CHILLED

I began this fact-based fiction in a tiny riverside guesthouse while recovering from an ear infection in Krabi, Southern Thailand.

To many of her friends and acquaintances Laura Miranda Heslop, or Mandy as she was better known, had something special. Her warmth and charm and perceptiveness singled her out as someone with almost mystical powers. She seemed to sense when people were down, or sickening for something. Her sympathy and attentiveness forever deepened the friendships that she formed.

But Mandy’s real talents lay in a quite different direction. 

Physically she was unprepossessing. Broad-shouldered and not afraid to wear a few more pounds than was perhaps good for her, Mandy’s hugs were a thing of legend. To be grasped by her strong arms and engulfed by the waft of herbal essences which clung to her long mousey hair was to feel rescued and comforted as if being tucked up in bed by your mother while clutching the familiar warmth of a favourite teddy bear,

Mandy was simply everyone’s next best friend. Never the truly intimate everyday friend from way back when, but someone you first came across in a crisis to whom you happily owed a debt of gratitude and from whom you could always expect calm words and good advice.

She could always be relied upon turn up when things were going badly. Her sense of timing was nothing if not fortuitous. Just when you needed a supportive shoulder to cry upon, soothing words and comfort at the most traumatic of times, up would pop Mandy, undemanding, self-sufficient, and the tonic you needed most.

I was on holiday in Thailand, staying on one of the islands that was just beginning to recover from the devastation caused by the tsunami, when I first began to suspect that she was not quite what she seemed. 

I had met her before, of course, but more in passing, on numerous semi-social occasions back in the UK. At the odd christening and funeral in Brighton. She happened to be regarded as a good friend by good friends of mine, but to me she was at best a casual acquaintance. I had not seen her for more than two years. She would have no particular reason to recognise me, and when she slipped into an adjoining table in a bamboo beach-front bar adjoining the island resort where I was staying she certainly gave no indication that she had noticed me. 

It was a sweltering evening and the bar was almost full, but with local fishermen rather than western tourists. The men were getting noisy drunk after devouring a huge tureen of fish curry and sticky rice.

What struck me, at first, as rather odd was that Mandy had immediately engaged in a very intense conversation with a lonely American writer who had been engrossed in his laptop at the bar, and on the beach, almost everyday of the previous week. He rarely spoke to anyone else and the one person who had shared a table with him for a meal later told me that he was grieving the loss of a close friend – possibly even his partner. 

Ron had come away to find some solace in a very different environment to his New England home. He had begun to develop a blog about bereavement which he had shared only with a few close friends and former colleagues. It was not going well, apparently. He had looked so downhearted most of the time that most of the other western guests, intent on the simple pleasures of island life, had kept well away. A portly figure probably in his late 50s, Ron sported a lengthy greying ponytail and a white goatee – both of which had the effect of making him look older than his eyes and skin tone suggested.

Yet here he was, apparently enraptured by the ubiquitous Mandy. I would not say he was engaged in conversation, because she was doing all the talking, but he seemed completely engrossed in what she had to say. I strained to latch onto her dulcet tones amid the din from the fishermen. And once I had tuned in, I too became equally fascinated by her shocking admissions.

“So I think I may be on the run from the Fed’s” she was saying, breathlessly. She sounded almost childlike, as if being ‘wanted’ was part of a game. 

“I helped a friend to die,” she explained . “It’s something I do. Carole was an old friend I’ve known since college days. We first met when I was at Berkeley in the1960s. I was on a year’s exchange from Sussex University. It was all very exciting in those days.”

Ron appeared to be listening intently but when I studied his eyes, I could tell that his thoughts were far away. But Mandy was too wrapped up in her nostalgic trip back to the California of her youth to notice.

“We used to go on demos together, smoked a lot of pot and hung out in Haight Ashbury. Carole was really into crafts and textile design, and I was into tie-dying at the time.  We kept in touch and she would come over to see me in England whenever there was a good Festival on and I would try to get to her birthday parties in the States every couple of years.

