By Patrick O'Connor
'I know a secret and secrets breed paranoia.' - Simon Holt, The Devouring
THERE were four of them, Tony, Danny, Norbert and Alf, all in their 60s and retired.
On the face of it, normal blokes, the sort you'd easily walk by in the street. Norbert, plump and round with Bobby Charlton brown comb-over hair; Alf thin and wiry like a whippet with a little Hitler moustache which he regularly dyed to keep ageing at bay; Danny, sporting big Superman type glasses which he kept pushing up off his nose on a dome-like head, a-la-Eric Morecambe and Tony, grey and dull in a John Major sort of way.
Norbert used to be a greengrocer, Danny a lorry driver, Alf a printer and Tony worked for an insurance company.
Meeting once a week in the pub for a pint and a natter, they'd put the world to right, pontificating on politics, sport, telly etc. They gave off the air of complete comradeship, the Four Musketeers on a suburban night out, kitted out in Marks and Spencer patterned sweaters and plain socks from Primark.
Then last week Alf revealed he had an appointment the following day with his GP for the results of his tests. What tests, they asked, anxious that something dark was threatening their usual fare of light-hearted banter. Alf said his missus was worried because he kept forgetting things (such as her birthday and their wedding anniversary) so he had had tests for dementia.
'Bloody hell,' said Norbert, padding down his mop like a cat preparing for a snooze.
Alf tapped away at his tash before adding: 'I ain't going to end up being doolally, no way, crapping me pants and talking gibberish. If I've got dementia, will someone put me out of my misery, put a gun to my head.'
'Of course Alf,' his mates laughingly replied and joviality was restored.
The next day they all got a text from Alf, short and to the point: 'Got it.' Hours later he was discovered shot through the head in his shed. No gun was found.
The three men had gathered around their usual table at The Cloak and Dagger, in the corner, well away from the family eating area and in front of the mock log fire. It was Tony's round and he also chipped in with two packets of pork scratchings plus sour cream and chive crisps for Norbert whose wife was trying to turn him into a vegetarian because of his high cholesterol.
'Spooky ain't it,' said Norbert, crisps splattering over his black Black Sabbath t-shirt.
'Him saying he wanted to be shot in the head if he'd got it and him getting it and him... him then being shot in the head.'
'Bloody coincidence,' said Tony, crunching away at a particularly rocky piece of scratching.
'Not really Tony,' said Danny, who spoke in a broad Black Country accent like the character Timothy Spall played in Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
'What do you mean?' asked Norbert.
'Well it were me, weren't it,' said Danny, sitting up proud and upright in his chair, just like that time he announced he'd got a good mark for poetry in his Open University writing course.
Everybody has secrets, things they don't tell their spouses or even their best mates. Sometimes you keep secrets for good reasons, sometimes it's just a thrill to know something that others don't but whatever the reason, buried deep in your subconscious is a desire to spill the bills, to let everyone in on your big secret.
Danny could be a bit of a story spinner– the others didn't know he copied his poem off a niece's school essay – but he swore this revelation was the truth.
Thirty years ago whilst struggling to make ends meet as a milkman, he bumped into an ex-army pal who got him signed up with a clandestine government agency which provided hit-men for exclusive, rich clients. Danny's skills as a trained sniper were put to good use.
Since then instead of, as they had always been led to believe, driving around the country delivering metal girders, tractors, and other miscellaneous metals in his lorry, Danny claimed he had taken advantage of the British Rail network and whatever early booking discounts on offer and subsequently his senior railcard, to knock off anyone who had happened to annoy, betray or challenge the agency's clients.
'Had to keep it a secret, didn't I, official secrets act and all that. But now that I'm retired, well, it won't harm, telling you two.'
Because Alf had looked so pitiful, so desperately sad when he talked about possibly having dementia, Danny felt that he had to do what any true friend would do – and shoot him.
Now you probably want to know why at that particular moment, Tony and Norbert didn't call the police – immediately. Thing is, Danny then added that since he done a 'pro-bono' job for Alf, he felt morally obliged to do one for them.
'Off the record of course,' he said, closing an imaginary zip across his lips.
And so, Norbert and Tony were faced with the sort of offer that rarely, in fact almost certainly never, lands in the lap of your ordinary guy - the chance, cost-free, to eliminate an irritant.
'Come on lads, just give me a name, and it'll be done,' said Danny, with the sort of manic glare that you usually encounter with drunks waiting alongside you for the last bus home.
'I may not be as sharp as I used to be but I can still do the business. Gun, knife, garrotte, your choice, although I can't do poison, lost me Boots card didn't I. Come on, there must be someone, somewhere who's really annoyed you. Hey, Norbert, what about that bloke, you know, the neighbour, the one who wouldn't cut down the Leylandii tree. Or that idiot who sold you the naff central heating.
'Tony mate, I know, I've got it,' he said clapping his hands, 'the pratt who pranged your MGB GT, 1998 wasn't it. Is he still alive, bet he is, I'll track him down, get GCHQ on it, and take him out for you, no probs.'
Danny appeared deadly serious and Tony glanced at Norbert who looked pensive and worried.
'Tell you what, both of you, bring me in a name next week, the swine you'd like to see wasted. As I said, could be anybody, could even be somebody off the telly, somebody who really gets up you nose. What about that game show host you're always whinging about Tony, or Norbert, that bloke on that crappy soap you and your missus watch? A politician? Watch Question Time tonight and see if there's one of them.'
Tony was curious as to whether Danny felt any guilt or regret over killing people.
'No mate, sociopath, that's me,' he said, puffing out his chest and prodding it.
