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Authors: Stephanie Butland

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BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
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Elizabeth knows what needs to come next. So she takes another step, and she looks down.

Mike's face is swollen, only slightly, and an odd color, although that might be the light. Blake had driven them the short distance, neither of them ready for the walk, or the people, or the light of an ordinary day. He had told them in the car that Mike would look as though he was sleeping, but this face, solemn and enclosed, bears no resemblance to her sprawling, duvet-hogging, snoring husband, liable at any moment to throw out an arm and pull her in to him, even though he was fast asleep.

Elizabeth realizes she is holding her breath as she fights to recognize what's in front of her. Cautious, she reaches out her left hand, her own skin dull in this dull light. She touches his face. Her thumb strokes the indentation to the left of his right cheekbone. He is cold, and his skin is powdery, and she watches, waiting for him to open his eyes. Tears fall from hers and gather on his face, and she wipes them away gently with the thumb that wears his wedding ring, and just for a moment these are his tears, and they are crying together.

Elizabeth bends down and whispers, “You can pretend all you like, but I know you haven't left me. I know you wouldn't leave me.”

She whispers, “I want to hold your hand.” Her own hands, free to rake through her hair and twist around each other and catch at tears falling from her chin, tingle at the horrible thought of being contained in the way his are.

She whispers, “Show me that you haven't gone,” and she sits, and she waits, her hand on the coffin where she thinks Michael's hand must be. She closes her eyes. “You promised you would never leave me,” she says, trying a different tack, thinking a prod might work where a plea has failed. Time stops, and the world stops, and even the tears stop for a while, as Elizabeth strains for a sign, all of her senses ready and oh so willing. But no sign comes.

Throckton
Warbler
, January 11

TRAGIC DEATH AS MAN SAVES TEEN

Local policeman Michael Gray, 37, drowned in Butler's Pond late Sunday night. It is believed he was walking his dog when he spotted 19-year-old Kate Micklethwaite in trouble in the water and dived into the freezing lake to save her. Michael's dog, Pepper, raised the alarm and passersby found Kate soaked through and unconscious on the bank. Pepper was identified by the attending police officer, Blake Osbourne, who said, “I didn't take a lot of notice of the dog at first. Then when the casualty had been taken away in the ambulance, I realized the dog was still barking. When I went over to it, it jumped into the water and was swimming in circles. When I recognized Pepper, my heart sank. Michael was a brave police officer and an important member of our community. We will all miss him terribly, as a colleague and as a friend.”

Michael was well-known in Throckton, where he grew up. He leaves a widow, Elizabeth, whom he met while traveling around Australia. His mother, Patricia, head librarian in Throckton, speaking through a family friend, said, “We cannot believe this has happened. Michael was a good, kind man, a loving son and husband, and I don't know what we will do without him. We are in shock. It is typical of Michael that he would die saving someone else.”

Kate Micklethwaite is expected to leave the hospital in the next few days. She has regained consciousness, and her condition is said to be stable. Her father, Rufus Micklethwaite, owner of architectural practice Light and Shade, broke down as he said, “Kate is a determined girl, and we are sure she will make a full recovery. Her mother and I are so grateful to Mr. Gray and so devastated by this tragedy. We cannot believe this has happened. It feels like a nightmare.”

An inquest into the death of Mr. Gray was opened and adjourned until April, pending the postmortem report.

Patricia makes her first foray into Throckton proper on the day before the funeral. For the past week she's walked swiftly, head down, to Michael and Elizabeth's house and back, but it's not far, and she's been coming and going at odd times—before eight in the morning, after nine at night—when she's less likely to be stopped and sympathized with by people she knows. She's bypassed the town square and the streets where her friends live. It's not that she doesn't appreciate their support; it's that, for now, everything needs to be controlled, appointments made, so she can be ready. There has been no spare energy in Patricia, no space for an unplanned conversation. The funeral director, the police officers, the vicar have all come to them, knowing how grief immobilizes and restricts the heart's ability to stray far from the hearth.

