WHITE IS THE COLDEST COLOUR
Cynthia Galbraith rose at 5:30 a.m. on Friday 10, January, as she invariably did on days when her husband was working. She showered, dressed in an immaculate white silk dress, carefully styled her caramel-blonde hair and skilfully applied her make-up, taking care to look her best. She suspected that her husband would treat her efforts with utter indifference; nonetheless, she reminded herself, she had to keep trying.
After one last anxious peek in the dressing table mirror, Cynthia hurried downstairs, ensuring not to make even the slightest noise that may prematurely disturb her husband’s slumber… He wouldn’t be ready to get up until seven o’clock, and she’d need every available second to prepare for his eventual appearance.
Cynthia rushed into the kitchen and began preparing breakfast in line with Dr Galbraith’s particular requirements… Every detail mattered.
She placed a choice of two high-fibre cereals on the large stripped oak table, lining up the boxes so that each was exactly parallel with the other. She added an exquisite French Chantilly porcelain plate, a matching cup, saucer and bowl, a solid silver spoon, a jug of full-cream milk, a bowl of dark muscovado sugar, and a silver gilt toast rack, that she would fill with his preferred white toast at the correct time. Next, she poured chilled freshly squeezed orange juice into a nineteenth-century crystal wine glass, placing it precisely one-inch from the right side of the plate. Cynthia used a stainless steel twelve-inch ruler to ensure she got the distance exactly right, and checked the measurements time and time again… He’d be disappointed if she got it wrong. That could mean punishment, and the ruler had a sharp edge.
Cynthia entered the hall and tensed inexorably as she heard the shrill tone of the doctor’s alarm clock permeating the air… He was getting up. It wouldn’t be long until he came downstairs. She had to get a move on.
She raced back into the kitchen and switched on the toaster, double-checking that it was set to her husband’s precise required setting… Too light, or too dark, and at best, he would refuse to eat it.
She checked again to ensure that everything was on the table and in its correct position… It had to be perfect. Nothing less was acceptable. A white linen napkin! How could she be so stupid?
She hurriedly took one from a dresser drawer and held it up in the light of the kitchen window, confirming it was clean and totally crease-free. She took a deep breath, sucking the oxygen deep into her lungs… Thank God, immaculate. Surely it was good enough?
Cynthia switched on the percolator and added her husband’s favourite fine ground Columbian coffee. Finally, she took two free-range eggs, three rashers of unsmoked Danish bacon, organic plum tomatoes and button mushrooms from the larder fridge located next to the range cooker, and laid them on the shiny black granite worktop.
She moved to the centre of the room and turned slowly in a circle, surveying the entire kitchen with keen eyes… There had to be something she hadn’t done correctly. There was always something.
Cynthia checked the clock for the umpteenth time that morning… Time was running out at an alarming rate. She had to start cooking.
Dr Galbraith awoke in unusually good spirits for a man who didn’t particularly like mornings. He threw back his duck-down quilt, leapt out of bed with an easy athleticism that belied his age, and paused for a moment on the landing en route to the bathroom to appreciate the glorious enticing aroma of high quality bacon and coffee wafting up the sweeping stair case… Was it worth heading down for breakfast? Cynthia was, he had to acknowledge, an excellent cook, although of course it would never do to tell her that. He was hungry, that was certainly true, but did he really want to see the obnoxious bitch with all that entailed? Did he need the distraction? He had options, naturally. He could order her out of the kitchen, and eat alone and in silence. That was worth considering. But she’d gone to a great deal of effort to prepare everything in line with his instructions. The bitch always did. It would be amusing to ignore her efforts and grab a sandwich on the way to work.
The doctor grinned at the thought, but rejected the idea almost immediately… What the hell was he thinking? He needed adequate sustenance to sustain him on such an important day.
Dr Galbraith dropped to the bathroom floor and began doing press-ups: one, two, three, four… The bitch’s psychological disintegration had been a glorious triumph.
