Just Past Three in the Morning (21)
The phone ringing, late at night, just after the stroke of midnight.
And you know before you touch it, you know that something on the other end is going to have teeth. Darkness leaches out of that phone, and you don't want to pick it up.
I could feel that kind of chill go through my fingers that night as I picked the receiver up and held it to my ear. “Heather.”
It was Shelley on the other end. Her first words to me were: “You have to come.”
“What is it?”
“It's Mum. It's Dad. You have to come.”
I'd been woken up. I was groggy and unsure, I could hear sounds in the background, but I wasn't quite putting it all together. Mum. Dad. “Shelley, what's happened?”
“I... please...” She was crying. She wasn't alone.
“Are you safe? Are you in danger right now?”
Her voice faltered. “No. I'm... okay.”
“Are you hurt? Shelley, what is it?”
She was crying. “Please just come.”
I got there, and there were lights. House lights. Street lights. The windows in neighbouring houses were all backlit, and many filled with dull silhouettes. There were headlights. The flashing red and blue of police lights. Running towards that pool of brightness, that was when my stomach really turned hard: a huge knot of dread inside me.
I grabbed the first figure I saw. A policeman. “Where's my sister?”
“Miss. You'll need to stay calm.”
“My sister's here. Where is she?”
“I need to know who you are?”
“I need to see her.”
She was over by the birch tree – the one we'd once had a swing on until the two of us together had broken the branch. She stood there with her head in her hands, barefoot, her hair making a ragged halo.
“Miss, if you can give me...”
They were bringing them out. They brought Dad out first, dazed, in handcuffs. Then Mum. There wasn't a stretcher, no bandages and clear plastic tubes, no machines to add to the cacophony of lights. This was a body bag.
I tried to run. I don't even know if it was towards or away. I was stopped by firm hands, by a woman's voice, a policewoman's hat on her head. “You don't want to see it, love.”
“That was my mother?”
I looked at Dad. He was looking away. He wouldn't meet our our eyes.
“This can't be happening,” I wasn't even aware that I was saying that out loud, “this doesn't make sense. They were.... happy.”
“My sister.” I gestured at Shelley.
“Of course.” She lead me through a gaggle of cops and onlookers, all moving aside for us. Some of them were my neighbours, they were people I'd grown up around. There were others who were just curious strangers. Those ones I would have liked to slap.
Shelley saw me and stumbled over. She went limp in my arms, and we ended up both slumped on a garden wall, with her head in my arms, her cheek against my chest. She made a serious of nonsense sounds – wet and garbled.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered to her, “I'm sorry I wasn't here when this happened.”
They were taking him away. And that was when he finally saw me – when he finally decided he would see me. I saw him at the same time – through a new lens. He didn't look like the same father – his face was pale, so much older, and his eyes were wet. There was so much horror weeping through his face – a melted-wax nightmare of a face. A face rewritten with grief.
But there was more than that – the change was physical. It wasn't anything I could explain. It was as if he'd been replaced: a man with a longer face, a broader forehead, with lines in different places, a sallow skin, darker eyes, thinner eyebrows, greyer stubble. I knew who he was and at the same time didn't recognise him – as if somebody had had to tell me he was my father.
The moment was long, surreal.
He said “It wasn't how you think.”
“You killed Mum.”
“But you don't know what it was like...”
“You killed Mum.” Saying the words out loud made the whole thing hit with a leaden truth. Each time I said it I was making it that little bit realer for myself. And yet: it was like a movie. It was like standing back and watching while this happened to somebody else. I knew I wasn't going to wake up and find it all a dream. I didn't know what I was going to wake up and find. Tomorrow morning. The next five minutes. Nothing was ever going to the way it had been.
“Please don't look at me like that....”
I still don't know, even now, what he saw in my eyes when he said that.
“Heather Markwell.” I stated my name for the record.
“Your relationship to the victim? I'm sorry, miss, but we need to ask these questions.”
“I know. It's okay. She was... I mean, daughter. I was her daughter.”
“And to her husband, the man here before?”
“His daughter too. My father. I don't think I can tell you much. My little sister called me and told me something terrible had happened. No, not those words. Just 'Mum' and 'Dad' and to come. I got here and found it like this.”
All those years. Twenty eight years of marriage – twenty-five of them with me in tow. In all that time he'd never laid a hand on her, not a slap or a shake, not nothing. The idea of doing so would have shocked him. He'd never touched us kids either. Not ever.
Shelley was at my side, with a blanket over her, with a mug of coffee in her shaking hands. They were doing their best to look after her – doing better than I was. But the fact of this, it overwhelmed everything. Shelley was looking at one of the cops with a pleading expression. “He didn't mean it. He didn't mean to do it. He can't have done. I know he didn't.”
Had she seen it? Had she see what happened?
It felt like an electric shock going through my stomach. To think that Shelley might have been right there and witnessed it all. And yet of course she had. In her voice when she'd called me – everything been in there, the ugly things she couldn't say out loud. She could now, in a small voice, in a strangely calm and detached tone. “They had another fight. It was just a fight. It was about throwing rubbish away, how he always just tosses it on the floor and she has to pick it up for him. But it escalated, and it was about everything, family and sex, and the day they got married. They emptied it all over each other – just everything they could.” A thread of emotion trickled in: “Me. Whose fault I was. She said she was done with him, but I don't know what she meant. She said she'd been done with him for a long time. I don't know what she meant by that either.
“She had her back turned to him when he picked up the bowl – a big clay one, where we used to put fruit.” She held out her hands to indicate the size. “He just brought it down on her head. Just like that. Quietly. She fell down. He just stared at her. I don't think he knew that...”
That he'd killed her.
They're sure? That was the question I wanted to ask. They're sure that she really is dead? There's no chance they could have made a mistake? Could they have put the wrong body in that bag?
How hard did you try to revive her? How much did you really want to save her?
Shelley said. “I didn't really know what to do.” She suddenly looked very apologetic. “I know I should have called you all sooner. I just couldn't. I really couldn't move. And he was just standing there. I thought maybe he'd do something, and it wouldn't have to be me. That's stupid. It sounds stupid. I just thought he'd fix things.”
I grabbed her hand. “How long Shelley? How long did you wait?”
She shook her head.
“I should have been here.”
“I didn't call you.”
“How long were you alone with them like this?”
She shook her head again. She didn't know.
“He wasn't himself,” she told the policeman. “I think he must have been sick or something. A virus. That could be the reason...”
The policewoman beside her said, “Honey, we never know. Most of the time we never know what makes someone do a thing like this.”
“It isn't him. He'll explain.”
All these years in the same house, eating at the same table.
The policewoman was probably a mother, or perhaps she was an aunt. She looked at Shelley with such deep sympathy, her emotions raw on her face. Her voice was almost unsteady when she asked “Do you have somewhere you can go tonight, honey? Someone you can be with?”
“Yes. My sister.”
I nodded. I would take care of her. And then: I would have to call so many people, there were things to arrange, things I didn't know how to do, that I'd never pictured myself having to face. And it would be me, at least to start with. Because it was just us now. Me. My sister. I wrapped an arm around her, and tried to shield us both from the lights.