A Little Learning

 

© J.M. Gregson 2002

 

J. M. Gregson has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published in 2002 by Severn House Publishers

 

This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

One

 

There were four of them when the suggestion was first made. It was just past midnight, the Friday night disco had finished, and they were sitting in the student bar of the University of East Lancashire. Last orders had been called some time earlier, and the exhausted staff had now managed to bring down the grille across the front of the bar counter.

They had been a much larger group earlier in the evening, but the others had their own agendas for the night; they had drifted away when the dancing finished. Lust was usually in the air at that heady hour on a Friday night: as the crashing rhythms of the music ceased, activated hormones began to throb even more insistently than the regular beat of the rock groups. Most of the students departed in pairs towards the dim lights of the residential hostels.

But four of them remained, obstinately ignoring the requests for their glasses as the bar gradually emptied. They were three boys and one girl; they regarded each other as ‘mates’, being second-year students in the Faculty of Humanities. They had been through a few crises together and felt that they knew each other well. They had all been drinking during the evening, and the effects of that coloured the discussion which followed. None of them was incapable, or even inarticulate. Rather were they at that pleasant stage of mild inebriation when ordinary conversation seems incisive and any mildly original idea seems quite brilliant.

Their security with each other made them feel thoroughly relaxed. The evening had inured them for the moment against the injustices of student life, such as insensitive parents, unfair assessors and incompetent tutors. They did not want the joy of the evening to end, and yet were not certain how they might prolong it.

When Gary Pilkington said, ‘It can’t be all that difficult, you know, the perfect crime!’ it fell among them like a diamond of originality.

Three pairs of eyes looked at him. It was a full three seconds before Darren Briggs said with what was meant to be a crushing put-down, ‘Really? Why don’t you hear of them being pulled off, then?’

He was aware as he said it that there was a flaw in his reasoning somewhere, but it wasn’t until the other three smiled that his befuddled brain worked out what it was.

It was the one girl, Tessa Jones, who said, ‘We wouldn’t bloody know, would we, Darren, you wanker?’ and set all four of them laughing together.

Darren, working hard at being a good sport, was a little more drunk than the others. He subsided into a sheepish grin, waited until the conversation picked up again, then ran his hand speculatively down Tessa’s spine and inserted it into the top of her jeans, searching for the cleft at the top of her bottom with an abstracted air.

The girl removed his hand carefully, placed it between two beer mats on the table, and jammed down an empty pint glass hard upon the top of it, increasing the pressure with both hands until Darren squealed his anguish.

Tessa raised the glass, surveyed the white splayed fingers beneath it for a moment with her head on one side, nodded her satisfaction, and resumed the dialogue. ‘I wonder how many successful murderers there are in this country, sitting smugly at home and knowing they’ve got away with it. We’ll never know, will we?’

There was a pause. Then the fourth member of the group, Paul Barnes, spoke for the first time. ‘There’s a play about it, you know.
Rope
, it’s called. It’s about two blokes of about our age — students, I think — who plot a murder and carry it out. Good play it is, too. Lots of tension, as you gradually realize they’re serious, see the killing happen, and then wonder whether they’ll get away with it.’ Paul was a drama student. He was willing, even eager, to enlarge upon the function of dialogue in creating dramatic tension to these laymen, if they proved a deserving audience.

He did not get the chance. Gary Pilkington said immediately, ‘And did they? Get away with it, I mean.’

‘I — I don’t think so. I can’t remember the denouement.’ Paul produced the word with a flourish, as if he hoped it might restore his credibility. ‘Usually people don’t get away with it in the end, you know, in plays and novels. It’s part of what we call the general moral satisfaction.’ He produced his own grandiose phrase with heavyweight emphasis, hoping they would accept it as a piece of technical drama jargon. ‘It’s this appeasement of the collective psyche which puts things like murder into an acceptable context. The idea is to send an audience away challenged, satisfied, but not too disturbed, you see.’

‘Right load of bullshit, that! But beautifully delivered, I’ll grant you!’ This trenchant opinion was delivered brusquely over the heads of the group by a member of the bar staff with a full tray of empty glasses. ‘You guys got homes to go to, or are you bedding down here for the night?’

