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Otto’s Story – Dilemma

Aftermath tells the stories of those who survived a virulent plague which destroys 99.99% of the human race. They were written as part of a legacy to be passed onto future generations – so no-one forgot or lost remembrance of the old world. Otto’s story illustrates the issues to be faced with the rebuilding of a community.La clémence vaut mieux que la justice – Mercy is of greater value than justice

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues

Otto had three jobs. That was normal. Since the plague there simply weren’t enough people around to cover all the jobs needed.

So during the week Otto was in charge of maintaining the solar panels and the hydro-electric generators that supplied power to the Community, and on weekends he worked for Helena as a peacekeeper who kept an eye on the weekly market where the different groups of survivors met to trade their produce. Just for good measure, he was also a member of the working group, tasked by the High Council with trying to sort out how to create a currency and an open market from scratch.

Most market days there was no trouble. He could wander around chatting casually to different groups, making sure newcomers understood how the Community worked and, at the end of the day, making sure everything was tidied away before the Saturday evening meeting.

The last few weeks had been different. Now he was sure enough of his facts to take action. At the end of the market he left the traders tidying up their stalls and went to see his boss for the day.

Helena’s office just had her name on it. That was because it was equally likely to be in use as a doctor’s surgery or as a police headquarters. Occasionally when disputes became overheated, it did service as both at the same time.

At the moment though, it was empty of anyone else and Helena was on her PC dealing with emails before the solar panels failed with the coming dusk.

He knocked. “Can I come in? Do you have a minute spare?”

Helena clicked the Save button and turned to him. “Problems?”

“Yes – nothing I can prove, but I’m not happy.”

She reached out for a chair and pushed it towards him.

“Sit down and tell me. We’ve got an hour before the communal meal’s due.”

“It’s the new group we contacted earlier this year – the ones from Buxton, who decided to relocate to a new Settlement at Tarvin.”

“Eleri, Garry, Matthew – he’s the one that limps – Andrea, I can’t remember the other two and there’s about five children I think.”

“Terri and Ragin, they’re the ones who usually stay and look after the children.”

Otto paused, uncertain how to continue. “It’s about Andrea. It was about four weeks after their first time at the Saturday market. They came in as usual but they seemed to be, well, a bit tense. Then I saw Andrea and she had a big bruise on her face. I asked her about it and she said she’d walked into a door.”

“Walked into a door!” Her voice suggested disbelief. “You asked the others?”

“I found it hard to believe as well, so I asked the others. Matthew said he knew nothing about it. The others answered, well, funny. They didn’t actually confirm what she said but they didn’t say it wasn’t true either.”

“Ahh!” Helena nodded her head slowly. “I think I begin to get the picture.”

“So I didn’t see what I could do if they wouldn’t talk, so I left it but I kept an eye out for them the next week.”

“And the next week?” Helena asked.

“The next week they came in and this time Matthew had been kicked in the face by one of the cows at milking time. That’s what he said, rather surly and the others all backed him up. And I don’t believe that either. Okay, they didn’t have cows in their old place in Buxton, and he is new to milking but it just didn’t look right.

“I nearly came to you then but it was nothing I could produce any evidence for and you’ve always said we’ve got to go on evidence. So I left it for the time being.”

“And you have evidence now?” Helena asked.

“VeeJay and Granny Ellen were going to Tarvin to set up the two way radio and comms links for their new Settlement, so I asked them to keep an eye on things.

“There’s a pattern. Every so often Andrea walks into a door and gets a bruise on her face or her body. Then a couple of days later Matthew accidentally slips and falls or gets kicked by a cow or something. Then it’s all quiet for a few days and then the cycle starts again.”

“And you don’t believe in these accidents?”

“No, it’s happened too many times. The last time was today when Andrea came in with a big bruise all over her neck and when I watched her unloading stuff off the cart she was obviously in pain on that side. She says she walked into a tree one night when going out to the outside toilet. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe any of it.”

Helena pursed her lips in thought. “I assume the others backed up her story again?”