He grinned, and rubbed the sweat from his eyes with the back of one hand: fifteen, sixteen, seventeen… Where oh where had the happy young law student gone? It had taken a little longer than anticipated to break her spirit completely, but he shouldn’t be too hard on himself. Her abusive childhood had been to his advantage, but there were numerous obstacles that he had perhaps underestimated. By the time of their meeting she’d moved on to achieve an active social life, a wide circle of friends, and hobbies and interests. It posed a formidable challenge. And Cynthia possessed spirit. She’d left more than once in the early years of their relationship, before being persuaded back with unkept promises. Such things were never easy, particularly where a more intelligent subject was concerned. But, difficulties or not, his methods had worked. That’s what mattered. That was something to be proud of.
He glanced sideways, admiring his reflection in the mirrored wall tiles: eighty-four, eighty-five, eighty-six… The constant criticism, the never-ending fault-finding, the denial of pleasures, and the occasional physical punishments had proven an extremely effective strategy.
Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred! He sat bolt upright on the bathroom floor… How would he summarise the demise of her self-worth and its consequences in his thesis? He had to use the right words, the correct phrases, if his peers were to fully appreciate his observations.
The doctor rested his stubbled chin on the palm of one hand, and visualised the words appearing on the page. But then it hit him in the gut like a physical blow… It was important work, certainly, but could he really spare the time at such a crucial juncture? Shouldn’t he be focusing his attention entirely on Anthony Mailer? Of course he should. Of course he should! The thesis could wait. The bitch wasn’t going anywhere.
Dr Galbraith showered, luxuriating in the sensual pleasure of the hot water warming his skin… Come on, man, focus, focus. Time was getting on.
He stepped out of the cubicle and dried quickly with a large, fluffy, pink bath towel, before throwing it to the floor next to the bidet… Right, come on, man. Time to shave.
He stood at the sink, stared at his reflected image in the illuminated magnifying mirror, and used a Victorian mother-of-pearl cut-throat razor to precisely shape the slightly greying sideburns that framed his well-proportioned face. Next, he used a silver-mounted mock turtleshell comb to coax his fashionably styled short hair into place, and to create a perfect side parting with copious amounts of shiny white Brylcreem hair wax. He stood there, staring into the shaving mirror for almost three minutes and admired his reflection… Come on, man, get on with it, get on with it. He’d wasted enough time already.
The doctor returned to his opulent bedroom to get dressed. He put on dark blue boxer shorts, black knee-length socks, and chose a white Italian cotton shirt from a choice of six perfectly ironed by Cynthia the previous evening. The shirt was followed by a dark grey single-breasted suit comprising a forty-four-inch chest jacket, and trousers tailored to fit his trim thirty-three-inch waist. There were large holes cut in both trouser pockets, big enough for a hand to fit through. The suit was one of several high-end Savile Row business suits hanging in his spacious fitted wardrobes… Off the peg items just didn’t meet his required standards.
Next came highly polished black leather-soled slip-on shoes festooned with bright silver buckles, and a pair of solid 18 CT gold cufflinks in the form of handcuffs, that never failed to amuse him. The final touch was a silk tie with a brightly coloured cartoon logo on the front. He adjusted the Windsor knot repeatedly until it was perfect… The tie was a stroke of absolute genius. He was a genius. What other explanation was there?
He made one final superfluous adjustment to the knot… Anything that helped engage the little bastards and gain their trust, however seemingly insignificant, was an undoubted bonus.
Dr Galbraith descended the stairs and approached the kitchen, where Cynthia was standing at the AGA putting the finishing flourishes to his meal. She turned, met his accusing gaze, and forced a brittle smile as he entered the room.
‘Good morning, dear!’
‘Is it? Are you sure, Cynthia? Are you really sure?’