The four looked round at what was now an empty bar and stood up chastened, their chairs scraping noisily on the tiled floor.

Outside the bar, the drink insulated them against the sudden cold of the November night. They strolled rather unsteadily across the deserted, dimly lit paths back to the hostels. Darren Briggs, conscious now that he had drunk a little more than the others, put his arm uncertainly around the waist of Tessa Jones. She allowed him eventually to bear her away through the darkness. Though all four of them were aware that the pair were destined for separate beds, there was a vague and grudging admiration for Darren’s hopeless persistence.

The other two men walked in amiable silence through the sharp night air, looking up at a million stars in a navy sky. They had reached their hostel and said their goodnights before Gary Pilkington, taking a last look at the remote beauty above them, produced the thought which hung for a moment in the night air — and hung in their brains for much longer than that. ‘I bet
we
could murder someone without getting caught, if we planned it properly.’

 

Two

 

The campus was quiet at the weekends. Many of the students had cars, of varying ages and reliability, which carried them and their washing back to their homes and the girl - or boyfriends they had left behind. Two of those who didn’t leave the site were Gary Pilkington and Paul Barnes.

Saturday was a dull November day, with damp in the air but no real rain. The two had not arranged to meet. Indeed, they did different things during the day, each trying to catch up on some work, without a great deal of success. Gary worked in his own room, staring hard at the history tomes in front of him but finding his attention straying to the drifting leaves outside his window as they thickened the golden carpet of autumn upon the ground beneath the hostel wall. Paul chose the library, and was for a time more successful in retaining his concentration for the task in hand. But there were other students there, who persuaded him without much resistance to go for a coffee in the student cafeteria, where of course he stayed longer than he intended.

It was all very predictable. It had all happened before. At this time of year, when the days shortened and most of the academic year still stretched ahead of you, it was difficult to summon the urgency occasioned by fear of the end-of-the-year exams or assignments which had to be in the next day. All the tutors emphasized that you had to pace the work, that a steady accumulation of knowledge and ideas would always prevail over late-year panics. And almost all of the students nodded their acceptance of this commonsense advice, and then found it impossible to follow.

Paul Barnes found his way back to the library, eventually. But in another forty minutes it was time to go for lunch, and again he stayed away from work for longer than he intended to. He met a second-year student who had appeared in a play with him, and they went for a swift half of bitter in the union bar. One became two, and the swiftness stretched to an hour. It was a quarter to three when Paul got back to the library, and he found it even more difficult than in the morning to complete his notes for an essay on ‘The Importance of Ibsen in the Development of European Drama’.

At four o’clock, he found himself dozing over those notes. At quarter past four, he went across the library to the drama section and found a copy of
Rope
.

You couldn’t work on a Saturday night, no matter how hard you tried. Throughout adolescence, long before you came to university, when you had been under the baleful parental eye, Saturday nights had been for enjoyment. It was a habit which you were not easily able to drop, however hard you attempted it. Most students had given up trying.

The problem at the University of East Lancashire was that there weren’t enough students around to make it worth organizing any formal social activities. The hearties who played rugby and soccer tended to take over the student bar with visiting teams for an hour or two in the early evening, but on this particular November day they must have been mostly playing away, for there were no sounds of the raucous merriment which often rent those hours.

As if by some prearranged signal, Gary Pilkington and Paul Barnes found themselves together in the television room in the basement of their hostel at eight o’clock on that evening. Half an hour later, they were the only two there, and neither had his attention on the television set in the corner as it winked its Saturday night banalities. It was another two hours until
Match
of
the
Day
.

At nine o’clock, they went up to Paul Barnes’s room on the second floor. He wasn’t quite sure why, but he checked that there was no one in any of the other rooms on his corridor.

An hour later, the two had smoked a couple of spliffs and were feeling pleasantly relaxed. Except that an idea was nagging away at the back of both these undisciplined but lively young minds.

