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The Decline of the English Murder

by tom 

Posted: 13 December 2004
Word Count: 4259
Summary: I wrote this partly in response to Tolstoy's novel 'Ressurection' which I had read and that had neary been flung out of the window on more than once. I then read the essay by Orwell of the same title as the story and decided to have a little fun. I don't think is especially good, but there are passages that please me.

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Jeffrey Aitken came to the conclusion that he should murder his wife while reading Ian Fleming in the garden. It would be quite wrong to say that the idea popped into his head precisely at that moment. In fact the idea had been a long time in gestation, from it’s first beginning as the seed of a fantasy, germinating under the warm light of quite consideration, into the full bloom of a calculated, logical decision. At no point had he absolutely dismissed the idea from his mind and the moment he had chosen the path towards his wife’s demise he started skipping down that route, juggling the possibilities.

Marjorie was busy at the far end of the garden, weeding the rose bed. Jeffrey watched her with a detached eye now he had made the decision. From the moment he had made up his mind he began to divest his wife of many of the characteristics that he had come to associate with her. His eyes were a pair of binoculars that he used to watch her closely. Now he took these binoculars and reversed them, sending his wife into the distance, changing her from the centre of his attention to a minute dot on the landscape. As he watched Jeffrey was struck by the thought that it was incredibly easy to remove that dot from his vision, with only as much effort as he took to flick the ant from his sleeve. He had no tangible feeling of guilt at this thought; any love they had shared for each other had died many years ago, fading like his eyesight, with wear and tear. There is not doubt that in the beginning he had been very much in love with the tall, elegant woman he had met in London at a friend’s party. He would have admitted, quite readily, under cross-examination that he had pursued Marjorie until she had finally succumbed to his charm and affection. Their marriage had been seen by many of their friends as the ‘perfect match’. So where had it all gone wrong?

It was not that Marjorie knew Jeffrey had been unfaithful. There had been a number of mistresses over the last ten years of their marriage, since their children had left home and he had come to spend more and more time at the flat in London. Now, sitting on the patio overlooking the garden, he was glad he had always been very circumspect in these affairs. He had never promised anything to any of the women. He had been quite careful to sleep only with those women who wanted a step up the proverbial ‘career ladder’. He always structured the affairs so that once he had been able to get his ‘leg over’ and give ‘a leg up’, so to speak, he had been the one to make the decision to bring things to an amicable conclusion. He could justify his affairs by always believing that (generously) he was helping career women to get to the upper levels of the profession, past the male dominated corridors and offices that he felt were outdated. In his professional experience it was utterly evident that women had perceptive minds and were certainly the equal of their male counterparts, if not their betters. They had the uncanny knack of being able to gain additional sympathy for their clients and gave the appearance, in most cases, of being far less threatening than their more overtly egotistical male colleagues. In short, Jeffery had a genuine respect for the female of the species and on deliberation found them by far the stronger of the two sexes.

Marjorie came up the garden carrying her basket of tools. Benji, their Labrador retriever, trotted up by her side, his nose sniffing the immaculate lawn.

‘I’m taking Benji for his constitutional. I shouldn’t be more than half an hour. I’ll have a G&T when I get back.’

‘Certainly darling,’ Jeffrey replied.
No, the real reason for Jeffrey’s decision to murder his wife was very simple - money. He wanted a divorce from Marjorie but it was clear that such a separation would require a large settlement. In the current climate Marjorie would easily gain half their assets, which Jeffery found both unreasonable and unacceptable. While he recognised the fact that Marjorie had been a good mother and a supportive wife he felt this was balanced by the fact that in their thirty years of marriage he could not remember a single occasion when he had denied her anything on the grounds of money. She had never shown any interests in the practise of making money, only the spending of it. Once, late at night, while in his study, Jeffrey had decided to draw a rough balance over the spending of the last thirty years. He had tried to be just; he didn’t include spending related to the children such as school fees, support through university or holidays that he and Marjorie had shared together. But by his own calculation Jeffrey had spent far less on himself than he had in keeping Marjorie happy and contented. He accepted that this was essentially proper and correct, but couldn’t bring himself to feel that her continued financial support after their marriage was over would be fair or just. Essentially he felt the life he had provided for her over the last ten years, which they had spent sharing a bed as brother and sister rather than husband and wife, was generous enough. He would have been quite content to give a reasonable settlement but he knew the carnivorous nature of matrimonial lawyers. They were ruthlessly greedy. Any divorce would see Jeffrey gnawed to the bone.

