Below the Line by Jane Buffham - winner of the 2017 ChipLitFest Short Story Competition
Comments from judge, Martyn Waites:
"I absolutely loved it. So much contained in such a small space and so deftly handled. I really enjoyed it. It combined ideas, character and emotional involvement to produce something well-rounded, entertaining and engaging."
A post-truth fable
The most important thing to bear in mind about a successful suicide attempt is that you don’t want to overplay your hand, and actually end up dead. To be or not to be is not the question when you don’t intend to kill yourself. Who really wants to die when push comes to shove, however crappy life can be? It’s against our natural instincts. Those who survived hurling themselves off the Humber Bridge report feeling massive regret during the plunge. No one ever says they’re not relieved when they wake up after all.
What matters here, Jacqui, is what this looks like.
The anonymous followers who click the “Like” button under every single blog entry, I get them, I do. Signalling compassion has never been easier or cheaper, and when you’re the mother of a dead daughter they click and double click to show their humanity. Don’t take the piss though, Jacqui, their loyalties are fragile.
There’s a delicate gentility to pills, I see that, but the danger of miscalculation makes them risky. Too few, too half-hearted, and it won’t likely be forgiven. There might be a chorus of there-there to your face, but even you won’t fail to notice when people avoid you in Waitrose, or stop answering invitations to your bi-monthly supper club evenings, or won’t make eye contact down at the Conservative Association.
And if that feverish mob who clickity-click their admiration on your bloody website should ever pivot their digital pitchforks against you, then God help you.
What this needs to look like is a woman driven to the brink only to be saved at the last moment by something approaching divine intervention. That will rally support. They will be outraged on your behalf, ready for your call to arms.
But if they think you’re manipulating them with a grisly self-serving soap opera, then fuck compassion, you callous, attention-seeking cow. They’ll string you up from your own blogposts. There’s nothing more brutal than when an army mutinies against its general.
Choose well, Jacqui. Diazepam, Temazepam, Tenormin. Nothing less than the loss of consciousness and a stomach pump will do here.
But then again. Too many pills, and there’s no coming back. Believe me, you don’t want to make your final appearance in this life covered in urine and vomit while people around you scream and yell, and tear your clothes off. With your tits hanging out as the neighbours look on. While my dad stands there crying, for Christ’s sake.
There’s nothing more mortifying than being both the corpse and the suspected killer in your own police procedural. The rozzers crawling through the debris of your life looking for clues as to why. Looking through your diary, your emails, your internet search history. The finger-tip search of your knicker drawer to find where the corruption leaked in.
They peer into the vagina and anus searching for clues as to who you’ve been fucking– and when and how – before removing your organs one by one. They report on the the undigested pieces of your last supper they fished out of the stomach, and scour the liver and kidneys for tell-tale signs of drink and drugs. They weigh the heart as if that will tell them was in it to cause you to stop it from beating.
If you’re unlucky, someone will publish all the gory findings on a Reddit thread to service the curiosity and speculation of strangers debating in circular logic as to whether it was suicide or a murder covered up by incompetent police.
The beginning of the end of us came when a family from London moved into our patch of suburban utopia. Him, an academic and an occasional contributor to the New Statesman. She was something or other in the media, and her teenage son was the product of a previous relationship she’d had with a handsome Nigerian actor. You hated them on sight, naturally. The day they erected a Vote Labour sign on the front lawns of your leafy, Tory universe, you saw a declaration of war. In fewer than 140 characters, you declared them mortal enemies. Not content with their SMUG Islington bubble, now swarms of the loony left PC brigade are INVADING here! Fifty-five angry-faced emoticons shared your outrage.
Ollie Roberts was in Year 11, two years below me, and still forced to wear the uniform of the lower school. At first, I never saw him or spoke to him since upper sixth girls, sophisticated with our cars and clothes and older boyfriends, were practically a different species. But then one rain-lashed morning early in the autumn term as I sat queued in a line of traffic, I saw him at a bus stop huddled in a shop doorway with an unsubstantial coat, scrunching his face against the storm. Something about water dripping from his long dark eyelashes into his baby-cow eyes was so adorable that without thought I leant over and opened the passenger door, shouting for him to get in while irascible drivers behind honked at the obstruction we caused.
After that, it became our thing, me giving him a lift every day. Each morning, he would appear on our driveway, scuffing his shoes in the gravel in time to the music in his earphones. He waited outside even when the weather was bad because you refused to let him in the house, Jacqui. You would watch him in a way that might be described as hawkish, if hawks ever twitched net curtains and tutted under their breath. Most mornings as I dashed in frenzy to get out the door, you would stand at my bedroom window which overlooked the driveway, audibly huffing with pointed displeasure as he danced away in his own little world.