It took the second, smaller spliff to bring it out in words. Gary had settled his considerable bulk into a comfortable sprawl in the single armchair. Paul was lying on his bed, gazing at the ceiling through a faint haze of cannabis, when he said, ‘I had a look at that play we were talking about when I was in the library today.
Rope
,
I
mean.’

‘Hmmm.’ Gary Pilkington, perfectly relaxed in his chair, didn’t feel the need for any words.

‘These two young American lads in that play. They got away with it because they were so cool about the way they planned it.’

Gary watched the smoke from the pot curling round his nose, then hanging in the air above his face, a small blue cloud of contentment, protecting him against the harshness of the world outside, giving him the confidence he pretended all day but didn’t really feel within himself. He breathed out slowly and smiled. Then he said the single word, ‘Fiction!’

‘Pardon?’

‘Fiction. That’s all it is. Not real life. No relevance to us.’

Paul Barnes frowned. ‘I think it was based on a real case in America, but I’m not sure of that. But that doesn’t matter. Good drama is always relevant to real life.’ He mouthed one of the slogans of the Drama and Performing Arts Department, finding that the words were for the first time important to him.

Gary smiled, feeling too lazy, too comfortable to argue the point. ‘So tell me about it, you luvvy, you!’

Paul tried hard to concentrate upon marshalling an argument. ‘Well, these two lads in the play were very like us, really. Looking for kicks. Wanting to show they could take the establishment on and make it look silly.’ The introduction to
Rope
, which he had read earlier in the day, talked about how the pair who planned murder were totally amoral as well, and how much this helped them in their amazing deceptions, but this seemed scarcely the moment to introduce ethical considerations. Instead, he paused for a moment, allowing a delicious thought to run through his mind. ‘We could do that, you know. Baffle the establishment.’

Gary turned his head and looked at his friend curiously, trying to decide if Paul was serious. His voice sounded in his own ears curiously like his father’s as he said, ‘It’s not as easy as you might think to do that, you know.’

Paul finished his spliff, smiled at the ceiling, and took a decision. He rolled off his bed and into an upright position, in what he hoped was a single athletic movement. ‘Come outside with me and I’ll show you what I mean.’

There were neither the moon nor the bright stars of the previous night. It was mild and still, with a thin mist hanging over the quiet campus. They seemed to be the only people abroad at that hour; indeed, it was only the scattering of dim lights in hostel windows which showed them that some students were still on the site on Saturday night. The only faint sounds were of sporadic laughter from the student bar, and that was muted and low behind the closed doors. They did not step within a hundred yards of the place.

The administrative centre of the new university was a three-storeyed early Victorian mansion. The two young men were quite close to the building before they could discern the single light in the basement where the night porter had his office. They stood for a moment on the main drive, staring up at the neo-Gothic outlines of the stately home which had once been the focus of this three hundred acre estate, where a cotton magnate had built himself a palace which he felt would properly reflect the fortune he had made from his mills three miles away. He had naturally chosen the highest point of the gently undulating site for his residence.

To the only human figures who seemed to be abroad in the low cloud of this Saturday night, the stone turrets looked higher and more menacing than they did by day, when the stature of the old mansion was reduced by the plethora of new university buildings around it. They stood in silence for a moment, looking at the ominous outline, recalling a score of horror films for which it might have provided the setting.

Then Paul Barnes led Gary Pilkington past the old house and away beneath a pair of massive cedars to a minor paved road. Scarcely wide enough for the wheels of a car, it wound away from the taller buildings of the site, beneath oaks which still retained most of their autumn leaves, though there was a carpet of amber and brown on the ground around them. These colours were soon invisible, as they walked a hundred yards through a darkness which seemed to wrap itself conspiratorially around them, arriving eventually at a single small lamp upon a slender standard.

Here a drive swung right into the night. The white light above them was not much more than a token illumination in the darkness, but their eyes, accustomed now to the night, could just read a sign five yards to the right of the standard which carried the words ‘Director’s Residence: Strictly Private’.

Gary turned his face interrogatively towards his companion, and caught the excitement on his face in the pale white light of the lamp. Paul whispered close to his ear, ‘There’s no one there. They’re away for the weekend. Come on, I’ll show you!’ He set off up the invisible drive towards the dim silhouette of a modern house.

