The Empty Bed

They had arrived together.  We heard about the news and that they were being transferred to us, but we didn’t ask any further. It seemed that they were not talking to anyone about what had happened anyway. The police had wanted to continue investigations but the Senior Citizens Party managed to put a stop to it.

Alexander Whiting was 76 and Belinda Baskerville was 79 at that time. I was a newly hired receptionist, straight out of university and happy to have my first job and first paycheque.

Since then, the home has grown in size, with over 200 residents on site now and more than enough carers, housekeepers, medics, and nurses to cope. I am now managing the reception team of five. Reception Manager.

Anyway, this story is not about me, nor about the Copperfield Nursing Home. It is a story that Alex and Bel and 32 others had kept a secret for 16 years.

When Alex and Bel first arrived, they kept to themselves, never speaking to anyone else. They answered doctors and nurses with nods or head shakes alone. We knew that they could speak as when left alone, they would whisper surreptitiously between themselves.

We were given strict instructions by management that they were not to be questioned about the incident at all. It seemed that the Senior Citizens Party made that a condition for their accommodations at the home. We respected their privacy and in turn, they gradually trusted us enough to be comfortable in their new home. They still only uttered the odd word or two.

We used to think that Alex and Bel were involved with each other, as they were inseparable. We soon realised however that theirs was a sort of alliance or partnership, which we now know spanned out of a shared secret. A burden of sorts.

They were both very healthy. Physically able and never needing any support or help. They had no complaints either and the doctors were always pleased with them after their medical tests. They loved walking in the woods behind the home, which provided more than enough exercise for their age.

Alex died at 89 years old, three years ago now due to a lung failure. It was old age that took him, really. Bel was naturally distraught. She waited another three years before leaving us in April, earlier this year. Her heart gave up. It was quick.

We think that Bel knew her time was up, as it was Easter when she took us by surprise and asked to visit the church. We asked her why and she said that she had a confession to make. She did not volunteer more information and we respected her request.

The weather turned cold and she was poorly on the day, so we asked for the local priest to do a house call instead. She frequently visits the home to chat with many of our residents, but she had never spoken with Bel before.

It was a clear crisp day when she came to see Bel. I remember bringing her through to Bel’s room.

“Morning Belinda. My name is Jane Salmon. Pleased to meet you.”

“Hi Jane… call me Bel. Thank you for coming all the way to see a dying old woman,” Bel had said with a chuckle.

“Anytime. I am always at your service.”

They hit it off straight away. I was glad to see Jane settled in and a little shocked to hear Bel speak so much. Curious as I was, I turned to head back to my duties. That was when Bel called for me to stay. She wanted a second pair of ears, was what she said. I asked Jane if it was alright and checked that the reception was covered before I settled into the lazy boy placed by the foot of Bel’s bed.

Bel looked so small in her bed, swallowed up by the three white pillows and duvet around her. Jane sat in a chair next to the bed and had reached out to hold Bel’s hand as they spoke.

“So Bel, I heard that you wanted a chat. Anything specific on your mind?”

“I am nearly 95, Jane,” Bel said as she looked across the room to the empty bed. It was Alex’s bed.

“I have spent the last 16 years thinking about what Alex and I did, at that other home. I never stopped thinking and I know Alex never stopped thinking about what happened either.”  Her hands started shaking and we could see that she was getting uncomfortable.

Jane was clearly more experienced with these situations than I was. She just took both of Bel’s hands in hers and looked directly in her eyes whilst I fidgeted uncomfortably.

“Take your time, Bel. We aren’t going anywhere and I am sure that we have more than enough tea and biscuits for us to stay here for days,” Jane smiled gently.

Bel took a deep breath and managed to calm herself before continuing.

“Let me start from the beginning,” Bel said as she plunged us into the story of their lives.

Belinda Baskerville was already married at the age of 24 when she met Alexander Whiting. He was only 21 then and the world was his oyster. She was working as a waitress in a restaurant which he frequented, as he had started an apprenticeship with a cobbler whose shop was only a few doors away.

Belinda, married to Norton Baskerville, a school teacher, had thought that her life was boring and unfulfilled. Though married for over three years, they hadn’t had any children, which seemed to put a strain on the marriage.

Alex, on the other hand had been trying his hand at all sorts. He worked as an apprentice to a barber, then a butcher, then a plumber, before he decided that cobbling was his new trade. At 21, Alex stood at a strapping 5 foot 11 inches with a head full of beautiful golden blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. He always seemed to be without a worry in the world.