He took a pristine white cotton glove from a drawer next to the Belfast sink, and strolled casually around the kitchen, running a forefinger across various surfaces… Spotless. She was learning. The bitch was learning.
‘Is everything all right, dear?’
‘Why the hell isn’t my breakfast ready?’
‘Take a seat, dear. I’ll pour your coffee and serve your full English in a second.’
‘Why do you assume I want coffee?’
‘You always have coffee, dear.’
‘Well, I thought…?’
‘You thought? Is that really such a good idea?’
Cynthia opened her mouth as if to speak, but then closed it again, unable to find the words.
Dr Galbraith glared at her with a sardonic expression that withered her fragile soul. ‘Just serve my bacon and eggs, girl. Perhaps you can get that right.’
She took a step backwards on unsteady legs, and looked down as the yellow urine pooled on the tiles around her feet.
Dr Galbraith unlocked the doors of his metallic black Daimler sedan, and jumped into the driver’s seat with a self-satisfied expression on his angular face. He took a moment or two to appreciate the car’s lavish interior and smiled broadly before starting the engine… He’d earned it. It was nothing less than he deserved: a warm, sumptuous haven of supple grey leather and polished walnut. A man of his accomplishments and elevated status deserved such luxuries.
The doctor turned the ignition key and the 4.5-litre V12 engine roared into life… It was a good sound, a reassuring sound that pleased him.
As he drove the eighteen miles from his home to the South Wales Department of Child, Adolescent and Family Psychiatry where he was employed as a consultant child psychiatrist, he happily anticipated arranging Anthony’s initial appointment… Anticipation was a part of the pleasure. Not as pleasurable as it had once been, possibly, but still agreeable. The waiting had become more difficult; he had to acknowledge that. But things shouldn’t be rushed this time, whatever the temptation. He’d made that mistake once before.
He shook his head aggressively and tapped two fingers repeatedly on the steering wheel… Maybe he wouldn’t be so lucky the next time.
The doctor’s head was instantaneously filled with violent vibrating sound that made him wince. He closed his eyes for a fleeting moment, trying to ignore the pain, and then quickly reopened them, suddenly aware of the morning traffic… Come on, man. Get a grip.
He punched the windscreen hard with a clenched fist and felt slightly better… Focus, man, focus, stick to the plan. Stick to the fucking plan. He’d get his hands on the little bastard. He just had to be patient.
Dr Galbraith exhaled slowly with an audible hiss… If he wasn’t going to blow this he had to act on his experience, remember what he’d learnt over the years, and put those skills to good use. He’d come a long way since his first impulsive hurried offences and the inevitable anxiety that followed. Every knock on his door, every passing car, every phone that rang, had left him close to panic in those early days, all those years ago. The fear of arrest had been all-consuming at times. He’d fought against his base impulses, and actually considered stopping for a time. What was he thinking? What the hell was that about?
He flinched, and vigorously massaged his throbbing scalp with one hand whilst manoeuvring with the other… And why did he bother pondering the evolution of his inclinations? All that research and nothing significant to show for it. All those books. What a waste of time and money! As a child psychiatrist he theoretically understood the often insurmountable harm that men of his ilk inflicted on their victims. Of course he did. But what did it matter? He no longer felt any concern for their suffering. That was the crux of it. If he’d become an immoral creature, devoid of conscience empathy and virtue, so fucking what? He enjoyed his pastime, and the subject was worthy of scientific study. That’s what counted. There was no room for sentimental angst. What more did he need to know? All that mattered was silencing the victims, effectively concealing any evidence, and not getting caught.
The doctor squealed like an over-enthusiastic cheer leader as the discordant din in his head gradually subsided… And, hadn’t he done his job well? He’d avoided detection for almost thirty years, and nothing needed to change. Not if he reverted to his tried and tested modus operandi and slavishly stuck to it. Not a fucking thing!
Dr Galbraith parked in the clinic’s quiet car park next to his secretary’s aged red Mini Clubman and turned off the Daimler’s powerful engine… Right. The moronic bitch had arrived early.
