathan painted the picture for her. She had been attacked by two young thugs who had tried to steal her bag. But he’d seen the attack happen and had come to her rescue. The boys hadn’t known he was there. They’d panicked, dropped the bag and ran. “Probably a mile away by now,” he said, “Scumbags!” Suddenly Lizzie was exhausted; all her reserves were used up and she needed desperately to get home. She assured her unlikely hero that she would be all right once rested, thanked him warmly, and left.
Nathan watched her go. He was somewhat shocked himself; amazed that he had found the strength to do something so daring. Automatically adrenaline had kicked in and, for a few moments, he had been his old self again. A small part of him was anxious in case the thugs came back to take revenge but he had long since learnt that it was pointless worrying about things that might never happen.
It was growing dark now, and colder. He went back to his blanket and tried to keep some of the wind from getting into his bones. That night was a restless one. Worse than usual. Indecision and vague ideas plagued his tired brain and when he slept he dreamt of days gone by, days to come, and whether any of his choices in life had been the right ones.
Friday 19th December, 2014
The day dawned icy cold but bright. Nathan sat up and felt his long abused bones creak in complaint. How long could he realistically keep on running like this? A year as a fugitive had taught him a great deal but it had also made him question the wisdom of his decision to escape. If he were to give himself up, what sentence would he be given for murder? Twenty-five years perhaps? That would mean he would be in his early sixties on release. He was alarmingly short of options. Twenty-five years in prison with at least the possibility of seeing his wife from time to time. Or the rest of his life on the run with no-one but vagrants for company. Which option sounded more bearable? It was a question he hadn’t asked himself before today.
Slowly, he got to his feet and made his way to the bench where, only yesterday, he had persuaded an old lady to sit until she had recovered from being mugged. He remembered their conversation in detail. She had been scared of him at first, but when he gave the shopping bag back to her she had softened. He liked that; though he knew for certain that she wouldn’t have mellowed at all if she had known who he was. Something heavy lurched in his chest. It caught his breath. Tears, the first he’d known in a long time, slithered in silence down his grubby cheeks. He wished his old lady would return. He had an incandescent urge to tell her everything.
When Lizzie arrived at the bridge, she was a little disappointed not to find her erstwhile champion there. His bundle was there though, so she reasoned he couldn’t be far. Ah! She could see him now – sitting on the bench where, yesterday, he had shown her so much kindness until she’d felt strong enough to go home. He didn’t look up when she approached and, since she didn’t know his name, she offered a simple “Hello again.” The tramp looked up then, and Lizzie was surprised to see little streaks of cleanish skin showing through the grime where the tears had cleared a path. His distress was palpable and difficult for her to witness.
Sitting down next to him she said “Look, I’ve brought you one or two things. Not much, but I thought you could use some food – and I dug out some gloves and a scarf – belonged to my husband, God rest him!”
Nathan looked from the old lady to the shopping basket and back again. Swallowing, he managed a whispered “Thank you lady. Very kind.”
“Nonsense!” Lizzie whispered back. “After all you did for me yesterday ...”
They sat in silence for a little while, watching the water; two very disparate trains of thought until Lizzie said “We should introduce ourselves. My name’s Lizzie – Lizzie Cooper.”
She half expected him not to reply but, surprisingly he said without hesitation “I’m Yogi.”
“Yogi?” Lizzie asked, “What kind of ... I mean how did you ...?”
Yogi smiled, “Yeah – Yogi. It’s what they call me. It’s not my real name.”
Lizzie laughed and nudged his elbow. “I guessed!” She winked, and they chuckled together, enjoying the sight of the little shards of freshly broken ice lying inertly at their feet. Lizzie carried on. “So how did you come to be called Yogi? Don’t get me wrong – I like it. It kind of suits you though I’m not sure why,” she added.
“Oh, it was in the early days when I, um, came to be in this state, you know? I was new at this game then, and didn’t know much. One night I was with a bunch of other ‘homeless’ trying to keep warm round a fire. Late into the night a young lad came to sit next to me. He was a bit slow, if you know what I mean, so they’d tidied him away somewhere. Some place where he wouldn’t be so much of an embarrassment to folk. But he’d run away. He told me his name was Cameo. He said we all had to have names that had nothing to do with our old lives. He stared at me for a bit and then he said ‘You look like a bear’. I had a bit more weight on me then.”
Lizzie thought to herself that there was probably more to it than that, remembering yesterday’s growl.
Yogi went on, “He picked up some of the empty beer cans that were lying around and squeezed them till he had a little pool of beer in the palm of his hand. Then he wetted his thumb in the beer and, as if he were a proper Bishop, he made the sign of a cross on my forehead and said. ‘I baptise thee Yogi.’ So, Yogi I became. I ought to have clipped his ear, cheeky little beggar but, for some reason, I was really touched. I felt as though I was getting a new family.”
Lizzie, deeply touched in her turn, was silent for a minute or so. She took his hand in hers before saying, “Well, Yogi. Clearly life has dealt you some hard blows. You’re probably younger than you look, huh? No offense.”
Yogi smiled. “I’m 38 years old but I bet I look 68 don’t I?”
“Oh, well,” Lizzie joked, “you’re in good company – I’m 68 myself.” Another pause. “So, tell me, what brought you to this?”