“Then she got ill. It was breast cancer, of course. She was very brave and it all seemed to be going fine after her mastectomy. She was in remission for years. Then suddenly it was back, and more aggressive this time. She knew she was dying but she didn’t want to die in pain or under the surgeon’s knife. She refused chemotherapy and opted for palliative care. That was when I went over. “

Mandy seemed oblivious to the lack of real attention she was getting from her companion, but she had me riveted. 

“We agreed that I would help her to die in her own home. She had a lovely apartment, not quite a penthouse but really high up, and she could see the sea from her balcony, She had doses of morphine, of course, and we had mixed up a cocktail of sleeping tablets she was going to take – in a cocktail, literally. A highball actually. The irony of it.

“We watched the sunset over the ocean, and reviewed her life – our lives really. She sipped her cocktail and was beginning to slip in and out of consciousness. I helped her to swallow the last few drops, then kissed her gently on the cheek and let myself out. We had agreed that I would be the first person to find her next day. I wasn’t staying with her on this trip, but I was at a hotel nearby. We thought it better that way, so there could be no suggestion of collusion.

“But I had not reckoned with another friend of her’s turning up before me. Sukira had a key because she often looked in to do some of Carole’s washing and to tidy up the apartment. She didn’t know about our arrangement obviously, and found Carole dead with the dregs of the fatal drink beside her. My plan had been to wash it up when I got there.

“When I arrived her friend was in a terrible state and had called the police. Can you imagine? Carole had sort of suggested that her doctor knew about her plan to end it all and was willing to turn a blind eye in the circumstances, but it turned out she had never informed him. Can you imagine? And my finger prints were over everything. Can you imagine?”

At this third repetition her companion seemed to come to.

“Simon and I didn’t tell anyone either,” he said, his voice husky and tearful. “He had been ill for a long time too.  He didn’t really want to die, but he could see no alternative . He was in pain all the time and our doctor said there was no hope of a cure. It was some form of ataxia which was gradually eating up his nervous system. He wanted to go before it got to his brain, but he didn’t seem to realise it already had.’

Mandy had by now lit a cigarette and was leaning into her friend, her pudgy hand resting on his trembling arm. 

 “I know, dear,” she purred. “You mustn’t let it get to you. You did what you thought was right. Simon would have wanted it that way.”

“But I smothered him, and left him alone in bed,” the man blubbed, evidently overcome. “I just ran away.”

Mandy had now shifted herself and engulfed the wretched man in one of her famous embraces.

“Don’t worry. Don’t worry,” she whispered to him, but loud enough to be heard amidst the babble  of Thai voices on adjoining tables. I could only imagine she assumed no-one was listening, or at least no-one who could understand their conversation.

‘You’ve done the right thing to come away,” she assured him. “But you must not go public with your blog, It might arouse suspicion. You might let something slip. After all you have only heard of his death since you got here, haven’t you? Remember.” 

He was now sobbing in her arms. His impassivity earlier in the week gone, his emotions raw.

She held him for what seemed a long time. Perhaps she noticed that the clamour had died down and the other diners noticed the two figures locked together across the corner of their table. The sudden silence was palpable.

As they separated a waiter approached the table offering to refresh their drinks, Each chose a Chang and once the beer was poured conversation on other tables around them resumed. The noisy fishermen smacked their hands on the table top and ordered more beer and Hong Thong whiskey and resumed their raucous drinking session. 

Meanwhile Mandy had launched into another episode.

“I’ve done it before, of course,” she started, matter-of-factly. “There was my landlady in Brighton, years ago. She asked me directly. I suppose she was my first, in a way. She had lost her husband some years before and fallen out with her daughter over some money thing. She said she was bored with life and really depressed. She knew I was working at a pharmacists near Preston Park. It was easy enough for me to spirit away some pills to do the trick. We often had junkies coming in and nicking pills they could grind up and sell on pretending they were something else. Some even used to experiment to see if they’d get a high by mixing up top-of-the-counter medicines.

“She wanted to die happy so I got some mescaline from a dealer I knew in Kemptown and we spent a pleasant afternoon tripping in the back garden surrounded by her flowerbeds and her cats. Then when she was coming down I made up some lime juice cordial with ground up painkillers and she spooned some other pills into her mouth.