Bel had served Alex a few times at the restaurant and she was automatically taken by him. Bel felt energised every time Alex was around and in the end, she decided to make a move. She had heard all about Alex’s encounters with the local girls and thought that she could get away with a non-comital affair with him.

It was a clear summer’s day when Bel brazenly handed Alex a tissue with a time and address written on it in red. Her heart was beating so hard that she thought she was going to faint. After she gave Alex the tissue, she made some excuse and stayed in the kitchen until Alex left the restaurant.

The Empty Bed

She had given him the address of her friend’s flat whom she was flat-sitting for at that time. Her friend, Angie was visiting her family and was away for two weeks.

Bel ran to the flat and sat thinking for the longest time if she had gone mad. She freshened up and put on a nice silk slip that she had also borrowed from her friend, and then proceeded to sit and wait. Many things went through her mind at that time. She thought he was not going to turn up and started thinking about why she was so stupid, thinking why such a handsome young man would ever consider her over all the pretty young girls who throw themselves at him. She had just about given up when she heard knocking on the door.

Her stomach did a flip as she got up to answer it. He had come after all.

They did not speak at all and left all the communicating to their physical needs. Afterwards, they curled up together, still not talking for as long as they could before they dressed in silence and headed back to their separate homes. She swore that was going to be a one-off and thought that she was never going to see him again.

The next day, Bel did not know this at the time, but Alex was called back to his family as his father had met in an accident. The news was not good and it was two weeks later when his father died.

Alex stayed with his family for two years, helping his mother and two sisters manage the household. He told Bel that he had thought of her throughout those years but did not know how he could contact her, for he did not even know her name.

Bel had assumed that Alex had left for greener pastures never to return. With a heavy heart, she vowed to work on her marriage. Bel and Norton continued to be hopeful that they may get pregnant, so life went on as usual.

In the two years, Alex’s sister, Mabel got married to a well-off gentleman who took his mother and sister Alice with them to stay. So, Alex decided to move to the city to start a new life.

He was curious if Bel was still working at the restaurant and went to look for her before his move to the city. He wanted to see if fate was kind.

Alex arrived at the restaurant one Monday morning and sat down to have a coffee when he saw Bel walk through to start her shift. Bel did not see him and walked straight through to the back. Alex, not knowing what to do, quickly scribbled his name and the name of the B&B that he was staying at on a napkin, and waited until Bel came out. She did not even get the chance to look at him when he thrusted the napkin into her palm and whispered, “Please come”.

That was how their year-long affair started.

Alex had some money from his inheritance and with odd errands that he ran for people here and there, he managed to maintain a small studio near the restaurant. Bel visited his flat every day and their relationship flourished.

It was a year later that Norton discovered the affair. He was home early one day and had wanted to surprise Bel at the restaurant when he saw her walking out, clearly having finished her shift. Norton followed Bel to Alex’s flat and barged in on them.

Norton was delirious with anger. Feeling betrayed and having never met Alex or known of his existence, Norton decided to take his anger out on Bel.

Norton reached for the nearest thing he could find, which was an umbrella propped against the door frame. As he reached over his head with the umbrella, ready to bring it down on Bel, Alex jumped in to protect her and got the brunt of the hit. This made Norton even angrier as he continued to bash the umbrella blindly at the both of them.

Alex somehow managed to crawl towards the kitchen and had found a knife. Without thinking, he slashed at Norton, cutting him on his arms. There was blood everywhere.

Norton started using the umbrella even more aggressively, and that was when Alex stabbed the knife into his stomach. Norton crumpled to the ground and time stopped. There was silence as both Bel and Alex looked on in disbelief.

Alex had placed the knife down on the floor and moved towards the telephone to call emergency services when Bel shouted in despair and reached out for the knife. Alex had thought that Bel was going to kill herself and abandoned the call, but instead, she reached over and killed Norton with a stab into his neck.

Bel turned to look at Alex with frenzied eyes and in a coarse whisper said, “The blood is on both our hands now. I will not let them take you alone. I want us to be together.”

They called the police and confessed to the murder and affair. The court ruled that it was not a planned murder but had started as self-defence. They were both given 15 years in prison.

In the 15 years, they wrote to each other every day, keeping the other going with thoughts of meeting up on the outside. They stopped all communications with their families, who after a while, took them for dead. Day by day, they lived their lives inside, keeping to themselves and not causing any trouble.

