Executionby Hugo Wilcken
Matthew Bourne -- very much the center of his own universe -- has a long-term partner, a mistress, and a successful career with a human rights agency, where he is campaigning to secure the release of a condemned African dissident. Then one day a colleague's wife dies in tragic circumstances, and Matthew is called to identify the body. Only much later does he… See more details below
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Matthew Bourne -- very much the center of his own universe -- has a long-term partner, a mistress, and a successful career with a human rights agency, where he is campaigning to secure the release of a condemned African dissident. Then one day a colleague's wife dies in tragic circumstances, and Matthew is called to identify the body. Only much later does he realize that this incident has seeped into his life like a slow poison, and he spirals into a nightmare of death and betrayal.
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Christian's wife was killed in a car crash yesterday. Apparently her brakes failed and the car careered into a shop front. The shop was open at the time but there were no other victims, just her. She died from asphyxiation, the seat belt crushed her windpipe. If she hadn't been wearing her seat belt, she might have survived.
I wouldn't say I knew her. I'd met her twice, maybe three times, when she'd come into the office looking for Christian. We'd probably said no more than hello to each other. She was around thirty-five I'd say and quite good-looking -- I wondered how she'd ended up with someone like Christian. Once, about a year ago, Christian asked me whether I wanted to go for a drink with him and his wife, but I had something else on so I turned him down. The invitation surprised me, because although we've worked in the same office for the past eighteen months, I have no particular rapport with Christian and I've never socialized with him. I was with him yesterday though, when they called about his wife.
There'd been a department meeting in the morning. The news had just come in about Jarawa's sentence and we're launching a major campaign for him. Jamie's appointed me team leader, with Christian and Joanne working under me. It's my first big campaign so it's important to me. After the meeting I got cuttings and printouts from the library and looked over them until lunchtime, making notes and thinking. Then I went with Christian to the Italian sandwich bar on the corner. It's the first time I've had lunch with him alone. I've never directly worked with him either,until now. Straightaway he told me that he was pissed off I was leading the campaign and not him. I could understand his disappointment: he's about forty and I'm only twenty-nine. Besides, West Africa is "his" area. Anyway I didn't want any trouble so I said I hoped we could work as equals on this one. I proposed we divide the responsibilities evenly, while Jo, being younger and fairly inexperienced, could look after paperwork and legwork and coordinate the volunteers. My idea was that Christian could liaise with contacts in Africa while I handled government officials and the other human rights agencies. I'd also put in a visa application for him, although it was of course unlikely to be granted. The proposal pleased him. He'd wanted to be frank about the fact that he was pissed off, he said, but he knew he could work with me.
After lunch we started to flesh out our campaign strategy in his office. We'd hardly sat down, though, when the phone rang and Christian answered. It was a very brief conversation. He put down the phone and didn't say anything. He went very white and stared at me. I said, what's up? He said, she's dead, she's been killed. I automatically assumed he meant his wife -- perhaps because I knew they didn't have any children. But thinking about it now, it might just as well have been his mother, or someone completely different. I didn't exactly know what to say. He just sat there, with his bloodless face. After a while he said, so what am I going to do now? and rocked a little in his chair. Then I spoke....We had some sort of conversation, which I can't remember now. He must have told me it was his wife, that she'd had a car accident, that it had taken place in Oxford, where he and his wife lived. I hadn't known they lived in Oxford. It seemed a pretty long way for Christian to commute every day.
He looked so completely helpless that I suggested I drive him down to Oxford, to the hospital. I had plenty of things to do that afternoon, and no doubt someone else in the office would have done a much better job of looking after Christian, but he'd been with me when he'd found out about his wife, so somehow it seemed like my responsibility. He sat there in complete silence, still rocking in his chair and hugging himself. So eventually I stood up and said: come on, we've got to go, you can't sit here all day. I sort of got him up and took his jacket off the hanger on the back of the door and helped him into it. He was like a zombie.
We were caught up in a snarl at Marble Arch but got onto the motorway pretty quickly after that. We didn't talk. While I'd been negotiating traffic on the way out of London the silence seemed normal, but then we were flying down the motorway and it felt like there was a void that needed to be filled. On several occasions I caught myself on the point of initiating small talk, more or less as a reflex action. But that would have been even less appropriate than the void. The car engine hummed so softly and evenly in the background that after a while I couldn't hear it anymore, and it seemed as if we were in total silence. At first I didn't feel awkward, but gradually an air of acute embarrassment invaded me. I thought of putting the radio on to break the spell, but in the end decided against it. It occurred to me that I'd been in a bit of a daze as we'd left the office, and that I'd forgotten to say to anyone where we were going or that we wouldn't be back. I had my mobile phone with me, though, and I thought of calling, but then decided against that too. I...The Execution. Copyright © by Hugo Wilcken. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Hugo Wilcken is an Australian-born writer who has lived in London and Paris, where he now makes his home. Named by the Guardian as one of the "Top Five Writers to Watch," he is currently at work on his second novel.
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