“Well, not so much backed up as didn’t deny it.”

“That fits. Well, if it was a tree she walked into, then I think the Community Doctor should take a look at the wound. Doctor Ryan’s not available right now, so Doctor Helena will have to deal with it. After all, we can’t take risks, can we?”

“You want me with you for that?”

Helena hesitated a moment. “No, better not. Let’s believe it’s just a genuine accident for the moment. And you’d have to leave anyway if I’m to do a proper investigation.”

“But you don’t believe the story, do you?”

Helena smiled. “Of course I believe it. It gives me a perfect excuse to check the wound. What I believe after I’ve seen the wound is another matter.”

* * *

The custom had grown up that after the market everyone had a meal together, then there was a general meeting of all the survivors, to talk over the running of the Community and finally a party.

Otto was sitting watching some of the younger ones dancing when Helena dropped casually into the seat beside him.

“Severe bruising, utterly inconsistent with walking into a tree, or anything else. She’s been hit and hit several times. She sticks to her story though, even when I openly called her a liar. I’ve spoken to Hugh and he agrees we can’t let something like this pass.”

“Well, that’s not all. When did you see Andrea?”

“Straight after the meal. Why?”

Otto nodded at the dancers performing a complicated barn dance. Notice who’s not there? None of the Tarvin people – they’ve all gone, straight after Andrea left you.”

“They’ve gone home – in the dark?” Helena sat up sharply.

“Yes. They cleared up their stall, then went to Susan’s for some supplies, then to Andrew the Mechanic to pick up a wheelbarrow he’s been making for them and then they went home. It wasn’t quite sunset. They’d get at least an hour’s light and it’s full moon as well. There’s probably enough light but it’s not something I’d care to do myself, at least not without a very good reason.”

“Skipping the entire Saturday evening meeting! That’s not normal.”

“Another thing, it was Matthew who picked up the supplies from Susan. I checked with her and he asked for an extra barrel of beer.”

“And it’s Matthew who develops bruises the week after Andrea does. Right Otto, first thing in the morning I want you to cycle out there to investigate this.”

“Okay Helena, but I’ve known Matthew a long time. I was in the original party that contacted them. He was hardly a man I took to. He seemed morose and moody. But I’ve watched him with Andrea all the time we were in Buxton with them. He may not be a wonderful husband or anything, but he’d not shown any sign of violence to her or anyone, at least not while we were in Buxton.”

“Maybe it was one of the others hitting Andrea and he was injured defending her,” Helena suggested, though her voice suggested she didn’t believe it.

“Possibly,” Otto didn’t believe it either, “but that’s why I’ve got to go out there, to find out. Helena, can you have a word with Hugh to get someone else to cover the essential maintenance jobs that I’m supposed to be doing tomorrow? And do you want me to tell them over the radio in the morning that I’m coming? That’s what I normally do with official visits.”

“Not this time, I think. Let’s see what happens when they’re not expecting you. Until then there’s nothing you or I can do.” She picked up her glass of beer and drained it. “Except that you might like to know that Greta’s just coming off duty in the kitchen and I think she was hoping you’d give her a dance.”

* * *

But the plans were in vain. Just after sunrise the next morning a message came through on the radio. It was from the Tarvin Settlement; Matthew was dead.

“It was an accident,” Helena told Otto. “Last night, on the way home, the cart overturned by the gate into their Settlement and Matthew was crushed underneath a box of supplies.

“And do you believe that?” he asked.

“Have they got backup batteries on that radio?”

“Yes and foot treadles so they can power it manually.”

“Then why did they wait nine hours before reporting it. But it doesn’t matter, since any accident should be investigated by a doctor. If that doctor happens also be in charge of security, then that’s completely irrelevant, unless, of course, the doctor finds something the head of security might be interested in. So forget your bike, and go ask Kevin for a horse and trap. I’m going to collect my medical kit.”

