The White Cliffs of Dover

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Short Story by Bastiaan Remmelzwaal

Henry Haversham was reading the local daily, while pecking at his breakfast of marmalade on toast, flanked by the inevitable cup of tea. He had maintained this morning routine for as long as Audrey could remember. She had once added a boiled egg to his plate, but ended up being reprimanded for such a mindless act of spontaneity. On another occasion, his fiftieth birthday it was, she had suggested that they should celebrate and take their breakfast at the local farm shop. He had merely looked up from his newspaper and frowned at her.

‘Listen to what it says here, Audrey. “In England, one in six people frequently experience common mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.” So there you are, I am not the only one! Hang on, it also says that suicide is a significant social issue, with last year well over a thousand registered deaths in England and Wales, making for an average of three suicides per day.’

Henry, aged sixty-four, had recently retired from a national insurance company. Back in the day, he himself had been one of his first customers and taken out an insurance on his own life. Even though Audrey had not seen the need for it at the time, Henry had explained to her the favourable terms of the policy, guaranteeing a pay-out of one million pounds to Audrey, should he expire before the age of sixty-five. Not having a crystal ball, he could not have foreseen that this noble act would later bite him on the butt.

He and Audrey, who was five years younger, had been married for almost forty years. The picture on the mantelpiece was taken at the wedding ceremony at St Mary’s Catholic Church. All their married life they had lived in a house by the sea, in St Margaret’s Bay, just a few miles from Dover where Henry had worked all his life. Much to Audrey’s regret, they had not been blessed with children. Without explicitly telling him so, Audrey blamed Henry for this. Soon after their wedding, Henry had developed a strong aversion to sex. No matter what Audrey had tried in her efforts to tempt him, nothing had worked.

Every evening and during weekends, Henry could be found upstairs, in the company of his one passion in life; an elaborate model train collection. Granted, it was a fine set with original Märklin locomotives, wagons and every accessory you can possibly imagine. A variable transformer powered the rolling stock, the lights and railway crossings. One evening, when Audrey had felt particularly randy and somewhat tipsy, she had gone upstairs stark naked and pulled the plug out of the socket. To her surprise, however, the trains continued running as if nothing had happened, upon which Henry had proudly explained to her the ins and outs of the battery backup. That not quite being the ins and outs that Audrey had hoped for, she went back downstairs and opened another bottle of wine.

While not begrudging her husband so exquisite a hobby, Audrey had long ago decided to look elsewhere for entertainment of the romantic variety. To date, she had clocked up an admirable number of affairs and one-night stands, much of these scheduled on her weekly so-called bingo evenings that ran late into the night. Over the years, her friend Nancy, a three-time divorcee, had happily covered for her, although dear Henry had never asked any questions.

‘Now listen to this, Audrey. This article even talks about our famous cliffs.’ Henry continued to read. ‘Over the past thirty years, over one hundred people have died on the cliffs, all of them recorded as suicides or unexplained sudden deaths. Last year alone, several people took their lives by jumping off the three hundred feet cliff and dozens more were arrested because it seemed they were about to try.’

Audrey was acutely aware of Henry’s gloomy outlook on life, at times bordering on manic depression. On several occasions, Henry had contemplated ending his life. ‘You will be fine, Audrey,’ he told her, ‘with the insurance pay-out, you will manage just fine. You can travel the world and do whatever you have always wanted to do. All we need to do is make it look like natural death, or like an accident. It will be our little secret. I have lived a happy enough life, but now I am at the end of the road. What’s the point in sitting it out and both of us being unhappy?’

Audrey had somehow managed to put up with her miserable husband, taking into account his decision for a redeeming act of selflessness. She went as far as assisting Henry with exploring the various ways of kicking the bucket. They had discussed buying a gun and blame a burglar who had managed to escape. They had looked into poisoning and into taking an overdose, but decided that any attempt at suicide would disqualify them from claiming the insurance money. For that reason hanging was also off the menu. Drowning was a possibility, but swimming had always frightened Henry.

Audrey had read about a sophisticated ancient Chinese method for killing someone, called the invisible death. All it needed was some finely ground glass, mixed in a cup of tea or bowl of soup. The pulverised grains of glass destroyed the internal organs and nobody ever found out what caused it. However, as this was rather a painful way to exit, Henry would certainly not agree to it. Therefore, she thought it best to keep this idea to herself and use it as a last resort.

That left jumping of the cliff, a fail proof method, tried and tested by many. But again, that would point at foul play. Unless, of course, they could make it look like a mishap. Many a breakfast was spent debating the many alternatives, but no suitable method had yet been decided upon.

