Back here, back in the now, there’s no hiding, no looking away for Mr Wolphram. Not for him, and not for us. The press have done something to the pictures they’ve got hold of. They must already have got to his neighbours and ex-colleagues, paid them in cash or flattery. The pictures have been, as Gary puts it, ‘weirdoed up’. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what the picture editors do, but he’s startled and flashbulb-shocked and he sweats guilt.
But is that the same as being guilty?
‘Man taken in for questioning in Zalie Dyer bin-bag murder: police question local teacher,’ says the Evening Post online, ‘Close to an arrest?’ It’s Lynne Forester’s byline. Inset, Mr Wolphram, a close-up cropped from some concert in the eighties. Wide eyes, a look of shock and anger, the pallor of his flash-drained skin. He wears a hat, a black bow tie and a coat that, billowing a little in the wind, looks like a cloak. Later this will be one of the shots smeared across the front pages. ‘Mr Drac’ one of the tabloids will moniker him.
Ironic, really, since it’s they who’ll be feasting on his blood. But, yes, there is something of the prised-open coffin about the picture.
He doesn’t know it yet but he already looks like what he is: prey.
Soon they’ll find someone to lie about him, too. It’s just a matter of days, maybe hours. I haven’t read the papers, not the tabloids, and there are no print editions yet, but even in the qualities it’s coming: the vilification and the smear, the innuendo and the rumour. It’s like rising damp, dry rot, woodworm and any other fierce and exultant form of fibre-dissolving, fabric-eroding corruption you’d want to use as metaphor.
Gary didn’t mind it when the media relations officer sent us the link to the Evening Post. He still doesn’t – he thinks he’s guilty and it’ll smoke him out, but we’re not there yet and Gary is uneasy. ‘Just a spot of monstering,’ he says. A spot. Like you take a spot of tea in your milk or do a spot of gardening when the sky clears. Now it’s proliferating on news-sites, filling the search engines, starting its hypnotic, looping, tickertape scroll along the headline bars below the presenters and their TV sofas. . . . MAN TAKEN IN FOR QUESTIONING IN ZALIE CASE . . . . . . THOUGHT TO BE LOCAL TEACHER . . . £ SLUMPS AGAINST EURO . . . MAN TAKEN IN FOR QUESTIONING IN ZALIE CASE . . . . . . THOUGHT TO BE LOCAL TEACHER . . . FATBERG ‘SIZE OF A FERRY’ . . . MAN TAKEN IN FOR QUESTIONING IN ZALIE CASE . . . . . . THOUGHT TO BE LOCAL TEACHER . . .
But Gary worries, because however much his blood fizzes at the thought of what Mr Wolphram has done, Gary is not as sure as he wants to be. His blood boils, he says, pauses, looks for a word for the next notch above boiling, then settles for literally, which is always the next notch up.
Literally: think of blood rolling, hot in a smoking steak pan: that’s what’s happening inside Gary, along his arms and neck, under his skin; that’s not liquid in his veins, it’s skittering taut globes, red and hard as billiard balls whacked by an invisible cue. You can hear them smacketing off each other.His blood boils, he says, pauses, looks for a word for the next notch above boiling, then settles for literally, which is always the next notch up.
However much he hates Mr Wolphram and his kind (that’s what happens when you become a suspect: you suddenly have a kind), he still thinks it’s the police who should rip him apart and not the press or the vigilantes on the streets, already circling his home with their spray cans, half-bricks and baseball bats. Like all unfair people, Gary depends on the unfair advantage of no one else being unfair.
But even Gary is pulling back. He wants him caught and tried fair and square, and if it were up to him (iffissuptome) given a special one-off capital punishment – Gary-administered. But it’s not coming together. No confession, for one thing, and then no evidence. The timings are wrong, too. No alibi either, but then what sort of an alibi can a man have when he lives by himself, watches almost no TV, makes two phone calls a week to an old aunt in Hastings (we have the records: 6.45 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, always between seventeen and twenty-three minutes), and listens alone to opera box sets on a music system that costs a month’s mortgage?
He also has videos and DVDs of Scandinavian films. Not that kind, Gary, not that kind. But for Gary that makes it worse not better, because ‘a bit of porn’d make him more normal’.