'No feelings see, the counsellor bloke I went to see reckoned it was me mam that did it.'
'Your mam?'said Norbert.
'Yeah, things she did to me like, when I was a kid, made me the way I am, that's what he reckons anyway.'
Tony licked his lips and took a big gulp of his pint. He had secrets, of course, everybody did, but he wanted one as big as Danny's. Having a secret like that gave you a sort of super-power, a cosmic presence, it was a great boost to your ego.
'So this counsellor knows what you do – did for a living?' asked Tony.
'Yeah, but that ain't a problem.'
'Shot him, didn't I.'
The week slipped by to a backdrop of media headlines about the mystery surrounding Alf's death, the police were baffled. Tony was impressed by Danny's professionalism. No fingerprints, shoe prints, nothing, mind you he had got the CIS Miami Box-set.
When they next visited The Cloak and Dagger, Tony eagerly produced a yellow post-it note from his pocket and pushed into Danny's palm.
'That's it, that's my name. You'll do it won't you, as you promised, whoever's name is there, you'll do it?'
Danny looked at the note and quickly put it in his pocket.
'Errr, yeah, sure no probs mate,' he said, pushing his glasses up over his nose three times in quick succession before nervously looking at Norbert.
'Hmm, still thinking about it Danny, I will ring you later at home. Okay?'
Tony could feel his stomach churning, he was desperate to know who Norbert had nominated. There was a fear, a huge big knot, funnelling away in the middle of his gut, bursting at the seams to explode out.
'Yeah, let's leave this until after the funeral shall we. You've both got to go to lads, to pay your respects, it wouldn't be right not to. I'll sort you two out afterwards,' said Danny.
Tony gritted his teeth and sat on his hands to stop them shaking. Norbert knows - he's going to ask Danny to waste him.
In 2001, Tony's missus Pauline had popped into Norbert's shop for her weekly order but had left a bag of kumquats behind. He, being the kind soul that he was, took them round later whilst Tony was out on his insurance round and helped himself to a fruit cocktail, with Pauline the main ingredient.
What Norbert didn't know was that, riddled with guilt, Pauline confessed to her husband and promised it was a one-off and would never happen again.
She begged for forgiveness and agreed to hand over complete ownership of the TV remote control as part of the deal so Tony let her off.
Thing is though, he had to get his own back somehow, so later Tony paid Norbert's wife Elsa a visit at her hairdressing business to evaluate her assets for a policy renewal. He kept that secret too.
But now, secrets were coming home to roost and he had to take action.
The funeral went as well as expected. Tony had wept and wailed, so much so that Norbert moved away from him at the graveside for some quiet contemplation. Alf's widow Beryl was really appreciative that Pauline, Elsa and especially Danny's Sue had turned up to lend support.
'It must have been very difficult for her, you know, to come today, what with what happened to her Danny,' she said later to Tony who nodded earnestly in sympathy.
'I mean, to find that your husband had garrotted himself with his fishing line like that. How awful.'
There was a bitterly westerly wind blowing, and Tony's varicose veins, arthritic knee and chilblains were giving him plenty of gyp which had made him more ratty than usual. He was chuntering away in a language only known to himself and occasionally banged the palm of his hand onto his forehead.
He paced up and down as he watched from a distance Norbert's old Golden Retriever Bess struggling to get around the lake. Her back legs looked very wobbly and she seemed to be breathing very heavy. She had been a wonderful, loyal companion to Norbert and Tony recalled the first time he had held her as a puppy, so cute and cuddly.
It was probably the best thing to put her out of her misery, it wouldn't take long to hold her under the water. Ah well, might as well do her owner at the same time, thought Tony.
Tony missed his mates and he gently brushed away a tear which was threatening to trickle out into public view. It was no fun sitting in the pub on your own, no-one to talk to about who fancies who on Strictly Come Dancing, or about who's the most boring Match of the Day pundit. No one to tell your secrets to. No fun at all.
And he wasn't feeling too well either, tummy's was playing up and he kept getting the shakes.
He didn't want to go home yet though, Pauline had invited the three widows back for wine and nibbles and he thought he'd give them a bit of girl time.
She had made some lemon meringue pies and insisted that Tony try one before he went out. As he left the house, he noticed how how resplendent and beautiful the four of them looked in their matching black dresses.
Tony reflected that in this period of crisis and despair, the women had become even closer, especially Elsa and Pauline, who never seemed to be apart.
He pushed aside his pint which had hardly been touched and got up to go to the toilet but as soon as he did, his legs collapsed underneath him and he sank to the floor.
The landlord Joe rushed to his side and another man, who said he was an off-duty ambulanceman, dialled 999.
Tony's vision faded and he was engulfed by a dreadful, deepening darkness. It seemed as if all his senses were shutting down although ironically his hearing was the last to collapse thus enabling him to hear the conversation between the two men by his side.
'Looks terrible,' said Joe.
'Yeah,' said the man.
'Dreadful, what's the world coming to, his mate Alf was only buried today and another two of his pals died yesterday. '
'Alf, was he the guy who got shot?'
'Heard on the grapevine that the cops just got someone for that.'
'It was a bookie, apparently Alf owed a fortune. Found the gun in the bookie's car didn't they, forensics matched up, got him bang to rights. Confessed all.'
'Bloody hell. Didn't think Alf was a betting man.'
'Oh, yeah, big secret gambler by all accounts.'
The two men looked down as an anguished croak spluttered out of Tony's mouth.
The ambulanceman knelt closer.
'What did he say?' asked Joe.
'Not sure, sounded like “Oh shit”.'
© Patrick O’Connor 2013