Arthur Bates was hanging onto the side of a small sailing dinghy when his wife hit him with an oar. There was the thwack of wood against bone, followed by an instant of shocked surprise, then a light seemed to go from his eyes as he slid gracefully back into the sea. With one hand she grasped his arm before he could drift away and with the other she held his head beneath the surface of the water. She spoke to him as he drowned. Her voice was one of remonstrance; it was a voice of correction. She was the irate parent castigating the errant child. “You deserve this, Arthur,” she said. “You really were a pig, a two-faced, adulterous pig!”
Afterwards, when she had dragged his lifeless body back into the boat, she slumped exhausted into the helmsman’s seat and gripped the tiller to steady her shaking hands. It crossed her mind that the killing had hardly been less of an ordeal for her than it had been for him. Arthur lay at rest, stretched along the gunwale, and death, she noted, seemed to have given him back something of his youth. Even so, he was hardly a pretty sight (forty-five, fat, balding), but the revulsion she felt was time-diminished. It was true that when she had first learnt of his ‘affair’ she had thought him loathsome. Now he was merely ugly.
It seemed an ineluctable chain of events had brought her to this moment, so for a short while Helen let herself drift away into a kind of semi-euphoric trance, a combination of the warm glow of satisfaction at a job well done and post-homicidal shock. For the first time in months she could look to the future with optimism.
She felt no remorse at Arthur’s passing. She was not that sort of person. Indeed, she rather doubted if anyone would, (though her opinion in this matter may well have been biased), but because she had never seen a dead person before, her eyes were constantly drawn to his corpse. In a strange way it amused her that in death he seemed to hold more interest for her than in life.
She recalled the way she had felt when they had left the hotel sailing club that morning. The wind had gusted so strongly, had swept them so swiftly to the horizon, she had doubted whether the opportunity to kill Arthur would present itself. When suddenly (and fortuitously) the breeze had died away, he had suggested a swim, which was his habit when they went sailing far from land. In the end, murdering him had been so easy.
Helen felt a breath of wind on her face. She looked up to where clouds were gathering on the horizon. The sail flapped at the mast, then began to fill. Water gurgled along the hull, the boat rocked and Arthur slid ungraciously into the bottom of the boat. When she saw that his sightless eyes were gazing up at her she stretched out a foot and neatly flicked his face away.
“Oh, Arthur,” she said, “aren’t you ever going to give me any peace!”
Picture her then as she sailed back to Mui Ne: Helen Bates, 39, tall, bikini-clad and attractive, sitting at the back of the boat with her dead husband at her feet, going over in her mind the story she would repeat when the time came.
She dipped a hand in the sea and repeatedly brought it to her face until the salt water had made her eyes red-ringed and tearful. At the appropriate time, she had determined, she would put on a masterful performance: a classical display of the bereaved wife in anguish.
About half a kilometre from shore there were two Vietnamese fishermen in a puttering motorboat: an old man with lank, greasy hair and someone much younger, wearing a yellow T-shirt full of holes. Helen waved her arms and called out to them. The young one waved back and the engine note deepened as he pointed the prow towards her.
It was the old man who first spotted Arthur lying grey and cold at the bottom of the boat. After he had got over his shock he came aboard. He brought with him two blankets — one for the living and one for the dead — both reeking of diesel oil and fish. Helen cried out when he covered Arthur’s face. “We have to get my husband to the hospital,” she said, but the two of them just looked at her.
Back at the beach she remained standing next to the sailing boat while the young fisherman ran into the hotel. Then the hotel receptionist escorted her into the building. For a time, no one seemed certain what to do with her. In the deserted restaurant she was given a corner alcove and draped in towels where she sat alone and was ignored, like a sick patient with a contagious disease.
Eventually, the hotel manager arrived and took charge. First he spoke to the receptionist in Vietnamese then he spoke to Helen in English.
“Ple’ accep’ my deep sorries, Miz Bates,” he said.
Not long afterwards, Helen’s friend Thao arrived. Arthur, Helen and Thao had travelled from Ho Chi Minh City together for a weekend break. It had been Thao’s idea since her husband was away on business in Singapore.
When she saw Helen, Thao said, “Oh, Helen!” and then promptly burst into tears.
“I couldn’t help him, Thao,” Helen sobbed. “There was nothing I could do…Nothing!”
Police Captain Pham arrived ten minutes later. Speaking through Thao he expressed his sympathies then dispatched a uniformed officer to quarantine the boat. Afterwards, he made a brief foray into the manager’s office where the body was being kept then began asking questions.
