A Process of Elimination
L. Gordon Range
Back to Short Stories
Back to Front Page

The food processor looked sleek and innocent when Janice Layton raised a bright yellow dust cover. Her husband made vague approving noises, not quite sure what to say, and allowed Janice to take over with a catalogue of the new gadget's uses. Graham Layton had no idea at the time that he was looking at a device that he would learn to hate, and then to remember with a certain affection.
   Janice's sense of values had been formed before galloping inflation and decimalization. She had a habit of translating new pence into old money and going into a state of financial shock. At Christmas, for instance, she had realized that she was putting half-crown stamps on the cards and she had trimmed the list by half. But she had the strength of mind to overcome her inhibitions. She could see beyond the initial investment at the January sales to the potential savings.
   Economy lay behind her purchase of a sewing machine and her evening classes in dressmaking. Prices at the green grocer had led to her replanting of their one-eighth of an acre of back garden with vegetables, soft fruits and dwarf apple trees. Janice had also felt able to buy a basic home computer to organize their lives and a small filing cabinet to store tradesmen's estimates.
   Graham was not an artisan by nature. His parents had taught him that hands are for gripping pens and pencils during working hours, not tools. He had been steered into a clerical job in his teens and he had worked his way up to the lower levels of his firm's management structure as he approached forty. Strangely, his parents saw nothing wrong with do-it-yourself.
   Janice had placed a set of tools on their wedding present list, and bought supplies of screws, washers and the little rubber plugs for ball-valves. When he had mastered simple jobs, she had encouraged Graham to buy an electric drill with a circular saw attachment and a hedge-trimmer. His latest power tool was an electric saw, which was portable, waterproof and could cut through anything from seasoned ash to zinc-coated steel.
   Home decoration had been added to his talents, even though Graham would have preferred to pay professionals, even though that would have meant the sacrifice of one of their biannual foreign holidays. Janice disagreed.
   They needed their winter and summer breaks. Janice enjoyed taking quotations from decorators and feeding them into her computer so that it could subtract the cost of the materials used by Graham when he did the jobs and add the saving to a graph of the year's cumulative expenditure total. And anyway, Graham had conquered his fear of climbing a twenty-foot ladder to paint gutters.
   Winter was a quiet time on the home and garden front. Graham changed the odd washer, kept the grids free of dead leaves and chopped away dead growth in the gardens, but he was allowed to spend most of his free time relaxing, gathering his strength for the spring offensive on the effects of weather and decay. Janice divided her time between the winter crops in the greenhouse and finding new things to do with her food processor.
   By the time the weather was warm enough to allow paint to touch-dry in hours instead of a whole day, Graham had come to hate the food processor. He was fed up of a diet of mush. He longed for crisp, whole vegetables and fruit instead of nourishing soups and easy-to-freeze purées. He had fantasies about real pieces of meat, which had to be hacked to pieces with a knife, instead of minced savoury fillings in pastries and pasta, which could be cut with a fork.
   Her food processor allowed Janice to blend herbs from the garden with meat and vegetables to create new and exotic combinations of tastes. Graham began to forget the pure, unadulterated delights of fried steak, grilled pork chops, roast lamb and steak and kidney pie which contained discrete, identifiable pieces of meat instead of two flavours blended inseparably with half a dozen herbs.
   He came to loathe the brief, busy roar of the infernal machine, and to wish that Janice would flush the latest mush straight down the sink. And he could never watch her clean the thing without imagining it coming to life of its own accord and whisking her fingers to bloody froth speckled with white sand-grains of bone.
   Graham was a tolerant man - his friends went as far as dull and unimaginative. Ten years earlier, he had been attracted to Janice by both her looks and her ability to organize her life. Graham had been leading a minimal existence, eating convenience foods, relying on the pub and television for entertainment, and not bothering with holidays away from home because he had no idea there to start with the booking arrangements.
   Janice had changed almost everything; mainly for the better, Graham was forced to admit. She had smartened him up and helped his career by making him look like management material. She had encouraged him to give up smoking by her own example. She was a skilled cook, who could keep him well fed without putting on the extra pounds which seemed to cling to some of his contemporaries. She had taken over their finances and eliminated Graham's wild swings from solvency to crisis. They had several thousand pounds put away in long- and short-term savings accounts. And they had seen most of Europe in summer and winter.
   Graham's programmes of maintenance for their home and the car had caused disagreement initially, but Janice had made him realize that his misgivings were based on unwarranted pessimism about his own abilities. He expected paint to retain unsightly brush-marks, glued items to come unstuck and vital pieces to fall off the car while he was driving along the motorway at seventy miles per hour taking his wife to nurse her semi-permanent invalid of a mother.
   Success had worked a quiet revolution in Graham's self-image. Some of his early repairs had failed but he had always worked out why and how to do the job properly. He had not learned to enjoy do-it-yourself, but he could derive satisfaction from a competent job performed in the minimum time, and he remained amazed that Janice had seen such potential in him and that she had had the patience to develop it.
   Realizing that he could do things for himself, he had even tried his hand at cooking when his wife was at her mother's, and he had attained a fair degree of proficiency without gadgets. In effect, he was back in his manual days of do-it-yourself: gaining experience, developing the confidence to follow a recipe and learning to deviate from the recipe to suit personal taste or when the cooking time or temperature seemed wrong.
   The hated food processor drove him to heresy. As long as Janice handicapped herself with the mush machine, Graham began to believe, he was her superior in the kitchen. One small rebellion led to a full-scale mutiny when he continued his self-analysis into other areas. Graham Layton, when a bachelor, had been a fairly useless character. Janice had worked wonders with her husband. In fact, she had done too good a job. The pupil began to think about graduation. He had never been a man of strong emotions. Any love that he had once felt for his wife had become mere habit. And, as Janice had proved to him with smoking, he was capable of shedding bad habits.

