David N. Guy is a gentle man, or so his admirers say. And yet he kills for a living. Simone Piss investigates.
The moment stretches out forever.
It’s Monday. A lazy summer afternoon in the small Essex village of Woodham Walter. The sun shines over the village green. There’s a small queue at the tombola table, and a slightly larger one at the cake stall. Children jump endlessly on the bouncy castles. A couple of grandmothers slumped half asleep in deck-chairs. Morris dancers jig in time with the rhythmic futtering of a sprinkler watering a nearby lawn.
And up on the makeshift stage at the centre of it all David N. Guy raises his axe towards the sun and prepares to swing it back down onto the neck of the man tied to the butcher’s block.
Onto, and through.
The first time I came across the name David N. Guy, I was amazed I hadn’t heard of him.
It was a small report hidden in the mass of political wailing in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, a piece of end-of-programme fluff designed to let you leave the 6 o’clock news feeling vaguely uplifted rather than suicidally despondent, announcing cheerfully that David had become the first Essex executioner for 600 years to notch up 5000 county-sanctioned killings. (I got the feeling that the county-sanctioned modifier was probably quite important for the saliency of this fact.) And with the report a grainy reproduction of a picture of an unremarkable man in a stained and grubby t-shirt, his arms crossed over his voluminous slab-like breasts, his expression blank beneath his beard.
How could someone have managed to kill 5000 people without me (or, indeed, any of my friends or colleagues) having heard of them? How could a county apparently so close to civilisation (Essex being, surprisingly, less than 30 miles from London) still have its own executioner? And how could its people not only tolerate him but venerate him?
I became, it must be said, quietly obsessed with the man over the next few weeks, and I set out to find out as much about him and his work as I could.
“Most of us are only familiar with the popular image of Essex presented to us in the media,” says Professor Hugh Crabb over the phone from his office in the Department of Essex at Waltham Forest College in Walthamstow, London. “Lust-crazed vanity, bellowing bald-headed thuggery, right-wing nationalism, endless self-destructive automobile-based eroticism not even JG Ballard could have envisaged, West Ham fanaticism, that sort of thing. But there’s a dark side to Essex too.”
And nothing illustrates that better than the figure of David N. Guy himself.
Arkesden, Tuesday. A farmer’s field. An audience of crows.
He lifts the heavy stone, holds it above the man on the altar’s chest, slowly lowers it down. We hold our breathe while the stone holds his.
Eventually, we breathe out. From the altar only silence.
The washed-out photo on the news coverage didn’t do him justice.
We had arranged to meet an hour before the first of his killings I’m lucky enough to witness, the beheading at Woodham Walter.
He looked taller in the flesh than his officially-stated 6 foot 2, heavier than his admitted 20 stone. His beard was a dense knotted mass, deep enough and wide enough to give the impression that his head was wider than his shoulders and larger than his belly.
He wore a red t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of brown shoes. His glasses were too small for his eyes.
His hands were a few pounds of meat. His neck was unseen.
“You’re a woman,” he says.
I nod. I’m impressed he noticed.
“I always thought Simone was a boy’s name.”
I shake his hand and it is more moist than I would like.
On Wednesday in Helions Bumpstead, David peels a woman like a fruit and then dresses her in a silken shroud and together they go to the tombs like a macabre bride with her morbid groom.
David has very strict rules in place to ensure the quality of his service is never negatively impacted by the demands of county’s magistrates. He will only carry out one execution a day. He needs to be fed both before and after the killing. There must be at least chair of a suitable sturdiness available for him to sit on pre- and post-slaying. And he absolutely has to be informed about the prescribed method of justice he is to administer to his “patient” at least 24 hours before he arrives in the town.
On this last point of order he reluctantly elaborates.
“I don’t want to sound critical of the various district authorities, but…,” David explains. “It’s okay here in the centre. You always know what to expect. It’s always some mundane method of death, an axe to the neck or a noose or a good old fashioned throttling. The sort of thing I could do in my sleep. But the further out you get the more esoteric their desires, and the more exacting the demands upon my skills. It’s important you know what to expect. You don’t want to get there and find out you’ve got to do something beyond your knowledge.”
He speaks in a bland Essex wail of dropped consonants and monotonous vowels which betrays no hint of excitement or disgust at what he’s describing. And in many ways I find this resigned matter-of-factness more disturbing than if he’d been a cackling gleeful mess of erotic violent desires.
What sort of thing do some of these places require?
“In Dovercourt they like you to use a spoon. In Mundon they expect ice. In Langenhoe fire. And in Bradwell once I had to cut the tip off a man’s toe and suck the blood from his body.”
He pauses and looks at me with his mesmeric bovine eyes.
“All the blood.”
Is there any methods he doesn’t like having to do. Any places he dreads to go.
“Crix,” he says eventually. “There’s many machines in Crix. I don’t like machines.”
The people of Herongate require him only to watch as the victim is lowered into the churning heron pit. To watch and to witness and to confirm.
How does someone go about becoming an executioner, I ask.
“Ah, they picked me out at primary school,” David says. “Said I showed great aptitude for it. Although as far as I could tell the extent of my aptitude was that I was taller than everyone else, and fatter.”
There must have been more to it than that, I say. Some inherent violence, perhaps. Or a particular dexterity in handling weapons.
He shakes his head. “Well, there was also my necklessness. The priest said it was a sign.”