“He wants you to tell him exactly what happened, Helen,” Thao said.
Helen explained that Arthur had been attempting to free a jammed winch when a sudden gust of wind has sent the boom swinging wildly across the deck. It had struck him on the side of the head and knocked him overboard. Despite her frantic efforts, he had drowned by the time she could reach him.
“Was your husband not wearing a life-jacket, Mrs Bates?” the captain asked, through his interpreter.
“No. I told him to put it on. He said it was too cumbersome.”
At this admission she shrugged indefinitely and tried to smile. A moment later she said, “I didn’t bother to argue, captain.” And as the full impact of what she had admitted finally went home, added in anguish, “It’s my fault, isn’t it, captain? I’m to blame, aren’t I? I should have insisted,” but Captain Pham took pity on her distress and shook his head.
“No one for blaming, Mrs Bates,” he said in English, but his kind words were wasted because Helen had already dropped her head and started to weep inconsolably again.
The captain looked out through the window to where two small sailing boats were battling through a squall of rain. It occurred to him that as a city boy he would never understand man’s fascination with the sea.
Turning back to Helen when her weeping had subsided, he said, “You repeat ‘gain, Mrs Bates?” then asked the same questions a second time, only in a different order, and checked the answers she gave him against the notes he had made in his little black notebook.
Eventually, he got ready to depart. Outside dusk was falling. He was surprised at how quickly the beach had emptied.
“When are you going back to Ho Chi Minh City?” he asked Thao.
“As soon as possible, captain.”
The policeman nodded. “And her husband’s body?”
“Arrangements are being made.”
The captain saw no reason to detain Mrs Bates. Before arriving at the scene he had summoned a doctor who had already viewed the body and discreetly passed to him a report. The doctor had noted the fine froth around the victim’s mouth and nostrils — a classic symptom of drowning — and the small bruise above his right temple. “The injury in question is entirely consistent with the account of the incident given by the wife of the deceased,” the doctor had written.
Back in Ho Chi Minh City five hours later, Helen sat in the living room of her apartment while Thao busied herself in the kitchen. The truth was that Helen wanted to be left alone so that she could celebrate, but that was not an option.
Helen had discovered that Arthur was having an affair six months earlier when she realised that he was behaving… differently. Eventually, she had become suspicious enough to follow him to a hotel one night where she had seen his pretty young secretary waiting for him in the foyer. Then they had gone up to a room together. In an instant, everything had fallen neatly into place for Helen — Arthur’s late-night ‘business meetings’, the new clothes, the gym — it all made sense.
At first Helen had been prepared to turn a blind eye to what she considered to be a passing fancy, after all, it was no use killing — literally or figuratively — the goose that laid the golden eggs, but that all changed when he bought the new apartment.
It was in truth a magnificent acquisition: a top floor penthouse suite in a prestigious block with a wide balcony and magnificent views of the river and the city. But she hated it. More to the point, Arthur knew that she hated it.
Helen suffered from acrophobia, or ‘height phobia’ as the experts usually called it. She had a mortal fear of high places. Arthur knew all of this, of course, yet he had still bought the place. It was ‘a good investment’, he said, but she knew that wasn’t the real reason for the purchase. The real reason was that he wanted to get rid of her, to drive her away. (According to the terms of their prenuptial agreement, if he left her then he would have to pay a lot of money, but if she left him then he didn’t pay a cent.)
But Helen was not a woman so easily cowed. To spite him, instead of complaining she had moved into the apartment. And to rub salt into the wound, every night she would go out onto the balcony where she would grasp the railings, shuddering and trembling with terror.
Now Arthur was gone, she would move out and sell. But first she wanted to go out onto the balcony one last time as a final insult to dear old Arthur.
Holding her breath, Helen stepped unsteadily through the open doorway and grasped the balcony rail. She heard a sharp crack and felt the rail move even before she had time to register what was happening.
Suddenly, the ground was rushing up to meet her. That was when she recalled seeing Arthur kneeling near the edge of the balcony that morning.
“What are you doing, Arthur?” she had asked.
He had waved a spanner in the air. “Just checking that everything is safe and secure for you, my love,” he said, though there was a look of anxiety on his face that she couldn’t quite fathom. Now, it was suddenly clear: Arthur had been planning a nasty accident for her, just like she had been planning a nasty accident for him.
“Oh, Arthur,” she moaned. “You really were a pig, a two-faced, adulterous pi…”
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters and incidents are invented. Rob Marsh is the author of 30 published books (both fiction and non-fiction). He currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City