Once the decision was made Jeffrey Aitken turned to more practical matters, such as the execution of the crime. It never occurred to him to think again over whether what he was doing was right or wrong. Everything had become an abstraction of reality, an exercise in theory and practical application, rather like the application of laws and statutes to the murky reality that is everyday life. There was no time pressure on him – he could take as much time as he wanted, so he began carefully to plot. He was exceptionally meticulous and thoughtful, even at this early stage. He made sure he kept no notes. He was fortunate he was graced with a fantastic memory. As his plan developed over the next few weeks he would allocate time exclusively for reflection over the matter. Usually this time was while he was travelling from London to the cottage at weekends. It was a long journey, but not too stressful, so his thinking rarely was troubled by long distractions. As he pulled up in the drive he would wrap up his thoughts in an imaginary folder, tie the ever expanding plans with a piece of fine red ribbon and tuck them all away safely in a filing cabinet at the back of his mind. By the time he was kissing Marjorie’s cheek as she greeted him on the doorstep he had, practically speaking, forgotten the whole thing, as one does with dreams in the morning.

It would be wrong to say that Jeffrey did nothing except plan for the next few weeks. He did act immediately in some ways, when he felt he had made the correct decisions. His first action was to break from his current mistress. This was somewhat of a painful procedure as she was utterly charming. He was surprised by how upset she was when he took her out to dinner and told her of his decision. Partially the surprise was that she clearly had grown quite attached to him. He left the restaurant feeling he had had a lucky escape. In his mind it was evident that in his deliberations over whether to murder Marjorie he had neglected to be as careful as usual with his latest mistress. While he had, as ever, never openly said either that he loved her or was going to leave his wife, he had clearly intimated something near to this, which was the first time he could remember making such a silly, juvenile error. The whole episode had been a close shave and Jeffery rapidly concluded that for the time being he would have to think only exclusively of his wife and the situation at hand. He regarded himself as a patient fellow and in this situation a few months of self-imposed celibacy would be a small price to pay for the liberation of libido that would follow success. He was however quite proud of one little flourish he had added to his separation speech, concluding that he loved his wife, ‘too much to do this to her anymore’. Such a painful and repentant statement of remorse might prove useful if the affair came to be investigated.

The second thing Jeffery did was to take Marjorie on a surprise holiday to Greece. He surmised there were two good reasons for doing this. The first was that to anybody investigating events later he could say that the holiday had been a ‘fresh start’ after his admitting to the affair. There might have been some risk in this were it not for the fact that Marjorie never confided in anybody her most personal feelings. She was extremely unlikely to have told any of her chattering friends that Jeffery had had an affair – she valued her privacy with a strength bordering on the obsession. Thus, in what Jeffery felt was a wonderfully elegant and cunning use of her character, Marjorie would be expected by all of those who knew her to keep silent on a matter of which she was actually completely ignorant.

The other reason for the holiday was far more practical. Jeffery wanted time to think. Murder was such a fiendishly tricky business to get right and two weeks lazing in the sun, relaxing by the pool, encouraged him to think more lucidly. Successful murders, meaning those that went unsolved, required a level of finesse that Jeffery concluded was impossible to develop while navigating the M25.

Jeffrey considered many possibilities. He wanted to provide Marjorie with the least painful end he could. He had no wish to inflict pain upon her, but rather just remove her, rather like an old piece of furniture. Thus, the idea of staging a fake burglary that tragically led to a savage, brutal attack by a disturbed assailant was out of the question. Simplicity, in Jeffrey’s opinion, was the key.

This is not to say he did not fleetingly consider more outlandish ideas, spurred on by what he saw and read in the papers. A small part of him considered the idea of a ‘hit’. There was a recent case of a rather poorly planned gangland killing where the cost of hiring the hitman had been established in the courtroom to be £10,000 for the single murder. This was not such a huge sum, Jeffery considered, but he couldn’t help the feeling that hiring a contract killer, while being somewhat glamorous and appealing to the more reckless side of his character, was too high a risk. Jeffery rapidly concluded that he would have to enact his own plan.

He also considered poisoning. This appealed to him because of its association with past crimes, from Dr. Cripin to Rillington Place. It seemed a rather elegant method, a more gentlemanly method of execution, scented with the atmosphere of Agathe Christie and a whiff of an English country garden with rose bushes in full bloom. Known in his London club for his trenchant views on the decline of modern society and the loss of much that made England great, Jeffery wondered if poisoning would not be his own small, defiant effort to resist the rapid decline of the middle class into what he saw as the toxic mix of globalisation and free market economics. The problem with poison was the dreaded progress in forensic science. Any poison he might use would undoubtedly be detected if Marjorie were to undergo an autopsy, (of which there was a high probability) as she was still a very active woman, even in her sixties. So much as poisoning appealed to him as an Englishman and a disciple of Orwell, Jeffery settled on the concept of an accident as the most effective scenario.

