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Authors: Stephanie Butland

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BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
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Mike,

I think it's starting to dawn on me. The fact that you're not here and you're not coming back. Even though I feel like all I do is cry, even though you are all that people come and talk to me about, even though I've looked at you lying in a box with your name on it and tomorrow I'm somehow supposed to watch as they put it in the ground—it's all still unreal.

When I wake up and you're not there, it takes me a minute or two to realize that your side of the bed is empty forever, not just because you're on an early shift. When Susan next door brought in the shopping I'd asked for, I'd gotten some fig rolls, even though you were the only one who ever ate the things. I ironed all of your shirts yesterday because not ironing them felt like giving up; I didn't know what else to do with them. I hung them in the wardrobe, and the smell of your leather coat burst out at me when I opened the door. It was like a punch in the stomach.

People keep offering to “clear things out” for me. They mean, “Let me throw away Mike's toothbrush, because I understand that you don't want to. Let me get rid of the half-used shaving foam and the nearly gone shower gel and the new shower gel ready for when that one runs out, because it will be easier for me to remove these reminders than it would be for you to do it.” But I say, “No, thank you.” I don't understand why a half-empty bathroom cabinet is better than one with all of your half-used stuff in it. I can shower in the smells you showered in. I can open your aftershave and let lime scent the air while I have a bath, although it doesn't smell the same when it's not on your skin, and when I wear it, it seems too sharp. I can put the blade of the razor that you ran down your face against my fingertip. Why would I want your things taken away?

Yesterday I took Pepper into the garden—Blake has been walking him for me—and stood with my bare feet on the cold stones and felt frightened by how big the world is. Nothing seems to make sense anymore. Sometimes I want to go to bed and it's only 10 a.m.; sometimes a whole day goes by and I haven't even gotten dressed. I can't eat, and then I'm standing in front of the fridge eating cheese out of the packet while your mother hovers and offers to make me an omelet.

I keep trying to work out what happened. I don't know how you ended up in there, in that cold water. I don't know why you couldn't get out. I don't know why I thought it was a better idea to sit on the sofa when I could have put my coat on and come with you, and then there would have been two of us, and between us we could have saved that girl without losing you. I don't even remember when my evening bath became such a habit that the evening walk became your job. I don't know why I didn't realize you were late, or ring you, or do something. There are so many places where things could have taken a different turn, but they didn't.

So I don't think this is the real version. I've just slipped into the wrong scenario somehow. Every time I hear the door open, I wait for it to be you, and you'll smile your normal homecoming smile, and I'll say, “God, Mike, I was just having the most awful dream.”

E xxx

Blake's first act, on the morning after Michael died, was to ask whether someone else could be family liaison officer for the Micklethwaite family. He wasn't surprised by the answer he got. He said, very calmly, “You are asking me to be compassionate to the person whose actions resulted in the death of the man who has been my friend and colleague for more than fifteen years. You want me to support people who have not lost their daughter, while I also support a widow so shell-shocked that she barely remembers her own name. I'm not sure I can.”

“You can, Blake,” had come the answer, “and I'm afraid you must.”

He looked at his shoes while he heard how he is the best, the most experienced officer available, and was reminded that family liaison wasn't so much about drying tears as looking out for something that has been missed. “We owe it to Michael to make sure that we have the full story.” He listens to the part about how, although obviously this was a difficult time for them all, losing a colleague and friend, the powers that be have every faith in his professional capabilities; we must be strong for our fallen colleague. After a while he stopped listening and just waited for the noise to stop. When it did, he went straight to the hospital and found Kate Micklethwaite.

Even surrounded by tubes and wires, tucked under a faded puce blanket and seen through a mist of grief and resentment, she is a beautiful girl. Her mother, Richenda, wan and almost worn through, has a certain grace as she gets up to greet him; her fingernails are the pink of the inside of shells, her hand small in his. Kate's father Rufus's handshake is gruff and wary. Kate doesn't move, but the atmosphere in the room, and the conversation he's just had with the doctor on duty, tell Blake that she is doing nothing more worrying than sleeping. Richenda offers him a chair and he sits. Rufus says, “We've already had some of your people around. She doesn't remember anything, apart from slipping on the bank. She's in shock.” His voice breaks. “She could have died.” Blake holds Rufus's gaze for long enough for Rufus to understand what Blake isn't saying—
your daughter could have died, but my colleague did die
—before he sits and introduces himself as their family liaison officer.

