Fresh Fruit From the Gallow Tree

A single angry voice rose above the hum of the city interrupting Emile Dvorak’s musings. He looked down to the street, three floors below, to see a man expressing outrage into a phone. The man looked ridiculous as he paraded like an actor in a one part play unaware of his audience.

Whatever the man felt so ardent about didn’t interest Emile so he returned to his flat. The door closing brought a silence that wasn’t welcome either. The eternity of the city reassured him. The mass of people, of noise, of activity provided hope of a relentless continuance of life.  Silence formed a vacuum sucking in the horrors of the past.

To stop his memories breaching the dam, Emile busied himself with his new security routine.  The first task was to get out the zimmer frame he had nicked from his recently deceased neighbour. He leant the frame so it slotted securely under the door handle. The addition of a heavy metal case ensured it couldn’t slip. He was confident no-one was getting in through the door.

The front window was the next problem to solve. It opened on to the communal landing and was as vulnerable as the door. Three times in the last year they’d come in. He’d had to keep calling the maintenance team at the council constantly which was almost as irritating as the break in’s.

Been in again have they Emile? Did you leave the window open? Maybe you should think about moving to somewhere more secure.

Well-meaning, patronising arses, the lot of them. Emile didn’t need reminding he was an old man, but it didn’t make him a fool or a child. These thoughtless people had no idea who he was, what he’d done, what he was capable of.

It had taken a bit of luck or maybe fate but he’d found a radical solution to the window issue. There was little he could do about the window itself, but there was a way to ensure they didn’t get any further. As always, it was Emile’s own self-reliance and guile that provided the answer. Whoever made the mistake of coming in would never do it again. Staring down as his handy work, he was willing one of them to have a go.

***

A squeal from the front room woke him. He sat up in a panic ready to reach for his stick before remembering what would have happened.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ the voice screamed, ‘get me out.’

Emile couldn’t help a chuckle as he wrapped his dressing gown around him. He slipped his feet into his slippers, picked up his stick and slowly made his way to the front room.

‘You’re a dead man,’ the boy on the floor said as the light went on. He was young. His black hoodie had fallen off exposing short gelled hair stuck to his head like glue. Emile’s eyes were drawn to boy’s leg. It was stuck fast as the metal clasp held strong.  Iron teeth sought out flesh through the material of the boy’s baggy black trousers.

‘Get me out,’ the kid screamed again, ‘it’s killing me.’

‘It’s supposed to,’ Emile said, making himself comfortable in his armchair. The trap had been quite a find. He hadn’t actively been looking for it, but he found it via a guy selling scrap metal at a car boot sale. A bit of oil on the springs and job done.

‘I’ll do you for this,’ he repeated, ‘plus the cops will do you. Can’t assault me.’

‘Haven’t touched you,’ Emile said calmly, ‘I’m sat in my chair. You came here of your own free will.’

The boy was panting now. Sweat appeared on his brow.

‘Your mates gone?’ Emile asked.

The boy hesitated and it was sufficient to tell him what he needed to know.

‘Thought you were the tough boy.’ he said slowly, watching the boy’s nervous movement.’

The boy’s face was a concentration of pain. He looked from ceiling, to floor anywhere to shift the pain as his body fought the shock.

‘You weren’t expecting that when you came in here, were you?’ Emile said. ‘Do you know what gave me the idea? Someone once caught me like that. I’ll never forget the agony of those metal teeth cutting into my leg. One moment I was freezing cold and shivering, the next I didn’t know what to do with myself, the pain was so unbearable.’

‘I can’t believe you’re enjoying this. I swear, I’m going to kill you,’ the boy said, ‘I’m going to smack your face in.’

‘‘Do you know the difference between then and now?’ Emile continued, ignoring the boy’s threats.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You see the guy who trapped me was a friend. I say friend, Josef was… but he wasn’t. I suppose he worked for the good guys and I didn’t. Desperate times meant desperate acts. It was a small town; it was only a matter of time before our paths crossed. I thought I was being clever, but just like you, I walked straight into the trap. Josef heard me scream and ran out to find me. He saw his friend, I saw my captor. You know how it feels. If I let you go, you’re not about to shake my hand. As soon as he released the spring I took a knife hidden in my pants and cut his throat. I watched him bleed to death, all the time his eyes wide open, staring at me in disbelief.’