It is a common fact, as most people know already, that most fatal accidents occur in the home. So this is where Jeffery began his plans. The home contains many hazards and Jeffery began to go through them, trying to establish which was the most likely to succeed. With gas in neither their London flat nor the cottage an explosion, whilst being satisfactorily dramatic and most conclusively fatal, was out of the question. Next came electrocution, but as Jeffery had never had the slightest interest in DIY and as he had never changed a single plug he dismissed the use of electricity without much consideration.

The idea of drowning was much more hopeful. Perhaps Marjorie could slip on a wet floor, strike her head on the side and end up in the bath. Or in the large pond that they sometimes walked by on a weekend? No, that would be too difficult to explain. And with the bathroom drowning Jeffery felt sure he would have to aid Marjorie on her way before the act, either with a push or a blown to the head. He wondered if he could apply the prerequisite force to knock her unconscious. In all his many plans he had to factor in the horrible truth that he was essentially squeamish. Blood was not so much the issue, more the infliction of pain, which was ghastly and intimate and beyond his sensibilities. There was the distinct likelihood that once he submerged her in the bath Marjorie would come to her senses and realise what he was up to. The thought that he would have to look into her eyes while helping her drown, or even worse tussling with her in a deadly struggle, filled him with revulsion and nausea. No, what he concluded was that he rather wanted to set a trap where Marjorie’s death would be, in a sense, partially self-inflicted. As he came to think of it, Jeffrey saw himself rather as a facilitator of Marjorie’s death, helping things on their way or perhaps a hunter who sets a trap, then comes back some time later to find the victim already deceased.

The solution to his deliberations occurred to him quite by chance. They had decided to take one of their daily afternoon strolls up in the valley, north of their rented Greek farmhouse. They crossed a field, chatting about their children as they went. Coming to an orchard they stopped and leaned on a stone wall to watch the fruit pickers high up on their ladders, filling the baskets with lush oranges that glowed like golden orbs in the bright sunshine.

‘You know Jeffrey,’ Marjorie reflected causally, ‘I think we might well get apples from the trees at the bottom of the garden this year.’

‘You’re probably right darling,’ Jeffery answered, looking at the ladders. ‘You’ll have to be careful though, the ladder has been behind the shed for so long I wouldn’t trust it. Perhaps we should get a new one?’

‘You mean a metal one? Oh I couldn’t have a metal one. It would be so out of place in the garden. I’m sure the old one will be just fine.’ With that Marjorie turned and continued walking. Jeffrey stood, considering ladders and forming his most viable plan yet.

The plan was, as with all the best ideas, quite simple. Marjorie would take the ladder to the apple trees, climb up to gather the fruit and fall. Given the height of the branches and the hardness of the lawn it was highly possible she would be killed or fatally injured. Jeffrey also considered the possibility that his wife would survive. He wondered whether it would be best if he pushed the ladder himself to increase the chances of success. But the beauty of the plan for him lay in the fact that failure would not lead inevitably to his exposure. If the ladder broke naturally then nobody would suspect anything but an innocent accident. In the event of Marjorie surviving he would just have use her recovery time to develop a new and more successful plan. Thus the real question was how to make the ladder weak enough that it would break under Marjorie’s weight at the correct moment. The ladder was already quite rotten and stained green with decay, but cutting any part of the ladder would be wholly incriminating and was hence out of the question. Jeffrey applied himself to the problem over the course of the last two evenings of the holiday but only suddenly hit upon a workable solution as he went to bed on the last night.

The early part of the summer was cold and wet, typically unseasonal. Every weekend Jeffery would drive down to the cottage and wander around the garden, taking time to see how the apples were ripening. Everything really depended on the apples. Patience being a great personal virtue, Jeffrey felt little worry about waiting until the time (and more precisely the apple) was ripe. But finally, in early August, he noticed that the apples had started to hang from the branches with a heavy, pendulous sway and were a mixture of blushing crimson and sugary green.

