If I were to tell you that I have been interested in murder from an early age, you would probably conjure up an image of me as one of those gloomy, sallow youths who cowered in the shadow of the popular boys and wanted nothing more than to be left alone. The truth is, however, that that I was rather popular at school. While I would never be in contention for Head Boy and I didn’t have a place on the first XI, I had a reasonably well developed circle of friends and could pull a decent stroke whenever circumstances dictated that I should put on the whites.
I was educated in the classical manner, in that I never saw my parents and was instead trusted to the care of well-paid psychopaths. The finest schools in England taught me everything I needed to know: life was cruel, there were no rewards for fair play and that not only did good not always triumph over evil, but that good was often left rolling in the gutter, picking up its teeth while evil crowed to his chums. Academically speaking, I could do well enough without expending much effort and therefore set about coasting through the lessons without attracting too much attention. Unlike some of my peers, the subjects taught never really held much interest for me. While others were blessed with one enthusiasm or another, I found nothing in the syllabus that fired my imagination. While I did have some appreciation of literature, the idea of becoming a writer held no appeal whatsoever. It always seemed like a grubby vocation and I had no desire to lower myself in that manner. But just when it seemed that my future was to be drab and meaningless, I found a book that changed my life.
Ahahaha. Excuse me, it just occurred to me that you might think the book in question was ‘the good book’. Not at all. No, the book was an account of the acid bath murders by John George Haigh, but it was to prove just as Damascene to me as anything in either Testament. It’s not unusual for lads of a certain age to become obsessed with such macabre subjects, but the fascination I held wasn’t for the police work or the forensics that led to the prosecution. No, it was the murders themselves that held my attention, combined with Haigh’s matter-of-fact statements about the killings. Here was a man who had no delusions about what he had done, showed no remorse and yet seemed totally at ease with himself. I found it intriguing and began to wonder what I would be like if put in the same situation. I won’t go so far as to say that once I had read that book, I dedicated my life to murder, but I must confess that the germ of an idea was planted, one which I would tend and nurture in the coming years by reading as much as I possibly could about the business of death.
For all its foibles, my school was blessed with a remarkable library which contained volumes of horrible wonders to occupy a morbid mind like mine. As well as Aristotle, Shakespeare and Newton, there were also tomes detailing the works of Christie, Todd and Crippen. Intuitively, I knew that my classmates and teachers would not understand my homicidal enthusiasm and that if it were to be discovered, it could well paint me as some sort of malcontent. With this in mind, I worked hard to create some camouflage. This meant engaging in activities I had no real interest in, like the school newspaper or the Latin club, simply so that I would have enough extra-curricular activities to warrant the amount of reading I was doing.
There comes a point, however, when an inquisitive young mind grows tired of learning from books and yearns to experience life in the raw. The point where I started considering how to transform my experience from the theoretical to the practical happened some time around my fifteenth birthday. Fifteen is an odd age. Quite unlike any other year, it is one that affords a fellow the opportunity to consider what he truly wants out of life, before such decisions start to be taken out of his hands by fate. I became convinced that if I didn’t dedicate myself to my new obsession, I would end up being diverted into a ‘normal’ life that held no interest for me. If I was serious about it, I would have to make a commitment to my art and really, that meant one thing.
I would have to murder someone.
The idea was so potent that I found myself quite giddy just thinking about it, but if I was to do it properly, I would have to be very, very careful. My personal studies had told me that the one thing that led to most murderers being caught wasn’t evidence or witnesses, but a connection between them and the victim. It made sense to me. The first thing a policeman would do on the discovery of a body would be to talk to those that knew the deceased. Clearly, if I was to commit a murder purely for the sport of it, then it would have to be someone that I didn’t know and could not be tied to. A random victim in a strange place seemed to be the most sensible option: a low-risk, nursery-level death to get the ball rolling. One has to learn to walk before one can run, after all.
The interesting thing about a premeditated act of random violence is how much work it takes to make it seem truly indiscriminate. I spent weeks poring over maps, train timetables and tourist guides, trying to find a bland and anonymous place where I could arrive, commit murder and return home without too much fuss. Eventually, my research led me to C———, a small town in the South East of England that had very few distinguishing features. It was small enough to be navigable within a day, but not so quiet that my arrival there would be conspicuous. The most notable thing about it was that it was on the way to somewhere else, meaning people came and went, but rarely stayed unless they had the unfortunate privilege of living there. After much consideration, I thought it would be the perfect place to commit my first murder.