One of his neighbours was hanging out washing then Graham approached his dustbin with a collection of tins. They chatted about the May weather and Graham mentioned that his wife was away again, looking after her mother. One of the old girl's imaginary diseases had flared up again.
   After a wet week, he rang his mother-in-law. Janice's younger sister answered the telephone. Graham asked her when his wife was coming home. The conversation covered a lot of ground between 'she's not here' and 'she must be there!'
   A baffled husband rushed round to the local police station to report his wife missing. As far as he knew, Janice had caught a train the previous Saturday. She had even telephoned him from her mother's home to tell Graham that she would be staying for a week; which explained why he had not reported her missing until the following Friday evening.
   Detective Inspector Blythe was suspicious of husbands who lost their wives. Police inquiries soon established that Graham usually drove Janice to her mother's and that she had not used her local station on the day in question. Inspector Blythe visited Graham the next morning to have a look at his man on his home ground.
   Graham was in the back garden, renewing the roofing felt on the shed, doing what the computer had ordered rather than worrying about his wife. Inspector Blythe dropped a sweet wrapper into the dustbin on the way to the back door. A collection of tins and packets told him that Graham was strictly an 'open it and heat it up' type, who would have no use for things like the mixer and the food processor in a well-appointed kitchen.
   The computer confirmed that Graham had been servicing the car the previous Saturday. His wife had told him that she was perfectly capable of carrying her own bags to the nearby station. He had seen her for the last time turning the corner at the end of the road, and he had no witness to the alleged phone call from her mother's. In fact, everything that he had told the police had been based on assumptions and things that he alleged his wife had told him.
   Further inquiries produced nothing. Like thousands of people each year, Janice Layton had apparently packed two bags and then just disappeared. She had left behind some clothes, a few bits and pieces and her computer with its maintenance schedules for home, car and garden, and list of clothes and accessories for their summer holiday.
   Inevitably, malicious tongues began to wag. Some suggested that Graham had done away with his wife, even though he would be lost without her. It was well known that Janice was the brains of their partnership and Graham was the hands. Other gossips were sure that Janice had abandoned her dull husband in favour of a secret boyfriend.
   None of their friends and neighbours had ever seen the boyfriend, but some could remember smelling cigarette smoke in the home of two non-smokers - always during the day, when Graham was at work or on evenings when he was out. Only Graham knew that his strong-willed wife had continued to enjoy the occasional smoke, just to prove that she could take tobacco or leave it alone.
   Eventually, Graham Layton began to show an unsuspected streak of character. He refused to say another word to the police. Between May and August, he had spent a total of fifteen days at the local police station, according to the log on the computer. The questions had narrowed into endless repetition and patient attempts to force him into inconsistency. Inspector Blythe knew that he had disposed of his wife.
   It was easy to make fun of Graham Layton. He was an average non-entity with very little sense of humour. It was easy to see why an energetic and resourceful woman like Janice would grow tired of him eventually. At first, her friends were surprised that she had stayed with him as long as ten years and hurt by Janice's failure to tell them about her new life. As the period of silence grew, their suspicions deepened. It was one thing for Janice to reject her husband, but rejecting her friends was unthinkable.
   His neighbours were thrilled and shocked when the police decided that they had grounds to carry out an intensive search of the Layton house. To Detective Inspector Blythe, it was the logical outcome of a process of elimination. If Janice Layton could not be found elsewhere, she had to be at home.
