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A Living Death

Whilst tidying up my study, I came across a folder full of short stories and an unfinished novel about a young newspaper reporter which runs to about 40,000 words and which I hope to put on the Internet at a later date. In the meantime the following short story, which didn't have a title, was at the bottom of some papers. I believe that I wrote it as an entry in an Anglia Television short story writing competition where the winning entries would be filmed as part of the "Tales of the Unexpected" series.

As you will gather from reading it, the story was unsuccessful. I enjoyed revisiting it, however, and am pleased to be able to share it with you now. I suppose it dates from around 1976.

Bob Kingswood was a fairly adventurous person. His motto in life had always been "Give it a try" and through the years he had largely adhered to his doctrine.

After leaving school he had joined the army and seen active service overseas before returning to England with the idea of settling down. He had failed in that, however, and the wander-lust had taken him by the scruff of the neck and forced him to travel around the country in a number of troubleshooting jobs. 

Eventually he made all his travels and experiences part of a novel entitled "My Life and I". It was a series of anecdotes from Nigeria to Northampton, Cyprus to Coventry. It sold slowly at first but, thanks to a guest spot on a television programme designed to give aspiring young authors their first taste of the limelight, sales had picked up and it reached the lower reaches of the top 100 book charts.

At this point Bob took an inward look at his life and decided that he would become a full time author and risk what savings he had in his new profession. Every day for two years he staggered out of bed at 5 a.m. Gradually he built up a wealth of manuscripts and, without too much fuss or bother, had another two books published.

Admittedly they were not as powerful or interesting as his first, but they still had a certain charm and, although he would never become another Alistair McClean or Hammond Innes, he would continue to be a good middle of the road thriller writer.

At the age of 33 he met Beth and they married six months later. So for Bob Kingswood, now settled in the country, life had taken on a new feeling of solitude and peace.

He often admitted to himself that he enjoyed it, but gradually he saw his life as settling into a rut. He told himself time and time again that there was nothing wrong with feeling comfortable or doing something that he essentially enjoyed. His friends expected him to take off on his travels again, but they were wrong.

At the age of 36 he was still happily married and now had a seven month old son named Jeremy.

So life was very good to Bob and Beth on August 14th, 1977. 

August 14th was an ordinary day. Bob got up at 5 a.m and had finished three hours of work when his wife finally made it into the kitchen to cook breakfast. With Ruth looking after Jeremy and Bob busy typing, the morning went quickly. After lunch Bob usually had the daily ritual of taking a walk through the nearby park.

Today, however, he decided to give it a miss for the first time that month. There were two reasons for that. Firstly he had reached the tiring middle section of his latest novel and secondly it had begun to rain heavily and was turning into rather a miserable day. Bob was the kind of author who wrote the ending to a novel first and then set about the beginning. He often had the most trouble with the middle section. That was the case today. Could he afford to kill off the Russian defector so early on in the book or should he wait for a few thousand more words.

"I don't think I'll go to the park today. I'm feeling rather tired and I think I'll hang around and have a kip if you are taking Jeremy to the clinic," he told Beth.

She answered him with a grunt from the direction of the kitchen and mumbled something about a cup of tea. That was the loveable thing about Beth. Whenever Bob was struggling with a difficult passage of his book and existing somewhere in the void between reality and the world of his imagination, his wife always brought him back to earth with the offer of a cup of tea. How English.

On this occasion he was appreciative of the beverage. He drank it quickly and then, resting his head on his arm, he fell asleep at his desk ... and after a while he dreamed.

Through the haze that usually accompanies a dream, Bob recognised himself in a very familiar situation. He was in the local park and a glance at his watch told him it was his usual time for a walk. Anybody in the room as he slept would have recognised a slight smile on his face.

Bob enjoyed his daily stroll. It cleared his head and very often allowed him to fit new pieces into the intricate jigsaw of his plot. Following the stroll he would return home and work for another two hours before calling it a day and devoting the rest of his waking hours to his wife and son. That was one of the pleasures of working for himself. Nobody told him when to write and the success of any project was entirely on his shoulders.

In his dream Bob opened the gate and walked past the centre grassed area with its pretty floral borders and the obvious "Please keep off the grass" signs around the edges. In fact there was an area where ball games could be played and Bob had been known to join in a kick around with some of the local schoolchildren whom he knew.