Ever since their return from Greece, some two months ago, Jeffrey had been conscious that his attitude to Marjorie had altered yet again. She was not longer the ant on his sleeve but instead had become the centre of his thoughts. It was so strange for him to eat supper, to go shopping or watch television with his wife. He felt omnipotent in his secret knowledge of her fate. He had worried that as the time approached he would feel more sympathy for Marjorie and doubts would enter his mind. But the doubts had never materialised as anything more than the thinnest of mists. Instead he noticed he was becoming more and more sensitive to Marjorie’s less appealing qualities, the little bitter habits that stung the back of his throat and unsettle his stomach. Each was, on it’s own, rather a minor fault in a character, but catalogued and itemised in a collection, they filled him with a nagging sense of revulsion. If, at the beginning of their marriage, when he knew he had been very much in love, he had been charmed by Marjorie’s beguiling qualities, he had now become the curator of her failings. In trying to grasp all of this Jeffery couldn’t help thinking that there was much truth in the old maxim that love and hate were two sides of the same coin.

It was a fine, cloudless and airy Saturday afternoon. Marjorie decided to take Benji for a walk. Jeffrey, who was halfway through a Dick Francis novel, said he would stay behind. He wondered if Marjorie had seen the apples. They were ready to be collected he thought, before some fell. Marjorie agreed. Once she was finished with Benji’s afternoon constitutional she would get the ladder out and they would have apple crumble with ice cream for dinner that night. Commenting that he thought that sounded wonderful Jeffrey kissed Marjorie on the cheek and let her out through the gate onto the narrow road. As she set off she turned and told Jeffrey to get the ladder out. He waved back and nodded.

The shed was at the bottom of the garden. Behind it, in the gap between the shed and the fence, the ladder was lying, together with some short planks of wood. Jeffrey picked it up and brought it round to the front. He examined the binding he had put on two weeks before, which was made with some weak, thin twine he had discovered in the shed one night. It was bound tightly around the breaks he had already made in the ladder previously. Up to certain height the old and frayed twine would probably hold, but once Marjorie was working at the very top Jeffrey was confident the twine, under great stress, would snap and the breaks would open, sending Marjorie crashing to the ground. Given there had been no rain for a week this part of the lawn was as hard as concrete. Jeffrey felt the impact would be more than adequate for his needs. Once he was sure of the outcome he could remove the twine and toss it round the back of the shed. Satisfied that nothing could go wrong he propped the ladder up against the highest branch and went back to his book.

He couldn’t read. It was not that he was feeling guilt or remorse. It was that he found himself boyishly excited by what was to come. He felt his plan, while not perfect, had a wonderful chance of success, especially as all the circumstances were conspiring in his favour. The thought of failure did not worry him, but neither had he truly begun to consider what would happen after he was successful. He judged such a sensation as being pointless. To pass the time he went inside, poured himself a gin and tonic and went back to his book.

He didn’t notice but more than an hour passed. Then he felt Benji pushing at his hand with a cold damp nose. He gave the dog a heavy, affectionate rub on the head. Benji must have slipped Marjorie’s hand as his still had his lead dangling from his collar, so Jeffrey unhooked the lead, thinking as he did so that they were both going to be off the leash presently. He guessed Marjorie had gone in the cottage to change into her gardening clothes so he went inside and called up the stairs, wondering if she wanted a G&T before starting picking the apples. There was no reply but he made one anyhow. Just as he was carrying the drink out to the back there was a knock at the door.

Standing there was a young police constable, who had removed his cap and appeared very grave.

‘Good afternoon Sir. Are you….’ he referred at his notebook, ‘Mr. Jeffrey Aitken?’

Jeffrey corrected him. ‘Judge Aitken, constable.’

‘I’m sorry your honour. I’m afraid I have some bad news. There’s been a traffic accident up the road. It’s your wife.’

Jeffrey’s throat went dry with expectation, but he forced himself to remain calm. ‘Is she alright?’

‘I’m afraid she’s in a very bad way. The ambulance has taken her to the local hospital.’ The young constable took pity on the judge, who was standing there with dilated blank eyes, unable to take in this sudden dreadful information. ‘I can take you there if you want sir. It might be better than you driving.’

Jeffrey stood dazed. Confusion incapacitated him, like an anaesthetic, taking away all sensation from his body and blurring all clear thought. All he could think of to say was ‘Thank you’. He went to gather up his keys and wallet and put Benji inside before going to the hospital.

The death of a High Court judge’s wife is of course an event of some importance, especially when it is in such tragic circumstances as those concerning Marjorie Aitken, devoted mother of two and wife for over thirty years. The driver, who was three times over the legal limit, had attempted to flee the scene of the accident but had been caught some three hours later at a motorway service station attempting to dump his car. The newspaper editorials were harsh and spoke of the injustice of the loss of life and the callous perpetrator. Commentators lined up on the radio and in television studios to draw conclusions as to the state of the nation. Pictures of Marjorie’s family showed Jeffrey supporting his grief stricken daughter at the funeral, her face crushed like soft pink clay in pain and loss. Jeffrey remained composed and dignified throughout, which only intensified the public’s respect for the conduct of a high court judge, a profession that almost single handily Judge Aitken had given a new dignity and authority. Perhaps the summit of this public sentiment was the exchange in Parliament between the leaders of the government and opposition, who jostled over the political capital that could be made over such a juicy ‘Law and Order’ issue.

