An extract from The Child Who
It is calmer within but she does not feel calm. She feels battered, blown off course. The radio is on though she is no longer tuned to what it is saying. She has her phone in one hand and her head in the other. She is staring at the mobile’s screen: at her husband’s name and a number she has not had to dial in almost a year.
Did you hear? she could say but of course he will have heard. What happened? she could ask. Then, how did they . . . ? But he would not yet know any more than she does, nor tell her even if he did.
I’m sorry, she could say. She is not sorry, though; not remotely. And anyway it is not a bereavement, not in a sense that obliges contrition. It is a death but also a release. A culmination. A closing. Congratulations, then. Her sob is almost a laugh.
She lowers the phone, as well as the hand from her brow. She stares at brake lights through melting glass. Then the wipers wipe and the world reforms and she shuts her eyes instead.
This is Brahms, she thinks. On the radio. Brahms or Berlioz. A lullaby, either way, and all of a sudden she has never felt so tired. It is over, then. They found him, they killed him. It is as definitive an end to things as there could ever be. So why, she asks herself, does it feel like another beginning?
A hammering in her right ear startles her. She twitches and her phone drops and there is a face, when she looks, glowering through the window at hers. The face is framed in yellow; all about her is a flashing blue.
The police car trails her all the way to her turn-off. There is no question of her speeding because there is simply too much traffic but the steering wheel feels jittery in her grip, her braking erratic. When her exit approaches she indicates far too early. She eyes the unmarked BMW behind and contemplates switching the indicator off again. Instead she suffers its tut-tutting and wills the queue for the exit to pick up pace. Still the police car follows her. It joins the exit lane too and she grips the steering wheel tighter but at the roundabout the BMW dials past her and finally she allows herself a breath. She unsticks her hands from the wheel and shuffles in her seat. For the rest of the journey home, her attention is as much on the view behind as it is on the tarmac ahead.
The kitchen is dark and she leaves it dark until she gathers the will to boil an egg. The shell is fiddly, though, and scolds her fingers and in the end she cannot be bothered with it. She slides the plate away, toast and eggcup and all, and pulls her mug of tea and cigarettes nearer. Her phone, too. She checks the screen, just in case she has missed a call, even though the house is silent and phone has barely left her grip. And anyway why on earth would he call her? She is the last person on earth he would think to call.
She would turn on the radio but she could not cope with it. There will be nothing new, she is sure. Just gossip and guesswork and a story re-told by those who have no business telling it. Also, she does not want to hear the name: his name, the child’s. Silly, perhaps, but no more silly than avoiding aspic, say, when aspic always makes you want to vomit.
‘Sod it,’ she says. She scrolls and finds her husband’s number and hits call before she can change her mind.
It does not even ring. It goes to voicemail. She hangs up but then dials again because voicemail might actually be no bad thing.
‘Leo? It’s Megan. Meg. I hope . . . I mean, it’s been . . . Look, I’m just calling to . . . I’m calling because of the news. I heard, obviously. In the car, on the way home. I had to pull over. Silly really but for a moment I just couldn’t see straight. Partly it was the rain, I expect, because it was raining, you see. But you know that, of course. I mean, you were probably driving in it too because it’s hardly stopped, has it, these past few weeks? I suppose you might be driving now, in fact, because this is about the time you usually . . . you would usually . . . Look. Anyway. I was just calling because of the news, as I say, and also to – ’
The tone cuts her off.
She walks the house. It starts as something to do that involves anything other than sitting and turns into a procession through what has passed. The living room, for instance: this is where Leo told her. She was seated here, at the bureau, and he was by the door and he was smiling, sort of, but also sweating and he said, Meg, listen, you’ll never guess. But she did. Somehow, after hearing the evening bulletin that day, she just knew.
It is a coincidence, she is almost sure, that she so rarely comes in here any more. The kitchen is enough for her – the kitchen, a bathroom and half a bedroom. The other rooms, including the living room, she only ever enters to clean. Which is the pinnacle, now she thinks of it, of absurdity.