The first hurdle I faced was how to get away from school, but this was cleared easily and any thoughts I had of slipping out in the night while a mannequin made of pillows occupied my bunk proved to be redundant. Instead, I fabricated a lecture by a prominent marine biologist and asked my Science Master if I could be excused from school in order to attend. This particular teacher had a taste for Gin and wrote a sloppy absence note on the condition that I write an essay about the event on my return. That was no problem - the essay was already written - and the booze addled fool neglected to mention the specific details of where this supposed lecture was to be held. For a schoolboy intent on murder, this made the absence slip akin to a letter of diplomatic immunity. It may be hard to credit it now, there was a time when children were expected to be in school and the sight of one in the wild was of some concern to adults. Such concerns could be allayed, however, by a note scribbled on the proper stationery. While I was aware that my appearance would make me conspicuous, my youthful appearance also made me an unlikely suspect. Yes, it was unusual for a young lad to be out of school, but surely no-one would believe that this strapping young man (who, let’s not forget, attended one of the finest schools in the land) could possibly have anything to do with something so hideous as murder.
Once the tedious paperwork was dealt with, there was the far more interesting quandary of weaponry to consider. Whilst I was a fairly sporty lad, I didn’t have the muscle to beat someone to death or strangle them with my bare hands. Clearly, some sort of weapon would be required. In this regard, my school was once again surprisingly well stocked. There were pistols available to members of the shooting club, but they were kept under lock and key and I was not a member of that particular society. Besides, if I were stopped by the police and searched for some reason, trying to explain carrying a firearm to a constable would be nigh impossible, therefore I required a weapon which would arouse no suspicion. One could easily use a cricket bat to bash someone’s brains in and said bat could be easily be carried in a holdall, but I suspected that the blood would be difficult to remove from the willow and that it might leave a tell-tale indentation on the victim’s skull. Besides, the season was over and carrying a cricket bat in winter seemed like the most suspicious thing and Englishman could ever do. I briefly toyed with the idea of a bow and arrow from the Archery Club, just because I loved the exotic nature of it, but realised that there was probably nothing more conspicuous than a six-foot longbow. In the end, it was the music room that provided my weapon of choice. I took a steel guitar string from the stock cupboard with the intention of using it as a garrotte. Unlike any of the other possibilities, it would be easy to explain if I were questioned and it fit easily into my blazer pocket. Furthermore, it seemed to afford a quick and silent death that could be carried out without any mess.
And so it was that one bright winter morning I was dropped off at the local railway station by the school caretaker with a packed lunch in my satchel and a garrotte in my pocket. The caretaker who drove me to the station had absolutely no interest in my affairs and left me to purchase my ticket and board the train alone. I was still wearing my uniform, but once the train had pulled away I removed my school tie and covered up the badge on my blazer. With this done, I settled into my seat and gazed out of the window, thinking about the person I was about to kill. Who were they, I wondered, and what were they doing at that moment? How were they spending the last few hours of their life? Would I really be able to kill them? I thought so, but I didn’t know for sure. Either way, it was fascinating to think about it and I was terribly excited by what lay at the end of the railway tracks.
Once I had arrived in C———, I spent a while walking around and getting a feel for the place. While most visitors would probably scout out the local landmarks and places of historical interest (few though they were), I was more interested in alleyways, cul-de-sacs and quiet spots where one could remain unobserved. While a sense of the layout of the town was of some use, it was more for orientation than anything else. While I could pretend to be interested in the history of the textile industry or the tiny local museum, I was more concerned with not getting lost as I made my escape.
My recce of the town led to me to a nice secluded spot - a small lane that connected two larger thoroughfares and was used as a shortcut by locals. I suspected that it was familiar enough to them that they no longer saw how dangerous it was, with its poor lighting and dense shrubbery that covered the sides of the pathway. It was a place where one could lurk without being seen and I made myself comfortable in the bushes as the winter sun was dipping below the horizon.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how long I waited in those bushes or by what process I came to decide when the time was right, but I watched several men and women walk by before I felt ready. Foot traffic down the alley was sporadic and seemed to only be going in one direction. There was no way of knowing whether someone was coming or not, but I would just have to take my chances. I had planned everything up until that moment, but from then on I simply had to trust my instincts.