The boy watched him silently. Emile imagined him, working out, how he might get his opportunity.

‘I’m not going to let you go, if that’s what you are thinking.’

‘You can’t leave me like this,’ he said, the pitch louder. The boy’s face glowed red with frustration. ‘I’m bleeding. It’s rusty as fuck, I’ll catch something.’ He pulled again on the trap but screamed as the movement simply increased the pain.

‘What’s your name?’

‘What do you care? How long you going to keep me here?’

‘I don’t know. You tell me. I can’t say I’ve really thought it through. I might just go back to bed. I’m a little tired tonight. Maybe I will come back in the morning, see how you are doing’

‘I’ll be dead by then,’ he said.

‘Don’t be such a drama queen. I thought you were a tough guy, smacking old people about. Bet you felt great, bragging to your mates.’

‘I’m not like that,’ he protested.

Emile laughed.

‘Tell me your name.’

‘Why?’

‘May as well be sociable whilst you’re here.’

‘Daz. Darren.’

‘I’m Emile, Darren. I won’t call you Daz as I’m not one of your mates.’ Emile paused for a moment. It was the first time he’d considered the question of what to do next. The plan had been to make whoever broke in suffer. Whether it was him or his mates or anyone who came through that window he wanted them to never assume, never underestimate, never patronise him again. He might be old but he wasn’t to be messed with.

‘Well Emile, I didn’t come round for a chat, so get on with it,’ Darren said, ‘Call the cops, don’t care; just get on with it.’

‘I could, but why spoil the fun?’

‘You’re off your head.’

‘Maybe… maybe not,’ Emile said. He was enjoying winding the boy up, but he also wanted to know more. ‘So why did you break in here? You must know everyone round here has been robbed dozens of times, there’s not much left to take.’

‘There’s always something, easy pickings.’

‘Fresh fruit from the gallow tree.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what Josef said to me when he let me go. I didn’t understand at first, took me a while, but I got there in the end. Sometimes we go for the easy targets, the freshest fruit; we don’t look further ahead, we miss the noose waiting on the branch.’

‘You’re sick you are. Sitting there, loving every minute. Does it get you off or what? Bet you’re a kiddy fiddler as well.’

‘Don’t’ talk to me like that you little shit. You’ve no idea. I’m talking about survival, cunning; something you’ll never understood.’ Emile said. He felt his heart pump faster. He gripped his stick. This idiot deserved the pain but Emile was feeling uncomfortable deciding what to do. He needed to keep calm, think it through.

‘You don’t know anything about me. All you see is shit on your shoe. Whatever happened to you, you are one fucked up old man.’

‘Oh, so I should just sit here and let you rob me? You picked the wrong place for that. The trouble is, Darren, you assume too much. All you see is an old man. Maybe you can broaden your outlook to think old soldier. There is significance to our meeting. You see, when you came into my flat, you put your head in the noose. The thing is, that makes us connected and dependent on each other. So all those assumptions you made about me, maybe my assumptions about you. It makes no difference because now we have to face the reality of who we are.

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You see, I’m not a very nice person.’

‘And you know I’m not. You think I don’t know about survival. I might not have been in a war but it’s no paradise on these streets either.’

‘True but everything’s relative. If I took you back to the fifties in Poland, you’d wet your pants.’

‘I thought you had a stupid accent. So what were you? An old Nazi mate of Hitler’s? It would explain why you’re so fucked up.’

‘Wow, a little imagination, Darren. I’m impressed, maybe you did go to school for a day. But sadly you’re wrong…wrong period, but at least you’re thinking now.’

‘Yeah, big deal. Still going to get you, trapped or not.’

‘Maybe you’re right,’ Emile replied, still weighing up tactics in his mind. The boy must have a weapon, they all did. Maybe a knife, a screwdriver, he could easily make it look like self-defence. He had to be careful; remember his own lesson. ‘You’re wondering what I’m going to do., I can see that under all that abuse. You don’t know what I’ve got planned, how crazy I actually am. You’ve already guessed that I’m not just a stupid old man. The only thing you know for sure is you made the wrong decision tonight.’