But Patricia knows that difficulties don't get less difficult for being left unfaced. And so she is walking from her house into the town, ready and not ready.

Silence washes in front of her as she walks. The familiar streets, curving and banking down to the square, feel the same as they always have. The pavements are broad enough for two strollers to pass; most people keep their hedges nicely trimmed. Patricia has lived here all her life, and she doesn't think there's anyone in this small town she doesn't know by sight. The market square is more of a triangle, and Patricia can tell you the history of every shop that's there: why the family who owns the butcher's shop settled here, how much nicer the bookshop was before it started selling gifts as well, why the baker is closing down. She hasn't gotten as far as the crossroads before the first person has stopped her, with tearful eyes, with kind words to say about her son.

The day is both frosty and bright, and the air spears her as she takes deep breaths and looks firmly ahead, trying to see who is looking at her before deciding whether to accept the proffered eye contact. Of course, for everyone who seeks her eye, there are others who turn away, embarrassed and unsure, as though the death of a child could be catching. Patricia has no time for such people. She has spent the last six days holding Elizabeth's hand as they planned a funeral for a man who neither of them can believe is dead.

A part of her wonders whether she is up to this, but as she said to Elizabeth—who refuses to take off Michael's sweater and who, after three days of crying and vomiting, had to be coaxed into a bath like a child—she's always gotten on with what life has dealt her. She didn't ask to be a widow, but when she became one she got on with it. “You had Mike,” Elizabeth had said, without malice but with a shuddering sadness that had made Patricia pause, before agreeing that, yes, having a seven-year-old boy to look after when she lost her husband did make a difference. Privately, she thought that she never would have let herself go, regardless. John had always admired her smartness, and she considered it a point of honor to maintain those standards. Which is why she is walking through Throckton today. Monday is her day for the hairdresser. The library, where she works, is closed on Mondays, and so she's had a wash and blow-dry at the hairdresser's every Monday for the last forty years, with a cut every two months. When she realized this morning what day it was, she decided she'd go anyway. “We have to start somewhere,” she'd said to Elizabeth on the phone, and Elizabeth had said yes in a way that meant no, and Patricia had checked that Andy would be with her, and then she'd put on her black dress and her green scarf and she'd buttoned up her coat and she'd stepped out onto the streets that had been the backdrop to her life. Her always-neat hair, still chestnut like her eyes, is as much a part of Patricia's identity as her low-heeled court shoes and the fact that she never wears makeup or trousers. Now that her identity as a mother is lost, she clings to what she has.

• • •

Andy has been a regular visitor at Elizabeth's house since Michael died, calling in at lunchtime or on his way to or from work before returning to the warm sweet chaos of his own home. (He is making an effort, in his mind, not to call it “Michael and Elizabeth's,” but he did it just this morning, telling Lucy he was going around during his lunch break but not in the evening, and Lucy said gently, “It's just her house now.”) He's not sure that Elizabeth registers his presence a lot of the time, as she sleeps and gazes, rubbing, rubbing at her collarbone without noticing that she is doing it, but needing to do something. This morning, though, Elizabeth is talking.

“I don't know how she can do it,” she says for perhaps the fifteenth time. “How can she have her hair done? How can she go and have her hair done when Mike's—when this has happened? How can she care what she looks like?”

“I don't think she does care about her hair, so much as needing to do normal things,” Andy says. “I think it's just her coping strategy.”

“Coping strategy? Christ, Andy, we don't need a strategy. We need…” And Elizabeth is crying again, her body rounding in on itself, her breath coming spiked and harsh from a broken place. “We need Mike. You have a strategy for marketing, for chrissakes. For selling your house. You don't have a strategy for this.”

“I'm sorry,” Andy says, thinking,
I've said one thing, one thing, and I've made it worse
.

