Sample Chapters: Vision of Light

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I’d only planned to help the ones who are very confused, beginning with Elsie. That was before I found out that the old man had seen me.

It was lucky for me he got a water infection. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue what he’s been saying. The manager asked me to check on him. The doctor had been in two days earlier, and started him on antibiotics. I found that pregnant carer Kylie in the room with him, the one who’s already got two sons by different men.

‘I’ll just open the blinds wider, Reg,’ she was saying when I went in. ‘So’s you can see the birds.’

He saw me and his eyes bulged. His cheeks were flushed with fever. ‘Get out,’ he quavered.

Kylie had her back to us as she adjusted the blind. ‘But you like to watch the birds, don’t you?’ she coaxed.

‘Get out!’ he said again.

She wheeled round and saw me. ‘Now, Reg, it’s not like you to be rude.’ But she was half-smiling, like she was pleased he didn’t want me there.

That’s because I caught her smoking by the kitchen door last week. ‘When’s your baby due?’ I asked, staring pointedly at her bump.

She pulled a face and dropped the fag on to the gravel, squashing it beneath the heel of her scruffy trainers. ‘I know I shouldn’t. It’s just hard not to.’ She looked me up and down, then tossed back her long brown ponytail. ‘You wouldn’t understand. You professional women have no idea.’

How rude! What does she know about my life?

Anyway, back to today. I ignored the old man’s agitation. ‘I hear you aren’t well,’ I said, approaching the bed. ‘The manager asked me to see how you’re doing.’

He shrank back against his pillows. ‘Don’t come any nearer! I saw what you did!’

‘Shall I stay?’ the carer asked. ‘Reg has been ever so agitated the last couple of days, haven’t you, duck? Keeps muttering about Elsie. He’s missing her terrible.’

‘I’ll manage,’ I said. ‘Is that the buzzer?’ I hadn’t heard anything, but was desperate to get her out of the room before he said anything else.

‘Elsie,’ said Reg. ‘She did for Elsie.’

You might imagine how that turned me cold, but the carer paid no attention to the old man. Fortunately, one of the other residents happened to buzz at that very moment, and the carer lumbered towards the door, cradling her bump. ‘Try not to upset yourself, Reg,’ she said. ‘It’s the infection talking. Nurse is here to help you.’

She’s not very bright, that woman. Even so, if the old man gets better and speaks to her again, or if she runs over that conversation the way you do, hours later – well, that’s a risk I can’t afford to take.

And we both know it’s not a good start for a kid to be born into a single parent family, don’t we, Mum? What chance would this one have with two older brothers? The poor thing wouldn’t be healthy either, not with her smoking habit.

So I’ve worked it all out. I know exactly what I need to do.

 

Chapter one

Noel stares out across the river. The lights in the flats on the opposite bank waver in the rain.

He takes another slug of beer from the bottle he bought in the pub, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He can’t remember how much he has drunk and couldn’t care less. Shrieks of raucous laughter reach him on the wind and he guesses that the landlord has finally called time on the hen party. He stumbles along the tarmac path until he is out of earshot. Here the only sounds are the wind whistling through the reeds and the rain bouncing on the path.

Laughter has no place in the world he plunged into when the two policemen turned up on his doorstep and broke their devastating news. He’s sure it was Susan Weatherall who put them on to him, even though they refused to say. But surely Susan didn’t think that he could ever…?

The older policeman, DI Pritchard, invited Noel to accompany them to the station. ‘Just procedure,’ he said, with a smile which didn’t reach his eyes. Staring numbly at the two men, Noel registered that they were watching him carefully, gauging his reaction. Everyone knows that partners past and present are top of the list of suspects in a murder case.

Now Noel nearly loses his footing where the tarmac runs out. The track is slick with mud. He drains the beer, then rotates the bottle in his hand, before tossing it half-heartedly into the reeds. He tries to ignore his inner censor. Litter is no longer relevant. He screws up his eyes to follow the trajectory of the bottle, but it is swallowed up in the darkness. There is a faint plop as it lands, and he wonders how long it will take to be sucked down into the bog.

He shivers. Maybe there’s an easier way for what he plans, but he reckons that coming down here, tanked up, might make it look more like an accident. Who’ll care anyway? Still, it will make it easier for his ex-wife to explain to their daughter, Jade. Better for Jade, and Carol too. Not that he expects his sister to be anything other than indifferent. But nor does he want to add to her burdens.