His entire body tensed and twitched… Fucking typical. The bitch had an irritating habit of doing that. What was it with the woman?
He stilled himself, met his steel-blue eyes in the rear-view mirror, and addressed himself in the style of an alpha male sports coach or military drill instructor, ‘Game face. Mask on. Come on, man, mask on.’
Dr Galbraith tried desperately to ignore the resurgent pressure and deafening din inside his skull as he locked the doors, and strolled across the car park as casually as possible in case she was watching. He stopped at the entrance briefly before entering the clinic, and drew repeated urgent gulps of cold Welsh morning air deep into his lungs… His anger was building. It wouldn’t be easy, but he had to control it. The vile bitch would be there: sitting at her desk, flabby and sweating, stinking of stale body odour, doused in cheap pound shop perfume, and spouting some mindless crap as soon as he opened the door. How the hell was he going to cope with it this time? It would be therapeutic to ram her repugnant yellow teeth down her damn throat.
He smiled sardonically… How good would that feel? One day he’d make the bitch suffer. But, like it or not, now was not that time.
He grimaced as a sudden stabbing pain jolted his brain on entering the small reception, which also served as his young secretary’s office… He’d been successfully conning people for years. Why the hell should that change now?
‘Good morning, Doctor!’
‘And a good morning to you, Sharon!’ He paused, cocked his head to one side at an approximate forty-five-degree angle and studied her for a second or two. ‘Have you done something different with your hair, my dear girl?’
She looked down at her desktop, avoiding his gaze. ‘Oh, nothing special, Doctor, I just washed it before work and put a few curlers in.’
‘Well, whatever you did, my dear girl, you look marvellous.’
She smiled warmly and self-consciously adjusted her fringe with chubby fingers.
Dr Galbraith looked her up and down… The moronic bitch was as malleable as warm putty. ‘Now then, Sharon, first things first, there’s no clinic this morning as I recall; no patients for us to worry about. Why not make us both some coffee?’
She nodded. ‘One heaped spoonful of Nescafé, a splash of semi-skimmed, and one sugar?’
‘Exactly right as always, my dear. I’ll be in my office.’
She called after him as he walked away. ‘How about a biscuit?’
He snorted disdainfully… The greedy bitch was looking for any excuse to fill her repugnant face again. Maybe a trough would be a suitable birthday gift. ‘Not for me thank you, my dear. I enjoyed an excellent breakfast. But why don’t you have one?’
Sharon switched on the kettle and frowned: sullen, dejected… Had he forgotten her birthday? It wasn’t like him.
She spooned coffee granules into two mugs, added milk and finally sugar: one level spoonful for the doctor as per usual, and three heaped for herself, whilst waiting for the water to come to the boil.
Dr Galbraith entered his seemingly unremarkable magnolia office, adjusted his recently acquired black leather swivel chair, and sat at the modern veneered desk he’d located directly against the rear wall, avoiding any barrier between himself and prospective victims. He moved a flowering Christmas cactus aside, and picked up the silver-framed black-and-white photo of his wife and two young daughters. He held it out in front of him in both hands, stared at it for several seconds and smiled contentedly… He must ensure he referred to the portrait when first meeting the little bastard and his needful family.
Dr Galbraith placed the photograph back on his desk and slowly scanned the room with eager eyes… Was everything in its place? Was everything as it should be? The poster covering the glass panel in his office door could do with some additional Sellotape. That was a job for Sharon. Surely the incompetent bitch could manage that much.
He shook his head vigorously… It beggared belief. Why the hell were all the women in his life such a burden?
Dr Galbraith manoeuvred himself to the centre of the room in his chair and examined the room’s only window… That pleb at the garden centre had been surprisingly knowledgeable despite his youth and obvious limitations. The elaeagnus bush had grown significantly faster than he could have hoped, and the thorns formed an excellent barrier. He really couldn’t have made a better choice.
