Stephen Booth

Scared to Live


Sunday, 23 October

Even on the night she died, Rose Shepherd couldn’t sleep. By the early hours of the morning, her bed was like a battleground — hot, violent, chaotic. Beneath her, the sheet was twisted into painful knots, the pillow hard and unyielding. Lack of sleep made her head ache, and her body had grown stiff with discomfort.

But sleeplessness was familiar to Miss Shepherd. She’d started to think of it as an old friend, because it was always with her. She often spent the hours of darkness waiting for the first bird to sing, watching for the greyness of dawn, when she knew there’d be people moving about in the village. There might be the sound of a van in the street as someone headed off for an early shift at the quarry, or the rumble of a farmer’s tractor in the field behind the house. She didn’t feel so completely alone then, as she did in the night.

For Rose Shepherd, this was the world. A distant noise, a half-heard voice, a snatched moment of indirect contact. Her life had become so confined that she seemed to be living in a small, dark box. The tiniest crack of light was like a glimpse of God.

By two o’clock, Rose had been out of bed twice already, moving aimlessly around the room to reassure herself that she was still alive and capable of movement. The third time, she got up to fetch herself a glass of water. She stood in the middle of the bedroom while she drank it, allowing her toes to curl deep into the sheepskin rug, clutching at the comfort of its softness, an undemanding gentleness that almost made her weep.

As always, her mind had been running over the events of the day. There was no way she could stop it. It was as if she had a video player in her head, but it was stuck in a loop, showing the same scenes over and over again. If they weren’t from the day just past, then they were snapshots from previous days — some of them years before, in a different part of her life. The scenes played themselves out, and paused to allow her to fret whether she could have done things differently. Then they began over again, taunting her with the fact that past events were unalterable. What was done, was done.

It was one of the reasons she couldn’t sleep, of course. Her brain was too active, her memories too vivid. Nothing seemed to slow down the thoughts that stalked backwards and forwards in her consciousness, like feral animals roaming the edge of the forest, restless and apprehensive.

But Rose was glad that she’d been out the previous day. She’d been doubtful about it beforehand. No journey was without its risks, even if it was only three miles over the hill and down into the village of Matlock Bath. Despite a diversion to the shopping village, she’d arrived in the village too early, and had time to kill once she’d parked the Volvo.

Standing in her bedroom, Rose smiled at the recollection of her own weakness. Matlock Bath had been busy, as she ought to have known it would be. At first, she’d been disturbed by the number of people on North Parade, and nervous of the motorcyclists in their leathers, clustered by their bikes eating fish and chips out of paper wrappings. When she passed too close to them, the smell had been so overpowering that she thought she would faint. And that would never do.

She turned slowly on the rug, fighting the muzziness and disorientation of being awake when her body wanted to sleep. There were only two points of light in her bedroom — the face of her alarm clock, showing two thirty-three, and the echo of its green luminescence in the mirror on the opposite wall. She found it difficult to focus on the light, because she couldn’t judge its distance from the reflection.

She could smell those fish and chips, even now. The odour was so powerful that for a moment she had no idea where she was. Time and place began to blur, a street in a Derbyshire tourist village merging into an image of a deserted roadside with the smell of gunfire in the air, then whirling back to her bedroom, with those two green points of light rushing towards her out of the darkness. Feeling giddy, Rose steadied herself with a hand on the wall and sat down in a chair by the window.

No, no, she was wrong. It was a bad mistake she’d made yesterday. The sort of mistake she’d taught herself to avoid, that she had made such careful plans against. But she hadn’t been able to avoid it. There was no other way out.

Rose breathed deeply, trying to control the dizziness. For a moment, it had been just as if those motorcyclists had entered her bedroom. She could hear the creak of their black leathers, the thud of their heavy boots against the doorframe. There was the rustle of their paper wrappings, the acrid tang of the vinegar. Somewhere, perhaps, the rumble of an engine, coming closer.

The bikers had been irrelevant, though. Waiting in Matlock Bath, Rose’s first impressions had been the steepness of the hills above her, the denseness of the trees, the roofs of houses perched among them in apparently impossible places. Soon a sense of her vulnerability had become too strong, and she had to get off the street, to find somewhere she could feel safer.

So Rose had paid her money to enter the aquarium, and for a while she’d watched children feeding carp in the thermal pool. Even now she could remember feeling the shape of the item she carried in its plastic bag, and knowing she was making a fool of herself in the most dangerous way. But perhaps no one had noticed her nervousness, because people were too wrapped up in their own interests.

She thought about taking some more of her herbal tablets. But that would mean walking as far as the bathroom for another glass of water, and it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. Not now.

Her doctor knew about her anxiety and insomnia problems. She’d gone to him out of desperation, breaking her own rules and knowing it was a mistake. But he hadn’t been able to help her. For a start, he’d never understood why she wouldn’t continue taking the sleeping pills he gave her. Rose had felt quite sorry for him when she saw his perplexed frown, his fingers hovering over the keyboard to tap out an automatic prescription for Nitrazepam. In the end, she’d told him the pills gave her heartburn, and he’d accepted that as a reason.

Of course, he was a rural GP, and he hadn’t met anyone like Rose Shepherd before. He didn’t understand that she wasn’t just another neurotic, middle-aged woman. He couldn’t possibly have known that she was even more frightened of never waking up than of not being able to sleep.

Rose had always known she’d be killed. Well, it felt like always. She could barely remember a time before she’d known. She expected to meet her death because of the way she’d led her life. It was a question of when it would happen, and how. All she could hope for was that it would be sudden, and painless.

Two forty-five. The house was very quiet, wasn’t it? Even her bedside clock had a tick so faint that she had to listen hard to be sure it was working. There was an Edwardian longcase in the sitting room downstairs, but it would be another fifteen minutes before it was due to strike. Its chimes had counted away many of her nights.

In some ways, knowing her fate only made things worse. It meant that she lived every day in fear of a phone call, a knock on the door, the smashing of glass in the middle of the night. Every time she went out of the house, she expected not to return. Whenever she looked through the window, she was surprised not to see dark figures in the garden, watching her house. For a long time now, she’d considered it more difficult to live than to die.

She tried to imagine what the neighbours would say about her when they were asked. No doubt they’d all agree that Rose Shepherd was a very private person, who never called round to say ‘hello’ and didn’t mix much in the village. They knew she’d lived alone for the past ten months at Bain House in Foxlow, deep among the Derbyshire Dales. Some would put her age at nearly seventy; others would frown and say she could only be in her fifties, surely? But they hadn’t really got a close look at her. The postman might recall she had an accent that wasn’t local, but she’d never spoken more than a few words to him.

And that was pretty much all anyone would know of her. The details of her life were shrouded by trees and protected by electronic gates. And that was the way it had to be. It was what had kept her alive until now.

Rose smoothed out her sheets, turned over her pillows and went back to bed. Ten minutes later, she was hovering fearfully on the edge of consciousness when a black Mitsubishi Shogun with tinted windows drove into Foxlow and stopped outside her gate.

Leaving through the back door of a cottage on the corner of Pinfold Lane, Darren Turnbull saw the black car

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