‘No, mate you made the wrong decision.’

‘Still the bravado. I am slightly impressed, you’ve not even tried being nice to me or tried to get round me with offers of regret and promises you’ll run off and not come back.’

‘You have to let me go at some point,’ Darren protested and then screamed as loud as he could.

‘Fine with me, if you want to scream. I’m happy to explain the circumstances of our meeting, are you?’

‘You’ll go down for this,’ Darren said, ‘this is torture.’

‘I haven’t touched you remember?’

Darren didn’t respond. Emile could see his movements were more tentative as he concentrated on relieving the pain. He tried leaning on the wall to take some weight off his legs but a cry or a curse came with every movement.

‘Anyway I was explaining how we were both not really the type to make our mothers proud. I was a Pole as I said, and I killed my so called friend. It was after the war, the Russians were all over us. At first it wasn’t bad after the concentration camps, the Nazis, but it was still a mess. The Russians locked the country down. We were desperate for freedom from the communists, so we formed a resistance. These days they’d be called a militia or terrorists. The communists were ruthless bastards. I assume you heard of the cold war, the Iron Curtain.’

Darren just grunted.

‘Obviously you missed that lesson.’

The wall of memories started to crumble as Emile talked. The sense of fear, desperation; the smell of the soil mixed with blood and sweat bringing his body to life. He stood up, feeling the energy in his words. ‘Details are unimportant Darren, but suffice to say they were as bad as the Nazis. They turned us against each other, exploited our starvation. We were scavenging out in the streets, in the woods. Anything for a glimpse of hope. And when someone offers you hope, you take it.’

Darren was scrabbling round on the floor, trying to work out if he could release the spring, Emile edged a little closer to him; maybe this was the moment.

‘I was persuaded to work for the communists, despite hating them. You see in the world of survival, bread and vodka can make the difference between right and wrong. So I spied on the resistance, followed them to their hideout, reporting back, who was there, what I could hear. But the resistance were as paranoid as the communists, with good reason. They set traps. God knows what they had planned for anyone caught.’ His heart was racing now, the pain and anger as real as it was then.  

‘When Josef appeared, I thought he would be the one to kill me. He was furious but more concerned with what to do about it. I could see he pitied me. I was desperate, scared and I knew that even if he wasn’t prepared to go through with it, the others wouldn’t think twice. So I killed him.’

Darren continued to work at the spring. Emile wasn’t sure whether he was succeeding or not, but he was working with more urgency. The regular glances hinted that maybe the boy sensed what was coming, that Emile was going to finish it.

‘I stole his papers and escaped. I scrambled for days with my leg in agony, but I survived. I got to the Czech border and made my way to Austria. So you can see; I will do what it takes.’

Darren cursed loudly as his hand slipped.

This time Emile didn’t hesitate.  He lifted his stick, striking Darren across the head. Darren screamed and fell. There was a glimmer of metal, long and thin, probably a chisel or screwdriver. But Darren’s movements were clumsy, restricted by pain. Emile struck him again. The weapon dropped clear.  It was a chisel, obviously what he’d used to get in the window. Emile leapt for it as Darren kicked out with his leg. Emile was quicker and in seconds had it in his hand.

He stood tall, stick in one hand chisel in the other.

‘Please,’ Darren said cowering below him. ‘I’ll go. I’ll leave you alone, I promise.’

Emile felt some regret. Was that the same plea he’d made to Josef? Had he really meant to go this far? Was killing Darren the same fresh fruit Josef was talking about, taking the easy option? But what was the alternative?

Emile held the stick in the air again, hesitating. As Darren recoiled, Emile saw the fear in his eyes. It was obvious what to do, the lesson learnt, never hand control to your victim. The boy’s hands rose in defence as Emile’s stick crashed down again. Switching his balance, Emile used the momentum to ram the chisel deep into the boy’s throat. The flesh gave in easily. Blood exploded from the wound.  

Emile scrambled back towards his seat, soaked in Darren’s blood. His whole body trembled as the trauma took hold. The adrenaline began to slip away, replaced by a creeping feeling of dread; maybe the noose of the gallow tree was waiting for him.

© S.G.Norris