* * *

Otto knew the route and drove with confidence north through the lanes. It was about two hours to Tarvin and they arrived mid-morning. The cart was still there, tilted over, one wheel in the ditch, with boxes scattered across the ditch and into the hedge. Eleri was waiting for them, and took their horse whilst Helena took her black bag and led the way into the house.

Like the Community’s Centre, the Tarvin Settlement had been an old manor house, later adapted into offices for a firm of insurance brokers. After the Plague it had been easy to convert it back into bedrooms and add a wood burning Aga stove for cooking. Otto had helped with the conversion and with moving the new occupants from the moors above Buxton, so he knew his way around.

The members of the settlement were gathered in the kitchen. They looked nervous and tired. Five children, all under five years old huddled close to their parents, obviously aware something was badly wrong. Andrea stood on the side farthest from the window, as though seeking protection from the light that still showed her bruises, with her three-year old hanging on to her skirts.

“It happened as we were coming home last night,” Garry said. “Matthew was driving too fast and when he tried to take the corner into the yard, the cart swung out and a wheel went in the ditch, and everyone and everything was thrown off.”

“Nobody else injured?” asked Helena.

“No, no-one, I suppose we were lucky, except that Matthew wasn’t.” That was Ragin.

“Do you have any idea why he should take the corner so fast? Was it something he often did?”

“Well, he had been drinking. We tried to let one of us drive, but he insisted.”

Otto watched their faces as Helena looked round the group. They all looked tense. Was that just from the accident, or was there something more? He couldn’t be sure.

“You’ve not been with the Community long, so I’m not sure how much you know about our way of handling situations like this,” she said. “If there’s a death and the doctor can’t be sure it’s just natural causes, old age or disease, then there has to be an inquest, and you’ll all have to give evidence.”

“And you’re the doctor and you’re the security chief, so either way you’re in charge.” That was Eleri sounding just a little truculent.

“Well, we do have two doctors now so you can ask Ryan to come out and examine the body. But I don’t see how an overturned cart can be natural causes, so it would come to the same thing in the end.”

Eleri looked as if she would like to take it further but could not think of any argument.

“So I’d like to see the body, and then I’d like to interview everyone, so I can present a case to the inquest, explaining how the accident happened and whether there was anything we could have done to avoid it.”

“Of course Helena.” Garry seemed to be the leader, for today at least. “He’s in the side room here. I’ll show you.”

He led them through into an old-fashioned committee room, with a long table down the middle, with the corpse laid out on it.

“You’ve washed the body!” Helena’s voice showed her annoyance.

“We . . . er . . . well, we didn’t know you would want to do an autopsy or anything, and we’d already moved him and cleaned up him up a bit before we realized he was dead. And then Andrea insisted on making him look presentable. She said it was the last thing she could do for him.”

Helena’s mouth twitched but all she said was, “Thank you, Garry.” But Garry was already backing out of the room.

She watched as he closed the door, then turned to Otto.

“Can you go after Garry and get a bowl and a jug of water and a towel please, then take notes for me?”

“You think they’ve suppressed evidence?” he asked.

“I can’t prove they have, so I’m not going to pursue it if I can’t prove it. But I’m not forgetting this. Just get that bowl of water for me. You don’t need to touch the body, if you prefer not to. But I think I want a witness for any findings.”

* * *

The examination took about an hour. It was Otto’s first autopsy and he found it hard to keep nausea down. Eventually Helena was done. She summed up as she washed her hands.

“Various injuries to the torso, chest and head, including one broken rib which penetrated the heart. Because of the body being washed there was no way to tell if any of the cuts were inflicted after death rather than before. All injuries are consistent with the cart turning over and falling on him, but they would also be consistent with other explanations. There are also signs of bruising and other minor lesions going back a week, which are not explained by the cart. Even more interesting, there were old signs of serious injury, including damage to the right knee and a fractured ulna in the left arm, which appear to have been treated by amateurs. I think we need to talk to these people.”

“You do believe the story about the cart, then?” asked Otto.