Tears of self-pity mingle with the rain coursing down his face, blurring his vision. Somehow, he’d managed to maintain his self-control at the police station. They’d made him wait in the bare, cramped interview room for what seemed an age before they began to question him. Tactics, he supposed. He’d wondered about calling a solicitor, but when he suggested it, DI Pritchard said it might waste valuable time.

‘The first few hours after the murder are crucial for progress,’ chimed in his colleague, DS Smythe. He’d leaned forward in the chair into which he’d folded his tall, lanky frame, hazel eyes earnest behind trendy aviator specs. ‘I’m sure you wouldn’t want to cause any delays in the hunt for Kylie’s killer, would you, Noel?’

First, they asked where he was at 7.30 that morning. Relief swept through him. He had an alibi: he’d been at the corner shop buying bread and milk. But they’d persisted with other questions: Where were you earlier, Noel? In bed, alone? So no one can vouch for your whereabouts overnight? Tell us about your relationship with Ms Weatherall. You hadn’t seen her since April? You’d tried to phone her, but she changed her number? How did you feel about that, Noel? Did it make you angry…?

On and on until he’d asked them to contact Mr Ahmed, who owned the corner shop, or get him a solicitor. Mr Ahmed had confirmed his whereabouts. ‘Not far from there to Kylie’s house though, is it?’ observed DS Smythe. ‘Ten-minute drive max, wouldn’t you say?’

Noel massaged his pounding temples. ‘I walked straight home from the shop,’ he repeated dully. ‘I said “Morning” to the postman. I told you that already.’

A constable entered the room asking for a word. DI Pritchard followed him out on to the corridor. Noel stared down at the desk, ringed with coffee cup stains, avoiding Smythe’s stony gaze.

Pritchard came back in. ‘We’ll be in contact with Royal Mail to locate this postman. And we’ll be checking with the victim’s sons that they’re sure about the time. You’re free to go. For now.’

Shakily, Noel scraped back his chair. DI Pritchard led him down a corridor and through the reception area. The policeman opened the glass door, then thrust his ruddy face with its bulbous nose close enough for Noel to smell his sour breath. ‘Don’t go making any plans to leave Trentby, will you?’

Noel had left the station and wandered aimlessly through the town on the wet October evening. Then the tears came, not only for Kylie, but for her poor boys, who’d found their mother’s body in the kitchen ten minutes after she’d opened the door to an unseen visitor.

Kylie. If I’d tried harder, maybe you’d still be here. I should have gone round when you changed your phone. I shouldn’t have given up.

Given up. The story of his life. The pub was the obvious destination, and the pints of indifferent lager fuelled the idea that had been forming during the hours since he had learned of Kylie’s murder.

He blinks away his tears and tries to focus on the task in front of him. He’d wondered about collecting stones and filling his pockets with them, to make it quicker. Then he rejected the thought. It would look deliberate. Besides, his feet haven’t made contact with any stones along the path, and it’s too dark to search for them. The rain is easing, but mist is creeping across the marshes, further reducing visibility.

He looks back the way he has come. The river path bends round from the pub, invisible in the misty darkness. The lights on the opposite bank have vanished. He squints at a patch of mist in front of him. It appears denser, more like fog. Maybe it’s the beer, but as he peers into it, the mist seems to take on a definable form. Drawn in by the swirling shape, Noel steps down from the path towards the river.

The mist soon envelops him. He’s already soaked through, but the fog seeps into him, penetrating his bomber jacket, polo shirt and trousers. He begins to shudder uncontrollably. He has the oddest sensation of losing body weight with each step he takes, as if he is dissolving into the vapour. Something cold and wet slaps his face. Disorientated in the darkness and fog, he realises he has wandered into the reeds. There is a stench, a putrid odour, which makes him gag. He tells himself that it can only be rotting vegetation, even though he has never before smelled such foul decay.

He seems to hear a voice whisper, ‘Not much further.’ Involuntarily, he pauses mid-step and turns his head to listen. There it is again. ‘Not much further. So easy.

He gives himself a shake, trying to dispel the voice, to convince himself that the words are his own thoughts. He peers into the vaporous darkness, but can’t see anything, not even his hand when he lifts it to his face. Is this what happens once you’ve made the decision? Does everyone feel like someone is speaking to you, urging you on to the final act?

Noel sets down his left foot. There is a gurgling noise and he lurches forward, grabbing wildly for the reeds. Somehow, he pulls his foot free of the bog, miraculously retaining his trainer.

The sudden movement jolts him from the despair that has engulfed him since the police hammered on his front door with the news of Kylie’s murder. He shakes off the self-loathing which has assailed him throughout the hours in the airless interview room. ‘Help me!’ he cries.