We would listen to music and podcasts, Ollie and me, or discuss our friends or the teachers at school, or just some utter nonsense that would make us both piss ourselves. Ollie was the funniest person I ever met. He could make me dry-retch from laughing. Once, as he solemnly described how lorry drivers are wholly responsible for scattering torn pages of pornography into hedges for small boys to find, an Eddie Stobbart truck roared past us. Ollie wound down the window to shout after it, Pwoar! Check out the double Ds on that! I nearly crashed the car.
On the way home we’d meander through the back roads, finding spots on lonely farmland to stop and smoke a spliff. We’d often bitch about you, Jacqui, about what a cow you are. About a ridiculous letter you’d written to the local paper. About your latest blogpost detailing your thoughts on Brexit or bin collections, like the Daily Mail on steroids.
By early summer we sat our exams -- my A levels, his GCSEs -- and afterwards were left with glorious weeks of empty nothingness to fill together. We met with friends in the park most days, alternating the childish pleasures of grass stains and ice lollies with the thrill of the illicit.
I had never in my life been rebellious, not really Jacqui. Even you must have known that I was not a bad kid, not when compared with those kids of your friends and neighbours whom you constantly measured me against to show up my deficiencies. I had never caused you trouble before, by answering back or disobeying you. But now, just turned 18 and suddenly painfully aware that you had occupied my entire life to live as your own, I could no longer breathe. If it felt disloyal to want to escape, or that I might break you by pulling away, I found I didn’t care.
At the dawn of one giddy August morning, Ollie and I tiptoed home together. We had got drunk and then done a couple of ecstasy pills and several lines of speed during an all-night party of a friend-of-a-friend of Ollie’s from football, whose parents had gone on holiday and foolishly left the house in the care of their son. Covered in stale sweat and dew, the comedown was already excruciating. And then suddenly, there you were, waiting on the staircase as I opened the front door.
‘Where the hell have you been all night? With that boy?’, you said, practically snarling with your lipstick stained teeth.
The nastiness in your voice snapped like an elastic band on the patch of skin at the nape of my neck and raised in me a sudden, violent anger. ‘In a field. Fucking.’
For the record, we hadn’t been, Jacqui. We never did that.
If the drugs we took together ever made us horny, then they also made us gurn so hard we couldn’t never get it on properly. Instead, we fumbled in a hysterical pile, before laying back to talk to the stars.
You slapped me hard across the face and called me a dirty little slag. Do you remember that, Jacqui? You said if I ever got pregnant with a black boy’s child, you would disown me.
That was the moment I stopped calling you my mother, stopped talking to you completely. From room to room I ignored you, slamming the door wherever I went. That was the end of us, Jacqui, and you knew that. You must have known that because in less than a week, you had filed the first report of an intruder to the police.
Sergeant Pointdexter – do you remember him? You should, he came out to our house enough times. One time, he trod dog shit into the hallway rug and pretended that he hadn’t. His reports are blunt as you expect a rozzer to write, but you can sort of feel his eyeballs roll in the subtext.
Case #11-20197, files opened August 25, 2015.
Dispatch to 17 Rosebank Crescent. Complainant, a Mrs Jacqueline Roscoe.
Advised of an intruder in front garden throwing stones at the daughter’s bedroom window.
No signs of damage. No signs of attempted entry. No other witnesses.
- Updated August 28th.
- Updated September 3rd.
- Updated September 10th.
Always a variation on the same theme. My daughter, the victim.
What happy times these were for you! I bet you wish you thought of this sooner. At last you had something other than your views on local politics and the evils of immigrants and socialists to serialise on your awful blog. A hundred and seventy shocked faced icons would shed a tear at every new episode.
- Updated October 3rd
- Updated October 30th, November 7th, November 15th, November 20th, November 27th, December 2nd, January 3rd, March 14th, March 22nd …
Mrs Jacqueline Roscoe and her bulging portfolio of the comings and goings of the neighbours, the only witness to a serial intruder who apparently stalks her daughter on a weekly basis but leaves no physical evidence. Only fucking idiots would believe her stories.
Careful now, Jacqui.
Sergeant Pointdexter could have brought the curtain down on day one but luckily for you, your postcode is too well-to-do and he knows that you have way too much talent for shit-stirring. Sergeant Pointdexter is probably not paid enough for the hassle of contradicting you.
My dad, he installed new locks and alarms and fences whenever you asked. He did the work himself, spending every weekend adding something new. You wouldn’t let him pay a professional because you read somewhere on the internet that workmen can be bribed into giving up our security secrets. Or maybe it was you that wrote it and someone else confirmed it?