Rufus wants to know why they need him. Blake takes a deep breath.
You're good at your job
, he tells himself,
you can do this
, and he selects the candor card. “You might not need me at all, Mr. Micklethwaite,” he says, “but I'm here if you do. I'll keep you informed about matters relating to Michael Gray.” He pauses as Richenda's whole body seems to flutter at him.

She indicates her sleeping child. “We haven't talked about Michael with Kate yet,” she says, her eyes pleading for understanding and her hands, unconscious, making a prayer, “and your colleagues only asked what she could remember; they didn't tell her anything.”

“Ah.” Blake plays the caution card alongside candor. “Well, I'll keep you informed of developments regarding Michael. We'll need to talk to Kate again about what happened, and my colleagues will be in touch about that. If Kate or any of you want extra support or help, I can point you in the right direction. That's what I'm here to do. You've been through a difficult time”—Rufus barks his agreement, a what-would-you-know laugh Blake ignores, concentrating on Richenda—“and you may find that there are all sorts of repercussions as you go through the next few months. I'm here to help, and to keep you informed of any—developments.”

Rufus walks to the window and looks out over the parking lot, his back to Blake, unwilling to admit that he is in a place where a police family liaison might be appropriate.

Richenda nods her understanding. Carefully, holding Blake's gaze then flicking her glance to Kate to make sure he understands, she asks, “How is Michael's family?”

“Struggling,” he says. Tears stand ready to ambush him and he stands, too suddenly, the scrape of the chair making Kate stir. They all freeze, a tableau of tension watching to see whether she will wake or sleep on.

She sleeps.

Blake leaves. He's gotten as far as the elevator when Richenda catches up with him, interrupting as he swipes at his eyes.

“Thank you,” she says, then, “I'm so sorry. About your colleague. We are so grateful to him.”

“He was more than a colleague,” Blake says. “He was a great friend.”

“I'm so sorry,” Richenda says again. She means it, he can tell.

The elevator doors open before Blake has time to see whether he has a grace card. Not this time. He steps in and almost says,
I can do my job better than this.
But he doesn't trust his voice to get the words out, and he isn't sure that Richenda deserves to hear them.

Blake goes straight home. He drinks whiskey until he can barely move. Had there been anyone to talk to, he couldn't have spoken, his tongue too slow to form so much as a word, his thoughts too fast to catch. He wonders what on earth he could have done differently, what he could have said to Michael to change the equation that had this result. There seem to be an infinite number of possibilities, spiraling away from him like mirrors reflected in mirrors, as useful as shadows.

In the end, he sleeps in his chair.

• • •

It is five days after the accident when Kate is allowed home. What she remembers is not enough for anyone, but it's all there is: after leaving a friend's house, realizing she'd had too much to drink, she'd decided to take a walk around Butler's Pond to clear her head. She hadn't known how close to the water she was walking until she lost her footing. She remembers the slip, the fall, the cold. She has no recollection of anything else, until the hospital. She had no idea that Michael was even there, something that makes Elizabeth blanch when Blake tells her. The doctors cannot say whether or when any other memories of that night will return, but she is recovering well in all other respects. She knows her family, the month and year, that she has a place at Oxford to study geography. She can tell her mother where to find her iPod and the book she's reading and the clothes she would like her to bring in for when she is allowed to get up and dress. Her temperature, pulse, heart, lungs, bowels, pupils are all behaving as they should. So Rufus and Richenda have been permitted to maneuver her into the car and bring her home.

As Richenda locks the car and follows Rufus and Kate up the path—wretched, wretched squeaking gate—she thinks about the time she has spent sitting by her daughter's bedside in the intensive care unit: about how those first twelve hours had been like twelve months of waiting for bad news to open its mouth, and the time since filled with a mix of fear, relief, and fresh guilt. Her shoulders ache, her eyes feel scratchy, her hips are knotted from too long in bad chairs, her bowels blocked with cheap sandwiches and more coffee than she wanted. But the pain in her body is nothing, really. Her heart has been shriveled by watching her daughter struggle and sob, sleep and ebb. There's been nothing for her to do for Kate but dampen her lips with a flannel and watch the monitors as though it's the watching that makes them give the readings that make the nurses smile and the doctors nod. Her mind hurts from thinking about what could have happened to her girl, nineteen years old, but still as precious and vulnerable to Richenda as she was on the day she was born, a miracle of blood and squalling. Her mind hurts even more from the effort of avoiding thoughts of what did happen to that poor policeman.