His voice is muffled in the fog. Although he knows it’s hopeless, he shouts again, ‘Help me!’ Rationally, he knows that last orders had been called when he left the pub. There will be no one by the river at this hour or in this filthy weather. There is no one to hear him. No one to save him.

Confronted by annihilation, Noel discovers how desperately he longs to cling to existence. The irony that he now wants to escape the death he was seeking chokes another desperate cry in his throat.

Yet – is he alone? That insidious voice again. ‘Just a few more steps.’ With sickening clarity, he realises that he won’t be able to find his way back to the path. His chest tightens as the abominable stench seeps down his airways into his lungs.

‘So much easier to keep going. It will all be over soon.’

‘Help me,’ he whispers. Then, ‘Help me, God.’ The final desperate plea of the man facing extinction.

The mist dissolves as soon as he utters that prayer, and the foul odour is replaced by a beautiful floral fragrance. Noel gasps to find himself in daylight. In front of him is a river, far wider than the muddy river that runs through the town. This river is so wide that he cannot see the opposite bank. The water runs azure beneath a cloudless sky. The crests of the waves sparkle like diamonds in the sunlight.

A cloud hangs over the river downstream. It is like no cloud he has ever seen. There is a brightness about it, a many-hued radiance. The cloud seems to be moving towards him, as if carried on the current. Noel shields his eyes with his hand as the brightness intensifies around him. He is simultaneously captivated by the rainbow haze and fearful of its strangeness.

As the cloud draws nearer, he sees that the vapour is solidifying, resolving into some other form. Its shape is that of a man, but the dimensions are remarkable. The emerging figure towers far above Noel. The broad shoulders almost span the river.

The giant figure is clothed in a sleeveless linen robe. A belt of gold encircles the waist. The muscular arms and legs gleam like bronze. A mane of lustrous black hair ripples in waves from the leonine head to the shoulders. The face blazes like lightning. From the open mouth thunderous words roar forth. Above the aquiline nose, the eyes flare like flames. Sparks fly from them as they alight on Noel. He draws back, gasping, certain that the sparks are capable of piercing his very soul.

All strength drains from him. He collapses to the ground. The words pouring over him are spoken in a melodious language he has never heard. He closes his eyes. His body jerks violently and then lies still beneath the torrent of the strange tongue.

The roaring continues above and around him, the words continuing to roll over him like the river. It is only when he feels the firm but gentle touch of a huge hand upon his shoulder that Noel rouses from his trance.

A sudden silence falls. The Being has stopped speaking, and the absence of the sound of the flowing waters of the river is uncanny. Then a voice says softly, ‘Do not fear, Noel. Stand on your feet.’

Trembling, Noel obeys. He rises, his eyes fixed on the emerald grass. Again, he hears the whisper, as soothing as honey: ‘Do not fear, Noel. You are safe. Be strong and courageous, for the Master has chosen you.’

He opens his mouth to speak, but no words come. He feels the gentle, firm touch again, first on his mouth and then beneath his chin.

The touch emboldens Noel to look up, but he recoils immediately from the burning gaze. He would have fallen again if the Being had not placed a strong hand on his shoulder.

‘You are safe,’ the liquid voice repeats. ‘Only remember: you have been chosen.’

Noel swallows. Not daring to raise his eyes above the bronze feet beside him on the grassy bank, he whispers, ‘What for? What have I been chosen for?’

‘You have been chosen to right the wrongs in this place, to shine as light in the darkness. First, you will find your own healing.’

Noel’s mind reels. ‘I don’t understand. What wrongs? What darkness? What healing?’

His companion sighs deeply. Emitted by such an enormous creature, the sigh is like a gale-force wind. Noel is certain that if it weren’t for the bronze hand grasping his shoulder, he would be blown away.

‘Do you not have eyes to see or ears to hear?’

The words are spoken more in sorrow than frustration, but Noel finds himself quaking even more. His teeth are chattering. ‘I don’t know,’ he whimpers.

‘Then you must trust,’ replies the Being. ‘Trust and you will understand, because the Master has chosen you.’

‘But why me?’ asks Noel. ‘Why have I been chosen? Who is your Master?’

‘It is not for me or you to question the Master,’ answers the Being sternly. ‘The Master’s ways are perfect, beyond understanding.’

Noel hangs his head.

‘Now come,’ says the Being. ‘Let me take you to safety.’ He places gigantic bronze hands beneath Noel’s arms.

Noel shrinks back, gasping, and closes his eyes. Words in the strange musical tongue boom over him. He feels himself being lifted and set down gently. Then silence falls, and he is released. He opens his eyes.