When I saw the young woman walking towards me, I knew that she was the one. There was no conscious process that made me decide that she would be the one to die, nor was their anything about her appearance that made me think that she deserved to be killed. She was just the person who came along when everything felt right and for that reason, she would be my first victim. I could have let her pass and struck from behind, but I was seized by a sudden bolt of confidence and stepped out into the lane.
“Excuse me,” I said, smiling slightly when she let out a slight gasp of surprise, before turning to face me.
“Goodness!” she said. “You startled me.”
“I’m awfully sorry, miss,” I said, feigning an apology. “I really didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, no, it’s all right.”
“I was wondering if you could help me,” I said. “There’s a robin that’s fallen out of its nest. It’s injured and I’m not sure what to do about it. Would you mind having a look and telling me what you think?”
“Oh, how awful,” the young woman said, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do anything, but I’ll have a look.”
“Thanks so much.”
She smiled politely and let me show her the way. Not for the first or last time in my life, I owed my success to the peculiarities of English society and the fact that I lived in an age of good manners. As well as the apologies and the deference, I had provided the girl with such a specific situation that it did not seem in the least bit suspicious. If I had just said: “can I show you something?” or “come over here” she would never have followed me into the bushes.
She was only a few years older than me, but she was definitely a grown up and not a school girl, and for that I was enormously grateful. I didn’t particularly mind whether I had a man or a woman as my first, but murdering a child brought all sorts of complications that I didn’t want to tangle with. Now that I saw the girl in the flesh, I felt so sure that it was the right thing to do. She was pretty in her own way, but no great beauty. Nor, it should be said, could she have been that clever if she was to follow a total stranger into some dimly lit bushes. She was ordinary - perfectly ordinary - and as she walked ahead of me to the base of the tree, i reached into my jacket pocket and removed the guitar string.
“Just there,” I said, nodding, “at the foot of the yew tree.”
She walked over to the base of the tree and bent over to have a closer look. I wrapped the guitar string around my hands, leaving about eight inches of wire between them. This was the point of no return. Once I passed it, there was no going back. Attempted strangulation is not the sort of thing that one can write off as a joke or a mistake. If she saw the wire or my attempt to use it, my life would be ruined. Unless I put the garrotte away now, I could not let her live.
I didn’t put the garrotte away.
“I don’t see-” the girl said and I quickly brought my hands up and over her shoulders, before pulling back as hard as I could. Although the nights had grown chilly, the girl wasn’t wearing a scarf and there was nothing between the steel wire and her skin. I felt the garrotte dig in to her throat and by the time she was aware of the constriction, she was unable to do anything about it. She clawed at her throat and I suppose I would have done the same in her position, but it was an utterly futile gesture as there was no way for her to loosen the steel wire from her throat or fight me off. Her hands reached back and tried to claw my face, but the attacks were limp and fleeting. Apart from a few stifled gagging noises, the whole event was startlingly quiet and the sound of my breathing seemed to be the loudest part of the entire process. The young woman struggled for a while, but her strength soon drained away and I was able to guide her quietly to the ground, where I could use my body weight and strength to control the situation. We lay on the ground like lovers and I felt her last struggles for life disappear into nothingness.
All told, it took about forty-five seconds for her to stop moving, but I held on to her with the garrotte for another five minutes just to make sure. I knew this because I could see my wrist watch and was keeping track of time. As exciting as the whole event was, I thought it was important to collect some sort of technical data. Somehow, it made the exercise seem more legitimate. After those utterly still minutes, I let her go and crawled over to the foot of the Yew tree to catch my breath. I sat with my back against the tree trunk and looked at the girl.
She was dead.
It was a statement of simple fact. She wasn’t going to spring up, clutching her throat and gasping for breath. Not ten minutes ago, she had been up and walking around. Now she would never move again. Her heart had stopped. She was no longer breathing. She was dead.
And then the next part:
I had killed her.