My dad set up a webcam that captured nothing in six months except the occasional midnight scraps of neighbourhood cats. He knew that because you made him check all the footage. Poor old sod, I wish he knew all I can tell him. I doubt it would come as a surprise. My dad is way too brow-beaten to call you out on your bullshit directly, but when he took up his Daily Telegraph and retreated without a word into the conservatory on the days Sergeant Pointdexter came to call, it was his way of letting you know I don’t believe you. I knew it pissed you off, and I loved him for it. I admired him and I envied him and I resented him. I wanted more than anything to link my arm in his and retreat with him.
Instead I stared ahead in silence letting you talk for me as I had always done when you told teachers that I was bullied, or all those doctors that I was ill. All those half-finished bottles of Diazepam, Temazepam and Tenormin cluttering the bathroom cabinet were prescribed at your insistence.
‘Selena, do you feel threatened by anyone?’ asked the sergeant one visit.
‘I’m telling you there is someone out there tormenting her,’ you said with snipping impatience. ‘Which is why we called you.’
It was like when I was a little kid and I forgot my words during the school play and you sat in the front row hissing them at me. I plaited the fringe of a sofa cushion and said nothing.
‘It would help if Selena could answer the question,’ said Sergeant Pointdexter, through the agitated grinding of teeth.
‘Someone drew a cock and balls in the dirt on my car the other week,’ I offered. ‘But I wouldn’t…’
‘…See!’ you interrupted, as you always did at your imperious, uppity best. ‘They’re targeting the car when she’s out now as well as attacking her on our property. They’re following her! Where will this end? What do you propose to do?’
Sergeant Pointdexter hadn’t had the relevant training to properly investigate figments of imagination, but you were proactive, Jacqui. You had a plan.
You stopped my allowance and took away my car keys, to keep me safe you said. You thought it best that I deferred university a year or more while this ‘situation’ was investigated. You abruptly withdrew all financial assistance to assure my compliance and clip my wings.
You never knew it until it was all over, but under my bed I had prospectuses for universities in Stirling and Aberdeen, as far away from you as I could get, with the pages bent down at the social work courses I knew would piss you off. Just another few months I could have claimed my independence from you once and for all. I would have been free.
I took to staying in my room, watching daytime telly and reading, occasionally raiding the drinks cabinet when I needed a little escape. I hardly saw friends anymore, Ollie almost never. He had begun a course at an art college in the September following our summer of hedonism, and had started going with a girl there shortly after. I saw them in the street once and I pretended it wasn’t weird, which made it weirder still.
Then one day, there was a violent knock on our front door. Not ringing the bell first, but straight to hammering on the wood with a fist. Ollie was steaming with a rage I had never seen in him before.
‘Your fucking mother is accusing me of stalking you.’
The rozzers had been round, he said, to warn him ‘off’. And he was receiving threats on his Facebook wall. People he didn’t know were calling the house.
‘You and your mother need to leave me the fuck alone,’ he shouted as walked away. ‘You’re a pair of psychos.’
The moment of my actual death was never as awful as that.
The problem with continuing drama, Jacqui, is that each episode has to be greater than the last otherwise the audience loses interest. No loyalty, see.
Enthusiasm dwindled for the stalker story until you came up with a drip-feed of clues to point to a ‘culprit’ for a legion of armchair detectives to solve. No names, not at first, but the more astute among your base could identify the Roberts’ house on Google maps and forward on their sentiments in jiffy bags of dog turds.
Then this gift, caught on my dad’s surveillance tape. The chief suspect in your imagined crime, appearing on our doorstep, yelling at his victim. There’s no sound, because you made sure it was turned it off before uploading, but it’s clear to the thousands of viewers on the internet that this is proof a nasty bully boy is tormenting your lovely daughter. Someone posts that they can lip read, and that they clearing can see him say ‘I will kill her’. You cite this again and again and again because you know if you say things enough times, people will believe it and it becomes the truth.
I see you there right now, Jacqui, counting out pills, working out how many you’ll need and what time my dad’ll be home to run you to safety. I wonder if you took such care when you counted them out for me. When you crushed them into your opened bottle of Pinot Grigio that you knew I would pinch from the fridge, I wonder did you intend for me to die just so you could write about it on your blog?
By the time the coroner ruled my death was a ‘suicide’, since there being no evidence of any break-in or third party involvement, and given my history of mental illness (all those doctor visits and antidepressants) and reports of my stalking torment (Sergeant Pointdexter takes to the stand), your conspiracies have taken on a life of their own amongst your followers.
But the stalking.
The mother of a stalked daughter is trumped by the mother of a dead daughter, but a mother of a murdered daughter denied justice trumps them all.
The pain of losing my daughter while her killer walks free.
I’ll be reunited with my angel forever.
What monster could do this to her!
I forgive my daughter’s killer.
So brave, Jacqui. We stand with you.
Oliver Roberts, I forgive you, I just ask that you get the help you need. Release the hounds.
Jane Buffham asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.