During the hell of the Accident & Emergency Unit, Rufus and Richenda had stood truly together for the first time in twenty years, answering questions with one voice, holding one breath. As soon as Kate was declared out of danger, they had filled the time at her bedside with round after round of Who's to Blame? It's a game they are both good at, with an easy seventeen years of practice under each of their belts—nearer twenty-two, if you go back to the First Mistress incident, although the birth of Kate is tacitly acknowledged by both parties to have been a wiping clean of the slate.

But the stakes of Who's to Blame? had never been as high as they were in the bleak, bleeping hospital room, and for once the deck was not loaded in Richenda's favor. Rufus blamed Richenda for not knowing where Kate was going. Richenda retaliated by reminding her husband of two facts: their daughter was nineteen, and he was her father and equally entitled to know where she was, especially as they were both in the house when she went out. Rufus scored extra points for being the first one to wonder when Kate might be home; Richenda drew level by trying to call her and, finding her phone switched off, leaving a message. Both of them admitted to having no idea why she was anywhere near Butler's Pond. Both were guilty of going to bed still wondering where Kate was, but Rufus claimed a bonus for not having yet gone to sleep when the hammering at the door began. Richenda was the one who had interrogated each of Kate's friends—not that there were many, most being off on gap-year adventures—as they arrived at the hospital full of tears and exclamations. In what his wife considered to be a rare show of backbone, Rufus had refused to leave his daughter's side when the police came to her hospital room, and sent them away when he judged that Kate had had enough of them.

In the end, they'd called it a draw. “So long as she's all right, it doesn't matter, does it?” Rufus had asked. “No, it doesn't,” Richenda had replied and had patted him on the leg—knee rather than thigh—and found a feeble smile from somewhere.

And now they are coming home, the words
out
of
danger
dancing in front of their tired eyes, permission at last to admit that for a moment, just a moment, they wondered whether Kate would live beyond the night that she, for no good reason they can imagine, had to be rescued from January-cold water by a man she didn't know.

Someone has left flowers for Kate on the doorstep. Rufus has stepped himself and Kate around them, but Richenda picks them up. “I'll put these in your room, Kate, if you like,” she says, and Kate nods as she starts to make her way slowly upstairs. Their home, all shades of cream and green, feels cold. The stainless steel of the kitchen, plates and pans and wine glasses neglected since the midnight sprint to the hospital, couldn't be less welcoming. Richenda knows that her husband doesn't like the flowers—she can feel him sneer, without turning around to see it—but the burst of too-sweet scent and too-frilly petals as she cuts through the cellophane makes her smile.

“Carnations aren't illegal,” she says, “and you should be glad that people are thinking of her.”

Rufus doesn't reply. He is cutting bread to go in the toaster. She can see it's too thick, but she doesn't say anything. He always cuts it too thick. It always burns. He always grumbles as he scrapes the black crumbs away. She no longer points out the dial that controls the temperature, but she thinks about it, every single time.

“Do you want some toast?” Rufus asks.

We are both tired
, Richenda reminds herself.
We have both had a terrible few days. He has done worse things than forget that in twenty-five years of marriage he has never seen me ask for, make, or eat toast.
“No, thank you,” she says, and she takes the vase upstairs.

• • •

Richenda is on a damage-limitation dash to see a client and then on to the supermarket that afternoon when Kate comes downstairs. Rufus, sure the danger is over, is trying to salvage something from a missed deadline; he makes “won't be a minute” faces at his daughter while he talks to a client on the phone.

“Jeez,” she says when he hangs up. “That woman wants a summerhouse really badly.”

Rufus laughs more than he needs to. “I've had to say I'll drive the plans over to her later,” he says. “Do you want to come? You don't have to come in.”

“No,” she says as she settles herself into the corner of the sofa. “I'd like to know how Michael is, though.”

“Michael?” Rufus has a moment of genuine perplexity. The man who saved Kate's life has been so thoroughly rebranded, under this roof, as “that poor policeman,” that he has to work out who she means. When Michael doesn't have a name his death is fractionally easier to bear: it becomes generic, sad but acceptable, a policeman sacrificing himself for the community he served.

“Michael Gray,” she says. “I keep asking how he is, but no one's telling me. I'm not stupid, Dad. I'm getting better. You can tell me. Is he hurt?” Her words are braver than her eyes.

Rufus thinks about the conversations that he and Richenda, and he and Richenda and Blake, have had about this. Blake has told them that there's a limit to how long his colleagues will be able to avoid the issue of Michael's death when they talk to Kate. Although no one's in any doubt that what happened was an accident, a dreadful accident, Kate will almost certainly be required to appear at the inquest.

BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
11.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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