“When she seems to be asleep, I left. But I rinsed out the tumbler and half filled it with diluted cordial. I went to the cinema down at Preston Circus and came back later that evening to find her cold and rather contorted, half out of her deck chair. l dialled 999 and the ambulance and police came quite quickly. I told them she had been talking about feeling lonely and rather depressed recently but she had seemed happy enough in the garden when I left at lunchtime…”

There was a pause here…  

“The Inquest found she had taken her own life while the balance of her mind was disturbed.”

Ron was now sipping his beer thoughtfully. Mandy carried on as if she was in a confessional box, pouring out her secrets to a man who seemed incapable of the absorbing the horrors she was recounting.

“ I supposed the real first time I helped someone to die was my uncle,” she started up again. 

“That was years back, when I was a teenager. I was his favourite, and he loved to give me cuddles. Nowadays people would say he behaved inappropriately, but at the time I quite enjoyed the attention. 

“He’d got cancer too. It happened very quickly. Within three months of the diagnosis – it was lung cancer – he was at death’s door. One day he asked me to double his medicine dose; he was too weak to do it himself. So I did, and soon he just slipped away. I was on my own with him.”

“Everyone around seemed to be pleased that his agony was over. It was was a blessed relief really. I didn’t tell anyone what I had done. It had been his wish anyway.

“You know, he was a great fan of the Goons – a famous old comedy show on British radio. I remember we had listened to an old vinyl record of his called Milligan Preserved. Its full of silly sketches with Spike Milligan, one of the Goons. One track of is called Hit Parade. It’s about a man whose hobby is hitting people! He’s just retired and sees an old lady walking down the road and suddenly feels compelled to hit her. ‘Wallop, wallop, down she went, and I’d started my new hobby,’ he tell an interviewer.

“In a funny sort of way that’s what I thought about what I had done – and that sketch came back to me every time I was able to help someone.”

I had by now finished my supper and could take no more of her macabre reverie. Leaving more baht than was necessary beside my plate I slipped out of the bar and returned to my little bamboo bungalow.. Was this woman for real? Was she a fantasist or a serial killer? I found it hard to sleep that night, unsure how I should respond to the extraordinary conversation I had overheard.

As it happened I was due to leave the next day for a business meeting in Bangkok. I was glad to get away. When I got back Ms Heslop was gone. But so was her morose companion, Ron. People said he has just disappeared. His belongings and his laptop were still in his bungalow, but there had been no trace of him for days. The resort staff had been out looking for him in the surrounding jungle and rubber plantations but to nov avail.

Ron’s body was found almost week after my return. No-one had seen him go out to sea, in fact no-one could remember him ever going into the water all the time he had been at the resort. His bulky body had become wedged under some overhanging rocks on a outlying island. He was found by a fisherman setting crab pots. His body was bloated and partly eaten by crabs and fish.

No-one could decide how he had died. Was it an accident? Was it a suicide? I could not help wondering if Mandy had had a hand in the tragedy. The Thai police, once they got there, were not overly concerned about the circumstances of the death. It was bad enough that they would have to deal with the furore there always is when a ‘farang’ dies in Thailand. So far as they were concerned here was another fool who did not appreciate the power of the sea. There was no evidence to suggest foul play.

I was questioned briefly but made no mention of Mandy. I just wanted to get away from there. 

I don’t read Thai, and when I am working overseas rarely see UK newspapers, relying on Twitter to keep me posted about important events. I soon forgot about the mysterious Ms Heslop and her dead friend. Or at least I thought I had. Every now and then a little niggle would remind me how peculiar that conversation had been.

And then, lo and behold, she crashed back into my consciousness. 

I was on another break, and this time had chosen a little known and seldom frequented island in southern Thailand. Renowned for its treacherous beaches and poor facilities I thought I would be one of few ‘farangs’ to hang out in its one tiny resort.

I was enjoying a mid-morning, fresh coconut ‘shake’ in the crude shelter that made do as the resort’s restaurant bar when I found myself staring at the broad back and straw hat of a vaguely familiar figure. Surely it could not be her? I shuffled up to the bar to pay for my unfinished shake, as an excuse to pass her table. And there she was – Mandy Heslop, large as life, holding forth to an elderly American couple. She did not look up as I passed, nor did her captive audience seem to notice me. I shifted my to the table just behind her, and settled down to eavesdrop once again while apparently checking messages on my iphone..