“No, I'm sorry,” she says. “It's not you. I just—I don't know how she can. I feel like I'm having to force myself to keep my throat open every time I try to eat something. I can't imagine how I used to be able to do the things I used to do. And her son has—and she's lost her son—and she's not even going to miss her hair appointment.”

“Elizabeth—”

She holds up a hand. “I know, Andy; each to their own.” And then her hand falls, with it her shoulder, the straightness that her spine had had for that outraged minute or two. “She'll be sitting at the hairdresser's, won't she, saying, ‘That daughter-in-law of mine, not having her hair done for the funeral—what would Mike say at her letting herself go?'”

Andy smiles a smile that says,
Yes, but I'm not going to say so
. “This is the hardest thing either of you will ever go through,” he offers instead.

“That's assuming we'll get through it,” Elizabeth says.

• • •

Throckton is, as Patricia's mother used to say, big enough to get up to something but small enough that everyone will know about it. Patricia had married a man who drove local buses all his working life and was as content in his job and his hometown as any man could be. He borrowed library books about natural history, and it was only when his mother told Patricia's mother that he'd taken a shine to her that Patricia started to notice him: the way he was often there as she was closing the library, his hesitating smile, his clean fingernails. Patricia has often thought about how proud John would have been to see their son, straight and strong as a country oak, serving their community in the way he did. It would have been better if Michael had married a local girl, of course; there seemed no sense in bringing a wife back from Australia when there were so many here who would have snapped him up, but still. Even so. She had a son to be proud of. Patricia pauses for a moment, pretending to look in her handbag to avoid the next well-wisher. John always told her how strong she was—she often wonders whether he had a sense that he didn't have long, that he was trying to make her ready—but she isn't sure she is strong enough to think of her son in the past tense yet.

• • •

Anyone watching Elizabeth—and there are plenty of people, a seemingly endless churn of concerned faces, all with the same questions and touches above the elbow and tears and apologies, all with different memories of Michael, each of which sticks a little shard of hurt into a place that she doesn't expect—anyone watching sees the moments when she starts to realize the enormity of what's happening to her.

She pushes her hair back. She holds her breath and her eyes grow bigger, or appear to, although it's actually just the effect of the tears filming before they start to tumble. Her lips pull tightly in, then vanish from sight. She opens her hands, palms wide to the world, an unconscious begging. These are the moments when Michael's death starts to seem real. Even though she cries almost constantly, thinks about Michael constantly, talks only about Michael, winds her wedding ring around and around her finger and Michael's around and around her thumb—even though she is a picture of grief, the moments when Elizabeth starts to truly get what her life is about now make the people around her move toward her, touch her, just fingertips on her shoulder, an arm looping around her back. Just a touch to say,
Remember, I am here. This will not be the end of you, although, at this moment, you feel ended.

Although Andy feels hopeless, helpless, barely in control himself, he is the best at these moments. During his years as a doctor he's watched a lot of deaths and he's seen a lot of grief. He's told a lot of bereaved people that, yes, he can prescribe sleeping pills and antidepressants, but the fact is that grief is a long road. It's a process, and it takes time. So, he tells his bereft patients and friends and relations: “What you need more than anything is time, and the expectation that this is going to take time. Let yourself be sad. You've loved; you've lost. Let there be time to heal.” Of course, people agree with him, but he knows that most of them are disappointed. They want someone, somehow, to take the pain away.

But Elizabeth is different. She doesn't want him to take the pain away. She's almost translucent with misery. She bats away suggestions about sleeping pills; she ignores fruit and cookies and other morsels Patricia tries to get her to eat; she lets tea go old and cold at her elbow. Andy watches her, and he wishes for a cure for grief. Either that or a cure for drowning. Or one for bloody stupid heroics. He wishes for his best friend back.

When Patricia gets back from the hairdresser's, Elizabeth says, “They've done a good job today, Patricia,” and Patricia says, “They said they would come here to do yours, if you wanted,” and Andy takes Pepper for a walk around the block because the weight of the effort in the room is crushing his chest.

BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
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