This is Part 3/3 of ‘Death and the Gum Tree’, a short story I wrote last year. The story is set in a small Australian country town in the 1970s. Any feedback is welcome. Hope you enjoy!
Beryl was surprised when the police didn’t come to interview her and Pat that night, surely the neighbours of the victim should be interviewed for clues? How else were they going to gather enough evidence to convict Joy?
However, they were called upon the next day by the same officer she had seen comforting Joy. Now that Beryl could see him up close and in daylight she realised he was a lot younger than she first thought. He was also surprisingly informal, introducing himself as Jason and relaxing into their leather sofa.
“It’s been a long day, lots of paperwork.” He explained, massaging his ankle as if to emphasise how hard he had been working.
Beryl saw Pat raise an eyebrow, she imagined he was holding back a snide remark. Her husband held the police force in high regard, but he also disliked people who complained about their jobs. Jason stretched out his arms and let out a big yawn, Pat’s face grew dark.
“Would you like a drink Officer?” Beryl exclaimed, hoping to keep the peace.
“Yes please Mrs Campbell, an orange juice would be nice.” Jason replied, giving her a hopeful smile that made him look like a young boy begging for sweets.
It was then that Beryl suddenly realised where she knew him from; not too long ago Jason was one of the schoolboys she’d see hanging out at the basketball court opposite the supermarket. She remembered his face from a few years back, when he’d whistle at the neighbourhood girls as they went by. Why on earth would they send someone so young to investigate a murder?
Unless they didn’t think it was a murder.
Beryl went to fetch the juice, while Jason and Pat made small talk. After she delivered the drinks, Jason got his notepad out.
“So let’s get this over with, how long have you known Joy and Daniel Clarke?”
“About eight years.” Pat replied.
“Did they seem happily married to you?”
“Absolutely not,” Beryl said and launched into a description of the Clarkes’ bad marriage, waving her hands about with gusto as she recounted the episode with the shotgun.
Officer Jason listened politely and took a few notes while Beryl was speaking, but on the whole did not seem as interested as she thought he would be. To Beryl it was an open and shut case – the oppressed housewife concocted a scheme to crudely murder her abusive husband. Daniel Clarke was murdered by his wife, she was sure of it.
Jason asked a few more questions about Daniel Clarke and how he acted, but his mind seemed to be somewhere else. It seemed like no time at all before he got up to leave.
“Thank you for your time Mr. and Mrs. Campbell.” He said cordially.
“Do you think you have enough evidence to get her?” Beryl exclaimed with a hint of desperation.
“Who?” Jason replied confused.
“Joy Clarke of course!”
“Mrs. Campbell.” He said, attempting a serious tone at odds with his youthful features. “The opinion down at the station is that this was a tragic accident. Mr. Clarke was drunk and we surmise that he fell into the tub.”
“Keep your peace, Beryl.” Pat interrupted her, placing a hand on his wife’s arm. “Is that all, Officer?”
“Yes Mr. Clarke, I better be off now.” He said, heading out the front door.
Pat moved to the door to wave him off and Beryl could only watch from the window as the likelihood of Joy’s conviction went with him.
A few evenings before Christmas, Pat was sitting on the back veranda nursing a beer and pondering the events of the last few months. Joy Clarke had escaped a murder charge, which had made Beryl livid. The police had ruled Daniel Clarke’s death an accidental drowning and the worst they could say of Joy was that she forgot to empty the tub after the children had their baths.
Mrs Clarke and her children were still living next door and Beryl refused to even go outside for fear of seeing Joy. For over a month she had been hanging up the laundry in the master bedroom.
Pat had made it clear that they weren’t moving and it was an ongoing source of conflict between the two of them. Pat loved his comfortable house and the street they lived in. The Clarke woman was an irritation for sure, nice to look at, but loud and brash. Daniel and Joy used to fight like cats and dogs, but now he was gone things seemed to have quietened down. A crude way to go, but not unexpected for a man like that.
Pat was reaching for his third beer when he heard Joy’s boisterous laugh coming from next door. He watched as she strutted over to the fence opposite his to speak with their new neighbour Mrs. Allen. The Allens had moved in not long after Ruby left, which had also upset Beryl. Ruby couldn’t stand living next to an alleged murderess so had decided to move west of the river.
She was clad in denim shorts that looked more like underwear, as opposed to something fit for the outdoors. Her shirt was tight and sleeveless, cut in what he imagined was a modern style popular with young women.
The attractiveness of her pleasing figure was overshadowed by her trashy outfit, which was an absolute disgrace in Pat’s opinion. His mother would have caned his sisters if any of them stepped out in something like that.
Joy’s voice was loud and carried over to where he was sitting.
“- then I twisted his neck until I heard the crack.”
Pat froze in his chair, pulse quickening.
“I don’t think I would ever be able to kill like that.” Mrs. Allen replied and Pat tensed.
“Oh, well I think you get used to it after a while, isn’t that right Pat?” She said, causing him to jump out his chair and spill half of the beer on his trousers.
“What?” He snapped while trying to adjust himself so the beer wasn’t so cold on his privates.
“You lived on a farm, right? Didn’t you ever kill chickens?” She said, turning to look at him.
“Uhm-” Pat was speechless.
“Do you remember that look of uncomprehending fear and desperation when you grabbed the neck? The thrill of taking life and the feeling of satisfaction once it’s done?” She said, fixing him with a slightly amused stare with more than a hint of malice.
“Well I-” He started, but was interrupted by the ding of Joy’s oven timer.
“Oh that’s my casserole, I must be going.” She said, darting inside.
Pat didn’t waste a moment.
“Beryl!” He shouted, abandoning his deck chair and hurrying through the back door to where his wife sat in front of the television.
“I think we should move!”