Mr Wolphram could just have been an ordinary pornpervert, but now he’s a no-porn pervert, a cold-blooded, flesh-hating asexual.
If innocence can look this bad, who needs guilt?
We have his outgoings, too. The bank has been quick: classical records, DVDs of European cinema, books of poetry and top-end food from top-end supermarkets. The shopping habits of a well-heeled solitary: little; often; expensive; precise. Mobile? Smartphone? iPod? He empties his pockets, but his pockets are already empty, so he turns them out and they hang absurdly like socks from his waist, shedding a confetti of flaked tissue and seam-fluff.
‘I don’t own any of those.’
It’s all set up: Mr Wolphram is going to be the nation’s High-Culture Hermit-Ogre.
Meanwhile, on the outside – like the people we put away, we call the real word ‘the outside’ – it’s all moving as if it were cut and dried; or, as Thicko has it, ‘cut and pasted’.
Thicko is the station idiot, his stupidity so banal and so generic it doesn’t warrant an individuating nickname, even from Gary, who doles out the nicknames from his desk the way Adam named the animals in Genesis. And whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. Hence Thicko: Does what it says on the tin, says Gary (who has no nickname), invoking a famous DIY range whose genius lies in advertising the superfluity of advertising.
When Gary arrived the station chief was known as ‘The Drone’. It wasn’t so original, but when word got out he’d had a vasectomy, Gary knew it could be improved: now we have ‘Unmanned Drone’, adding a little Shakespearean double entendre to Gary’s usual range of lowbrow smut. Usually it’s just ‘Unmanned’. Unmanned is there, slow and depressed but always watchful behind the great aquarium wall of his office. ‘Like some kind of fucking deskfish,’ Gary says. So ‘Deskfish’ sometimes wins out over Unmanned, or even, when Gary feels like a more classic cop-show joke, ‘Ironside’: ‘on account of if he’s got legs no one’s seen them’.
Deskfish looks cleverer than he is by giving the air of someone who hoards thoughts and expresses them reluctantly. It fools his superiors but not those who work with him every day. It fooled me, too, for a few minutes. ‘Inscrutable’ I called him on my first day at work. ‘There’s nothing there to scrute,’ Gary corrected.
Gary doesn’t bother giving the lawyers and duty solicitors nicknames, that’s how low they are on his ladder of life-forms. To him they’re either ‘this wanker’ or ‘that wanker’. My nickname is ‘Prof’, because of my crim’ and psych’ degree. Sometimes he calls me ‘University Challenge’, after the country’s least glamorous quiz show. It has difficult questions and no prize money, which Gary says reminds him of his life. ‘Fingers on buzzers,’ he called out when I arrived. Each of us likes the other more than we let on. If I’m on top of things, he compliments me with ‘Prof’s got his finger on the buzzer today’. But it’s been a few weeks since I heard that.
I leave them to it, Unmanned Drone, Thicko and the new guy, Small-Screen Dave, who behaves as if he’s in a pilot show for a made-for-TV crime series that never got made. And Gary. While Mr Wolphram is overnighting at the station, Gary’s going to broil at his desk until he can order a takeaway, which he’ll eat in front of the computer, and then, at around midnight, he’ll drive back to his flat, sleep badly, cut himself shaving, skip breakfast and shout at the radio. Central-casting stuff, behaviourally speaking.
Small-screen Gary, small-screen all of us.Thicko is the station idiot, his stupidity so banal and so generic it doesn’t warrant an individuating nickname, even from Gary, who doles out the nicknames from his desk the way Adam named the animals in Genesis.
Our lives are contracting to fit the telly. First the cameras pulled back and went wide-angled to fit more of life in; then, somehow, without noticing, we made our lives smaller so they’d go into the screen.
Is that what happened?
We know the story is making its way out there. It’s starting small, no names yet, but it’s pretty obvious: ‘A man, thought to be a former teacher at a local school. . .’ Then the officialspeak: Helping with inquiries, been
taken in for questioning, connected to the victim. So far no specifics, just the general leakage and seepage that means that tomorrow or (if we’re lucky) the day after the station will be on every TV in the land. But his face is unmistakable, and though nothing has been alleged, they’re already commenting on all the internet newssites.