Jeffrey refused all offers for interviews during the trial, preferring to wait until sentence was passed and the driver had been given a maximum term of ten years. Only then was a reporter from ‘The Daily Telegraph’ granted an interview, with the stipulation that the fee would go to a victim support charity. Jeffrey Aitken’s new found status with the public became even greater when he responded to the question of whether he could ever forgive the young man.

After a little thought, he answered wisely. ‘Yes I believe I can. It’s not easy to do and I’m sure the healing process will never be over, but as my mother told me, “There for the Grace of God go you or I.”’

Two years later Sir Jeffrey Aitken, much to delight of his Old Bailey colleagues and the Penal Reform League, who considered Judge Aitken unique among his peers, became Lord Chancellor. He celebrated by taking his new wife out to dinner in Chelsea.

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Comments by other Members

scoops at 15:35 on 13 December 2004  Report this post
What a superb story, Tom. It was an effortless read - funny, clever, littered with sharp observation and black humor. I was waiting to be let down by the ending, because I didn't think you could pull it off right through to the last word, but you did and have. There are some classic lines. I haven't read Tolstoy's Resurrection, but no doubt if I had, there would be allusions here to further enhance the pleasure. It could be a little shorter and a little tidier and you've left off the odd letter at the end of words, you also have the Judge on long train journeys one minute and traversing the M25 the next, but these are tiny niggles. If I were you, I'd try and find a suitable outlet for this - it is filled with fun and energy and wit and wisdom:-) shyama

tom at 17:00 on 13 December 2004  Report this post

thank you for you extremely positive comments. I have to admit I tend to be very hard on myself - with this story I have always been worried it seems too knowing and also too glib.

It's funny but the ending was the first thing I decided upon. The other author who kept coming back to me while I was writing this was Roald Dahl - I really felt the whole thing had to have an ending with a snap.

As for the errors I have to hold my hand up - I am not the best editor of my own work. I prefer to let others tell me where I go wrong! In this case I wrote it about two months ago over a day and then have just left it in the vault. I did show it to some friends - which is the first time I have subjected them to my fiction. They usually get travelogues.

Is it really worth finding an outlet? I wonder how best to go about that. Being where I am (Sudan) I feel very far from England.


Jubbly at 18:15 on 13 December 2004  Report this post
Hello Tom, I agreet his is a wonderful story and very Roald Dahl. I kept wondering if you were going to come back to the ladder and whether or not some other innocent unfortunate would succumb to the broken rungs? Great stuff, check out the Directory on the site for info re: sending it out etc.

Look forward to reading more of your work.



tom at 05:58 on 14 December 2004  Report this post
Thank you Jubbly for your comments.

I didn't return to the ladder simply because I always thought of it as a 'McGuffin'. It didn't serve much purpose beyond being Jeffery's chosen mode of execution. A friend I gave this to read had the same comment about the ladder.


Jubbly at 07:27 on 14 December 2004  Report this post
Hi Tom, I guess because of the tone of the ending it's almost crying out for his new wipe to decide to pick some apples while he's at work sort of thing, but then I'm a great believer in Karma.

Best with it whatever you decide.


Whoops, wipe should read 'wife' how Freudian is that?

scoops at 09:26 on 14 December 2004  Report this post
Tom, Jubbly's answered your question about finding an outlet. I'm afraid I don't know much about placing short stories independently of anthologies, but there are many threads on WriteWords about short story magazines and competitions. To my mind, if you tidied this up a bit, it would be snapped up, but I know there are a lot of people out there turning out quality stuff - that said, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and it will be a real challenge to pull it off while pootling around the horn of Africa:-) It's funny, isn't it, that you've turned in such an English story while far away? sxx

tom at 10:00 on 14 December 2004  Report this post

I think part of the fun was making it so English - when you live in a place like Sudan there's a certain type of expat character who always chatters on about England with dewy eyes. Myself, I like to keep England at a distance :-)

Right now my main logistical worry is that PayPal don't accept payment from Sudan (it's the embargo) so I'll have to send it by post (never reliable here - one letter took 12 months to reach me).

Thanks again

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