The doctor rose from his seat, pushed the chair back in the direction of his desk with a flick of his right foot, approached the window, adjusted the blinds and peered out… He still had a reasonable view of the car park without the fear of potentially interfering external onlookers. He’d need to strategically trim the bush at some stage, but that could almost certainly wait until spring.
He turned away from the window, surveyed the room for one final time, and smiled… It was an undoubted triumph. One more thing to be proud of.
Dr Galbraith opened Anthony Mailer’s file and read slowly, taking his time, and carefully considering each word… The little bastard had blamed himself for his parents’ break up and had developed various behavioural problems as a result. His mother had accepted the family doctor’s offer of specialist help.
He sat back in his chair and stretched his arms high above his head before lowering them slowly and deliberately… It wasn’t a complex scenario. Far from it, in fact; if he were of a mind to help, he could. Of course he could. If the little bastard had been a girl, he would have provided an excellent therapeutic service. If he was a little older he would have done likewise. That was entirely reasonable, wasn’t it? Of course it was. What the hell did it matter if he used a few boys for his own purposes?
The resurgent pressure began to build again… Why the hell was he forced to keep his true nature secret from the world at large? He helped the vast majority of children he saw. That was to his credit. People should be grateful for that.
The doctor’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by his young secretary tapping on the door with the point of her scarlet court shoe, and entering his office with his mug of coffee in one hand and the clinic’s appointments diary in the other.
‘Come in, my dear girl. Come in, and make yourself comfortable. I neglected to wish you a happy birthday earlier, and so I will do it now. Is it eighteen or nineteen this year?’
She giggled bashfully. ‘Oh, you know I’m older than that.’
He grinned… The repulsive bitch looked nearer to forty than twenty. ‘Well, you don’t look it, my dear. Now then, to business; when’s the next free appointment?’
Sharon sat at his side, opened the diary, flicked through the pages, stopped, continued, and then stopped again. ‘Not until the twenty-seventh, I’m afraid, Doctor.’
He stared at the floor fleetingly, and then slowly raised his eyes, fixing her with an intense look that she struggled to decipher. ‘There’s nothing sooner?’
Was there a degree of anxiety in his voice?
She urgently reopened the book and frowned. ‘I’ll take another look, Doctor, but you really mustn’t overdo it. You’ve been looking tired recently, and you’ve been getting those terrible headaches of yours. Didn’t you say you were planning a holiday?’
Keep control, man, keep control, indulge the interfering bitch. ‘That is not your concern, young lady. The children have to come first. You know that. If I don’t help them, who’s going to do it?’ He tapped the desktop repeatedly with his right index finger. ‘Now, come on, diary.’
Sharon sighed… He was such a caring man. If only there were more like him.
‘There is one cancellation on Friday the seventeenth, Doctor. That’s half past ten a week today, but I’m sure you mentioned a dental appointment.’
Dr Galbraith visibly relaxed… A week was too long. But it seemed there was no viable alternative. ‘No, no, Sharon, that will have to do. It will have to do. Please ensure the appointment letter is sent out first class this morning. This particular child is in crisis. The Mailers need my urgent help.’ He stood, pointed towards the door, and smiled engagingly. ‘Do you hear me, girl? Get it done please.’
She left the office promptly, her body quivering like a pink blancmange with each step… If the doctor could be so very dedicated, then so could she.
Dr Galbraith opened Anthony’s file for the second time that morning, and reread the general practitioner’s letter repeatedly before pushing it aside a few minutes later… How could the stupid bitch take so long to type a few miserable lines of script?
He cleared his throat and shouted, ‘Is the Mailer letter ready, Sharon?’
‘It’s nearly done, Doctor. Do you want the entire family to attend?’