It’s the descant of loathing: the loons, the cranks, the do-gooders and the coffee-break shrinks, the haters and baiters, the homophobes and beer-pump racists, all with their pseudonyms and noms-de-keyboard-guerre:
WhitePride, Swordoftruth, Brexitron, Feminazihunter. Capital Lettrists and triplers of exclamation marks. Union Jacks in the Twitter handles. Lions and eagles.
‘At least it’s democratic,’ I say, banally.
‘Toilets are democratic,’ says Gary, most of whose metaphors come from the production and management of waste. Since the fatberg, he can’t stop talking about it.
It’s not the machines that frighten me, as the saying goes, it’s the people becoming avatars on the end of them – no longer quite human, like some new kind of centaur breed: half flesh and half . . . touch-screen, Twitterhandle, gaming name. Two years ago we investigated the cyberbullying of children. When we caught the culprit it wasn’t a spotty teenager or a maladjusted microwaveburger-eating fatso. It wasn’t an unfriended, wanked-out geek with skin like basement-meat like you get in films. It was a good-looking, smart, forty-one-year-old man with a wife and two children at Chapelton College, a good job in insurance and a house up near the university. For an hour or two every night he pursued teenagers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, everywhere he could track them down. Not difficult – kids huddle in the internetgunsights of the everyday psycho like antelope at a watering hole; aim your mouse, click, and pick them off.
Freshly clicked for you goes the motto of one supermarket’s home delivery service. It could be the jingle of the web’s child-hunters, too.
He mostly went for kids who lived near him. I think it was so he could enjoy the thrill that maybe he’d walk past them on his way to work, or brush against them on buses or in town at weekends. He told them to kill themselves, that their friends and families hated them. He directed them to suicide sites. He even checked in with them to ask what they were waiting for, to go ahead, do it, do yourself and everyone else a favour . . . None did, not within the time frame that allowed us to connect word and action, his saying to their doing. Saying and doing: what’s the cut-off point where the one can’t any longer be said to cause the other? A year? Five? Ten? Is there a statute of limitation on words and their consequences?
When we went to question him he was cooking spaghetti bolognese and piggybacking his laughing eight-year-old as she whacked him with a wooden spoon. His thirteen-year-old was at her homework, his wife was drinking a glass of chilled white wine, holding the stem the way they do in adverts. Her hands and neck held the last of a half-term tropical tan, topped up by increments of health spa visits. The whole scene was like an advert: for family, success, lifestyle, for having children, for being well off, for being at the top of life’s constantly shuffling deck and knowing you’d stay there whoever was dealing. That more often than not you’d be the one dealing. He took us to his study, logged on to his laptop, showed us everything and admitted it straight away. ‘Just a bit of fun,’ he said, ‘how was I to know they’d take it seriously? It was role play.’ His life was shiny. So what darkness in himself was he filling with this stuff?
He had been careful, too – nothing sexual. There was no – as they say now, that poor maligned word that used to mean something small and innocent, with its old-school menswear-shop ritualism – grooming. When
Small-Screen got married to a woman twelve years older, Gary gave a best-man speech where he congratulated The Bride and the Groomed. But no ‘grooming’ here; just malice, amoral curiosity and casual evil. And we are lenient on malice, spite, hate . . . because the law cannot touch what it cannot define. He got six months suspended, convincing the judge that he considered it a form of gaming. ‘I’d never have done it in real life,’ he said. Real life. It gets harder and harder to hear that phrase, to see the join between the real one and . . . whatever else it becomes after a few hours with a console or a keyboard.
‘I’ve seen two murders,’ said Gary, ‘drugs and drink – bashed-in heads and blackouts. I’ve found dead people no one remembered, rotting on sofas or behind avalanches of junk mail, their fingers nibbled by their cats. Scummy stuff, sad stuff, bits of filler between the celeb deaths and the flashy TV car chases. Dead people no one loved or even knew, some of them. But the only thing that’s given me nightmares is a family man in his des res telling other people’s kids to kill themselves.’
If anything is going to displace that in Gary’s primetime nightmare-schedule, it’s the case we’re on now. Not because it’s gruesome – on the contrary, it’s so savagely clean – but because of the places in the mind we’ll have to go to before it’s all over.
From THROW ME TO THE WOLVES. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Patrick McGuinness.