He didn’t answer. His mind was in turmoil. Had the moment arrived? The moment when he would, at long last, unburden himself? And, if it had, what would be the consequences of his telling? For a time, he was blinded by confusion and indecision until, in an instant, everything stopped. A sense of calm descended like a feather floating on a summer breeze and he saw with such perfect clarity what he must do.
For the first time since they had met, he looked deeply into Lizzie’s eyes and saw only compassion there. Hesitating, and slowly at first, he began. “I would like to tell you Lizzie. And I will, but it isn’t easy. Well, what the ‘ell, the time’s right. I know that now.” He hung his head for a few seconds before continuing. “I used to have a family – a lovely wife and three amazing daughters. But I lost them. A year ago the police came to my house and arrested me for the murder of an elderly couple, Donny and Marge Kemp. I knew them. I used to visit them often. I kept telling the police it wasn’t me like, but they were convinced I done it. They weren’t even looking for anyone else. There was all this evidence against me, see. My fingerprints were on the murder weapon, a kitchen knife. Some of Marge’s blood was on my shirt. Some things were missing from the house. One was a voice recorder and they found it in my pocket. And a neighbour told the police that I had left by the back garden instead of leaving by the front door like I usually did. I stood no chance. They told me I was facing life. But, on the way to the magistrates’ court, the prison van had to stop sharp and I managed to escape. I’ve been on the run ever since.”
He risked a sidelong glance at Lizzie, but he couldn’t read her emotions. After a short time she asked, “Why was there so much evidence against you?”
“While we were chatting in the kitchen, Marge was chopping vegetables for dinner. The knife slipped and she cut herself. It wasn’t too deep but it bled a lot. I picked up the knife and put it out of harm’s way on the work surface. Donny brought a bandage and I helped to wash the cut and then I dressed it.”
“Well, that explains the fingerprints and the blood. What about the voice recorder and the furtive exit?”
“Oh, Donny told me his voice recorder was broke and I said I knew someone who could fix it. And I left by the back door because we’d been looking round his greenhouse and it was quicker for me to leave that way than go back through the house. It’s the God’s honest truth but the police didn’t believe a word of it.”
He looked down at his feet, sighed, and then asked, “Do you? Believe me, I mean?” He looked at her then and was a little perturbed to see that she was struggling with something.
“I need to think,” she told him, “I need to go home to think.” She got up from the bench slowly; she seemed inexplicably older.
“Lizzie,” Yogi muttered, “If you feel you need to turn me in . . . well, I just want you to know that I understand. I’m tired. So very tired. And if you don’t, I’ll probably turn myself in anyway. So let’s make it easy on everyone, yeah? If you do tell the police – tell them I’ll be at the soup kitchen on Cross St on Christmas Day. They do a good Christmas lunch,” he ended sotto voce.
He watched her walk away, shoulders slumped.
Christmas Day, 2014
Yogi shifted in his threadbare blanket and stared out at the bleakness of the day. Four whole days had gone by since he had reached out to Lizzie and he had neither seen her nor heard anything from her since then. Today was the day his life was destined to change – again. Whatever the future held for him now, he would embrace it and try not to hold too many grudges. It wouldn’t be easy but then living like a tramp wasn’t exactly a cinch either.
Anonymous church bells rang out the time. One o’clock. Time to go. The soup kitchen was in the centre of town and the fifteen minute stroll to get there simultaneously eased the cramp in his legs and increased the tension in his chest. As he turned the corner into Cross St, he was almost convinced the place would be crawling with police. But he was wrong. The street was deserted.
In the soup kitchen there were several familiar faces but Yogi wasn’t really in the mood for jovial company. He found a seat at a table in the corner and tried not to look conspicuous. He’d only been there a few minutes when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jennifer approaching. Jennifer was one of the regular volunteers and knew him well.
“Hello Yogi. Good to see you. I hope you enjoy the lunch – there’s plenty of it.” Yogi thanked her, trying at the same time not to encourage her to stay.
“I’ve got something for you,” she continued, not put off by his surly mood, “a lady came in with it yesterday and asked me to give it to you.” She held out a cream envelope with the words To Yogi from your friend Lizzie written on the front.
Inside the envelope was a Christmas card and, inside the card, a handwritten note. For the second time in a week, Yogi’s face experienced a rare cleansing with tears.
The note read:
My dear Yogi,
By the time you read this, I will have done two things. Firstly, I will have gone to the police. I have taken my time and given a great deal of thought about the rights and wrongs of it all. I know now that this is the right and only thing to do. You asked me if I believed your story. I did. I do. In fact I know it to be true. I am a foolish old woman, Yogi. I have kept a secret of my own for way too long. But enough is enough. My misplaced loyalty has hurt far too many innocent human beings.
I know you to be innocent because my own son committed the murders you were accused of. He came home that day, blood on his clothes, shaking, and in his panic he told me everything. I, for my part, did nothing. I only hope that you can, one day, find it in your heart to forgive me.
The second thing I will have done is to have taken my own life. Now, now, don’t be upset. Just as you said yourself, the time is right. I cannot forgive my son, nor can I forgive myself. The time has come at last for you to stop repaying this debt which you never truly owed. In taking this final step, I am returning to you something that, without intent, I took away from you – your name.
Merry Christmas, Nathan Tamblyn
Your friend, always