Privately, Audrey had been planning the post-Henry stage of her life for years. Hidden away, in a cupboard in the visitors’ bedroom (never used), she kept brochures of sunny holiday destinations, organised tours to the Holy Land, and safari expeditions in East Africa. Most recently, she had added all the information she could find about cruises around the Mediterranean and the Greek islands. But now that Henry had celebrated his sixty-fourth birthday, she realised that time was running out. Even though Henry still intended to honour his decision to call it a day, it worried her that they had not yet decided on a date and a plan.

It was around three months before Henry would turn sixty five, that Audrey decided to take matters into her own hands. Not doing anything and waiting for Henry’s next birthday to come along was not an option. They had agreed on the matter and now the time had come to execute their plan. Some leadership was called for in everyone’s interest. The first move she made was booking tickets to the British Railway Museum in Warwickshire, where they spent an entire Sunday together walking around admiring the model railway collection. Audrey did her utmost to pretend that she was interested, much to Henry’s delight. Heading back to the Royal Leamington Spa railway station, they were the last to leave the exhibition.

Next, with tricks and treats, Audrey had managed to convince Henry to join her for a party at a friends’ house. Since they had few friends, this was a rare occasion, and Henry had reluctantly agreed on the condition that they would not stay very long. Audrey set out to be the life of the party, while surreptitiously adding generous amounts of vodka to Henry’s orange juice. All went according to plan. Henry excitedly told whoever was willing to listen about their trip to the railway museum and his own collection. Audrey repeatedly kissed Henry on the cheek, making sure to be seen doing so by many. Even her friend Nancy commented, be it with a wink, on how she and Henry looked like the perfect couple. ‘I am glad to see you happy like this, Audrey. Like wine, the two of you get better with age.’

The following day, at around five in the afternoon, after Henry had spent the entire day upstairs fiddling with his trains, Audrey asked him to go for a walk with her along the cliff. ‘Why not take your camera with you, Henry. It’s a clear sky and ideal for taking some pictures. I have already made some sandwiches.’ Henry reluctantly agreed, after making Audrey promise that she would not bother him again for the rest of the evening.’

It was then and there that Henry dropped the bombshell that messed with Audrey’s plans. While walking on the path along the edge of the cliff, Henry told her that he had changed his mind. They came to a bench and Henry suggested that they sit down for a bit and talk. He told Audrey that he no longer felt sure about wanting to go ahead with their plan. ‘My concern is that all the options that we discussed are rather painful. But it is not only that, my love. At yesterday’s party, I had this sudden feeling that life wasn’t so bad after all. I mean we can take an annual membership to the railway museum and go more often. Who knows, perhaps we can go to a party again sometime. What I am trying to say to you, my love, is that I am no longer so keen on ending my life. There is the issue of the insurance money, I am well aware of that. But you do understand what I mean, don’t you?’

Audrey swallowed a couple of times, not quite prepared for this curved ball. Looking into the distance, she managed to regain her composure. ‘Well, I am very happy to hear that, my dear. After all, money is not everything. Perhaps you will consider some traveling. I would love to go to…’

Henry interrupted her. ‘Not really, Audrey. Traveling is not for me. Anyway, you can see it all on TV.’

If there had been any reluctance at all, for Audrey this was the nail in the coffin, the point of no return. Whatever fresh doubts she may have had rapidly vanished into thin air. She furtively looked left and right, making sure that there were no other people in sight.

‘You are probably right, Henry. It’s amazing what one can watch on TV nowadays. Let’s walk a little closer to the edge. It’s such a beautiful view. Perhaps we can see the coast of France in the distance.’

‘I am so glad that you understand, Audrey. Are you sure that you are not disappointed?’ Strolling ahead of her, towards the edge of the cliff, Henry took out his camera and turned around. ‘You look so nice, Audrey. The way your are standing there, with the green fields and the cows behind you. Come a little closer, so I take your picture.’

Audrey stood at a few arm’s length from Henry who, close to the edge of the cliff, took a few shots. He moved his camera slowly from left to right and took some more.  

‘We’re almost done, my love. Just stand still for a little longer. You know, I keep thinking, it must be awfully painful to jump down these cliffs, don’t you think?’

Audrey suddenly stepped forward. ‘Well, there’s only one way to find out, my dear.’

Having made the sign of the cross, she walked back to the bench. Munching a sandwich, she leafed through some of the holiday brochures that she had brought with her. Having fed Henry’s portion to the seagulls, she took out her mobile, called 999 and patiently waited for the medics and police to arrive.