He finds himself back in the pub car park. Rain is falling softly. The door of the brightly lit pub opens and a group of women emerge, shrieking with laughter. Noel scratches his head and checks his watch: 11.20. The women totter, giggling, towards the road, and he trails over the bridge after them in a daze. He is sober now, and exhausted.

The women straggle left towards the town. Noel crosses the street and heads in the opposite direction. As he squelches along, turning off the main road into the maze of terrace streets where he lives, he tries to understand what happened after he left the pub. He remembers hearing the rowdy women when he was on the riverbank, but that must be hours ago. How is it still only 11.20pm?

He hasn’t made any sense of it by the time he staggers over the threshold of his rented house. He dumps his ruined trainers and sodden jacket on the hall floor and stumbles upstairs. He’s tempted to fall into bed as he is, even though he is soaked to the skin, but has the presence of mind to strip off his wet clothes and take a hot shower. Then he drops into bed and sinks into a deep and dreamless sleep.

The radio alarm rouses him at 7am. He leans over groggily to switch it off, then sits bolt upright in the double bed when he hears the local headlines. ‘Police are continuing to investigate the murder of Kylie Weatherall, a single mother with two young children.’

Noel flicks off the radio. He sinks back against his pillow and covers his eyes with his forearm, wishing he could erase that sentence which has exploded into his consciousness. Snatches of scenes from the previous day replay on the internal screen of his mind, and soon he is weeping.

Then he remembers what happened by the river. What is he to make of it? He rubs his damp cheeks with the back of his hand and stares up at the Artex ceiling above his bed, pondering the river of his vision, and the radiant appearance of his companion. The words about the Master’s call echo in his mind. On one level they are a welcome distraction from the terrible news of Kylie’s death, but on another he finds them deeply troubling. ‘You have been chosen to right the wrongs in this place, to shine as light in the darkness. First, you will find your own healing.’

Dragging himself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed, Noel asks himself whether it’s reasonable to believe what was revealed to him when he was on the verge of taking his own life. Could it have been some kind of psychotic episode?

He rises and plods to the bathroom. Surely the Being’s Master must know that he is the last person to be trusted with any responsibility? Could anyone be less worthy?

‘Who are you?’ he shouts on the narrow landing. ‘Who are you? Give me a sign if you’re real!’

He is unsurprised when there is no response. In the bathroom, he reaches out to turn on the cold tap at the sink. Then he pauses, his hand suspended in mid-air. A lock of lustrous black hair is lying in the basin. Noel blinks hard and passes his hand over his own blond head. He opens his eyes again. The glossy tress is still there. He looks up at the frosted glass window above the sink, remembering that he closed it yesterday morning when the rain was hammering down, just as it is today. The window is still shut. Feeling foolish even though he is alone, he inspects the ceiling. There is nothing there except a cobweb stretching across the right-hand corner. Noel gazes down at the black curl in the sink and takes a deep breath before cautiously picking it up.

He gasps on contact. The coil of hair scalds his hand like a burning coal. He jumps back and drops it to the floor. A red mark is already spreading across his palm. He turns on the cold tap and thrusts his hand underneath.

Sluicing his scalded hand with cold water, Noel acknowledges to himself that he has his sign. However impossible and outlandish, he has received the confirmation he requested. For some incomprehensible reason, he has been chosen by some unknown Master to right the wrongs in this obscure town.

‘Why me?’ he whispers, staring down at the shining strands of black hair which lie like seaweed on the tiled floor. ‘Why me, when you know how I failed them all?’

When the burning sensation in his hand has reduced to an intermittent throb, Noel takes another shower. His tears flow with the soapy water as he scrubs himself with a ratty sponge. He feels better afterwards, even though the warm water has no power to cleanse him from the guilt of believing that if he hadn’t left Kylie, she would still be alive. Her two sons would still have their mother. In a few weeks, he would have become a father to his and Kylie’s child.

But the possibility that he might be able to influence what is yet to happen, if he follows the mysterious Master’s call, offers Noel his first glimmer of hope since the police brought him news of her death.

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  • Gillian Poucher

    Gillian Poucher was born in Bolton. After studying history at undergraduate level, she worked as a solicitor before training as...

  • Vision of Light

    Gillian Poucher

    Estranged from his family, divorced and in debt, Noel Reilly has nowhere to turn. When his pregnant ex-partner is murdered and he is viewed as a suspect by local police, he contemplates taking his life – before a mystical riverside encounter offers a glimmer of hope...