Her death was not an accidental quirk of fate. There was nothing natural about it, nor was it any kind of mystery. She was dead because of me, because of my actions and my decisions. I had used a length of metal wire to strangle the life out of her. It had been so quick and so noiseless that had her body not been lying there on the floor in front of me, I could easily have believed that it had not happened at all. But there she was, completely still and caught in a position that no living creature would have tolerated. A living person would have moved their arm so they weren’t lying on it in such an awkward fashion. A living person would have pulled down their skirt so they weren’t showing that bruise on their knee. A living person would have blinked out that piece of tree bark stuck in their eye, but this person wouldn’t, because this person wasn’t living.
She was dead and I had killed her.
I sat for a moment and considered these points. I knew they were supposed to be large, important things, but I found that they seemed rather trivial and meaningless. In the hours, weeks and months that followed that afternoon I would find myself gaining deeper insight into these concepts, but at that moment I felt as if grasping them was absurdly easy. The thing that made the biggest impression was not that she was dead, or that I had killed her, but that I was the only person on earth who knew that she had died.
Her parents didn’t know that their daughter was dead.
Her friends didn’t know that they would be going to her funeral.
Her colleagues didn’t know that she wouldn’t be coming into work.
Her boyfriend didn’t know that he was single.
Throughout her life, she must have interacted with hundreds, if not thousands, of people and yet none of them knew that she was dead. Only I had that knowledge and I didn’t care about it as much as even her most casual acquaintance. It seemed slightly unfair that I should hold this privileged information, but it moved me more than the banal business of living and dying did. The information would not be solely mine for long, however, and I knew that it was important to distance myself from her as soon as possible. Sooner or later, someone would discover the girl’s body. Better if I were not around at the time.
I collected everything I had brought (to the scene of the crime, I thought with a small chill of excitement) and got ready to leave. I turned back to the dead girl and looked at her open, unblinking eyes, before quickly exiting the undergrowth, brushing myself off and heading down the lane. I didn’t look back, nor did I run away. because innocent people don’t run unless they’re playing sports. Instead, I continued down the path at a relaxed gait. It’s remarkable how stressful acting casual can be and my heart fairly jumped into my mouth when I first encountered another person on the street. He was nothing extraordinary - just a man in a suit, probably heading home from work - but I felt certain that he would be able to tell what I had done and declare it to the world before I could stop him. Obviously, this didn’t happen because unless you literally have blood on your hands, a murderer tends to look exactly the same as any other person, but when the suited man passed by without paying me any mind, I found that I was struck by an overwhelming urge to tell him what I had done. “Excuse me,” I would say to him, “do you know that I just killed someone?” and he would say “really?” and I would say “yes, I strangled a woman, just down there” and he would say something like “gosh” or “my my” and perhaps remark that I seemed rather young for a murderer. I realised then that it wasn’t guilt that was compelling me to confess. It was pride.
Despite this overweening self-satisfaction, I kept my mouth shut and let the suited man walk away. My body was coursing with nervous energy and I had to shove my hands in my pockets to conceal their shaking. Keeping my eyes locked on the pavement to avoid eye contact with the other pedestrians, I followed my mental map back to the train station. There was just one more obstacle to negotiate before I could make my escape, one that I had deliberately factored into my route in order to provide a final test.
On top of the hill that led down to the railway, there stood another kind of station - one with a blue lamp outside. I had seen the police station when I arrived and had resolved to pass by on my way out, so as to afford myself one final opportunity to do the decent thing and turn myself in. Needless to say, I didn’t take it, but I thought it spoke highly of me that I had given myself the option to do the right thing. I walked past with my head held high and every step away from the police station seemed a little easier and by the time I reached the ticket office I was practically floating on air.
I had done it. I had not only planned and executed a murder, but it looked like I was about to get away with it. The gleeful feeling was incredible. Only by being confronted by death, by instigating it and pushing someone else into the void, did I see just what a powerful force life really was. It was a wonderful, dizzying revelation and I felt more alive than ever before. This was my life and death was my drug, my love, my passion. I know understood the purest, most concentrated truth in the universe: there was life and there was death. If you mastered one, you owned the other.
From that point on, there was no going back. I knew what my purpose in life was and on the train home, as I looked out of the window and caught glances of houses, towns and fields and flashing frames of the tiny lives that inhabited them, I promised myself that I would undoubtedly kill again.