Gary glanced nervously over his shoulder. There had been no need to whisper, here. And yet it seemed the natural way to converse in this deserted place. He followed the retreating shadow that was Paul Barnes, less because he wanted to share the thrill of trespassing on the Director’s grounds than because he feared being alone in such an eerie place.

Paul was right. There was no sign of anyone in the rectangular mass of modern house. They went round the side of the double garage, passing through a patch of darkness so dense that they had to hold their hands in front of them to find whether the path was clear. The rear of the house was as quiet as the front. They passed the wide patio doors of what was obviously a lounge, then three other windows, before an extractor fan on a fourth told them that this long room at the furthest corner of the house was a kitchen.

Gary Pilkington found his voice at last, though it came in no more than a hoarse, urgent whisper to his companion’s back. ‘Let’s get out of here, before someone comes and finds us! I don’t know why you wanted to come round the back like this.’

But Paul Barnes had plunged on into the darkness, as if it was important to him to complete the circuit of the house rather than turn back the way they had come. He threw a chuckle back over his shoulder at his tardy comrade. ‘Just casing the joint, that’s all! Making ready for the perfect crime!’

*

Sunday. A short and not very sweet day, with drizzle in the morning and clearing skies as the temperature dropped sharply in the afternoon. On the site of the new University of East Lancashire, another quiet, almost dead day. Apart, that is, from two students with mischief on their minds.

Gary Pilkington was secretly hoping that the actions of the previous night had all been a hypothesis, a drug-induced fantasy which would be dismissed in the cold light of an autumn day. He was wrong. He did not go down to breakfast and stayed in his room for the whole of the morning. But when there was a quiet knock on his door at a quarter to twelve, he knew before he opened it exactly who his visitor was.

Paul Barnes studied his friend’s face for any symptoms of withdrawal, gave him a quick smile, and shut the door behind himself as he came into the room. ‘Good recce we did last night, wasn’t it? Time to start planning!’ He handed Gary a small package in a polythene bag and planted himself in the single armchair.

‘What’s this?’

‘A videotape. More research, if you like. So that we can continue the planning of the perfect crime.’

Gary sat down heavily on the edge of the bed he had recently tidied, positioning himself no more than four feet from his friend, so that Paul could appreciate how seriously he meant what he had to say. ‘We can’t go committing crimes, Paul. Not just like that. Not for no reason.’

Paul Barnes smiled into the earnest face confronting him. ‘Not for no reason, no. For our own satisfaction, to prove that we can do it. To outwit the establishment, and bewilder the fuzz. And to embarrass that pompous twit Carter, who calls himself our Director.’

His face shone with the bright excitement of the enterprise. He reminded Gary Pilkington of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who used to call at the door of his suburban home, shining with a certainty he could never feel and proof against all rebuffs. Of his old great-aunt, with the red, shiny face within her Salvation Army bonnet, luminous with a certainty about the Lord which the rest of the family had never caught.

Gary had always felt a respect for those people, so full of a faith he envied although he could never share it. But Paul Barnes had no such justification for his zeal. It was time to stop him. Gary was wondering what was the best method of doing that, without losing his friend. He said, ‘We can’t go committing crimes just for the sake of it, Paul. Apart from anything else, we’d get slung out of here on our ears, if we got caught. And no doubt we’d collect a criminal record as—’

‘But we wouldn’t get caught! That’s the beauty of it, Gary. We’d be the only ones who knew exactly what had happened, laughing up our sleeves whilst the campus buzzed like a beehive!’

‘But someone always suffers, when there’s a crime. We can’t go—’

‘Only that overblown idiot of a Director! And he deserves it. You must surely agree with that. And if we go about it carefully, some deserving charity might even benefit from our Perfect Crime.’

Gary wished he wouldn’t keep using that phrase. It had acquired capital letters now, with Paul’s repetitions. It was becoming like a political slogan, and as a student of history you always distrusted those. He said reluctantly, ‘This play,
Rope
, which seems to have set you off on this idea. You said the two men in that killed a bloke. You’re surely not suggesting that we should—’

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