Martin was conscious once more. His head felt like someone had hit it with a sledgehammer. Where was he? He opened his eyes and fought hard against the spotty blur he could only see at first
He was in a room facing onto a white wall. Nothing to touch on in his entire field of vision. The only lighting came from a dim lamp somewhere on his left. It was now Martin noticed that he couldn’t move his head. Some of the pain was inside him, the last effects of whatever it was had knocked him out. The rest of it, though, came from the metal bands fastened tight round the top of his head and gripping his neck and lower jaw. His shoulders too were clamped, straight against the back of the chair he sat in. There was a strap round his waist, and straps round his wrists and ankles. For all he could move, he might have been paralysed.
The vice attached to his head jerked and Martin’s field of vision moved a fraction to the right. Not sure what was going on, he wanted to call out to someone “Hey what’s happening”. But he couldn’t get his jaws apart. He only managed to sound like one of those people in the television programmes who try talking when they’re bound and gagged.
His head moved again, now perceptibly to the right. The wall to his right was clearly in view where it hadn’t been before.
He counted again.
His head was being twisted round about an eighth of an inch every ten seconds. Martin panicked. He tried tearing his hands free, pulling hard as a vigorous, still young body strengthened by exercise could strain. No result but to break the skin on his upper wrists. No movement possible for his shoulders. None for his head either, except as the ratchet sent it right. He was fixed up for a slow death. He could struggle, moving about the few inches possible for him. He could go limp as a bag of rags. All the same, he was fixed up and he couldn’t change the fact.
Jennie! He suddenly remembered Jennie and what he’d been doing. “She’s a nice piece” old Hubert Shyte had leered when she’d left the office that time last Wednesday. “Yes, a very nice piece and just about asking for it, I’d say.” Martin had agreed. Even the sight of her poured into that dress had given him a hard on. No. She didn’t want her father’s taxes going over just yet. They weren’t sure the Customs and Revenue were snooping round in earnest. No point wasting time. All she wanted for the moment was to find a firm that they could trust to assist if things did start looking dodgy. But she’d come back the next day, and the day after that. “No” she’d said in the car on Saturday evening, pushing his hand away. “Father’s waiting up. He worries if I’m late.” Instead, she’d invited him home for dinner on Monday evening.
Jennie’s father had been charming. He was everything Martin’s own father wasn’t. Perhaps more to the point, he was everything Martin’s ex father in law hadn’t been. He was unbuttoned, funny, completely welcoming to some new friend of his daughter’s. Made to feel at home by him, Martin had drunk more wine than he usually let himself. His talking had got faster and faster, he remembered, and less sensible. Then everything had started going odd. There had been a strange rushing in his ears, and the two faces he was looking at had blurred and begun moving up and down. He couldn’t remember anything else. Next thing he knew was when he’d woken up, fixed into this chair.
His head was now turned ninety degrees right. He could feel the muscles in his neck starting to strain. Sweat ran down his face. His nose itched. Martin screamed through teeth jammed together. He screamed though no one came and it made him feel his head would burst with the effort, and made him all the more sensible of the gentle, growing pressure on the right side of his wind pipe.
Martin was in pain. Would he stay conscious to the end, or would he black out before it got too much? Would he go mad? If he’d been able, he could have tried biting his tongue out. Then he might have bled to death, or choked on the blood. Even that before this. But he couldn’t get his teeth apart. Holding his breath stupid ploy he’d read about somewhere wasn’t worth considering. He could swim four minutes under water without coming up.
Oh God! He was dying by eighths of an inch. And he’d be awake all through it, right up to the last tiny fraction more strain, when the vertibræ would sever and carry Martin into a next world in which he’d never believed, three weeks before his thirty ninth birthday.
From the corner of his right eye he could now see a chair and someone sitting in it. He strained his eye muscles to see better, focusing through the renewed blur of pain. It was it was
Jennie stood over him. The expected shudder to the right was several seconds overdue. Another one didn’t come. Reaching behind him, she was unscrewing something. Then Martin’s head was free. The pain made him cry out as he let it fall onto his chest then moved it left and slowly right again. Now she was loosening all the straps and he could move again. He noticed her father. He’d joined in the work, massaging circulation back into Martin’s feet.
“Jennie. Oh Jennie!” At that moment as he looked up into her face, she was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. She was an angel, his saviour, his everything. His heart filled with love. He struggled with words. None came. Instead, he wept.
“Oh Martin” she said smiling. “Oh Martin, you are silly. April Fool!”