   A team of detectives searched the house from roof to foundations, taking up floorboards, sounding walls and driving iron rods into the dank earth beneath the house. They looked into every cupboard and examined the junk under the stairs, which consisted mainly of worn-out appliances that Janice had retained to provide spare parts for their replacements. The detectives even unloaded the large chest freezer to examine the joints of meat.
   Graham rescued as much as possible from the vegetable garden. His solicitor made a photographic record of the rest of Janice's planning and his hard work. The police were warned that they would face a claim for compensation based on the records in Janice's computer of costs and predicted yields. Undeterred, they turned the back garden's eighteen hundred square feet into a replica of a World War One battlefield.
   They went down six feet, and all they found were a few large stones, the remains of a rockery. Both shed and greenhouse were searched and their wooden floors raised to allow further excavation. The police were puzzled by the squares of plastic foam in the shed. Janice's computer told them the price of a replacement cushion for the settee, the cost of the slab of foam which Graham had bought and Janice had sewn into the original cover, the saving over a ready-made cushion and added some ideas on uses for the good parts of the old cushion.
   The searchers moved round the house to peel the turf off the lawn and dig up the rose beds. Graham watched them leave without saying 'I told you so'. The police had done him a favour, even though he couldn't tell them so. He had no great love of gardening and they had destroyed his gardens.
   He posed for pictures and told the press how he felt about official vandalism. Gradually, the reporters lost interest in him. Graham knew that Inspector Blythe would be back if he turned up the slightest scrap of evidence, but he was confident that he had covered his tracks methodically. His late wife had set excellent examples for the student of planning.
   Her computer had supplied the list of things to take to mother's. Graham had burned all fabric and plastic parts in the coal-fired central heating furnace. His wonderful electric saw had reduced all metal parts to convenient fragments, which he had scattered during his week of grace over a wide area. His waterproof electric saw had also sliced through bone in a bath full almost to the brim with water to prevent saw-debris flying around; and reduced the body to convenient chunks.
   Eventually, he added the food processor to the collection of junk under the stairs. It was just collecting dust in the kitchen, he was quite happy with the Kenwood mixer and in any case, the infernal machine's motor was running raggedly from too heavy use and the cutting blades were blunt.
   He had discovered that a box of thick plastic foam muffles the roar of a food processor satisfactorily and stops it driving the owner mad when it is used more or less continuously over many hours. But Graham Layton had no further use for the food processor. It reminded him too much of his dear, departed wife. ■

The End

For the benefit of those readers who say, "Okay, it's just a story, it could never happen", I offer the following newspaper cuttings.

Body in toilet charge

AN AUSTRALIAN scientist was accused in Tasmania of killing his wife, cutting up her body and flushing pieces down a toilet. Rory Thompson aged 41, appearing in Hobart court denied murdering his wife last September.

Manchester Evening News - Monday, 13th February, 1984.

Wife 'butchered'

AN AUSTRALIAN scientist was accused yesterday of killing his wife, cutting up her body, and flushing pieces down a toilet. Rory Thompson, aged 41, appearing in Hobart criminal court, Tasmania, pleaded not guilty to murdering his wife last September. - Reuter.

Guardian - Tuesday, 14th February, 1984.

Back to Short StoriesBack to Front Page
to top of pageCreated for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story L.G. Range, 1984. This version L.G. Range, 2002