A sign of what?
David shrugs his shoulders. “The beard probably helped make up their minds, too.”
At Layer-de-la-Haye on Friday, I witness a sight of such staggering depravity I know not how to describe it, nor even, having witnessed it, if I can believe it to have been truly possible.
For someone doing such an unglamorous job, David seems to have developed a small but dedicated following. On twitter there are two accounts dedicated to his deeds: @essecutioner, which is a somewhat prosaic list of his upcoming appearances and matter-of-fact descriptions of the method employed for each and every death; and @sexycuteoner (pronounced sexy-cute-shoner), which is somewhat less serious-minded and also inextricably erotic. There is also a related tumblr, but we cannot link to it here. His reviews on yelp are unanimously positive.
I ask him how he feels about all this attention.
“I don’t really follow all that stuff. I don’t really understand it. Mobile phones and things, it’s all just… I’m from a different generation to all that.”
He is 38 years old.
At Maldon he takes the child out into the mud on Saturday morning and when he comes back at the turning of the tide he is hauntingly alone.
Only once in the week I spend with David do I wonder if he ever thinks about what his victims have done, about whether they deserve to receive his undoubtedly professional ministrations.
This is when I find him weeping two hours before the seventh (and last) execution I am to see, an old lady in Goldhangar who, I find out later, has been convicted of eating mulberries.
“I don’t like it when they’re old,” he says. “They remind me of my grandparents.”
Does he ever consider whether there crimes are great enough to justify the severity of his punishments, I ask. He says he never knows what they have done, and that it wouldn’t matter even if he did.
“It’s not for me to decide. It wouldn’t be justice if I could just arbitrarily decide whether to carry it out or not. It’d be tyranny. And besides I’m just carrying out a job, same as anyone else. It’s the magistrates who make the choice. If I didn’t do it, no doubt someone else would.”
Does he ever think about quitting and doing something else?
“No,” he says. “I’d not be very good at something else.”
But you might be left with no choice, I say. What will he do if, for example, Essex adopts the European Convention on Human Rights?
He laughs and laughs and laughs and then, when he stops, he gets up out of his chair and goes off to do his day’s work.
On Sunday he carries the woman over his shoulder as he climbs up the tight spiral of the stairs in the Goldhangar church tower, and then, at the top he throws her off, much to the delight of the crowd below. Then he trudges back down the stairs (not easy for a man of his size), picks up her whimpering body, and puts her over his shoulder and carries her up again, throws her down again.
This continues for quite some time, until there’s nothing much left for him to hold anymore, nothing much left for him to carry, to throw.
We have one final conversation before I go, in the pretty little garden of a quaint Essex teashop. Looking back on it, I realise I can recall nothing of what we spoke about. Instead, I have a clear image of watching him eating the trayful of cakes the heavily tattooed waitress placed reverently in front of him, “with the full compliments of the village” she said.
The first cake he eats is a slice of Victoria sponge. He separates the two halfs of it, and then scrapes away the cream and jam from the middle with a teaspoon, eating each mouthful with a shudder of pleasure. Then he carves the top half into quarters, the bottom half into fifths, and finally he rolls the pieces one at a time onto the teaspoon and from there into his mouth.
The Swiss roll he unrolls and then slices neatly into one centimetre wide strips, which he dangles down into his mouth from above like a schoolboy eating liquorice shoelaces.
A full-sized kitkat (not technically a cake) he unwraps and eats in two great big bites, not even bothering to snap the thing into fingers.
He eats a strawberry cheesecake through a straw, which unless you’ve seen such a thing done directly in front of your eyes, you’ll never believe to be possible.
With a slice of Battenburg in one hand and a slice of Madeira in the other, he pushes his hands together until the cakes have merged together into a strange paste across his palms, which he then licks at like a cat until they are clean, his tongue working at the webbing between his fingers with a peculiar ferocity.
He dips a scone into a pot of nutella, eats the chocolated scone, and then, with a knife, the rest of the nutella.
He finishes with an entire box of Tunnock’s teacakes. He unwraps each one neatly from the foil, which he flattens down into a square with the back of his hand, taking his time until almost every crease is gone and you’d never know it had once been crumpled up in a ball around the cake. On the foil he places the teacake, each one perfectly centred, until all ten are lined up before him. Then he quickly takes one cake in his right hand and pops it in his mouth, whole, crushes it down with a single chomp of his jaw, and then with his left hand he pops in another, working his way down the line from each end until, a mere matter of seconds later, all the squares of foil are empty and his mouth is full.
Oh is his mouth full.
The tattooed waitress eventually comes back and takes the empty tray away. Something in her demeanour towards David – not to mention the stylised weaponry that adorns her arms, the erotic curves of the Essex seaxes visible beneath the teasingly opened buttons at the neck of her shirt – makes me wonder if she runs the sexycuteoner tumblr, or at least enjoys it as much as I’ve come to. I follow her inside to pay for my coffee, and when we come back out together at the end of her shift David has long gone on his way.
1. Written in August 2016
2. I wrote this after reading an article in the New Yorker about some eccentric restaurant owner
3. And really liking the first line of the story
4. Which I stole
5. And used here
6. Please forgive me
7. I was suffering from post-referendum despair
8. And knew not what I was doing
9. Also this would have been an Essex Terror article
10. But Essex Terror was already dead