Helena covered the body over with a cloth. “I didn’t say I believed it. Let’s say I can see nothing which disproves it.”

She led him out to the main hall where they found a reception committee awaiting them.

Garry took the lead again. “Helena, there is more we need to tell you.”

“More?” Helena raised her eyebrows. “You mean you have been keeping information back?”

“No, of course not,” he stammered, taken slightly aback. “Just things which before the accident we wanted to keep, well, private, but the accident changes things, so of course you must be informed.”

“It was Matthew,” Eleri broke in. “He was beating Andrea up again. He’d get drunk and then something would annoy him and he’d just lose control.”

“So he did beat her up?” Helena turned to Andrea, who was holding her youngest baby. “Is that true?”

She nodded, her face reddening with embarrassment.

“And you lied about it to me and to Otto, and it wasn’t even a very good lie.”

Andrea buried her face in the baby’s blanket.

Helena turned back to the others. “And it’s happened before, for example, last week. But instead of coming to me, or to anyone else on the Council, you administered your own justice.”

“It was a fight. The men were trying to stop him hitting Andrea.” That was Terri, Regin’s wife.

“So can you explain how he got injuries which are visible a week later but there are no marks on either of the two men, or on you two either?”

There was a long pause, as Helena left the question hanging in the air.

“You’ve only been members of this Community for a few months but you know our laws; the Covenant we made together; the Covenant you accepted when you joined us. We live under a rule of law. We have security officers; we have a court where people can be tried; we have an elected High Council and we have a Saturday Night Meeting where any matter can be raised before the whole community. We do not have private justice.”

“Then what would your court do?” asked Eleri belligerently. “We’ve no money to fine people; we’ve no prisons to put people in. What are they going to do to someone like Matthew, except make him stand up in the Saturday Meeting and apologise to everyone. He apologised every morning, after he’d sobered up but it didn’t stop him doing it again next time. How do you punish someone like that, except by doing what we did?”

“The Covenant says we discuss it; we vote on it; we make a law. If you don’t want to accept that you can leave the Community and live outside our law. But right now we live under the Covenant, and under that Covenant Otto and I have to investigate one definite crime and one unexplained death.”

Helena turned to Otto.

“Otto, how many sets of stairs are there in this house?”

“Just the one,” he replied, “over there. Why?”

“Then I want everyone else upstairs, while I interview people, one at a time, down here, with Otto taking notes. And when I’ve finished interviewing people they can go and wait in that room over there, until I’ve finished.”

There was a moment when Otto wondered if they would obey but first Garry, then the others sullenly began to move towards the stairs.

“Andrea, could you stay, please?” Helena’s voice softened just a trifle.

The young woman gave her child to Eleri and came back. Otto brought her to a chair and she sat down.

* * *

It had happened before, she said, when the group first got together in Buxton after the Plague. Three men and three women – it had been natural for them to pair up and Andrea had ended with Matthew.

“And I did like him, because I was lonely and he was a nice man. It was just when he had too much to drink and he’d get angry, then start comparing me with his wife who’d died in the Plague, and if I said anything, or did anything wrong he’d hit me. But he was always really sorry in the morning. He was, honestly.”

“So what happened to stop it?” asked Helena.

“Eleri found me crying, and she told Garry and Ragin. They took Matthew outside and said they were going to teach him a lesson, because he shouldn’t do things like that.”

“And the lesson?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Afterwards, Matthew was a lot nicer for a few weeks but then he went off to one of the pubs and came back with a load of bottles, and it started again.”

“So what did the others do?”

“Terri and Eleri wanted to throw him out but I said I didn’t want that. It would be alright for them, because they’d got Garry and Ragin but who would there be for me? And after all, it’s only after the beer that he gets like that.”

“So they taught him another lesson?”

“Yes,” Andrea bit her lip. “But Ragin hit him a bit too hard and he broke Matthew’s arm. So we found a first aid book and set it as best we could, and while it was mending the two men went round every pub in Buxton and poured all the alcohol away.”