She should sell the house, really. She wanted it once – she fought for it, or was prepared to – but she does not need it. She no longer even likes it. When they bought it she adored that it was pristine but somehow it seems shabbier now than the Victorian terraces beyond the gates. Cracks border the ceiling, the skirting boards have wilted from the wall. The house settling, Leo called it. And if the house has settled, so has the estate, down into its shallow, over-valued foundations. She calls it the estate these days though she never would have before. The development, perhaps, if she were being self-deprecating. Otherwise, Linden Park, Just On The Outskirts, Do You Know It?
Look at the windows. They are uPVC, which she does not mind, but yellow where once they were white. There is condensation between the panes, as though an unseen face, shrouded by the cold night air, were pressed against the glass and peering in. She turns and closes the door a fraction too late to shut off the memory.
The staircase in the centre of the hallway entices her, its banisters like outstretched arms, but there is just the bathroom and her half a bedroom on the landing – nothing else up there that she is willing, in this mood, to contemplate.
The study: it was his war room. Empty now but for her laptop and some unfiled filespapers. He was in here late most nights, plotting the course of his defeat. For it was never the outcome that was in question, just the extent of it. Lose big or lose bigger or lose more than you could have imagined. She was engaged then, despite the stakes. She stood here, behind his chair, or perched here, on a cushion of papers.
Please, Meg, I have a system.
Dinner time, Leo, or the system gets it.
That was at the start, though. The joking soon stopped, her visits to his study too. They stopped when it became clear what her husband had got them into.
When Leo calls back she does not answer. She does not trust herself to. She is in the study and in front of her, on the screen of her laptop, is a photograph she has shied away from for years. It was difficult to avoid at the time but always she would avert her eyes, turn the page if she encountered the picture in the newspaper. Like the sound of the child’s name, the image sickens her. I don’t know how, she once told Leo, you can bear to regard him in the flesh, to breathe the same air as he does, inhale his . . . effluence. She struggled to find the right word but felt sure she had struck upon it.
Her revulsion recurs. The photograph, it is true, has been manipulated. The boy’s eyes appear black, slit, pupil-less. His incisors seem exaggerated, his skin bleached of warmth, the shadows that frame him sharpened. It is quite ridiculous, really, how heavy-handedly the image has been altered. Unnecessary, more to the point, when the rot in the boy’s soul was plain to see. Even in the other photographs Leo showed her, the boy, as a child, did not convince. Compared to the image of his victim, for instance, there seemed something within the boy that was contrived, artificial, insincere. Something dormant.
She scrolls and finds a picture of her husband. Not manipulated this one, though it would need to be if the man it showed were to resemble the man her husband has become. So much of that fudge-brown hair and he paid it such little heed. Even for a court appearance – for the most important court appearance of his admittedly unexceptional career – he seems barely to have bothered with a comb. His suit is single breasted and looks, for one of Leo’s suits and as far as she can tell, reasonably sharp – which probably means that at the time it was antipathetic to the prevailing style. Antipathetic to the prevailing style. It sums up Leo’s younger self well, right down to the location of his seat in the courtroom.
And maybe not just his younger self. How much has he really changed, after all? Wasn’t that the point: that he didn’t change? That he would not.
In the photograph she can just make out the scar on her husband’s cheek. Still pink. Still liable to weeping blood. It lingered, she recalls, but faded eventually. Some scars do, after all.
He has left a message. Her phone is buzzing, propelling itself towards the table’s edge. She watches it until it almost falls, then rescues it and lifts it to her ear. The message plays but it is silence – for a second, two, then the message ends. He thought about it, then. He changed his mind.
She watches Newsnight. She decides she may as well. Her will to resist, after all, has already been breached.
The story features, of course, though it is bumped from the headline slot to accommodate massive tragedy in the near abroad – the very minimum, perhaps, that could have provoked such a shift.
She switches off after the first segment: mentally, to what they are saying, not the television itself. She is not yet ready for a return to the quiet. She is not yet ready to go to bed. She has spent the evening numbed but now her mind seems to be drawing energy from her waning limbs. It is like she was tasked with long division after waking and is only now beginning to comprehend the extent of the problem. This is not over, it strikes her. This, the way things are: this is not an ending. This is not how she will let it end.
This is not helping.
She stands. She picks up the remote control and hits standby just as the picture she should really have been expecting fills the screen. And that is what she is left with, as she hauls herself from stair to stair and slips her blouse from her back and her body between the sheets and lies restless in the shallows of sleep: the face of the child who killed. The child, as she will remember him, who cost them their own.
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