They were both pardoned only a month apart and when they were released, they moved to the next county together, still keeping only to themselves. They worked odd jobs until they had saved enough money to buy a small plot of land and then they started farming.  Organic farm produce started to become trendy at that point, which meant that their business flourished. They sold their produce at their local supermarkets and maintained a quiet life until they were in their 60s.

It was the prison time that changed their relationship from lovers to partners. They were as inseparable as before, but they had both changed. They could not live without the other, but at the same time were content with a platonic relationship.

About 28 years ago, Bel and Alex realised that they should retire as they were getting old. They had enough money saved up, and with the proceeds from the sales of the farm, they could pay for their places at a nursing home. They looked at various places and decided to move to a county four hours away, to a cosy little home called ‘The Haven’.

At the Haven, Bel and Alex could put their past behind them and started making friends again. The other residents warmed to them and took them in as one of the family immediately. Bel and Alex did not mind that the others were very religious and had even joined in on prayers and celebrations. They were finally happy and at peace.

It started about a year before the incident. The residents were holding more religious meetings. They talked about the idea of achieving ultimate peace through death.

Bel and Alex did not take part in the beginning, but started to pick up on more and more of the the discussions as the other residents got more excited. They were all careful not to let any of the Haven’s staff suspect anything, as they started to plot.

The aim was for everyone to achieve ultimate peace together, as one. They knew that Bel and Alex did not believe as they did, but they offered the choice to them anyway. Bel and Alex declined as they did not think it was the right thing for them, but they wanted to help their new family. They started being more active in the discussions and in the end, they got in too deep. They helped come up with a plan to help their 32 best friends achieve their goal.

“It was really easy, actually,” said Bel.

“We rigged the work charts and used the Haven’s office emails to let everyone know not to come into work. No one questioned it as it seemed official, coming from the Haven office. We personalised the emails, letting each person know that their shift was covered and that there was just a mix up in that week’s schedule.”

Bel intermittently stopped to gaze outside, as if to recall. Her eyes were clear and her face emotionless.

“We pumped a room full of gas and we set-up a spark starter which could be controlled from the other end of the building. After we said our goodbyes, the others grouped together in the gassed room to say a prayer whilst Alex and I, hand-in-hand, strolled slowly to the other end of the building. We knew that when we set off that trigger, most of the others would have passed out from the gas anyway. We also wanted to make sure that there were no survivors… as that would have been torture,” Bel whispered, and shuddered at the thought.

The room was silent as Bel continued to stare into space, as if in a trance.

Jane broke the silence with a question. “Why did you and Alex do it, Bel?”

Bel turned to look at Jane directly. Slowly, her lips twitched into a smile. It was a warm smile, one of age and experience.

“We did it because we wanted to repent.”

This was when she laughed. Bel laughed a hearty laugh that made us really confused.

“I would have never thought that I would say this, but I was really naive, even at the ripe old age of 79. Alex and I both thought that since we have already sinned before, we would be the ideal candidates for the role. We also thought that if we could help 32 people, the guilt of murdering one would fade away. Little did we know.” Bel paused and softly shook her head.

“We couldn’t talk about it for the longest time. In fact, we never did. It was only when Alex was suffering in his lungs that he told me that he wanted the truth out. He knew that it was not fair for the news to come out when I was still alive, so he gave me the choice. Of telling it, or not, when I knew it was time. Alex was right of course. We sinned and we sinned twice. We covered the one murder with 32 more. It was not right, but how were we to know?” she said with regret in her voice.

“They were so sure of what they were doing that we believed and trusted them. We were naive,” she sniggered to herself bitterly.

Jane looked at Bel with confidence in her eyes. She said, “It was not your fault, nor your guilt to bear, Bel. What you and Alex did, you did with pure innocent hearts. You have already done your time for the first mistake. What happened at the Haven was a choice that the others had made, not you.”

Bel looked up at Jane, the years showing on the lines of her face.

“Thank you, Jane. You comfort an old lady, but I know what we did.”

Jane and I could not get Bel to say another word after that. She would smile at us or nod or shake her head, but she would not say another word until the day she passed on.

Jane and I went to the police with Bel’s story after that, and they checked out all the facts. There were records of Bel’s and Alex’s time in prison and records of their daily letters being sent. The police also went through the records of all the 32 residents in the Haven to see if there were any surviving relatives, but there were none.

So, where does that leave this story?

It is just that, just another story, which if were left untold would not have mattered anyway.