In his dream, however, he felt rather weary and much as he had done in reality before he fell asleep.

He walked down the long straight path and sat down at a bench. This was something he rarely did, being a fairly energetic person. The bench was rather damp after a small shower earlier in the day.

As he rested, Bob was aware of figures almost floating past him in dream-like stances. Faceless people who could have been the local milkman or Bob's next door neighbour or just as easily a well known figure from the world of entertainment.

He was slightly shocked to see an old tramp approach him and beg for money. The tramp was a tall man and underneath his straggly beard and unkempt appearance had obviously once been a good looking young fellow. His back was bent and he carried with him a bindle of what appeared to be old rags.

"Can yer spare me a few coppers gov. Just a few pence for a cup of tea?"

Bob felt into his pockets and pulled out a 5p coin and gave it tot he tramp who smiled a toothy grin and walked away. Bob felt that it was rather strange to see a tramp in the park. It was something he had never experienced before. He was sure that as he moved away, the tramp made some kind of signal in the direction of a bush across the park.

Still it was a dream and in dreams signals to bushes could quite happily occur. In dreams the impossible became normal, the ridiculous became sane and the incredible became ordinary.

Bob continued to sit on the bench for another half an hour before checking his watch and deciding to cut his stroll short by leaving by the western gate and walking home along the road. He felt rather shivery and needed a hot bath and bed more than anything else at the present time.

It was only a three minutes walk to the gate and Bob was about halfway there when it happened. Out of the blue, or rather out of the green a figure approached him from behind. He heard the footsteps but he didn't see the man.

He heard the shot but he didn't see the gun. What he did feel was the bullet as it hit him in the back. It was a searing pain like nothing he had ever experienced. It ripped through his body like a burning spear and, as he fell to the ground, the dirt of the pathway mingled with his blood.

Bob now became an onlooker to his dream. He saw his own body slumped on the path in a pool of blood. He saw the man with the shotgun disappear into the bushes and he saw a small crowd of faceless people gather around him. It was most off-putting to watch your own death. It was obvious that he was dead as soon as he hit the ground.

Within minutes the police and an ambulance had arrived. There seemed to be a general panic among the people looking on. They were talking at each other and at the body and many were pointing and becoming characatures of real people.

The ambulance men loaded the body onto a stretcher without any comment and as though the whole episode was an infringement on their day. They draped a sheet over it and placed it roughly in the back of their vehicle and drove away. 

Bob woke in a sweat as Beth entered the room.

"Bob are you okay?"

"Yes, yes I suppose so. I've just had the most terrible nightmare. I imagined I was taking my daily walk into the park when I was shot from behind and killed. It all seemed so real. Come to think of it darling I'm not feeling all that good. I think I'll take a walk to the shop and get a breath of air and an evening paper and then go to bed and sleep off whatever bug I've got," he replied.

Beth was in one of her motherly and concerned moods and insisted that he wrapped up warm and took an umbrella.

Bob noticed, however, that the rain had cleared and was considerably brighter than when he had fallen asleep. Perhaps a walk down to the shops would do him good.

So he set off at his usual brisk pace and by the time he reached the shops he was feeling decidedly brighter.

As he entered the shop he paid no notice to the bill poster outside advertising the top story in the evening paper. He always thought it a fruitless exercise to read such advertisements if you were going to buy a paper anyway.

The owner of the shop, Mr Banks, was not present. Bob knew him reasonably well. It appeared the shop had a new assistant. A rather straggle tall man with a beard and a slight stoop who seemed completely indifferent to the entire proceedings.

Bob searched his pockets for the loose change to pay for the paper and was given a rather piercing look by the assistant. Another assistant, who also seemed to be new, was putting magazines on the shelves. When she saw Bob she gave him a strange "haven't I seen you somewhere before" kind of look.

Bob didn't look at the paper but rolled it up and returned home anticipating another cup of tea. He went through the customary changing of shoes into slippers before sitting down in the house's most comfortable armchair.

It was at that point that he realised why the female shop assistant had looked at him in such a strange way. The headline on the front page of the paper said it all.

MAN SHOT DEAD IN TOWN PARK

What came next in the main body of the story was even more alarming.

The man brutally gunned down in central park this afternoon has been named as 36 year old Bob Kingswood, an author, of Sutton Crescent.

At the side of the story was a two column photograph of Bob!

Peter Steward 1998