A few minutes before I could hardly believe my eyes, now I could barely believe my ears.

“There was only one time when I backed out of a decision,” she was confessing. “A friend’s mother had early-onset Parkinson’s and she asked me, the mother not her daughter, if I would help her to die before the disease made her completely helpless. She confided in me that she couldn’t bring herself to ask her children. I didn’t know her all that well, but she had invited me round to tea a couple of times after she heard I was living nearby. I had paid a visit with Angie, that’s her daughter who was my friend.”

“Some time later I casually mentioned her apparent enthusiasm for euthanasia to her children. They were all adults and quite serious people, two sons and two daughters. We were dining together and somehow the subject came up over a story in the papers about Dignitas, the Swiss clinic where assisted deaths take place. They were all horrified that their mother espoused such notions. They would never countenance such action, they all said. Nathan, her oldest son, said that anyone involved in these ‘mercy killing’ trips where euthanasia is performed should be charged with murder!

“Well, you can imagine how that made me feel. Strangely most of her kids never visited her when she was eventually taken into a home because she could longer function on her own. They sold her flat and made sure she had the best care, it’s true, but none of them ever offered to take her into their own homes. 

“I used to visit her occasionally, and I could tell from her eyes that she wanted me to put an end to her misery. But I never did. Quite apart from her family’s objections, I felt it was too risky in such a well run institution.”

I was finding it incredible that this dreadful woman could talk of nothing else but her obsession with killing people, but her companions seemed engrossed. I soon found out why.

“Well, we have been trying to work out how best to end it all once we become decrepit,” said the man.  He looked bronzed and fit, but I had noticed that he had a slight tremor and tended to walk rather unsteadily. “We are fine now, but you know at our age things will begin to fall apart. Marge, here, has shown signs of Alzheimer’s lately, for instance.”

Marge, whom I assumed to be his wife, nodded. “I’m OK most of the time, but I forget things easily and sometimes I get my words all muddled. Mind you, Arthur’s not as fit as he use to be,” she laughed and grasped her husband’s hand.

So had they called in the monstrous Ms Heslop to commission their own deaths, I wondered. 

“It’s easy enough out here,” she was telling them. “When it looks like someone has drowned they seldom check for fatal doses of drugs. But you’ve got plenty of time yet,” she laughed, gathering up her colourful cloth bag from beside her and pushing back her chair.  “Must go. I have promised to give Mr Tong a massage at midday. See you later.”

Mr Tong was the wealthy Chinese land-owner from whom the Thai managers of the resort leased the site. The redoubtable Ms. Heslop evidently had influential friends. Tong owned half the island and was a man not to be messed with.

I returned to my bungalow more confused and anxious than ever and tried to sleep during the hottest hours of the day. It was difficult not to rerun the conversations I had heard. Had she just admitted to murdering Ron, or was I just making a hasty assumption?

At around 4pm I wandered out to the beach and found the American couple sitting in the shade of a palm tree. We greeted each other civilly and after a few minutes silence I ventured to ask how they knew ‘Mandy’. 

“Oh, do you know her too?” Marge asked. 

“Not really,” I said. “It’s just that I saw her a while back on another island further north.”

“We met her on the ‘plane over,” she explained. “We said we were coming here – we often do during the winter months in the US. And she said she knew Mr Tong, who really owns this place. How’s that for a coincidence? She said she was on her way to see a friend who had been having a hard time, but promised to look in on us when she came to see Mr. Tong.”

“Extraordinary,”, was all I could murmur. I could not bring myself to admit to having overheard their conversation nor think of a way of warning them they might be playing with fire.

“You must join us for dinner, tonight” said Marge. “Mandy is coming with Mr Tong. About 8 o’clock. The food is always excellent when he dines here,” she assured me.

I have to admit I was terrified at the prospect, and hastily made an excuse to leave.

“Sorry No can do. I am going back to the mainland on the last evening ferryboat,” I said. “I haven’t quite finished my packing. Nice to have met you. Have a lovely meal.”

We shook hands and I headed back to my bungalow, settled my bill, and made my way to the crude little pier to find I was the only passenger on the last ferry to the mainland.

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