“And that fixed the problem?” asked Helena.

“Well he was angry when he found there was no more beer anywhere but it wasn’t the same sort of angry. And he was so much nicer when he wasn’t drinking.”

“And that continued until you met us?”

“Yes, even then it was okay, even after we’d moved to Tarvin, until he went to the Saturday Market and found Susan and Kathie had started brewing beer. And the first week it was okay but the second week he brought a barrel home, and then it all started again.”

“And instead of telling me, or warning Susan and Kathie not to give him beer, you decided to deal with it yourselves?”

“It was Eleri and Terri. They told the men they had to do something but I think they would have done it anyway, because they were so angry with Matthew.”

“So tell me what happened this time.”

Andrea wiped her eyes but Otto noticed she still looked at the floor rather than at Helena.

“It was Friday night and we were late getting everything ready to take to market, because we’d got a load of vegetables we’d picked but needed to wash. Matthew had been drinking and he dropped a load of washed cabbages in the mud and they had to be washed again, so he got angry, and then he hit me. It was dark by then, so none of the others saw the bruise until the morning but Eleri saw it when I got up, and she told Garry and Ragin they had to do something about it.”

“And did they?”

“It was on the way home. They thumped him a bit and told him they’d teach him a proper lesson when we got home. But he was driving the last bit of the way home, and he went too fast on the curve into the farm, so the wheel went into the ditch, and he went over the front of the cart and a load of things fell on him, including a box of supplies and a new wheelbarrow that Kevin had just made for us.

“We pulled all the stuff off him and took him into the house and cleaned him up, and then we realized he wasn’t breathing. I got really upset and Terri took me on one side while Eleri looked after the children. Then in the morning we got on the radio to contact you.”

“And if we go outside can you show me exactly how everything happened, and who was sitting where when it happened?”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

She rose and led them back outside to the overturned cart.

* * *

The place where Matthew had landed was clear to see – a muddy dent in the bottom of the ditch, now half-filled with water.

“Matthew was driving too fast, so when he tried to take the corner into the yard, the cart swung out and a wheel went in the ditch and everyone was thrown off.”

It was almost the same words as Garry had used. That didn’t sound right to Otto.

“So he landed here?”

“Yes and then we had to pull the cart back, to here. You can see the wheel marks.”

Helena bent down and touched the tracks carefully and traced them back to the cart.

“So what was it fell on him?”

“The wheelbarrow and the box of supplies.” She pointed to them lying a few feet away.

Helena stepped across the ditch and examined them both carefully.

“No mud stains but the mud markings fit the story.”

She paused and looked up sharply at Andrea. “But they would also fit a story where Matthew was ‘taught another lesson’ but it was too much and he died, so to cover that up he was thrown into the ditch, and then the cart was upset onto his body, so that the wounds from the falling barrel and wheelbarrow would mask the real cause of death.”

Andrea flinched but her voice held firm.

“No, that wasn’t it at all! He was driving too fast and the cart swung out and . . .”

“Yes, I know, and I’m sorry to have to ask you questions like this at a time like this but a man is dead and I’m not convinced it was accidental.”

Helena turned and headed back towards the house, stepping over the ditch. Otto and Andrea followed.

* * *

The other adults all gave the same story, except that Ragin and Terri varied the wording slightly. The children had seen nothing; they had all been in bed.

Finally, Helena gathered them all together in the main hall.

“Thank you for your patience,” she said. Her words sounded sincere but her voice didn’t, at least not to Otto.

“I’ve heard your explanation of what happened; I’ve collected what evidence I could. So now you can bury the body and the next step has to be for a coroner’s jury at the Centre to decide.

“What I will have to say to the jury is that I can find no proof this was anything more than an accident. But I’ll say to all of you, here, now, that I’ve found no proof it was just an accident.

“I warn you all, we cannot have self-administered justice. We are trying to rebuild a decent, safe society. We can’t do that without laws and the laws say all crimes are to be reported.