Oh for fuck’s sake, it was the little bastard’s first appointment. Why the hell did she always need to ask? ‘Yes, please, Sharon, a standard initial appointment letter: the mother, the father and the two children.’
‘I’ll have it done in five minutes, Doctor.’
He rubbed a hand over his chin… A damn chimp could type faster. ‘Thank you, my dear.’
She shook her head as she started typing… What was the hurry this time? Sometimes, he was too dedicated for his own good.
Dr Galbraith sighed loudly and screwed up his face. ‘Where the hell is it, Sharon?’
‘I’m typing as fast as I can, Doctor.’
Focus, man, focus. Too harsh, far too harsh, placate the bitch.
He actively calmed himself before entering her office. ‘I apologise if I appear somewhat irate this morning, my dear. But it really couldn’t be more urgent.’
Sharon finished typing a second or two later, her fleshy bust heaving with the effort of it all. ‘That’s it, done!’
‘Thank you, my dear. I’ll check the contents in my office.’
Dr Galbraith sat at his desk and held the letter out in front of him, accommodating his long-sightedness, rather than making use of his reading glasses. He began reading but struggled to concentrate despite the contents’ usual captivation… He was doing the right thing, wasn’t he? It was a fair question in the circumstances. He usually made a point of avoiding children who enjoyed close family ties. Why the hell was this time any different?
He clawed at his scalp and desperately tried to ignore the invasive crashing symbols in his mind… Was it really a wise move? The risks were high. What if the little bastard said something to the wrong person? What if that someone actually listened to him and acted on his allegations? It just didn’t bear thinking about.
He blinked and twitched and sweated and paced the floor, as the escalating racket threatened to overwhelm him completely… He’d made exceptions in the past. Of course he had. When it had suited him. He’d taken risks, but they were considered risks. That was the essential caveat. A man of his intelligence and expertise could handle such complications. Of course he could. And the little bastard was well worth the additional effort.
Dr Galbraith felt suddenly calmer… All he had to do was think things through and stick to a plan. Manipulating the little bastard would be easy enough. He was good at it, and had to remember that. It was just a matter of how. The father was an obvious vulnerability. And if that failed, which seemed highly unlikely, there were other viable options. Of course there were. He’d undertaken the task on numerous occasions without any significant issues arising. How many boys was it at the last count? Was it ninety-seven, or ninety-eight? Either way it was something to be proud of. What the hell was he worrying about? His methods had worked before and they would again.
He returned to his seat just as Sharon knocked on the door and entered without waiting to be asked. ‘Would you like me to post the Mailer letter at lunchtime, Doctor?’
Dr Galbraith beamed. ‘That will not be necessary, Sharon. You’ve done an excellent job. Thank you, my dear girl.’
She blushed crimson. ‘Are you sure, Doctor? You did say earlier…’
‘I’m grateful, my dear. Extremely grateful, but I’m about to leave for a meeting. I’ll post this one myself on the way.’
She smiled contentedly as he took a faux crocodile-leather wallet from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, opened it theatrically, and handed her a crisp ten-pound note. ‘Happy birthday, my dear girl, please treat yourself to something nice for lunch. And don’t rush back. You deserve it.’
She gushed, and decided to ignore the fact that there was nothing marked in his diary… He really was a wonderful boss, and unbelievably generous. His wife really was a lucky woman. ‘Will I see you after the meeting, Doctor?’
She was hoping the answer was yes, but she didn’t receive a response. Dr Galbraith waved exuberantly as he rushed from the clinic and headed towards his car. His mind was focused on other things.
John Nicholl wrote a multi-agency child protection good practice manual and various articles for newspapers and a national social work magazine during his career, but ‘White Is The Coldest Color’ is his first novel. He has worked as a police officer, and as a social worker and operational manager for the child guidance service, two social services departments, and the NSPCC. He has also lectured on child protection matters at several colleges and universities.
The disturbing dark psychological suspense thriller from ex police officer and child protection social worker John Nicholl.