It goes without saying that Henry did not read his newspaper and neither did he consume any breakfast the next morning, for the very simple reason that he was as dead as a doornail. Audrey read the announcement on page three, where it described an unfortunate accident on the cliffs, claiming yet another life.

Audrey had been asked to call into the police station, to draft and sign a statement describing the events leading up to the accident. Soon after, she was visited by a representative of the insurance company who questioned her at length. The police interviewed several of their friends who had been with them at the party the night before. Neither the police, nor the insurance company were able to prove foul play or cast any doubt on the accident.

On Audrey’s second visit to the police station, Chief Inspector Waldon explained to her that they were obliged to investigate accidents such as these, especially in cases where no independent witnesses were forthcoming. He assured her, however, that they would soon conclude their inquiries and be in a position to put the matter to rest.

As their meeting came to an end, Audrey asked the inspector whether they had been able to find their camera. Waldon confirmed that they had and that it would be returned to her as soon as the investigation was over. ‘Mind you, it is badly damaged.’

‘I understand that, inspector. But it was quite an expensive one and perhaps I can claim it from our insurance.’

Waldon walked Audrey to the door. ‘Thank you, inspector. You are most kind. You know, when all this is over, I am planning to take a vacation. Perhaps to an island in the sun. It will do me good to go away for a bit, don’t you think?’

‘That sounds like a good idea, Mrs Haversham.’

It was about a week later, just as Audrey was busy filling in several insurance claim forms, that she received a phone call from the police station, asking her to come in one more time. ‘Terribly sorry for the inconvenience, Mrs Haversham. But if you would be so kind.’

Chief Inspector Waldon ushered her into his room and offered her a chair near his desk. He thanked her once more for her willingness to cooperate.

‘Not a problem, inspector. Whatever I can do to assist. By the way, perhaps when we have finished here, would you mind giving me some advice? I have brought with me a few holiday brochures. I am finding it hard to decide where to go first and I would very much value your opinion.’

‘Later perhaps, we’ll see about that. As I mentioned earlier, the camera is a complete write-off. But there’s some good news as well. Some of the memory card is still intact, despite the sea water getting to it. That is to say, our technician managed to revive some of the data.’ Waldon put the micro SD memory card in an adapter and inserted it into a reader connected to his desktop computer. He turned the screen towards Audrey.

Audrey had not expected to see any of these pictures and in fact did not have the slightest need for them. Somewhat worried, she feigned a keen interest and moved closer to the monitor. ‘That’s good news, inspector. As I told you, my husband insisted on taking pictures, just before that awful accident happened. There were some cows in the field and he thought that would make a lovely picture with me in the foreground watching the sea over his shoulders, that sort of thing. Quite a romantic, my Henry.’ Audrey paused a few seconds for effect. ‘He must have taken a few steps backwards, not realising how close he was to the edge.’ She almost managed to conjure up a tear. ‘I would really like to have those pictures if you don’t mind. As a momentum, a memory of my late husband.’

Waldon moved the mouse and tapped on his keyboard. ‘Let’s have a look, shall we?’ A picture appeared on the screen. ‘You were quite right, your husband did take some nice pictures of you. I personally like this one here with you looking blissfully into the distance. I wonder what you were looking at, or dreaming about rather.’

Audrey did not say anything as Waldon clicked through several more pictures, all much the same. There was one with the church in the background and another one with two cows grazing.

‘You know something, Mrs Haversham, I really like these pictures. But, guess what, the very last picture your husband took is actually not a picture, but a short video clip rather. Did you know that?’

Audrey shook her head and swallowed, keeping her eyes on the screen. With a few clicks of the mouse, Waldon started the video at a slow playback speed, frame by frame.

‘Look, he is scanning the surroundings.’ Waldon pointed at the screen. ‘That’s St Michael’s church over there, then there is you and the cows. Now we are coming to the end of the clip and that is where our Henry points the camera directly at you. Look, now you are walking towards him, with your arms outstretched in front of you. Keep looking! There, do you see that? The palms of your hands are right in front of the camera.’

Audrey looked on in utter horror, as the clip ended with a few frames of blue sky, followed by white rockface and a close-up of some boulders in the sea.

‘Well, how about that, Mrs Haversham? Our technician tells me that the timestamp of the video is just a few seconds before the camera stopped working altogether. And before I forget, this is for you. I managed to find a brochure for visitors to Bronzefield Prison on the outskirts of Ashford in Middlesex. I suggest that you add it to your collection.’

-end-

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