“Maybe you meant well; maybe Andrea was afraid she might lose her husband but now she’s lost him anyway and in a pretty dreadful way as well. If I ever hear evidence that anyone in this community has tried to take the law into their own hands, then I will have you up before the High Council and the penalties will be what they decide.”

“Then what about the times before?” asked Terri, “when we were in Buxton and here.”

“Buxton was before you joined us. You were your own community then. I might not approve of what you did but I can’t apply our Covenant to your actions then. What you did when you ‘taught Matthew a lesson’ here is different. And you should have known it was different. I’m prepared to overlook it this once but never again.”

She paused, then added, “do you all understand?”

They nodded – hostile angry nods but at least they nodded.

“There’s one more thing – you asked what we should do about people like Matthew. I’m requiring you all to come to the next Saturday meeting. I want all of you. Someone can look after the children during the meeting. I’m requiring of you that you explain to the whole Community what happened and ask them the question: what should happen when we get cases of wife-beating, or of husband beating or of child-abuse?

“I’ve criticised your actions in taking the law into your own hands. There’s a criticism of ourselves as a Community as well. We didn’t think about this. It hasn’t happened before, so we did nothing. We left it for later.

“So now we put right what we can and we change what we can for the future. But you must be honest about what happened and you’ll have your say before the Community, just like everyone else. We’ll have no secret actions, not in this Community”

They nodded again but it seemed to Otto that the hostility was gone, or at least lessened. Perhaps Helena saw that as well, because she added one last comment.

“But I’ll remind you, if ever I find evidence this was a deliberate attack leading to a killing, then I will not overlook that.”

* * *

Helena chose to take the reins for the trip back. She said it gave her something restful to do. Otto leaned back thoughtfully on his side of the bench as the Settlement drew out of sight.

Helena spoke first, as she turned the corner onto the dual carriageway toward Chester.

“Otto, you’re on the working party looking at introducing some form of money system, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“How long before you make a recommendation?” she asked.

“Not long, the main issue was: do we use coins and notes, or do we do something electronic?”

“Eleri had a point about what we should do to punish people who break the Covenant. It would be useful for the High Council to have other sanctions beside a public rebuke in the Saturday Meeting, or outright exile.”

There was silence for a few minutes.

“I could go back and make more enquiries,” said Otto thoughtfully, “or I could get VeeJay and Granny Ellen to keep their eyes and ears open when they visit Tarvin, maybe even plant a bug somewhere to record what they say. It must be possible to get more evidence. I still think it was murder and I think you think it was murder as well.”

Helena didn’t reply immediately. She flicked the reins to encourage the pony to more speed and looked long into the distance.

“No, not murder,” she said finally. “It’s murder if they intended to kill him. I don’t think it was murder – manslaughter maybe. They intended to hurt him and they killed him by accident, by negligence if you like. That’s different – still very bad but not murder.”

She paused for a moment as she guided the horse off the dual carriageway and onto the road leading to the Centre.

“People think if they can identify someone else’s guilty mistake, then it makes their own guilt a bit less. But it doesn’t work like that.

“Matthew was guilty of drinking, even though he knew it made him lose control and beat his wife. Nothing can excuse that or take it away. But the others should have told me, or warned Susan and Kathie not to give him the beer. And that’s their guilt and no-one else’s mistakes can take that away.

“And we should have thought about things like this happening. I should have thought about it – I’m in charge of security. I should have thought about domestic beatings – goodness knows I used to patch enough of them up before the plague when I was a nurse at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. I’m guilty of not being prepared for something like this. That doesn’t excuse Matthew, or what the men did, or what the wives did in encouraging them but it’s still my guilt.

“Leave it be. A man is dead. Maybe not a very good man but a man who could have been saved. His wife’s a widow and the rest of that community will live the rest of their lives knowing they’ve killed a man.

“There’s justice and sometimes there’s mercy. So if you do come across any evidence that it wasn’t just an accident . . . well, just try not to come across it.”

And she flicked the reins again, to get home as soon as possible.

 

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